Friday, 27 February 2015

The Railway that wasn't there or Mea Culpa

Last week I promised to tell you about the mistake I made which means that there is an error in The Children’s Hour. You will remember that Lydia Shaw had a lover called Timothy Lestrange (which was just as well as her husband, Ambrose, was not the nicest of men). It is not only Lydia whose life is made much nicer when Timothy is around: the children all adore him and when he is around they find their father far less difficult. As Mina puts it:

Timothy is nice, isn’t he, Mama?’ says Mina. ‘He’s like a very kind magician. Like Merlin.’ Lydia is reading T.H. White’s ‘The Once and Future King’ to them after tea during the children’s hour. ‘He’s put a spell on all of us, hasn’t he?’

Last week, Maria left a comment about trees in winter so this one of beech trees is for you, Maria.
It was taken not far from the setting for The Children's Hour.
Then comes the war. Ambrose remains in London where he is busy making money. Timothy is enrolled into some clandestine group and is shortly to go abroad and will be away for some time. However . . .

Timothy manages one more visit to Ottercombe before vanishing again into Europe. Ambrose and Georgie, by now, are firmly fixed in London; each manipulating the other to attain their own ends. Petrol rationing and restrictions on travel give them excellent excuses to avoid the long journey to Exmoor but, somehow, Timothy finds the means: travelling by train to Barnstaple, catching the last connection to Parracombe and walking the rest of the way, nearly four miles, across the moor.

Obviously not Ottercombe as that is fictional, this is part of the coast that (together with Heddon's Mouth) inspired the idea of a small cove surrounded by tall cliffs and fed by a small stream that had eroded a steep valley on the side of which was perched the house. As so often happens the tops of the hills are shrouded in cloud and visibility is generally pretty poor.
When Marcia asked me to check and find out how Timothy could travel down by train I was able to find the line of the dis-used railway track and details of the old station at Parracombe but I didn’t bother to check when it had ceased to run because I assumed I knew. In 1963 and 1966 the Chairman of British Railways – Dr Richard Beeching (he was a doctor of physics, not medicine, and was also a fully qualified engineer) wrote reports about the need to modernise the UK’s railways. As a result about 5,000 miles of railway line and nearly 2,500 stations were closed and, yes, this was vandalism on a grand scale and should not have happened. Indeed, and at huge cost, some of these lines are being reopened as car travel becomes more and more expensive and the roads more and more congested. Anyway, I just assumed that this line to Parracombe was a victim of the so-called “Beeching cuts” in the 1960’s.

This is the cover of The Children's Hour as published by Wydawnictwo Replica in Poland - and it's not far from what Marcia had in mind, is it?.
Only it was closed before the war: Timothy could not have used it. Indeed, it is doubtful whether Timothy (in the time available to him) would have been able to make that flying visit to Ottercombe.

We discovered this thanks to a very kind and tactful email from an Anglican priest, Father Keith Denerley. Father Keith was Chaplain to the convent where Marcia used to go for a couple of retreats each year and they became (and remain) good friends. He apologised for bringing the error to our attention but, as he put it, in his profession it is important to remain on the ‘straight and narrow’. 

In order properly to enjoy that remark one needs to know that the railway in question, The Lynton and Barnstaple Railway, was indeed a narrow gauge (1 foot and 11½ inches, to be precise) railway with a single track about nineteen miles long that opened in May 1898. It soon ceased to be commercially viable and, despite efforts to run it more economically and to attract more travellers and freight, the last train ran on 29 September, 1935.

Taken a bit to the east of 'Ottercombe', this shows the effect of cloud on thw water of the Bristol Channel. On the far side is South Wales and the ship is on its way to the port of Avonmouth. Navigation here is tricky: the rise and fall of the tide here can be as high as 50 foot (I think I an right in saying that highest tides in the world are around 53 feet - in the Bay of Fundy, Canada). This means the water sluices in and out - especially out when the water coming down the river is added to the ebb flow - and it is very easy to lose control.
However, in 1979 The Lynton & Barnstaple Railway Association was formed to see what could be done. To date they have refurbished one old station (Woody Bay complete with tearoom and other facilities) and have some of the track laid to create a very popular tourist attraction. The trains may not go anywhere but the route takes you through some of the most breathtaking Exmoor scenery. The first train ran in July 2004 and an extension was opened in 2007. The society continues to work towards its ultimate aim: the restoration of as much of the line as is possible.

