Category Archives: Wildlife and Nature

My best friend, Widdle (1)

One summer’s day in 2007, I was sitting out on the patio when all of a sudden I looked down and there was an animal standing right next to me. It was a fox!! Latin name “Vulpes vulpes” for anybody who lives in a country where foxes are not known.

I said to him “What do you want?” “Are you hungry?” “Would you like some food?”

He looked back at me and I said, “Just stay there and I’ll go and fetch you something.”

And he stayed there and I went into kitchen, opened the door of the fridge and looked around.

Some milk. No, that’s cats.

Just a piece of apple and some cooked sausages.

That’s it. I’ll take him that. I picked up the apple and went out to feed him.

He was still there. I offered him the apple which he initially sniffed and then gave me a look of such disdain, as if to say,

“Hurry up and get back to your village. They’ll be missing their idiot.”

I went back to the fridge. I got a sausage and I took it out to him. He sniffed it and I put it on the floor. He picked it up in his mouth and off he went. Back into the beautiful green world of flowers, bushes and trees.

That sausage would be the first of literally thousands, with the occasional lump of beef, pork or chicken to stop him getting bored. I soon became an expert on sausages, their make-up, their price, their value for money. We used to buy them in some quantity. I remember once going through the checkout at Iceland (the frozen food supermarket chain, not the island nation). I was buying the usual six packets and the woman said “Do you like sausages then?”  and I replied “Not really, I feed them to a fox”.

And she looked at me with complete disdain as if to say….

“Hurry up and get back to your village. They’ll be missing their idiot.”

Little did she know, though, and little did I know, that very soon I would value our fox at ten times the value of almost all human beings. Being with him was like being with an extremely wise child who was always steps ahead of you. Somebody who could do amazing things that were as if he knew magic. Somebody who was always on his best behaviour. Who never hurt a fly. Who was a damn sight closer to God than I ever was. Here’s his four stage method to being given a sausage:

Stage 1            Look as if you’re hungry:

Stage 2           Reach for the Food of the Gods: sausage fried with extra fat :

Stage 3           Make that strange gesture with your lower jaw that is a basic part of “Talking Fox” but one which we never managed to  understand :

Stage 4    Show the kind humans your lovely brown eyes, and they’ll probably give you more sausages next time :

Sometimes, though, our new friend was nervous and he showed this by cocking his back leg against anything available, and squirting a tiny quantity of fox urine. He only did that when he was not 100% certain of our intentions, because we were human beings and potentially not as well behaved as he was. It gave him his name, though. We called him “Widdle”.

Over the next few weeks, we all grew to love him.

He was a gift from God. A wild creature who let us into his world for a few short years. We fed him morning and evening, day in, day out, and we saved his life several times. When he could not hunt because of injuries we saw to it that he was fed. Thanks to us, he had five lives.

We fed too, all of the minimum of 15 fox cubs that he raised. With a little bit of help from Mrs Widdle, of course.

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The Flannan Isle disappearances (4)

This is the fourth of a series of four blog posts about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isle on December 15th 1900. If you feel that you need to read a previous blog post again, just search for “Flannan”.

We have now looked really quite thoroughly at what was, along with the sea serpent, one of the great mysteries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Given that there are so many plausible theories, but no forensic leads, such as bodies to examine for injuries or marks on the skin, for mercury levels and so on, no absolutely 100% true correct answer will ever be possible. It’s just a case of finding a solution which explains all of the anomalies found by Joseph Moore as he explored the lighthouse and the rest of the island on December 26th 1900.

Having said that, I am the one writing this blog post and I may be the one to decide what the 100% true correct answer might be.

So….here’s the absolute 100% true correct answer…….

A researcher called James Love found out that Thomas Marshall had already been fined five shillings (0.25p) on another lighthouse, when his equipment was left out and washed away during a fierce storm. In modern money, £1 Victorian was reckoned to be between £116-£132. The fine of five shillings, therefore, was approximately £29-£33, and would probably have been increased for a second offence.

Marshall remembered, or was reminded, just before lunch on December 15th, that he had left equipment out yet again, and he put his sea-boots on to go down and put it away. James Ducat offered to come with him to help, and he put his own sea-boots on. The third man, Donald McArthur, had to remain behind because at least one person always had to be in the lighthouse. When they got back, he would start to prepare lunch.

