Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The last nightingale

I came across by happy accident an item on radio 4 early one Sunday morning in May. It was International Dawn Chorus day and the program was recorded at the Combe Valley reserve in a wood. The presenter had to rise early to hear the birds- I hope she had a sustaining breakfast- by 4.30 am the team was in position to hear initially a tawny owl and then quickly pheasants, blackbirds, willow warblers , blue tits,song thrushes, the tiny but full throated wren all joined in the growing cacophony of sound. It is a marvellous, life affirming sound.

Each species has its own signature song, its own theme tune. Some are pretty basic, but many are rich and complex and never fail to lift the spirit – the song thrush immediately springs to mind. Each song is different, because, first of all it has to identify the singer's species. Females need to know this if they are to choose the right partner! Then, the song has to say something about the health of the singer. A long, loud song for instance indicates a certain amount of stamina, and a bird in good condition.

I heard the Dawn Chorus once one May morning when I was staying at a Youth Hostel in Suffolk. It was a very basic hostel , little more than a hut but perfectly positioned in a copse. I was woken early in the morning by the songs of nightingales and warblers. To be there was a reminder of how wonderful it was to be alive and gave an idea of a sound-scape familiar to our ancestors before the world was so polluted by noise.

The heart breaking fact is that bird song is disappearing from the countryside. So many birds that I remember as plentiful in my childhood are in what appears to be a rapid decline. Lapwings were a common sight in the fields above the estate where I lived as a boy, but not any more. Cuckoos are down by 65%, sparrows 71%, yellowhammers and linnets both down 50%. All over habitats are disappearing, breeding sites are under threat, food is under threat and insecticides and pollution and the consequence of climate change threaten the existence of the song bird. But what will we do when the last nightingale ceases its song ?

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?  

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A Crusader Knight

Nothing remains of Dieulacres Abbey, the medieval monastery just out side Leek. It was demolished after the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th century. The founder Ranulph de Blondeville 4th Earl of Chester's heart is buried in the Abbey .During the 13th century Ranulph was one of the most influential men in the country. He was a close supporter of King John, the much maligned medieval monarch who incidentally granted Leek its market charter in 1207. Ranulph was at the King's side during the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 and on his death became executor of John's will. John's infant son Henry became King and immediately afterwards the country was plunged into a period of civil war. Prince Louis of France landed and supported by rebel lords undertook an invasion of England

De Blondeville placed his support behind Henry III and marched against the rebels in the North and Midlands stopping them from linking up with the French in the south . Louis sent a French force northwards and a battle was fought outside Lincoln. Ranulph linked up with his great political rival William Marshal and in the battle that followed they were victorious capturing many rebel barons.

The next chapter of his life is a fascinating one. He became a crusader. In 1218 Ranulph joined the 5th Crusade, perhaps honouring a dying wish of King John. He was part of a invasion force of around 30,000 that sailed for Egypt with the intention of attacking Cairo. An icy winter was followed by a intensely hot summer as the crusades laid siege to the port of Damietta at the mouth of the Nile. The ruling Sultan attempted to negotiate a deal with the high command of the Crusaders offering Jerusalem and Palestine as long as they gave up war in Egypt. Ranulph supported the offer but was over ruled by the Pope's representative Bishop Pelagius. Damietta eventually did fall but the Crusaders argued about strategy and Ranulph returned to England in the autumn of 1220.

In his later years he fulfilled the role of Elder Statesman. He continued to support the Magna Carta led a ill considered attack on France in 1230 and continued to enlarge his estates in Cheshire- he built Beeston Castle. On his death in October 1232 his remains were divided between Chester Cathedral and Dieulacres which he seemed to have a particular fondness for

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The death of Robert Peel 1850

The death of Margaret Thatcher has resulted in heated debated about her 11 years in office. The divisive nature of her politics has split the nation ,but there can be no doubt that she was a transforming political figure. Her demise and the way in which the news has been regarded bought to my mind the death of another Tory Prime Minister 163 years ago.

In many ways there are many similarities between Robert Peel and Margaret Thatcher, gender aside. Both came from provincial towns, Grantham and Bury. Both were outsiders. Peel was a representative of the new industrial class- the family had made money in textiles. Thatcher was the daughter of a shop keeper. And bought success and eventual damage on their own party- the Conservative Party and both were driven from office by erstwhile allies. The issue that bought Peel down was him changing his mind on legislation that protected the price of bread, the Corn Laws. This policy was bought in after the Napoleonic Wars to protect the income of the landowners who were the backbone of the Tory Party. Peel repealed the Corn Laws in 1846 after pressure exerted by the highly successful pressure group the Anti Corn Law League. It split the Tory Party between those who supported protection and those in favour of Free Trade. The divide led to the Tories being out of power for 30 years. Repeal had a dramatic impact on food halving its price directly benefiting those on low incomes.