There is some rather interesting footage of the old railway on YouTube. To see it, click here.

I have no idea how many other people noticed the error – nor do I really want to know. However, if I had done my job properly when Marcia was writing The Children’s Hour that book would not have contained this stupid error. I mean, that line was never, ever, part of the British Rail network that was the subject of the Beeching Enquiry – how could I have got it so wrong?

Friday, 20 February 2015

Three Moors

In recent days, Marcia and I have trying to find the answer to the following question: what is it that makes a novel a pager-turner? Obviously there are all sorts of possible reasons and I would really like to know what you who read my blogs would suggest. Go on, put up your answers as a comment below. In one of Marjory Allingham’s wonderful Campion mystery stories Cargo of Eagles there is a delightful character who goes by the name of Monica Weatherby. She is, as she puts it, ‘the string man in these parts’ (freelance journalist for those who need a translation) and one of her sayings is, ‘I only ask because I want to know’. Well, that’s why I am asking for your help in this matter.

Incidentally, if you haven’t read any of the Campion books you have missed some beautiful writing, a wonderful if understated sense of humour, some delightful characterisation and some thumping good yarns. Be that as it may, back to the question.

We conclude that the number one requirement is that at all times the reader is able to suspend disbelief without even realising that this is happening. Thus one coincidence too many; one character doing, saying or even thinking something ‘out of character’; one reference to somewhere real that contains an inaccuracy; a plant in flower in the wrong season: all of these sorts of things can stop the reader and destroy that suspension of disbelief and that, once destroyed, is usually gone for good.

Putting the characters to one side – very definitely Marcia’s department – the rest of it is what I describe as ‘the geology of the book’ since it the very rocks below the surface of the earth that determines all above it. For the last two weeks I have been brooding on matters associated with Dartmoor which it is the largest area of granite in Great Britain. That, and the fact that it is ‘unglaciated’ (the ice shield that covered most of this country stopped just short of this moor) makes it a very special place.

Five views of Dartmoor including Marcia at Bonehills.
Just as special, but completely different thanks to having a very different geology, is Exmoor. Here the rocks are sedimentary – muds laid down by the silt settling in the seas. They are old: the earliest were being laid down in the Devonian geological age some 400 million years ago. Over time, these were distorted by two crustal plates (one to the north, the other to the south) drifting towards each other, pushing the layers of rock up to form an east to west ridge or arch-like fold. That is, of course, an over-simplification: over time there were all sorts of minor movements superimposed on that basic fold and some of the resulting contortions can be seen where the moor meets the sea. These rocks contain no fossils.

For about 200 million years this area was above sea level but during the Jurassic Age (from about 210 to 145 million years ago) parts of this moor was again covered by the sea. The sediments laid down during this period are full of fossils and are very similar to those on the south coast of Dorset which is known as the ‘Jurassic Coast’.

Then there was more shoving and heaving and, of course, constant erosion due to water aided and abetted during the ice age. Was this moor covered by ice? Probably not permanently in the way we think of the ice shield but there is evidence of the surface being repeatedly frozen and then thawed: with shards of frost-broken rock scattered down the hillsides and jumbles of unsorted fragments lying in the valley floors. All of this creates a very different landscape to Dartmoor. Rarely do you see exposed solid rock except on the coast (which is truly one of the most spectacular coastlines in the country). Instead you have softly rounded hills with deep valleys formed by streams and rivers cutting through rocks very much softer than the granite on Dartmoor.

Five views of Exmoor - with Marcia somewhat dwarfed by the landscape.
Then there is Bodmin Moor. Here we are back to granite again but this moor is much smaller than Dartmoor and, to my eyes at least, there is a bleakness about it – probably because, like so much of Cornwall, there are far less trees than there are in Devon.

