Brownsea, a scrap of an island, one and a half miles long, off the Dorset coast, is now in the tender care of The National Trust. My friend and mentor Alice, said we should go there her persuasions laced with the promise of red squirrels.
Over the millennia the island has had its fair share of eccentrics and villains, sometimes one and the same. In the Study Centre you will see remnants of past inhabitants, Romano-British, the Vikings, pirates, Henry VIII and Baden Powell to mention just a few.
Surprisingly the winds of war have blown through the gnarled oaks and lofty pines and beeches, and on more than one occasion, this patch of sod has played its part in the defence of the realm. The island is in the mouth of Pool Harbour and Henry VIII built a Blockhouse to defend the port from the French and Dutch and Elizabeth I maintained it still against the Iberian Armada. Bomb craters also pock Brownsea when it played the scapegoat in WWII as a decoy for Enemy bombers. Seventy years later the craters are still visible but now are inhabited by self-planted native trees their branches reaching heavenwards as if to say beaten but not bowed.
Of course at the end of April it’s not surprising, despite the blue sky and sunshine (we had snow two days before), the squirrels are keeping their heads down preparing their drays for their ‘squirrelets’! No of course not, kits or kittens. They mate in late February early March.
My most recent sighting of a red squirrel was last August glimpsed through the window of the Carlisle to Leeds train.
During my childhood in Yorkshire the red squirrel was common. The grey interlopers hadn’t made it so far in great numbers and of course, dare I say it, the game keepers and gillies treated the grey like the stoat and the weasel: no quarter.
Being a native of God’s own county (Yorkshire for anyone who doesn’t know) and having spent my teens in the Lake District it takes a lot to impress when it comes to natural beauty.
Brownsea Island despite its uninspiring name is a ‘gem of the first water’ 1. not because of the several ecosystems which have it designated a “Sight of Special Scientific Interest” or the significant number of native birds, which find there a home or respite throughout the year, there are no manicured fields or hedges creating chocolate box images or dramatic vistas, and there are some of those, but because of the peace and tranquillity the silence only broken by bird song or occasionally the chink of a pheasant, a cock-crow or the screech of a peacock, the relics of a previous owner who set them free wanting Brownsea to return to the wild.
There are no natural predators like the fox or weasel on Brownsea they all swam away when the island was devastated by fire in the 1930’s. It burned for seven days fortunately many of the ancient trees survived and it took out the smothering rhododendrons allowing again the year round pageantry of indigenous species of flora and fauna.
Unless you take the electric buggy, which is an adventure in itself, it takes a couple of hours to walk around the various trails to see the natural treasures. Apart from the trees at this early season in the year we saw bluebells, primroses, forget-me-not, wood violets, a Skunk Lily, rabbits, deer, water voles, Jackdaws, Robin, Wren, Moor Hens the ubiquitous Sparrow and on the lagoon Avocet and other sea birds and wild fowl.
Wandering through the trees, some already in full leaf others, frill like, just peeping from the bud in a 100 shades of green, their boughs and trunks moss and lichen decked, the beech-mast and oak leaves from autumns past scrunch beneath my feet and I’m in Swallows and Amazons 2, or Famous Five 3 country. I half expected to find in the curve of a winding path John, Susan, Titty and Roger and their tomboy friends Nancy and Peggy frying bacon over a camp fire with bottles of Ginger-beer or Dandelion and Burdock to wash it down or to see and hear Julian, Dick, Anne and George preceded by their dog Timmy coming through the trees looking for adventures and wrongs to right. I’m ten years old again.
The language of plants and flowers: blue eyed forget-me-not, innocent daisy, grace for the cowslip, the devotion of the honeysuckle, is different on Brownsea the triumphant passionate beeches, the boastful chestnuts, the life and immortality of the oaks it speaks volumes about this “green and pleasant land”4, “this sceptred isle”5, “this precious stone set in a silver sea”6, “this England”7 that is my home and though we didn’t see the red squirrels to know they are there is enough.
PS.The first time I heard about Ginger-beer was in Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books the first time I tasted it was on the Leeds to Carlisle train when I was ten years old. We drank Fentiman’s Dandelion and Burdock at the cafe on Brownsea Island.
Ref: 1. This simile comes from the diamond trade. The clarity of diamonds is assessed by their purity and translucence; the more like clear water, the higher the quality. In the 17th century Shakespeare uses it in two of his plays Tymon of Athens and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
Ref: 2. Arthur Ransom arthur-ransom-trust.org.uk Ransom wrote a series of children’s books set in the Lake District which, certainly generated a deeper appreciation of the countryside combined with exciting and amusing stories, wide vocabulary and perspective.
Ref: 3. Enid Blyton 1897-1968 was the most successful children’s writer of her generation. Today her books reflect her time in world history some might think they smack of imperialism but they also teach values such as honesty, truth, kindness, fair-play and respect for people, property and environment. They are exciting and interesting stories that parents can read with their children giving an opportunity to address any issues openly.
Ref: 4 Jerusalem by William Blake 1804 (published in 1806)
Ref: 5 Richard II Act 2: Scene 1. Shakespeare 1595
Ref: 6 Richard II Act 2: Scene 1. Shakespeare 1595
Ref: 7 Richard II Act 2: Scene 1. Shakespeare 1595
- The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter Published by Frederick Warne and Co 1903
Red Squirrel Trust http://rsst.org.uk