Wednesday, 20 September 2017

On this day in 1917, Private Sydney John Smith was killed.

Private 204545
5th Platoon, B Company
15th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment
20th September 1917
Sydney John Smith was the only son of John and Jane Smith. His father was a miller at Manaton Mill and it was there that Sydney was privately baptised at home, a rather unusual occurrence and possibly related to some perinatal problems, on 5th February 1884. By the time of the 1901 census, taken on 31st March of that year, the Smith family was living in Kelly Bray and Sydney, aged 18, was working as a general labourer, while his father was a corn miller. In the 1911 census (2nd April 1911), the family is still in Kelly Bray and Sydney’s occupation is given as a sawyer.

At some point, Sydney enlisted in the army at Launceston and seemed to have moved regiments several times, from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry to the Devonshire Regiment and, finally, to the Hampshire Regiment. It may be that these moves were in response to the need to make up regimental numbers in the field. We don’t know when he entered the France and Flanders Theatre of War but, from the War Diary of his battalion, we do know that just before the 20th September 1917, the 15th Hampshires were in Trench Street Tunnels, just outside of Zillebeke, to the south of Ypres. They were preparing for engagement on the 20th for what became known as The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, the third British general attack of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in the First World War. The battle took place from 20th to 25th September 1917 and heralded a change in some infantry tactics, by adopting the "leap-frog" method of advance, when waves of infantry stopped once they reached their objective, then consolidated the ground, while other waves passed through the objective to attack the next one and the earlier waves became the tactical reserve. The Battalion War Diary gives a graphic description of the fighting Sydney John Smith and his comrades were engaged in and, at the end of the battle, the battalion casualties were enormous: 55 killed, 255 wounded and 34 missing believed killed. Sydney was one of the latter. His body was never recovered and he is one of the many commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial.

Sydney John Smith's Medal Card.
The Tyne Cot Memorial.
Sydney’s mother clung on to the fact that he was originally listed as ‘missing believed dead’ and correspondence archived with the Red Cross, and shown below, contains a record of the poignant letter Jane Smith wrote to the authorities trying to track down her son. All to no avail and Sydney was eventually listed as ‘killed’. Sydney is remembered on his parents’ headstone in Stoke Climsland graveyard.

All of Sydney Smith's possessions were left to his widowed mother.
Both Sydney's parents are buried in the graveyard in Stoke Climsland. Sydney is mentioned on the headstone.


Sunday, 17 September 2017

Andalucian pot pourri: Part 2: Only mad dogs.....

What to do? The temperature is hovering in the mid-30's Centigrade and there's barely a breeze. I know, I'll go for a walk up the nearest mountain. What do Noel Coward say about Mad Dogs and the noon day sun?

Above where we staying is the Sierra de Mijas and this is criss-crossed by a well developed network of footpaths of varying lengths and difficulties. I didn't have the time to explore the highest track and contented myself with a few miles of the green and blue routes. For anyone interested, my starting point was the Puerto Colorado.
Each route was ostensibly well marked but, as seems to be typical for many places, the signs going out seem to be better than the signs in the opposite direction. In foreign parts, I always take the precaution of discretely marking (with a 3 foot Union Jack) the way I've come from so there's no ambiguity on my way back.  