And here we are on Bodmin. The second down is rather interesting. Marcia wanted to set a house (this was in The Way We Were) here on Treswallock Down. I was saying there was absolutely no reason why there should be a house up here - full stop. Then we came across this hut circle and Marcia, quite reasonably, pointed out that if people had been living here about six thousand years ago then there was no reason why they couldn't be doing it now. So it was that this is the exact site of Julia's home and I had to come up with the best possible reason for it being there. Oh, and that's her in the next picture down near where she set Mellinpons in Postcards of the Past.
One thing they all have in common: if you know where to stand and which way to look from Dartmoor and Bodmin you can catch glimpses of the sea; on Exmoor they are hardly glimpses: the northern boundary of the moor is the Bristol Channel or, as some call it, the Severn Sea.

I am sure you will all agree that we really do know which of these moors we are on when reading Marcia’s books. I am not sure how she achieves this but somehow she manages to evoke the differences in her wonderful descriptive passages and with only one exception (as far as I know) all the books are true to the geology of the settings. I will explain how that error crept in next week and I have to admit that this was entirely my fault – not hers.

Friday, 13 February 2015


Rather like last week, we have been simply busy getting on which is probably the best thing to be doing at this time of the year. Flanders and Swann (do you remember them?) included in their repertoire an excellent little ditty about the months of the year: A Song of the Weather. The couplet that described February runs thus:

February’s ice and sleet
Freeze the toes right off your feet.

Certainly true here and so there has been little incentive to go out and potter around instead of staying tucked up warm and cozy at home. So it is that I find myself following the same tack as I did last week and talking about my explorations associated with the book about Tavistock and another alley I found my self following which has almost nothing to do with what I am writing about but which I found surprising and slightly compelling. It is about rabbits.

This photograph was taken on Bodmin Moor about a mile from the setting of the house called Trescairn in The Way We Were. It is actually in a field that abuts open moorland and these rabbits seem to be managing well. The soil here drains far better than it does on Dartmoor.
 Have you noticed the crow, top left on the skyline?
When I was a youngster, we lived alongside one of the old English estates which consisted of three farms, plenty of mixed woodland and, although no longer used as such, a deer park. We were allowed to roam wherever we liked once we had proved ourselves to be responsible members of society which we did in various ways. Mine was to become friendly with the gamekeeper and I owe to him rather than anybody else my interest in the flora and fauna of our wonderful countryside. There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch and I had to be helpful in various ways in order to be able to spend so much time with him.

One of those ways was to take part in the never ending attempt to control the rabbit population on the estate. Sensibly the rabbits favoured places where woodland met farmland, preferably with the field to the south of the wood. They were deeply unpopular with the farmers and it really is quite incredible how much damage rabbits can do to crops. So, when matters got out of hand, I would find myself with Mr Brinkley on a rabbit cull. That evening I would return home with two or three rabbits and my mother would make a wonderful rabbit pie.

It was only when I started thinking about the Tavistock book that I gave a thought to rabbits on Dartmoor. They are few and far between: to be honest I don’t think I have ever seen one up there. In the fields that border the moor, yes: on the moor itself, no. A bit of investigation into the habits of rabbits and I found out why this was.

First and foremost rabbits need to be able to dig burrows. These create spaces in which rabbits can socialise and where they feel safest. Obviously these burrows need to be dry and the soil in which they are dug reasonably friable and stone-free and not too far away from a reliable food source. Take a quick look at Dartmoor and all you will find is the reliable food source. The soil is acidic, very peaty (dry it most certainly is not as peat retains moisture) and carries far more than its fair share of stones.
I took this photograph in May 2013 but neither of us can remember where.
Meanwhile, rabbits were then very important and not just for their meat – then a great delicacy and so eaten only by the wealthy – they provided the fur used to trim clothing and, when felted, to make hats. Nevertheless, breeding rabbits for meat and fur was at the expense of damage to crops but there was a simple solution: create artificial warrens up on the moor which provided the rabbits with the perfect environment in which they could prosper a long way away from any farmland. So, starting in about 1300, that is what they did.

