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.



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.

A Famous Five Style Holiday (4)

July 27, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Posted in Cycling, Eating and Drinking, Fun and Games, Travel | 3 Comments
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We arrived at Peters Tower full of curiosity and anticipation. Turning the key in the big red door, we stepped inside and began to explore. Inside it is like being in a vertical boat. The interiors have been done in teak and brass, and in fact, the Landmark Trust’s architect spent time in boat yards gaining inspiration for this project.

Tower living is spread across four floors, all of which are united by one single majestic ironwork spiral staircase which takes up about a third of the floor space on each level.The bathroom is located on the ground floor, the kitchen on the first floor, a snug sitting and writing room on the second, and two bunk beds on the top floor, right behind the clock face and directly underneath the bell (which chimes between 7am and 11pm).

This was our view on the first morning from the kitchen. Being right on the estuary meant we were witness to the extreme ebb and flow of the tides. At low tide there is nothing but mud, sandbanks and the odd stream dividing you from the far shore, at high tide the water comes within metres of the base of the tower. Across the water we could see an old tower on the hill – but would mysterious lights shine out at night, a la the lonely Wreckers Tower in Five Go Down to the Sea?

The tower is located in Lympstone, an excellent village with a train station, four pubs (three within a few minutes of the tower), and a post office that does really sell ices. Because it is so close and therefore commutable to Exeter and Exmouth, it is also a place where people actually live – it’s not one of those lovely but slightly sad villages that are deserted all week and only fill up when people arrive for the weekend.

Nearby is the National Trust property, A la Ronde, built to house the Grand Tour treasures of cousins Jane and Mary Parminter. It’s yet another quirky building, filled with unusual objects and famous for its shell gallery which contains nearly 25,000 shells. Because it is so fragile the gallery can only be viewed on close circuit television. Unlike George, Jane Parminter thought that girls were ok and in her will stated that only unmarried female relatives could inherit A la Ronde. In 200 years only one man, the Rev Oswald Reichel, owned the house. He improved its home comforts by installing a massive central heating system and replacing the thatched roof (seen in the model, right) with a tiled one with lots of windows. Like Uncle Quentin in Five on Kirrin Island Again, Reichel also asserted his masculine presence by adding a phallic tower to the property, although not to the house itself but in the form of a laundry building just behind.

While at A la Ronde we felt it was our duty to sample a cream tea. It was a beautiful day so we were able to take it outside with a gorgeous view of the sea and distant harbour. This was our second cream tea of the holiday. The first, and best, was at the Cosy Teapot in Budleigh Salterton. Budleigh Salterton is a seaside town renowned for the beauty of the pebbles on its beach. It is very quaint and somnolent, perfect for a seaside holiday with rowing, fishing, ices and all of the sorts of the things the Five like (no dreaded piers etc.).

The Cosy Teapot has been voted one of the top three places to have a cream tea in Devon with impressively light (and huge) scones served on Mrs Layman-esque rose patterned crockery. If you don’t fancy a cream tea, the Teapot also sells other delicacies such as crumpets with actual ‘lashings’ of butter. You can even buy vintage crockery, butter dishes, telephones and assorted knick knacks which are all arrayed inside the tea shop.

As well as eating we did do lots of walking (honest). We also took a boat trip so we could see ‘our’ tower from the water (and we spotted a shipwreck), and caught a steam train from Paignton to Churston from where we walked to Greenways, Agatha Christie’s old summer house. One thing missing was cycling – I think this would be a good cycling holiday. National Cycle Route 2 runs along the south coast from St Austell to Dover, or it least it will do when fully linked up. At the moment it’s possible to cycle car-free along the western side of the Exe estuary, plus down the eastern side from Lympstone to Exmouth, and then from Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton via a disused railway line. One folding bike would fit in the tower but no more than that (even large suitcases are problematic in such a bijou space), so if you plan a cycling/tower holiday do bear this in mind.

A Famous Five Style Holiday

July 1, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Posted in Fun and Games, Travel | 1 Comment
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I do actually have a life outside of my Famous Five obsession, I promise, but, I ask you, who could resist going on a Famous Five-style holiday to Devon and staying in a tower on a beach?

We’re going in two weeks’ time and will be staying in this charming little tower. It’s called Peter’s Tower and was built in 1885 by a soldier (from a wealthy merchant family) called William Peters. It’s one of the many properties belonging to the excellent Landmark Trust which was set up in 1965  to rescue, restore and rent out historically and architecturally interesting buildings. These are often quirky, obscure and perhaps not ‘important’ enough to fall under the purview of the (also excellent) National Trust, and there are many exciting properties in which you can stay, including a petite French-style chateau, Gothic follies, miniature castles and towers galore, plus (for those Edith Nesbit moments) an old train station.

I’m hoping that good weather will prevail, although there are many wet weather activities nearby in the form of National Trust houses and other forms of public house. And perhaps this year I will master the Pepys Famous Five card game?

Summer hols are almost here!

August 19, 2009 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Cycle Rides, Cycling, Eating and Drinking, Fun and Games, Learning Stuff, Travel | 2 Comments
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The cycling adventure draws near… I set off for Oxfordshire on Monday so this weekend there is lots of planning to do with maps to buy, fruitcake or ginger buns to bake and a Timmy substitute to be found. The destination is Kelmscott, Gloucestershire, where we will be staying in a seventeenth century National Trust farmhouse run by Farmer and Mrs Horner. There are lots of interesting places to visit nearby including Kelmscott Manor, the one-time summer home of William Morris; Chedworth Roman Villa (very Five on a Secret Trail – eyes open for old coins and bits of pottery); Great Coxwell Barn and the White Horse of Uffington.scouring-the-white-horse

Meanwhile, my sadly long-lapsed National Trust membership has been renewed (they are currently giving away a pair of field glasses with every new subscription – good for birdwatching, watching out for signals etc), the Bobbin has been booked in for a service, and some reading material has been selected. I know it should be probably be Five on Finniston Farm or something with lots of cycling, like Billycock Hill or Five Get into Trouble, but I’ve actually plumped for Eleanor Graham’s 1938 novel, The Children Who Lived in a Barn. It features five children who have to look after themselves when their parents go away so in this respect is about childhood independence, thereby sharing similarities with the Famous Five (to say nothing of numerous Enid Blytons, Arthur Ransomes, and many other children’s books in general). A second holiday title has yet to be decided upon, but for pure reading pleasure it might have to be another Persephone publication – Dorothy Whipple’s The Priory (1939) or Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street (1924) perhaps. Or one of Penguin’s beautiful new series of English Journeys books, which would certainly be appropriate.

Through England on a Side Saddle

Or: Through England on a Bike Saddle

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