Just missed it. Something was lurking in the middle of these grasses and took off when it realised I was there. Not a rabbit, about the same size but darker and with a definite long tail. Thinking about it, it might even have been a cat.  I don't often wear shorts as I've got too much consideration for other people to expose them to my legs and this was a time when I wish I'd stuck to my customary long trousers. Just about every plant and bush out there is sharp and wants to hurt you. 
The mountains are mostly comprised of marble and limestone and are extremely dry and almost desert-like in parts as there is little shade or water. The terrain is tough, with lots of rocks and sand and is slippery underfoot. It's not a place to venture without proper walking boots and plenty of water.
The views were spectacular and almost 360ยบ. There were views across to North Africa and the whole of Malaga’s coastline. Looking northwards there are the mountains of Sierra de las Nieves. The sights are well worth the effort of getting up there to see them. 
I like walking when it's hot as the heat really brings out the scents of the various plants. Here there are some pine trees which gave the air a resinous aroma which, when intermingled with the aroma of rosemary, was heady stuff. All that, with the continuous ratchet of cicadas, makes the effort worthwhile. I can recommend it.
This part of the walk was a bit of a slog up to the trees at the top. The terrain reminded me of the garrigues of Provence in France.
Lots of these wasps around but, as far as I could tell, they seemed to be solitary, with only one hovering around each burrow.
Not too many butterflies around and I spent a good ten minutes trying to get a half decent shot of this one. It's not a species that we see in the UK and my guidebook tells me that it's probably a Great Banded Grayling.
There were very few birds around and this was the only one I got a shot of. I think it's a Pied Flycatcher but am open to being corrected.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

On this day in 1917, Gunner John Jordan was killed

Gunner 107471
238th Siege Battery
yal Garrison Artillery
Died age 40
16th September 1917
John Jordan was born in Lezant in 1876, the son of Elias and Elizabeth Jordan. He was baptised as John Tredinnick Jordan in Lezant church on 5th November 1876. In 1881 he was living in Launceston with his parents and in 1891 he was working and living as a farm servant in Lake, Lifton. By 1901 he had changed occupations and was working as a storeman in Wheal Russell mine, on Morwell Down above Morwellham. John married Edith Friend at Tavistock Registry Office on 5th October 1901 and they went on to have two sons, William John and Charles Herbert, who were both born in Stoke Climsland parish. At the time of the 1911 census, the family was living at Winsor in Kelly Bray and John Snr was working as a storeman/millhand, presumably in one of the local mines.

John’s Service Record has survived and this tells us that he enlisted at Callington on 9th December 1915 and was assigned to the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), based at the Citadel in Plymouth. He remained in reserve until 22nd July 1916 when he was mobilised and posted to a base in Bexhill. He subsequently embarked in France on 19th March 1917 and went into action on 18th May 1917.

The Siege Batteries of the RGA were equipped with heavy howitzers, sending large calibre high explosive shells in high trajectory, plummeting fire. They were most often employed in destroying or neutralising the enemy artillery, as well as putting destructive fire down on strong points, trenches, dumps, stores, roads and railways behind enemy lines. In the case of the 238th, its weapon was a 6 inch howitzer.

Unit Diaries were not maintained by individual Siege Batteries and that for the 238th covers only August and October 1917, tantalisingly not the month during which John Jordan was killed. What is clear, however, from those two months is that the Battery was in continuous active service around Ypres as part of the Battle of Passchendaele, firing many rounds and, in return, coming under heavy enemy fire. It was in one of these barrages that he was killed. His body was recovered and was buried in the Klein-Vierstraat British Cemetery (Grave reference: III.C.3), which is a few miles south west of Ypres. At 40 years of age when he died, he has the dubious position of being the oldest of those listed on the Stoke Climsland memorial.

John Jordan's headstone.
View of Klein-Vierstraat British Cemetery.
Formal record of John Jordan's effects, which were passed on to his widow.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Andalucian pot pourri: Part 1

