Elegy for a whale

This article originally appeared in the final issue of Earthlines magazine, which was published in March 2017. I’m including it here with some further photos I took last Autumn, and a postscript about my recent fin whale observations in Greeland during July.

whale-eye_LOFrom way back in the dunes I can make out the pale mound of its outline behind a huddled melee of figures. At this distance it seems much less massive than the leviathan I was expecting: a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the second-largest species known to have ever lived on the planet, smaller only than the blue whale.

It’s an hour since the retreat of the tide. Bare canes form a borderless circle around the body of the whale – I suppose the rising waters washed away previous attempts to cordon people off – conferring an esoteric Seahenge element of ritual upon this usually lonely Norfolk beach. I approach with trepidation, surprised when no one prevents me from walking right up to where she lies.

She. I learn later that the whale is female. An immature animal 13 metres in length. She had come to rest here on the fringe of the North Sea the day before, lying parallel to the waves that are breaking 50-metres distant, her starboard to the sky. Her mouth is half agape, her right eye half closed. The point of her jaw is obscured, pressed into a claret-filled hollow in the sand. It is all quite visceral and overwhelming.

whale-wideLOExcluding skeletons in museums, I have never seen a dead whale before. Earlier in the year several sperm whales were beached a little further west of here, around the coastline of The Wash. I contemplated going to look at them, to appreciate fully the size and grandeur of these animals I had previously observed tail-fluking and spouting off New Zealand, but decided I did not want to risk having those memories replaced with something tawdry. Today though I have given in to my morbid curiosity and am now close enough to touch a species I have witnessed with awe in the Bay of Biscay and, most memorably, beneath a sunlit midnight sky off the coast of arctic Spitsbergen.

When you watch a fin whale at sea so little of it breaks the ocean’s skin: just the top of the head and the shock of the blow – a vertical, pressure-blasted column rising up to eight metres – then a smooth arcing movement that reveals the uppermost part of the spine and the short, rear-pointing dorsal fin before it rolls under the waves; rarely any sign of the tail, and certainly no breaching of the water like you get with extravagant, show-off humpbacks. I think that the fleetingness of the encounter adds to how lucky, how mesmerising, the experience feels. Because it is luck, largely, if you happen to be focusing your binoculars on the exact section of the sea’s vastness just at the moment when a previously concealed sliver of whale happens to pop the surface.

whale-profile_LOHere though it is very different, and those underwater mysteries may be about to find resolution in the flesh. Above, her skin is pencil-grey with a hint of storm-cloud blue. Her belly is pale and etched with dark longitudinal lines. This is her ventral groove blubber, highly elastic tissue that can be expanded accordion-like during a fin whale’s gape-jawed lunge feeding, which draws in up to 70,000 litres of fish- and plankton-filled water in a single mouthful that is then filtered away through the tightly shut baleen plates, leaving behind perhaps as much as 10 kilograms of krill to digest. Up close these pleated throat grooves are beautiful, curving and sweeping along her underbelly like the caressing waves themselves.

throat-groovesLOThe baleen is attached only to the upper jaw. Its ends are feathery and brush-like – it’s hard to imagine that it is made from keratin, the same material that forms human hair and nails, or that it once was prized as ‘whalebone’ to make corsets and the ribs of parasols. The rear two-thirds of this baleen are black, with the front portion coloured cream. Fin whales are unusual among whales (and vertebrates generally) in having consistent asymmetrical colouration: the right side of the immense head before me has an off-white jaw and lower lip, while the hidden left side will match the dark shading of the rest of her back; the baleen shares this odd, two-tone pattern. Scientists are not sure why this lopsided colour scheme exists. Earlier speculation that is was some sort of adaptation to the species’ lunge-feeding technique appears not to be supported by more-recent scientific research, though interestingly, like humans, the large rorqual whales are mainly ‘right-handed’, preferring to lunge with the right sides of their bodies facing downwards. Perhaps then, the fin whale’s asymmetric patterning just is.

The icy wind blows briskly, gaining in strength by the minute. Just offshore a pair of dark-bellied brent geese, winter visitors from Siberia, are labouring westwards. Peering into the whale’s mouth the tremendous tongue is quivering, making me wonder for a moment whether she is still alive, if I should step backwards in case internal vapours are building inside her already decaying body (there have been isolated cases of whale carcasses ‘exploding’ due to an excess of intestinal gases as the process of decomposition progresses). I realise, however, that it’s just the reverberative effect of the gathering breeze. I peer into her half-closed eye: murky, about the width of my fist, it seems to gaze straight into my thoughts.

More people are here now, including two film crews and a photographer from the local media. Staff from the Holkham Estate, which owns the beach, are beginning to unwind a coil of orange binding twine around the bare posts.

A late middle-aged man saunters past, while an acquaintance hollers at him: “Big bones here for your dog!”

The dog-man grins. “It stinks!” he says.

“No, that’s me,” his friend replies.

