Tag Archives: City of Nottingham

Hallowe’en Tales : Numbers Seven and Eight

Number Seven

The Sea Serpent

On October 25th 1988, I went over to the Isles of Scilly to birdwatch. I crossed over from Cornwall on the ferry, the Scillonian:

scillonia on scillis xxxxxxxxxx

For two or three hours during the crossing, I remained on deck with my binoculars, eagerly scanning the storm tossed waves for seabirds.

At one point, I noticed what I took to be the head of a Grey Seal, which broke the surface perhaps fifty or a hundred metres away from the boat. This is a Grey Seal which I photographed in the harbour at St.Ives in Cornwall:

P1460520

This head, way out in the Atlantic Ocean, was very similar, dark in colour, and I could see a forehead, two eye sockets, and an obvious snout. I didn’t really think a great deal about it, other than the fact that, for a seal, it was certainly a very long way from land, at least fifteen miles. It remained there, presumably watching the boat, for perhaps two or three minutes. Then, suddenly, a Gannet flew directly above it. A Gannet is a very large bird with a wingspan of some six or seven feet:

wikikikik Northern_Gannetzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I then realised from a simple comparison of sizes that the head must be at least a metre and a half, if not two metres, across. And that means it cannot have been a seal !

 Number Eight

The Ghost on the No 90 Bus

Some thirty or more years ago, we used to live in a large house in a new estate on top of a hill right at the very northern edge of the City of Nottingham. From our top bedroom window, we could see the distant cooling towers of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, out towards the East Midlands Airport, absolutely miles away. If it had been built then, we would have easily been able to see the Control Tower on the Airport. To go into Nottingham was a little bit of a bore, though, because there was only the Number 90 bus, which ploughed, every hour, a long and very eccentric furrow from one side of the city to the other, from where we lived on the northern edge, to the furthest bus terminal of Edwalton, beyond even the foetid swamp that is West Bridgford:

DKY-496_lr

The Number 90 bus, strangely enough, had a very strong ghost story attached to it. People told me all about it on several occasions, almost as soon as I mentioned what bus I had to catch to get home and just how long the journey was.

3135590sssss

Funnily enough, the story concerned the very same bus stop on Mansfield Road which we used to use:

bus stop

Anyway, the first occasion the ghost appeared was quite a long time ago, in the 1950s perhaps, or in the 1960s. It was certainly in the era of the bus conductor, who used to go round the bus, issuing tickets and taking the money.

Just imagine to yourself. The time  is around seven or eight o’clock in the evening, and the bus is absolutely deserted. Not a single passenger. The conductor is standing up near the driver’s compartment, talking to him to pass the time. Suddenly, they both notice an old man who is standing at the Mansfield Road bus stop, waiting to go towards the city. The bus stops and the old man gets on. The evening is fine and dry, but the old man is absolutely drenched, with rainwater dripping off him. He looks quite battered, with little rips here and there in his clothing, which is, strangely for the weather at the time, a heavy winter topcoat over an equally heavy winter suit.

The old man says nothing as he gets on. He goes upstairs and the driver and conductor notice he is wearing his bike clips, a simple aid to cycling that is, by now, almost decades out of date.

The driver and conductor finish their conversation. The driver sets off down the road, and the conductor begins the shaky climb up the stairs. He wonders why this special kind of idiot had to go upstairs on a completely empty bus and make the tired conductor follow him.

He gets to the top of the stairs and has a good, surprised look round. The top deck of the bus is completely empty. The old man just isn’t there. He isn’t in the two rows of seats at the front of the bus. The conductor then walks slowly back past all the other rows of seats. The old man isn’t there either, neither is he hiding behind any of the seats in a ludicrous attempt to avoid paying his fare.

Puzzled, the conductor goes back down again, pushes his cap back on his head, and expresses his astonishment to the driver.

Back at the canteen, they tell their tale over a cup of tea and a couple of cigarettes. They are not the first crew to meet “The Phantom Passenger of the Number 90 bus.”

