02 March 2015

Grey squirrel v. Red squirrel

It seems to me that Grey squirrels are more than a little like cats – those cats that know when someone doesn’t like them and purposefully seek out their laps to leap onto – or, at least, that is certainly the personality of the Grey squirrel that inhabits our garden. Let’s call him Sammy.

Sammy, our resident grey squirrel, and Bert, one of our fence-sitting pigeons
My housemate / landlady – let’s call her Jane – hates him, with good reason, as the little imp nibbled all the apples and pears off her fruit trees well before they grew big enough for her to harvest but he didn't touch a single one of the plump juicy delicious apples on the neighbour’s tree.

Sammy's Uncle Jim lives in a park in Runcorn
Jane loves most wild creatures and has worked in environmental management so she runs a wildlife-friendly garden, not cutting the hedge when the birds are nesting in it, leaving little piles of branches for hedgehogs to burrow under, littering the back lawn with bread, seeds and apple cores for the birds to eat when times are lean. Trouble is, Sammy likes to pinch the birds’ food as well – and he’s not very smart in processing it, rather stupidly choosing to bury pieces of bread in the flower borders. Jane is not amused, neither by the waste of a good bit of bread, nor by the damage to her borders.

Sammy's cousin George, who lives in the graveyard at Great Budworth

And just as cats are vilified for killing birds, so Grey squirrels are vilified for their adverse effect on the local environment. Though he was undoubtedly born in England, Sammy’s ancestors were North American immigrants. First introduced to the British Isles in the late 1870s by local landowners who considered them ‘exotic’ (what were they thinking?), Sammy and his fellow American Greys have made themselves at home throughout most of the British Isles, much to the detriment of the native Red squirrels. Not only did Sammy’s ancestors bring with them the squirrelpox virus (SQPV), which didn’t harm them but kills their Red cousins, Sammy and his fellow Greys compete with the Reds for food. And as the Greys have a broader food range – they’re able to eat nuts with high tannin contents, like acorns, which the Reds cannot digest – they have a better chance of survival when winters are hard and food resources scarce.

Sammy's cousins Huey, Dewey & Louie scavenging under the bird feeders at Marbury Country Park

Nowadays, there are estimated to be around 2.5million Greys in Britain, while only 10 – 15,000 Reds survive, mostly in Scotland and the north east of England. I was lucky enough to see a couple of Reds when I was here in the UK on holiday last summer and visited the National Trust’s pine woodlands at Formby, part of the National Red Squirrel Refuge and Buffer Zone. Although their local Red population was decimated by SQPV in 2008, numbers are once again on the increase, with help from the local rangers and an appropriate woodland management plan.

A Red at Formby pine woodlands
Luckily, there are plenty of other folks out there trying to save the Reds – and you can too, by supporting organisations like the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. Let’s hope they’re successful in their efforts as I’d hate to see the very cute locals overcome by the brash interlopers from across the Atlantic.

Along with the fine work being done by the RSST, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope in other quarters as well. Just last week I was reading environmentalist / activist / journalist George Monbiot’s piece ‘How to eradicate grey squirrels without firing a shot’, in The Guardian online, championing a natural solution to the grey squirrel problem, in the form of pine martens. He cited the current situation in Ireland where, it seems, pine martens have the Greys in full-scale retreat across the island and the Reds are moving in to territory abandoned by the Greys. Long may the Red repopulation continue!

Sammy's Aunt Jessie lives in a woodland near Hale
In the meantime, here in Cheshire, we still have Sammy scampering through our tree branches and hippity-hopping across the back lawn. Jane intends getting a trap and killing him but, if it were my choice, I just couldn’t do it. I do want to be environmentally friendly. I definitely want to help save the Reds. My mind tells me it’s the right thing to do but Sammy is such a little cutie that my heart wants to forgive him the sins of his ancestors and his kin.

There’s just something about the way he sits back on his hind legs, nibbling on the nut he’s clutching in his front paws. There’s something about those big doe eyes, and the way he quivers and shakes his bushy tail. And Sammy’s not the only Grey in the neighbourhood. I’ve seen at least two others chasing each other through the trees at the end of the garden so, if Sammy goes, will those two just settle in to his vacant place?

And that’s not my only question. Did pine martens ever live in this part of England? Would / could pine martens survive in our semi-rural garden? Wouldn’t Red squirrels need a lot more pine trees in the area before they could be reintroduced? Wouldn’t we need a lot more woodland in general for both creatures to survive here in Cheshire? And, if that’s true, then, in the meantime, should Sammy be allowed his particular place in the English sun? 

For me, the issue of Grey squirrel v. Red squirrel is a conundrum and I don’t know the solution. But, secretly, I will continue to enjoy Sammy’s antics while I can.

Sammy's second cousin-once-removed, Cyril, also lives in Runcorn

25 February 2015

Cheshire Walks: Holford Mill, Moss and Hall

Get your walking shoes laced up, we’re heading out for another walk. There’s a nip in the wind so don’t forget your hat and gloves, and tuck your jeans into your socks – after the recent rain, it could be a bit mucky in places. Today I can promise you some good exercise (we’ll be walking about 8kms), peppered with a few snippets of interesting history and garnished with trees, lots and lots of lovely trees.