There may have been a storm going on, but in my scenario, there didn’t need to be.  The sun set that day at around 4.00pm, so time was easily on their side.  Both of them were experienced men and they would have known immediately whether going down to the level of the landing stage was feasible or not. The two men took a very long time, though, and so Donald MacArthur, leaving his sea-boots behind, went out of the lighthouse in his shirt sleeves to see what was going on. At this point, he was not particularly panicking, which explains that the lighthouse gates and door were both closed.

And then suddenly, a gigantic wave hit the landing stage, surged up the cliff, and carried away the box where equipment was always stored, 110 feet above sea level. It immediately drowned Marshall and Ducat, busy far below on the landing stage, and also claimed Donald McArthur, who was just beginning to walk down the path to see where his colleagues were.

The wave may have been part of an approaching storm, or it could have been one of the “Freak waves” which have been discovered in recent years….

You can read the full account in Wikipedia but it begins with:

“Rogue waves (also known as freak waves, monster waves, episodic waves, killer waves, extreme waves, and abnormal waves) are unusually large, unpredictable and suddenly appearing surface waves that can be extremely dangerous to ships, even to large ones………. In oceanography, rogue waves are more precisely defined as waves whose height is more than twice the significant wave height, which is itself defined as the mean of the largest third of waves in a wave record.”

In 1985, the Fastnet Lighthouse off south western Ireland was hit by a wave of 157 feet (48 metres)

One wave was recorded in January 1995 in the North Sea about 100 miles southwest of the southern tip of Norway. It reached a maximum height of 84 feet (25.6 metres).

In 2000 the oceanographic vessel, RRS Discovery, recorded a 95 feet (29 metres) wave off the coast of Scotland near Rockall.

In 2013, a wave of 62 feet (19 metres) was recorded by a buoy between Iceland and Great Britain, off the Outer Hebrides. This cannot have been particularly far from the Flannan Isles. The wave was caused by 50 mph winds. So what does a 100 mph wind create?

I can’t give a reference but I’m sure that years ago I once read an account of a Scottish lighthouse which stood 200 feet above the sea having the turf rolled back by the waves:

I certainly read an account of stones from the sea bottom being lifted by waves and crashing against the windows of a lighthouse some 400 feet above normal sea level:

Such waves are certainly within the realms of possibility. Scientists have identified two regions where huge rogue waves may occur….the northern Pacific south west of Alaska and the North Atlantic to the north west of the Outer Hebrides. Of the two, the waves in the Atlantic tend to be bigger.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s my solution to the Flannan Isle mystery. Now, I must see if there’s any sign of the postman…..

POSTSCRIPT

There is a fairly recent film about the Flannan Isle disappearances. It is  called “The Vanishing” and makes use of the events at the lighthouse to tell a tale of greed, violence and murder.

Here are the three lighthouse keepers. They look as if they are up to no good:

Overall, once you put to one side for the duration of the film, any serious explanations you may have of the mystery, this is an excellent thriller, well worth the cost of buying the blu-ray. But, let me say again, it is not a documentary, and makes no attempt to offer a serious, scientific, explanation of the keepers’ disappearance. The film has been made to entertain, and it certainly does that!!

 

 

 

 

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The Flannan Isle disappearances (3)

This is the third of a series of four blog posts about the mysterious disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isle on December 15th 1900. Here’s a link to Post No 1. And here’s a link to Post No 2.

Last time, we looked at the report by the NLB inspector, Robert Muirhead, about the mysterious disappearance of these three men. This document makes very clear his ideas about an explanation of the mystery. He thought that the men went down to the West Landing  to secure equipment. They may have been at the box where the ropes and so on were kept (110 feet above sea level)….

They may even have descended to the landing stage, a very steep path with a very slippery area at the bottom…..

And then all three men were washed off by a gigantic wave…

Not everybody accepted Muirhead’s theorising about the men’s disappearance, but Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s description in his poem, of an overturned chair and an uneaten meal on the table was quite simply wrong. presumably poetic licence. No furniture or food had been touched at all.

The very best objections come from Keith McCloskey on his website. He poses questions which emphasise apparent flaws in the most popular theory of a huge storm.

Why did they go the West Landing to secure equipment so late in the day? The daylight would have been fading as it was mid-December.

Why did they leave it so long, as the weather was getting worse, not better?

James Ducat had 22 years of experience. Would he have jeopardised his life and that of the others, to walk down to a landing that was being hammered by winds and 30ft to 40ft waves?

