In a previous post in this series, “To bale out or not to bale out? (3)”, I told the story of Harold Pronger who baled out of a Lancaster bomber when the aircraft looked likely to crash because of mechanical problems. But like the rest of the crew, Harold survived. And so did the pilot, Flying Officer B.C. Fitch, who stayed with the aircraft. It was as if Lancaster LM360, like a living being, seemed to have made a sudden recovery from all the problems that had previously beset it:
And so, Fitch was able to land without incident at RAF Winthorpe, despite repeated episodes of losing height, an inability to climb, the mid-upper turret out of commission and an engine on fire. Here is RAF Winthorpe today:
What the members of the crew did not necessarily know was that this Lancaster, LM360, somehow was aware that it had a glorious destiny in its future, and it was making damned sure that it survived to achieve it.
That day, or rather night, of destiny began for Lancaster LM360 on November 3rd 1943, when O for Oscar took off from its base at RAF Syerston, piloted by Flight Lieutenant William Reid. He and his crew were tasked with bombing industrial facilities in and around Düsseldorf.
On the way, just after they crossed over the Dutch coast, at 21,000 feet, they were attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 night fighter:
The Luftwaffe fighter caused enormous damage to the front gun turret and the aircraft’s steering system, but most importantly, the pilot’s windscreen was smashed and it was no longer able to protect the crew from the cold of a November night at 20,000 or so feet above the ground.
What a pity that the aircraft’s heating system had not been working before the attack, so that the rear gunner, his hands frozen and stiff, had been unable to open fire on the German aircraft or even to warn the pilot over the intercom about the night fighter’s arrival. The stricken Lancaster lost more than 15,000 feet of altitude but Bill recovered, fortunately, just before they hit the ground.
Bill was badly wounded but said absolutely nothing about his own injuries. The intercom system was not working and the compasses were unusable. The decision, though, was made to carry on to the target:
The Lancaster was then attacked for a second time by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 single seat fighter which raked them with cannon fire from nose to tail. The navigator was killed outright and the wireless operator received severe wounds. Bill was hit for a second time and so was the flight engineer. The starboard section of the tailplane had been shot off, the bomber’s communication system didn’t work and there was no oxygen supply. The flight engineer, wounded in the arm, found a bottle or two of oxygen and held them up for Bill to breathe from. Bill, who, as always, had previously memorised the course to fly for the mission, still kept to the plan. He reasoned that turning round now would entail crossing through a bomber stream of 600 aircraft, which would have been rather dangerous, and that their aircraft would then have become a vulnerable unprotected lone sitting duck. Here is a tiny part of a bomber stream:
So on they went for the next 50 minutes and 200 miles and they bombed their target at Düsseldorf successfully. It was a ball bearing factory which Bill actually recognised.
And then, they turned for home. By now Bill was weak from loss of blood, lack of oxygen and the cold icy blast coming through the broken windscreen. That cold icy blast was actually freezing the blood from his head wound as it seeped into his eyes. There was a very real risk that Bill would not be capable of lasting all the way back to Syerston. The flight engineer and bomb aimer took over control of the plane, when Bill lapsed into semi-consciousness. But on and on they flew, despite the heart stopping moment when all four engines stopped but then just as quickly restarted. Heavy anti aircraft fire over the Dutch coast missed them. Minute by minute, mile after mile into the darkness. The first moment of happiness, the English coast. And then as they flew over Norfolk, the crew noticed the lights of the airfield at Shipdham, 5 miles south-south-west of Dereham:
Despite vision limited by blood in his eyes, Bill revived somewhat and he carried out a fine landing, although the landing lights were hidden by fog rising in the early morning. The Lancaster’s undercarriage gave way on one side and they skidded down the runway. The wireless operator was taken immediately to the medical centre, but, unfortunately, he died there of his injuries. The story of Bill Reid’s bravery is repeated many times on the Internet, but this was the website I used as the skeleton.
I must have looked at more than 20 websites. Only one named the rest of his crew. They were:
Flight Sergeant J.A. Jeffreys (Navigator)
Flight Sergeant L. Rolton (Bomb Aimer)
Flight Sergeant J.W. Norris (Flight Engineer)
Flight Sergeant J.J. Mann (Wireless Operator)
Flight Sergeant D. Baldwin, D.F.M. (Mid-Upper gun turret)
Flight Sergeant John Alan Jeffreys, the Navigator, was killed outright during the attack by the Fw 190 night fighter. He was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force and he was 30 years old. He came from Perth in Western Australia, and he was the son of John Alfred Jeffreys and Amelia Jeffreys. He was the husband of Florence Isobel Jeffreys. John was buried in Cambridge Cemetery.
Flight Sergeant John James Mann was the Wireless Operator who sadly died in the medical centre at Shipdham. He was only 22 and he was the son of James Mann and Dora Mann, of Liverpool. He was buried in Bootle Cemetery.
Here’s the Lancaster that brought them back, looking a little the worse for wear :
The other day, I was reading that classic work, the “Nottingham Date-Book” when I stumbled upon two little gems. The first was dated September 30th 1793 and showed a Blackadder type of world where alcohol replaces political thought:
“The Mayor’s installation banquet at the “New Change” as it was termed, was distinguished by excessive displays of loyalty. Amongst the toasts were “the King and Constitution,” with three times three, “the Duke of York and the Army,” “the Duke of Clarence and the Navy,” and so on.
The Mayor himself sang the air, “God save the King,” and his guests the chorus, followed by loud huzzas and Constitutional songs.”
These drunken fools in the past made me realise just how free Englishmen are in our present time. Free to do what your rich betters want you to do. A good citizen as long as you think exactly what you are supposed to think. And any thought of a questioning kind is just not welcome. As it is now, so it was then, back in 1793, in the era when first the Americans and then the French had found other ways to rule themselves than with a king.
The next entry in this diary of Nottingham is for November 12th 1793, in an entry where the author of the book promises us that “The spirit of the times will be observed in the following circumstances”. The events all took place in Spalding, just over forty miles from Nottingham, in neighbouring Lincolnshire.
Here is the sorry tale:
“One of the Officers of the Nottingham Regiment of Militia” states the Journal, “now lying at Spalding, went to a shoemaker’s of that place to order a pair of boots, but on observing that detestable outcast of society’s book, Paine’s Rights of Man, lying on the table, he thought proper to countermand the order, and take the book along with him. Next day, the soldiers being under arms and forming a circle round a large bonfire, this knight of the lapstone was summoned to appear before them,, and made to burn the celebrated jargon of nonsense, the music playing “God save the King” during its burning, at the end of which the soldiers and inhabitants gave three loyal huzzas, and then this wonderful would be wiseacre was suffered to depart”.
And just in case you are wondering, a lapstone is, according to the Free Dictionary, “a rounded device or stone on which leather is beaten with a hammer by a cobbler”
Here is Thomas Paine:
According to Wikipedia, Thomas Paine is exactly what you don’t want in a society run by the upper classes, especially when, deep down, they know that they are not particularly clever or competent. And they worry therefore when the ignorant peasant class produces a “political activist, philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary” like Thomas Paine, “The Father of the American Revolution”:
Paine came from Norfolk and his famous book, Rights of Man, was in part a defence of the French Revolution:
Paine believed that each individual has rights and that all the institutions that do not benefit the nation are invalid. Top of the list was the monarchy and the aristocracy. He wanted a written Constitution for England, a national assembly and a national budget without any money to be spent on military or war expenses.
He demanded lower taxes for the poor and free education for all.
He wanted a progressive income tax, to limit the power of wealthy estates, so that a ruling class could not preserve power, whether economic, political or religious, uniquely within the nobility.
Indeed, Paine stated that the ability to govern is not hereditary. This would mean that any idea of inheritance or royal succession would be abolished.
