He criticised Charles Darwin

IT AMAZES ME that one can walk along the same route many times and miss features that turn out to be fascinating. I do not know how many times we have walked past Leinster Square near Bayswater and missed seeing a small information plaque attached to the cast-iron railings that keep the public out of the lovely private Leinster Square Gardens. Today, the 1st of April 2021, we saw it for the first time. Apart from providing a short history of this London square, it also mentions a person, about whom I have been curious for a while, since seeing a memorial to him near Portobello Road during our first covid19 ‘lockdown’.

Leinster Square was laid out by a property developer, George Wyatt, between 1856 and 1864 on land that was once used for market gardening and plant nurseries (http://www.lsga.org.uk/LSGA_Histories.html#:~:text=Building%20began%20in%201856%20and,character%20soon%20grew%20rather%20mixed.) The first inhabitants of the square were wealthy but soon the square became surrounded by hotels, flats, and lodging houses. Since then, this has remained the case. The buildings surround a beautifully maintained private garden, accessible mainly to people living around the square.

An article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leinster_Square) lists the following ‘notable residents’ of the square: the suffragette Georgina Fanny Cheffins (1863-1932); the musician Sting; and the architect Sir Charles Locke Eastlake (1836-1906). The article does not mention the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), who lived at both numbers 11 and 16 Leinster Square.

William Henry Hudson

Hudson was born in Quilmes, Argentina, son of parents of English and Irish origin, settlers from the USA. His father Daniel was son of a Devon man and an Irish mother. William’s mother was born in Maine (USA), a descendant of one of the Pilgrim Fathers. During his youth in Argentina, William made many observations about the local flora and fauna as well as human activity. Some of his findings, mainly ornithological, were published in the prestigious “Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society” and were communicated to the Smithsonian Institute in the USA. His life, his works, his travels, and his extensive writings, have been described in detail in “WH Hudson. A Biography” by Ruth Tomalin.

On the 1st of April 1874, William departed from Argentina on board the “Ebro”, bound for Southampton in England, a journey that lasted 33 days. One of the first places Hudson visited was Clyst Hydon in Devon, where his father had lived. By the 22nd of December 1875, he had received his ticket for the reading room at the British Museum. It gave his address as 40 St Lukes Road, Bayswater. Known as the Tower House, this was a boarding house run by Miss Wingrave. The house, which still stands is at the corner of St Luke’s Road and Tavistock Road, close to Portobello Road. It bears two plaques commemorating the life of Hudson. It was in this house that he died. However, in between first arriving at this address and his final days, he lived in Leinster Square for a while.

Hudson’s hopes of gaining recognition in the scientific circles in London were disappointed. His romantic and artistic approach to natural history did not chime well with the London’s scientific elite with its more purely objective approach and its disdain for amateurs, however diligent they might be. And also, as Tomalin explained, Hudson did not:

“…belong to the right public school and university background.”

Unable and unwilling to join London’s somewhat dry academic community, Hudson, often short of money, wrote and published a great deal: fiction, non-fiction, natural history, travel, and poetry. On the 18th of May 1876, he married his landlady Emily Wingrave, once a professional singer (a soprano). His wife gave ‘no profession’ on the wedding certificate. She and William moved into number 16 Leinster Square, where she let out some of its rooms to paying guests. Although she claimed to be two years older than her husband, it was not for many years that he learned that she was 11 years older than him.

By 1878, the couple had moved into number 16 Leinster Square. Tomalin wrote of Emily:

“She gave him [i.e. Hudson] a home, companionship…, and a chance to devote himself to the slow unfolding of his gifts; something of the security of the mother and child relationship which, as his writings show, was often in his thoughts.”

After the Tower House came into the possession of Emily when her sister died, the Hudsons moved back there from Leinster Square, where the letting business had failed. Hudson was a keen opponent of cruelty to animal life and killing birds for collections. He was in touch with some women in Manchester, who founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Birds (‘RSPB’) in 1889. From the start he was a keen supporter of the RSPB and became the Chairman of its Committee in 1894.

In the summer of 1911, Emily became seriously ill and increasingly dependent of William’s assistance.  After this, she suffered more bouts of illness. She died in March 1921. After her death, William rewrote his will, leaving much to the RSPB. Hudson died a year later in bed at Tower House, having just put the finishing touches on his last book, “A Hind in Richmond Park”.