Keith McCloskey favours the wind as a theory. He thinks that the men left the lighthouse to investigate a strange noise or a banging door, and a powerful wind, funnelled between the side of the lighthouse and the outer wall, picked the men up and blew them over the wall and straight over the 300 foot cliff only thirty feet away on the other side of the perimeter wall.

Keith quotes an interesting story which proves how strong the wind can be in these parts……

“Former NLB Light keeper Alistair Henderson (who weighed 16 Stones – 102Kgs) was once carrying a fridge between the Lighthouse and the station buildings at Rubh’Re when the wind lifted him, while he was holding the fridge, off his feet and blew him over and he landed several feet away.”

Rubh’Re is on the mainland, to the north east of the Isle of Skye, at the entrance to Loch Ewe.

Another theory has the keepers affected by the vapour coming from the mercury bath on which the Lens apparatus floated. Mercury does not affect everybody, but there may have been one man who went totally mad, ran out into the storm and was duly blown over the cliff into the sea, and so were the two unaffected men who chased after him.

At one time, there was a theory that the log book contained evidence of one man going mad and he could have killed the other two and then himself.  Later research by Mike Dash on behalf of the Fortean Times revealed that such evidence as there was was entirely forged after the event.

Theory No 36 depends on the fact that the cliffs of Flannan Isle are deeply incised with narrow gullies called “geos”.  The West Landing is right next to a geo which also has a cave at the very far end. It is possible that a large volume of water could fill the geo itself, and the cave, and then “explode out again with considerable force”, as one website said, washing the men into a raging sea.

Walter Aldebert  spent four years on Flannan Isle as a lighthouse keeper. His solution was an Occam’s Razor job, namely that one man may have been washed into the sea but then his companions, while trying to rescue him, were also washed away.

The remainder of the solutions definitely do not come from Occam or his razor.

A fight broke out near the edge of the cliff and the three men all fell off and died.

A ship arrived to take them away to a new life of heavy drinking and wild women:

They were abducted by foreign spies.

A sea serpent carried the men away:

A UFO carried the men away (with, apparently, one UFO for each man):

They were carried off by a boat filled with ghosts:

In actual fact, most local people believed the solution to the puzzle was supernatural. For centuries, this group of windswept islands had been called “The Seven Hunters” and they were commonly believed to be haunted by “The Phantom of the Seven Hunters”, a supernatural being who carried people off to who-knows-where. Flannan Isle was inhabited by St Flannan around 650 AD and pilgrims subsequently came to see his home, but only after removing their hats and turning 360° clockwise immediately after coming ashore. Here’s St Flannan’s little house, which would be worth £12,000,000 in the suburbs of London…….

In medieval times shepherds brought their sheep to Flannan Isle to graze in summer but none of these superstitious peasants would stay overnight. At that time there was a strong local belief that, hundreds of years before, in pre-Christian times  the island was where the pagan Picts took their dead and burnt them on funeral pyres:

For these reasons, in 1899-1900, it had actually been extremely difficult to find any men among the local population, willing to serve in the brand new lighthouse on Flannan Isle.

Joseph Moore, the first man on the island after the men disappeared, reported that he had felt a very strange and eerie feeling as he walked through the deserted lighthouse. And ever since the disappearance, the island has had “an overwhelming sense of melancholy”.

Next time, the correct answer that fulfils all the conditions. Who will have won a winter break on Flannan Isle?

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The Flannan Isle disappearances (2)

This is the second of a series of four blog posts about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isle on December 15th 1900. If you feel that you need to read a previous blog post again, just search for “Flannan”. If you need it, then here’s a link to Post No 1

Last time you had the list of what Lighthouseman Joseph Moore found during his search of the island on December 26th, and I promised that I would explain what they all proved. Well….

“clocks were stopped” and “fire was not lighted for some days” means whatever it was that happened, happened well before the Hesperus, and Joseph Moore, arrived at the island.

“the beds were empty just as they left them in the early morning” means that the disaster was an afternoon affair, probably in the late afternoon.

“The outside gate and two doors to the outside were closed” because the men left calmly.

“the light room was in proper order” means that everybody was doing their job properly and that it is unlikely the crisis was based on madness or violence. And whatever the problem was, it began and ended in much less than a day.

“Nothing appears touched at East Landing” means that whatever happened, it was probably not here, but at……

“the West side……… old box halfway up the railway has gone…the ropes got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks….The iron railings on the footpath to the landing … broken in several places…the railing round the crane, and the handrail for making the mooring rope fast entirely carried away” means that it was highly probable that the West Landing was where all three men met their deaths.