Paine was tried in his absence for seditious libel against the King and the Royal Family but could not be hanged because he never returned to England.
At this time, George III was as mad as a fish although there are plenty of people who say that it was mostly down to the medicines given to him by his doctors.
When the doctors stopped treating him as, presumably, a hopeless case, King George got better almost straightaway.
It says a great deal for the repressive machinery of the government that those buffoons in Spalding who gave “three loyal huzzas” for the king didn’t even realise that their king was completely mad. They might just as well have gone down to the local fishmongers and pledged their undying loyalty to the largest cod on the counter.
One of the more interesting issues in the area of local Natural History concerns the occurrence of eagles in Nottinghamshire in centuries gone by. In the era of the Anglo-Saxons, for example, the white-tailed sea eagle was called the Erne. This, supposedly, gave the town of Arnold its name.
More problematic is the Golden Eagle, which certainly occurred in England much more frequently in the past than it does now. Between 1800-1900, there were at least twenty records nationwide with seven different birds in Yorkshire:
In books about local ornithology, there are some really old records of Golden Eagle. In “The Birds of Derbyshire” which was published in 1893, F.B Whitlock quoted an earlier, eighteenth century ornithologist, Mr Pilkington, who wrote about a Golden Eagle which was seen in Hardwick Park, a large estate right on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Hardwick Hall itself is within less than half a mile of the county boundary and in the absence of an exact location for this particular bird, it seems hardly unreasonable to suggest that it must have ventured into Nottinghamshire at some point during its stay. Both Hardwick Park and Hardwick Hall are easy to spot on this map. I have marked the county boundary between Derbyshire (top left) and Nottinghamshire (bottom right). Look for the orange arrow:
That particular Golden Eagle occurred as far back as 1759. A second Golden Eagle was shot in the same area around 1770. Twelve years later, in 1782, two Golden Eagles were seen “in the out-lying portions of Sherwood Forest, near Hardwick”. It was obviously a suitable habitat with a good supply of food.
In his “Ornithology of Nottinghamshire” published in 1866, William Felkin stated that “The eagle has twice been seen near Beeston: once by myself.” As a man, who, unfortunately, had no digital camera or mobile phone to record evidence of what he had seen, Felkin could have been no more definite than that.
I have recently become addicted to acquiring those reprints of Victorian Ordnance Survey maps and they do reveal that the outskirts of Nottingham were unbelievably countrified as recently as 1901 and even more so in 1866. Perhaps a stray eagle is not quite an outrageous bird to have seen, if only just passing over.
Felkin also noted that a Golden Eagle had been killed in an unrecorded year long ago at Castle Donington. This village, of course, is nowadays on the border between Derbyshire and Leicestershire, although it is reasonably close to Nottinghamshire. Felkin considered that this bird had occurred on Nottinghamshire’s “south-western border” and as such, was therefore worthy of inclusion in his important book about the county’s avifauna:
Modern birdwatchers would say that all these observers were simply mistaken, but that has always seemed a rather strange attitude to me. Just because they lived in the eighteenth or nineteenth century does not make people less trustworthy or more stupid than us. Certainly, in the case of the Golden Eagle which was shot around 1770 near Hardwick Hall, it would have been seen by a great many people once it was stuffed and out on display. They would certainly not have been slow to speak up about any identification errors committed by his Lordship or, indeed, his bird stuffer:
Joseph Whitaker mentions a number of eagles in his “Birds of Nottinghamshire” published in 1907, but these were all considered to be White tailed Sea Eagles, spending their winters further south than their summer breeding areas. His first account was:
“It was in the winter of 1838 that the bird appeared in Welbeck Park. Mr Tillery says :–
“The lake was frozen over at the time, except in one place, where a flush of warm water entered from a culvert which drained the abbey. The place was covered with ducks, teal and widgeon, and I saw his majesty swoop down once or twice to get one for his breakfast, but unsuccessfully, as the ducks saved themselves by diving or flying off. The park-keeper got two shots at him with a ball on a tree but missed him each time, and he gradually got wilder, so that he could never be approached again near enough for a shot. After levying blackmail on the young lambs, hares and game in the neighbourhood, he took himself off after three weeks’ sojourn”
In 1857, a single White tailed Sea Eagle was shot at Osberton near Ollerton on a date several days before January 13th. According to F.O.Morris, the nationally regarded author of “A History of British Birds”, he was informed of the occurrence by Sir Charles Anderson, Baronet, a gentleman who was presumably known to George Saville Foljambe Esquire on whose estate near Osberton the event took place. Sir Charles wrote thus…
“It was first seen sitting on a tree near a place where a cow had been buried a few days before and it continued flying about this locality for some days, always returning to the same tree, as if attracted towards it. There was partial snow on the ground at the time.”
William Sterland included in his two main books, “The Birds of Sherwood Forest” (1869) and “A Descriptive List of the Birds of Nottinghamshire” (1879) an account of the occurrence of a second White tailed Sea Eagle in Lima Wood at Laughton-en-le-Morthen. Strictly speaking, this bizarrely named village is in Yorkshire but it is really quite close to the Nottinghamshire border. On this map, Laughton-en-le-Morthen is towards the top left corner and I have indicated the dark blue county boundary with the orange arrow:
This occurrence was only a few days after the demise of another eagle, shot on the Foljambe estate near Osberton, and related immediately above. Whether the two birds were connected, male and female, or perhaps siblings, we will never know. It is certainly a very striking story:
“The bird was seen in the neighbourhood of Morthen for more than a fortnight before it was shot. On several occasions it was observed perched in a tree about a hundred yards from Pinch Mill, the person resident there taking it at that distance for a stray heron. Thomas Whitfield, the gamekeeper to J.C.Althorpe Esquire of Dinnington made many attempts to get within range of the bird, but was often baffled by its wariness. It was observed to be much molested by crows and small birds, and frequently, as if to escape from persecutions which were beneath its notice to resent, it would mount into the air with graceful spiral curbs until it became nearly lost to sight, leaving its puny assailants far below, and then would sweep as gracefully down again, with all the ease and lightness of wing of the swallow.”
“It seems uncertain what its food consisted of during its sojourn for it was not seen to make any attack. At night it roosted on a tree, but still maintained a vigilant watch. When perceived by Whitfield, it was perched on a tree on the outskirts of the wood, but the night being moonlight, it perceived his approach and he had great difficulty in getting within gunshot. At the moment of his firing it flew off and he thought he had failed in hitting it; but in the morning he found it dead in an adjoining field. Its expanse of wing from tip to tip was seven feet six inches and it weighed eight pounds and a quarter. The friend I have mentioned kindly procured the loan of the bird from Whitfield and sent it for my inspection. It is a fine specimen in the immature plumage of the third or fourth year.”
The bird was shot on January 13, 1857, although. clearly, it had been present for some time before this.
Nearly forty years later in 1896, a single White tailed Sea Eagle was seen in the Deer Park at Park Farm, Annesley, between Nottingham and Mansfield, on November 5th, and for several days afterwards. It was thought to have been attracted to the area by the large number of rabbits present there and indeed, on a number of occasions, was seen feeding on them.
On November 8th, it was shot by Mr George Charles Musters, as it fed on the corpse of a rabbit, and when examined was found to have a total wingspan of seven feet one inch, and a weight of nine and a quarter pounds. It was an immature bird, although not a first winter individual, being considered to be probably three or four years old. It was, of course, preserved by a taxidermist and soon occupied pride of place in the collection of Mr John Patricius Chaworth Musters at Annesley Park.
