Featured post

Spirit Of Selborne

Four Marks is one of the youngest parishes in Hampshire, so named because it is surrounded by four other older parishes, including Farringdon where the legendary father of British Natural History Gilbert White was curate.

Four Marks/Medstead is the highest railway station in Southern England, and the views out from the numerous lofty footpaths and bridleways afford spectacular vistas. To the east Butser Hill, and Selborne Hanger, and beyond the Weald and South Downs, extending into Sussex. Northward the Surrey heaths, Hog’s Back, and North Downs, North West the high chalk rolls off into Berkshire, and perhaps most surprising of all, is the Purbeck Range of Dorset peeping out over the rolling Hampshire downs.

For the enquiring naturalist, this countryside holds more secrets and wonders than could fill many lifetimes of study. These pages are an invitation to join in with the endlessly rewarding exploration and recording of the fauna and flora for which Gilbert White was such a sublime pioneering spirit.

ASHES TO ASHES: The quest to beat Australia at the greatest game. AKA 40 years of pain and shattered Rugby League dreams.

INTRODUCTION

If you are an Englishman and if you have any sense, then nothing will stir you more than the sight of a green and gold  jumper (and a green baggy cloth cap). A long,  long, time ago, someone made a fashion decision that resulted in the creation of the best looking sports strip on the planet…. bar none! Just why two golden yellow Vs on a dark green background should make its wearer look like a greek god, remains a mystery. Whatever the reason, it is beyond doubt that the sight of thirteen tanned and conditioned blokes thus attired, trotting out onto a paddock gets one’s blood up!

Those who have the good sense to realise that Rugby league Football is the Greatest Game, also knows that the Green and Golds are the yardstick by which all is measured, beat the Australians and can rightly call yourself the best! Unfortunately this is easier said than done, and Since 1978 I have watched every home series, and caught up on every tour via TV, but I am still waiting.

The waiting has been a bittersweet saga with many lows and a few highs, but throughout the pleasure has been immeasurable. As a terrace and armchair fan, these scribblings are a personal view, but one laced with insights from the dressing rooms, and backrooms were these modern day gladiators prepare for war!

KATCHAKANGAROO’78

My first introduction to the Kangaroos was the opening fixture of the 1978 Tour at Blackpool Borough. This was the last of the really extensive tours, and back then we really were awfully nice to the Aussies, breaking them in gently after their long flight! Towards the end of the 16 match tour this courtesy continued with the final warm-up game before the crunch deciding test coming against lowly York!

I saw most of the games on this tour, but missed the two most significant club fixtures. Warrington’s  draw, and the mighty Chemics win, Frightening to think that this is the last time a club side ever beat the tourists.

The best club game I saw was at Odsal, on what was, for once, a fine sunny day. The match was memorable for a very long all-in fight (which even had the not unusual sight of  a handbag wielding old lady intent on whacking anything in Green and Gold), which spilled onto the speedway track. This rather unsightly affair was pretty normal in those days and rendered somewhat comical by the sight of Jimmy Thompson trying to head-butt Ian Schubert whilst he lay flat on his back. Schubert’s blond mane was flying in all direction as he tried his best to smack Jimmy, but when the dust settled no one was hurt and they got on with playing. Bradford ran the ‘roos close thanks to a fine performance from the venerable Neil Fox, who showed how it should be done at the ripe old age of 38. I curse the fact I never saw him play at 28, he must have been something special!

THE BOULEVARD,   HULL,  29th October: The test team warm up.

   Newly crowned Division 2 champions Hull FC were given a chance to square up to the tourists, alas a bridge too far, and they were annihilated. After the match I joined a gaggle of young lads in search of autographs, and was lucky enough to be singled out by the Tour manager Peter Moore, a tall well spoken man resplendent in a green blazer. He handed me a ball and told me to get his lads to sign it,

Tell them I told you so, no excuses’!

 This was it and I went around getting the ball and my own book signed under manager’s orders!  As I went around the busy dressing-room, spirits were high, and language was not for the faint-hearted, and I remember the late great Steve Rogers asking for some moderation when he noticed their young visitor. As I went around the players I came to Tommy Raudonikis, who was curled up fast asleep in the corner, clearly the game hadn’t been the cantor it had appeared, at least for the tough little half-back.

BACK TO ODSAL, Sunday 5th November

The second test was at ‘the Bowl’, on Bonfire Night, so a few fireworks were to be expected, and we weren’t to be disappointed, smarting from the narrow first test loss, Roger Millward was to lead the Lions, with revenge at all costs the order of the day!

The changing face of Odsal Stadium encapsulates how much this great game has change over the past quarter of a century. Younger readers may be surprised to here that until comparatively recently there were no changing facilities in the stadium, and the players and officials had to make their way from dressing rooms up about the rim of the bowl down a rough cinder track through the crowd to the pitch.

For a young fan, autograph book in hand, this was the perfect place to ambush one’s heroes, and  after running an errand for Kerry Boustead, I saw the giant figure of the late great Artie Beetson, (over as a commentator for Oz  TV). He was suffering with knee problems, and had to adopt a very rolling gait, and as I squeezed alongside thrusting my pen and book skyward he nearly wiped me out against a BBC generator van!

The teams made their ways through the masses in orderly lines, and the anticipation grew as they snaked  along out onto the turf.

My dad and I made our way to our usual vantage point on ‘The Mountain’, which back then was a steep grassy slope into which thousands of muddy boots had cut precarious footholds, like a cliff full of nesting seabirds. On more than one occasion my dad saw an unfortunate individual overcome by excitement or possibly frostbite, loose his footing and slither downslope starting a domino effect which swept other hapless individuals along in an avalanche of humanity!

