Monthly Archives: July 2018

27th July, 2018. Myxomatosis (myxy or mixy).

The picture above shows a rabbit (sorry picture upside-down – don’t know why) suffering from a viral disease called myxomatosis. When taking my dog on the Humber Bank and to the car-park at South Ferriby Sluice we encounter an active local wild rabbit population, but yesterday saw one suffering as above. Myxomatosis causes a lingering death across two to fourteen days, a considerable period of time in the lifespan of a rabbit. Swellings appear around the head, particularly the eyes, leading to blindness, and the animal becomes listless, feverish, unaware of its surroundings and death is usually caused by a secondary infection in the weakened body such as pneumonia. The disease is spread by physical contact or by flea-bites, the fleas immune but acting as carriers. The parallel with the spread of bubonic plague, so devastating to human populations in the medieval and early modern eras, is clear.

Myxomatosis is/was a form of biological ‘pest’ control deliberately introduced into a population. The virus, first discovered in a South American laboratory in the late 19th century, was deliberately introduced by the Australian government in 1950, the French government in 1953, and in 1954 the virus ‘reached’ Britain and its spread was ‘encouraged’.

Recently in Japan a number of criminals were executed for releasing Sarin nerve agent into a crowded area – once released, Sarin is a free-ranging biological (presumably) killer, like myxomatosis.

Culling, on the other hand and if administered properly, is a form of ‘pest’ control that should deliver a quick death, that can be applied in local areas (have a controlled distribution) and which can be ended as deliberately as begun. The recent badger cull in the south-west, whether one agrees with that particular action or not, being a case in point. Personally, currently, I believe that a case can be put for localised culling of magpies, grey squirrels and ‘free-ranging’ domestic cats.

Since the mid 20th century wild rabbit populations have evolved a degree of resistance to myxomatosis, although those that die still die a lingering death – fortunately, for our tender sensitivities, in underground burrow networks, ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

25th July, 2018. Current ongoing research on Hull Parks (2)

Another interesting recurring issue across the three Hull public parks (s.p.b.) in the 1880s and 1890s was that of anti-social behaviour (although, of course, that term was not used) as recorded in the minutes of the Parks Committee. Wilful damage to park property, usually pulling off of flower heads or damage to shrubs and trees, was much frowned upon, as was the riding of bicycles on the pedestrian footpaths (ok on the ‘carriageways’, – this a reflection of the growing trend for cycle ownership) and the new problem of litter. Perhaps a reflection on Victorian society was the fact that the park keepers could often name the culprits and when instructed, by letter from the Parks Committee, to attend their next meeting the culprits and their parents usually did! Gangs of ‘roughs’ were a growing problem, particularly after dark when the Parks were closed.

If today’s public parks were as full of plant beds as their late 19th century predecessors they (the plants) would be struggling in this seven week long hot, dry spell of weather. The fact that the problem is replicated across parts of the Northern Hemisphere – Greece, Japan, even northern Finland and Latvia (near the Arctic Circle!) – invites comments such as ‘problem of Biblical proportions’ and ‘armageddon’, certainly it cannot surely be the product of just one wayward jet-stream. Conditions in the south-east must be even more oppressive.

23rd. July, 2018 Public Parks Week.

Apparently last week was the national celebration of Public Parks Week (may not be the exact title), although the only sign I saw about it was at Central Park, Scunthorpe, and didn’t catch anything about it on the media. The issue of public parks is one close to my heart and, it seems to me that, many people have resorted to their public parks during this prolonged (now dangerously prolonged) hot dry spell. Indeed have noticed a resurgence of that almost extinct, old fashioned habit of having a picnic (even including sandwiches made at home).

The picture above shows a view in People’s Park, Grimsby looking south across the lake to the refreshment building in the middle distance.

My research on history of Hull’s public parks (and cemeteries and open spaces) continues, slowly. Am up to 1894 in my study of the Corporation Minute Books, only available to view on site in the ‘search room’ of Hull History Centre. I could expand on some points that have come to light so far, but for the moment to relate that it is fascinating reading of the exotic and semi-exotic plants, animals and birds donated by then members of the public for display in the recently created West and East Parks and to the then 30 years old Pearson Park.

Many of them are recorded as being donated by ‘captains’. Presumably obtained from foreign ports, having been captured in the wild and sold at the ports. Such a trade would be frowned on today for a number of reasons, and who knows what the physical and mental state of the creatures was then. However, they were invariably accepted by the Parks Committee and, as yet, there is no record of heavy loses of the donations, maybe some were semi-domesticated. The Parks Committee then had to finance suitable (by the standards of the time) ‘accommodation’.

19th July, 2018. Sea otter?

