Know Your Swallows, Swifts and Sand Martins

May 13, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Posted in Cycle Rides, Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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…and House Martins too, but that didn’t fit with the alliterative title of this post.

As I was riding home from work tonight I saw some swallows. This is always a lovely sight, especially early in the year. Or were they swifts? Or martins? I wonder this to myself EVERY year. Although I have consulted Enid’s nature books in the past I’m afraid it’s failed to sink in. So here are some tips for identifying swallows, swifts and martins from each other, for me and also for you, if indeed you have this problem.

The Barn Swallow

Barn SwallowFrom Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

‘He is a well-known bird, because of his long, forked tail. His black is steel0blue, his throat and forehead are chestnut-coloured, and he has a blue-barred chest.

Swallows build their nest sin barns of out-buildings, on beams or rafters. The nest is a saucer of mud, and is lined with feathers or grass. The eggs, which are long and narrow, are white, speckled with grey-brown.

The swallow has a musical little twitter that sounds like “feetafeetit, feetafeetit”. It is very pleasant to listen to listen to on a warm summer’s  evening.’

From the RSPB Magazine:

‘The one with the long, forked tail: steel blue above, pale below (white to bright peachy colour) but with a clean-cut dark throat […] Swallows typically fly low down, flying fluently with sinuous swerves and more fluttering twists, often around livestock, along the edges of open fields, over cricket pitches and the like’.

The House Martin

House MartinFrom the RSPB Magazine:

‘The one with the white rump: blue-black above with browner wings, with a broad white band above the tail, and all-white below from chin to tail. Nests in quarter-sphere mud cups beneath eaves’.

From Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

‘Many people think that the house martin is the barn swallow, for they are rather alike. The martin belongs to the swallow family, and leads the same aerial life. He is steel-blue above and white below. He has a white patch on his back, and this and his shorter tail will help distinguish him from the swallow. He, too, is a migrant.

The martin likes to build his nest of mud under our eaves, stuck against the wall. He lines it softly. The eggs are long and are pure white.

The martin, like the swallow, has a pleasing twitter.’

The Sand Martin

From the RSPB Magazine:

‘The brown one: all mid-brown above, white below with a brown chest band. This is a tiny bird, more fluttery than the others, often above or close to water.’

The Swift

From Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

Swift‘The swift has no song or twitter, only a loud and harsh screech. His name is a good one for he is one of our fastest flying birds’.



One thing that is lovely about Enid Blyton’s writing is the way she incorporates factual information into her narratives. The first part of the Nature Lover’s Book tells a series of short stories set across the course of the year. John, Janet and Pat go for a series of walks with Uncle Merry and his little black dog Fergus. Uncle Merry opens their eyes to all sorts of things that are around them, from flowers in January to nightbirds, moths and nocturnal beetles in June.

This is from ‘A Second Walk in May’

‘One morning John went into the garden and heard the swallows twittering together. He loved their little voices saying “feetafeetit, feetafeetit.” He looked up and saw that another bird was flying with them.

“That must be the swift,” said John to himself. “It’s sooty black, as Uncle Merry said. What great sickle-shaped wings it has! It looks like a flying anchor!”.

Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book has beautiful drawings by Donia Nachsen, as seen above. I was very lucky to discover a second hand copy of this in the National Trust bookshop at Blickling Hall in Norfolk while on a cycling tour a couple of years ago.



‘Famous Five to Get 21st Century Makeover’

July 24, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff | 1 Comment
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reports Alison Flood in the Guardian. Readers of this blog will surely understand the shudder of horror that went through me as I read these words. References to galoshes, jolly japes and mysterious food stuffs (a ‘chocolate mould’, anyone?) are, for me, a large part of the appeal of Enid’s books.

On the one hand I can see Hodder & Stoughton’s point. It is true that the originals will continue to be available (for the time being, at least), but this whole malarky does seem a little insulting to children’s intelligence. Examples of changes cited in the Guardian article include ‘fellow’ being replaced with ‘old man’ and the phrase ‘it’s all very peculiar’ being substituted with ‘it’s all very strange’. I can’t help but think that this narrowing of vocabulary is a bit newspeak-like.

