Bluebell hanky-panky


IT is bluebell time and the roadside verges here in Lancashire are full of flowers. But all is not as it seems.

A friend sent me this glorious picture of bluebells which he took in Beckenham Place Park, in the south London suburbs.

I had not really been looking closely at the bluebells round here till I saw this picture, but I realised that the flowers I had taken to be our native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are nearly all hybrids with the Spanish bluebell H hispanica. As you can see from the picture below the flowers are a lighter blue. They grow all round the stem instead of on one side like the native ones, and they are less curled at the end. The stems are stouter and lighter in colour, and they are more upright than the elegantly drooping natives. The leaves are broader.

The Spanish bluebell was introduced into the UK by the Victorians as a garden plant (why would you do that when we have our own beautiful bluebells?) and found Britain very much to its liking. It was first noted as growing ‘over the garden wall’ in 1909.

It is a perfect thug. We had dozens of clumps in our garden in Bromley and they were all for taking over the place. Every year I tried to weaken them by pulling up armfuls of leaves (the bulbs must have been about a foot down, too deep for me to dig) to the extent that the double compost heap would be overwhelmed, but the wretches thrived on it. (I don’t use weedkiller because I have tortoises, and in any case glyphosate is not supposed to do you much good.)

Anyway, like so many introduced plants the Spanish bluebell has become invasive and it hybridises with the native one to the extent that there are fears for the native’s survival. The hybrid has been given the name H massartiana. I am not expert enough in genetics to know if the crosses are consistent or if some have more traits of one parent or the other, but looking round here over the last few days they do seem to be pretty uniform, with flowers lighter than the native but a bit darker than the Spanish. I took this picture yesterday. (It strikes me that the hybrids are keener on the sun than the natives, which grow in woods before the leaves are fully out, so they would not get a lot of sun.)

This website has useful pictures and information. 


Sheep of the Week

I love this picture!

The Border Leicester is the largest indigenous breed in the British Isles. It is derived from the Leicester Longwool, which was developed by the great Robert Bakewell of Dishley in Derbyshire in the 18th century (I wrote about the breed here). Two of his students, George and Mathew Culley, took some Leicester Longwools to the Glendale district of Northumberland, where they settled around 1767.

Two distinct types of ‘Leicester’ evolved in the Borders. The Culley brothers crossed with the local Teeswater breed, but other farmers in the region crossed in some Cheviot blood. The two variations were nicknamed the ‘Bluecaps’ and the ‘Redlegs’. The Border farmers preferred the hardier Redlegs and by about 1850 this variation became known as the Border Leicester (the other, dark-faced variant became known as the Bluefaced Leicester, which I will write about soon).

The Border Leicester has a wonderful Roman nose and large, upright ears (which remind me of a rabbit’s). It has a thick fleece composed of long, curled ‘pencil’ locks which is sought after by hand-spinners for its natural lustre and ability to take dye, and some famers keep the sheep for the wool rather than the meat.

The breed has historically been known as the ‘Great Improver’ owing to its ability to be crossed with any breed and improve the offspring. The high quality of the wool is passed on by the rams to their half-bred offspring.

The commentary on this video is in Spanish. It has some good pictures.

Here are some lambs.

You can find out more at the Society of Border Leicester Sheep Breeders.


I don’t know if I have been going round with my eyes closed all these years but I don’t remember ever noticing holly flowers before. I saw these yesterday. I will try to remember to take a picture of the berries if they develop.


Wheels of the week

Once again I hand over the ever-knowledgeable Derek Reynolds.

GEORGE Callard was the Head Keeper of the Monkey House at London Zoo in the mid-60s, the time I also worked at the Zoo, but in a different section. He used a 1950s BSA 650cc ‘Road Rocket’ motor cycle to get to and from work, with a sidecar attached and with which he would take his family on their annual holidays. Later he bought a car, and for a long time the BSA remained parked in the Zoo staff car park opposite the Main Gate. As it had potential to get up and running, I approached George and he agreed to sell it to me for £5.

I then discovered that the sidecar, a ‘Canterbury’, child/adult two-seater (child behind the adult, with door and opening soft top roof) had been used as sleeping quarters by a vagrant. It was littered with beer bottle caps and cigarette ends. None the less, my pal, his brother and I arrived with some tools and ‘Redex’ (a fuel additive) and proceeded to clean and adjust carburettor and magneto, during which I was asked to place a finger in the magneto output to confirm that the magneto was producing a spark when the kickstart was operated. Ouch! Several thousand volts made me jump, much to the fun of my pals! Swines . . . But after several kicks the Beezer fired up and we managed to drive it home.

