Cunning intruder at the palace

IT’S JUST as well a competent photographer was on hand to capture the magic of a recent crafty visitor to the Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace.

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I’m normally quick to blame my photographic disasters on my equipment – the cheapest digital camera in the shop which has subsequently suffered plenty of bumps and scratches on our rural rambles.

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Fortunately as I fumble with the zoom to try to capture a fleeting image of the surprise visitor in the foliage, partner Olivia is on hand to take charge of the equipment and show me how it should be done.

Hence for once we actually have some pictures of the animal in question that are not obliterated by branches or marred by careless camera movements.

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However it also turns out our visitor is not so cunning or elusive as the folklore might suggest – and the warmth of a sun-drenched grassy spot proved too alluring to resist as the perfect place for a quick afternoon nap.

Even the excited squeaks of ‘Reynard!’ from the visiting French schoolchildren could not disturb the slumbers of this rather majestic palace guest…

 

Bird lovers flock to support pigeons

PIGEONS have plenty of loyal devotees after all, it seems.

Not only did our recent blog singing their praises attract dozens of visitors to the site – making it the single most popular post since The Beyonder’s launch a year ago – but a coincidental mention of the birds in the Evening Standard echoed our sentiments too.

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Columnist Ellen E Jones was writing in the wake of  story about an RSPCA appeal for information about an unidentified person seen throwing nearly hatched pigeon eggs off the balcony of an Airbnb property in Holloway.

She was quick to throw her hat in the ring in praise of the Trafalgar Square stalwarts, pointing out how clean-living and monogamous they are.

Ellen wasn’t alone in feeling that the much-maligned birds were worthy of some long-overdue recognition.

When Aimee Wallis of Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue posted a link to the article on her Facebook page her supporters were only too quick to add their own words of praise and appreciation too.

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Not to mention all those wartime achievements, racing feats and Dickin medals, of course.

I may have been a little slow to realise the true talents of these feathered friends, but thanks to all who flocked to their support and proffered a range of supporting arguments about why we should be a lot more forgiving about the pigeons in our lives…

Time to give pigeons their due

I HAVE to confess that I’m feeling a little guilty.

There’s me thinking I love all our feathered friends equally, and it seems I have a secret prejudice against one particular garden visitor.

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I’ll gush over the antics of visiting robins, blackbirds and blue tits, and chuckle at the acrobatics of the thieving squirrels. But I have been rather less than generous in my welcome to the local pigeon population.

We relish the friendly quacking of the hungry ducks, the cute scuttling of the moorhens and the bewildered meandering of the stray pheasant, so why do the ubiquitous Percy, Woody and their tubby pigeon pals – who mysteriously all have stolid names like Stan, Clive and Norm (from Cheers) – not get the same red-carpet treatment?

The real extent of my subconscious discrimination was brought home to me last year when we stumbled across an injured pigeon. Doubtless indoctrinated by press references to pests and vermin, not to mention the disdain for the birds expressed by the shooting fraternity, I presumed we would be leaving the limping victim to its fate, and natural selection.

Partner Olivia had other ideas and after a quick call to the RSPCA our injured friend was duly delivered to the local vets’.

So where does this prejudice of mine stem from? Don’t I harbour dim memories of Jack Duckworth cooing over his beloved pigeons in Coronation Street, and weren’t many of these birds hailed as heroes during the war?

Our Buckinghamshire visitors are wood pigeons (columba palumbus) rather than the feral pigeons of the grimy London streets, and to be fair their purple and grey colouring is quite gorgeous in its own way, with those striking white neck patches.

But although they do tend to waddle round the neighbourhood like burly gangsters, there’s also something cute about the way they collectively roost in the local hedges, and a soothing reassurance in their constant cooing.

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But then even their grubby London counterparts have their supporters, despite being dubbed flying rats or being persecuted as pests, as Steve Harris explains in a feature for the Discover Wildlife website.

Oddly enough, the ancestors of these city slickers were the first birds to be domesticated, thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Since then, the rock pigeon (columba livia) has made an astonishing contribution to human wellbeing.