We are in Andalucia for a week in a villa in Mijas, just outside of Malaga. As ever, just a few photographs to give a flavour of what we're up to. No theme to link them, just the wanderings of a febrile mind.
The blurb for our villa claims that, on a clear day, the coast of Africa can be seen. Well, it's a clear day and I can't see Africa. #cheatedofmijas
Who is this peeping out from behind an hibiscus flower?
Why, it's Mr Spanish Cicada. And look what a messy eater he is: pollen all over his legs and antennae. I bet his mother won't be pleased to see this.
And here's Mr Humming Bird Hawk moth heading off after a feed. Look how clean his proboscis is, Mr Spanish Cicada. If he can do it, so can you.
It's a long way to come for a Cornish Cream Tea, even if it is served with Rodda's Clotted Cream. Around the corner they were serving Ginster's pasties - possibly.
It's a shame to see the mundane 'pedestrian crossing' sign replacing the rather splendid 'officer crossing' one.
Colegiata Santa Maria la Mayor - Saint Mary the Major Collegiate Church. For we jubilados, a reduced entrance fee of 3 euros. Almost makes it worth being an OAP.
My composite of the many altars we saw in the churches in Ronda. Too many, too elaborate and not to our taste. But colourful.
I liked the glow of the sun behind this bell tower. Can't remember which church it was but it was in Ronda and it was closed.
Puento Nuevo at Ronda, possibly one of the most photographed bridges in Spain, but none-the-less impressive for that. Tip for travellers to Ronda: the new town is a rather unattractive urban sprawl so keep to the old town and just wander around the streets. It's an interesting place to potter.
This tower was once the tower of  a Moorish minaret but was appropriated in the 14th Century and modified for use as a tower for a Catholic church. This is all that survives nowadays and, if you look closely, you might be able to make out the typical horse-shoe shaped Moorish doorway on the bottom right.
The bells in the tower of the Iglesia del Espiritu Santo. The photograph was taken about 10 seconds before they started chiming the quarter hour. And, yes, they were very loud close up. Nowadays they are operated electrically rather than by the traditional clappers. Note added 24 hours later: my ears are still ringing.
I know all about the good they do but I still have problems with the impact they make on the landscape. Why can't they be smaller and out of the way. And why are there no solar panels to be seen in this part of Spain? Look at the sky - blue and full of sun. And not a hint of wind.
If you have a gender identity problem, this could be just the place for you.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Seabirds Cry

Of all the birds I enjoy seeing, I'd put seabirds at the top of my list. Not birds that live on our shores but those whose link with the land can seem very tenuous and only of importance when it comes to breeding. A very perceptive friend has just bought me a book called The Seabird’s Cry and it was one of those books that was very difficult to put down. It wasn't a 'read in one sitting' book but it wasn't far off. Its sub-title The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers gives a clue as to what its about.
Ten species of birds more at home in the deep ocean than on land are described, some of them with lifetimes longer than our own, faithful to their partners and dedicated as parents – birds such as the fulmar, cormorant and albatross. Changes in technology have enabled a dramatic widening of our understanding of their habits. Geolocators and GPS loggers track fishing patterns during the breeding season and the movements of young and adult birds for the rest of the year. We can build up a picture for each species and even individual birds, and create graphs which both illustrate reality and create more questions as the complexity deepens. The wonder grows: it seems that seabirds can make decisions based on learned experience – about tidal changes or smell, for example, or about the availability of food in a poor year, forcing a choice between chicks or parents surviving the winter. Each species is uniquely adapted to its own Umwelt, a word the author clearly loves, which can be translated from the German as the product of close and extreme attention to the things that matter in your life and indifference to those that don’t. An intelligence so finely focussed that it enables gannet colonies in close proximity to each other to divide up its fishing areas. Seven out of the ten species are in decline – leaving us with the bitter irony that the technology providing the information about the brilliance and mastery of their lives is also the source of the changes in the ocean that are killing them.

The author, Adam Nicolson, has the gift of all the best storytellers, he twists the heart strings and delivers the message. But don’t fall for anthropomorphism; don’t get cuddly and sentimental about chicks and puffins. This is a life and death struggle against unimaginable odds. When I see these birds in future, they will never be as they were before I read The Seabird’s Cry. I loved this book. It provides genuine insight into challenges and family lives of these birds that are at the same time familiar to us as humans and yet very alien. I came away with a new appreciation for the struggles these birds go through and extreme gratitude that I was not born a Nazca Booby (spoiler alert: a daft name is the least of these bird's worries).