In Joseph Whitaker’s own personal copy of “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”, housed in Mansfield Library’s local collection, he has appended a short note in pencil, written in that punctuation-free style that he always seems to use:
“I was standing on doorsteps one day in August 1907 waiting for carriage to come round it was a clear warm day a few white clouds were passing over very high I was looking up in the sky when I saw a bird pass under a white cloud it was so high if the white had not shown the job I should never have seen it but it was most distinct + I am certain it was an eagle by its size + flight whether Golden or White tailed I do not know.”
In another handwritten account in 1916, Joseph Whitaker tells the following story which, although illegible in places, is clear enough to constitute a valid record:
“A large bird of the (illegible) kind was seen by Mr Henry Smith’s son in Nov 1916 flying over his farm at Cropwell Butler. He wrote to me saying it was a very big bird + had a white tail. I told him it would be a mature Sea Eagle, and as such a bird was shot in Lincolnshire by Mrs (illegible) keeper of the next week. There is no doubt it was the same bird.”
Attitudes about shooting birds though, were gradually changing: people were well aware that a previously healthy Victorian population of Sea Eagles had disappeared from Scotland by 1900, every single one either shot or poisoned. The very last Sea Eagle was killed on the Shetlands in 1916, an albino bird shot by a member of the clergy.
These new, more conservationist, ideas were reflected in an account included in the Ornithological Records of the now defunct Nottingham Natural Science Field Club. It was included by one of the club’s most prominent birdwatchers, Frank Hind. Even nowadays, his handwriting is still recognisably angry:
“A Sea Eagle was shot by some bounder at Grimesmoor and sent to a taxidermist at Grantham in February of 1920. Mr Turton saw it there. It measured seven feet from tip of one wing to the tip of the other.
This rare visitor had shared the fate of so many noble birds which were frequently to be seen in the British Isles before anyone with a few pounds could buy a gun to destroy whatever his few brains had prompted him to shoot at.”
Nowadays, the positive attitude is the one which has prevailed. Even as I write, there are reintroduction schemes for this magnificent raptor in Ireland, eastern Scotland and many other areas of Great Britain. Many people would like to see it reintroduced to England and the debates rage about whether to select Norfolk or Suffolk. In the Inner Hebrides in western Scotland, of course, these charismatic birds are worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the local economy. Listen to just a few hundred quids’ worth of camera in this wonderful video by Brianpwildlife:
And no, they can’t carry off children or adults or small cars or large cars or vans or lorries or even what appears to be a young man equipped with perhaps a camera on a tripod or maybe a specially adapted hover mower for ice covered lawns:
(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
A new venture this time. An official General Studies Birdwatching trip to Norfolk, taking the Sixth Form with me in a hired minibus. One thing is for certain, though… They’ll all get a lot of lifers… And I hope for one as well, the Indigo Bunting at Wells, which may just have lingered on from the previous weekend. There is every chance that nobody has really looked for it since then. The main priority, though, is to make sure that there is a constant stream of birds for the students, always as obvious and as spectacular as possible. We start at Cley-next-the-Sea, and then we plan to work our way steadily back westwards along the beautiful Norfolk coast. Look for the orange arrow:
Arnold’s Marsh provides us with two nice birds, a late Curlew Sandpiper and a very spectacular Knot, still in bright brick red summer plumage:
Further along the East Bank, we find a lovely Stonechat, obviously prospecting for an overwintering site:
At the far end, there is an exquisite flock of about a hundred or so Snow Buntings, flying with their tinkling calls up and down the shingle bank:
Unfortunately there is no sign of Boy George the famous Glaucous Gull, whichever plumage he may be in now, white adult or coffee coloured juvenile:
We get to Wells where I spend half an hour looking for The Bunting but without any success, either down by the old toilet block, or down in the Dell. It must’ve moved on or perhaps it’s been recaptured by its worried owner:
As we walk back to the car park, I see a starling like bird in silhouette. It flies over our heads and I don’t really pay it any attention, until it comes in to land. Instead of landing on the top of a nearby tree, it clings to the trunk like a woodpecker. That’s enough to attract my attention and when I look through binoculars, I soon realise that it is a Waxwing:
That is when the fun starts because we have only two pairs of binoculars between four of us and one pair is broken. Added to this is the fact that all the lads are very inexperienced, and it takes each one of them a really long time to find the bird on the tree trunk. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of counting branches to the left and branches to the right, until the bird finally gets bored with it all and flies off. Two of the three without binoculars see it properly but, sadly, the last one does not. Holkham and Lady Ann’s Drive provide a couple of new birds for us, namely Golden Plover, and the almost jet black Brent Geese:
Still the lads are pleased. Indeed in a lot of ways, they teach me a thing or two. Any nice bird they see is a source of almost innocent wonder to all of them, particularly if it has more than three colours.
(An extract from my birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
Saturday, June 25, 1988
Birdline organises another weekend for me. Look for the orange arrows:
This Saturday, it’s a vagrant duck from North America, a drake Surf Scoter, that has been found offshore at Holme next the Sea in north Norfolk. A very well-behaved bird, it has been seen every single day of the week, and should be a cinch. Should be:
I go with Paul, Robin and Sue. It’s a beautiful summer’s day, blue skies, a bright sun and a typically bracing east coast wind. After an uneventful three hour trip, we park in a layby at the side of the road at the western end of the Holme reserve. As soon as we get out of the car, I see a most peculiar bird. It’s a large tern, flying steadily eastwards along the beach. About the size of a Sandwich Tern, it has a straw yellow bill. I am paralysed, I can’t remember what colour bill a Sandwich Tern has. For a few moments, I think that I’ve got everything exactly backwards, so that all Sandwich Terns have a yellow bill with a black tip. But that’s not the right way round. Sandwich Terns have a black bill with a yellow tip! I force myself to look at the bird for the duration of the flypast, but it’s very difficult to take in a great deal, because I’m so panic stricken:
I think of shouting to Paul, but he’s three miles away, year ticking Redshank. I don’t have the courage to yell to another group of nearby birdwatchers, because deep down, I have a terrible suspicion that I have got it all wrong, that I will be calling out to them just for a Sandwich Tern. I keep looking. The bird is fairly round winged, with fairly dark upper parts to both its wings and back. It has a noticeably white trailing edge to its wings, a little like a Laughing Gull, and for a tern, it seems big, almost the size and bulk of a gull. I walk thirty or forty yards, trying to dismiss the bird as an aberration, the product of a rarity crazed mind. I even consider the idea that I just got out of the car, tired from the driving, and somehow misidentified a Little Tern. There are quite a lot of them over the beach, and mental blocks through fatigue are not that unusual. Then suddenly, the bird reappears. It is in company with two Sandwich Terns and I can easily pick it out, totally different from its two companions:
This time, I shout to Paul and tell him to get on to the last bird. He manages to pick it out and agrees with me on two things. Firstly, that it is different to the Sandwich Terns, and secondly, that it has a straw yellow bill. We have an exciting discussion about it and Paul puts forward the idea that it is a Lesser Crested Tern, a very rare vagrant to Britain, but one which has been seen a few times of late, due in part, it is thought, to a single lost bird which wanders the east coast of Britain, looking eagerly for its Libyan homeland. I haven’t a clue. I’ve never even heard of a Lesser Crested Tern. I thought that Gaddafi had abolished birds as being too flippant. I don’t even have a book with Lesser Crested Tern in it:
When I get back to Nottingham, I spend many a happy hour, trying to get information on the mystery bird. What convinces me though, is an illustration that I find in an old Indian birdwatching book, where the most salient points are the yellow beak, the dark mantle and the brightest of white trailing edges. They ought to know. They see them a damned sight more often than I do. And what finally proves it to me totally is an announcement a couple of days later that a Lesser Crested Tern has recently been present, on and off, at Cley next the Sea, just a few miles down the coast to the east. Seduced by the promise of eternal fame, I send a letter to the Norfolk Bird Recorder, and also to the Reserve Warden at Holme.