The sands are dancing, twisting in the wind and I want to shout across to the men, to try and make them appreciate the magnificence of the creature in their midst, to move them beyond the banal. But am I any different? After all, I’m here too for the ghoulish spectacle. I try to shut out the presence of others and study the whale, a final attempt to give my visit meaning because I can see that in a few minutes we will all be asked to move. A Land Rover is now pulling up, containing scientists from London Zoo and CSIP, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigations Programme.

I examine the animal’s topside in detail. Etched onto the skin, which this close is glossy and near-black like the sea in a squall, are markings that resemble spidery runes. The uppermost layer of paper-thin flesh has, in places, peeled away to reveal narrow rows of parallel horizontal lines below.

whaleskin-runes_LOOccasional scattered gouges expose the harsh white of deeper blubber. The blowhole is not a single opening but two thin slits that form an incomplete triangle, sited just behind a ridge that runs forwards down the centre of the head. Most strikingly, about halfway along the back there is a distinct bend, an ugly unnatural angle from which point the whale’s stern, her tail stock, is noticeably wasted. The dorsal fin, often the most-telling tool when trying to identify whales at sea, is just visible through a puddle of seawater, its tip buried beneath the beach. I estimate its height to be only around a foot or so; it seems remarkably small compared to how I remember those of living, swimming animals.

Days later, after CSIP have conducted their autopsy, they post details of their findings online. The kink in the spine – the ‘abnormality’ as they refer to it – now appears to have likely been the result of a past traumatic event such as a collision with a ship. The subsequent damage to the whale’s vertebrae and surrounding tissues would have limited the range of movement in her tail, causing progressive muscle wastage in the area. This would have lessened her ability to dive and feed, leading ultimately to starvation, stranding and death.

I do not know this though as I look down upon her, and as the orange-stringed cordon is reinstated and I am asked to retreat. All I know is that here before me is something beautiful, something poignant. An animal I want to mourn for properly but am not sure how best to. I walk away as the scientists, now wearing disposable plastic overalls, begin to stride with purpose towards her.

Little-Auk_LOAt the strandline along the base of the dunes I spot a starling-sized black-and-white bundle of feathers at my feet: it is a little auk (Alle alle), a rare storm-blown seabird from the High Arctic, another species I watched, years ago, in a northern, Spitsbergen reverie. And I am in that moment once more, with the inverted sun glinting off the blue as the midnight whale’s swept-back dorsal fin slices the water ahead of our ship. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville describes the Fin-Back as “gifted with such wondrous power and velocity in swimming, as to defy all present pursuit from man”. Here, scuttled on the wind-whipped sands, she has not been so fortunate. I will prefer not to think of her this way, but streamlined and magnificent as she cuts and lunges through the food-laden waters of the Greenland Sea, vast flocks of auks whirring above her wake.

***

fin-iceberg-diskoDuring a three-week trip around Greenland in July of 2017 I spent a lot of time thinking back to the previous October and the Holkham fin whale. Fin whales were the most numerous large whale that I encountered, with numbers in double figures on a couple of days. Memorably, on Disko Island, halfway up Greenland’s west coast, we were treated to a prolonged encounter with what was presumably a family group of fin whales, which fed around the ship and in front of the nearby numerous icebergs; at one point on the other side of the ship a group of humpbacks put on a similar show.

This mysterious communion, as they presented a sleek sliver of themselves to the sky, was altogether a better way to enjoy the beauty of these mesmeric leviathans than that storm-churned Norfolk beach.

fin-blow-disko

(All photos © Edward Parnell)

Ghost churches: Stanta

I recently went on an organised trip to enter the Stanta Army training area in the wilds of Breckland, organised by the Norfolk Churches Trust, to see the four extant, normally inaccessible churches left in this forbidden zone. Here are a few initial images that struck me, most of which were taken in the faded, exquisite St Mary’s Church at West Tofts, remodelled by Augustus Charles Pugin in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Memento mori

I spent the afternoon yesterday looking around the Wellcome Collection in London. As well as all the medical curiosities and the excellent exhibition ‘Making Nature: How we see animals’, I was particularly intrigued by the various antiquarian reminders of human transience, and of the frailties of the flesh and spirit.

Here are a few rather macabre examples.

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A human face: half alive, half dead. Italian, 18th century.

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A mememto mori – from the Latin phrase meaning “remember you must die” – a wooden 16th-century Italian reminder of mortality. If you look closely you can just make out the worms emerging from the corpse’s stomach.

painting1

‘Life and Death’. An oil painting of unknown provenance intended as a warning against over-indulging in Earthly pleasures, and of the worthlessness of worldly things. These types of symbolic artworks are known as vanitas. See here for a fuller explanation.

vanitas1

A vanitas of European origin. Dated c. 18th century and made largely from wax.

The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland

'Hide and Seek' by William Merritt Chase (The Phillips Collection)

‘Hide and Seek’ by William Merritt Chase (The Phillips Collection)

A version of this article was first published on the #FolkloreThursday website in August 2016.

