Acorns, Adlertag and Autumn in the Wartime zoo garden and a bit of time off work for a Wartime “Time Safari”

Which wartime pill box has the nicest view in Britain? Is it the one nestling amongst the coastal gardens on St Michael's Mount in Cornwall?

Since the anniversary of Eagle Day (Adlertag on 13 August 1940), you cannot fail to have noticed  some of the  commemoration and coverage of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz on British cities 70 years ago. The 15th of September, known as Battle of Britain Day, saw a corresponding rise in readership of our blog, 80 readers on that day alone has taken us well past 8000 + readers. By the 26th October we will have reached 10,000 readers plus, since we started writing about our wartime garden project blog just over a  year ago.

Kite men soaring over wartime pill boxes, above the beach and cafe, Sennen Cove near Lands End, Cornwall, September 2010. One pill box is easy to spot on the cliff top. Can you see the other 'killer' one tucked away further down the cliff? (World War Zoo gardens, Newquay Zoo).

So forgive me, regular readers. It is over 6 weeks since my last confession or blog on the World War zoo garden project at Newquay Zoo. We’ve another bumper blog edition for you. However we know you will have been kept busy in the garden or watching the coverage of the many interesting wartime anniversaries in September and November.

There have been parades, newspaper supplements and interviews, along with the BBC Blitz and Battle of Britain seasons  including the documentary Spitfire Women (about the Air Transport Auxiliary) and a very moving dramatization of Geoff Wellum’s First Light, his coming of age Spitfire memoir. I didn’t realize that Mr. Wellum lives in the local area, pictured in the newspapers with Mullion Cove and parts of Cornwall in the background. I’ve been privileged to meet a few Spitfire pilots in the past, including my former school headmaster D.G.S. Akers, now long retired. We’ve also had the Battle of Britain memorial flight pass over the zoo during penguin feeding time (just after the Eclipse in 1999, I  think). The penguins were quite fascinated by these graceful ladies passing low overhead! I’ve also chatted this month over the wartime garden fence a member of the Spitfire Society, who was visiting the zoo. He was interested in the schools workshops and pack we are preparing for 2011/12;  the Spitfire Society  are looking forward to working with schools and have some sponsorship from Airfix  (Recent ads in the BBC History magazine show that you too can own and fly  the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in miniature, in plastic, on string above your head at home – with proceeds to forces charities, to boot!)

Parts of my leave from the wartime garden and Newquay Zoo took me around the West and South Coast of Cornwall. Having been working on the wartime garden project for almost two years now, it is hard to escape little reminders of wartime life, even  on family days out. Knowing a little more now how real the fear or threat of invasion was in 1940, you catch glimpses of this fear on your travels. A pill box at St. Michael’s Mount, nestling at the base of this amazing National Trust castle, camouflaged amongst the rocks.  A seaside beach at Sennen or Loe Bar or Dawlish still watched over by its little wartime concrete castle. We’ll include in our next few blogs a few more local photographs of the subtle traces or ‘ghostmarks’ of wartime (as Kenneth Helphand calls them in Defiant Gardens).

It has become noticeably Autumn in the wartime garden. Newquay Zoo has been busy with the last of the season holiday makers, mixed in with the arrival of lots of new faces amongst students to study zoology, conservation and animal care from  Cornwall College Newquay and Treviglas Community College.

A late Indian Summer in late September and early October looked promising for the last of the  growing season. Like many  zoo and tourism business staff, we take our well-earned ‘summer break’ as soon as the school holidays are over.  We have all mostly been lucky with the weather, but the garden has suffered in the last few weeks from frost and wet. Warm September and October days with cloudless skies come with a cost.

October frost finished the last of our tomatoes, so close to ripening. World War Zoo gardens, Newquay Zoo

The beautiful clear sunny days have been paid for alas with cold, clear, starry nights. That fresh, sharp morning chill (not unpleasant) of the first Autumn weeks of the school term has come at a price. Many of the wartime gardening books acknowledge that growing tomatoes outside in Britain without a greenhouse is always a gamble. We lost to frost again this year!  

Gnome guard (LDV) watching over late strawberry flowers at Newquay Zoo's World War Zoo Wartime garden

Our tomatoes which had showed signs of blight and leaf blotching from some early October rain showers have been finished off by mild frost damage just as they were ripening in the last few days before half term and the strangeness of Halloween preparations. Sunday 24th October saw these tomatoes sadly dug up and added to the compost heap behind the Lion House. Many were annoyingly close to ripening. If this was wartime, this would be a serious setback. Let’s hope our late strawberries don’t go the same way!