The Surf Scoter, of course, after all this, is long gone. We spend the rest of the day looking for it, but without any luck at all. The Common Scoters are exactly that, but among the hundreds of sea duck, there is no bright white head:
We also see a lot of Little Terns, who succeed in sowing the seeds of doubt, but who, at the same time, solve quite a few problems. They fly down the same track as the putative Lesser Crested Tern, but with a completely different flight action. They flutter like butterflies. They don’t fly purposefully like the mystery bird:
And anyway, I saw it in the company of Sandwich Terns, so I have a good idea of its size, and it’s a lot bigger than a Little Tern. It’s a different bird, in actual fact. A thrilling end to a memorable day is provided as we motor south to Kings Lynn, on the way back. Look for the orange arrow:
Just beyond the ring road, we see a large raptor quartering the fields to our left:
It crosses the road above our heads, continues the quartering, and finally disappears behind the line of trees on the horizon. It is a male Montagu’s Harrier, perhaps the North Wootton bird, but more likely, from a site not yet revealed to the Verminous Company of Egg Thieves. It is fairly isolated out here though. Let’s hope that the Montagu’s Harrier family spend their summer undisturbed, raise their babies and leave peacefully. Flying back if possible, not over Malta or any other world centre of illegal hunting:
I sent in my claim of a Lesser Crested Tern to the British Bird Rarities Committee, but after a year or two of careful consideration, they rejected it, even though the Birdwatching Committee in Norfolk seemed reasonably satisfied with it. So, a few years later, I drove to Spurn Head in Yorkshire to see another, or conceivably the same returning, Lesser Crested Tern. Look for Nottingham in the bottom left and the orange arrow:
I went there on two separate occasions, and finished up driving nearly 500 miles in total. After almost two days standing in “The Place”, “The Bird” did not deign to tern up (sick). On the second day, I was there at seven in the morning, and I was then the last to leave at eight o’clock in the evening. Another birdwatcher arriving alone at half past eight then found the bird exactly where it was supposed to be standing and I’d missed it. That started to make it personal.
A little while later, I drove to the north Norfolk coast where foolhardy twitchers were wading across a tidal creek to Scolt Head Island, their telescopes and tripods held above their heads like the Marines in Vietnam. They were looking for a Lesser Crested Tern which had been seen in the Sandwich Tern colony.Look for the orange arrow:
I decided, though, to stay on the mainland, not drown and keep my eyes open for the bird flying down the coast to fish. Three wasted hours. No chance!
It was by now way beyond personal. Around this time a Lesser Crested Tern had been hybridising with Sandwich Terns in a tern colony on the Farne Islands, some three or four miles off the coast of Northumberland, some 200 miles to the north of Nottingham. Eventually, everybody realised that all the many records of Lesser Crested Tern on the English East Coast were most probably this one returning individual, being seen over and over again by different people. Because the initials of a Lesser Crested Tern are “LCT”, the bird was now being called “Elsie”. I decided to bite the bullet and drive up to the Farne Islands. As the bird was nesting, it should be a cinch. Should be.
Look for the orange arrows :
I failed to see it. So I decided to try again, and at very long last, I saw Elsie’s straw yellow bill sticking jauntily out of a crowd of black billed Sandwich Terns, all sitting on their eggs.
And I watched this good tern, this most excellent tern, for a very long time. A very long time. And then, half an hour later, I came back for seconds. And yes, I had already seen a bird just like Elsie, with her unmistakable bill, somewhere else, a long time previously, but the details escaped me for the moment. Afterwards, I worked out that the nearest colonies of Lesser Crested Tern were on the coast of Libya. To see one, I had driven to Holme (210 miles for the round trip), Spurn Head twice (500 miles for two round trips), Scolt Head Island (250 miles for the round trip) and the Farne Islands(880 miles for two round trips). How far is it to Libya by car?
(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
My last day on the Scillies. Time off for good behaviour. I’m not really sorry to be going home. I had four lifers. I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything that was there and was viewable, except perhaps the Short toed Lark, about which I have exactly the same dilemma today as I had yesterday. Do I go to St Agnes or not? I chicken out, I am ashamed to say. I’m too scared of missing the last ferry back to Penzance Harbour to risk missing an inter-island boat through a twisted ankle, or a fat man’s heart attack. This will be the last Scillonian ferry back to the mainland before the end of the year, and the helicopters are all booked up until next Wednesday so I just cannot risk anything going wrong. I simply do not have enough money:
I go back to my old friend at Telegraph, the Rose-coloured Starling, who I see very briefly, flying around with his common friends. He’s a very pale, buffy coloured individual, which I am sure is the bird in question, a fact made all the more certain by a group of birdwatchers coming from the area where the flock appeared to land and who say that they have just seen the little chap:
I can’t relocate the bird, but I meet someone who says he’s just seen a Wryneck feeding alongside the road. It was actually on the grassy tops of the great wide dry stone walls, although it has disappeared by the time I arrive:
I look for about fifteen minutes, but I can’t find it, and I am just about to pack it in as a bad job, when another young chap comes over and says he’s found the bird about seventy yards away in another lane. When I get there, I find that it’s a lot more active than the previous birds that I’ve seen in Norfolk, as it moves along the base of the hedge, feeding energetically. I am always impressed by Wrynecks, which never seem reptilian to me or particularly primitive as they are supposed to, but rather I wonder at the subtlety of their camouflage, and the way they seem able to disappear into their background at the drop of a dead leaf. It’s a good padder of a bird and I’m really pleased to have seen it. Not that I’m surprised, because it’s my friend Paul’s bogey bird and I told him before I left for the Scillies that I would see one for him:
I take a leisurely stroll back to town, walking along the seashore where I am amazed to see a kingfisher flying out over the breaking waves, seemingly completely at home among the rocky coves and the surf, before it finally disappears into a line of pine trees at the top of the scrub covered cliff:
I pass a field full of absolutely thousands of finches, including at least one superb full adult summer plumage Brambling, which is so bright that I think it is some weird American bird when I first see it. There’s really no need for it to be a transatlantic vagrant, since the bird is such a beautiful sight in its own right, without needing to be particularly rare:
A hundred yards further on, I surprise a Pipit in another field at the side of the road. I try hard to imagine that it is some unprecedented rarity, but I’m finally forced to concede that it is merely a Tree Pipit.
Finally, I reach the Porthcressa Restaurant, where the magic noticeboard announces the presence of a Scarlet Rosefinch, another possible lifer, which has turned up near the airport. This is going to be a close run thing for a fat man. The boat leaves this afternoon and I need to be on the quay by half past three. It’s half past one now, so I start off at a reasonable pace, taking care to time myself for the walk, so that I can set off back to the harbour in good time. It only takes me thirty minutes, so I am left with about an hour to find the bird:
It’s apparently been showing well in a little field full of cabbages, but has unfortunately moved on by the time I arrive. I go and search the neighbouring fields where there are huge flocks of finches and lots of good big hedges for them to perch in. It is at this point that I get the closest that I’ve ever been to a rare bird without actually seeing it. Two young men poke their heads round the hedge and tell me that the Rosefinch is there. They are actually looking at it right now:
In the very short time that it takes me to walk the ten yards or so, the bird flies away, never to be seen again, at least not by me. I give it a few more minutes, but time, as always, ticks inexorably away. There is one final bit of excitement when a message comes on the CB that a Pechora Pipit has been spotted on the far side of the airport near Salakee Farm:
The fittest ferry passengers, and the more leisurely helicopter users, all set off, but without me, I’m afraid. I’m far too unfit to rush all the way to Salakee, find a pipit famous for its ability to skulk and hide in the undergrowth, and then get back down to the Scillonian by 3.30. At least, not without a major heart attack. I do have the pleasure though, of a nice stroll back through the town, along the main street down to the ferry:
The scene that greets me is straight out of a 1930s black-and-white documentary film about the evacuation of St.Kilda. The ferry seems to know that it is the last boat of the year and mournfully blasts its foghorn as a farewell to the tiny town.
