Flora And Fauna And Memories Of Percy King (25 May 1973)
The recent story about the efforts to transform a gravel pit on the Wolverton-Newport Pagnell road into a wild life sanctuary made interesting reading for me. So do the new fortnightly nature notes in the Gazette.
They remind me of the time, over 20 years ago, when every couple of months or so I had a very pleasant interview with Mr. Percy King, who was a knowledgeable man on such matters and who will still be remembered by many in this area.
For many years, Mr. King was in business as a milliner in Fenny. But as a boy he had the run of a farm, and for practically all his life he spent most of his spare time studying the natural history of this district, where he was the official recorder for the various national learned societies concerned.
I did not know him very well until after his retirement, but then for two or three years up to his death he told Gazette readers some wonderful things about what was going on unnoticed in the non-human life under our noses, so to speak.
For years afterwards, I kept my eyes and ears open for someone who might replace him, but without success. There was only one(sic) Percy King.
Butterflies, birds and wild flowers were his specialities – and in about that order. Some of his wild flowers we would call weeds, but there were no weeds as far as he was concerned.
One of his favourite spots was the area of the Denbigh Road gravel pits. In September, 1952, he described it to me as “a veritable sanctuary for wild fowl, which increase in numbers every autumn.”
Some years later, a Northants man who serviced our office typewriters asked me what that stretch of water was called. He then explained that he was a wild life recorder in his own district, but had never anywhere seen as many varieties of water birds as he had seen while eating his sandwiches at Denbigh Road that day. How many could be found there now, I wonder?
The Denbigh Road sanctuary of Mr. King’s time was entirely uncontrived. Strange that 20 years later an attempt is being made to contrive one at this other gravel pit.
In the interview referred to, Mr. King talked about the grebes and coots and other residents, and how in due course he would expect the arrival of pochards, tufted ducks, black terns, common terns and black-headed gulls. He remarked that, for some reason, sea birds were driving much further inland than formerly. I was reminded of this some winters later when I saw thousands of them on the Eight Belles field.
Another time, he gave me the interesting information that the average date for the arrival of the cuckoo in Bletchley district is April 12, though he had heard one as early as March 16.
In his opinion, however, the real harbinger of spring was the chiffchaff, who beat the cuckoo by several weeks. The willow wren also arrived before the cuckoo. The nightingale came to local woods and gardens about the middle of April as well.
As with the birds, so with the flowers. Snowdrops were not the first floral sign of spring. At the beginning of January, 1953, missel thrushes were visiting local gardens for cotoneaster. Aconite flowers were also a-bloom at Belvedere Farm long before the snowdrops. About the middle of the month, sallow willow (which we call “palm”) was showing silver in the buds, and yellow catkins were beginning to appear in Great Brickhill road.
There was even a butterfly for that time of year. This was the brimstone butterfly, also known as the flying daffodil. One of its favourite spots was a holly hedge in the garden of the old Fenny vicarage, where the St. Margaret’s Court flats have since been built.
He was particularly fascinated about butterflies and moths. He told me about one specie which settled itself (or its larvae?) on ceilings and remained for some months on the same(sic) spot with its heart beating only once a day and then, after a certain definite period, suddenly flew away.
One day I noticed what I thought might be one of these on our landing. I asked that it should not be touched. Sure enough, it stayed there for months, apparently dead in its filmy sheath. Then, on the predicted day, it disappeared, just as he had said.
Of all the hundreds of species of butterflies, he knew only two which were garden or field pests. There was even one species which loved wild honeysuckle, but would have nothing to do with the cultivated variety.
And what lovely names all these creatures and plants had been given by the early naturalists. Mr. King used them in preference to their deadly-dull scientific names. He also had charming ways of describing the rhythms of bird-songs. Like that of the yellow bunting which he said sounded like “a little bit o’bread and no cheese.”
In August, 1953, he noted that “Dutch elm disease came some years ago, but is now thought to be declining.” He did well to qualify that, didn’t he?
Incidentally, in about the 1920’s another bird-watcher, a certain Mr. Lister, listed all the different kinds he himself had seen in Bletchley. They amounted to 57 varieties which were here all the year round, 31 which came for the summer, and six which came for the winter. Mr. King noted a few more not in that list, bringing the total to over 100.
Is it too much to hope that a similar count 20 years hence will reveal as many?