Saturday, 28 January 2012

Cher-tee Tee-cher

Sun has blown the top off winter
Letting the shock chills through

Among the twigs, Great Tits
Spritzing and spooling

Learning a new generation's brogue
Lisping "Cher-tee" "Cher-tee"

While perched over gravestones
The parent birds tut

"Tee-cher" "Tee-cher"
Best learn this quick

Before hawk and kestrel
Hear callow tweets and tango

Down from the blue all talons
To take your fragile feathers

Fresh from the egg and nest

Lilting the timeless song
With sore thumb variations

But the babies flitter up bickering
Through razor edge pearl hard air

Tonguing their mutant rhythm
Play twig-tag, risk and skip

Wondering if the tower is heaven
Or just another tree

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Cormorants & Constellations at RSPB Old Moor

Spent a beautiful winter's afternoon and twilight today at RSPB Old Moor in the Dearne Valley.

The "Cormorants & Constellations" Event started with a spot of guided wildfowl watching. Then as the sky darkened, a glimpse through some powerful telescopes provided by the local Mexborough & Swinton Astronomical Society as Venus and Jupiter came out to play between the rolling clouds. This stargazing was timed to coincide with the BBC's Stargazing Live programmes. Some enthusiastic young astronomers in the making were there with their families today, enjoying all that Old Moor and the MSAS have to offer to the Patrick Moores and Professor Brian Coxs of the future!

Thanks to the all wonderful staff at Old Moor, including John and Jeff who took us on guided walk No 2 to the Wader Scrape as the rain swept down and the wind buffeted the water.

Started by seeing Bullfinches and Blue Tits from the visitor centre and then wandered into the play area before the walk, where a cloud of Magpies sat in a treetop before flying rattling exuberantly over our heads.

In Wader Scrape, we looked across towards Darfield church tower, past a stormy scene alive with wildfowl and other birds battling the elements. Flocks of Lapwing, a Great Crested Grebe in its winter plumage, Goosander, Mute Swan, Mallard, Coot, Moorhen, a Great Black-Backed Gull sitting dominating an island, Little Egret, and a male Pheasant scuttling across in front of the hide. Many more, including Carrion Crows, flocks of Starling in the distance over Darfield way, and, of course, a row of Cormorant, proud to know the day named in their honour was going so well!

Jupiter with its moons and Venus shining bright, the evening star in all its splendour, made the stargazing part of the evening a joy in spite of encroaching cloud cover. The Gannets Cafe for a warm cuppa and a bite to eat warmed us up nicely again, with accompanying footage of the earth from the International Space Station. Over in the Classroom, another film was showing, very popular indeed, you had to be quick off the mark to secure a seat! Shows how popular Old Moor is, and with very good reason!

The whole visit was a delight as always. Reminded me how much I love Old Moor, how it's been too long since my last visit, and how good it will be to head back there as soon as health and opportunity permits.

Our friends Sue & Col, and my mum arriving for the fun
This wind turbine sounded ready to take off in the gusty January wind!

Me, three layers of thermals (TMI!), bins, silly woolly hat and walking stick with inbuilt seat affectionately known in my house as the "Ironing Board" for its rather-bulky-but-comfy design. Vanity's not one of my many vices, obviously!
Magpies flocking. They're like Marmite - love 'em or hate 'em. I adore them, the zany clowns of the crow world!
The free giveaway info cards to tie in with BBC's "Stargazing Live"

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Written in the Stars - or spelled out by the Geese!

Pink Footed Geese over Bolton-on-Dearne, flying back to RSPB Reserve Old Moor this weekend

The photo hastily clicked off from my mobile doesn't do them justice! Somehow the "rule of thirds" picture composition guideline was scuppered by that pesky overhead cable, but at least it gives some perspective to this winter spectacle!

I was disappointed to be too weak, as I often am, to make it to the beautiful RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Reserve at Old Moor, in the Dearne Valley near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. But as I was going to a friend's for lunch after church, I heard a honking getting louder and louder. At first I thought it must be a neighbour on the estate on the slopes of the valley who was keeping domestic hens. Then I realised the sound was coming from the sky, high above us.

I looked up to see an expansive "V" formation of geese streaming across the leaden skies of an unpromising Sunday lunchtime. People were going about their business. Folk were in their kitchens preparing meals. One chap was tinkering with his car further down the street. Nobody seemed to notice, but I was transfixed.

No, I didn't make it to Old Moor, one of my favourite local birdwatching spots, this time. But instead, the birds came my way. When I got home the following day, I tweeted about the birds and one of the lovely staff at Old Moor replied to my tweet that the birds were actually Pink Footed Geese. They also joked that they'd sent the geese out flying around as publicity in return for their B&B! It certainly worked!

I'm hoping, if well enough in a couple of weeks, and if I can interest two other birdwatching, skygazing friends to accompany us, to go to Cormorants & Constellations: Stargazing Returns! This is an event hosted by RSPB Dearne Valley - Old Moor in collaboration with the Mexborough & Swinton Astronomcal Society later this month. Taking advantage of the flocks of winter bird visitors and the spectacular night skies of late January, members of the public will be able to watch the wildfowl coming in to roost (after a fly-past like they're doing in the photo above!) before having a unique chance to look at the stars and planets through powerful telescopes.

There'll even be a planetarium set up in the Visitor Centre, footage of stars in the Classroom area and new film of our Earth from space, taken by the ISS (International Space Station). The latter will take in place in the Gannets Cafe/Restaurant. Anyone who has ever been to Old Moor will know that place is second to none in Yorkshire for its simple warm welcome and excellent food prepared from local produce. Booking essential, so I'm really hoping I can manage to be there this time!

