Archive | December 2014

Round and round the apple tree

By coincidence, my last couple of posts have been about Scandinavia, snow and ice, and ovicaprids. I’m not going to manage to shake free of all of those in this post either …

Filedfare. Photo by Arnstein Rønning.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Photo by Arnstein Rønning.

We woke this morning to a terrific hard frost. The countryside is white; the trees are white; it is gorgeous. It’s not quite so gorgeous inside our bedroom, where there was ice on the inside of the windowsone of the joys of living in a 300 year old cottage with all its draughts and dampness and ill-fitting doors and windows.

We call one of the gardens next to ours ‘the secret garden’. Not so much because it is hidden, but because no-one uses it. The cottage to which it belongs is rented, and none of the tenants in the last few years has shown any interest in it. Contract gardeners come and cut the grass about four times a year, and that’s it. We can see into the garden from our bedroom dormer window. There is an alder tree which has grown from a small sapling when we arrived in 1992 to a large, two-trunked tree; there is an old ruined cottage or barn or outbuilding, the stone walls of which survive to about a metre or so high and are gradually being covered by brambles; and there is a venerable old apple tree. The apple tree always fruits prodigiously, and because no-one uses the garden, the apples stay where they fall. They provide welcome food for wildlife in the winter months.

This morning the apples were providing a frosty feast for about nine or ten blackbirds (Turdus merula), a grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), and a single fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Fieldfare are a palaearctic species, living in more northerly latitudes in the summer and heading south in the winterour fieldfare come from Scandinavia. Normally they travel in flocks, so it is always surprising to see a lone one. This one was vigorously defending its food, spending more time chasing all the blackbirds away than it was eating. Watching them, I could almost hear the Benny Hill Show theme tune in my head as the fieldfare scooted round and round the apple tree in hot pursuit of a blackbird.

Play nicely, children. Photo by Dave Jackson.

Play nicely, children. (This is a small fieldfare as an adult fieldfare is quite a bit larger than an adult blackbird). Photo by Dave Jackson.

I would love to have seen this many!

Update 4 January 2015: A week on and the fieldfare is still with us. He sits in one of the higher beech trees that surrounds the secret garden, and swoops down to chase off larger interlopers who are getting too close to his precious stash of slowly-rotting apples. He tolerates the smaller birds such as chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs) and dunnocks (Prunella modularis) and blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), but is aggressive in his pursuit of the blackbirds. Even larger birds like jackdaws (Corvus monedula) get the ‘get orf moi laaaand’ treatment from him (or should that be written in a Scandinavian rather than a West Country accent?)

Update 29 November 2016: The fieldfare stayed for about a month, leaving the day our neighbours on the other side of the secret garden started having some very noisy chainsaw work done on their trees. We didn’t see him in winter 2015, but this morning we woke to a hard frost and a lone fieldfare guarding the apple tree in the secret garden. Is it the same bird? I’d like to think so ….

Straw goats and arson: the Gävle Goat

Every now and then I find a quirky little article on Wikipedia that captures my imagination or fires me up or makes me go ‘Whaaat?’ or just makes me smile. I love quirky stuff. And the Gävle Goat (Gävlebocken in its native Swedish) is certainly that.

The in snow, 18 December 2014. From the

The Gävle Goat in snow, 18 December 2014. Photo from the Gävle Goat Twitter account.


The Gävle Goat as pictured on the webcam, 11.49 am Swedish time on 22 December 2014. Still here!

Every year, a giant version of the traditional Yule Goat is erected in the Swedish city of Gävle, in time for Advent. And every year, people try to burn the goat down.

The Gävle Goat is made of straw, is 13 m tall, 7 m long and weighs 3.6 tonnes. The first Goat was built on 1 December 1966, and was burned down on New Year’s Eve that year, starting a tradition of festive caprine arson. Since then the Goat has been protected by a fence, been given security guards and in 1996 a webcam was installed. But despite all this, the arson and other attacks on the Goat continue.