This brief essay hardly does justice to the life of a remarkable naturalist, who criticised Charles Darwin in 1870, claiming, in connection with the great man’s fleeting observations a particular type of bird:

“… so great a deviation from the truth in this instance might give opponents of his book a reason for considering other statements in it erroneous or exaggerated…

…The perusal of the passage I have quoted from, to one acquainted with the bird referred to, and its habitat, might induce him to believe that the author purposely wrested the truths of Nature to prove his theory…”

The book referred to was Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. Hudson’s letter evoked a long and detailed response from Darwin, which was published in the “Proceedings of the Zoological Society”, which had also published Hudson’s criticisms. Although Hudson exonerated Darwin of having “wrested the truths of Nature … etc”, Darwin wrote in response:

“… I should be loath to think that there are many naturalists who, without any evidence, would accuse a fellow worker of telling a deliberate falsehood to prove his theory.”

Tomalin points out that Hudson’s criticism of Darwin was not surprising because he was not a believer in evolution as formulated by Darwin. Hudson believed in the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Putting it extremely simply, Lamarck believed that, for example, giraffes developed long necks so that they could reach the highest of leaves, whereas as Darwin believed that variants of giraffes that grew long necks had a better chance of survival and propagation than variants which did not and were therefore less able to survive and multiply.

Hudson would have appreciated Leinster Square and its lovely garden, a haven for birds and plants, had he been able to see it today. He would have easily recognised Tower House in St Luke’s Road, which has apparently changed little since he lived there. Once again, keeping one’s eyes open even when walking somewhere familiar can often lead to exciting discoveries. It would take more than a lifetime of visiting the same place repeatedly to become familiar with each and every one of its varied aspects.

A small zoo in north London

EVERY VISIT TO GOLDERS Hill Park in northwest London gives me great pleasure. Now officially part of Hampstead Heath, it contains a lovely feature, its small zoo. This consists of a large paddock containing deer and sometimes a rhea. Close to this, is a series of cages, an aviary, containing exotic birdlife including a laughing kookaburra. These are located next to an enclosure that contains a small group of ring-tailed lemurs. The lemurs’ neighbours are several wallabies and a couple of donkeys, named Sienna and Calypso. The wallabies and the donkeys have a long rectangular sloping field in which to wander.

I have written about the park and the zoo before, and published it elsewhere (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/19/walking-past-wallabies/). When I wrote that piece, I did not explore the small zoo’s history. It was certainly present well over 60 years ago, when I was less than ten years old. As a small boy, I remember seeing wallabies and flamingos. More recently, the flamingos have disappeared and have been replaced by ibis and various other exotic fowl. Before my time, the flamingos used to reside in the duck pond next to the park’s walled garden (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=BAR027).

The zoo’s history is difficult to ascertain. After searching the Google entries relating to the park and its history, I found only one reference that alludes to the presence of the zoo prior to WW2. This consists of a recording of an interview (https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science/021M-C1379X0029XX-0001V0) with the scientist Sir Anthony Seymour Laughton (1927-2019), an oceanographer. Laughton was born in Golders Green, began his education in Hampstead at Heysham School, a ‘dame school’ (private elementary school) in Branch Hill, and moved to Gerrards Cross during WW2 (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbm.2020.0021). As a young child, Laughton lived in one of the small roads that lead of North End Road and back on to Golders Hill Park. He and his brother were often taken to Golders Hill Park where he remembered that there was a small zoo with wallabies. This would have been before 1939, when he and his family moved out of London. So, we can conclude that the zoo was in existence before WW2.

According to Pam Fox, author of “The Jewish Community of Golders Green”, Golders Hill Park was popular with local Jewish families, who went:

“Golders Hill Park on Sundays to watch the peacocks strutting around the grounds of Golders Hill House.”

The House was destroyed in 1941. Laughton did not mention these in his interview and, sadly, there are none to be seen today.

To discover whether the little zoo existed before Laughton’s childhood, that is prior to 1927, I looked at a detailed map, surveyed in 1912. This was after the park was opened to the public by the London County Council in 1899, making it the first public park to have been opened in what was then the Borough of Hendon (now incorporated into the Borough of Barnet). I compared what was on that map with what is on modern maps and found that the park’s layout has not changed much since 1912. The bandstand that you can see today is where there was one back in 1912. Where there is the deer enclosure today, there was a similarly shaped and located fenced field in 1912. The same is the case for the long narrow field where you can see the wallabies and donkeys today. The 1912 map does not show any buildings where the aviary is located today, but apart from that the pattern of land enclosures in the part of the park where animals and birds are kept enclosed today is remarkably similar. The question is, and I cannot answer it, was what is now a deer enclosure, then a deer or other animal enclosure? Here is another as yet unanswerable question: did the long rectangular field where the wallabies live today enclose animals for viewing by the public as long ag as in 1912?