When Peel died in a riding accident in 1850 there was a universal sense of loss especially among the working class. This sense of grief was felt in Leek when a meeting was held in the Swan in September 1850 to consider what to do to honour Peel's memory who incidentally was a Staffordshire MP- he represented Tamworth.

Mr Doxey a working man spoke at the meeting said that as a consequence of Peel's Government “ We are in a state of peace, our trade was good, and we are blessed with an abundance with food and clothing within the reach of the working man. We have also our Mechanic Institute where knowledge was cheap and many excellent institutions, where the needy were carried for. He was an admirer of a great man , through whose influences the condition of the poor had so much benefited”

 A show of hands at the meeting proposed that money raised in Leek should go to the building of almshouses for the poor. Another view outlined in a poster addressed to the Working Men of Leek favoured public baths in the town as had been erected to Peel's memory in Macclesfield.

 I don't know what happened to the funds that were collected, but around the industrial north still exist memorials to the Tory Statesman. Peel Park's still exist in Bradford, Blackpool and Salford.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The conservatism of Moorlanders- the experience of WH Hudson

In May 1913 the Anglo Argentinian writer WH Hudson was in the area. He was at the peak of his powers and had produced many books on bird watching and nature either in Britain or on Latin America. His most well known book “Green Mansions” was published in 1904 and often cited as the first ecological novel subtitled- A romance of the Tropical Forest- it is a mystical novel on the life of a forest child in the Amazonian jungle who is at one with the animals of the jungle. Hudson was collecting material on Axe Edge for a book “Adventures Among Birds”. Hudson was not impressed by the locals comparing them unfavourably with the more fiery Lancastrians. He blamed their lack of spirit and energy on Methodism.

“Moorlanders are not a happy looking or a lively people. They have colourless faces and for good looks compare badly with inhabitants of the adjoining districts.

The farming methods were backward. “The farmers depend mainly on their lean ill fed cows for a livelihood: they make butter and feed a pig or two with the skim milk. They live on bacon and buttermilk themselves and bread which they make or buy, but vegetables and fruit are luxuries”

“I asked several farmers why they did not cut bracken which was plentiful enough, to serve as bedding for cows, since they could not get straw. They answered that occasionally a farmer did so, but it was not a custom and they thought the cows did just as well without bedding at all!”

Hudson encountered the innate deep rooted conservatism of the area. This entirely coincides with an account from a farmer Tom Mullins born in 1863 whose autobiography is included in a collection of writings of working people called “Useful Toil” published by Penguin in the 70s. Mullins whose book was collected when he was an old man recounts walking to Leek market as 10 year old from his parent’s farm at Rushton Spencer with a basket containing two hundred eggs on one arm and another basket with twelve pounds of butter on the other.

In the 1870s Mullins records that the reaction of the locals when the first steam powered farm machines arrived in the area was one of laughter! The farming methods described are not far removed from the medieval with Mullins quoting a farmer who was so far opposed to anything modern that he even refused to use horses.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

A Socialist in Leek- the strange case of Victor Grayson MP

Even from the distance of 106 years you can get a  feeling of the euphoria that gripped the packed audience in Leek Town Hall in October 1907. The speaker who held the crowd enthralled that autumn night was the newly elected Socialist MP for the Colne Valley Victor Grayson. He had won the seat in a by election pulling off an improbable victory against the odds. He was known as a great orator and the power of his speech making still leaps off the page as the Post, as was usual, carried a verbatim account of Grayson's speech.
Grayson's speech was full of humour, expressive and coached in a biblical language that many of his audience would have easily understood. 

( A few days earlier a future leader of the Labour Party Arthur Henderson was preaching at a chapel in town )

 It was no use talking about political economy in heaven. They could not find in the Bible “ Blessed be the rich, but they found without qualification of any kind “ Woe unto the rich and blessed be ye poor”
He could use description pretty well

“He had seen crowds of children standing in the streets of Ancoats miserably clad and half starved and thought that this was the best way to rear criminals”

Grayson was not afraid to use the word “ Socialist” which he used 40 or so times in his address and also to engage in class warfare with an attack of the Duke of Rutland “ He has accused socialists of thieving and immortality of all people Dukes accusing others of thieving and immortality”.

Unfortunately a glittering career did not materialise for him and he lost his West Riding seat at the next General Election. Grayson's heavy drinking did not find favour with his non conformist electorate. After the First World War he attempted a comeback. Grayson became involved in a bitter campaign against the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. He claimed to have proof that Lloyd George was involved in selling political honours and the involvement of an MI5 agent,  Maundy Gregory, in this corrupt practice. In September 1920, Grayson was beaten up in The Strand. He claimed that it was an attempt to silence him and stop him naming the "monocled dandy" (Gregory) as a key player in the sale of honours. A few days later he received a telephone call whilst out drinking with friends. He told his friends that he would be back shortly and left them. Later that evening he was seen entering a house down by the River Thames. After that, he was never seen again.