Robert Muirhead, the NLB Superintendent, submitted his final report on the events of Flannan Isle on January 8th 1901. Details included in his report, as far as the West Landing was concerned, that……

“the crane was found to be unharmed….. the canvas was securely lashed round it……no evidence that the men had been doing anything at the crane.”

The West Landing is in the bottom left of the photograph below:

“The mooring ropes, landing ropes, derrick landing ropes and crane handles, and also a wooden box in which they were kept, in a crevice in the rocks 110 feet above the sea level, had been washed away… the ropes were strewn in the crevices of the rocks… they were all coiled up, no single coil being found unfastened.”

“The iron railings round the crane platform and from the terminus of the tramway to the concrete steps up from the West landing were displaced and twisted.”

“A large block of stone, weighing upwards of 20 cwt (one ton), had been dislodged from its position higher up, and carried down, and left on the concrete path leading to the top of the steps.”

“A life buoy fastened to the railings had disappeared….. on examining the ropes by which it was fastened, they had not been touched, and it was evident that the force of the sea pouring through the railings had, even at this great height (110 feet above sea level) torn the life buoy off the ropes.”

“Ducat was wearing sea boots and a waterproof, and Marshall sea boots and oilskins……..the men only wore those articles when going down to the landings”

“they must have intended, when they left the lighthouse, either to go down to the landing or the proximity of it.”

Here’s the extremely steep path down to the West Landing. Just beyond the right turn, if you stumble and fall, is a sheer drop to the rocks and the sea far, far below:

Robert Muirhead, the NLB Superintendent continued…..

” I am of opinion that the most likely explanation of the disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the Island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.”

“I have considered the possibility of the men being blown away by the wind, but, as the wind was westerly…….the more probable explanation is that they have been washed away as, had the wind caught them, it would, from its direction, have blown up the Island and I feel certain that they would have managed to throw themselves down before they had reached the summit or brow of the Island.”

Some of the distances between the lighthouse and the top of a three hundred foot sheer cliff down to the sea were extremely small. It would have been easy to have been blown off if the wind was particularly strong:

The second picture shows pretty much the same situation:

One interesting additional detail in the Superintendent’s report was that……..

“The Commissioners appointed Roderick MacKenzie, Gamekeeper, Uig, near Meavaig, to look out daily for signals that might be shown from Flannan Isle, and to note each night whether the light was seen or not seen. The light had not been lit from the 15th-25th December, so I resolved to see him on Sunday morning. He was away, but his two sons, aged about 16 and 18 – two most intelligent lads of the gamekeeper class, and who actually performed the duty of looking out for signals, I had a conversation with them, and I also examined the Return Book. From the December Return, I saw that the Tower itself was not seen, even with the assistance of a powerful telescope, between the 7th and the 29th December. The light was, however, seen on 7th December, but was not seen on the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th. It was seen on the 12th, but not seen again until the 26th, the night when it was lit by Moore.”

The lighthouse was around 23 miles north west of Uig which is on the northern edge of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. In those days there was no light pollution, so a lighthouse that distance away could be seen if conditions were favourable. I think that the telescope was at Gallan Head, the furthest and remotest place that the Orange Arrow has ever been. The locals, for example, did not speak English as their first language but Gaelic, a Celtic language related to Breton, Cornish and Welsh :

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The Flannan Isle disappearances (1)

On February 17th 2021, I published a blog post about one of my Dad’s favourite poems, “Flannan Isle”, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, which was written in 1912. The poem concerned the mysterious disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers in December 1900. This strange incident has never been explained once and for all, and I was asked for my own ideas by a number of different people. Unfortunately, the subject proved so complex that I was unable to do it justice in fewer than four blog posts, although, on the other hand, I would argue that all four are as interesting as any that I have ever written.

So here we go……..

At midnight on December 15th, the steamship Archtor, nearing the end of its voyage from Philadelphia to Leith, passed the Flannan Isle lighthouse which was not showing a light. Instead of two quick bursts of light every 30 seconds, there was just darkness. Captain Holman, however, was unable to report this fact to the Northern Lighthouse Board, because the Archtor continued its voyage, but ran aground in the Firth of Forth. The NLB, therefore,  were unaware of the situation until their own supply ship, the Hesperus, made its usual regular visit to the lighthouse on December 26th.  The Master of the Hesperus, Captain Harvie, at the first opportunity, sent a telegram to the NLB. The significant elements can be read below:

“The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island. Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago.”

