Thursday, 14 April 2016

Beating the Bounds

SATURDAY, August 27 2016 will see the people of Caldbeck walk the boundaries of their parish – a tradition held every 21 years.
Why only every 21 years is anyone's guess. Such 'beatings of the bounds' are normally held annually although there are probably only a few dozen parishes in England that continue the tradition. And Wigton must be one of the last in Cumbria.
North of the border the tradition is more commonly continued as Common Riding or Riding the Marches and an echo of this can be found at Egremont each September when 'Riding the Boundary' sees horse riders process from the sports field to the town centre and back (ie not around the town's boundary!).
Such traditions were usually held at Rogationtide (so that's roughly just after the fifth Sunday after Easter) and had a very clear purpose. The people of the village would walk the boundary ensuring everyone knew precisely where it was and hopefully boundary disputes could be avoided. In some parishes the procession would literally go through someone's house and out a rear window if the house was unfortunate enough to lie across the boundary!
To help 'mark' the boundary specific stones or trees would be used but a more traditional way of ensuring young people remembered might be to give them the 'bumps' at important spots or even hold them upside down and (gently) bump their head on the ground. In 1871, a perambulation in Beckermet impressed the route on their youngsters by throwing pennies into the beck which formed the boundary and allowing them to scramble after the coins. At other spots songs were sung, sports were held or tobacco distributed. The Beckermet tradition died out at the turn of the 20th Century but was revived in 2003 as a charity fundraising venture by West Lakeland Rotary and Inner Wheel.
The only other revival of a boundary tradition that springs to mind is fell-runner Joss Naylor's beating of the Wasdale boundary in 2012 to mark the Queen's Jubilee. It's a route that stretched for 35 miles with an ascent of 11,000ft so it's probably safe to say it won't be repeated by others any time soon.
* Details have not yet been released of the Caldbeck boundary walk on August 27 but will be announced on www.caldbeck.org.uk. Patterdale also holds an annual parish walk; this year it is on Saturday, July 2. See www.helvellyn.com/patterdale_boundary_walk.html

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The thrush's anvil

The thrush on his anvil
The thrush on his anvil. Picture: Derek Parker
I DON'T want to go all Alfred Hitchcock on you but it seems birds have long had the ability to adapt twigs, stones and other objects into tools. A couple of years ago a video of rooks using tools did the rounds on social media. They were pictured dropping stones into a tube of water to release food and even bending a piece of wire to make a hook. They may not be ready to topple man from the top of the food chain but it's a surprising insight into creatures we may assume are, well, bird-brained. Around the world birds have been seen fishing (by dropping objects onto a river to attract fish) and using twigs to hook or tease out insects from tree bark but there are also English birds who are not shy to show off their engineering skills.

While wandering beyond Surprise View (which overlooks Derwentwater, near Keswick), I took a slight detour to look at a red squirrel feeding station. I'm not sure who operates this feeder and it's certainly not flagged up on any websites or tourist information leaflets but it's an easy spot to photograph those elusive red squirrels. However on this occasion I was there at the wrong time (squirrels go for a siesta between midday and 4pm). I was, however, able to watch the coal tits and great tits swooping on the feeder for scraps left over from the squirrels' morning feed and among them was the nuthatch. With its highly improbably black eye mask it looks like a reject from the new Batman v Superman movie. It's this distinctive black band which quickly differentiates it from that other tree-hugger, the treecreeper. The nuthatch is thankfully now a common sight in Cumbria so it's a surprise to many people to learn that it's only in the last 20 years the nuthatch has moved north to colonise our county. He's a welcome immigrant.

It should be no surprise to see the nuthatch keeping company with squirrels; they have much in common. Just like the squirrel, the nuthatch will 'bury' food – usually in tree crevices or under stones – to retrieve at a later date. But it's their engineering prowess I am reminded to note: given a particularly big nut or seed, the nuthatch will push it into a piece of bark using it as a vice to hold it steady while the bird pecks it into smaller bits.

But our most prolific workman is the thrush. And even if you're never fortunate enough to see this master craftsman at work you are likely to stumble across what is known as "the thrush's anvil". The thrush has discovered how to extract a snail from its protective shell by smashing the unfortunate mollusc against a stone (the anvil). You'll often hear the thrush at work before you see him and keep an eye out while walking for these stone anvils - they're easy to spot with the dozens of broken snail shells lying around it.

Web links
www.rspb.org.uk offers an overview of birds and their habits
www.thelandreader.com gives a glossary of the language of the landscape