From the house we head down a typical Cheshire country lane, which would once have been part of the pedestrian route for local parishioners between the church at Great Budworth (where baptisms and marriages were conducted) and the 13th century church at Lower Peover (where the dead were buried). It always amazes me to think people have been walking these paths for hundreds of years.

At the end of the lane, we cross the main road, the former Roman Road of Watling Street, and head into more local history. To our right is the former Holford Millkeeper’s house, now a private residence – and currently for sale, if you have a spare £750,000. It’s certainly a lovely setting, though a bit noisy for me, and I’d need to win the lottery to afford it.

Just down the lane we can see the remains of the mill, which was built originally in 1324 and finally closed in 1950. There’s not much left now but under the moss and ivy you can still see the remains of the two wheel pits, either side of the mill building, plus pieces of the iron wheels and wooden shafts. It must have been impressive in its heyday.

The footpath here has been diverted from its original route through the middle of Holford Hall farm yard, to give the current owners some privacy, and now runs through woodland growing on an old lime bed, which itself sits on top of medieval fish ponds. According to the signboard, the site was ‘filled in by the Imperial Chemical Company in the 1940s. Lime beds were created for the disposal of ash and lime, a by-product of the soda ash industry’ but more on that, and other local industry, in a future blog.

The diverted path is pleasant enough, with views across a field to Holford Hall, though we’ll get a better view of that later. Firstly, though, we're going to head around this small wooded area, the rather grandly named but seemingly unofficial Plumley Nature Reserve. Though entry doesn’t seem to be encouraged, there are a couple of paths in to the reserve and I have ventured in – what I found will also feature in my forthcoming industrial blog post.

We’ll cross the railway line here, and head first left, then right along sealed roads until we get to the Holford Brinefield offices. From here, we leave behind the ugly industrial workings of the brine industry that have scarred this landscape and, turning left again, we head along a footpath across a couple of fields to reach Holford Moss.

The moss is, in fact, another scarred landscape, once used by local tenant farmers for cutting peat – you can clearly see where chunks have been carved out of the ground, though all is now covered by low scrub and bracken. A mixed woodland has grown up on the old peat cuttings, dominated by birch but with oak, Scots pine and holly trees also growing well. It’s a tranquil place for a wander and, to me, has a very ancient feel, though the peat cutting may well have continued into the 20th century.

At the end of the path through the moss, we head left at Keeper’s Cottage, along another field-edge footpath that will soon have us back at the railway line. I love the lead up to the narrow old bridge that crosses the line – I can imagine farm labourers, horses and carts, and shepherds with their flocks of sheep all using this route in times past. We cross another field and skirt round the edge of one more before we reach the long gravel driveway that leads us back to Holford Hall.

Although the footpath has been diverted around the Hall, there is a short spur here where we can get a closer view of the Hall and its lovely gardens. The half-timbered, black-and-white section of Holford Hall dates back to 1601, when it was built for Mary Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumley’) after the death of her husband Sir Hugh. The section we see today was the centre of a quadrangle (see the old photo, at right), the south wing of which collapsed and was demolished in 1844. The north wing was, sadly, demolished and replaced by the current large brick structure in the 1880s. As you might guess, both this old section of the hall and the 17th-century sandstone arched bridge that spans the moat are heritage structures and Grade II listed.

Well, that peek at Holford Hall means we’ve almost reached the end of today’s walk. From here, we retrace our steps, past the old mill, over the former Roman road and homewards up the country lane. I hope you’ve enjoyed your armchair tour of Holford’s attractions.

21 February 2015

Cheshire: Pubs and their signs, 4

Time to pull a pint or two of real ale, find a cosy nook in a centuries-old public house, and let the walls – and the pub signs – tell us their wonderful stories. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin …

The Antrobus Arms, Antrobus 
Antrobus is an unusual name for a pub, a village, a person, and the jury is out on whether its origin is to be found in the time of the Vikings (a tongue-twisting combination of the Old Norse personal name ‘Andrithi’ or ‘Eindrithi’ and ‘buski’, their word for bush or thicket, resulting in ‘Andrithi's thicket’) or whether this ‘area between two forests’ was named by the French-speaking Normans ‘Entre bois’, meaning ‘between the woods’. Either way, it was first listed as Entrebus at the time of the Domesday Book survey in 1086 AD and the first person recorded using the surname was apparently one Thomas Antrobus (on the Register of the University of Oxford in 1600). 

The pub itself is not that old – according to their website, it was first licensed in the 1700s. And The Antrobus Arms is not its original name – I found a record of its being called The Wheatsheaf in the 1930s – and I have no idea who the coat of arms belonged to (contrary to popular belief, coats of arms are personal, not attached to a surname).

One particularly interesting fact I did find though relates to the tradition of soulcaking or souling. Around All Souls Eve (1 November) each year, a group of mummers performs a traditional hero-vs-the bad-guy play at The Antrobus Arms and other pubs in the area (check out the video here), and the local children dress up and knock on doors, reciting a special rhyme in return for spiced cakes. The origins of trick-or-treating, perhaps?