Sure enough we found our spot already attended by Uncle Mont (donkey jacket and all). Despite its less than salubrious surroundings the mountain did afford a splendid view of the action, with the exception of the right hand corner at the scoreboard end. The toss resulted in Britain playing toward the scoreboard end in the first half, so unusually we decided to desert the Mountain and decamped to the similarly rough ground. My abiding memory of this half was ‘Roger the Dodger’ making a short break and kicking ahead in the act of being collared, and watching the ball roll end over end toward the line with speedster Stuart Wright closing in fast, it crossed the line inch perfect for Stu to touch down, and the 26,500 crowd the biggest at a test for 25 years erupted. We lead 11-4 at half time, Paul Rose came on for ‘Knocker’ Norton and a tense second half ensued.

The game was well and truly in the balance, when a collective groan rang out as Jim Mills flattened Ray Price with a head-butt, right in front of Mick Naughton. All was feared lost but Jim showed the ref something and he gave us a penalty and the Aussie loose-forward was left in Disney land. Just what had transpired isn’t clear but it would appear Jim had shown the ref a bite mark (sceptics may say self inflicted) and the ref took this to be low handed Aussie skulduggery.  Afterwards Big Jim said

      ‘He had my hand in his mouth and before he could start chewing,  I let him have one!’

They had form on this, from the first test when Millward on the thigh, and as in a club match Jim Macmahon had been sent off for a similar offence, at any rate, Big Jim was spared and we hung on for a superb 18-14 win. Brian Lockwood was man of the match for a great display of ‘drive-and slip-it’ handling (‘off- loading’ to anyone under 30!).

The weary warriors had to make there way up the steep climb through the cheering crowd to well earned baths. This mingling of gladiator and onlooker was unique, and you could see at close hand just what sheer physical effort was involved in Test football. Tony Fisher’s ear was almost hanging off, and the sight of Big Jim Mills moving through the crowd was unforgettable, he stood head and shoulders above the crowd, literally! With half of the No.8 on his huge back clearly visible. We waited for the crowds to clear, for I new two further icons of the game would have to make there way up the hill, and sure enough a few minutes later Alex Murphy and Eddie Waring appeared from there commentary positions. Alex was in lively mood and was clearly unhappy about our tactics, alas his fears were well- grounded, as the Third test at Headingley was to prove, one of the most pivotal games in Ashes history, and ushered the darkest decade for our national team.

 

HEADINGLEY,  18th November

As usual we arrived late and were running to make the kick-off, as we entered the ground we met the Aussies running out of the stadium on mass! Was this a retreat, were the ‘roos fleeing the scene? If only: They sprinted out onto the hallowed cricket ground which lies behind the stand which the cricket commentators annoyingly insist on calling the ‘Football’ stand end!

The ‘roos did several circuits working on close support work urged on by Bobby Fulton, one onlooker muttered,

    ‘Look at them silly buggers, they’ll be knackered before we get started wiv’ ‘em’, this was something new and looking back it was a precursor to the age of total professionalism, which lead to the Invincibles of 1982.

Inside the ground the Lions were trotting around going through some vague loosening-up. The Hull KR full-back George Fairburn was given a few bombs to field, and dropped the lot. Alas this seemed to set the tone, and at half time we trailed 19-0. We did score two tries in the second half, but in the end were drubbed 23-6.

Les Boyd had replaced ‘Rocket’ Rod Reddy and ran all over the hapless full-back with ease.

Sadly the Featherstone prop Vince Farrar (hero of  Rovers Championship winning team) made his only test performance, replacing the injured hero of the second test Brian Lockwood. Despite tackling his heart ou,t he was condemned with many of the rest, and never got a second chance.

 THE INVINCIBLES 1982

The 1982 tour coincided with the birth and early success of Carlisle Rugby League which was rewarded with the Cumbria fixture, played under the lights at the superb Brunton Park.

I had been living in Cumbria since 1979, and had followed Workington for two seasons in the old Division 1, and then with Carlisle, our closest team. Carlisle was a team of mercenaries, so contributed little to the Cumbrian outfit, which was made up of what we considered very useful players. Among them was Billy Pattinson, a local hero who played all his life with Workington Town, and therein lies the problem. Had he moved to a glamour club he would have been a National hero instead of just a local one. I have yet to see a player who could so consistently break the line as ‘Billy Pat’.

The Australians duly annihilated the home side, with Steve Ella showing why he was known as the ‘Zip-zip man’, and Wayne Pearce looking like he was from a different planet. The Balmain back-rower epitomized the widening gulf between them and us. He was super fit, super strong, and super fast. He fielded a kick off returned it to half way, set up a passing move which led to an easy try. The Cumbrians trudged back to halfway, kicked off again and he repeated the trick!

 

Afterwards whilst waiting outside I got chatting to ‘Rocket’ Rod Reddy, this huge second-rower had starred on the last tour, so was the perfect person to explain how having walloped us so convincingly in the last test, they could go to France and loose all three games, a warm-up  against the    and two tests. Was it down to dodgy refereeing? I asked.

No, we just couldn’t catch the buggers? was the candid answer!

Later as the team the climbed onto the coach Danny Muggleton noticed that the match sponsors Matthew Brown Breweries, had left a crate of beer for the visitors.

‘What the **** is this **** water!’ he groaned, before helping himself!

 ROOBUSTERS? 1986

The bleak days of 1982, and the gallant yet fruitless efforts of the youthful 1984 tourists, had sorely tested ones faith, but it is easy to identify the turning point, indeed the very try when hope once again sprang eternal. It was the test against the second home test against the Kiwis in 1985. Alex Murphy summarizing with Ray French did a Mystic Meg with the most unbelievably prophetic words,

I don’t this this game is over yet Ray…

 Twenty seconds later  Joe Lydon was putting the ball down under the posts, and Ray French’s commentary was equally sage, for indeed ‘we haven’t seen a better try than that for year and years’!