Ripening Strawberries on their bed of straw, World War Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo.

Ripening Strawberries on their bed of straw, World War Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo.

 Our ‘straw-berries’ are bedded down on handfuls of straw to protect them. Straw has also been used for a slightly more comic or sinister purpose around the zoo over half term. We didn’t grow pumpkins or gourds this year as we don’t have the space in our wartime plot. Next year we might enter a Land girl with pumpkin head into the zoo’s scarecrow festival competition this half term , but this year we’re too busy seed collecting and planting! There are some great scarecrow examples from different zoo sections to look out for and vote for, if you’re visiting Newquay Zoo over the Halloween half term. There are even some wartime animal ghost stories to fing on our halloween trail.

Alternatively, pop in to the National Trust’s Trengwainton  Gardens near Penzance to see their scarecrow festival in their beautifully restored working kitchen gardens. They have a Land girl and Hitler scarecrow on their “dig for victory” garden plot on the Trengwainton  community allotments, run by Paul Bonnington. We look forward to working with Trengwainton and others on the World War Zoo project in future.  

My last day before leave was spent writing my last blog entry, tidying and watering the wartime garden plot and sowing green manure. I sowed some of the last crops of the season to give us winter and Spring veg, wartime varieties of Spring lettuce and cabbage such as Durham, Flower of Spring  and Offenham Early . (The onions are all that is left to plant out now).

Green manure crop, World War Zoo garden, Newquay Zoo, Autumn 2010

On my return from pottering around Cornwall for two weeks with the family, the organised weeds of our green manure mix (clover, mustard and others) were well established as ground cover and weed suppressant. Within another month by mid November, we shall be able to dig this crop into the ground to rot down throughout the month of December. This should boost our fairly poor slaty, stony clay zoo soil ready for fresh planting in the New Year. One of my new students misread the plant label as “Green manure crap” instead of “crop”. In a strange way, he’s not far wrong in what the zoo soil needs. In addition to the green manure, we do get a fair soil boost from our zoo compost heaps, with some animal bedding and hoofstock dung, leaves, grass and plant clippings of our compost heaps. There’s a good quick chirpy little video clip with Chris Collins (the Blue Peter gardener) about green manure on the BBC Dig In Campaign website:  Only days after pulling out the last of the pea and broad bean haulm (stems) did I read wartime Smallholder magazine  advice about digging the steams and roots back in to rot down!

 Our BBC Dig In carrots are topping out nicely, protected from carrot root fly by a thick grassy swathe of chives. The BBC Dig In Dwarf French beans didn’t look too good once the Black Swan had explored them but some seed pods might still be saved for seed next year. Our Australian Black Swan on its free-ranging strolls around the zoo is attracted to the garden’s location at the  Lion House lawn area by the windfall crab apples from nearby trees. Black Swans can now be added to our list of unusual garden pests, alongside peacocks.

Leek seeds and bees, August 2010, World War Zoo gardens Newquay Zoo

 Seed saving, a wartime necessity, has seen a good crop of Broad Beans drying out alongside paper envelopes of sunflower seeds and a small crop of Runner Beans from a trip to Heligan, bought from their surplus heritage veg produce for sale. About a dozen strange Afro-haircut headed leek seed heads are drying slowly on their plants, the last of 2009’s leeks from some spare seedlings from  Tregew farm shop near Flushing, Falmouth. Wartime gardening books have some timely advice on seed saving, as do the Real Seed Company. It’s a subject surprisingly not seen or covered much of late in gardening magazines, despite recession thrift and Alys Fowler’s Thrifty Garden.

Thrift and improvisation were the watchword of many a wartime gardener and wartime zoo keeper. The hard frost and snow earlier this year has bought on a bumper crop of acorns from the oaks overshadowing my home garden and kind neighbours leave basketfuls on my doorstep. Before you send anymore, I now have a couple of sacks full, enough for autumn and winter. One young lad kindly send us an envelope full of acorns to say thank you for his Junior Keeper day.

Acorns provide useful enrichment for some foraging animals such as our rare Philippine Warty Pigs, but are not the widespread food for all that they once proved in wartime. From providing German ersatz acorn coffee to feeding many people during the Dutch hunger winter of 1944, acorns also proved helpful to bridge the animal foodstuff gap early on in British wartime zoos. Reminiscent of the scrap drives for iron railings and Aluminium saucepans  for Spitfires by Lord Beaverbrook, the secretary of ZSL London Zoo Julian Huxley put out a broadcast appeal for acorns in Autumn 1939:  

“Many children in the country have done their part to help feed the Zoo animals by collecting acorns. Acorns are an excellent feed for agoutis, squirrels, monkeys, deer, and even pheasants like them. Beech mast, so often left to waste on the ground in beechy counties like Bucks, also makes a fine food and it is surprising how helpful such emergency rations have proved.”

