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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

MUIRHEAD`S MYSTERIES:A SELECTION OF CURIOUS NATURAL HISTORY RECORDS FROM CHESHIRE PART TWO

Today I am continuing my look at oddities from Cheshire`s folklore and natural history, starting with the lamprey:

Lampreys, still common in most of our rivers and streams, were once very popular as food and were fried in butter, just like eels. They are strange, over-simplified fish, with no ribs, scales or even proper fins. In place of jaws, they have powerful sucker mouths which are used to latch onto other fish or mossy stones. Our three species are known officially as the sea lamprey, the lampern and the brook lamprey, but I have come across a confusing variety of local names, such as lampon, ninny-nine holes, blood suckers, silver eels, and sand pride… (1)

Later, the author Roger Stephens, has a chapter called The Secret of Rostherne Mere in which he says:

Each of the Cheshire Mere`s, if we are to believe the old tales, has its own secret. At Combermere, they say, huge pike used to be caught at one particular corner of the lake. Nobody knew why until one day, a half-eaten human corpse was pulled out from that spot. A footman from the Abbey, suffering from unrequited love, had gone down to the mere and drowned himself. Other meres are cluttered with submerged churches and sunken bells, and populated with mermaids, water-fairies and magical fishes, none of which have ever been landed by anglers…However, Rostherne Mere does have (if, as I fervently hope, it still survives) a secret resident. It may not attract so many tourists as Nessie, but it does, at least, have the virtue of being a real creature. The earliest reports of its existence come from the mid-17th century, but it has probably been swimming around down there since the last glacial age retreated. There is just one problem: it has not been seen since 1922…Freshwater smelt are found in many Scandanavian lakesand rivers but, in Great Britain, Rostherne`s smelt are unique. The earliest written reference to them is in Ray`s De Historia Piscium (1686), in which he quotes information sent to him by a Knutsford man, Robert Thorley, who had eaten a few in his time: “Ten or even twenty fish are caught at one hand of the seine. At the same time as the catches in the lake, or a little earlier, these fish are caught in the salt water below the bridge at Warrington in the River Mersey, which is tidal, seven or eight miles below the lake. Although those who buy a license fish the lake whenever the weather is suitable, they never catch these sparlings except at this particular date.”…(2)

Stephens, speculating on how the smelt got into the mere, comments:



Looking at the map, there does seem to be a swimmable route from the Mersey; centuries before the flour mills and weirs were built, they may have followed the Bollin, the Birkin and entered the mere from Blackburn`s Brook. Another view is that the sea, which long ago lapped against the cliffs at Beeston and Peckforton, left the smelt as a parting gift before it retreated. Some of the locals still hold to a less scientific view: that an underground tunnel links the mere with the sea, which would provide a route in and out for the sparlings, not to mention the mermaid (3)

Now to mammals: 'There is an obscure 19th century reference to a wild cat trapped in Delamere Forest [Central Cheshire. I now have Stephens`s contact details and I will ask him about this-R] which may be genuine, since they survived in parts of Wales until 1864. On the other hand, there were lots of feral tabbies around. Harry Neilson, writing in 1935, recalled finding nests of kittens in the undergrowth on the Wirral heaths; they would spit and claw before their eyes were open, just like the pure bread wild ones. (4)

Passing on to newts: concerning a place called Asker Meadow: A meadow with a pit where newts (or yellow bellied askers) are found. In the days when Cheshire was still dotted with peat bogs and mosses (we had 28 square miles of them 200 years ago) the folk who dwelt on them were known as yellow bellies- not for their cowardice, but for their supposedly amphibious lifestyle. The word asker, incidentally, derives from the Old English aôexe. However, an old woman from Northwich had another theory. Newts used to daddle into her cottage and rear up on their hind legs as if asking us for food [was it a slug then? Except slugs don`t have legs-R] Perhaps, she reasoned, they are called askers because they ask us. But are they really begging for food? Topsell wrote, in 1608, that “being moved to anger, it standeth upon the hinder legs and looketh directly in the face of him that hath stirred it “ and that “there is nothing in nature that so much offendeth it as salt. “ A newt that that has been hibernating in some crevice in the salty earth of Northwich must, therefore, be in a pretty radgy mood, so don`t get too close-they can spit fire you know!”(5)

Finally, in the vicinity of Beeston Castle, around 1882, were said to dwell “...now and then a timid sheep rushes out from some shaddy nook and gazes wonderingly at us as we go by. The turf in places is short and slippery, for the rabbits keep it closely cropped...A pair of kangaroos are disporting themselves among the moss-grown fragments, and a few deer are quietly browsing upon the green turf; but there is…”

Hang on. What was that about kangaroos? Must go and do some more research! (6) {I would concur!_R]

1. R.Stephens The Boom of the Bitterbump(2003) pp 74-75
2. Ibid p.100-101
3. Ibid p. 102
4. Ibid p. 31
5. Ibid p.143
6. Ibid p.155

The Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever

Let me take you down `cause I`m going to
Strawberry Fields,
Nothing is real,
And nothing to get hung about,
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It`s getting hard to be someone
But it all works out,
It doesn`t matter much to me

1 comment:

stormwalkernz said...

great piece of writing Richard throughly enjoyed it.