After that the legendary ‘can we do it Ellery?’ interview with Alex Murphy, and the’ Black Pearl’s’ insistence that we could providing Jeff Grayshon ‘took his pills’. We won that series, and  it was clear to all that with the likes of  Hanley, Henderson Gill, Joe Lydon, Gary Schofield, Lee Crooks, Kevin Ward and Andy Gregory we did have a gaggle of players the likes of which don’t come along too often.

Coach Maurice Bamford was a very important ingredient in the mix, for he engendered a patriotic fervour, and put the pride back in the Lions, and the RL public responded in spades.

The RFL promotion staff offered us the ‘roo-busters’ merchandising, and caught the mood and aroused the long latent passion for Oz bashing. It was a case of bring ‘em on! So much so that the First test at Old Trafford on the 25th October was a sell-out, a record 50,000 plus crowd were squeezed in baying for blood. Manchester lived up to billing and it threw it down all day, some sages in the crowd took this as a good omen,

‘ They’re not used to this weather, it’ll suite our lads’!         What drivel!

The crowd’s enthusiasm was really spurred on by the first heat of the ‘Whitbread Trophy Bitter Sprint, with 5 speedsters clad in rugby kit, each with a ball, had to run the full length of the pitch. It was a great race which little Barry Ledger of St.Helens just won from the Wire’s Mark Forster. What a brilliant idea, why don’t we have it again!

After the anthems, flag waving, and patriotic huddles, the warriors got down to business, and the bloody Aussies very quickly burst our bubble with two very soft tries. The natives were growing restless, but undaunted our lads stuck at it and spirits rose when Lee Crooks completely wiped out Brian Niebling, who never quite got to a wild pass from Wally Lewis, and stumbled straight into the big Hull prop, who didn’t miss! Niebling was in Disneyland. Moments later a bit of magic handling and we were in, the fans went wild, and hope was restored, this turned into ecstasy, when within a few minutes Joe Lydon, made a fool of Gary Jack and slid in the left corner rounding off a magic move that had complete strangers hugging like relatives! We were so tightly packed in on the half way line that we were literally whirled off our feet and carried around in a wild unnerving yet deliriously exciting Highland-fling. Then spontaneously it broke out

here we go, here we go, here we go’! To the tune of the Star-spangled banner! Even my dad joined in,  caught be the extreme emotion, and we all chanted like idiots: Awesome!

I have seen more matches than I care to remember, but this is the greatest instance where the crowd could have and should have turned the tide of a game. This is when the faithful should have been rewarded, and I believe that against any Australian outfit they’ve sent since they would have, but unfortunately for us the Aussies too had found a rich seam of talent (perhaps the richest), so much so that Mal Meninga was on the bench, Brett Kenny in the centres, and half of the Legendary Balmain Tigers pack in the mid-week team!

The carnival atmosphere was all too brief as from the restart Ellery looked at Henderson, Henderson looked at Ellery and the ball sailed serenely between them and went dead, to a chorus of expletives from the assembled masses. The moment, and the momentum, lost for good. The loss of Ellery was serious,  he was whirled into the base of the goalpost as he tried to stop another try. Joe Lydon did his best to even matters up when he nearly decapitated King Wally, but he got away with it.

It had been great while it lasted, and the appetite and hopes raised by that fabulous Lydon try meant the next two Tests would also be sold out!

 Elland Road,  Second test

A full house,  crisp sunny afternoon, and a hopeful nation watched a gallant first half performance lead by an imperious Kevin Ward who gave the ‘roos defence hell, unfortunately at half time the tourists had a handy lead, which looked beyond a tiring Lions outfit. Second half  the hirsuit Manly second rower Noel Cleal took us apart in one of the most decisive displays in Test history, sidestepping like a centre, and once again the Ashes were going down under. ‘Grizzly Adams’ as Alex Murphy re-christened him, was the difference.  It looked for all the world like we would have the ignominy of being nilled, but they proved they were human afterall when Gary Jack spilled the ball near his own line in the final minutes and master poacher Gary Schofield swooped to spare our blushes. At 34-4, something had to change, and despite a superb performance in the first test Derek Fox made way for the guile and craft of Andy Gregory who had been in the international wilderness for far too long. Lee Crooks moved to prop replacing John Fieldhouse, and that great ball-handler Harry Pinner came in at Loose-forward. The wisdom of recalling Chris Burton was lost on most people, though he was renowned as a tackling machine, he was always a liability with penalties for high shots!

Central park, Third Test

By now it was well and truly winter and the sun was low and bright, with a hint of frost in the air at Central Park. It wasn’t long before the selection changes paid dividends, when Pinner threw an outrageous long pass into a huge hole. Tony Myler caught it at full tilt, he was away, and despite a brave effort from Gary Jack eventually off-loaded to Schofield who scored under the sticks. This try epitomised what is great about our game, the vision of the no.13, the time freezing quality of the hanging ball, the perfection of timing and acceleration from the stand-off. It is hard to appreciate this facet of the game on TV, it is the 3-dimensional view that makes it so magical.

In the end this vintage Test match was turned by a terrible decision by the French referee  Mr. Rascagneres, who awarded a penalty try when John Basnett tackled Shearer, who would have needed a rocket pack to get to the ball as it disappeared over the dead ball line. The game was still in the balance despite this injustice, when King Wally took control, and killed us off with a superb solo effort.

There were still causes for good cheer, especially when the Mal Meninga came on as sub and was unceremoniously gang tackled loosing the ball in the process, Ironic cheers echoed around a darkening ground.

3-0 again, but at least we were competitive, we showed we could score tries especially from long range, the team was young, and the opposition undoubtedly as good as it gets. The relief of Lewis’s face was plain to see, and the crowd cheered the valiant losers off.  The final bizarre twist came when the voice over the tannoy informed us that the man-of-the-match was Paul Dunn, which was quite an achievement as he had been sat in the stand in his overcoat!