In simple language, they chose a flattish area near the top of a rounded hill, dug a trench around it – an ellipse which could be up to a hundred and thirty foot long and thirty foot wide. Next was a long ditch that ran down the middle of the ellipse, a number of cross ditches that linked that long one to the first trench (never opposite each other but I have been unable to find out why) and, finally, a ‘gripe’ or drain was dug to take the water away from the burrow. These trenches were then covered by turf and stones to support a thick layer of suitable soil which created the burrow. Last of all this was then roofed with further turf to keep as much water out as possible.

Here is how William Crossing put it in his Guide to Dartmoor: The burrows, or burys, as the warrener calls them, are formed by first digging a narrow trench, with small ones branching from it on each side, but not opposite each other. Large slabs of turf are then cut, and with these the little trenches are covered. Over this is heaped a mound of earth, and the burrow is finished. A few holes are made for the rabbits to enter, and they quickly take possession of their new abode.' (Incidentally, Crossing lived in South Brent which is featured in The Courtyard and is one of the many villages in which Marcia and I have lived).

Thus, after a great deal of effort, the perfect solution was found. These burrows – now known as Pillow Mounds and often wrongly thought to be burial mounds – provided ideal conditions for the rabbits away from the farmland and, most importantly, the warreners knew exactly where they were and how to catch them.
We were delighted to find that there were rabbits in the field behind the house when we moved into Dartington Hall. Then one started to come into the garden and not everything he (or she, of course, as the case may be) did was entirely to our liking: I can confirm that rabbits love pansies!
Not that it ended there: almost every year the burrows needed work to be carried out to ensure that the drainage system and the roof were in good order but it was all well worth while.

In 1800’s there were eighteen such warrens being operated on the moor – of which nine were in the Tavistock area – and each warren contained anything up to twenty Pillow Mounds. It was highly profitable: in the 12th century a rabbit and its fur cost far more than a skilled craftsman could earn in a day. Gradually as supply built up the prices dropped: by the 15th century it was down to what our craftsman could earn in half a day and by the 18th century rabbit meat was in the grasp of all but the very poorest.

Amazing where a book about Marcia’s books can take you, isn’t it?

Friday, 6 February 2015

From Tavistock to Venice via Leipzig

There really is nothing to tell you about what we have been doing over the past week since the answer is, quite simply, work a lot and (when we remember) grab something to eat. Marcia is now well into the book but is still running well behind her normal schedule and it has become imperative that she can remain absorbed in that ‘other world’ in which her characters live. People don’t realise how difficult it is to return there after an interruption. A telephone call can spell the end of writing for that day – which, of course, triggers off the one thing from which all the writers I know (including me) suffer: fear and despair. There, always lurking, is the gremlin that says, ‘That’s it. The end. You have used up everything and there is nothing left. You know that what you are writing is rubbish. Give up while you are ahead.’

That is not my problem this week as I am not really writing but spending my time researching. I am working on Marcia Willett’s Tavistock and have been looking at the various ways in which the town has earned a living over the last thousand years. Have I ever mentioned in a blog that Tavistock was (well, is I suppose but the functions no longer exist) a Stannary Town – one of four in Devon?
The four Stannary area boundaries (Tavistock, Chagford, Ashburton and Plympton) meet here, at Crockern Tor not far from the Two Bridges Hotel. Accordingly it was here that the Stannary Parliament met when summoned by the "Lord Warden of the Stannaries" - a man appointed by the king who held ultimate responsibility of tin mining in both Devon and Cornwall.

The name comes from the Latin for tin and the reason that these four towns were granted a Stannary Charter (by Edward I back in the early 1300’s) was simple: he wanted to ensure he was able to get the maximum possible tax out of the tin mining industry on Dartmoor. These charters did two things: they enabled the miners to create their own laws (which they had been doing for ages anyway but now these became official) because he wanted to encourage tin production. After all, the more tin that left the moor the higher the potential tax take. The charter also decreed that all tin had to pass off the moor via the appropriate Stannary Town where it would be taxed. It was a brilliant way of dealing with the matter and functioned well for nearly four hundred years, only ending when it became uneconomical to work the remaining deposits of ore.

