A boy filling his pockets with bottles so that he could collect beetles and other creepy crawlies conjures up memories of Gerald Durrell – or even his mentor, Theodore Stephanides. But this Theodore died in 1923, two years before Durrell was born.
The Rev Canon Theodore Wood FES (1863-1923) followed his father, the Rev John George Wood (1827-1889), in almost everything. Both trained to become Church of England clergy but then went on to become well-known for their popular books and articles about natural history. (Left: A boy in knicker-bockers like those Theodore Wood would have worn. Theodore had a sister, Amy, who was two years younger than him. The illustration is from the March 1892 issue of The Church Monthly.)
Theodore wrote in his biography about his father: “[It] may fairly be claimed for my father that he was the first to popularise natural history, and to render it interesting and even intelligible to non-scientific minds.” (The Rev J G Wood; His Life and Work by Theodore Wood FES)
The 1892 compilation of The Church Monthly owned by Aysgarth Church begins with a letter by the Rev Fenwick Stowe, Vicar of Aysgarth, introducing the new parish magazine. That January he reported that he had given the second of his two lectures (illustrated with lantern slides) about his visit to Canada “in the Gymnasium”. I am grateful to Bob Ellis and Liz Kirby for identifying this as having been a room in the tall building at the top of Church Bank opposite the Aysgarth Falls Hotel. In the 1881 census it was called the Palmer Flatt Boarding School and was also known to the local community as the Rev Hales’s school – for its headmaster from 1877 was the Rev Clement T Hales (1845-1900). He moved what had become Aysgarth School to its present site at Newton-le-Willows in 1890. From 1907 to 1947 the building housed the Aysgarth TB sanitorium.
In January 1892 the two-page parish magazine included the church notices and information about two baptisms. It ended with this comment by the Vicar: “We hope every one has noticed the beauty of our Christmas decorations.” This was followed by the January edition of The Church Monthly beginning with:
For more than twenty years now, with two or three brief interruptions, I have been one of those fortunate mortals who are able to enjoy a country ramble at all seasons of the year. I have made pretty fair use of my opportunities.
I began by incurring scorn and contumely at school because I would prefer insects to cricket, so that a fine “painted lady” or “lime hawk” seemed to me a better and a greater thing than a score of ever so many, not out; I have been looked upon as a sort of amiable lunatic almost ever since, owning to my fondness for going about with a net in my h and, and my pockets stuffed out with bottles and pill-boxes; and I am still regarded by a certain section of my parishioners as one who ought, by all means, to be encouraged (on the strength of sixpence apiece paid for many a blindworm and hedgehog), but who is undoubtedly in some respects much more than a little “daft”. “’Ee bring whoam to-ads in ‘is ‘arnkerchief, ‘ee du.”
But the result is, that from January to December I know pretty well what is going on in the fields and woodlands around me, where it is to be looked for, and how it is to be found. January might not seem a very promising month for out-door rambling; and yet I have always found much to interest me.
Once I went out, from pure curiosity, and without the least expectation of finding anything, to fish in a small pond, when the ice was five inches thick, and a sharp north-east wind was blowing. The cold was fearful, and seemed to numb one to the very marrow; yet life in that little pond was going on very much as usual. The frost had been too much for the fish, it is true; for the thick ice had prevented them from obtaining a proper supply of air…. When I cut out a hole with the chopper which I had brought with me, and sent down my net into the depths below, I found that the more lowly inhabitants of the waters were very lively indeed. Up came a big black beetle… a water boatman … a water-scorpion too, a flat, dull creature, with great jaw-like forelegs and a long bristle sticking out from the end of his body. There were several tiny beetles and several tiny grubs which would be beetles by-and-by, always provided that none of their numerous enemies ate them meanwhile.
In the outer world, however, insects during a frost, are conspicuous by their absence. As a matter of fact, they are as numerous as ever; only they are all in hiding. Moss is full of them; the loose rubbish underneath haystacks swarms with them; there are numbers beneath the bark of decaying trees, in company with a perfect host of spiders, wood-lice and centipedes; buried in the ground there are numbers and numbers more.
Farmers mostly welcome a hard winter largely with the notion that it will kill down the insects. Never was a more mistaken idea. If anything, indeed, a hard winter is rather beneficial to insects for it prevents the birds from getting at them. And in the following summer they are nearly always unusually plentiful.