To help with background research, I turn to Aimee Wallis from the Corvid Dawn wild bird rescue sanctuary, remembering her enthusiasm for the birds from our visit there last May.

She says: “After corvids, pigeons were the second bird I completely fell in love with, mostly because I’d never paid them much attention before, but since rescuing them and working with them closely, I realised just how remarkable they are.

“Not only were they calm whilst being stitched up or glued together, like they knew you were helping them. They never forgot you: even as adults you can build a strong bond with a pigeon.

“They recognise faces, but not only that, they are extremely loving. They also pair for life. They will happily sit on your shoulder, preen your hair and try and follow you to work if they could.”

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Back in the day, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year, and in addition to food, pigeons produced guano so rich in nutrients that it played a key part in agricultural development.

Perhaps best of all, there was no need to catch and breed the birds. Just providing an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls, was enough – and some designs could accommodate thousands of sitting females.

Typically producing about 10 squabs a year, pigeons were a perfect source of protein until chickens emerged as being better suited to mass production.

But Darwin devoted much of the first chapter of On The Origin of Species to pigeons, and Aimee is full of respect for pigeons as parents. “The male bird produces crop milk as well as the mother and they share parenting equally,” she says.

“They make wonderful pets, you can free fly them and they will greet you from a long day and show up at your window in the mornings cooing away. They really are very special birds, with bags of character.”

Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were stolen from lofts in large numbers as live targets to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.

Even those who use pigeons largely as training tools for bird dogs are quick to praise their stoicism and endurance – even if the idea of surviving numerous retrieves “mangled and bloody” does not sound like the perfect life.

Writing in Outdoor Life in 2015, Scott Linden wrote: “But watching them roost, calmly ruffling feathers on a nest, elegantly circling the loft, even pecking the ground for grit, they are in many ways like our horses. Both exude a calming influence, a soft and peaceful aura enveloping nearby humans. There is therapy in being near them.”

Says Aimee: “One thing people aren’t aware of is these grey street birds are descendants from the war. Pigeon lofts were popular back then and people would eat their eggs and keep a flock in their garden, but sadly that died out and the lofts were brought down.

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“Many pigeons couldn’t be caught so they were left to fend for themselves. Once family pets and companions, they had to learn to scavenge around humans that once fed and housed them.

“Thankfully they managed to survive even as domesticated as they were. They stayed among humans in towns as they have no wild instincts as such, only their racing skills that help them escape the city sparrow hawk.

“I continue to crave raising these gorgeous Jurassic little babies each spring and love their speaking voices.”

What about pigeon racing, then? Although the pastime of rearing and racing pigeons is waning in popularity, this year saw an extraordinary story about the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons selling for over £1m at auction.

The headlines revealed how the sport had become a multi-million pound enterprise in China, with millionaire enthusiasts struggling to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets.

But Aimee believes the story behind the headlines is not such a happy one.

“Sadly this industry took off in the wrong direction,” she says. “The pigeons turned from an idealistic garden hobby to a huge money-making business.

“They use the term ‘necking them’ if they don’t come home to their mate on time, which is ringing their necks: this is very common. They exhaust the birds and hundreds over the last seven years have turned up tired and skinny. Nine times out of 10 the owners don’t want them back.”

The sport has been associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.

Yet racing has also attracted devotees as diverse as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter ‘Paloma’, the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.

Pigeons are probably most famous for their ability to find their way home and deliver messages. This was first exploited 3,000 years ago and by the fifth century BC Syria and Persia had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons.  Pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar used them to send messages home from his battle campaigns.

In 1850, Paul Julius Reuter’s fledgling news service used homing pigeons to fly between Aachen and Brussels, laying the foundations for a global news agency, and the birds’ homing ability was extensively harnessed in the two world wars.

There’s even a display at Bletchley Park telling the extraordinary story of pigeons in wartime, when the avian secret agents saved countless lives – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animal’s VC) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.