He is, or rather was, an old man of sixty or so:

old_man_on_bike_by_claeva

One winter’s night, he was riding his bicycle home to Arnold, when a hit-and-run driver killed him as he rode carefully and slowly around the Leapool Roundabout. It happened so swiftly that the old man does not realise, even now, that he is no longer alive. Wrapped up against the winter in his heavy suit and heavy topcoat, he still has his bike clips on. His bicycle, to him too valuable to leave behind, is too badly damaged to ride back home. And so, he must walk through the winter rain and sleet the two miles to the nearest bus stop to get back home to his wife and family. On this map, the orange arrow marks the bus stop where the wet old man would get on the No 90 bus. To the north is the Leapool Roundabout. Follow the green road until you come to the obvious roundabout:

map

I don’t know now if the Number 90 still runs or not. I hope it does. No ghost should fade away at the whim of the Nottingham City Transport.

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Jer Falcon. one shot at Park Hall by Mr Shelton. Now in my collection.

In his own vastly expanded version of “Notes on the Birds of Nottinghamshire”, published in 1907, and now housed in the local collection of Mansfield Library, author Joseph Whitaker has added, for the most part in pencil, his own notes and additions. In some cases, he has pasted newspaper clippingts onto the pages. At one particular point, towards the end of the book, he has added the following handwritten note, misspellings and all:

“Jer Falcon. one shot at Park Hall by Mr Shelton. We were beating a plantation on Clipstone Road near the Red House Farm it was misty + this falcon flew low over the trees + was shot by him.
I missed this bird out when this book was written. Now in my collection”.

Sceptics might say, of course, that Joseph Whitaker was mistaken in his identification of the bird and that it was, quite simply, not a definite Gyrfalcon. This is, however, a rather unlikely scenario. Joseph Whitaker was familiar with many, many different kinds of raptor. If anything, he had probably seen more species within the county than the majority of present-day birdwatchers. And don’t forget. Mr Shelton shot it. They were identifying a corpse, not a distant dot disappearing into a dismal sky:

Gyrfalcon_e0 zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
In any case a Gyrfalcon would have been easily identifiable on size alone. It is a falcon as big as a Common Buzzard And if Whitaker’s bird was a white phase individual, it would have been totally unmistakeable:

faucon-gerfaut-vol-tm3 zzzzzzz

There are only two birds of this size which are completely white, namely Gyrfalcon and Snowy Owl. The latter is not exactly difficult to identify:

speciexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Gyrfalcons exist in two different colour morphs and it would, admittedly, have been more difficult to identify a dark morph bird:

dark

The issue of size would still have been there, of course. Gyrfalcons of both white and dark morphs are huge birds. Furthermore, even dark phase Gyrfalcons are very distinctive birds, especially when viewed as dead specimens.

Dark morph birds may just be an academic problem anyway. According to at least one ornithological authority, namely Fisher in 1967, the vast majority of Gyrfalcons seen in England during the Victorian era were, in actual fact, white phase birds, with apparently only one dark morph individual recorded nationally during the last third of the 19th century.

And in Whitaker’s day, of course, there was no need to worry about the presence of escaped foreign falcons from Australia, or exotic, artificially inseminated hybrids produced by Baron Frankenstein the Falconer. It would have been very difficult to misidentify one of these charismatic killers:

32_GYRFALCON stuffed zzzzzz

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what Mr Shelton shot, if it were not a Gyrfalcon. We also know that the bird went into Joseph Whitaker’s collection. This fact in itself would have served as some kind of checking mechanism, since the specimen would have been mounted and then inspected by the continuous parade of visitors to Whitaker’s house in Rainworth. These would have included a large number of nationally reputable ornithologists and it would have been impossible for a man like Joseph Whitaker to have shown them such an important county specimen without their quickly mentioning the fact had the bird be misidentified.

gyrr zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Why then do we not have the Gyrfalcon now? Again, answers are not difficult to find. The bird may have been sold privately, either before or after Whitaker’s death. Equally it was common practice, when the owner of a great collection died, for selected individual birds to be passed onto close friends, before the collection as a whole was sold, usually at a public auction. It is also conceivable that the specimen may have been stolen after Whitaker’s death.

On the death of a great collector, it was a frequent occurrence that the beneficiaries of the estate had little or no expert knowledge of the worth or importance of certain individual stuffed birds. These vulnerable specimens were then liable to disappear between the death of the collector and the public disposal of the collection. This has certainly happened to a number of other birds which are known to have been in Whitaker’s possession but have now disappeared, presumably between his death and the acquisition of his collection on behalf of the Mansfield Museum.
In any case, why should we automatically cast doubt on Whitaker’s handwritten note? What clearer message can the great man have hurled forward into the future, than the one we now have? He offers us the word of an honest man.