Since tin mining itself is not really part of ‘Tavistock – Past and Present’ I decided that I would deal with tin mining on the moor as a side bar within that section and settled down to find out all I could about it. In the old days when I needed to research for some cod history (for I am not an academic historian and have never claimed to be one) I have turned to reference libraries and, in particular, the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter. That no longer exists and has become integrated with other resources to form the Devon Archives and Local Studies Service which is wonderful since a good deal more information is now available on line.

So it is that instead of searching through drawers of record cards and microfiche film I now spend my time trawling through various web sites. However, one thing remains exactly the same: I am unable to stop myself being drawn down all sorts of irresistible by ways which have little or nothing to do with the subject in hand.
All over the moor you will find evidence of tin mining. Often this is no more than the ground having been disturbed in an apparently random way, as here.
Exactly that has happened over the last three days. All I wanted was some old illustration of tin miners at work (a picture being worth a thousand words). I was at that point where the temptation to give up (after all, such an illustration is not really vital) when I spotted a name that meant nothing to me at all: Georgius Agricola. The only Agricola I had heard of was a Roman Emperor but clearly here was someone else since this one was born in Saxony in 1494. Intrigued I Googled the name and within minutes I had exactly what I wanted: some engravings (presumably dated about 1525) which were contained in books this Agricola had written about mineralogy. Then, of course, I wanted to know why this man from what is now a part of Germany had written such books.

He was a true man of his times: a polymath and quite extraordinary. I have been unable to find out who his parents were nor anything about his childhood. However, he comes out of the woodwork in 1514 when he is studying classics at the University of Leipzig. In 1518 he starts teaching Latin and Greek in a school in Zwickau – one assumes he needed the money – but after four years he returned to the university to study medicine. At that time, Leipzig was at the centre of the theological debates out of which sprang the Protestant movement: in July 1519, Martin Luther arrived in the city to take part in what was known as the Leipziger Disputation and the whole university was taking sides; much to the disgust of Agricola who was a staunch Catholic.

To get away from this atmosphere he travelled to Bologna in Italy where he resumed his studies into medicine whilst also studying philosophy and natural sciences: the polymath was coming out of his shell. After further studies in Padua and Venice he took a job with a publisher there: the Aldine Press. Together with another man, John Clement, he was preparing for publication an edition of a book by Galen (the Greek physician) which was published in 1525.

It seems likely that these two men, Agricola and Clement, spent a good deal of time together outside work. Clement had been secretary to Thomas More whilst More was writing Utopia. Was it this book that inspired Agricola to interest himself in the laws and traditions of tin miners? Probably because interest himself he certainly did.

In 1526 he was to return to Saxony where he became the town physician in Joachimstha – in one of the richest mining districts in Europe. It is suggested that his main concern at that time was to find medically useful ingredients in the various ores and metals being mined. In this he was disappointed but his contact with the mines and the miners became his passion and the study of mineralogy was to lead to a number of books on the subject (whilst Agricola was in Venice, he had met the great Erasmus who wrote the introduction to Bermannus; sive, de re metallica, a treatise on mineralogy which came out in 1530). It was to be followed by many others and Agricola was to become known as ‘the father of mineralogy’.

So, after spending time – or wasting time depending on how you look at these things – finding out more and more about this person, in reality all I achieved was to find a few engravings of which one (above) will be used in the book I am working on. Unless, of course, I decide to devote a bit of space to Georgious Agricola which might or might not be a good idea.

What do you think?

Sally Gingerbread, Jeanne and Keith Giles's beloved dog, died very recently and it seemed fitting that there should be a photograph here in her memory.

I understand they are looking to take on another rescue dog and I am sure you will all join me in hoping that they will soon find another companion.

Friday, 30 January 2015


One of the towns that plays a minor role in the book Marcia is presently writing is Ashburton. The first time this town is mentioned in one of her books is in Starting Over for it is where Annie lives. You may remember the paragraphs in which we first meet Annie.