The “occasional” was a temporary replacement for a full time lighthouseman who was ill. His name was Donald McArthur. Donald was due to be replaced by Joseph Moore, the third Assistant Lighthouseman allocated to Flannan Isle, now recovered from his illness. Joseph was on board the Hesperus and Captain Harvie sent him ashore to search the island. Captain Harvie then reported to the NLB the two key things that Joseph found during his search of the lighthouse and the island….

“…. The clocks were all stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago.”

Here’s Joseph Moore:

 

Joseph Moore also wrote his own letter to the NLB though, about what he had seen during his search of the island:

“On coming to the entrance gate I found it closed. I made for the entrance door leading to the kitchen and store room, found it also closed and the door inside that, but the kitchen door itself was open………..

On entering the kitchen I looked at the fireplace and saw that the fire was not lighted for some days. I then entered the rooms in succession, found the beds empty just as they left them in the early morning.”

And………

“Mr McCormack and myself proceeded to the lightroom where everything was in proper order. The lamp was cleaned. The fountain full. Blinds on the windows etc.”

The island is so small that it could be searched in a very short time…..

“We traversed the Island from end to end but still nothing to be seen to convince us how it happened. Nothing appears touched at East Landing to show that they were taken from there. Ropes are all in their respective places in the shelter, just as they were left after the relief on the 7th.”

Both sides of the island were not the same though….

“On the West side it is somewhat different. We had an old box halfway up the railway for holding West Landing mooring ropes and tackle, and it has gone. Some of the ropes, it appears, got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks near the crane. The crane itself is safe.

The iron railings along the passage connecting the railway with the footpath to the landing and started from their foundation and broken in several places (sic), also railing round crane, and handrail for making mooring rope fast for boat, is entirely carried away.”

Joseph Moore could also work out how the men were dressed…….

“Now there is nothing to give us an indication that it was there the poor men lost their lives, only that Mr Marshall has his seaboots on and oilskins, also Mr Ducat has his seaboots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat, and that is away. Donald McArthur has his wearing coat left behind him which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirt sleeves. He never used any other coat on previous occasions, only the one I am referring to.”

Some of the evidence above is important. To end this blog post, I will write out some of the things discovered by the NLB and perhaps you can have a think about what they prove, or, indeed, disprove……..

The clocks were stopped

The entrance gate I found …..closed

The entrance door ….. found it closed and the door inside (as well)

The kitchen door itself was open

The fire was not lighted for some days

I found the beds empty just as they left them in the early morning

In the lightroom everything was in proper order. The lamp was cleaned. The fountain full. Blinds on the windows etc

Nothing appears touched at East Landing

Ropes are all in their places

And then there is that huge contrast:

On the West side……… old box halfway up the railway ….has gone……the ropes…… got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks.

The iron railings …….with the footpath to the landing …….started from their foundation and broken in several places…..railing round crane, and handrail for making mooring rope fast……. entirely carried away.”

Mr Marshall has his seaboots on and oilskins, also Mr Ducat has his seaboots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat, and that is away. Donald McArthur has his wearing coat left behind him which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirt sleeves.

Next time, I will show you the conclusions of the NLB Superintendent who also visited the island. He, like Joseph Moore, was well aware that the box constructed to keep all the ropes and other equipment safe was 110 feet above the sea.

 

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“Why no statue?” (7)

This is another candidate in my series, “Why no statue?”

This time, we move to the deep south of England, to the area of Lyme Regis and Charmouth, to be precise. Keep your eyes open for the orange arrow..

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was alive at a time when the entire country believed that the Earth was not very old at all and that it was impossible for species to change or to evolve or even to become extinct.

Mary was born into the family of a cabinetmaker, who died when she was eleven. They supplemented their income by selling fossils from the cliffs on the coast to tourists, from a table outside their home. The latter was so close to the sea that storms often flooded the ground floor and the family had to climb out of a first floor window to escape a watery grave. Here is a typical storm at Charmouth :

Of ten children, only Mary and Joseph survived their childhood. Wars had tripled the price of wheat, but wages had remained the same. The child mortality rate was 50% and smallpox and measles were mean spirited killers. On August 19th 1800, baby Mary was nearly killed but not by disease. She was being held in the arms of a neighbour, Elizabeth Haskings, who was talking to two friends under an elm tree. The tree was struck by lightning and only Mary survived. She was rushed home and revived in a bath of warm water. Wikipedia said that:

“afterwards she seemed to blossom. For years afterward members of her community would attribute the child’s curiosity, intelligence and lively personality to the incident.”