Quoted from The Zoos in War article by Margaret Shaw, Animal and Zoo magazine, November 1939 (copy in Newquay Zoo archive).

Julian Huxley reported the public response a month later in the News from the Zoos section of the December 1939 issue of Animal and Zoo magazine:

Acorns for the Camels – December 1939

“Acorns have been pouring into the London Zoo at a rate of a ton a week ever since a broadcast appeal was made for them. They arrive in sacks, parcels, shopping bags and even the canvas sacks used by banks to store coins. One of the overseers told me that most animals have the sense to know when they’ve had enough acorns. For, of course, acorns are only a supplementary diet, and these sent in to the Zoo are being saved to offer the animals as a little luxury to supplement the rather restricted diet of wartime.”

“The elder of the two Bactrian camels, George, loved his treat of acorns and munches them up with great gusto. Not so Wally. Wally was born at Whipsnade and is quite a youngster compared to his companion. He simply refuses to look at them. In the Rodent House many of the burrowing animals are busy hiding them away in the straw. Every one has enjoyed helping the Zoo by gathering these acorns. I heard an amusing story from a member of the Zoo’s staff whose mother has been evacuated to Devonshire, where she is staying on a farm. She wrote a plaintive letter with her consignment, saying that the competition was so great among the farm animals and herself that she had to stay at the window waiting for a breeze to dislodge a single acorn. Then there was the concerted rush of twenty pigs, ten cows and herself to pick up the fallen nut.” (December 1939)

A fine hat on display in our Zoo News 'World War Zoo' article on display at the wartime garden, Newquay Zoo.

Speaking of zoo and animal magazines, the World War Zoo project features in a double page article with photos in Zoo News, the thrice-yearly members’ magazine of Living Coasts, Newquay and Paignton zoos (all part of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust). Newquay Zoo members have already popped in to laugh about my ‘daft  hat’. (Thanks). Hats and headgear are one of the few areas of ‘un-uniform’ that zoo staff are usually allowed.  However, this was not always the rule. Fellow local zoo historian and Bartlett Society member Neil Thomas-Childs in some of his kind library searches for the World War Zoo project told me as an aside that London Zoo created their famous ZSL cap badge as the standard badge for its famous peaked caps directly after the First World War. This was as a result of  keepers returning from the forces doggedly wearing their old regimental cap badges. This strange peace dividend went on, according to ex London Zoo staff at Newquay Zoo, right up to the late 1980s when the peaked cap were phased out. One day maybe our peaked keeper caps will return … and the lion shall lie down with the lamb.

For our next wartime garden blog article in early November, we’ll be returning to London Zoo amongst others, in time for Armistice and Remembrance Sunday. We will be observing the two minute’s silence and holding a small display of our project’s wartime gardening and home front memorabilia at Newquay Zoo on Remembrance Sunday, the 14th  November 2010. Part of  the wartime garden’s role is as a  living memorial to the wartime generation, along with a couple of stories from the few war memorials to zoo staff we have so far discovered. The scale of the ‘sacrifice’ is still difficult to comprehend.

War memorials and poppies aside, we have in our November blog a couple more examples of  the wartime “time safari” around your neighbourhood, which may be of interest to primary and history teachers. (A similar “Victorian time safari” is sometimes featured on our sister blog, We also hope to have some more cheerful news, fingers crossed, from the BIAZA zoo awards at Paignton Zoo in early November of whether the World War Zoo gardens project has received an award commendation in its first year.

 It’s poppy time again (see blogroll links for the Royal British Legion website). Zoo staff and the wartime garden will be proudly wearing their poppies, although keepers don’t wear them whilst working as pins, poppies and grasping animal paws don’t mix.

Finally, the BBC’s landmark Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects with the British Museum has come to an end this week with object No. 100: a solar mobile phone and lamp charger, not unlike Newquay Zoo’s bank of solar water heating and electricity generating panels. You can find out about our World War Zoo gardens project offerings to the BBC’s online museum (a handmade wooden spitfire toy and wooden handmade sliding puzzle) in the Cornwall, 1940s or wartime section (see our blogroll links). Enough objects to keep you busy browsing until our next blog offering.

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