Winter moths are curious creatures. One sees numbers of them on fences and tree-trunks in January when the weather is mild; and at night the attractions of the gas-lamps lure hundreds of them to their doom. They are very dull and unattractive-looking beings, most of them; slight in body and sombre in hue, with nothing whatever remarkable about them. But these are the males. The singularity lies in the females, which are fat-bodied, long-legged, spider-like creatures, with only the merest apologies for wings, and bearing no resemblance whatever to their lords and masters. What charms the latter can see in them it is difficult to understand. They are not pretty in our eyes; they are not graceful; they cannot even fly. Yet no doubt they are as beautiful in the eyes of the other sex as if they were as broad-winged themselves, and flashing with all the resplendent glories of some of the tropical butterflies.
One of these winter moths is white, and has a curious faculty of rendering itself quite indistinguishable when sitting upon a black fence. This it does by choosing a spot which has been splashed with mud by passing vehicles; and the mud-spot and the moth, somehow or other, from a few feet away, look to the unpractised eye exactly alike.
The titmice [blue tits] are making themselves very conspicuous. They like to be fed with fat in the winter months, and the best way to do it is to tie up a lump of suet in a piece of wide-meshed netting, and then suspend it by a yard or so of string from the branch of a tree. By this plan it is protected from the ever-aggressive sparrow, who cannot cling to the netting as the titmouse can, and is obliged to look jealously on while that feathered athlete peck away at the feast. The sparrow has often hustled the titmouse away from the morning crumbs on the window-ledge; it is something to the titmouse to find him baffled for once.
Nothing to see this January day? There is life, and plenty of it, everywhere about us. A fox prowling cautiously round that rabbit-warren on the side of the hill. Hounds don’t hunt him on frosty days, and he feels safe, and is looking about for a nice fat rabbit for dinner.
Here on this twig is a batch of insects’ eggs, encircling it in a broad ring as regularly as if they had been affixed by human art; there is a cocoon, spun neatly up in a chink of the bark. A neighbouring bough is riddled with beetle burrows; they tell a tale of disease and impending death. Even that tuft of grass at our feet is full of slumbering tenants.
We may not hear the busy hum of life that by-and-by will greet us; we may not see the thronging hordes of active creatures that by-and-by will be at work in wood and heath and fi8eld. Yet Nature is never really asleep; and even on this cold January day her pulses are throbbing around us, and her armies have only to be looked for in order to be found
It was reported in the February edition of the parish magazine that the weather had been so bad on January 18 that the Sunday School children from Thornton Rust had not been able to attend the Parish Tea in the Gymnasium. But those from Aysgarth and West Burton were there for the prize giving. They also provided the entertainment which included a number of new “Action Songs”. Two days later a concert, also in the Gymnasium, was well attended.
The vicar reported on two other concerts – and a serious epidemic of influenza. He wrote: “The epidemic has certainly reached us now but up to date of writing no very bad cases have been reported. It is much to be hoped that by God’s blessing the change in the weather may tend to stay the spread of the complaint.”
There was also a short financial report about the West Burton Clothing Club in 1891. It was noted that the club was started in 1874 and that more than £250 worth of clothing had been distributed to the poor of West Burton.
In his “A February Ramble” the Rev Wood grumbled about our British winters: “There is no depending upon winter at all. It may bring us a long spell of Siberian cold or it may pass by with scarcely a week of frost or a fall of snow.” He commented again on the fickleness of British weather in his March report (below).
In March the Rev Stowe reported that the list of Lent preachers was not complete “chiefly owing to the influenza”. But at least the churches were open – which cannot be said this year as we approach Easter.
March, to me, has been a month of many and grievous disappointments. When I was a boy in knicker-bockers, madly enthusiastic as any boy could be over butterflies, and moths, and beetles, and things creeping of every kind – with the exception of centipedes which have ever been my abhorrence – I always look forward with hope and gladness to the first few days of March as the end of the winter of my discontent.
According to the books in which I believed with all my small heart and soul, birds ought to be building, and flowers starting up, and bees busily working, and butterflies enjoying the warm spring sunshine, and moths flocking in their multitudes to the honey-laden catkins of the sallow. And yet, when that distressful month dawned, I sallied forth again and again, and searched tree-trunks by the hundred, and fences by the mile, and turned over stones in number greater than I should like to count, only to return home with saddened countenance, and boxes empty as when I set out.