The street, with its grey stone buildings, is full of hurrying figures, all burdened with bags and suitcases, tripods and scopes, all plodding in the same direction to get down to the quay. When I reach the ferry, I have twenty minutes to drink in the scene, so I stand and lean over the side of the boat. It’s beautiful, the still, calm sea, the line of old buildings along the curve of the bay and the continuing mournful bellowing of the ship’s foghorn. Even better though, is a stream of birdwatchers, all returning at breakneck speed from not seeing the Pechora Pipit, tripods and spare wellies flying around their necks. They all seem to make it, except, presumably, the ones that don’t.
We set off across the surface of a glassy sea, as the people on the land wave their last farewells to the ship:
It will be a long time before the Scillonian returns to the island, as the next arrival is scheduled for April. The crossing is bird free, mainly because the weather becomes so foul. In actual fact, the crossing isn’t particularly rough by Scilly standards. All I can say, though, is that, if this isn’t rough, then very rough most be unbelievable. I stay on deck, of course, in my capacity as the toughest man on the boat, and when I finally go downstairs, the bar is full of people with green faces. It reminds me very strongly of a pub in Nottingham that sells Shipstone’s beer.
One young lad that I speak to is really delighted to have been on the Scillies. He is about fifteen and he has had a lot of lifers and he is as pleased as Punch. Birdwatching here certainly does make it a lot easier to see some of the birds that on the mainland can take a lot of effort, above all if you live in the south. Dotterel, Corncrake, Red Kite, or especially, Lapland Bunting:
He’s had them all in the past two weeks here. I’m still riddled with jealousy, all bitter and twisted at those people who can spend two or three weeks here at the best time of the birdwatching year, namely early October, when I have to be at work. It must have added a good thirty or forty species at the very least to their life lists, with no real difficulty and very little real effort. Perhaps an inflation rate of up to 25% or 30% of your life total. All there for you to tick off, knowing that they are birds unlikely to occur anywhere else in Britain.
I have not seen too many good birds on the Scillies, but I have met a good number of what you might call “characters”. It is, after all, “Teachers’ Week”, although I do find one teacher who has clocked up an exceptionally impressive 420 species without ever using the rather artificial aid of coming to these islands in the first two or three weeks of October. At the same time he has not lost his ability to be excited by a Red Kite or a Red-necked Grebe:
There are some quite desperate twitchers who just hear the words “Paddyfield Warbler” and will then slit Granny’s throat for the bus fare. Some of them are very rude, unpleasant and downright boorish, including one young oaf who insists on shouting his requests for directions at you at the top of his fifteen year old voice, irrespective of how far away he is. His only interest is the extraction of any information you might have about the bird he is trying to see. I meet him once and say “Good Morning” and he says loudly, “Where? Is it showing well?”
One unemployed birdwatcher has worked out his cash supply down to literally the last fifty pence. For the last two days of his holiday (a holiday from being unemployed?), he cannot afford accommodation, but has to walk around looking for nice warm bus shelters. The most notable of the whole lot, though, is an old gentleman who has bird watched all his life and who has seen some splendid ornithological sights in his time, particularly when birds of prey were more numerous than they are today. Honey Buzzards thronged his skies:
From his house on the north west coast of Wales, he would see a dozen migrating Merlin in a day. Now it is just one a month:
He has little or no interest in twitching rare birds, many of which he has never heard of anyway. He has an outlook based solely on what he can find for himself. Not for him the new fangled Gore-Tex or plastic cagoules, but a pair of battered old boots, some comfortable corduroy trousers and a sports coat with leather elbow patches. His bird watching techniques are different to those of the present day as well. Not for him the patient wait for the bird to appear. He is deep in the bushes, energetically bashing around with his walking stick, determined to find everything that is in there, vainly trying to hide.
The real stars of the show though, are the people of the Isles of Scilly themselves. They are genuinely calm, kind and wonderful people and remind me a lot of the inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland. They will not be hurried and their entire lives are very different indeed to those of us city folk.
Certainly this week though, the birds are disappointing. I wish I’d stayed on the mainland and gone for whatever presented itself. There was every chance that I’d have seen the Indigo Bunting at Wells and a Lesser Yellowlegs at the Ouse Washes.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t have had the total experience that I have had.
This beautiful, tranquil place contains seventy one Second World War burials, including the six graves of the crew of H.M.Trawler “Royalo”:
They were killed when their vessel was sunk by a magnetic mine on September 1st 1940 just outside Penzance Harbour, around one mile from the seafront. The orange arrow gives the approximate position:
The “Royalo” was built by Cook, Welton & Gemmell of Beverley, Yorkshire, and was launched on December 6th 1915, being fully completed by August of 1916. I have been unable to trace any photographs of the vessel. A ship of only 248 tons, when the Great War broke out, it was immediately requisitioned and converted into a minesweeper. After the end of the Great War, in 1919, it was returned to its owners. In 1933 the ship passed into the ownership of Sleight & Humphrey of Grimsby, only for it to be requisitioned for a second time in November 1939, just after the beginning of the Second World War. This time it was converted into an APV, an “Auxiliary Patrol Vessel”. In 1940, the vessel was converted for the second time into a minesweeper and given the serial number of FY825. It was armed with just one six pounder anti-aircraft gun.
A short but very vivid account of the ship’s sinking is given on the “Hearts of Oak” website:
“The “Royalo”, under Commanding Officer, Skipper William Durrant Warford RNR, was sweeping Mount’s Bay clear of mines which had been previously laid there by a German aircraft. Around midday, there came the sound of a huge explosion, which was easily heard in Penzance. My brother-in-law remembers, as a child, hearing the sound of an enormous explosion. He ran out of the house, and down the road, to see nothing but a pall of smoke; there was no sign of the vessel. She had been blown up by a magnetic mine, and a column of water had lifted her out of the water.
And she was gone.
The Penzance lifeboat was launched, and small boats came to the rescue of the survivors.
The “Royalo” had sunk in position 50.06N : 05.30W, about one mile off Penzance.”
On at least one other website, Lieutenant Irvine Willox Watt is given as the Commanding Officer.
Given the dramatic way in which the “Royalo” had met its end, its position remained well known over the years to the people of Penzance. In 1962 a group of divers explored the wreck, which lay some ten metres below the surface. They were able to recover a wooden box. It turned out to contain a sextant, which is a navigational aid. This particular one was manufactured in 1939 by the celebrated Hughes & Son Ltd. of London. The Royal Museum at Greenwich acquired the sextant at some point during the 1970s:
Of the casualties buried in Penzance Cemetery, Henry Thomas Dukes was an Engineman in the Royal Naval Patrol Service who was forty five years of age at the time of his death:
He was the husband of Ellaline Isabell Dukes of Grimsby, Lincolnshire. The rather bittersweet verse inscribed on the lower section of his gravestone reads…
Honoured in life
Treasured in Death
A Beautiful Memory
Is all we have left.