Prior to becoming a public park, Golders Hill Park was the gardens of the now long-since demolished Golders Hill House, built in the 1760s for the merchant Charles Dingley (1711-1769), who traded with Russia (www.leeandstort.co.uk/Stort%20History/Charles%20DINGLEY%20Biography.pdf). I have not found any references to any collections of birds and animals in Golders Hill Park prior to the childhood of Laughton, the oceanographer. It is possible that the merchant Charles Dingley or later owners of the property might have kept deer and even exotic creatures, but there is no evidence to confirm or deny this.

What is important, is that the little zoo, which I remember from the 1950s, is still thriving today and providing enjoyment for children of all ages. Whether the various creatures ‘enjoy’ being caged-up and gawped at is a question I cannot begin to answer.

Walking past wallabies

FILTHY SLIPPERY MUD deterred us from exploring a section of the path running beside a stretch of Dollis Brook in north London. After abandoning our attempts to negotiate this slippery, squelchy, wet path, we decided to visit Golders Hill Park, one of our favourite open spaces in north west London. I have been visiting this park since I was a small child, for over six decades. Formerly, the park was the grounds of a mansion, built for Charles Dingley (1711-1769), long since demolished (see: https://adamyamey.co.uk/waugh-and-pitt-hampstead-north-end/).

We sat on a bench near to the North End Road entrance to the park, which is close to where the demolished mansion once stood. From our bench, we had a fine view of the gardens, lawns, and mature trees, sloping away from us. It is a view that reminded us of the landscaped gardens that sweep away from fine mansions such as can be seen at Compton Verney (in Warwickshire), Osterley Park, and Kenwood House. I mention Kenwood House in particular because the man who had a hand in landscaping its grounds, Humphrey Repton (1752-1815), was also involved in the design of the gardens, now park, of the former mansion at Golders Hill.

We walked around the park, first passing a deserted bandstand. Soon, we arrived in the part of the park, which I loved as a child and still enjoy as I approach my ‘second childhood’. It is a small zoo. Although many would question whether animals are happy to be confined to cages, these creatures provide much pleasure to city dwellers. There is a vast field that contains various types of deer and occasionally a rhea, which looks like a kind of ostrich. Most of the other enclosures in this small zoo are smaller than the deer enclosure.

An enclosure, which used to house flamingos when I was a child, contains a variety of exotic waterfowl including some with long, slender curling beaks. Close to this, there is a larger enclosure in which three or four ring-tailed lemurs pass the time of day.

Another large enclosure, slightly smaller than that where the deer spend their time, contains what for me is the highlight of the zoo. These creatures, which intrigue me, are wallabies. They are Bennett’s (red necked) wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus). If you wish to see these in their natural habitat, you will need to fly to western Australia or Tasmania. I have not yet discovered when these cute looking creatures from ‘down-under’ first began to be displayed in the park, but they have been present in Golders Hill Park ever since I can remember, and that includes the late 1950s. A sign attached to the fence around the area in which the wallabies live describes the antipodean creatures as ‘The Golders Hill Mob’.

During our latest visit today, the 10th of October 2020, we saw a creature we had never noticed before. It was a bird of prey, a Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaguinea), which like the wallabies, is a native of Australasia. According to the notice attached to its cage, this handsome bird uses its beak to kill its prey by hitting it against a hard surface. Well, you learn something new every day.

As mentioned already, Golders Hill Park is amongst our favourite open spaces in London. In my early childhood, I remember being taken to the park and passing the public tennis courts where my parents played occasionally. Seeing the park, its lovely trees, its tiny zoo, and the tennis courts, was as usual an enjoyable experience. It was a good place to remember my parents with great fondness. One of them died forty years ago, and the other quite recently at the ripe old age of one hundred and one years.

Pelicans in the park

I HAVE BEEN FORTUNATE to have lived in parts of London close to large green open spaces. When I was at secondary school in Highgate (north London), I could walk there from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, hardly needing to walk along streets. It was a short distance from my house to the grassy Hampstead Heath Extension. From there, I crossed a road to enter the wooded part of Hampstead Heath through which I walked to the Spaniards Inn. Then a few hundred yards of pavement followed before I entered the pleasant landscaped grounds of Kenwood House. Walking through this lovely park brought me to within a few hundred yards of my senior school.