You might be lucky enough one day to see a Gyrfalcon in this country. I never have. But I console myself by watching the Peregrine Falcons which have nested for years in the middle of the City of Nottingham:

the urban peregrine zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

They can be seen on the Newton and Arkwright Building of Nottingham Trent University on South Sherwood Street, Nottingham.

In this aerial view, the Fire Station is coloured orange as it is the most well known building in this part of the city for the majority of people. (No, it’s not on fire):

fire station zzzzzzzzz

Look at the street to the right of the Fire Station and follow it towards the top of the photo. The Newton and Arkwright Building is the enormous white building on the right as you walk up the slight slope towards the Theatre Royal. It is a very distinctive Third Reich type of 1930s architecture.

If you go there, take some binoculars if you have any. Look at the right side of the building. The nest is on a wide lip that runs the whole length of the building, just below a row of largish windows. This street map might help. Look for the orange arrow:

map of south shwood st

If you wish, you can watch them on a live webcam. The birds are present pretty much all they year round. Theoretically, they should not be here in the winter, but somehow they seem quite frequently drawn back, a little bit like teenagers returning to the Bank of Dad. At the moment, they should be feeding their young. In the past, there have been catastrophes with this, as is always the case with Mother Nature, but if all goes well, it can be a wonderfully blood spattered spectacle.

But back to Gyrfalcons.
Here are a pair of them, filmed by “thegowser1” at 78 degrees north between Svalbard and Greenland:


More typical for a twitcher in north west Europe would be these two films of a bird which had strayed to  Champtocé-sur-Loire, in Maine-et-Loire, France. The two films come from Alain Fossé, and show a raptor doing what they spend most of their time doing…absolutely nothing!. High calorie meals of meat mean you only need move around infrequently (or so I tell my wife).

These are much more typical  of a March day near Mansfield than an icebreaker near the North Pole!

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“The Nottingham Lion Saga”

Originally, it was the “Surrey Puma” which had caused all the fuss throughout the 1960s. The first possible sightings had been recorded in 1959, but by the mid-sixties, at Godalming Police Station alone, 362 reports were received over a two-year period.  And then, in August 1966, a former police photographer took a pale, blurry grainy snap which he claimed showed the Surrey Puma at Worplesdon, near Guildford. The photo was published in the “News of the World”, and showed an animal almost surprised by the fuss.
surrey puma original
It was enough to get the local plods out of the chip shop, though, and out on patrol…

 


They found little (if anything). Ten years later, in the very early morning of July 29th 1976, the focus was very much on the Queen of the Midlands, the beautiful City of Nottingham…
nottingham_councilhall_0
Not on the stone lions on the Council House, the rendez-vous point of countless lovers since they were placed there by the Third Reich School of Architecture in the late 1920s…


Not even the local ice hockey team…..
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But rather on a country lane a few miles from the city centre. It must have been a very countrified area at the time, with lots of now disappeared open fields, and the grassy expanses of the airstrip at Tollerton, the rather grandiosely named “Nottingham Airport”. It was one of the two years of extreme drought in the mid-1970s, and it was….

“…shortly after 6am, 29 July 76, when two milkmen were delivering to a bungalow opposite the entrance to Nottingham airport on Tollerton Lane between Nottingham and Tollerton. Different accounts put it at  15 or 50 yards away from the men; they were in no doubt: “We both saw together what to us us was certainly a lion….its head down and its tail had a bushy end. It was walking slowly away from us.”

It is unclear whether it was a male or a female, but presumably they would have said “lioness” if that was what they had seen.

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It must have been difficult to be mistaken though even at fifty yards’ range.

“They watched it walk around the edge of a field, then called the police from the bungalow. By nightfall, the police mounted a huge search, with dogs, guns, loud hailers and a helicopter, in the Tollerton and West Bridgford areas. The police also said they had calls from people telling of the mysterious restlessness of their pets on the night of the 28/29th; and a local farmer at Clipstone, near Cotgrave, reported ‘strange paw prints’ on his land.”

As is often the case…

“The police found nothing. They checked zoos and private lion-owners within 100 miles, but ‘no-one appears to have lost a lion.’ They said they were taking at least 15 sightings seriously. The hunt hit a turning point in its second day when a sighting at Radcliffe-on-Trent turned out to be somebody’s Great Dane. At the same time a sighting came in from Bassingfield. One of the reports was from as far away as Norfolk by a couple who said they saw a lion in a lay-by at Lowdham (a country village near Nottingham) but did not report it they didn’t think they’d be believed. Yet despite these sightings, the police were getting disappointed by the lack of anything positive. As in the ‘Surrey Puma’ cases, the lack of any killed livestock, no pets missing etc as there would be if there were a lion conventionally on the loose. The milkmen were rechecked and both (David Crowther and David Bentley) were unshaken in their belief that they had actually seen a lion.”