A by-product of my reading the book was my trawling through my files for some photographs to illustrate this post. It was a very enjoyable exercise as it brought back so many memories of my travels with the long-suffering Mrs P, who will admit herself that her primary interest is history and not birds.
Lots and lots of cormorants in the Beagle Sound just off Ushuaia in Terra del Fuego. The collective noun is a 'gulp of cormorants', nicely referencing how they eat fish.
Have never seen a Nazca Booby but here are some Blue Footed Boobies we saw on a boat trip to the Ballestas Islands off the Peruvian coast. I can't find what the collective noun for boobies is but it should be something like clutch or uplift or cup or ...(oh, shut up, Parsons). Whilst thinking about the boat trip, it sticks in the memory because Mrs P was assailed by a vicious stomach bug and 4 hours on a heaving, rolling open boat was not what she wanted.
Ooh look, a bazaar (yes, really) of guillemots clinging for dear life on a cliff on Orkney.
Puffins, puffins, puffins in lots of places. This was one of many we saw at Sumburgh Head on the mainland of the Shetland Isles. And if there were many puffins, what would we call them? I found several collective nouns - parliament, raft, loomery, circus and (to me the strangest) an improbability of puffins. Take your pick. Who is the final arbiter on such matters? Is there a Keeper of the Queen's Puffins? They'd know.
Two shags hanging out a hangout. Yep, that's what a group is called, a hangout. Pretty cool, eh, for a pretty cool bird. Get the quiff, if that's not cool, I don't know what is.
A very happy pair of fulmars on a cliff on the Brough of Birsay in Orkney. I couldn't find any reliable source for a collective noun for them so I'll suggest one: a vomit of fulmars after their disgusting habit of spraying regurgitated and smelly stomach contents on potential attackers.
A group of gannets on one of the largest gannetries in the Northern Hemisphere - Boreray, St Kilda. Gannets, apparently, have many collective nouns, including a company, gannetry and a plunging. I'd go with plunging as that's exactly what they do when they fish.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

A belated post of our St Kilda Trip from Lewis in 2016.

We spent 10 days on the Isle of Lewis and Harris (two islands in one) about this time last summer and, because of dubious wi-fi at our rental cottage, I had to leave blogging a travelogue until we got back home. Of course, I never got around to it but, reviewing some photographs recently, I thought I'd at least describe the highlight of our stay - a day trip to St Kilda. Although we don't have a 'bucket list', if we did, this would feature near the top for us both. The story of the islanders has long fascinated us and it was great to be able to see it first hand. It is a unique place and its story a blend of romance and myth. The common perception is that the islanders were part of an isolated and patriarchal community, in thrall to the austere demands of the Free Church of Scotland. The reality was more prosaic: the life of the St Kildans' has to be seen in the context of other neighbouring Hebridean islands. In most respects they were very similar and not as different as early chroniclers would have their readers believe. Or, indeed, as they thought themselves as many had never visited any other islands and had no basis for valid comparisons. After all, tales of taciturn folk suppressed by the dictats of the manse make more sensational reading than islanders quietly going about their business and carving out a living as and how they could. St. Kilda was continuously inhabited from the Bronze Age until the last St Kildan’s were evacuated, at their request, in 1930, leaving behind everything they had known and leaving behind a story that continues to beguile and attract.