The exhibition has been organised by The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which also offers advice on its website for anyone interested in the sport (although animal activists PETA kicked up a storm in 2013 with claims of cruelty and calls for the sport to be banned).

The birds’ achievements are also recognised at the moving Animals in War memorial at Brook Gate on Park Lane. Along with millions of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, some 100,000 pigeons served Britain in the First World War and 200,000 in World War II.

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They saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible, from behind enemy lines or from ships or aeroplanes.

Stars like Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall teamed up to tell something of the birds’ story in the 2005 animated film Valiant, but it was something of a box-office flop and reviews were mixed.

Amazingly, despite decades of research, we are still not precisely sure how pigeons find their way home over terrain they have never seen before with such apparent ease.

How extraordinary. They have played a vital role in medicine (one study even trained pigeons to detect cancers), they have saved countless lives in wartime and they continue to entertained tourists in their millions, from Trafalgar Square to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, yet they are still widely regarded as a nuisance.

It seems wrong, somehow. Sorry, Percy, Woody and friends. You have been much wronged, but I for one will be looking with fresh eyes and a new respect at the “small blue busybodies” of Richard Kell’s poem, “strutting like fat gentlemen/With hands clasped/
Under their swallowtail coats…”

 

Past casts long shadows at Penn

MUSHROOMS, snowdrops and spaniels with floppy ears – spring is in the air at Penn Wood.

Youngsters are out building Eeyore houses, the February sunlight is streaming through the branches of the ancient beech and birch trees and the sound of birdsong is everywhere.

What better way to blow away the cobwebs than to take a wander into this Woodland Trust enclave which used to form part of Wycombe Heath, 4,000 acres of heathland and woods with a surprisingly rich and varied heritage.

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Back in the 13th century this was where commoners would pasture their pigs, but the Romans roamed these woods centuries before that, with artefacts like brooches, dishes, coins and tools indicating the presence of a settlement here from 100 to 300 AD.

There is also strong evidence of iron smelting in the woods, with some pottery remnants discovered which could pre-date the Romans, indicating they were simply continuing the iron production that had already been established in the Iron Age.

From as early as 500AD the wood was used as a deer enclosure and the parish of Penn takes its name from this saxon enclosure, or ‘pen’. As in other areas of the Chiltern countryside, by the reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135 AD), the woodland was used as a hunting ground for the citizens of London.

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Pigs were an essential part of the medieval woodland economy with commoners exercising their right to pannage, the entitlement to put pigs out to eat the acorns and other nuts found in the wooded areas of the common, to fatten them up in autumn.

Dry hollows found throughout the wood may show where flint, clay, sand, gravel or chalk have been extracted. Clay from this area was used to produce distinctive decorative flooring tiles which could be seen in royal palaces, churches and manor houses across England.

In the 19th century, the Enclosure Acts changed legal property rights to land that previously permitted communal use and in 1855, ownership of Common Wood and Penn Wood passed to the 1st Earl Howe, forcing many local people and their livestock off the land and sparking years of unlawful protest where poaching was rife.

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During the Second World War, Penn Wood was used as an army training camp, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. Later it was used as a prisoner-of-war reception centre and then as a holding base for Polish soldiers.

Wandering through the woodland today, it’s easy to conjure up vivid echoes of different times in the history of the place amid the busy drumming of a woodpecker and the chirps and chirrups of the other woodland birds.

When Earl Howe took private ownership of the common land, he removed the livestock and set about arranging the re-forestation of the land with oak, beech and conifers.

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He laid out ornamental drives and avenues lined with rhododendrons and azaleas, cherry laurel and spineless holly for the benefit of the Countess who was fond of driving in the woods.

The branches are bare at the moment and the ornamental species have yet to flower, but the memories crowd in: of aristocratic shooting parties visiting the estate in Victorian times, perhaps, or the bodgers who lived and worked here for centuries, fashioning chair legs and spindles for the furniture trade.

