As I write today I can look back on more than 5 decades of life. My primary interests have ebbed and flowed over the decades. They have almost come full circle. If I look at the bookcases around me they are full of works on natural history and photography that I have accumulated in the last 20 years. They also contain more than a sprinkling of childhood books. It is heartening to be able to remind myself that even in my early years I had more than a passing interest in nature.
I mentioned recently the Romany books and a quick search downstairs found two still more or less intact. Here is an extract from the age of innocence. Published in 1939 and marked inside as costing 2/6d when I bought it in the 1960s.
The narrator is Raq, Romany’s dog. I suspect the dogs going through the fence are beagles 🙂
I also had a whole series of bird books from the mandatory Observer’s Book of British Birds to the Ladybird series, for which I believe Tunnicliffe did the illustrations. As I grew older I collected a few of Tunnicliffe’s books and that also demonstrates that my interest in wildlife never fully disappeared, it simply slid down the fireman’s pole of priorities. I was fortunate enough that in 1968 my parents decided to move out of the busy metropolis of Hereford (population c. 50,000) to the rather less densely populated village of Mordiford, population a few hundred. Wikipedia has this to say about the village:
“This village grew up around an ancient ford over the River Lugg. The river is now crossed by the oldest surviving bridge in Herefordshire, dating in part to c. 1352 and completed in the 16th century. Mordiford is best known for the legend of its dragon, which, some said, would amble down from its lair in Haugh Wood to drink from the confluence of the rivers Wye and Lugg near the village.”
I do not remember the dragon, unless she was the rather cantankerous and impatient old lady who lived behind us, but I do remember spending many hours walking in Haugh Wood with my late father. He invariably had his camera (which I still have today, a Leica M3) and I probably my toy binoculars. I frequently walked along the river banks, either of the Lugg or down to the confluence with the Wye, that great salmon river. In those days I and most other children had a relatively free rein before the paranoia about child safety began to suffocate the world. Or maybe it is genuinely more dangerous for children today. Maybe. But what I remember most was the brook that ran along the boundary of a farmer’s field. He did not like people walking the footpath and we were in constant dread of being spotted. However by walking behind the tree-line we could go as far as the small weir, where a deep pool formed and the local trout spent their days. Here I learned to tickle trout and very occasionally would bring one home for my father to eat. I wonder how many children today have tickled trout?! This was the heyday of Enid Blyton, W. E. Johns, Frank Richards and a host of others, none of whom I would imagine register strongly today on the Harrypotterometer. We were adjacent the Woolhope Dome and there was a Woolhope Club. This still exists today after 160 years and the website reminds me that its HQ is in the city library & museum. That in turn triggered a memory of many visits to the natural history section of the museum. I have visions of large glass display cabinets full of stuffed birds and animals. I wonder whether they survive today.
Although Herefordshire as a county is not the most high-profile for natural history I later realized that it was a lot better than I knew. Although my interest in nature was encouraged it was not really shared by my parents so the field trips were few. We went across to Queen’s Wood and in later years, after my father had died, my mother and I would venture out to Hay on Wye and the Black Mountains, me searching for birds and she usually searching for a ‘convenience’, God bless her. We also went down to Symonds Yat for me to see the Peregrines and to The Forest of Dean for all sorts of good birds. So no matter that Hereford may have lacked in deep riches itself it was a wonderful springboard for exploration.
So with this excellent platform in life, where did it all go wrong. I don’t have the luck to be able to respond as George Best did, when posed the same question. For those of you not in the know, George was a brilliant playboy and occasional footballer of exceptional talent, who said, with no shadow of sarcasm, “I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds and fast cars – the rest I just squandered.” He is also rumoured to have said “In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol and it was the worst 20 minutes of my life.” I judge not. Well I found………. golf. Yes, I took up the niblick at the age of 13 and played to the detriment of my education until I was 18. Every free moment I was swinging a club, whether it was in the back garden or at Raven’s Causeway, Herefordshire Golf Club, where Bob Harland was the pro. When I went to university I couldn’t afford to play golf so I took up bridge instead. And so it went on. Every few years a new interest but always subordinate to work. I did twice go back to golf but never had the talent or patience to enjoy it to the full. It was only in the 1990s that I rediscovered my love of nature. Twenty years on it has taken me to six continents of the world and given me some truly memorable experiences.
If I had had when I was graduating the experience and knowledge of the subsequent twenty-five years I would undoubtedly have chosen a different career path. To be honest the mistake was probably in the system. I was moderately good at languages and I enjoyed history and geography. I wanted to leave the sciences behind for the simple reason I wasn’t good at them and I did not see the fascination with them that I find today. However the school pushed me through Advanced Maths, Physics and Chemistry and in return I was allowed to do Russian and Latin as well as my English, French and German. The school was blessed with wonderful teachers. I remember Lyn Meredith, a fine Welshman, taught chemistry before handing us over to Mr. Hastie, (not to be confused with Richard Hearne, who was Mr. Pastry). I can’t remember the physics master’s name but he was great fun and must have despaired at me, and our maths master was a young man, who simply seemed to enjoy teaching us, even though I suspect we did our best to make it impossible. Are you out there Ian Porter? [Answer: yes!!] Don Sparks was a true trojan, teaching me English, Latin and rugby. His rather pretty wife taught us music.
Note the absence of Biology. I never got beyond the second year. We had very strange options. I had to choose German or Woodwork. That was easy as I could barely tell one end of a saw from the other. I can’t remember the option that caused me to drop biology but it could have been French or it may simply have been I had filled my quota. Now I regret the one-sidedness of my educational interests and bias as I struggle to understand taxonomy and the finer points of field identification. As I alluded to above I was also limited by the number of subjects we were allowed to take (unless you were deemed exceptionally bright, which I wasn’t) and so history and geography went by the board too – tragic in hindsight and probably why I read so much about it today. How could history not be interesting if properly taught. I don’t need to know the list of the kings and queens of England but by golly I recently learned a lot reading the biography of Catherine the Great. And I am well into the biography of Deng Xiaoping at the moment. Great stuff. Of course what we were living through then is today history, from civil rights and Martin Luther King, to the cold war, the breaking down of empires and the moon landing. I am just old enough to remember JFK, I recall Nixon all too well. Russia was still the evil empire and China was closed until ping-pong diplomacy arrived. Somehow I could never see Zhou Enlai and Kissinger playing table tennis. I feel I have a lot of catching up to do in all manner of areas in my quest to become a renaissance man. So much to do and so little time left.
And I haven’t even touched on photography yet. But here is one image I took this week. I like it. I hope you do too. Just don’t ask me to name it!
To be continued. Maybe.