The group of islands that makes up St Kilda is the most remote in the British Isles, 40 miles from the nearest land. St Kilda has the highest sea cliffs in Britain (Conachar) at 1400ft, the highest sea stacks (Stac an Armin and Stac Li) at 643ft and 564ft and the largest gannetry in the world (Boreray). It is a World Heritage Site owned by the National Trust for Scotland; it is also a Scheduled Ancient Monument, National Scenic Area, Site of Scientific Special interest and European Union Special Protection area. Just these titles by themselves indicate that these islands 'at the edge of the world' are pretty special. Maybe a few photographs (just a few out of around 300) will help put these claims in context.
For those who can't place St Kilda, it's way out to the top left of Scotland. It's actually an archipelago, with the main islands of Soay, Boreray, Dun and Hirta, the latter being what most people think of as being St Kilda.
We used Seatrek, sailing out of Miavaig on Uig, to take us to St Kilda. This is the boat we spent around 8 hours on. It was a long day as, in addition to the time spent sailing, we had around 3 hours on land on Hirta. Was it worth it? Oh, yes. Would we do it again? Oh, yes.
At this point we were about 5 miles from St Kilda, with Hirta to the right and Boreray to the left. The sea stacks of Stac an Armin and Stac Li are in front of Boreray and can't be seen. We were very lucky with the visibility and could see the islands from some 10 miles out.
The only safe landing on Hirta is via Village Bay, which is, in fact, the only bay in the archipelago. This is where the St Kildans' lived, with the bulk of Conachar looming in the background. One thing that surprised as we motored in was the sight of a helicopter landing to the left. And then we remembered that there is an active military base on the island, acting as an outer monitoring point for the missile station on Benbecula in the Hebrides. The large building to the right is the rather incongruous generator for the base. There are some other military buildings by the generator but they do not intrude into the ambience of the place. After all, they are as much a part of the history of St Kilda as anything else.
The last 36 St Kildans left on 29th August 1930 because life had become too difficult. But summer can see as many as 35 people living on the main island of Hirta, almost as many as were living there at the time of the evacuation. They are a mix of staff from the present owners, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), Ministry of Defence workers, volunteers and scientists. Their occupations would have been alien to the weavers and crofters who once lived here. Over the winter, the military station has about 10 staff, each living on the island for a month at a time and being ferried in and out by helicopter from Benbecula. NTS employees leave the islands for the winter.
This is The Street where most of the islanders lived. There's also a manse for the vicar, a schoolhouse and a place for storage. And that was it for many years until the military moved in and built a few things. It's a tranquil place, with the name of the last occupants on a plaque by each door. When fully occupied (was it ever fully occupied?), it would have been a busy place as people went about what was necessary to survive in such a harsh environment.

The original dwellings were the round buildings that you can see between the houses. These were single room dwellings built to withstand the elements and were in harmony with their environment. They would have been dark and pungent as the smell of bird oil would have permeated everything and everywhere. But the 19th Century and the age of the steam ship saw many tourists visiting the islands, so efforts were made by the absentee owner to improve life for the islanders. One of the so-called improvements was 16 new houses that were built in the village in 1860, which are the ones that can be seen now. These new houses were cold and it was necessary to import coal from the mainland, the supplies of local peat not being enough to heat them. Neither could they be repaired with local materials, for example, they had roofs of corrugated iron. I presume that they weren't asked what would work for them. 
During World War I, a Royal Navy detachment to Hirta meant regular deliveries of mail and food for sailors and the islands' residents. However, the end of the war and withdrawal of the unit reinforced a feeling of isolation among the community. The winter of 1929 was so hard some inhabitants died and the remaining 36 islanders wrote to the government asking to be taken off and start a new life on the mainland. Hirta was abandoned the following year.
Dotted all over Hirta (and there are some on Boreray and Soay) are these domed structures. They are unique to St Kilda and are called cleits or cleitean, They are small stone sheds with a roof of a large flat stone covered with earth and turf. The walls are built of stones with little gaps between them. This means that the wind can whistle through and help things kept inside them dry and cool. In a windy place like St Kilda it's a perfect design for what some have called 'stone fridges'. They were used to store, amongst other things, salted seabirds, eggs and feathers, crops and peat and turf. There are 1,260 of them on Hirta and were built where they were needed and were owned individually rather than collectively. Today they are home to many birds, including Storm and Leach's petrels.
The most common flower on the slopes of Conachar was the Bog Pimpernel, which is delightful but not that common across the UK.  It's quite a small flower with 5 striped petals: the leaves are even smaller. Look closely at the centre of the flower and you'll see something really interesting: there are 5 stamens with cream-coloured pollen and a single slightly longer stigma and these are surrounded by a mass of thin white staminal filaments which lack anthers. The Latin name is Anagallis tenella: Anagallis means 'to delight again' and refers to the reopening of the flowers each day when the sun shine, while tenalla means 'delicate and tender'. This really is a very delicate 'don't touch or else' wildflower: pick them at your peril and watch them fall apart as you do. So why would you?  I love the precision of the Latin names for flowers.
The native sheep of St Kilda is the Soay. Derived from domesticated sheep a long way back, these became feral on Soay. They are sure-footed and are particularly adept at surviving on the barren terrain of the islands. They have been exported to other sites, including Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. Once upon a long time ago, Soay sheep at Beckenham provided me with anti-sera for the development of immunoassays.
Just two of the many puffins we saw. We've seen thousands of them in various places but they never lose their attraction. And very attractive to the islanders they were too. One book I've read said that they ate dried puffins as a snack, rather like crisps. And why not? But I don't see Walkers marketing that flavour, although I can imagine Gary Lineker dressed up in a puffin suit. The puffin is much more than an orange beak and a portly manner as tracking birds with geolocators shows. Their life cycle is fascinating and well worth reading about. And here's a puffin-factoid that has stuck in my mind: the female puffin lays an egg that is 20% of the female bodyweight. That's equivalent to a 11 stone woman giving birth to a 30 lb baby. Ouch!
The same goes for gannets. An elegant and acrobatic bird. This one is a young one as its plumage shows.