By the middle of the 19th century Hgh Wycombe had become a centre for furniture production and there were a hundred factories in the area, many using Penn and Common Woods as a source of timber, with tall narrow beeches being planted to replace more traditional oaks.

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For two centuries, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods, cutting and shaping the wood into legs and spindles and drying them in piles before taking them to the factories to sell – with a small number continuing to work in the woods right up until the 1950s.

Over time, the once ancient pasture changed to privately-owned forest, although public access was not restored until 1999 when, after a long campaign to prevent the site being turned into an 18-hole golf course, Penn Wood was acquired by The Woodland Trust. Public ownership of Common Wood returned in 2002 when it was bought by the Penn and Tylers Green Residents’ Society.

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The wild boar and wolves may have gone but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilizing the ground, with the aim of encouraging an array of flora and fauna to return to the site, including butterflies and other insects, nesting birds and wild flowers.

Birds to be found here range from tawny owls to kestrels and buzzards, while those lichen-covered dead branches provide welcome hiding places for a dozen scarce beetle species.

Butterflies range from the purple hairstreak up in the high canopy to the marbled white in the wide sunny glades.

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But our leisurely February ramble is almost at an end as we retrace our steps towards the wonderfully peaceful churchyard of the ancient Holy Trinity church, which squats at the edge of the woodland.

Every generation for over 800 years has left its mark on this church, from the 12th century through the persecution of the Reformation to the present day, and emerging from the trees into the wintry evening sunlight, this feels like a place where the past casts long shadows.

As a pheasant scuttles for cover amid the silent gravestones, it feels a suitable place to pause a moment and ponder the moving individual stories recounted by each monument, from those of the landed local gentry to that of the most short-lived child.

Inside the church there is a great deal more to discover about the history, monuments and memorials of Penn – but that, as they say, is another story.

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Fog lifts on a different landscape

AFTER the snow, the fog – a murky, swirling affair worthy of a night on the Kent marshes or a Whitechapel back street.

But aside from conjuring up images of Magwitch and London pea-soupers, this latest twist in the February weather story also manages to banish the hard crusting of ice and snow that has been resolutely frosting the local landscape.

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And as the fog subsides, to be replaced by a steady drizzle, that’s great news for all those early flowers tempted into bloom by the mild January air and buried by last week’s wintry downfall.

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Candlemas day is past and the snowdrops are out, but the chill in the air still makes it feel as if spring is a long way off.

Nonetheless there’s a definite sense of anticipation in the air as the natural world starts to sense warmer times to come, and the bare branches and withered vegetation provide a drab backdrop against which to watch the countryside starting to stir.

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Certainly there’s a jauntiness to the dawn chorus this morning and the bare branches of the laburnum outside our bedroom window make it easier to spot the miniature army of blue tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits which have been frequenting our bird feeders.

The variety here is a little less dramatic than the visitors chronicled in this week’s newsletter from The Moorhens – alias Roy and Marie Battell, whose small nature reserve near Milton Keynes has been frequented by badgers, muntjac deer, red foxes and partridges, along with pheasants and woodpeckers.

But there have been a few less familiar visitors to our patch too, with one stray pheasant, a lone goldfinch and a cheeky lesser spotted woodpecker popping in for a quick bite.

CtransitmailprepBU6_20190126_1516_563_SC2 Pheasant male with female(r+mb Sample@576)

Not that these colourful guests have displaced the regulars in our affections. As well as the robins, blackbirds, magpies and dunnocks, one of our firm favourites remains the baby moorhen who has become a regular saunter round the feeders looking for scraps the smaller birds have dropped on the ground –  and whose distinctive tracks in the snow were a dead giveaway of her movements last week too.

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Natural boost for our mental health

IT SOUNDS pretty obvious that time spent outdoors can be good for our mental health as well as our physical wellbeing.

But a variety of different bodies have been quick to promote the wonders of the natural world to mark the start of the fifth year of Children’s Mental Health Week.

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From the Woodland Trust to local wildlife trusts, forest schools and activity weeks, the message has been simple – that climbing trees, building dens and playing in the woods can all help youngsters learn valuable life skills, as well as reconnecting with nature.

