SOON after we moved from Bromley to Lancashire ten or 11 years ago (it was such a ghastly protracted business that I have blocked out the details) we started to see a white crow nearby. It was not an albino, which has no pigment so the eyes and skin are pink, but a leucistic bird, with white feathers in place of black, plus black eyes, beak and legs. Over the years we saw it many times in the same small area comprising four or five houses and gardens and a railway bridge. I am afraid we called it Whitey. Usually it was on its own (as crows usually are) but once or twice it was in the company of a black one. About four years ago it disappeared but soon tales emerged of a white crow around the Sainsbury’s car park a couple of miles away. That was the last we heard.
On Friday I received a picture from our lovely builder Darren, taken by his son Shane (also lovely) another couple of miles further away.
It is a leucistic crow, looking a bit tatty as it would be if it has young to feed (they will be nearly fully grown and pestering their parents to death). Could it be Whitey? If it is, it must be at least ten years old, but crows can live much longer than that. We had one which owned our garden in Bromley for at least 20 years. He was recognisable by having a broken leg which mended but remained crooked, and later he lost an eye. He had a mate but we could not be certain whether she was always the same one, though they are said to mate for life. At first they were extremely timid but we threw out scraps for them, hoping that if they were well fed they would not raid the nests of small birds, and very gradually they became confident enough to come on to the patio. When you can see them close to, you realise what big, powerful and beautiful birds they are.
Having a territory is a great prize in the crow world and there is immense competition from youngsters to lay claim to one and have a family. Every spring there would be the most terrific racket and skirmishing in the trees as our crows defended their patch from all-comers, until one year the inevitable happened and a young couple turfed out the old ones and moved in. This was after our pair had been around for at least 15 years. But a funny thing happened – about six months later the old things were back. I don’t know how they achieved it, but they did. There was no mistaking One-Eye and his crooked leg. He and his mate were still in residence when we left a few years later, with our neighbours promising to look out for them.
Some readers may recall Mr Chalk in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, though he is a white rook belonging to Gertrude, Countess Groan, rather than a crow. When the BBC made a mini-series from the books in 2000, they intended to add the bird digitally in post-production but, according to the IMDB website, ‘director Andy Wilson stumbled upon an article about a child that had found and rescued a rare albino raven. The raven was found and given to a bird trainer who taught it basic responses. In order to acclimatise the bird to listening to the loud voice of Lady Groan [played brilliantly by Celia Imrie] the trainer often played heavy metal music in the aviary’.
Regular readers know that I am no fan of the RSPB but I thought this note on their website was worth passing on: ‘Being all-white isn’t as much of a handicap to species like crows as it is to most others, as they have few predators, and don’t need to conceal themselves from prey either as they mostly feed by scavenging.’
Here are a few things I have seen this week. First, wild honeysuckle:
Valarian, which usually comes in pink and white, but this group has a red-flowering plant as well:
Tiny crab apples forming – this tree was laden with fruit last autumn but I don’t think there are going to be nearly as many this year.
Finally, a tall flowering plant on the bank of the Ribble which I can’t identify – can anyone help?
Sheep of the Week
LIKE many wild animals, the first sheep had woolly coats that kept them warm in the winter and were shed or moulted in the spring. When man discovered that wool was good for keeping us warm too, selective breeding started to achieve more fleece, possibly as early as 6000 BC. In this way fleeces were achieved that needed to be shorn if the sheep were not to overheat in summer. In the Middle Ages the export of wool was a major source of England’s prosperity, and development of sheep for wool continued until the advent of synthetic fibres in the 20th century. Since then, as regular readers know, it has been downhill for wool. At one time the income from shearing paid the farm rent for a year but now farmers can barely give it away. Nevertheless the sheep must be shorn annually for their welfare.
This is what inspired Welsh farmer Iolo Owen to develop the EasyCare breed from the mid-60s by crossing Welsh Mountain and Wiltshire Horn stock. He already kept the latter on his two farms on Anglesey.
The Wiltshire Horn, above, which I wrote about here, is unusual in that it sheds its fleece naturally in spring, and it produces good meat.
The Welsh mountain, above, which I wrote about here, is the only completely black breed in Britain. It is small, hardy and self-reliant, and ewes give birth in the open without help to strong, vigorous lambs which grow quickly.
The result was the prosaically named EasyCare sheep. You can see some pictures here.
It sheds its fleece in the summer so does not need shearing. The shed fleece rapidly decomposes as a natural soil conditioner. It gives excellent meat yields and lambing ratios, and like their Welsh Mountain ancestors, ewes give birth outside without help. This cuts costs on shepherding and veterinary care.
The rams can also be crossed with other breeds to achieve natural shedding. The EasyCare Sheep Society says that in three to four crosses the fleece should be shedding: ‘This is ideal for hefted flocks [which remain in the area where they were born] as it means the flock remains on the hill yet acquires the benefits of the fleece shedding coat.’
The EasyCare project has been a great success and in 2012 the total population was reported to be 150,000. You will not see them at agricultural shows, though. The breed society take the view that competitive showing tends to emphasise points such as colour, or shape of ears ‘which are irrelevant to the important things such as ease of lambing, mothering ability and growth rates’.
Here is a video about the breed.
You can read more on the EasyCare Sheep Society website, which includes a video interview with the breed’s developer, Iolo Owen.