DOWN UNDER 1988

The first test down under was a cagey affair, and a huge slice of luck for Peter Sterling who scored from an awful kick close to the line, proved the difference. Our good form had continued but the illusive first win in a decade was still infuriatingly illusive.

The second test was a debacle, the home commentators clearly thought we had returned to type and were trying to win with under-hand tactics. Here the seeds of their final undoing were being sown. Legendary Parramatta coach Jack Gibson  insisted on calling Ellery Hanley, ‘Eric’ or ‘what’s his name’, and the other commentators calling Chariots Off-e-ah, instead of Off-I-ah. Riled us despite being the correct pronunciation.

Thanks to a storming performance by Bradley Clyde we were soundly beaten, but did get the last laugh when ‘Chariots’ went the length of the field leaving them for dead.

I was living in the wilds of Surrey (a RL desert) and my weekly phone call home was a sombre affair,

‘Hi Dad, did you see the game (what a stupid question),  I moaned.

Yeah, his tone said it all, and after much depressed raking over another ashes debacle, I ended with words worthy of St.Peter .  For I had lost the faith.

‘I’m afraid you’ll be a very old man before we ever beat them’, I intoned.

‘I think y’ right lad,. Oh well ,we shall see!’ he sighed trying to sound optimistic.

How wrong can you be?

 

Third Test  Sydney .  Boogey Wonderland!

Despite working late I set my alarm and woke at some ungodly hour, to get up and watch the game, alas this was Surrey, and the BBC the greatest abusers of the greatest game, didn’t see fit to broadcast our only truly national team in the South, so all I got was snow!  I had to resort to the radio, where Mick ‘Stevo’ Stephenson was in pessimistic mood, and turncoat that he is, was talking up the Aussies. 80 minutes later he was assuring us that it was great to be a  Pommie. What a tosser!

It wasn’t until after lunchtime that I was able to catch up with highlights and see if it really was true. This was interrupted by a friend, who was a living legend for long-phone calls, so I had to get rid of him quick-time. He actually rang back to clarify something, but I didn’t give a dam!

The next hour or so were a tonic beyond compare, balm for the soul! For the next week at least I was on a high, and found myself repeatedly shaking my head in disbelief. The piers du resistance  came when I saw a recording of the live telecast, as it happened, with Peter Fox (the last manager to enjoy success against the old enemy a decade before), and Shaun Edwards, who was injured and missed the tour. Shaun never really had much luck against the Aussies, and except for almost single-handedly beating the Kiwis in the test when Steve Hampson was sent off in the first minutes, never really showed his club form at the highest level. However he played his part in Ashes history off the pitch, with this most memorable Oz- bashing double act, which epitomised the spirit of British Rugby League.

The game is the stuff of legend, from Hendy Gill’s rubber legged ‘bit of a boogey’, to the late great Mike Gregory’s length of the fielder, and Andy Gregory’s understated clenched fist celebration as he set the loose forward free. The sight of the barmy army of loyal and faithful supporters in an assortment of club colours gesturing with the V sign (part Churchillian but mostly Harvey Smithian) at no-one in particular, but at the same time at anything remotely Australian, was utterly stirring. That skinny bloke with the old style Bradford Northern jersey, should have been given an MBE the moment he landed back at Heathrow!

Peter Fox’s summary of the second half is Churchillian in its majesty, and the bile and vitriol are palpable in his dulcet tones. Commenting on Mike Gregory’s long rang romp,

 ’Where’s these Aussie flyers then, there’s our loose forward ,without an Australian three-quarter in sight, Oh no I’m  sorry (he added sarcastically) there was Wally Lewis trotting along in his wake!

 

Shan Edwards chipped in with, ‘W’iv murdered ‘em really!’ and for once this was fair comment. The sight of Michael O’ Connor, gaunt and disbelieving, and the whole green and gold mob, King Wally and all, silent, , not knowing what to say to each other was a sight for sore eyes.

This was all capped by a triumphant Malcolm Reilly in similar mood, when collared by one rather patronising Channel 9 man (who was clearly not his mate!) He said,

 ‘Look MATE, there is nothing more dangerous than an Englishman with his back to the wall’!

MAGIC!

 BACK HOME 1990 – Picking up where we left off?

     Still buoyed by our Sydney heroics, and by Wigan and Widnes great showing in the World Club Challenge, spirits were high, and the authorities had dispensed with the gentle warm-ups. No more Mr.Nice-guy, first game up was the all conquering Wigan at Central Park. Destiny awaited the cherry and whites, could they be the first club side to beat the Tourists in 12 years. Outside the ground the crowds gathered. The player’s entrance door was open and standing in the corridor was Andy Platt, unfortunately injured but otherwise looking in excellent broad-chested condition. As he made his way toward the sunlight, somebody called to him, and he looked round to face what appeared to be a giant, this was comically emphasised as he slowly averted his gaze upward to be greeted by the big grinning mug of Steve Roach, already resplendent in Green and Gold, twirling a ball that looked like an ostrich egg. I watched as they shook hands warmly and chatted, and felt rather worried about Wigan’s chances. This was entirely justified as the Aussies were really up for it, after all the press hype. Only Ellery and Steve Hampson came to the races for Wigan, who were walloped, culminating in the embarrassing debacle of little Alfie Langer stealing the ball from prop Ian Lucas and scampering over under the sticks at the score-board end. Michael Hancock looked like a man possessed, and the Aussie stars shone all over the park.

The first test was going to be tough.

Wembley, Wem-b-ley!!.

A look through the record books showed that in all test played Australia could overtake GB if they won at Wembley, this was clearly unthinkable, and the gods of bygone days were unhappy in the Elysian Fields and it thundered and hailed all night around the capital.