How very Baron Frankenstein!

In 1833, a landslide killed her dog, Tray, a black-and-white terrier, at her feet as she hunted fossils under the cliffs. She wrote to her friend:

“Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate”.

Here’s Mary and Tray, on a happier day:

Mary learnt to read and write at a Congregationalist Sunday school. Her favourite possession was a bound collection of the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review containing two essays by the family’s pastor, James Wheaton. One said “God created the world in six days”, the other was entitled “Don’t forget to read about the new science of Geology”.

Mary looked for fossils in the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, especially the mudstone cliffs at Charmouth:

Mary was the first person to identify an ichthyosaur skeleton. She was only eleven years old:

On December 10th 1823, she found the first complete plesiosaurus:

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In 1828, she found the first British pterosaur, followed by a Squaloraja fish skeleton in 1829. A Squaloraja fish is one from the shark or ray family. This is a pterosaur:

In December 1830 she sold a new species of plesiosaur for £200, an enormous sum in those days, around £25,000 in today’s money. Lady Harriet Silvester had written of Mary, four years earlier:

“It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

Indeed, on one occasion, the doctor and aide of King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony asked her to write her name down for him.

She spelt it as “Mary Annins”— and told him “I am well known throughout the whole of Europe.”

Which she was.

In the early 1820s, the eminent French anatomist Georges Cuvier accused her of forging fossil animals by adding extra ones more or less at random. After a meeting of the Geological Society, Mary was completely exonerated and Cuvier forced to say that he had acted in haste and was wrong.

Impoverished Peasants   1      Famous French Barons     0

Here’s a caricature of Cuvier. In actual fact, Mary Anning was not the only person to get the better of him, despite his having a brain the size of a brontosaurus.

Part 2 to follow…….

 

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My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (5)

When I was a little boy, my Dad, Fred, used to be a teacher at Hastings Road School in Gresley. Unfortunately excessive mining operations underneath the school led to its premature collapse.  My Dad is at the right hand end of the back row:

My Dad had to move to the Woodville Church of England Junior School, the school I attended, where, after a number of years, I finished up in his class, which was possibly Class 4. This is the school now.

One afternoon,  I can recall being one of the many children who were all so very frightened when my Dad read out to the fifty of us the narrative poem, “Flannan Isle”, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, written in 1912. Here’s the author:

The Flannan Isles incidentally are pretty much as remote as you can get in Britain. The orange arrow is 553 miles from London, in a straight line, slightly less than London-Berlin:

On an unknown date in December 1900, the lighthouse on Flannan Isle suddenly failed to shine. A few days later, when a group of lighthouse men came to investigate, they found that the whole island was completely deserted. The three lighthouse keepers had completely disappeared.

Fred used to recite this poem regularly to his classes, and I can still recall how intriguing many of us found this true story, and how animatedly and at what great length we discussed all the possible reasons for the disappearance of those three unfortunate lighthouse keepers only sixty years previously. We were all convinced that the men had been magically transformed into seabirds,  an absolutely horrific idea for nine year olds in that more innocent age of the early 1960s. Anyway, here’s the first section:

“THOUGH three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night.” A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The Winter day broke blue and bright,
With glancing sun and glancing spray,
As o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight. But, as we neared the lonely Isle;
And looked up at the naked height;
And saw the lighthouse towering white,
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghostly in the cold sunlight
It seemed, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
That sets the scene, although, initially, when I came back to this poem after 60 odd years, I was a little disappointed with the quality of the poetry. Gibson seems so often to add an extra phrase or an extra couple of words, when the poem would actually read better without them.
Anyway, a possible solution is hinted at by the description below of the three strange seabirds:
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we neared, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.

Those three birds, guillemots or shags, were the very things that would go on to terrify a bunch of 9-year olds.

And still to ‘mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climbed the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seemed to climb, and climb,
As though we’d lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door—
The black, sun-blistered lighthouse-door,
That gaped for us ajar.

