Wednesday 24 September 2014

The Best of British

When we last met up back in July I suggested that we follow nature’s lead and either aestivate or migrate for the hottest part of the summer. Personally I have done a bit of both and this included a sojourn to my native England for the month of August. This is a short blog to say “Hello, I’m back” and share some of my favourite moments with you. 

River Churn, Abbey Grounds, Cirencester
I swapped the desiccated browns of Lassithi for the verdant greens of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Hampshire, starting my journey in Cirencester in the heart of the Cotswolds. This is a fascinating old Roman town which has been around for about two thousand years and one of the best parts of it, for me, is the Abbey Grounds  where one can stroll along the banks of the River Churn on a Sunday afternoon with the band playing in the distance and observe the insects, such as this Blue-tailed Damselfly, weaving their way along the riparian vegetation.

Water Vole, Titchfield Haven
Travelling from Cirencester by the wonderfully inefficient cross-country rail network, zigzagging in a generally south-easterly direction, my next port of call was the Hampshire town of Fareham. Part of William the Conqueror’s army landed here in 1066, sweeping north to take Winchester. History does not recall whether they stopped off for a little bird watching on the way but if they didn’t then they missed a treat in the form of the delightfully named Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve. This is a lovely place to spend the day with well appointed hides concealed around the wetlands where one can contemplate the waterfowl at leisure as it is nowhere near as crowded as some of the better known reserves. It was here that I met “Ratty” from The Wind in the Willows who, as everyone knows, is not a rat at all but a water vole. This is the UK’s fastest declining mammal and great efforts are under way to protect it from total extinction.  I feel very privileged to have met him.

Flossie the falcon with the author
From Fareham it was but a short hop to Hayling Island where, courtesy of falconer Andy Stokes, I was able to get up close and personal with some beautiful birds of prey such as this lovely little falcon called Flossie. Falconry has given a lot of words and phrases to the English language such as to be ‘fed up’ (when a bird has had ample food rewards in training it becomes ‘fed up’ and refuses to work any more). You put a cap over its head to ‘hoodwink’ it into thinking that it is night. You may even achieve a number of goals simultaneously ‘in one fell swoop’ as MacDuff remarks in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam. At one fell swoop?” This refers to the swoop (nowadays stoop) of a hawk, the adjective ‘fell’ being an archaic word for fierce. I know that this blog is read in many countries around the world and I would be interested to know if falconry terms have persisted in any other languages. Do let me know.

Talking of old words and phrases this plant used to be known as Knitbone or Boneset from its long usage as a wound dressing. Today we know it as Comfrey, a herb related to Borage which grows in damp areas. Our ancestors knew a thing or two about medicinal plants and modern scientific analysis confirms that Comfrey contains a substance called allantoin which does indeed promote cell proliferation and wound healing as well as being an anti-irritant and skin protector. So next time you fall in a bramble bush don’t rush for the sticking plasters; look for a Comfrey leaf.

So that concludes ‘The Best of British’ or ‘What I Did On My Holidays’ as we had to write on our return to school after every summer holiday (hands up if you remember that).  Yesterday saw the Autumn Equinox which heralded the beginning of Keats’ Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness so join me next week if you will as I return to the blog proper and together we’ll discover the delights of Crete in Autumn. Until then – happy hunting.
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog where you will find more pictures from my UK travels)   Aquaworld Aquarium   Birds of Crete    Crete Birding   Flowers of Crete;   Greek Butterflies and Moths    Visit Greece (National Government Tourist Office)

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