I was still based in Surrey so had a short trip to the match, whilst my dad and the lads of Penrith ARLFC in Cumbria had a long journey south. We had booked a block of seats in a good vantage point, and watched a cagey and enthralling test.  The tempo of the game was set  in the first exchanges when Steve Hampson soared like an eagle to claim a high ball, and landed in the clear, scrambling to his feet he nearly freed Offiah, with a clear run to the line. The crowd were out of their seats! Superb kicking and solid defence were the foundation upon which victory was wrought, Alfie Langer was virtually anonymous against Andy Gregory, Ellery was awesome rushing the Aussie line and time and again breaching it with sheer brute strength.

Alas the Aussies did contribute with a fantastic length of the field try started by Bobby Lindner who was brutally clattered by Hampo, as he set the move going after a break up the blind side. The ball was spread the full width of the mighty Wembley playing area, and ‘Sparkles’ Macgraw put Meninga in the left corner at the tunnel end.

We held out though, and the series was on.

After the game the boys, my dad and I hung around behind the stands and bumped into a group of players waiting for their mates, Laurie Daley ( complete with arm in plaster cast), Glenn Lazarus, and Dale Shearer. They signed our programmes and one of our lads looked rather puzzled,

‘THAT’S THE  Glenn Lazarus’, he couldn’t believe it, for he really wasn’t very tall at all, though he certainly filled his green blazer! Relatively new to the game these lads like many others think that professional Rugby players are all giants and super-humans.

By chance we met a mob of Penrith Panthers lead by Royce Simmons, and once they realised we were from they’re towns namesake, Jerseys were swapped and promises of future cooperation were made, alas these have only very recently come to fruition due to a rather unhelpful secretary at the Panthers HQ back in 1990. Little did we know that our humble pioneer team starting out in the minor leagues in Cumbria, were talking with the 1991 ARL champions.

No one else was around so we tried a door which to our amazement opened, and lead down to the legendary Wembley Tunnel, we walked up it and savoured the view of a now empty stadium, and saw at first hand just what a vast playing area it was. Down the tunnel were the team buses so we snook along and came to the dressing room doors, ours was wide open and the entrance was buzzing with excited conversation.

The Aussies remained firmly shut, and it is clear that Bobby Fulton was not reading them a bed time story! After about 10 minutes the door opened and he emerged looking like thunder,  I asked him for his signature, but he brushed past me, so I called after him, pleadingly,

‘Oh go on Bobby I missed you in 1978’, he stopped dead in his tracks, whirled around and strode back to where I stood and carefully signed my programme. I expressed my thanks, and he gave a faint nod. A Rugby League man through and through, what a guy!

Next to emerge was Bobby Lindner sporting a bloodshot eye, and heavy bruising (courtesy of Mr. Hampson no doubt),

‘great try you started there Bob’, I said,

‘Thanks mate’ he replied, but he was very downhearted, and this had been no consolation

The Brits on the other hand were in good mood, but certainly not getting carried away, it was a very happy dressing room, with smiles a plenty but no singing or shouting. Such professionalism was most encouraging. Kevin Ward, had already got changed and was repeatedly moaning about when they got to eat as he was ‘bloody starving’’, He sat next to Dennis Betts and Roy Powell, who were both drying off, moaning that they should get a move on. The contrast in the physiques of these two young forwards was extraordinary, the late great Roy Powell looked like he’d been carved out of teak, whilst Dennis still a teenager was just a big raw-boned youth yet to develop any great muscle definition, but whatever their builds they were both certainly a handful!

I congratulated all the players in turn, Dennis was plainly proud as punch. As Ray French was keen to remind everyone at every opportunity Dennis had trials with Manchester Utd., I can remember Joe Lydon expressing some doubt about this given Big D’s kicking skills, and seeing him stood there in the buff certainly made one think that the only position he was remotely suited to be a trialist for at Old Trafford was as a Doorman!

I got chatting with Wardy, and  told him that it was he who had got us to this position with his sterling performances in the last home series and abroad, but he was far too modest and said,

 ‘nagh it’ s nowt to do wi’ me!

I beg to differ! Five years later I broached the subject of Kevin Ward, with fans at Brookvale home of Manly Sea Eagles, where Big Kev picked up a Grand Final winners medal.

To a man they said that he was a ‘Forward from Hell, we pleaded with him to stay’, Enough said!

We eventually came around to Ellery Hanley, as he signed I tried to pull his leg but he wasn’t very amused, when I said he might need to brush up on his sprinting training as he had run out of steam  (and any support) after a yet another phenomenal break. He was really narked and muttered to Maurice Lindsay to get us out of the way, but my friend Mark ‘Brookside’ Brookes was more tactful, and asked him to ‘put it there Ellery’, as he offered a triumphant hand! Later I went back and said that I hoped I hadn’t offended him and insisted that I was pulling his leg, and that I thought that he had been magnificent, but he was still not very forgiving. Sorry Ellery!

Steve Hampson (then a brewery drayman in his day job, (remember many players were still semi-pros back then)) was by contrast in better mood, when I suggested that,

‘Them beer barrels won’t weigh as much on Monday, Steve’,

he replied,

‘Aye, that’s if I turn in’! Clearly he was intending to celebrate his success with a few jars himself.

FASHION TRENDS IN CONSERVATION: WE ARE NOT IMMUNE

THE NAME GAME

Having worked in the world of conservation for over a quarter of a century I have come to realise that it is just as prone to the vagaries of human whim and fashion trends that drive many other spheres of human existence. Perhaps the most obvious example is the switch from the self-explanatory ‘wildlife’ to the new-speak ‘Biodiversity’. Our government agency went from the Nature Conservancy Council (self-explanatory) to English Nature (bland but ok) to the oxymoronic Natural England (not much natural in England), but with some aspiration to ecology independent of man.