Sitting on a bench beside the Humber Estuary one evening recently noticed, on the incoming tide, two animals. One I pronounced a sea otter, having once heard from the late Miles Hopper, an eminent local naturalist, that they may sometimes be seen in the Estuary. Only its head was occasionally popping above water level so on that evidence alone I suppose it could have been a seal but the head didn’t look like that of a seal. However, the reference book tells me that sea otters are native only to North America so no wonder it looked tired!

On the flow tide the salinity of the middle and upper Estuary increases, decreasing on the ebb tide. The salinity in the lower Estuary stays pretty constant. Shore bank fishermen (persons) may be seen rod-and-line fishing as far up the Estuary as the Humber Bridge on the flow tide, these hoping to catch sea fish swimming up with the tide, then swimming back on the ebb tide. Back in the 18th century it was well documented for the Humber and other east coast estuaries to have salmon swimming up estuary and up the River Ouse and its tributaries, especially the R. Derwent, to shallow fresh-water spawning grounds, the fish able to adjust between sea and fresh water. Water quality in these estuaries has been so improved over the last 40 years as to be similar to that of the 18th century and before.

The other animal seen from the bench was a young gull, clearly unable to fly, probably abandoned and starving, bobbing about on the surface floating on the tide near the water’s edge. Unfortunately it was carried into a bed of saltmarsh plants on the foreshore and, as the tide continued to rise, probably drowned. It was not wise for me to scramble down the reinforced flood bank and wade out so I didn’t.

Walking back along the bank the storm-clouds were gathering, the first rain for weeks, bringing life back to the land while the waters of the Estuary took a life nearby.

13th July, 2018. Castles by the river, part 4.

Although at Wressle Castle it may have been possible to flood the surrounding land from the River Derwent in times of threat there is no evidence that this happened (s.p.b.s). However, defence was a primary consideration in determining the lay-out plan of earlier local castles. The Norman motte-and-bailey castles at Skipsea and Barrow (considered in a previous blog) show clearly that water was not only then the principal means of transport but also, along with earthworks, the main means of defence. The picture above shows the surviving ‘motte’  (man-made mound) sited just west of the village of Skipsea (as viewed from the west) on the eastern plain of Holderness, East Riding of Yorkshire, and now near the North Sea coastline.

Skipsea Castle was constructed on the instructions of Drogo de la Beuvriere, Norman baron and First Lord of Holderness. The outer ramparts of the site, to the south and west of the motte, are less well defined in the modern agricultural landscape but once enclosed a man-made lake which drained to the sea (then much further east) by a channel, probably canalised. Thus at Skipsea in the 12th and 13th centuries water provided the means of transport for the local alien landlords as well as assisting in their defence. Skipsea Brough, now just a hamlet, was promoted as a medieval inland port but, very much like a smaller-scale Hedon, commercial success was limited. The medieval Skipsea village developed near the castle, such a site offering considerable commercial and employment opportunities – this often also being the case near the main entrance to pre-Reformation monastic sites.

By building a motte the principal residence, in the case of both Barrow and Skipsea only, probably, ever a timber-frame structure, was raised above local flood-waters.

11th July, 2018. Castles by the river, part 3.

The Northumberland Household Book compiled in the early 16th century provides lots of details about everyday life at Wressle and Leconfield Castles. Leconfield Castle was another of the Percy’s stately defended residences (Leconfield Castle has been discussed in an earlier blog in the context of Henry VIII’s Northern Progress). Dating from a time 100 years before Wressle there are no surviving standing remains of this castle but the moat remains in permanent pasture (see above picture). An intriguing reference is that John Leland refers to a ‘study called Paradise’ in his descriptions of both Wressle and Leconfield Castles, maybe a reference to the respect for learning promoted in the Percy household or maybe of more obscure origin. Whereas Wressle was built with ashlar stone the earlier Leconfield Castle was mostly timber-framed clay walls except for the south façade which was mostly built of brick. The lay-out plan for both properties was similar with ranges of buildings around a central courtyard.

It was at these properties that Henry VIII, queen Catherine Howard and their very considerable entourage decamped during the East Riding sections of the royal Northern Progress of 1541. While in Hull Henry VIII stayed at the De la Pole mansion (later Suffolk Palace – see study of in Articles/Publications section).

The site of Leconfield Castle north of Beverley was not beside a river which may explain the more ‘rustic’ building materials used. This site is on the western fringe of the River Hull floodplain but there is no evidence of a ‘cut’ being dug from the site to the River Hull (a relatively near example of such a project being Beverley Beck, the canalisation of dip-slope tributary of the River Hull dug in the 12th century to convey quality building material to the then Minster building project).