William Henry Greenfield was a Stoker in the Royal Naval Patrol Service. His age at the time of his death has not been recorded, and I have been unable to trace any further details about him:
Raymond Ormerod was a Telegraphist in the Royal Naval Volunteer (Wireless) Reserve and was twenty years old at the time of his death:
He was the son of Reginald and Octavia Ormerod, of Wroxham, Norfolk:
His mother had the following verse inscribed on the lower section of his gravestone:
You are never forgotten
In my heart
You are always near
Raymond is listed on the memorial plaque in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Wroxham:
He also appears on the town’s War Memorial:
Thomas Gardner Taylor was an Ordinary Signalman in the Royal Navy who was twenty one years of age at the time of his death:
He had already been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was the son of Thomas Gardner Taylor and Hannah Ann Taylor, of High Heaton, Newcastle-on-Tyne. The verse inscribed on the lower section of his gravestone reads:
Gone his happy smiling face
Those happy cheerful ways
His heart won many friends
In happy bygone days
Robert John Tilley was a Seaman in the Royal Naval Patrol Service who was twenty seven years of age at the time of his death:
The verse inscribed on the lower section of his gravestone reads…
No one knows
How much we miss him
None but aching hearts
Mum and Mary
Robert John Tilley’s sacrifice is commemorated on the Memorial of the Whitstable Royal British Legion Club in Kent.
Irvine Willox Watt was a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Patrol Service who was thirty three years of age at the time of his death. He was the son of G. Fieldes Watt and Jean Fieldes Watt, of Kensington, London.
Of the tiny crew of the Royalo, at least one is not buried here in Penzance, Sam Lockwood-Dukes was the son of Samuel and Emily Lockwood-Dukes, of Worsborough Bridge in distant South Yorkshire. He was twenty two years of age when he was killed. He was not buried with the rest of his naval family in Penzance, as his parents no doubt wanted to be able to place flowers on his grave regularly, so he was interred in Saint Thomas Church Cemetery in Worsborough Dale.
Because of the nature of the incident, however, not all of the casualties were found.
One of these was Engineman Robert William Edward Grant Burgoyne who was an amazing sixty four years of age at the time of his death. He was the son of Robert and Sarah Burgoyne and the husband of Rosina Burgoyne. They all lived in Willington Quay, Northumberland. His sacrifice is commemorated on the Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial at Lowestoft:
Second Hand Leonard Rye was in the Royal Naval Patrol Service. He was twenty six years of age at the time of his death and a holder of the Distinguished Service Medal. He was the son of Charles John and Clara Louise Rye and the husband of Florence Lilian Rye. They all lived in Hull in East Yorkshire. His sacrifice is commemorated on the Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial at Lowestoft:
Engineman Jim Walker Pitts was twenty eight years of age at the time of his death. He was the son of Mr and Mrs James Pitts and the husband of Joan Agnes Norah Pitts. They all lived in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. His sacrifice is commemorated on the Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial at Lowestoft:
Surely one of these gallant seamen must be in this grave, whose date is the same, as the “Royalo”…
I said that I had been unable to trace a photograph of the unfortunate “Royalo”. That is true, but I did find this…
“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.”
As I have said in two previous blogposts, Old Shuck, Black Shuck, or simply Shuck is the name of the huge, phantom black dog which roams, allegedly, the fields and fens of Norfolk and Suffolk. There are, of course, many places other than East Anglia where completely credible reports occur. We have already looked at three in Nottinghamshire, but almost every county in England has its own version of the creature, whether that be the “Bogey Beast” in Lancashire, the Lincolnshire “Hairy Jack”, the “Gallytrot” in Suffolk or the “Bargheust” in Yorkshire and the North.
They are often associated with electrical storms, such as Black Shuck’s appearance at first Bungay and then Blythburgh in Suffolk. More often, though, they are linked to places rather than meteorological conditions. Churchyards and graveyards at midnight are a favourite, as well as crossroads. Equally, if not more, favoured are dark lanes, ancient pathways and lonely footpaths in the countryside. Occasionally, there is a connection with water, such as a river, a lake or even a beach. Sometimes, such as at Launceston in Cornwall, it may be an ancient tumulus, as is the case with the….
“graves and prehistoric burials whose attendant hounds proliferate densely in Wiltshire and West Somerset on the grounds that they can be seen as passages downwards to the World of the Dead, and so also suicide graves and scenes of execution…”
(Theo Brown: ‘The Black Dog’, in Porter and Russell (ed.) ‘Animals in Folklore’ (1978).”
Likewise, the Black Dog is seen as the “guardian of the threshold, escorting souls into the afterlife”. According to Jennifer Westwood in her book “Albion” (1985) :
“Black Dogs commonly haunt lanes, footpaths, bridges, crossroads and graves – all points of transition, …..held to be weak spots in the fabric dividing the mortal world from the supernatural.”
“If a count be made of the kind of places favoured by these apparitions one thing becomes plain. Quite half the localities are places associated with movement from one locality to another: roads, lanes, footpaths, ancient trackways, bridges, crossroads.”
Let’s now leave Nottinghamshire’s Shuck eating his Pedigree Chum for just a moment, and skip thousands of miles to the north east of the United States. In her most excellent book, “Real Wolfmen True Encounters in Modern America” the author Linda S Godfrey explains her idea that…
“One common factor seems to emerge from every collection of strange creature accounts: there is an unmistakable connection between anomalous beings and certain features of the land. Unexplainable creatures and events tend to occur near freshwater; on hills; at boundary areas such as roads; and on or near burial grounds, and military zones, and all types of sacred areas around the world.
This geographic predictability supports the premise of many contemporary investigators like Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Nick Redfern, and the late John Keel, who suspect that anomalous creatures are not natural animals; they are entities that belong to a completely non-human realm and are attracted to certain energies of the Earth and all living creatures.”
The researchers listed above, and many others, believe that werewolves, Bigfoot, alien big cats, grey aliens, UFOs and sea monsters as well as more traditional entities such as fairies, dragons and ogres are all part of a planet-wide “spirit” population that manifests “in some sort of concert with the human mind, intent on its own enigmatic purposes.”
And of course, this theory does go quite a long way to explaining a very large question, namely, “Why do so many apparently reliable witnesses continue to report the same, impossible things?”
If we just think of Great Britain, how many UFOs, Black Dogs, ghosts and even sea serpents have been reported over the years?
Linda S Godfrey, who specialises in the more exotic of the world’s canids and possible canids writes about the Wolfmen who are regularly seen in her native Wisconsin.
Wolfmen in form are rather like Bigfoot, except that they have a wolf’s head. They are thinner than Bigfoot, and consequently, can move very quickly if required. The most famous of the American Wolfmen is the “Beast of Bray Road”.
Witnesses have sketched what they saw on this most famous of cryptozoological highways…
Linda S Godfrey first became interested in the Beast when she was a journalist and had the opportunity to speak to one of the first witnesses….
Fairly frequently, the Wolfman’s favourite food is roadkill. These were originally witness sketches…
There are at least two photographs…
One of the very earliest known sightings of a Wolfman occurred not in Bray Road, but at the St Coletta School for Exceptional Children, where Mark Shackelman worked as a security guard. Linda S Godfrey tells the story….
“The nightwatchman’s main duty was to make quiet surveillance of the 174 acre grounds…The land was dotted with ancient Native American burial mounds.
One evening, movement on the mound behind the main building drew the sharp nightwatchman’s attention as he observed what appeared to be a large animal digging furiously atop the raised earth. The creature was roughly man-size, covered in dark fur, and knelt in a way that should have been physically impossible for a four-footed beast And it fled on two feet rather than four as soon as it noticed Shackelman’s presence.
The flummoxed Watchman examined the mound next day and saw that the Earth had been torn by what looked like big claw marks, with raking slashes in sets of three. That night, he made sure to arm himself with a big, club-like flashlight before making his rounds. Sure enough, the creature was there again, digging in the mound near midnight. This time, however, it rose upon its hind legs and faced Shackelman. It stood about six feet tall and reeked of rotten meat.