 

As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seemed to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ‘t were some strange scent of death:
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other’s heels we passed,
Into the living-room.
Actually, at this point, I might well retract what I said before. The further I went into the poem, the more I realised, that it is clearly meant to be slowly and deliberately declaimed out loud. Have a go. You’ll see what I mean. And sincere apologies, Wilf !
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But, all untouched; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For at the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor. We listened; but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low;
And soon ransacked the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frightened children steal.
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouched meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listened in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room—
A chill clutch on our breath—
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:
How six had come to a sudden end,
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we’d all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs, a glance has brought to heel,
We listened, flinching there:
And looked, and looked, on the untouched meal,
And the overtoppled chair.
We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought, on three men dead.
Hopefully, you made it this far. It is definitely a great poem to be declaimed out loud. But you’ve got to take it slowly and deliberately. If you stumble at the words, go back and give it another go.
And here’s the three birds that we children all thought the lighthouse keepers had been transformed into:

In the future, I hope to produce some blog posts looking at the possible reasons that the three men disappeared.

Portrait of Gibson borrowed from poeticous

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They win. Zu Lus (2)

As well as the Egyptian quarter, a number of streets in New Basford in Nottingham are named after the Zulu War of 1879.  As far as I can tell, in this area, there are seven of them, namely Chard Street, Chelmsford Road, Durnford Street, Ekowe Street, Isandula Road, Zulu Road and perhaps Eland Street.

What is most amazing about these streets is that they represent, as far as I can tell, a kind of salute to the Zulus, who were, as I mentioned previously, one of the finest and most valiant of all the opponents of the British Army. The Battle of Isandlwana, or Isandula, for example, was the greatest defeat ever suffered by British soldiers against a native force armed with their traditional weapons.

And the Zulus were trustworthy, too. King Cetshwayo tried as best he could to avoid war and told his men not to kill anybody who was not dressed in a red coat and therefore could not be identified with any certainty as a British soldier. He told them not to cross the border into Natal in pursuit of Chelmsford’s defeated forces. The Zulus stuck to both of these promises they had made to their king. Men in dark blue or green uniforms, such as in the Hale rocket battery, were allowed to walk away in peace, and not a single Zulu pursued the remnants of the defeated British army into Natal. If they had done, as Prince Ndanbuko urged them to, there would have been every chance of another stunning victory over the British Empire. Here’s Isandula Road:

So when we walk down Isandula Road, we can all remember that this Victorian street is a memorial to the Empire’s greatest ever native opponents.  Had Isandlwana been an easier word to pronounce, of course, the street would have been called Isandlwana Road.

And I really do stick by the idea that this road was a monument to the Zulu warriors. There is only one Isandula Road in the whole of England so it must have been very important name to whoever made the decision to have a road dedicated to the British Empire’s gallant opponents. The same can be said of Zulu Road. There is only one of those in the whole country too :

I kept my eyes open for a Zulu or Tu, but I saw nothing. Here’s a modern Zulu, dressed up for the tourists, with all his friends:

He’s parked his car on the road in the background, which is quite a long way away. No wonder he’s had to keep his best trainers on.

By 1880, people in England were well aware of whose fault the calamitous defeat at Isandlwana was. It was Lord Chelmsford’s, so a road named after him must have served as much as a reminder of his failures and his shortcomings as a monument to his military genius. I would think that nowadays Chelmsford would be more famous as the uncle of Ernest Thesiger, the actor (left) who worked with James Whale in the latter’s Frankenstein films :

Here is Chelmsford Road, with Lord Chelmsford making good his escape from Isandlwana on his trusty bicycle:

Chelmsford Road may not look as if it is 140 years old, but it does have one feature that is straight from the 1880s. That is the arrangement of four, or perhaps six, houses, in a short row, all of them typical small working class “two up, two down” terraced houses. These four/six houses are opposite  an identical set of houses, with, in this case, a concrete courtyard between the two rows. The more usual pattern was to have the outside lavatories situated in the middle of that courtyard, equidistant from each set of houses. In the golden days of the earth closet, this must have given life a very distinctive flavour, particularly in the summer.

This particular set of houses is called “Chelmsford Terrace” in honour of the great man.  This particular section of Chelmsford Road has other sets of houses like these, one called “Rene Terrace”, and another, “Iris Terrace”:

Here is Durnford Street, all of it:

Anthony Durnford was one of the two subordinate commanders killed at Isandlwana (the other was Henry Pulleine). Chelmsford was quick to blame Durnford for disobeying his superior’s orders to set up a proper defensible camp, although there is actually no hard evidence whatsoever that Chelmsford ever issued such an order. Nevertheless, Durnford can be regarded as a rather unsuccessful soldier, just like Chelmsford. He was also Irish, so, by the racist attitudes of the time, he was an easy man to blame. He was also dead, so he couldn’t argue with any of Chelmsford’s lies.