Looking at that photo I took again, I reckon the geese have changed their usual "V" into a curly "C" to advertise the Cormorants and Constellations event at which they may well be among the stars!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

This Melancholy Act: Suicide and Secrecy in Victorian Yorkshire Part 2

G. F. Watts - Found Drowned - Oil on Canvas ca 1848-50

I wrote last September here about the ripple effects through our family history of the suicide of my great great great great grandmother Nancy Turner in January 1856.

Friends who read this will know how much I want to understand more of what happened. My hope is to track down the actual inquest one day.

Blogging and social networking can bring such helpful blessings! One person who came across my blogpost was my fourth cousin once removed, David. David is also descended from Nancy and Thomas, through their youngest child, Charlotte, sister of my 3x great grandmother Hannah. We "met" through our mutual interest in our shared ancestry but had lost touch since I changed laptops!

He got in touch again, much to my delight, when he guessed I was the author of the post about the tragedy. He was kind enough to point me in the direction of the British Newspaper Archive. This resource is searchable for free online, and if you find a newspaper cutting you want to see in detail or to download, there are various levels of subscription, starting at a 2-Day Package of 500 credits valid for 2 days currently costing £6.95.

From the BNA, two issues of the Yorkshire Gazette reveal a little more of our ancestors' story. The first mention of the tragedy appeared on page 10 of the Gazette published on Saturday 26th January 1856. This was a shock in itself. I knew Nancy had died the following day, Sunday 27th, according to her death certificate, issued on March 20th after what we have to conclude was a lengthy inquest. So why was the incident being mentioned before it took place?

The truth is even worse than imagined. Nancy did not die quickly, but attempted to cut her throat with a penknife the previous Monday and was still alive, apparently recovering when the Gazette went to press at the weekend. More upsetting still, the paper reveals she was in bed with Thomas at the time of her attempted suicide. What he and the rest of our family living in the Barlby farmhouse at the time must have gone through, is hard to contemplate:

--On Monday last, the wife of Mr Thos. Turner, of
Barlby, farmer, attempted to destroy herself by cutting
her throat with a pen-knife. She was in bed at the time
with her husband, and he shortly afterwards, from the
noise he heard, found out what had been done. Medical
aid was shortly procured, and she is now in a fair way of
recovery. The unfortunate woman has been in a
desponding state for some time, which was no doubt the
cause of this melancholy act.

Without the full inquest, or some further insight into Nancy's state of mind, we can still only speculate what triggered the act of despair. We can't know if she was suffering from some form of depression we might recognise as a mental health condition today, or whether her final heartbreaking decision was triggered by events that she couldn't bear any longer, such as the emigration and death of several of her close relations including children and grandchildren. But we can glimpse the devastation and grief, even stigma the family had to face then and in the years ahead.

Sadly the Yorkshire Gazette's prognosis for Nancy's recovery was premature and flawed. She died the next day, after living on for almost a week in that state of utter agony and internal torture. The next issue of the Gazette on Saturday 2nd February carried her obituary on page 3:

On Sunday, the 27th ult.,...aged 66, Nancy, wife of Mr Thomas Turner,
of Barlby, farmer. In our last week's paper we stated that
she cut her throat with a penknife on the 21st ult.

R.I.P Nancy. Your blood runs through my veins, and I feel privileged to trace your story and share your sadness. I hope you have now found the peace you could not enjoy in this world. You will never be forgotten.

A Victorian chart analysing the causes of suicide: Nancy was deemed "Insane in mind" instead of the verdict "felo-de-se", deliberate, "intentional" self murder, which was still considered a crime in 1856. You were a criminal, by law, if you failed and insane if you succeeded (source: Victorian Web)
Thankfully, unlike many who were not permitted to be buried in "consecrated ground," I finally found Nancy's grave in the churchyard at Barlby, where, in the sad years that followed the "melancholy act," she was joined by her daughter Charlotte Vollans who died just after her 38th birthday in 1858 and Nancy's widower Thomas, who died in September 1861 and whose body was transported from his farm in Hatfield Woodhouse to lie beside Nancy near the home they once shared.

To the memory of
Nancy the beloved wife of
Thomas Turner of Barlby farmer
Who died January the 27th 1856
Aged 66 years
Also Charlotte Vol(l)ans daughter
Of the above named Nancy and 
Thomas Turner who departed this
Life June the 15th 1858
Aged 38 years
Also the above named
Thomas Turner
Who departed this life
September 6th 1861
Aged 77 years

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Next Year's Words

"Looking at God's creation, it is pretty clear that the creator itself did not know when to stop. There is not one pink flower, or even fifty pink flowers, but hundreds. Snowflakes, of course, are the ultimate exercise in sheer creative glee. No two alike. This creator looks suspiciously like someone who just might send us support for our creative ventures." - Julia Cameron 'The Artist's Way'

New Year's Day presents itself as an open-faced virgin page. It waits for lives to live themselves in its playground of possibilities. For me and writers everywhere, the blank page is both a place of breathtaking expectation and a wilderness of dithering dilemmas, even fear and block.

New Years' Resolutions are often broken before I have time to put pen to paper or, these days, fingertip to key. A writer's not a writer unless they are writing. So I go on writing and never look back, unless to face down shadows that need to pour themselves into prose or poetry, or to gather half-forgotten scents and scenes and pin them to the page. This year, as every year, this is my resolution.

T.S.Eliot wrote the following lines in "Little Gidding" from his "Four Quartets":

"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice."

Better not keep them waiting, then! What on earth or in heaven would we be waiting for?