Driving a sidecar and motorcycle combination (shortened to ‘combo’ or an ‘outfit’) is vastly different to riding a motorcycle solo. With three wheels on the ground, there is no balancing or leaning around corners, it’s all heaving on the handlebars to wrestle the thing manually around bends. With the weight of the sidecar on the left, any power applied to the rear wheel would cause the ‘chair’ to drag the outfit to the left, which requires counter steering to the right to maintain a straight ahead direction. Similarly, when using the brakes, the ‘chair’ would try to carry on, forcing the outfit to the right and requiring counter-steering to the left. This was hard work! Even so, my pal and I fettled the outfit with the idea of using it to go on holiday around the West Country and Cornwall that summer.

Years of having a sidecar attached, and repeated trips carrying George’s family, had taken a toll on the rear swinging arm, especially on left-hand bends which due to lateral forces twisted the arm in which the rear wheel was mounted. This left the rear wheel in less than an optimal vertical position, but not really noticeable when driven. 

The setting up of a sidecar to a motorcycle is quite an art. Much depends on a degree of ‘toe-in’ of the sidecar wheel; a degree of lean out of the bike to the chair, and how far ahead of the bike’s rear wheel is the ‘lead’ in relationship to the sidecar wheel. Set up correctly, outfits should steer straight ahead with little input through the handlebars until powering forward or braking. To help with a greater degree of stability when braking, many sidecars are fitted with brakes, operated by an additional brake pedal beside the bike’s rear brake pedal which could also be activated separately to assist in sharper left turns when necessary.

So, with all that in mind, my pal and I headed off for a fortnight’s tour of the ‘West’. We took turns in driving and not without incident. I can remember not pulling out quite far enough when over taking a lorry, resulting in the denting of the sidecar mudguard against the lorry’s rear wheel. A heave to the right and a fistful of throttle got us past! Another incident was crossing the River Barle at Tarr Steps on Exmoor. Tarr Steps is an ancient clapper bridge used by pedestrians, but with a ford beside. We took the challenge and drove the Beezer through the ford, which had some fairly deep sections that covered the exhaust and wheel hubs – keeping the revs up was essential in keeping the water out of the exhaust. But we got through! Turning around to take a second run was just as exhilarating – got through again.

We continued along the single-track lane and began descending a hill. Coming up towards us came a little Riley 1.5 with a family aboard. In attempting to slow down, I was painfully aware that I had no brakes due to the amount of water retained in the brake drums from the ford. Try as I might, we were not slowing down. So I drove the sidecar into the left-hand grass bank, repeatedly, all the while the Riley was getting closer. It wasn’t working! So I drove the bike into the right-hand bank. This slowed us, but ultimately what brought us to a stop was colliding with the sturdy bumper of the Riley, resulting in the soft aluminium skin (and the rotting plywood behind it) of the nose of the Canterbury caving in.

The Riley driver got out to inspect any damage, but such was the strength of his bumper that none was visible – the chair took it all. He dismissed the incident and sympathised with us for attempting to bring the outfit to a halt, and we both continued on our ways. The holiday held no further issues, and we had a great time overall.

With the damage to the chair, and the clear state of it overall, I decided to take the body off the sidecar frame and run it with a base-board only. This introduced another aspect of sidecar driving with little weight on the sidecar – on left-hand bends it would lift the chair off the road, terrifyingly! I sought another chair. I found a Steib single-seater for £30 and fitted that. I also replaced the bent swing arm so the outfit as a whole became more user-friendly, but still hard work, though they are enormous fun in the snow and ice, being very controllable with individual braking on all three wheels despite having only power to one. I did eventually remove the chair and ride the bike solo, but its unfortunate demise came about when I was riding to work in in the half light of morning. The country road was unlit, there was early morning mist, and the headlight was not enough to illuminate a fallen branch of an oak that had come down in the previous night’s gale. I hit the brakes, but too late. I went over the handlebars and the bike’s front forks were badly bent. But the engine was sound, and it was sold for parts.

This is a stock picture of a Road Rocket, as I never got round to taking a decent one. It was a sporty version of the Gold Flash. An even sportier version was the Gold Star ‘Super Rocket’ fitted with twin carburettors.

This is me doing some fettling of the headlamp outside home with just a base-board on the chair frame.

And this is me with my first wife in the Steib.

Many thanks, Derek. 

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