Annie Grayshott replaced the telephone receiver and looked with distaste at her cup of cold coffee. Poor Frances had been talking for nearly half an hour and Annie felt quite numb with the effort of listening. She poured away the coffee and stood for some moments at the window, gazing out over the rooftops of Ashburton and wondering if the situation with Hugh was really as dire as Frances related. After all, Frances was not the kind of person to dramatise herself so why should she, Annie, imagine that she was exaggerating.
     'I suspect,' she said aloud - the fact that her husband, Perry, had died did not prevent her from continuing to communicate with him - 'that it's wishful thinking. I simply don't know how to help her and it's making me feel inadequate and useless.'
     'She needs to get it out of her system.' Perry's shade was, apparently, hovering near the drinks cupboard. `I diagnose a sense of humour failure, my darling. You know my prescription for that. You need a drink.'
Annie sighed and decided to take his advice. She poured herself a large whisky and stared speculatively at herself in the glass that hung beside the window. Her jaw length fair hair had a generous streaking of grey and her tanned skin was especially lined around the eyes but she might have passed for a few years less than the sixty allotted to her.

One of the best reviews written about Marcia described her as “a cross between Jane Austen and Blake Edwards”. I think you will agree that the extract above confirms that view. What is quite extraordinary is that it appeared in Le Figaro.

The Ashburn, having tumbled down off Dartmoor, is now winding placidly through farmland just north of the town.
Back to Ashburton – the town on the banks of the Ash Burn. It is an old community (recorded in the Domesday Book) and was for a while an important one: situated on the main trackway from Exeter down to Cornwall and on the edge of Dartmoor it was important for the sheep and wool market and as one of the Stannary towns where tin was ‘coined’ so that the crown could levy a tax on its production.

And here it is running beside the green. Placid in this photograph, like all moorland rivers it is a different matter when it is in spate. Then it fills this channel and has been known to overflow onto the green after especially heavy rain.
Obviously as these two trades diminished, Ashburton became less important even though it was one of the ‘stages’ on the route from London to Plymouth. This continued to bring in trade until the arrival of the railway resulted in the demise of the highly colourful and romantic but extremely uncomfortable stage coaches. It was finally converted into a bit of a backwater when a new road was built to bypass the town (it being demonstrably not suited to much motorised through traffic) in the 1930’s.

The main road running through Ashburton. You can see why it was that a by-pass was built as soon as the motor vehicle became popular.
When Marcia and I lived in Avonwick we would drive up to Ashburton, buy our supper from one of the best fish and chip shops that I know and take it up onto the moor near Buckland Beacon to eat it. This became quite special when it coincided with a full moon as we could then watch it rising over the sea beyond Teignmouth.

There are no modern buildings in the centre of the town and no large supermarkets. It is a delightful environment in which to do your shopping.
I have been thinking about Ashburton because I am researching the history of the Stannary Towns (for the “Marcia Willett’s Tavistock) which are Ashburton, Chagford, Tavistock and, later, Plympton. As the name implies, this is about tin (stannum) and the usual need of the government of the day to raise taxes on anything that moves or, indeed, does not move.

This magnificent Methodist Chapel stands as a silent witness to Ashburton's wealthy past.
However, collecting taxes is expensive and the cheapest way is to get someone else to do it for you in return for something to make that worth their while. Hence in 1305 Edward I granted Stannary Charters to the first three (Plympton had to wait until 1328) whereby in return for collecting tin coinage (as the tax payable was called) these towns were granted a monopoly on all tin mining in Devon, a right to representation in The Stannary Parliament (which determined the rules and regulations which bound the tin miners) and control over The Stannary Courts (which dealt with breaches in the rules and disputes between miners).

This rather suggests that tin mining here started about seven or eight hundred years ago. Far from it: tin mining was known here during the Bronze Age somewhat earlier than 2,000 BC.

None of which is mentioned in the book Marcia is writing: the only connection being that one of her characters has his office in “Ashbucket” as it is often called here and hereabouts.