Wheels of the week – On the Buses, Part 3
IN 1975 the word was going around that Tring bus garage was to be closed. Although all the staff and vehicles were in essence ‘London Transport’, like Blackpool goes through rock and proud of it, the LT Country Buses and Green Line Coaches division had become London Country Bus Services as of January 1 1970. LCBS inherited an ageing fleet in need of quality maintenance, but the money wasn’t there. And the bosses at the National Bus Company were looking to make cuts.
Another incentive for me to make a move was the shift work. Basically, our rotas were: a week of early turns starting from 05:25 to 06:30; a week of late turns starting at around 14:00 to 16:00 with the last turn finishing at 00:56; then the third week, a week of ‘spread-overs’, which started around 07:00, worked four hours or a bit less, then three or four hours off, return later in the day for the ‘second half’ and finishing around 19:00. These were quite rewarding financially, as they paid right the way through from the start in the morning until the finish in the evening. The most crippling aspect of that rota was that the body got used to waking early after a few days, then a weekend or equivalent off, then start a week of lates. The effect was that the body was ready for sleep by 21:00, just as the second half of a late turn was about to start. Drowsiness at the wheel could be a killer.
I quit the buses in December 1975, turning my sights on despatch riding. I had ended my time behind the ‘big wheel’ – or so I thought.
Two Waters bus garage at Hemel Hempstead was razed and became an industrial estate. Tring garage lost its 1938-built offices and mess room, though the garage proper remains as a shell, now housing a Royal Mail depot and gym complex. Chelsham garage at the southern end of the 706 route was demolished and is now a Sainsbury’s supermarket and Argos with accompanying car park. Nothing to show what once stood there. Much of the 706 route now cannot be re-enacted, as a lot of it has been pedestrianised, especially through Watford and West Croydon.
Decades later, with my wife and young daughter on an Easter trip into Watford via the ‘Abbey Line’ train from St Albans (complete with face painting and Easter Bunnies), we alighted back at the Abbey Station to be met by a familiar ‘face’ – a 1953 RF single decker bus, RF308.
It was privately owned in preservation, painted in LCBS colours and giving free rides up Holywell Hill into St Albans town. Well, I just had to have a ride for old times’ sake!
The driver was ex-LT and the conductor was the owner, Peter Gomm, with whom I struck up a conversation about garages, routes and depots. We circled the town and pulled into the City Station forecourt to stand for a few minutes, then Peter surprised me by asking if I’d like to drive the RF back down through town to the Abbey Station. Would I?!
It all came back like riding a bike, select neutral, down on the operating pedal, pull the starter trigger and that great AEC six cylinder rumbled into life. Select second, operate, pre-select third. Ease off the handbrake while pressing the gas pedal and we are off. Familiar feelings, including heaving that big wheel around pulling out of the forecourt! Picking up speed – off the gas and operate, clonk – we’re into third. Pre-select fourth (top). Negotiating traffic in St Albans High Street I might as well have been in Edgware or Croydon: it felt as if I was back home. Approaching traffic lights to come to a halt, pre-select second and at walking pace operate, clonk – we are in second and slowing on the footbrake to a stop, pre-select third again, handbrake on. The engine rhythmically rocking the bus in second awaiting the green. Here it is – handbrake off and on the gas. We’re off again. So natural.
Peter kept RF308 on a farm at Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire and took it to shows, fetes, classic bus rallies and ‘running days’.
A word about ‘Running Days’. The classic bus movement is huge. Periodically organisations involving their members who own such classic vehicles arrange weekends where their vehicles are presented to the general public and run their buses and coaches on the routes that they used to follow when in service, complete with correct destination blinds, crew with period uniform and ticket machines. Fares are not collected for travel, but programmes with timetables can be purchased on the day or sometimes in advance allowing holders to travel on as many routes and times as they want. Prices when I last attended such a day were in the region of £6 to £8, which at the end of the day was distributed amongst the vehicle owners to cover the cost of fuel. Here is a line-up on an RF running day at Sandown Park. RF308 is the nearest vehicle.
This picture shows an RT, an RF and a Guy Special (GS) at a running day based at Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
Since early 2020, it does appear that activities have been affected by the ‘you know what’, and the former London Country Bus website has no list of events. However, there is a list of events for 2023 covering much of the country. There has also been ‘Showbus’, an annual event held at Duxford Aerodrome run by the Imperial War Museum, though of late receipts have been dropping off. https://www.classicbuses.co.uk/events.html
Back to Peter, and RF308. His regular driver was about to leave him through ill-health and he asked if I would be interested in helping out on a bit of vehicle maintenance (mostly washing and cleaning) and acting as ‘ferry-man’, taking the bus to events. So after finding a uniform for me in the correct cloth, I dug out my old PSV badges and once again I was behind the big wheel, driving RF308 all over the place. As my PSV licence had expired many years before, I was permitted to drive with no more than seven passengers. But over the next few years, until we moved to Shropshire, I got to take 308 several thousands of miles around the countryside. Here is yours truly in uniform again in front of RF308.
I still have the uniform, including a greatcoat, still have my badges and the memories of days when they were ‘hanging out the windows’ on Bank Holidays, or crawling along empty, in the dark, trying hard not to get ahead of ‘time’ on late-evening duties, the ultimate ‘sin’ which would see you ‘on the carpet’. (The Chief Inspector’s office was the only place in a garage which had carpet, upon which you stood when ‘in trouble’!)
Peter sold 308 after more years in his ownership than London Transport, and moved from Luton to Somerset. During my times at bus running days, I met many ex-LT people and shared many tales. Good times overall, and good memories.
Below: Inside an RF.