How different from the present day. I cannot imagine that there are too many zoos or private lion-owners within a hundred miles of Nottingham nowadays. It is certainly strange, though, that the two milkmen were adamant about what they had seen…

“On the third day of the hunt, reports were still coming into West Bridgford, the nerve-centre of the operations. One caller heard something big crashing through Bunny Woods, and another heard something in a copse near Trent Lane church at East Bridgford. In fact, the police were obliged to maintain the alert.
Martin Lacey, a former Nottingham zoo owner, enters the fray, saying all the noisy activity has driven the lion into hiding, and offers the use of his lion-hunting Rhodesian ridgeback hounds.”

rhodesian
Just as the press were losing interest in the ‘Nottingham Lion’ the story receives a shot in the rump.

“John Chisholm, a doctor of Normanton-on-the-Wolds, near Tollerton, saw a large animal trying to break through some undergrowth to get to a stream on the evening of 1st Aug, while he was walking near his home. When he returned home he and his wife watched it leave the area from their upstairs window. Police said they were following up several other sightings in the same area.”

Curiouser and curiouser….

“2nd Aug police searching the A610 at Temple Lake, near Kimberley, found a large tortoise on the embankment. They were unable to trace any owner so they adopted it.”

The saga continued…

“The dailies for the next day (3rd) run the story of Dr.Chisholm’s sighting. Naturally in everybody’s eyes the fact that he is a deputy coroner makes the sighting more impressive and believable. (The police were) now 98% certain that there was an animal in the area…..

By the 6th Aug the lack of results was telling on the police. They issued a statement saying they no longer believed there was a lion at large despite 65 reported sightings in the last 8 days. They said that they proved to be mistakes, large dogs, and even a large brown paper bag.”

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After this negative statement, the police announce three more reports of it in the Plumtree and Normanton areas.

It is rather difficult to sort out this East Midlands X-file. If we accept that the two milkmen were not liars, however, and they had not just misidentified somebody’s Great Dane, it would make a lot more sense of they saw a lioness…

With the benefit of 38 years’ hindsight, I suspect that what they actually saw was

In other words, a common-or-garden “Alien Big Cat”

Nowadays, of course, nobody would think twice about claims of seeing a so-called “Alien Big Cat” in this area south of Nottingham, even though it is probably a lot more built-up than it used to be.

I recently saw a TV programme which claimed that there were two identifiable big cat territories centred on Rutland Water, giving a long list of the many different places in the area where animals had been seen. There have been suggestions, too, that these cats, whatever they may be, are making use of disused railway lines to travel around, possibly even penetrating into the suburbs of large cities, rather like foxes have done in the past.

Some ABCs are reported as melanistic…

black panther

But do be careful over the question of size, however…

diagram

Otherwise your claims to the Nottingham Evening Post may leave you looking more than a little stupid…

tomcat
But it’s not all over yet… there are still lions out there, back in 1976…

“No sooner had the Nottingham mystery been killed off, it turns up over 70 miles away just south of York. On the night of the 9th Aug, Alan Pestall was on his way to his local walking down the moonlit main street of Thorganby, when a black shadow crossed in front of him, by the church. He thought it was a dog and spoke to it.

Then I realised it had a cat’s face and a long tail. It was about 3 to 4ft long and nearly 3ft high. Before I had a chance to run, it leaps over a fence and was away over the fields.’

He kept walking slowly to the pub, believing if he hurried or turned it would attack him. Police took his story seriously and mounted a search on the 10th, but found no sign of a lion.”

A police spokesman said

“We have no reason to connect this report with the recent sightings of a lion in Nottinghamshire.”

Almost thirty years later, it was the turn of Norfolk’s Boys in Blue to take on the Killer Menace of the Big Cats..

Thankfully, perhaps, Alan Partridge kept out of it.

 

The picture of the Rhodesian Ridgebacks is used by kind permission of Jackie Ellis whose website is http://www.zejak.co.uk/. Even if you don’t particularly like dogs, there are some lovely cute puppies there…and the bonus is that they’ll protect you from the Nottingham Lion!

 

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