On Sunday it was worrying to read in The Observer that emergency talks were being held over the future of children’s adventure playgrounds amid concerns that funding cuts are making some popular sites too dangerous to insure.

“Too many children are living a ‘battery hen’ existence, spending more and more time sitting in front of screens and less time outside playing. I want to see more playgrounds across the country, not fewer,” said England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, who has championed play as a weapon against child obesity and poor mental health.

Mental health and the natural world was also under the spotlight last week in an emotional interview on Winterwatch between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harness.

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Viewers were quick to phone, Tweet and email with their thoughts on the subject, pointing out how much pleasure even the housebound could obtain from watching garden birds at their kitchen window.

Certainly our own garden guests have been giving us great joy during the recent snowfall, with the tits, robins, blackbirds and pigeons being joined by curious moorhens, affable ducks and boisterous squirrels.

In America, a survey of managers of assisted living and nursing home institutions all agreed that watching garden birds had a positive effect on their residents’ morale, and that feeding and watching birds gives housebound residents a connection with the outside world and reduces isolation and depression.

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Braving the wintry weather has allowed eagle-eyed youngsters to pick out the tracks of some of the more unfamiliar guests, while budding photographers have also been out and about, discovering that finding beauty in nature can help to ease the February blues.

Laura Howard, digital producer for The Watches, points out: “During the colder months, when the sun is low in the sky the world seems to slow right down. A sleepy darkness creeps in and colours often mute to greys.

“However if conditions are right, this season can also show nature at its most inspiring as precious winter light illuminates the world. Due to its low profile on the horizon and its distance from the earth, winter sun has a quality all of its own as evidenced by these terrific photos.”

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It’s got to make sense – and on recent trips to Black Park, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park, it has been a delight to see people of all ages braving the sub-zero temperatures to make the most of the natural world in all its winter glory.

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A feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

But as the Springwatch 2019 Almanac reminds us, February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

presian-nedyalkov-445146-unsplashSYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]

As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”

Time to start seeing the light

OUT WITH the old, in with the new. After the sombre removal of the Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night, January 6 sees a distinct change of mood with the celebrations marking the feast of the Epiphany.

And anyone feeling a little sad at the lights and tinsel disappearing for another year can always look forward to Candlemas Day on February 2, which since pre-Christian times has been a feast of lights celebrating the increasing strength of the sun as winter gives way to spring.

Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day, originated in the East with Christians celebrating the birth and baptism of Jesus. The Western Church began following it in the 4th century as the day the wise men were led by the star to visit baby Jesus, according to the story of the Nativity.

inbal-malca-53324-unsplash-1THREE KINGS: Christians mark Epiphany on January 6  [PICTURE: Inbal Malca, Unsplash]

The traditional English Christmas has its origins in the ninth century, when King Alfred the Great enshrined in law the importance of keeping the church’s feasts. He commanded that there should be a holiday on Christmas Day and the 12 days that followed, for it was believed that the Magi had journeyed for 12 days to see the infant Jesus.

The twelve days of Christmas would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, as Ben Johnson explains.

As with all good traditions, there’s no universal agreement over the exact timing of Twelfth Night, since some regard Christmas Day as being the first day of Christmas, while others believe the 12 days begin on Boxing Day.

But the Victorians began the tradition that it should be the night that Christmas trees and decorations should be taken down, to avoid bad luck after the season of merriment (and to encourage everybody to get back to work).

There’s similar disagreement over the precise details of the story of the Magi: how many wise men actually visited, for example? And when was this? Some theologians argue that Christ would have been around two years old, since the wise men followed the star for two years and King Herod had all children two years and under massacred; by that time the Holy Family would also have moved out of the stables and into more permanent accommodation.

dan-kiefer-467645-unsplashTIMELESS TALE: the story of the Nativity                               [PICTURE:Dan Kiefer, Unsplash]

Maybe the precise details don’t matter too much – after all, it was Pope Julius I who had the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity, helpfully blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations.

