Monday, August 30, 2010

The British Isles

In the NE corner of our section there is a tree fern grotto. Underneath the upright ferns with their unfurling koru fronds are snowdrops, helabores and foxglove seedlings, creating an unusual mixture of indigenous and the Old Country.

I learnt a lot about the British Isles in my early years. My first books were Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows and the William books. In School Cert Geography I learn to draw a cross section from Lancaster across the Penines to York. At university the concentration was on English history. I taught its literature, 'gathering swallows' and 'hearts of oak'.

On my first visit to England I was delighted to see a robin in a rural garden. It was so tame – sitting on a wall close to me. Those childhood books had robins, red squirrels, foxes galore. My mental warehouse was full of the flora and fauna of the British Isle. I have never seen a puffin but the book trade meant I had a clear vision of what one looked like. Nor have I seen a pine martin, a relation of stoats and weasels.

I’m watching a DVD series ‘The Natural History of the British Isles’ narrated by Alan Titchmarsh. It began with a robin with its prominent red breast. They like humans gardening. Apparently they became associated with wild pigs in the large wood that covered the Isles several thousand tears ago. The pigs turning over the soil presented prey to the insect-eating birds.

Titchmarsh took us back in time to the formation of what is now those islands. He pointed out the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. Edinburgh Castle is built on an old volcanic plug – I’d seen it but not made the connection. Coral fossils on the Yorkshire dales reveal it was once a tropical sea.

And so to the last great Ice Age. Grey seal pups are still born white. High in the Cairngorms they’ve found polar bear bones in a cave. Large boulders carried hundreds of miles from their origin were deposited by the retreating glaciers litter the countryside. And from the North Sea trawlers they get mammoth tusks and bones. Ireland split off early, hence no weasels or snakes. Britain separated from France later. As the ice retreated the vegetation shifted – birch, Scots pine and juniper went north as the deciduous trees colonised the south.

Entertaining, informative, the series is giving me great pleasure as it fills in gaps in my knowledge of the British Isles.

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