Shackelman bravely shined his light at the creature so that he could get a good, long look at it. Although it was covered in fur, he could make out powerful arms that ended in hands with thumbs and little fingers that were much smaller than the middle three digits, explaining the triple slashes in the dirt. It had a muscular torso and a canid head with a muzzle and pointed ears. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the creature made a growling vocalisation that Shackelman later described as a “neo-human voice” and that sounded to him like three syllables, “ga- dar-rah”. The creature continued to make fearless eye contact with Shackelman, who felt he was in imminent and mortal danger.”
If you want to read what happens to Mr. Shackelman, or the Wolfman, then you will have to buy the book! You will not be disappointed! It is a marvellous book which opens a whole world of strangeness that takes a lot to explain away. This report of a wolfman was just the first of the many. According to Linda S Godfrey…
“Was the St Coletta creature just a sign of things to come? The Shackelman sighting was only the first of over one hundred reports nationwide of a human sized canine that could run upright or crouch with a chunk of bloody carrion clutched in its paws. In that incident and most sightings since, the creature is described with a head that appears wolf-like but a body that often – except for its fur, dog shaped limbs, and elongated pause – looks somewhat humanoid because of its powerfully muscular torso and shoulders.”
Here are some more modern colour photos, in some cases taken by trailcams.
If you look at Youtube, a search for the “Beast of Bray Road” will reveal scores of films of varying quality. This lasts an interesting three minutes…
and this is a more thorough full length programme
If, however, you find yourself being tempted towards the “Gable Film”, please be aware that its maker has already acknowledged, several years ago, that the film is (a very accomplished) fake .
My father was called Fred Knifton. He lived from 1922-2003, for the most part in Hartshorne Road, Woodville, which is to the south of Derby and Nottingham, in the East Midlands.
Woodville at the time was a village of some 5,000 people. It was exactly on the edge of a geological fault line, so to the west, coarse, heavy clay was mined in opencast quarries, and sewer pipes and drainpipes were manufactured. To the east there was no clay, but instead there were open green fields with Friesian cattle and tall hedges of hawthorn.
Although as far as I know he never experienced any of the RAF’s many ghostly occurrences, Fred once told me that there was a well-known haunted hangar somewhere out there in East Anglia, possibly in Norfolk, where mechanics as they repaired aircraft late at night, would often hear dance music, even though of course, there was no orchestra within miles.
A modern day equivalent may well have been the occasion when I stood at the bathroom sink one summer’s morning, a good few years after Fred’s death, looking out over the roof tops of Nottingham. I was listening to “American Patrol” being played by the Glenn Miller Orchestra on a CD.
This moment suddenly gave me probably the most distinctive feeling of “déjà vu” I have ever had. I have wondered ever since whether my father had perhaps done exactly the same thing on some airbase in Lincolnshire on a long forgotten day some sixty or so years previously.
Strangely enough, for a man who always had so many tales to tell, ghosts and phantoms did not feature particularly highly in Fred’s repertoire, and I would struggle to think of any direct reference he ever made about the afterlife, although I am sure that he was aware of the alleged haunted house down near the Bull’s Head Inn in Hartshorne.
As a native of nearby Woodville, Fred would certainly have heard all the tales of the phantom attached to this large black and white timber framed Elizabethan house which stood between the old Georgian coaching inn and the Anglo-Saxon church in the middle of Hartshorne.
Apparently, the story was often told of how….
“A brave group of people, made curious by the many ghostly accounts of bumps in the night, had gone up into the attic, unvisited through many decades of neglect, and found furniture piled up across the entire room. On the inaccessible far wall of the room, there was a delicate but obvious print in the centuries old dust, the unmistakeable impression of a ghostly human hand. Nobody could possibly have penetrated the great mass of tables, chairs and rubbish stacked across the floor. It could only have been the work of a phantom. ”
In 1970, I experienced an extremely strange happening when I accompanied my father, Fred, down to his parents’ house at number 39, Hartshorne Road. Fred’s parents, Will and Fanny, had both recently died recently within a few months of each other in hospital at Burton-on-Trent, with Fanny remaining mercifully unaware of Will’s demise after more than sixty years of marriage.
Fred was paying regular visits to the property, presumably attempting little by little to clear the house out so that it could be resold. At the time, as a teenager of some sixteen years of age, I was unaware of this, although, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had been, and I could perhaps have stopped Fred from throwing away so many of his father Will’s Great War souvenirs, such as his complete Canadian Army uniform, his German soldier’s leather belt and his extensive collection of German guns and ammunition.
We entered the deserted house through the front door, and as I walked along the hallway towards the kitchen, I distinctly heard the upstairs toilet flush. I turned round and asked Fred, who had been following me into the hall, how this could have happened, and who it could have been, given that we both knew that the house was locked up and empty.
Fred gave me some non-committal answer at the time, but afterwards, perhaps when he had regained his composure a little, he told me that, as he was some way behind me, he had been able to look up the stairs when he heard the sudden noise of the toilet being flushed. He had distinctly seen his recently deceased father, Will, walk out of the bathroom, across the landing and into the front bedroom.
My father Fred certainly knew the story about how an aging Mrs.Edwards had sadly passed away. This old lady had lived in the village a hundred yards further down Hartshorne Road from Fred’s own house, in a Victorian house next to the entrance of a factory making drainpipes.
Her old friend, and our own family friend, Gertrude Betteridge, went down to Mrs.Edwards’ house to pay her respects and offer her condolences to her daughter, Margaret Edwards. The latter greeted Gertrude and showed her into the front room. Margaret then invited her guest to sit down on the settee while she went into the kitchen to make “a nice cup of tea”.
After a couple of minutes, as Gertrude sat there quietly and politely with the sunlight streaming brightly through the front windows, the door opened. It was not, however, Margaret with the expected tray of tea and biscuits, but Mrs.Edwards herself, exactly as she had been in life, who came in. She walked across the room to Gertrude completely normally, and quietly and calmly said to her, “Tell Margaret not to worry. I’m all right.” Then she turned and walked away, opened the front room door and disappeared back out into the hall, never to be seen again.
Old Shuck, Black Shuck, or simply Shuck is the name of a huge, phantom black dog which roams, for the most part, the fields, fens and even beaches of East Anglia. The main areas are Norfolk and Suffolk, but there are also parts of Cambridgeshire and Essex which it is alleged to haunt.
His name of Shuck may well come from the old Anglo-Saxon word “scaucca” or “scucca” which means a “demon”, or possibly it is based on the local dialect word “shucky” meaning “shaggy” or “hairy”.
There are those who believe that Shuck derivers his name from the Black Hound owned by Odin.
This would be a very neat fit, given that the Vikings settled for the most part in the eastern parts of England. Unfortunately, there is little if any mention of any dog, black or otherwise, that Odin owned. He had an eight legged horse called Sleipnir, which gives us the present-day eight reindeer used by Santa Claus, although it may be more accurate to suggest a coffin which is usually borne to its final resting place by four pall-bearers, hence the eight legs. This fine modern statue is in Wednesbury, a town which obviously owes its name to Woden.
Odin had two ravens called Huginn and Muninn, who flew all over the world of Midgard, finding out information for their master. Huginn means thought and Muninn means memory or mind.
Odin did have two wolves called Geri and Freki, but I have been able to find little indication that he ever owned a dog.
Such a domestic animal as a mere dog just would not have been big enough and fierce enough for the King of the Gods.
On the other hand, Odin was well known for leading “The Wild Hunt”, which in England seems usually to have been a mechanism for the pagan god to ride his sleigh across the storm tossed and windy night sky, pulled by faithful Sleipnir, chasing Christian sinners or the unbaptised, and then carrying them off in his huge sack.(another connection with dear old Santa Claus).Like any red-coated fox hunter, Odin would always use a pack of dogs, but in his case, it would invariably be the black Hounds of Hell. In pagan Scandinavia and northern Germany, this frightening event was called Odin’s Hunt. People who saw it and laughed at it would mysteriously vanish, presumably into Odin’s sack. Sincere believers were rewarded with gold.
