Lockdown birds

So much of what I design for our English bone china starts with nature and I can trace those influences back to my rural childhood.

I lived in rural Bedfordshire, not the flat part full of brussel sprout fields, but an area of outstanding natural beauty on the borders of Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, in a stunning limestone village on the banks of the river Ouse, surrounding by undulating countryside, rich with wildlife.

I still remember the elm trees, the steam train which ran between Bedford & Northampton, the first time I saw a bullfinch & the first time I saw a kestrel. I can even remember where I was on both occasions. My parents had help in the garden form the most wonderful WW2 veteran and countryman. There was nothing he didn’t know about the birds as he, since his childhood in the 1920s, was an avid bird watcher and recorder of many local species. He taught me more than anyone else I knew about the habitat of our native birds and where to look and how to hunt out every bird in the area. This was definitely the way to fill any spare time! We remained great friends until his death in 2000.

 

My parents loved the countryside and my mother took a keen interest in nature from wildflowers to the birds. As a boy my father had an aviary & he in turn passed this love to us as children. We too had an aviary, full of budgies, lovebirds & java sparrows, so it wasn’t difficult for me to form an interest in the wild birds that visited the garden. My mother set up a bird table and with our Observer book of birds (yes, I still have it on my shelf), we spent many a cold winter’s day watching and recording the birds who visited. I soon became obsessed & started to find out more. Our walled garden was long and thin, but the second half was a paddock which contained a large vegetable garden & orchard in the top half & a stream at the bottom. I loved this stream because on our side there was an old makeshift shed with a window overlooking the fastest flowing part of the stream and on the other bank (not owned by us) was a meadow enclosed by a wonderfully old an unkempt hedge.

It is said that every species in a hedge represents 100 years of growth, so I suspect these hedges had been there for a very long time. This was a bird lover’s paradise. I made myself a little hide in the tumbledown shed. With a few bricks to stand on, I would look out unnoticed of the window into the wilderness of the stream, the weeds, wildflowers and into the hedge beyond.

 

My mother would also spend time in the shed, hidden away with me, but she loved the water vole. Yes, we had a family of water voles which would become our biggest time wasters. We took these things for granted. How did we know that in less than 40 years the water vole would almost be extinct? We also had a kingfisher. The excitement of watching him sit for hours on the end of the wall and then diving for fish. I still feel excitement every time I see one. Sometimes we see them here on the upper reaches of the Nene where we now live but sadly I haven’t seen one for the last 2 years. So quick, so beautiful, they always make me think of a brightly coloured flying golf ball. Such a tiny bird but one of the most beautiful of all our British birds. A few years go one appeared in the garden and landed on the sweet pea arches in the vegetable garden. Clearly, he or she had a problem with the "sat nav" when navigating the tiny river outside our mill house. Sometimes we hear them. For a little bird they have a very big noise, but at least they’ve made enough noise to make an appearance on English bone china.

When I was 10, we visited Bath. This was not an uncommon occurrence for our family as my mother’s family were from Bath & my father’s from Bristol. So, I felt I knew Bath quite well, especially the book shop in one of the little side streets. I loved this book shop & after much pleading with my parents I was allowed to use all my saved-up pocket money, birthday money & I suspect a little help from the bank of Daddy, I purchased my very first book.
Bruce Campbell’s Blandford Birds in Colour. I still use this book and love it just as much as I did the day, I bought it. It cost 25s (that’s shillings to all of you who only know decimal currency). This was to be my reference book and guide for many years. I still loved my little observer book of birds (early birthday present), but then some of the pictures were only in black and white & my new book was all in colour! Then something even more exciting happened, my parents gave me The Readers Digest Book of British Birds for my 13th Birthday. I love this book. I have never stopped using it or loving it since the day they gave it to me. It remains one of my most treasured possessions. Although it’s interesting and worrying to see how many common birds have changed their habitat over the last 40 years.

So, with the help of a few books, I really started to learn about my birds. I found the best way to recognise a bird was to listen to the bird song, then look for the bird. This was how I learnt to recognise & identify certain birds. If I knew the song and could hear it, then I knew the bird was there. I still use this method today if I’m not sure about something. Blackcaps were frequent visitors in our childhood garden, but it wasn’t until I had a family of my own & lived in Northamptonshire that I realised just how truly beautiful was the song of the blackcap and why it is often called the nightingale of the north, but of course where I live now the countryside is so different. I live near woods and much smaller fields, so the bird life is very different from my childhood. The woods here are full of warblers, blackcaps, huthatches and wood peckers. Chaffinches dance with siskins and linnets in the hedgerows. Long-tailed tits and redpolls chatter in the top of the larch trees and wheatears sometimes bounce along the edge of the ploughed fields. At home we had wagtails, green finches, coal tits, thrushes and house sparrows.

I had sparrows here at the Mill and for many years a colony of tree sparrows, which are and will always remain, my favourite bird. It was heart breaking the day they disappeared 2 years ago from the garden, followed by the house sparrows last year. However, my mother-in-law lives next door and she has a huge colony of house sparrows, so I’m hoping they just decided to move home!

 

 

As for the tree sparrows, I’m not sure why they went. Was it the sparrow hawk who likes to visit? Did the farmer change something he was doing (we are on the edge of farmland and tree sparrows are a very typical farmland bird.)

 

 

The birds I grew up with have had a huge influence in my life. From childhood I started drawing and making notes about their habitat so now I find myself drawing and developing these ideas to reproduce on to English bone china. Of course, I have paint in a different way because I need to make sure the colours and lines are strong and definite because of the print and the way that re-produces on to The English bone china. I am so excited to have used some of this lockdown time to develop a new garden bird mug and possibly a follow up with a second bird mug based on farmland birds, but the most exciting new piece of English bone china is our planned 3 tier bird cake stand. So, I think there has been much to celebrate over the last few weeks.

For the first time in three years I heard a cuckoo in Northamptonshire. For the first time in 2 years my swallows have returned to nest in our stable and the tree sparrows might have disappeared but has been replaced by a pair of reed buntings. Perhaps this Lockdown has given a helping hand to nature.