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.

Bombay long ago

IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY AD, long before the islands on which Bombay now stands were occupied by the Mughals, then the Portuguese, and then the British, Lakshman Prabhu, a minister in the court of the Sihara Dynasty (8th to 13th centuries AD), built a tank (reservoir) on what is now the elegant residential area known as Malabar Hill. This water body, the Banganga Tank, was rebuilt in 1715 and had been cleaned up recently. Neither my wife nor I had heard of it until a correspondent, Donna Young, suggested we visit it.

The approach road that leads off one of the main roads in Malabar Hill enters an area where on one side of the thoroughfare there are expensive apartment blocks. They face a line of badly built modest homes (slightly better than slum dwellings and some with TV satellite dish aerials) all of which must have great views of the Arabian Sea.

The tank is rectangular in plan and surrounded by steps with wide landings leading down to the water, which enters the pool at one corner at a fast rate of flow. Ducks and geese rest on the steps or swim in the water in the tank.

The tank is surrounded by low buildings, many of which are Hindu temples. Occasional gaps between the buildings have staircases that lead down to the steps surrounding the tank. Some of these gaps are flanked by towers containing many niches for placing diyas (oil lamps). Some of these have become perching places popular with pigeons.

The road running around the tank is the only thoroughfare for the community, mainly Hindus, who live around the tank. This community, though by no means impoverished, is far less prosperous than that which occupies most of Malabar Hill.

Banganga Tank is very picturesque and a complete contrast to its surrounding elegant mansions and apartment blocks built mainly from the 1920s onwards. It is a well preserved early mediaeval environment in the heart of busy, modern Bombay. It should be on tourists’ itineraries, and judging by a group of middle-aged Italian camera toting tourists I saw, I believe it is already.

While I was wandering around exploring, my wife sat on a wall near some parked motorcycles. There were some young men joking amongst each other nearby. One said to another: “You are fourth class fail.” He replied: ”You are second class fail.” At this point, my wife asked if one of the bikes could be moved slightly to give her legs more room. As a third boy shifted the bike, one of the others laughed and said: “Oho, that one is KG fail” (KG is short for kindergarten).

Pink flamingos

WHEN I WAS A SMALL CHILD, I used to be taken to see the small menagerie at Golders Hill Park in Northwest London. In addition to wallabies and deer, there used to be, and it is probably still in existence, an enclosure containing a few flamingos. Until a recent visit to Mandvi in Kutch (Gujarat, India), these were the only flamingos I can recall seeing.

Every year, flamingos migrate to Kutch during the winter months to escape from the cold that affects their summer habitats during winter. They might fly in from central Asia, or from parts of India that get particularly cold in winter.

We were keen to see these flamingos in Kutch. A keen bird watcher, who lives in Baroda, told us that flamingos had been sighted at Modhva beach, a few miles east of Kutch Mandvi.

We drove to Modhva beach, arriving there about twenty minutes before sunset. At first, the only birds we could see were seagulls. There were no flamingos to be seen. We asked some local fishermen about them. They pointed at the sea.

Our driver, who must have keen eyesight, pointed at some specks on the surface of sea, maybe more than one hundred yards from the water’s edge. Using the twenty times optical zoom on my digital camera, I could see quite clearly that the specks were flamingos with pink and white plumage.

I managed to take a few photographs before the sun sunk rapidly below the horizon. I had seen flamingos in the wild for the first time in my life. It was an exciting experience.

Flying rats

pigeons

 

My late mother was awfully concerned about avoiding germs. For example, every can of food had to be washed before opening it just in case rats or mice had scampered across it in a warehouse.  Also, when we visited toilets in public places in the 1960s, we were told to put toilet paper on the seats so that we would not pick up germs that other users had left behind. Interestingly, in many public toilets nowadays, notably on aeroplanes, disposable toilet seat covers are provided. Mum would have approved of this development.

Recently while rummaging through some old photographs, I came across one of me, aged about 10, in Siena, Italy. I was kneeling on the floor feeding pigeons that had flown on to my hand. As a child, I loved doing this. My parents would buy me a paper cone filled with corn seeds. I would fill my palm with some of these, and then pigeons used to perch on my finger tips and pick up bits of corn with their beaks. I remember that the pigeon’s ‘feet’ felt quite soft. Feeding these creatures was a real treat.

Well, I was not unusual. Many people enjoy feeding birds from their hands. Today, in London’s Kensington Gardens there are flocks of green parakeets that happily feed from visitors’ hands.

The surprising thing was that my germ conscious mother permitted my sister and me to feed pigeons as described already. In New York, pigeons are known as ‘flying rats’. Pigeons are are actually less hygienic than rats and they carry mites, which irritate human skin. I cannot believe that pigeons in Italian cities in the 1960s were any cleaner than those flying about today. Had my mother been aware of the pigeons’ unsavoury lack of hygiene, feeding these creatures would have been totally forbidden to my sister and I. I am pleased that she did not realise that the dear flying rats are so filthy!