By Shakespeare’s day, as well as the carols and church-going, Twelfth Night would have been marked by music, masked balls and feasting – and it was in this context that he wrote his raucous comedy Twelfth Night (or What You Will), as fitting entertainment to close the Christmas season.

The first record of its performance comes from Candlemas of 1602 to bring down the curtain on Tudor festive celebration which used to last throughout the month of January.

In fact, many of our favourite Christmas traditions date back to the Tudor period, it seems, including carol-singing, present-giving, mulled wine and mince pies, as the BBC’s History Extra magazine explains with the help of Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke – authors of the 2018 book A Tudor Christmas.

So if the sight of those bedraggled Christmas trees got you feeling a little down, don’t despair – the spirit of Epiphany is upon us, and Candlemas is just around the corner!

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Perfect time for a winter’s tale

JANUARY always seems the bleakest, dreariest, greyest month of the year.

But for anyone feeling down in the mouth about the lack of sunshine or suffering a bout of the New Year blues, help is at hand.

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The 2019 almanac from the BBC’s Springwatch team provides a timely reminder that spring is around the corner – and in the meantime offers a host of tips of ways to step outside and make the most of the British winter.

The good news begins with a table of daylight hours: true, it’s a little depressing to be reminded that at the start of the year sunrise in London is after 8am and sunset a whisker after 4pm. But flick ahead to the next chapter and you’ve got pretty much an extra hour of daylight to look forward to in February.

For now, you can take advantage of any mud or snow on the ground to look out for the tracks of some of our more surrepticious wildlife, from hedgehogs to mink, weasels to water voles.

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The bare tree branches make it easier to spot visiting birds and you can always take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which has been monitoring the drastic decline in our bird population since 1979.

The sharp-eared can listen out for the vocal exchanges between little owls or barking calls of flirtatious squirrels, while more intrepid winter walkers may head to the coastline on the lookout for treasures washed upby winter storms.

The chapters are not a day-by-day guide to the natural calendar, but a series of snippets of seasonal delights, with occasional offbeat and quirky facts thrown in for good measure.

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You can find out about an ancient ceremony in Herefordshire to banish evil spirits, for example, or learn some of the score of different regional names for the humble woodlouse, or chiggywig.

Along the way there’s time to recall the horrors of the Big Freeze of 1963 or how the red kite was brought back from extinction to become a familiar sight once more, soaring on the thermals over the Chiltern Hills and elsewhere across the country.

Before you know it, you’ll be in February – the shortest month of the year, with Valentine’s Day a reminder that nature also has an extraordinary array of courtship unfolding during the month.

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True, it’s a little early to say spring is on its way – but the almanac provides a perfect way of keeping the winter blues at bay until those welcome longer days arrive.

The Almanac 2019 by Michael Bright and Karen Farrington features a foreword from Chris Packham and is published by BBC Books at £12.99.

 

 

 

New year, new beginnings

IT WAS great to see the car parks full at Burnham Beeches for New Year’s Day, with dozens of local families starting the year with a breath of fresh air and a ramble through this extraordinary 540-acre nature reserve. 

IMG_0416It may get dark quite early, with the car parks closing at around 4.30pm, but the weather was dry and mild enough for youngsters to enjoy throwing leaves in the air and a small army of assorted canines to be rushing excitedly around the woodland paths.

More ambitious walkers can embark on a two-hour 8km history trail that provides a living history lesson about the ancient trees and monuments scattered around this landscape – including the 700-year-old Druids Oak and Iron Age hill fort.

Always a popular place for family walks, picnics and Sunday school outings, the reserve grew in popularity after 1880 when visitors from London could pick up a bus service from Slough station which stopped at tea rooms on the south western boundary of the site.

It seems odd to think of Victorian families enjoying the same sort of New Year’s Day ramble here more than a century ago – and perhaps even odder to ponder how many of the same trees they might have seen!

A downloadable map includes information about the reserve’s history and wildlife.