When I was a student at University College London (‘UCL’), I was able to walk there through green areas most of the way from my family home. By walking the length of Hampstead Heath Extension, and then strolling southwards across the eastern part of Hampstead Heath, I reached South End Green. From there, I had to tramp the streets towards Primrose Hill, where once again my feet were on grass instead of paving stones. Primrose Hill led straight to Regents Park and from that splendid open space, it was a short walk along pavements to UCL.

Since marrying over 27 years ago, we have lived close to the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens. We are about three to four minutes’ walk away from the gardens depending on whether the pedestrian traffic lights are in our favour or not. We can traverse Kensington Gardens, passing close to the so-called Round Pond and then reaching The Serpentine Lake, where maybe one might stop for a coffee at the café by the Lido on the Serpentine. From there, it is not a long distance to the southeast corner of Hyde Park, which is next to Hyde Park Corner, a small green space ringed by busy roads. After crossing Hyde Park Corner, maybe having walked beneath Wellington Arch, which is surmounted by a metal quadriga, one road needs traversing before entering Green Park, which lives up to its name with its expanses of lawn and rows of mature trees. If you wish, you can walk along the northern fringe of Green Park to reach the eastern third of Piccadilly, and then you have arrived in the heart of the West End hardly having stepped upon the pavements lining busy streets.

After walking east through Green Park, one reaches the Mall and the front of Buckingham Palace. Cross the Mall and then you are in St James Park. By crossing this beautiful green space, you will soon reach Parliament Square and beyond it the Thames and the South Bank area.

Let us linger awhile in St James Park. The feature that endears me to this London Park is the St James Park Lake and its rich assortment of waterfowl. The park was established by King Henry VII on marshland watered by the now no longer visible Tyburn River, which runs in underground conduits. The lake, probably designed by the French landscape designer André Mollet (d. before 16 June 1665), began life as a canal dug for King Charles II. The king used it for swimming in the summer and for skating when it froze in the winter (a rare occurrence nowadays, thanks to the so-called ‘global warming’ that many believe is occurring).

There is a pedestrian bridge across the water, two islands, and a fountain, in the lake. A wide variety of ducks, swans, geese, herons, cormorants (or shags), and other birds congregate in and around the water. This is nothing peculiar. You can see the same in The Round Pond, the Serpentine Lake, and many other water bodies that are dotted liberally across Greater London. However, St James Park offers one kind of bird that you will not find anywhere else in London except at the Zoo. The park is home to a small population of pelicans. These creatures are often hard to see as they usually perch on the islands in the lake, but yesterday, the 11th of October 2020, at least three of them were walking fearlessly (it seemed) along the edge of the lake close to admiring visitors including my wife and me.

In 1664, during the reign (1660-1685) of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland, pelicans were first introduced into St James Park. These distinctive long billed birds, which symbolise the Passion of Jesus and the Eucharist in Christian symbolism, were gifts of the Russian Ambassador, who knew that the king appreciated exotic waterfowl. Charles was presented with two grey or Dalmatian pelicans (Pelicanus crispus). Sadly, they did not breed successfully, and the park needed to be replenished with new specimens occasionally. An article in the online version of “Country Life” (www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/st-jamess-park-pelicans-sparked-cold-war-stand-off-russia-usa-171954), published in January 2018, reveals:

“The Russian Embassy’s custom of occasionally presenting new pelicans continued during and after the Soviet era and other organisations – such as the City of Prague in 2013 – have also added to the birds’ numbers.”

However, a diplomatic incident erupted in the 1960s, when:

“… London’s Royal Parks accepted some American pelicans for the lake in St James’s Park … According to Foreign Office tradition, the presence of the American pelicans resulted from a Cold War rivalry between the American and Soviet Embassies. One day, a newly accredited US Ambassador called on the Foreign Secretary, whose office overlooks the lake. He noticed the pelicans and was informed about their history and origin.

Determined not to be upstaged by the Soviet Ambassador, his opposite number announced that he, too, would be presenting some pelicans – American ones – to grace the lake, an offer that the Royal Parks management accepted gratefully.

When the American pelicans duly arrived, they were, predictably, not friendly to their Russian counterparts. Indeed, rather mysteriously, they failed to flourish and seemed miserable. The US Embassy suspected the Soviet Embassy of harming the American pelicans – which the Russians denied – and relations between the embassies became glacial.”