Of course long before biodiversity went into the dictionary, agricultural terms like ‘improved pasture’ made it plain where wildlife stood in the scheme of things, and will we ever escape from development? However biodiversity is also a term open to abuse as it has come to signify (above the microscopic) everything living, regardless of naturalness. This has led to reports showing how ‘rich’ urban biodiversity can be, with scant regard to naturalness. A blackbird in suburbia is still a blackbird, but for me a harlequin ladybird does not count the same as any native species displaced by urbanisation. Look for invertebrates in amenity plantings in inner London today and you will be hard pushed to find more native species than imports, with more new arrivals every year.

I believe this attitude  has increasingly damaging effects on conservation, and the use of overall biodiversity regardless of origin is likely to pacify the average punter, as politicians (always on the lookout for statistics which can be given a positive spin) will fob off reports like State of nature¹, and highlight the net increases.

In the 1980s the old NCC seemed (to me at least) to have the laudable aspiration of keeping the most of what was considered native from declining and going extinct. Surely if something got here under its own steam it has more value than something we brought? (excepting deliberate re-introductions of former natives).

Some naturalists are even troubled by the efficacy of deliberate reintroductions to restore a species across its former range. The concrete lined pools I built for the Natterjack were seen as launch pads for colonisation of nearby semi-natural waters, not the be all and end all, but I have some sympathy with the voices of decent who are troubled by the artificiality of slotting species back here and there. However such views could be seen as short-termist. Isn’t a Red Kite or Capercailie any less exciting to see, simply because its ancestors arrived back in a cage?

MANAGEMENT TRENDS

Much has been written about the folly of certain drives for nature. Peter Marren amongst others have shown how the ‘Plant a tree in ‘73’ mentality has had a disastrous knock on effect for our native trees, not to mention the usual tears and recrimination from passing walkers, for anyone daring to cut down a pine on their local heathland!

Not so long ago you couldn’t read a wildlife trust magazine without an article about coppicing, obviously it provided the ideal coupling of positive management with a saleable product, but what exactly was achieved?

What is equally frustrating is the way that after a few decades we often arrive back at where we started and re-inventing the wheel seems…well….inevitable. I recently watched Countryfile and was treated to a segment on efforts to help ‘farmland birds’ which included actually casting seed out for them. A NE officer was optimistic that leaving special strips would help the birds…was I alone in thinking isn’t this what we once called Setaside, and how much was wasted in all the rebooting/start-up costs of such a reinvention??

Funding for research is also tied to what’s in the news. Acid rain was a huge story in the early 1980s, and hasn’t gone away, but has been put on the ‘been there, done that’ shelf.

One thing which has come out of the debate around the grazing revolution is the realisation that many managers have side-lined what worked in pursuit of a new in vogue alternative. Wholesale summer grazing is being used almost carte blanche on heathland, not always justifiably. Obviously driving around counting cows is more fun and easier than cutting and dragging trees and scrub off a heath, but as the former works why do both when (especially on small sites) the grazing stock often reduce structure and stop anything flowering! Dare one say because it means your site is in ‘unfavourable –recovering’ condition?

I am often asked how a site can be enhanced for wildlife, and in many cases my advice is to dig a pond or two. This is not to say we farm every square hectare to maximise heterogeneity, and have a little bit of everything. However I have surveyed many of our finest SSSIs and see money thrown at turning back the clock which could very easily produce far greater results on new ground. Pine plantations still cover vast tracts of our once open sandy areas, and can be cleared and quickly restored back to heathland/duneland.

LOWERING THE BAR

The worst trend in the 21st century has been the sinister and stealthy way in which the great con of SSSI condition assessment has lowered the bar for generations to come and gotten government out of paying for the real management needed to get sites back into favourable condition.  NCC devised a system to protect the best bits of our countryside which for several decades was little more than a token gesture. NCC got more teeth after 1981, and direct deliberate damage declined but was replaced by decline through poor management and neglect. The result was a politically driven cop out employing an unscientific assessment process which sets out to make it seem like things are improving when the evidence for improvement at most sites is non-existent! The weasel words, ‘unfavourable recovering’ is the greatest con in the history of conservation in Britain!

THE RIGHT TO ROAM

The other great attitudinal change of the past 25 years or so has been the drive for public access. The Blair government brought in the CROW act, which for the naturalist in Scotland is a delight, but for the overcrowded south-east the effects are all too obvious.

Given the burgeoning dog population density in Lowland Britain, it is just no longer tenable to allow unrestricted access onto remaining wild areas without it adversely affecting the species and habitats present. When we enter a stately home or museum we don’t expect to be given carte blanche to walk wherever we like and prod and poke the art and fittings.  LNRs in many cases could be renamed dog toilets, and SSSIs especially those with breeding bird interest will be damaged by visitor pressure, placing the site managers in the impossible position of having to promote public access and prevent damage to the SSSI. I have surveyed Oxshott Heath on and off for over 15 years, and on my last visit in 2013 was attacked twice by out of control dogs, and in a two hour period counted 67 dogs including 9 running around amongst the heather despite it being bird breeding season. A massive increase in both people and four-footed pressure at a site whose main aspiration is to bring back the once frequent rare heathland breeding birds!

As visitor pressure increases wildlife suffers, simply through the moron factor: Ponds get Crassula, floating pennywort, goldfish, and more ducks. To the vast majority of the public a pond with these things in it, is still a place for wildlife!

A look at the parks in Greater London show how there is a critical mass below which the effects become catastrophic. The larger parks like Bushy and Richmond still have superb biodiversity, but all have areas from which the public are excluded (and are sufficiently large to have quiet corners even at peak visitor times), and these are particularly important for flower visiting species. In contrast, trying to sell biodiversity ahead of amenity has been an uphill struggle in the inner London parks such as Hyde, and Kensington Gardens, where rough bushy and grassy areas are likely to be taken over by undesirables, which the Police seem reluctant to tackle.

Do places with limited public access have more species than those open to the public? 

I compiled a RDB of species on land owned by the Ministry of Defence, and it is no exaggeration to say that for many of our rarest species the red flag is of immense value. Obviously military activity does involve human intervention, but dangerous things like bombs and bullets mean huge buffer zones are needed, and these act as outdoor laboratories where the positives for wildlife are very evident.