Chard Street is not always marked on street maps for some reason. It runs at right angles to Isandula Road, Chelmsford Road and Zulu Road. It is marked by the Orange Arrow’s “New Friend”, the Red Hot Air Balloon:

Here is Chard Street. It certainly has a Zululand feel about it:

John Chard is really the only heroic figure in this war to have a street named after him. He was the commander at Rorke’s Drift. He was played by Stanley Baker :

Chard’s second-in-command was Gonville Bromhead, now better known as Sir Michael Caine. Sadly, there was no street named after him. Bromhead was, in actual fact, an Old Boy of Magnus Grammar School in Newark-on-Trent:

There is also an Eland Street fairly close by.  This street probably fits in with all of these other South African links. An Eland is a large antelope which would surely have provided food for members of both armies.

Here is the map for Eland Street, which has an Orange Assegai at its northern end.

Ekowe Street is named after another incident in the Zulu War of 1879…….

On the very same day as the defeat at Isandlwana,  6,570 British soldiers armed with rifles, rockets and field guns managed to defeat a Zulu army of around 10,000 men armed with assegais and cowhide shields. They occupied Ekowe, where they were then besieged by the Zulus for ten weeks before a British army of 5,670 men came to the rescue with their two 9-pounder guns, four 24-pounder Congreve rocket tubes and two Gatling guns. You can see a rocket being fired in this picture:

Incidentally, I cannot find any connection for Liddington Street, Monsall Street or Pearson Street.

Just look though, what rich roots many English street names have.

Just look at the map above. “Ford Street North” where one of Henry Ford’s brothers was probably born. “Camelot Avenue” where Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot first fell in love. “Langtry Grove”, probably the  birthplace of Lily Langtry, the mistress of the future King Edward VII and the woman who had a saloon named after her by Judge Roy Bean, “The Only Law West of the Pecos”. Here’s the judge, and the saloon. You can just see the bottom of the letters of “JERSEY LILLY” at the very top of the picture:

And last, but certainly not least, Springfield Street, where Homer Simpson used to live before he left for his new life in television.

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What would you do ? (14) The Solution

“What would you do ?” used to figure on the cover of a comic called “Boys’ World”. This publication first appeared on January 26th 1963. and lasted 89 issues before the comic was merged with Eagle in 1964. The last issue of “Boys’ World” came out on October 3rd 1964.

I used to buy this comic, mainly for the front cover which always featured a kind of puzzle called “What would you do ?”. The puzzle was based on somebody being in what Ned Flanders would call “A dilly of a pickle”.

Here’s the situation I showed you a few days ago:

Here’s that yellow box, with the exact circumstances, in case you couldn’t understand the picture:

And the correct solution given on page 2 of the comic is:

Well, there we are…..

“Using his axe as a shovel, the lumberjack quickly scooped a shallow trench in the soft ground. Then lying flat inside it, he pulled his jacket over him and covered it with loose earth. As the blaze passed overhead, he was protected from its direct heat – and was able to breathe the cool air in the ‘pocket’ around him.”

Personally, I’m not so sure that that would work, and I really wouldn’t want to try it, but let’s cheer up and look at page 6 with “The last DINOSAUR on earth”. Here’s the top half of this complete short story by Donne Avenelle.

And here’s the artwork and the story’s rather sad ending:

 

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What would you do ? (14) The Puzzle

“What would you do ?” used to figure on the cover of a boys’ comic called “Boys’ World”. This publication first appeared on January 26th 1963. There were 89 issues before the comic was merged with Eagle in 1964. The last issue of “Boys’ World” came out on October 3rd 1964.

The front cover always featured a puzzle, called “What would you do ?”. It was based on somebody being in what Ned Flanders would call “A dilly of a pickle”. Here’s the situation:

 

The yellow box sets the scene, and the task is for you to solve the situation. Perhaps you might like to write your idea in the “Comments” section.

Here’s the yellow box enlarged:

So…..it’s a raging forest fire, with roaring flames, and he’s cut off. There’s no water to save him, and no Superman, no Batman, not even a fireman.

So…..it’s one “Dilly of a pickle”. What can he do? Well, any bright ideas, write them in the “Comments” section.

First prize is a look at page 6, to see the last DINOSAUR on Earth.

 

 

 

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