That incident is something that we did not see recorded on any of the numerous informative signs placed near the perimeter of the lake.

Londoners are most fortunate to have so many green spaces often within easy walking distance from their homes. Many other great cities of the world do have significantly large public green spaces, for example Central Park in New York, Cubbon Park in Bangalore, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and Kalemegdan in Belgrade, but few have so many as liberally distributed across their areas as does London. Being within walking distance of both Kensington Gardens and Holland Park during our recent severe month’s long ‘lockdown’ helped raise our spirits during this bleak period. Not only was the walking we did good for our spirits, but it gradually increased the distance that we can walk comfortably before becoming physically fatigued. Even when eventually the pandemic of covid19 dies down, we might well think twice about taking public transport now that we know how pleasant it is to walk instead.

PS: If you wish, you can watch the pelicans feeding in the lake on:  http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/50409682

Story of a tower

“IT’S THE TOWN’S SYMBOL, you see”, we were told by a friendly young man whom we met by chance in a churchyard in the town of Bruton in the county of Somerset.

“Never been up there myself, even though I’ve been living in Bruton all my life,” he told us, pointing at a tall tower on the summit of a hill overlooking the town.

“Where have you come from?” he asked us. When we replied ‘London’, he commented:

“Never been there myself. Have a good evening.”

Bruton is about 120 miles southwest of central London. The tower about which we had asked the young man is square in plan, is built of neatly cut limestone blocks, has three layers of windows, and looks (from below) as if it is missing its roof. The top parts of each of the four walls are triangular, looking as if they were once the side walls of gabled roofs.

The tower that stands in Bruton’s Jubilee Park is known as ‘The Dovecote’. The hill on which it stands rises steeply from the almost level fields of the public park. Birds, mainly pigeons, could be seen perching on the edges of the four gables at the top of the tower. It stands on a square plot 65 square feet in area and is situated on land over 300 feet above sea level, to the south of the centre of Bruton. Although it is tall, I have not been able to discover its height by searching the internet. That it has lost its roof, is recorded.

The tower stands in what was a deer park of about 30 acres established in about 1545-6 by the canons of the long-since demolished nearby Bruton Abbey (whose remains can be seen in the town). The park was later enlarged and surrounded by a wall. In the 18th century, the deer were removed. However, much earlier, in the 16th or, 17th century (actual date is uncertain although some of the timber used in the construction has been dated as being felled between 1554 and 1586), the present tower was built by the Berkly family. They acquired the land after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The tower was built to be used as a ‘prospect’ or ‘look out’ tower.

In about 1780, or maybe much earlier, the tower was converted to be used as a dovecote. Inside the tower, which we could not enter, there are roosting spaces (nesting boxes) for at least 200 doves. Long ago, pigeons and doves were an important food source. They were reared for their eggs, flesh, and dung. In 1915, the National Trust (‘NT’) acquired the freehold of the tower from Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare (1865-1947). Not only did Sir Henry give his tower to the NT, but also, more importantly, he also donated his family estate with its fabulous landscaped grounds at nearby Stourhead to the same organization in 1946. The Hoare family, about whom I hope to write soon, is also associated with another tower not far from Bruton, the Alfred Tower, which we have visited … but more on this anon.

Although we could not enter The Dovecote tower, we did one better than the young local with whom we spoke earlier; we walked up to its base.

A flight of pigeons

I FOUND MY COPY of “A Flight of Pigeons”, a short novel by Ruskin Bond (born 1934), amongst a collection of books about birds in the gift shop at Sanjay Gandhi National Park just north of Bombay. The book has little or nothing that would be of interest to ornithologists and other nature lovers.

The novel is about some English ladies during the First War of Indian Independence (‘Indian Mutiny’; 1857-58). They are some of the only survivors of an attack by Pathan forces on the town of Shahjahanpur.

The ladies are first given refuge by a Kayasth family, and then by various Pathan families. Having some Indian ancestry and a knowledge of Urdu, these English refugees were more or less successfully accepted into the Muslim Pathan families.

The young daughter, Ruth, becomes the object of the amorous intentions of one of the Pathans, who wants to marry her. Ruth’s mother has to try to prevent this from happening. I will not reveal what happens because I do not want to spoil the enjoyment of the reader of this simply told, compelling short book.

This is the first book I have read by Ruskin Bond. If it is typical of his writing, then I want to read more. Like the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, Bond skilfully manages to pack much into his book with great economy of words.