The Bear’s Paw, High Legh
I was homeward bound after a walk when I found The Bear’s Paw and popped in, thinking to enjoy a late Sunday lunch. No such luck! It was fully booked, overflowing with the Sunday-best-dressed and quite obviously no place for an outdoorsy type who still had her jeans tucked into her socks. I should have guessed from the ‘Country Inn and Restaurant’ label, which undoubtedly adds at least £5 to the price of every meal.

According to the pub’s website, the building was originally a 17th-century farm house and, from the little I saw, it certainly oozed authentic character, with a roaring open fire and low-slung beamed ceilings. It was worth the stop to get a photo of the 3D sign. The bear’s paw is a common enough name for a public house – there’s another just 15 miles away in Frodsham  – but, as this place doesn’t have a long history as a pub, I assume it has no particular meaning here.

The Angel, Knutsford
According to the Inn Society’s website, Angel is the 11th most popular inn name in the UK and is a

reminder of the religious connection between pint and pulpit. The name is thought to have represented the Archangel or St Michael …, who was the patron saint of the Knights Templar. They would adorn a tavern with such a painting, not to name it, but to show that it was under God’s protection.

The hotel’s own website proudly announces that The Angel Hotel, previously the Angel Inn, ‘was a noted posting house and inn’ in the time of Knutsford’s favourite daughter, the author Elizabeth Gaskell, and, if you’ve read her book Cranford (published in 1851), you might recall the character Lord Maulevere stayed at the Angel while visiting Captain Brown.

The Cross Keys, Knutsford
The Cross Keys is another popular pub name – I even remember drinking in one of that name in Cusco, Peru – and is another with a Christian connection. The crossed keys of heaven are a symbol of Saint Peter: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be lost in heaven’, Matthew 16:19.

Though obviously not of biblical age, the Cross Keys is certainly one of Knutsford’s oldest pubs, dating from around 1642 when, it seems, there were 42 (!) taverns in the town. The pub’s website reports that, ‘A map dating back to 1786 shows the Cross Keys as being part of the Lord Egerton estate. For many years the Barrow family ran the inn – the 1841 census shows 30-year-old Hanna Barrow as Innkeeper, assisted by her sisters Jane, 23 and Anne aged 20.’ It was a common enough profession for a woman if the novels of authors like Charles Dickens are to be credited with more than an ounce of historical truth.

The Salt Barge, Marston 
This is one of my locals, a welcome refreshment stop during my walks along the nearby Trent and Mersey Canal. For tourists and visitors to the area, the Salt Barge is also not far from local attractions, the Anderton Boat Lift, Marbury Country Park and the Northwich Woodlands, and the soon-to-open Lion Salt Works Museum is just across the road.

Built in 1861 to replace the earlier Red Lion Inn and previously named The New Inn, The Salt Barge is steeped in canal history, as portrayed by the memorabilia and historical photographs of local salt mining that are sprinkled throughout the bar.

The Kilton, Mere
If you read my previous pub signs blog, you’ll recall that owning and training racehorses used to be a popular vocation in this neck of the woods and several of the local pubs are named after them. The Kilton is another. The horse it is named after was owned by Mr Thomas Langford-Brooke of Mere Hall. Kilton apparently excelled at the Knutsford Races and, in 1796, won the prestigious Knutsford Gold Cup, beating the horse Delamere, owned by another well known Cheshire habitant, Mr Tatton.

An article in the Warrington Guardian of 14 May 2012 states that The Kilton Inn was built in the 16th century and ‘is rumoured to once have served as some kind of prison’. I also found a report, in T. A. Coward’s 1903 book Picturesque Cheshire [Sherratt and Hughes, London and Manchester, 1903, pp.68-9] that the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin had an association with The Kilton. It is such a good story that it is worth including in full here:

There is a good bowling green at the "Kilton" at Hoo Green, well known to picnic parties from Manchester and elsewhere. It was on this self-same green that a game was in progress, when that smart gentleman of the road, Dick Turpin, pulled up his sweating black charger, and smiting the ostler across the shoulders, asked him emphatically what time it was. Then the redoubtable Richard joined in the game, swaggering about the green so as to be noticed by all the sporting gentry. When, later, it transpired that a dastardly assault and robbery had taken place within a few minutes of the time stated by the ostler, it was considered impossible that this gay but suspicious Turpin could have ridden from Newbridge Hollow to the inn in so short a time, and his alibi was accepted. This story is familiar; Dick Turpin's ride from London to York, and other tales of the same notorious character are so similar that we must accept this legend cum grano salts. Dick Turpin may have been here; but the true history of the man shows him to have been no dashing, chivalrous highwayman, but a cruel, mean swindler and burglar, a man who liked to rob lonely houses where there were defenceless women, especially when he had a gang of similar lawless desperadoes at his back.

The truth of this rollicking tale may never be known but it is certainly a good story to recount over a pint or two.