Hello again – at long last! It’s been over 6 months since my last blog post and a whole growing season in 2012 has come and gone in the wartime garden at Newquay Zoo. And I missed it all …
April 2012 started really well with a visit to Newquay Zoo from popular Children’s TV gardener Mr. Bloom. After an exhausting day signing autographs and singing songs from his show, he popped over to see our award-winning World War Zoo wartime garden plot.
Somewhere in the midst of the RHS National Gardening week in April I downed tools mid planting and didn’t come back. I have a good excuse (and an impressive scar to prove it) as I have been offline and away from my daily work and wartime garden at Newquay Zoo since mid April with ill-health requiring an operation.
So whilst I recovered offline and at home, my zoo colleagues got the 2012 harvest in for the zoo animals – a small harvest, for the weather this growing season was generally poor.
Convalescence and nursing a still aching wound or operation scar have taught me a few things. Patience, for one. I also realise how physically difficult and slow their recovery and return to work would be for zoo keepers injured during the war.
It’s poppy time again and time to spare a thought for keepers and animals affected by war over the last century. Below the list of keepers killed in action on the Belle Vue Zoo gardens staff memorial in Gorton Cemetery Manchester is a postscript, keepers who died after 1918 from the effects of war service. My lungs are now healthy again but keepers and zoo staff at Belle Vue Zoo such as Bernard Hastain were passing away years later from the after-effects of being gassed in the First World War. You can read more about these men in last November’s blog posts, 2011.
I had hoped whilst convalescing off work to catch up on researching wartime zoos and botanic gardens for our forthcoming book but morphine (an age-old pain-killer familiar to injured troops) doesn’t do much to help you concentrate on reading. I did come across some interesting sections in books I was lent by kind friends on country houses in wartime. Some of those estates with animal collections had an important wartime role, as did those later to be opened postwar as stately homes and safari parks. Some such as Harewood House (still with a popular bird collection) were convalescent homes like the one you might have seen in Downton Abbey series 2.
Others such as Woburn housed London Zoo’s priceless library collection safe from the London Blitz and later housed a secret Wrennery of WRNS (navy women) working as part of the Bletchley Park codebreaking network. Knowsley Safari Park at Prescot in Merseyside still bears the scars on its rough ground of tank and artillery training.
It was the loss of wartime heirs, shortage of staff, crippling death duties, lack of wartime maintenance and the destructive effects of troops stationed in these houses that saw many estates broken up and sold off, houses demolished. Others opened to the public and developed leisure attractions to pay their way, such as Longleat and its famous safari park. Maybe Downton Abbey series 47 or some such will see the grounds full of roaming lions or elephants …
So whilst wartime was a difficult time for zoos, and often fatal for their staff and animals, it had the surprising effect in postwar Britain of creating more zoos and wildlife parks when old estates were sold or opened to the public with animals as part of the attraction, alongside the house. Marwell Zoo is one such surviving example, created in the 1960s by John Knowles and once home to a secret wartime airfield.
It’s Poppy month and also the 7oth anniversary of El Alamein in 1942. Church bells silent since 1939 were rung in Britain to celebrate El Alamein, featured in the wartime film Desert Victory. Fighting between the Desert Rats and the Afrika Korps in the Western desert of North Africa claimed the life of one zoo keeper or aquarist, Peter Felix Falwasser of Chester Zoo, Yorkshire born despite his foreign-sounding name. A Gunner in the 1st Royal Horse Artillery, he died of wounds from the Tobruk battles aged 26 on 22 December 1942. He’s buried in Heliopolis War cemetery, Cairo in Egypt, a wartime hospital cemetery beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
We hope to gain more such glimpses of wartime life from his letters home to his zoo colleagues from recent donations to the Chester Zoo archive by founder’s daughter June Mottershead, herself a wartime zoo keeper as set out in her story, Reared in Chester Zoo.
Whilst I was convalescing, I saw the Wartime Farm series on BBC TV and spotted on a leaflet for improvised toys for Christmas a handmade wooden toy engine just like one in our World War Zoo Gardens wartime collection.
So whilst zoo gift shops are full of lovely present ideas and expereinces, this Christmas we hope to informally twin our wartime allotment with a sustainable modern one through the gift of an allotment somewhere in the developing world through the Oxfam Unwrapped gifts scheme. There’s some great ideas for gifts and well worth a look at www.oxfamunwrapped.com
Signing off until the next post , hopefully only for a few weeks this time … Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.