And once, later, I took a special holiday in March, and went down to a certain favoured spot by the sea, on the strength of many notable captures made at that particular time in the preceding year, only to see the snow on the ground during the whole fortnight that I was there, while the wind never for a moment came from any quarter but the east. So that not a single insect summoned up courage to venture from its retreat.
Yet I have had many pleasant rambles in March, and seen many curious and interesting sights; for when the weather is mild, Nature commences her spring work in a hurry. Birds do begin to build, sometimes, and even get well on with family matters before the end of the month.
One can always look with some degree of certainty, for instance, for the nest of the thrush. For thrushes have two or even three broods to bring up in the course of the season, and therefore it behoves them to begin work early if they want to get their first quartet of nestlings fairly started in life before the gooseberries and currants are ripe.
But they are not at all wise birds in the way they set about their task. Their one great aim and object, indeed, seems to be to make their nest as obtrusively conspicuous as possible. So they either select a young and solitary tree, in which it must be plainly visible for fifty or sixty yards in every direction (they like oaks best, because the leaves are longest in coming), or they place it within a yard or two of a much-frequented pathway, or they leave a long streamer of straw hanging down, which cannot but attract the notice of every passer-by.
The blackbird, too, which begins building about the same time, is quite as foolish, although in a different way. It takes a good deal of trouble to conceal its nest, and stands by it most pluckily until one is just abreast of the bush in which it is built. Then, however, its courage seems suddenly to fail it, and off it flies with a loud and terrified squall, which inevitably betrays the secret of its dwelling.
A year of two ago I found a nest which had clearly been built by a blackbird of an original and economical turn of mind; for it was placed upon a bramble-branch against a paling, in such wise that the paling itself did duty as part of the structure. Strictly speaking, in fact, it was only half a nest, which was fastened against the fence very much as that of the martin is fastened against the wall of a house. After making it, however, the builder seemed to have been disappointed with the result, for no eggs were laid in it, and it had apparently been deserted as soon as it was finished.
A warm, sunny day in March is sure to bring out some butterflies. Most of these have been hiding away since the autumn in dark, sheltered corners, and are now bent on recuperating their bodily energies after their prolonged fast. So their object is to find, if it be possible, some early spring flower which will furnish them with a draught of refreshing nectar. Most of these butterflies look much the worse for wear. Their six weeks of pleasure and idleness in the autumn have result in wings chipped and torn, and the loss of many a plum and scale. And some are so tattered and worn that one marvels that they can fly at all.
But this pale yellow sulphur fluttering lazily by is as perfect and fresh as possible. He looks as if he has never flown before. As far as appearances go, he might have come out from the chrysalis this very day. ~And it is more than likely that he has don so for sulphurs, unlike peacocks, and admirals, and tortoiseshells, do not live through the winter as perfect butterflies, but wait until the first warm days of spring to emerge from the pupal shell.
Once, and only once, I ran a sulphur butterfly down in fair chase – soon after I began collecting when sulphurs, as yet, were rarities to me. It led me for fully three-quarters of a mile through a piece of rough and hilly woodland, and at last dropped utterly exhausted in the ferns just before me. I killed it, and pinned it into my collecting-box – a proceeding for which I have ever since been sorry. The insect had struggled gamely for its life and done far more than could have been expected of a little weak-winged butterfly. And I think it deserved its life.
We shall very likely see a squirrel – not gambolling among the trees, as by-and-by he will, but either visiting or returning from one of those stores of nuts and beech-mast which he laid up so carefully in the autumn. For his appetite, after five months or so of slumber, is as keen as that of the butterflies, and he is now able to reap the fruits of that strange instinct which led him to provide for a future of which, very likely, he had no conception at all. For how can a squirrel of three of four months old know that a time of frost and cold is coming in which it will be able to find no food? Yet it lays up its stores, just as if it had lived for years. Truly a wonderful instinct.
I once say a squirrel drop from the upper branches of a lofty tree. In leaping from one bough to another his missed his footing, and fell some fifty feet to the ground. I ran to the spot, expecting to find him a crushed and quivering carcase; but long before I could reach him he was on his feet again, scampering as fast as his short legs would carry him to the nearest tree, and apparently none the worse for his tumble. For a squirrel, when he falls, stretches out his legs to their full extent, and converts himself into a kind of parachute; so that the air buoys him up, just as it buoys up on oyster-shell or a flat stone when we throw it sideways. And consequently the rapidity of his descent is greatly lessened, and he alights on the ground uninjured.