There is a rather convoluted link that we have with Zula, seen above expectantly awaiting Christmas dinner. As some of you know, Marcia's son attended Mount House School in Tavistock which, as a result, features in some of her bools. In his day the headmaster was the late Tony Wortham who was to become a great friend after he retired. His successor was Charles Price who also became a friend and who is now also retired. This cheeky Patterdale belongs to Charles's daughter and I am very pleased to be able to share this photo with you.

Don't forget that I am always in the market for pictures of your pets.

Friday, 23 January 2015

From daffodils in Devon to snowy owls in Bermuda

We woke up to a very hard frost today. The field outside our bedroom was white as white – as was the scut on a rabbit that was running along the hedge line. I’m not sure how cold it was during the night but the temperature certainly started with a minus sign.

Since my last blog we have received copies of two more editions of Postcards From the Past - the UK Large Print and, below, the German hard back.
Only a week ago we were basking (well, everything is relative) in daytime temperatures in double figures with the nights rarely dropping below 5°. It is the effect this contrast is having on the plants and wildlife around us that has been in my mind the last few days. For example, last Wednesday as we drove from Totnes towards Avonwick we passed a bank on which there were daffodils in full bloom: in January.

In Cornwall they grow daffodils in their hundreds of thousands and when the fields down there are in full bloom – usually in February – they are a wonderful sight even though the flowers are picked whilst the buds are quite tight. The sale of these blooms, most of which go to London, are an important part of the local economy as are the sale of bulbs.

When I trawled through the various photographs of daffodils that I have taken, I find that the one below was taken on 3 March in 2011 which was a ‘late year’ compared to 2012 (when, for some reason I didn’t take any). It is not that this year is proving to be an ‘early’ one but that it is totally muddled. Following a wonderfully mild autumn and early winter we are now in the grip of extreme cold (extreme for this part of the world that is) and I fear for the plants – and probably animals, too – that have been fooled into thinking spring had arrived.

My main worry is to do with timing – although I fully appreciate that the weather this winter is in no way unique and nature is extremely good at solving these problems. Nevertheless, they do cause difficulties for some species. 

One of my favourite birds is the blue tit: they are pugnacious little people who always wear an expression of intense irritation. Baby blue tits are fed almost exclusively on “green caterpillars” and most bird books state quite simply that the parents “time their breeding to coincide with the hatching of various species of insects which start life as green caterpillars”.

2009 was a good year for the blue tits. Here are a brood of six youngsters, still in their juvenile yellow feathers, braving the rain and feeding on peanuts.

This is just not really true: I am sure that the birds are aware of changes in the weather and do everything they can to get the timing right but it doesn’t always work. If they get it wrong, the young blue tits often fail to fledge and the associated insect species then have a very good year with many more reaching adulthood. It’s a bit like the lemmings and the snowy owls in the northern parts of Scandinavia although there is becomes a very regular cycle.

A lemming
(Photo: Flickr user leo_seta under a Creative Commons license.)
Year one: there is an abundance of lemmings with the result that the snowy owls are able to able to read larger than usual broods. That means that in year two the lemming population is depleted because there are so many more owls. Nevertheless, the owls still rear a goodly number of youngsters. Their problems start in year three because there are so few lemmings and large number of owlets fail to fledge. In year four both species start from a low ebb but that gives an advantage to the lemmings and by the end of the year their numbers are well up. Then, of course, we start the cycle again. I should add that although snowy owls are the main lemming predators they also face attack from skuas and Arctic foxes – and that this explanation of the lemming cycle is not universally accepted.

Snowy Owl. Photo: Pat Haines under a Creative Commons license
No matter how it came about 2013 was a bumper year for lemmings and, as a result, there was a population explosion among the snowy owls. But a rather odd thing then happened – odd in the sense that this is a first. Some snowy owls left their usual territories and decided to explore pastures new by moving south in North America. They have become common place in south east Canada and a few seem to have taken up residence in Washington, D.C. There is even a report that one was seen as far south as Charleston in South Carolina and another in Bermuda. Bermuda? A snowy owl? Well, the report seems the be genuine. As I remarked, nature has a wonderful way of sorting things out.