REWILDING

Re-wilding has become the latest fashion craze, and for the uplands presents a vision which I for one think is a fine aspiration. But when it comes to the overcrowded lowlands is anyone really confident that the rich private land owners will be remotely interested in handing over control?  The example of  Knepp Castle Estate shows what can be done, but how long before the market is saturated with deer-watching safaris, venison burgers and boar sausages…. and profits and grants dwindle, and another trend goes out of fashion??

In my area the Forestry Commission have recently replanted a very obvious ancient woodland with conifers (despite supposedly having a policy not to do so), as has Bourne Woods (an area of former lowland heathland), despite the RSPB showing how readily dry heath can be restored on adjacent land. Rewilding seems a pipe-dream when the FC with all its green ambitions cannot be compelled to lead by example. If they can’t what chance a profitable shooting estate?

CULTURAL LANDSCAPES

Does a pretty open landscape that is attractive to the majority of human visitors have more value than one with the most native obligate species? In other words, is native biodiversity (in its appropriate home) more important than cultural landscapes (whatever they are)?   It is tragic that we have arrived in a situation where we have to choose between the two. Areas like the North Yorkshire Moors are managed for a very few (mostly one) species (and stunning views), but species richness more than quadruples in peripheral areas in the absence of continual regular burning/grazing. Here many county rarities and declining communities are squeezed between improved pasture and grouse rearing.

ECOSYSTEM SERVICES

At University I remember asking the class for a show of hands if they thought that spending money on species that they probably would never actually see worth-while. Every hand went up (perhaps unsurprisingly given they were environmental studies students). This was 30 years ago in what was the bad old days when most of those present would struggle to find a job in their chosen field. Many volunteered as a way into a poorly paid job. A decade later the revolution of ‘species protection’ created a whole new service industry masquerading under the name of ‘Ecology’.  Thousands now make a living moving stuff out of the way of development, and mapping decline. Alongside this we also have the paradoxical situation where landmarks like the RSPB reaching a million members, and Countryfile getting a primetime TV slot, not reflecting a concomitant improvement in nature’s lot. Indeed I never thought things could ever go back to the bad old days of the 1980s when Nick Ridley was talking about turnstiles on nature reserves and nature staying only if it paid its way! …

Economists have finally sunk their claws into biodiversity, and unless you have been living on Mars you will have heard the mantra of Ecosystem Services, the latest way to justify the existence of species and habitats (which don’t otherwise pay their way).

For decades we’ve been told we need the rain forest because it might have a ‘cure for cancer’. Today its role as the ‘lungs of the Planet’ is a justifiable example of ecosystem services, but with flooding the hot topic of recent winters, planting trees.. any trees.. would be better for soaking up flood water than maintaining open heath or moor. Just how difficult will it be for clever economist types to show how palm-oil plantations are ‘carbon neutral’ and the ‘lungs of the planet providing a home for biodiversity’?

Why can’t we have nature reserves for native wildlife?  The clue is in the name they are sites whose primary purpose is as a home for wildlife not for people!  Roaming should be a privilege controlled by the needs of the species increasingly squeezed by our ever spreading influence.

The argument that people must connect with nature to care for it is at first sight a compelling one, especially as the city/ country divide keeps growing. However it is irresponsible to have policy shaped by the opinions of Joe Public or politicians who don’t have the slightest idea about ecology! Given a choice most people would happily walk through a pine plantation or secondary woodland as can be seen at sites like the Esher Commons, and don’t see any great value in the opening up and restoration of heathland, despite that being the reason  for the areas designation as a SSSI. People are naturally conservative and what they have known for 5, 10 or 30 years is what they want to keep, and will often swear blind that the place has always been thus even when quite recent photos can prove otherwise.

The zealots who champion the Grey Squirrel and the Rose-ringed Parakeet have even played the xenophobia card against those looking to control these aliens: Showing how even political correctness can undermine the battle against the ‘sixth extinction’.

There is plenty of expertise to call on and it is essential that conservationists stand their ground and don’t let the bar drop any further. Many at NE made a stand, but as it stalled development they were crushed, leading to a mass exodus of talent.

Of course the factor which underpins everything and is never in fashion, in fact is rarely shown the light of day…. I refer of course to population control. You have more chance of raising paedophilia on the political agenda than mentioning population control. Instead of celebrating the time (not so long ago) when our crowded island’s population stabilised, we now hear politicians contemplating a UK population over 100 million!  Then they wonder why so few have any faith in them anymore! A simple question that no-one seems to ask is: Name one way in which having more people makes the quality of life in Britain better?? 

REFERENCE

¹  RSPB (2013) State of Nature. RSPB, Sandy

 

SURREY DIPTERA CHECKLIST TOPS 2800!

The Surrey Diptera list now stands at 2865, obviously a long way to go, but progressing well, with large families like Mycetophilids now well covered thanks to Peter Chandler’s data. So if you have any records especially of more obscure families please send them. Also remember that the Surrey atlas of larger brachycera and conopids is close to coming out, and I’m happy to relay records to Jeremy Early.

AMOROUS HEDGEHOGS DISTURB THE PEACE!

I was woken a couple of nights ago by a bizarre regular chuckling noise in the garden. At first I thought it must be a male Marsh Frog in the pond, but not known anywhere near. Turned out to be a pair of hedgehogs. The calling went on for well over an hour! Last time I witnessed such a spectacle was in the delightfully named Fairybead Syke wood next to my childhood home in Cumbria. Here a pair were found nose to nose hissing and jerkily head butting each other, followed by the male running rings around and around the female. I guess it’s very wise for the male to not rush things!

Good to know there are still some about, I had a regular last year who left a little calling card every time she/he squeezed under the side gate! Had feared the worst as some moron ran over a large female just up the road last week.