Anne McNeill of Hodder says: ‘Children who read [the Famous Five books] need to be able to easily understand the characterisations and easily to get into the plots. If the text is revised [they’re] more likely to be able to engage with them.’ Are the words ‘peculiar’ and ‘fellow’ really that problematic? As the Enid Blyton Society’s Tony Summerfield suggests, these seem like changes for the sake of it, and Blyton, whose books have already been edited for more understandable reasons of political correctness, is an easy target. Her writing has been repeatedly criticised for being too simple and unchallenging and now it has supposedly become too difficult, archaic and inaccessible (this is not born out by Blyton’s continued sales and popularity).

Personally, I don’t feel that it is really necessary to make everything ahistorical. What about stimulating curiosity about the past? Isn’t it important to understand that society and language have not always been the same as they are now? I do think it is a shame to not give children the opportunity to grapple with, or perhaps even enjoy this idea.

Ultimately, however, it probably doesn’t make that much difference. My selective childhood memory only really recalled the plots, characters and settings of the original stories, and while I remember being a little puzzled by some of the odd phrases and items mentioned it never impinged upon my enjoyment of the books, or put me off reading them. It is only upon recent re-readings that I’ve really started to pick up on and relish the period detail (although I never really liked the Spandau Ballet hair and stonewashed jeans on the covers of my 80s editions).

I can’t help but wonder where all this re-editing will end though. ‘Bestselling children’s author’ Andy Briggs is quoted as saying: ‘It’s an unfortunate necessity… The classic books we were brought up on – the Famous Five, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes – need to be updated.’ Eek.

[I hasten to add that I thoroughly enjoyed Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s contemporary-set Sherlock, screened on BBC 1 last Sunday. The Guardian reviewer thought the ‘three patch problem’ was laboured but I thought it was hilarious, as was the reference to the location of Watson’s war injury – one for all the nerdy Sherlockians out there. It’s not quite the same as re-writing all of Conan Doyle’s books though, is it?]

Nature Study with Enid Blyton, Part 1

March 17, 2010 at 11:09 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff | 1 Comment
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Have you ever wondered where the wind comes from? Or how bulbs are formed? Or how to tell the difference between the song of a blackbird and thrush? These questions and many more are answered in Round the Year with Enid Blyton: Spring Time. This was published in four parts (one for each season) in 1934, but I like my later (1950s) edition for its lovely cover artwork.

The ‘letter ‘ from Enid Blyton that opens the book demonstrates one of the reasons for her great popularity with children. She speaks directly to the reader as if to a good friend and makes Nature Study (capital ‘N’, capital ‘S’) sound like one of the most fun things in the world (which of course it is, alongside cycling and drinking ginger beer):

Dear Boys and Girls,

I wish you could come with me and walk over the hills, through the fields, and down by the river, finding a hundred exciting or beautiful things by the way. I should like to take you fishing in the ponds, and fill your jars with snails and tadpoles […] I should like to give you a garden of your own, and show you how to make it a place of bright colours and sweet scents.

But I cannot do these things – so instead I have written these four books for you, so that you may read them and do for yourselves all the things I would like to do with you.

When Enid was a child, her father Thomas would take her out on long nature rambles. She later wrote: ‘He knew more about flowers, birds and wild animals than anyone I had ever met […] These were the happiest times, when looking back it seems the days were always warm and sunny and the skies deeply blue’. After Thomas deserted his family the long walks stopped and Blyton’s biographer Barbara Stoney has written of the effect his departure had on the young Enid. With this in mind Blyton’s introductory letter reads more like a missive from a wistfully absentee parent who is sharing his knowledge and interests in the hope of enabling his daughter to do for herself ‘all the things I would like to do with you’.

So, what are these things? Well, there’s too much to convey in just one post but Blyton gives the reader projects that encourage them to take a closer look at the natural world, re-examine the mundane and notice things that are generally taken for granted. The humble onion becomes the object of rapturous study (‘How Our Bulbs are Made’); the sound of birdsong is described as ‘delicious to listen to’ and is analysed and set to words (‘Two Singers – Blackbird and Thrush).

The first chapter is all about keeping Nature Charts because:

There is something that is always with us day in and day out – and that is the weather. No matter where our home or school is, in the heart of town or the depths of country, we all have the weather. Everything in nature depends on the weather – a warm spring means early flowers and early tadpoles. A bitter winter means frozen birds and starving rabbits. The weather decides what we see around us in Nature and for that reason we must notice it every day and make a record of it.

Next – the wind and where it comes from…(exciting, yes?)

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