In the wake of the passing storm, with which the Wild Hunt was often identified, a black dog would sometimes be found upon a neighboring heath. To remove it, it would need to be exorcised.
However, if it could not be removed in this way, the hound must be kept for a whole year and carefully tended. We shall see just how this relates to Black Shuck later on.
In appearance, Shuck is generally jet black and can be of any size from that of, say, a black Labrador, up to that of a calf or even a horse. The more ancient the mention of Shuck, the weirder he tends to be. Nowadays, he usually has two large bright red shining eyes, but centuries ago he was often seen as a Cyclops with only one eye. He can also be invisible, so that you might just hear his footsteps in the road behind you, or hear the noise he makes as he walks across grass, or on some occasions in East Anglia, through the reed bed. Sometimes, all you will hear is just the noise of his chain scraping on the ground.
In his “Highways & Byways in East Anglia”, published in 1901, W. A. Dutt describes Shuck in these terms…
“He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths.
Although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops’, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk (Hell Hound) you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.”
Shuck is said to help travellers find their way, and can be protective towards people who are lost, particularly young children. Similarly, he likes to accompany women on their way home, acting as a protector, more helpful than threatening; Writing as recently as 2008, Dr. Simon Sherwood, of the University of Northampton Psychology Department, notes that “benign accounts of the dog become more regular towards the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries”.
Sometimes he seems almost worthy of our pity…
“A seaside tale on East Anglian television a few years ago related the tale of a large black dog who was seen regularly on the beach near Cromer, always at the very edge of the breaking waves. When approached, he would just disappear into thin air. Observers were certain that he must have been a ghost dog, whose master had been drowned, and whom the poor dog was destined to search for through all eternity. Others explained him as being yet another appearance by East Anglia’s famous Black Dog, Old Shuck.”
In general, though, Shuck is more negative than positive. At the seaside, he can actually be rather sinister…
“Off the coast of Cromer a local child befriended a black dog and went swimming with him in the cold waters of the North Sea. While out over deep water the dog deliberately stopped the child from returning to land, in a clear attempt to drown him. The child is eventually saved by sailors who see what is happening. The dog, of course, is nowhere to be seen.”
Shuck, though, is usually a portent of ill omen , a harbinger of doom. Ivan Bunn,
who is a folklore specialist in East Anglia, and who has collected very many strange incidents over the years, has explained that usually, you would expect to die within a year of seeing Shuck. In southerly parts of Essex, you would expect almost immediate death. Alternatively, Shuck might terrify his victims, but they will continue to live normal lives. In some cases, a close relative of the observer, or a close friend, might die or become ill. If you tell anybody that you have seen Shuck, you will make these dreadful fates even more inevitable.
There are a huge number of sightings, even nowadays, of Black Shuck. Mr Bunn has well in excess of a hundred just for Norfolk and Suffolk and parts of some of the adjoining counties. On one occasion, a lady out walking in the moonlight in a country village thought that she had found her sister’s dog wandering off, and went to take hold of it to return to her house. As she reached down, Black Shuck shrank in size until he was as small as a tiny black kitten. Sixty years later that lady will still not go out on her own at night.
Another person, a man, was followed across the marshes on the North Norfolk coast. All he could hear was the sound of the phantom dog. Within a year, tragically, his son had unexpectedly died. Strangely enough, though, Shuck is not totally a ghost. On occasion he has left pawprints before disappearing into thin air, and in a famous episode in Suffolk, he left scorch marks on the door as he exited a church.
Here is one of two incidents which are particularly well known. There was “an exceeding great and terrible tempest” on August 4th 1577. A contemporary account, “A Strange and Terrible Wunder” by the Reverend Abraham Fleming says that…
“There were assembled at the same season, to hear divine service and common prayer…in the parish church…of Bungay, the people thereabouts inhabiting…
Immediately hereupon, there appeared to the congregation then and there present, in a most horrible likenesse, a dog as they might discerne it, of a black colour…This black dog, or the devil in such a likenesse…running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling upon their knees…wrung the necks of them both at one instant clean backward, in so much that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangely died…
…the same black dog, still continuing and remaining in one and the self same shape, passing by another man of the congregation in the church, gave him such a gripe on the back, that he was presently drawn together and shrunk up, as he were a piece of leather scorched in a hot fire; or as the mouth of a purse or bag, drawn together with a string. The man…. died not, but it is thought he is yet alive…
…The Clerk of the said Church being occupied in cleansing of the gutter of the church, with a violent clap of thunder was smitten down, and beside his fall had no further harm…there are remaining in the stones of the Church, and likewise in the Church door which are marvellously torn, ye marks as it were of the black dog’s claws or talons. Beside that, all the wires, the wheels, and other things belonging to the Church, were broken in pieces…These things are reported to be true…”
One other chronicler claims that this was not Black Shuck’s only appearance that particular day. Allegedly, he visited another part of this tiny Suffolk market town and claimed two further victims.
In Bungay, Shuck is reputed still to meander around the graveyard on dark nights. In addition, there are strange scratches on the door of St.Mary’s Church which were supposedly made by the Hell Hound when he attempted to pursue a victim who had taken refuge in the church. And like so many of the churches involved in the legend of Shuck, St.Mary’s has a square tower.
But back to that same day of August 4th 1577. Both the storm and Shuck fled the ten or so miles to nearby Blythburgh, and Holy Trinity Church …….
“In like manner, into the parish church of another towne called Blythburgh…the black dog, or the devil in such a likenesse entered, in the same shape and placing himself uppon a main baulke or beam, suddenly he gave a swinge downe through ye church, and there also, as before, slew two men and a lad, and burned the hand of another person that was there among the rest of the company, of whom divers were blasted. This mischief thus wrought, he flew with wonderful force to no little feare of the assembly, out of the church in a hideous and hellish likeness.”
A more modern account tells it slightly differently…
“Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the doors of Holy Trinity Church to a clap of thunder.
He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day.”
These scorch marks are still referred to by the locals as “the devil’s fingerprints”, and the whole event is remembered in the song…
“All down the church
in midst of fire,
the hellish monster flew,
and, passing onward to the choir,
he many people slew”
It must be said though, that the church records at Blythburgh do not necessarily tell the same demonic tale. The episode has certainly been recorded, but as a meteorological one with an extraordinarily violent thunderstorm. In this story the two people were instantly killed when the bell tower of the church was stuck by the lightning. They had been aloft in the tower ringing the church bells in an effort to dispel the evil spirits which were causing the storm.
One interesting detail in the more dramatic version of the story is how when Shuck has finished racing through the congregation as they kneel in prayer he makes his demonic exit through the north door of the church. The North Door is traditionally the way in which evil forces may enter a church, because the north face of the church is considered to belong to Satan.
In general, churches were usually built to the north of any roads or paths, because the main entrance had to be on the south side. Since it was common for churches to be built on pagan sacred sites, non-Christian worshippers might still want to come and visit them, and they could then enter the church through the so-called “Devil’s door” in the “heathen” north side of the church. In my humble opinion there is probably some additional connection with the direction from which the Vikings came in the era when they ransacked so many English churches and monasteries.
Once again, a church involved in the legend of this sinister black dog has a square tower. Whatever the real truth, though, Shuck has become an integral part of the everyday life of the little town of Bungay.
He appears on the town’s coat of arms. His name has been used in various local business enterprises including a restaurant, and the annual “Black Dog Marathon” begins in the town. The nickname of the town’s football club is the “Black Dogs”.
And the Lowestoft band, the Darkness, have recorded a song about East Anglia’s most famous cryptic canid…