See all those dots? Puffins every one.
Cormorants. Lots of cormorants. Lots of noisy, smelly cormorants. Is there any smell more distinctive than that of guano, lots of guano?
Stac an Armin, at 643 feet, is the highest sea stack in Scotland and, indeed, the British Isles. It really is an impressive sight close up and it hits you that people can actually  land there.  It was not inhabited year round and was used as a seasonal sea bird hunting ground by the St Kildans, climbing the rocks to collect eggs and young birds. Apparently it is still used for climbing as a recreational sport but strict rules exist to protect the bird habitats and breeding grounds. It is, after all, one of the largest gannetries in the UK. I should also mention that it has hosted an involuntary extended stays but more of that later.
Gannets? You want gannets? There's plenty of them on Stac an Armin. For the St Kildans, this amounted to an avian supermarket and meant that they were adept at leaping from rock to rock to harvest the 'crop' at the appropriate time of the year. They were in tune with nature and they never took more than could be sustained. The present day large populations of birds are a testament to their guardianship.
I mentioned an involuntary extended stay previously and it was not unknown for hunters to be stranded on the Stac for a while due to inclement weather. There is no set landing place as such and getting ashore meant leaping from a boat onto the rocks as the waves allow. You can see that this feat of acrobatics was very weather dependent and could only be done when the conditions allow. Back to the involuntary extended stay: the 'normal' length of stay was around a couple of weeks but the longest recorded period anyone ever spent on the island was about nine months. Three men and eight boys from Hirta were marooned here from about 15 August 1727 until 13 May 1728. As luck (or Sod's Law) would have it, Hirta suffered a smallpox outbreak while the eleven were on the stack and the settlement was almost wiped out. Consequently the surviving islanders were unable to man a boat and retrieve them and this had to wait until the following year when the numbers in the community had been supplemented by immigrants from other islands . Those on the Stac survived by fishing, catching birds and trapping water. They constructed a shelter which is still just about discernible when someone points it out to you. It's in the photograph, I think, but I can't make it out. Have a go and let me know if you can.
A gaggle of Guillemots.
Lots of Atlantic Grey Seals around as well. This one gave us a cursory glance before it slithered back into the water.
Not sure what these gannets were looking at but I like looking at them.
And we bid farewell to St Kilda, with Boreray to the right and Soay in the background I'll confess that I spent most of the trip outside. Normally I'm a pretty good sailor but this trip did make me feel rather queasy every now and then. Four hours of thumping from wave to wave was a bit much for me - but nothing that the fresh air couldn't help with.