It has been hit by a car, kicked to pieces (several timesthat’s some dedicated kicking), hit by fireworks, attacked by Santa Claus and the Gingerbread Man, scaled by drunks, collapsed due to sabotage, and of course burned, a total of 27 times. One year in particularly cold weather the guards popped into a nearby restaurant to warm up, and almost inevitably they weren’t the only thing that warmed upthe arsonists struck in their absence.

Photo by Apeshaft.

The Gävle Goat of 2009. Photo by Apeshaft.

There have been Goat Wars between the two rival goat-building groups, international attacks on the Goat (a Norwegian was arrested and an American jailed for attacking the Goat), and bribery attempts on the guards, who were asked to turn a blind eye to a planned theft by helicopter (Yes. Seriously).

One that didn't make it ... the 1998 Photo by Adent.

One that didn’t make it … the 1998 Gävle Goat. Photo by Adent.

You can watch the Goat on its dedicated webcam, at least until it is burned down or if it survives, is dismantled some time after Christmas. And this being the age of social media, of course the Goat has a blog and a Twitter account

Update 29 December 2014: The Goat is being dismantled as I type: apparently it is off to China, where the Year of the Goat starts on 19 February. Sad to see it go, but at least it survived this year! Hurrah!

Lost sheep, icy murders, and an immortal

Every now and then I hear a piece of music that is so distinctive that whenever I hear it subsequently I know it immediately. One of these earworms for me for a Norwegian folk song called ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’‘The Lost Sheep’.

I first heard this melody while watching the marvellous Coen Brothers film Fargo, which was released in 1996. The main theme of the film is an adaptation by Carter Burwell of ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’.

Such a distinctive melody, which seemed to echo so well the icy landscapes of northern Minnesotaa wintery land populated by people of Scandinavian extraction where horrible murders happen, wood chippers optional, and heavily-pregnant police chiefs doggedly pursue their man. The music stuck with me, a lovely earworm I didn’t expect to hear again.

Fast forward a few years. I listen to a lot of BBC Radio 4 while I work, and I particularly enjoy the afternoon dramas. One set of plays that grabbed me right from the start was the Pilgrim series by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, the first episode broadcast in 2008 and now five series in. The stories involve William Palmer, a 12th century immortal cursed to wander the modern British countryside, encountering faeries and demons as well as hoodies and housewives. And lo! Used in Pilgrim was ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’, a version played by Norwegian musician Annbjørg Lien on her Hardanger fiddle, accompanied by a church organ:

The later Fargo version, with its syrupy harp at first and rather overblown orchestration after the fiddle part, has wonderfully slow tempo, full of foreboding. Annbjørg’s 1994 version is plaintive and stripped-down, but at a slightly faster tempo, and I could really sense the lost sheep in the icy Nordic snowdrifts as she played. It also fitted perfectly with the theme of Pilgrim, with Palmer the lost soul condemned to wander forever.

A Hardanger fiddle, made by Knut Gunnarsson Helland. Photo by Kjetil r.

A Hardanger fiddle, made by Knut Gunnarsson Helland. Photo by Frode Inge Helland.

Annbjørg’s version is available on her album Felefeber (‘Fiddle fever’), released in 1994, and available on Amazon. Series 3 of Pilgrim was awarded the Silver Medal for the Best European Radio Drama of the Year at the Prix Europa in Berlin, and nominated for the Prix Italia Best Original Radio Drama award. It’s a great listen if you get the chance. As one other listener described it so well: ‘I love the way one world settles seamlessly in-between the cracks of another’, and in that same post Sebastian has confirmed that Series 6 and 7 have been commissioned, hurrah!

And then earlier this year, I was delighted to see/hear that the title track of the 2014 television series adaptation of Fargo, which I hugely enjoyed, had nods to ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’ and its use in the original film:

I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently ‘Den Bortkomne Sauen’ also crops up in the Norwegian tv series Lilyhammer (and no, that’s not a typo). I am definitely going to catch up on this one as it is a Norway-set mash-up of The Sopranos (my all-time favourite tv series) and Scandinoir, with a good dash of comedy thrown in, and stars Steven Van Zandt as Frank, an Italian-American mafioso relocated by the Federal Witness Protection Program to Lillehammer. Frank even picks up a lost sheep in the very first episode, so I read.