A few years ago in Alton we had one which came to food ,and announced his arrival with a zip like a comb on a table edge has he /she also had to do the hedgehog limbo under the wooden gate

FARNHAM HEATH TWO-BARRED CROSSBILL ISN’T

Saw the mystery bird on Farnham Heath yesterday 24/3. Watched it singing and had at least 4 clear views of it and the drab Common Crossbill female flying and calling. All Jip-Jip!! Ok yes it looks good but I saw the real deal at Broomhead in Yorkshire last autumn and was amazed how what I assumed would be a hard species to pick up was in fact a doddle. Here there were hundreds of common crossbills which kept flying over in big flocks, but out of the metallic jip-jipping came a clear unmistakable kazoo like call. For the older reader I have the mental image of the mail pigeon’s trumpet call  from the ‘Catch the Pigeon’ cartoon. Indeed many present agreed that it was very like Trumpeter finch. Not a hint of this yesterday, so unless this male is a ‘Tarzan’ reared by Common Crossbill parents, I can only trust my ears and put him down as a partly albinistic Common Crossbill. The whole genus are a ‘mare. Was at Alice Holt last week and had a joop-jooping Crossbill which landed and sang from a spruce tree. It was certainly not the song of a Common Crossbill, but couldn’t say its bill was obviously ‘Parrot’. But on balance this seems highly likely, or a hybrid??? Must happen Jock, Common and Parrot are all just too close!

By the way heads up for RSPB what a model restoration of heathland, Forestry Commission take note all that  worthless plantation in Bourne Woods next door should be heath once more, yet they have actually replanted some nice heathy slopes!

EXPERTS HAVE THEIR USES: you wouldn’t do your own root-canal work would you??

 Why can’t we have nature reserves for nature? The clue is in the name they are sites whose primary purpose is as a home for wildlife not for people!  Roaming should be a privilege controlled by the needs of the species increasingly squeezed by our ever spreading influence.   When we enter a stately home or museum we don’t expect to be given carte blanche to walk wherever we like and prod and poke the art and fittings. Given the population density in lowland Britain, it is just no longer tenable to allow unrestricted access onto remaining wild areas without it adversely affecting the species and habitats present.  LNRs in most cases could be renamed Dog toilets. SSSIs especially those with breeding bird interest will be damaged by visitor pressure.

Twenty years ago as part of an on-going row about the appalling decline of Thursley Moat in Surrey (which came about because some moron decided to bring boot loads of bread every day to feed the ducks). The outcome was a massive increase in waterfowl and a drastic decline in the floristic and invertebrate interest (on an NNR) which persists to this day (despite the duck populations declining back to pre-feeding levels).  A clip board wielding team was hired to ask visitors why they had come to the NNR. To use site as a dog toilet was not an option despite clearly being a prime reason for many visitors.

Recently the National Trust hatched a plan to relocate the car park at Witley Common (which is currently in pine woodland of no great value), onto adjacent open SSSI heathland. A classic case of wildlife second, people first, but in this case the people wouldn’t have even noticed they were being put first!

It is a joy to be able to walk off the beaten track in the Highlands and Islands, but these have very low population and visitor pressure compared to reserves in the lowlands, especially those within a few miles of conurbations.

The argument that people must connect with nature to care for it is at first sight a compelling one, especially as the city/ country divide keeps growing. However it is misleading, for it is utterly irresponsible to have policy shaped by the opinions of people (politicians) who don’t have the slightest idea about wildlife!  Given a choice most people would happily walk through a scattered pine plantation or secondary woodland as can be seen at Esher Commons, and do not see any great value in the opening up and restoration of heathland, despite that being the reason  for the areas designation as a SSSI. People are naturally conservative and what they have known for 5, 10 or 30 years is what they want to keep, and will often swear blind that the place has always been thus even when quite recent photos can prove otherwise.

As visitor pressure increases wildlife suffers, simply through the moron factor. Ponds will inevitably get Crassula, Floating pennywort, Goldfish, and more ducks. To the vast majority of the public a pond with these things in it is still wildlife!

A look at the parks in Greater London show how there is a clear critical mass below which the effects become catastrophic. The larger parks like Bushy, Richmond and Hampton Court Park still have superb biodiversity, but all have off limits areas from which the public are excluded (and are sufficiently large to have quiet corners even at peak visitor times), and these are particularly important for flower visiting species, and have the richest overall assemblages. Trying to sell biodiversity ahead of amenity has been an uphill struggle in the inner London parks such as Hyde, and Kensington Gardens, where rough bushy areas are likely to taken over by undesirables, and even open grassy areas are exploited by some very odd characters, which the Police seem reluctant to tackle.

As a civilised nation we devised a system to protect the best bits of our countryside which for several a decades was little more than a token gesture. Even when NCC got more teeth after 1981, direct deliberate damage declined but was replaced by decline through poor management and lack of proper monitoring. As a result we have the political cop out by employing an unscientific assessment process which sets out to make it seem like all is improving when the evidence for improvement at most sites is none existent! The weasel words ‘Unfavourable recovering’ is the greatest con in the history of conservation in Britain!

FROGS AND TOADS MINGLE YET AGAIN!

As with last year frogs and toads are spawning side by side and in some cases forming mixed pairs. The long run of cool nights pushed frogs back and the recent warmer spell has seen toads move in despite no wet nights! Toads are now in full swing in Surrey/N.Hampshire, and male frogs still croaking away (somewhat optimistically) at night as at 17.3. First pond skaters on my pond on saturday, still never seen one fly!!

SPRING AT LAST!

7 clumps of spawn at long last (more to come)! Males have been calling throughout last three nights despite it being clear and quite chilly.

yesterday (9.3) had two Small Tortoiseshells basking side by side at back door, they are well and truly back. Peacocks as well! They make up for all those nettlings!!  Woodpeckers drumming as well…about time too!