The Butterflies of Billycock Hill

May 25, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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The National Trust’s quarterly magazine is really rather interesting. The summer edition includes articles on many Famous Five-friendly topics including camping, beekeeping, bread-making and butterfly spotting. In the latter, Matthew Oates discusses a recent National Trust survey that asked people what butterflies meant to them, and notes that ‘no longer is butterflying the domain of eccentric loners’.

This of course provides the perfect opportunity for me to take a look at Messrs Gringle and Brent, the ‘queer’ butterfly men of Five Go to Billycock Hill. These chaps can be seen as part of a literary tradition that links lepidoptery with the sinister. This line includes Stapleton, the villain of The Hound of the Baskervilles (right), who spends a lot of his time prowling the moors, net in hand; and the protagonist of John Fowles’ unsettling first novel, The Collector (1963), who also gives butterfly enthusiasts a very bad name.

Oates notes that the UK’s top butterfly sites are ‘staggeringly lovely locations’ (the Trust’s top three are Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge; Sizergh, Cumbria; and Murlough Nature Reserve, Northern Ireland). In Blyton world the top butterfly site is undoubtedly Billycock Hill. This is, as Mr Gringle tells the children, an excellent place for rare butterflies. He’s dismissive when the Kirrins’ chum Toby spots a meadow-brown (“very common indeed”) but gets excited when he sights a Brown Argus, “one of the family of Blue Butterflies you see so often in full summer” and a Six-Spot Burnet Day Flying Moth (“highly-coloured and unusually large”). It goes without saying that Blyton was a keen naturalist and her descriptions of butterflies and moths are pretty accurate.

Mr Gringle breeds butterflies in a series of glasshouses and gives the children an extremely thorough tour:

‘The Butterfly farm was certainly interesting and the children wandered about the glass-house watching caterpillars of all kinds, admiring the lovely specimens of butterflies, and marvelling at the collection of curious-shaped chrysalides and cocoons that Mr Gringle kept carefully in boxes, waiting for the perfect insect, moth or butterfly, to emerge.

“Like magic,” he said in an awed voice, his eyes shining behind his glasses. “Sometimes you know, I feel like a magician myself – and my butterfly net is a wand!”

The children felt rather uncomfortable as he said this, waving his butterfly net to and fro like a wand. He really was rather a queer person.’

Even creepier is Gringle’s partner, Mr Brent, who is a small and thin man ‘with a pinched face and dark glasses’. Julian finds him prowling Billycock Hill one dark and stormy night. Brent is supposedly checking honey traps (oh yes) for moths before they get washed away by the rain but is really up to something far more sinister… It turns out that Brent isn’t a true butterfly lover and is in fact officially a Bad Sort. Mr Gringle on the other hand is just an obsessive eccentric with a prickly personality – a bit like Uncle Quentin in fact (a more benign version of this type is the endearing Mr Luffy, champion ear-waggler and bug-hunter extraordinaire of Five Go off to Camp).

Whew! So we can indulge in a spot of butterfly spotting without the criminal/sociopathic associations. Oates does recommend using binoculars, however as ‘it makes people think you are a birder and not a weirdo’ (ah, how birdwatching has come on in the world since it became ‘birding’). And now’s a good time to get started with butterflying, in advance of the Big Butterfly Count between the 16th and 31st July. More details here.

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