Update 22 December 2014: A new series of Pilgrim has just started this afternoon on Radio 4. The Beeb hasn’t exactly gone overboard with publicising it, as the first I heard about it was when I was listening to the radio and it started! But hurrah, more, new Pilgrim!

Favourite websites: Britain From Above

My heart is in the past, and that is why I love this website: Britain From Above. In 2007 English Heritage, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) acquired the historic oblique aerial photography archive of Aerofilms, a company set up in 1919 for commercial photography from the air. Usually the photos were taken for clients, maybe to establish the location of a building plot within the landscape, or to show the progress of a large construction site or the condition of a property, or as views to be sold to postcard manufacturers, but they have other significances too: the most important part of the collection spans the years from 19191953, and document a now-lost England, Wales and Scotland (sadly Northern Ireland is not part of the project). Currently there are over 96,000 digitised images in the collection.

Padstow, Cornwall. July 1930.

Padstow, Cornwall. July 1930.

I can—and do—lose hours on the Aerofilms website. If you register as a member (it’s very easy to do so, and free), you are able to zoom in on the photographs. The negatives have been scanned at such a high resolution that the tiniest details become clearly visible. They show snapshots of a long-lost Britain: stooks of wheat in a field after harvest; horse-drawn ploughs; airmeets for the dashing 1920s and 1930s aviators where planes are simply landed in a suitable flat field; steam engines puffing along pre-Beecham railway linesfilm sets from the 1930s; even the R-101 on its first test flight.  You can search by date, by co-ordinate, or by placename.

Salisbury Cathedral, 1933.

Salisbury Cathedral, May 1933.

The project encourages users to contribute information on places by tagging the images or adding data, photos, videos or links in a free text area. There are galleries which include all the images taken on a single flight, and even a gallery for so-far unidentified images, where the information accompanying them is lost or incorrect, and members have helped successfully re-attribute many of the photos in the collection. Some of the photos are on glass plate negatives which have been damagedyet another reminder of a lost time.

Many of the photos are of cities and built-up areas, but as my heart is in the countryside as well as in the past, I tend to stick to looking at the photos of rural areas.

An unlocated country house and countryside.

An unlocated country house and countryside. July 1938.

Not a real castle - an unlocated film set for a so-far unidentified film.

Not a real castle—an unlocated film set for a so-far unidentified movie. November 1928.

I have used Britain From Above for my archaeological research work: sometimes I undertake projects where I have to find out as much as I can about a particular area or site, and how it has developed over time. For this I will use documentary sources (books and articles, plus written documents such as letters, wills, diaries, estate accounts etc), maps and plans, drawings, paintings and sketches, and where available, photographs. The Aerofilm vertical photos at 1:10,000 scale are an amazing resource for identifying landscape features such as earthworks, and the oblique photos on Britain From Above are also very useful as they are often taken from a much lower altitude and so have much more detail. Earlier this year I worked on a project for the history of a house and plot near to Hampton Court Palace in Richmond upon Thames, London: the Aerofilm photos provided great details about its development from the 1920s onwards.

Hampton Court Palace, Hampton Court Park and environs, Hampton Court Park, 1948.

Hampton Court Palace, Hampton Court Park and environs, April 1948.

Britain From Above is a fantastic resource (especially for schools) and a complete time-sink. Once I log on, that’s it for a couple of hours …

A November sunset

I caught this gorgeous sunset sequence on 23 November. I love the way the shadows in the high cirrus cloudsthe mackerel skylengthen with the setting sun.

A Wiltshire sunset.

A little later.

Later still.

Yet later.






Our friend Jules, who is a very talented artist, loves mackerel skies and puts them in his paintings whenever he can. It’s a shame he wasn’t around to see this one!