Have any of you seen anything unusual? If so, please leave a comment below.

Meanwhile, you may remember that I mentioned that Marcia had been ‘interviewed’ using emails by a girl in Poland. Click here if you want to see read that interview – in English as she publishes her work in both languages.

Friday, 16 January 2015


You jolly nearly had to do without a blog this week: following some updates that were downloaded by Microsoft and which were then automatically configured when I switched it on yesterday morning, my computer refused point blank to boot up properly. This is somewhat scary at this precise moment because I have a few rather urgent tasks that were already ‘embedded’ on the hard drive.

This is not a blog which calls for illustrations. This last week has seen the first of this winter's snowfalls in the West Country so I thought I would put up some photographs from my collection showing a few snowy scenes.
One is rather nice: there is a girl in Poland who runs a blog all about writing and literature (actually she runs two blogs: one in Polish and one in English). Whilst the main object of the exercise is to promote Polish literature she also reviews books which have been translated into Polish and carries out email interviews with the authors of such books. Marcia had just finished her last responses and one of my first jobs was to be to email these across to Agnes.

The other urgent task was to finalise the copy editing of the next book, Summer on the River, so that Marcia’s agent, Dinah Wiener, can send the revised manuscripts to Marcia’s foreign publishers.

Panic stations. I really did now know what to do: the usual techniques of trying everything on offer and, that having failed, rebooting the computer a few times did nothing to solve the problem. This was the first “computer panic” since we moved back to the south so I had no idea who to contact. Luckily my laptop was not involved and after trawling through the various options I found on the internet I decided to contact a company called Brandan Computer Solutions Ltd. It needed a visit to put things right but all is well now and the silver lining to this particular cloud is that Marcia has met Warren Dobbs and they got on very well indeed so she now knows who to contact should anything happen when I am not around.

Thus, I am able to keep my promise and talk about punctuation.

Punctuation is one of the most difficult subjects on which to write and one of the subjects about which – in my opinion – far too much has been written already. You could say exactly the same about grammar. What is the point of punctuation (and grammar) other than to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the words that have been written?

The only other possible reason is so that the pedantic writer who follows a particular code for both grammar and punctuation can feel a glow of superiority over other writers who do not follow that code. Apart from the fact that this is a rather ignoble glow, it fails to take into account that there are many different codes and that none of them agrees in all respects. Indeed, the triad that underpins all writing (vocabulary, grammar and punctuation) are all living entities that change from moment to moment.

There was a time when the most important language in the world was French. Then the French academics – aided and abetted by some French politicians – fought hard to keep French ‘pure’: to stop French evolving in a smooth and organic fashion. Although this was not the only factor it certainly helped to ensure that English would become the language that would be understood over most of the globe.

To return to punctuation: it is my contention that good writers use it (or not, as the case may be) not only to facilitate the reader’s understanding but also to influence the reader’s mood, emotions and engagement. In other words, punctuation is one element that creates the individual styles that writers inevitably develop – and which their readers like.

As an example of what I mean: I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma and I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read.

That last sentence is a case in point. What would be the point of the Oxford comma after the word ‘comma’? In my view, the ideas expressed in that sentence are an entity even though the two phrases could each stand as separate sentences. Thus there are a number of options. The first is that shown above and the others are as follows.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma, and I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. With the Oxford comma.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma: I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. Using a colon to indicate that the second phrase in some way adds to the first.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma. I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. Two separate sentences.

This is all about style, isn’t it? It is about creating – or not as required – flow. It is about changing the pace of the writing by using shorter or longer sentences.

The nuances involved are tiny and it is probable that few, if any, readers are at all conscious of the way a piece of writing is punctuated. You could argue that if they are there is probably something wrong. Nevertheless, as one of those three foundation stones of all writing it is terribly important and I think I detect a good deal of muddle in the punctuation of a lot of modern writing – especially in the newspapers. On the other hand it could merely be that I am stuck in my ways and what I am seeing is no more than the good old English language gently evolving to meet the needs of the modern world.