A couple of month’s ago I was lucky enough to find a slightly worn-looking antiquarian book in one of my local charity shops. As I have an interest in folklore, the faded gold-gilt title on the book’s burgundy spine was instantly appealing: A Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, Part I: Traditional Games, Vol. I by Alice B. Gomme. I happily paid the few pounds asking price, went home and began to delve into this fascinating late-Victorian title.

image2_gomme_dictionary-coverBorn Alice Bertha Merck in London in 1853, the daughter of a master tailor, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography we know little of Alice’s life until, aged 22, she married on 31 March 1875. Her husband, (George) Laurence Gomme, was a keen folklorist and prolific author on the subject, and later President of the Folk-Lore Society – he was knighted in 1911 for his services to London County Council, whereupon Alice became Lady Gomme.

image3_gomme_dictionary-contentsAlice Gomme’s reputation as a folklorist has not, until recently, been fully recognised. In their preface to the seminal The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Opie and Opie: 1959), the authors note that Alice Gomme’s classic two-volume text has a rural bias, and that the book was already out of date when it was published, largely relying on distant recollections from Gomme’s correspondents. This seems to me though to be a little uncharitable, given the obvious depth of research that jumps off the pages when browsing through the first volume (covering Accroshay–Nuts in May) that I’m currently holding.

In any case, to me, as an interested dabbler in the field, the single volume I own has opened up a fascinating path into the subject of childlore. And in this short essay I’d like to share a few of the ‘tunes, singing-rhymes, and methods of playing’ that this remarkable woman – mother, folklorist, active suffragette, lecturer and writer, and expert in Elizabethan stage methods – collected towards the end of the Victorian period.

Oldies but goodies

Flicking through the comfortingly thick and musty-smelling pages, it’s interesting that many of the games are ones – or at least variants of – I remember from my own childhood. As well as universal favourites like ‘Cat’s Cradle’ [Image 4](a game, Gomme notes, ‘known to savage peoples’) and ‘Blind Man’s Buff’, Gomme dedicates several pages to ‘Hide and Seek’, surely one of the classic, perennial childhood amusements. What, though, I had no idea about was the large numbers of associated localised rhymes and rules surrounding how it was formerly played. In Scotland for instance, Gomme states, the game was called ‘Hopsy’ and played only by boys, while in Leicestershire it was called ‘Hide and Wink’, and in Dorset ‘Hidy Buck’.

image4_gomme_cats-cradle

Cat’s Cradle from A Dictionary of British Folk-Lore

In a Proustian moment I now recall ‘British Bulldog’: I can’t remember exactly how we played the game, but I do recall it having a tendency towards increasing roughness, leading to it eventually becoming banned at my Lincolnshire primary school. Sadly though, it doesn’t appear to be in Gomme’s book – at least not under the name I remember. And at this point the limitation of owning only Volume I becomes apparent, as I now also have a desire to check if ‘Stuck in the Mud’ (which my partner recalls as being called ‘Stick-in-the-Mud’ at her Leicester school) also appears in Volume II – another game that suddenly comes back to me out of nowhere.

Esoteric games

image5_gomme_childrens-singing-games

The Jolly Miller from Gomme’s 1894 Children’s Singing Games

Reading Gomme’s book alongside Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, it strike me just how mysterious childlore is. The Opies, in particular, stress how certain games and rhymes have been around for centuries, evolving and travelling between different areas of Britain (and beyond). And yet, the means by which these childhood customs arose and were later propagated seems elusive. Many of the traditions that Gomme describes seem equally hard to pin down from her brief descriptions. I’m drawn to the game of ‘Bandy-hoshoe’, probably because she states it is a common game in my home county of Norfolk. And yet, her brief description leaves me little the wiser about what actually took place during the play, though it appears to be a variant on hockey or golf – something, at least, that involves hitting a ball or similar object with a crooked stick.

Alongside this unknown prototype sport, are listed many more localised games involving rhymes, dancing, rituals, or just plain nonsense. Many are equally hard to get a handle on: ‘Dropping the Letter’ is an undescribed Suffolk boy’s game; ‘Jackysteauns’ is a game played by Cumbrian schoolgirls with pebbles; ‘Jolly Miller’ appears to be a verse game played in a circle, although the contributor, a Miss Keary, says: ‘How it ends I have never been able to make out; no one about here seems to know either’; ‘Minister’s Cat’ is a word game recorded from Gloucestershire and North Lincolnshire; while the Sheffield game of ‘Nip-srat-and-bite’ is delightfully described as ‘a children’s game, in which nuts, pence, gingerbread, &c., are squandered.’

Childhood games in the 21st century

There seems to be a widespread fear among older people – understandable to a certain extent, I suppose, given the way social media and new technologies change the way our children play and interact – that traditional games are disappearing. In April 2006, for instance, the Daily Express carried the headline ‘Skipping? Hopscotch? Games are a mystery to the iPod Generation’. However, fascinating recent research on the subject by the Universities of London, Sheffield and East London and the British Library seems to conclude that traditional children’s games are still very much alive and well (see: http://projects.beyondtext.ac.uk/playgroundgames/index.php)

Interestingly, while reading Alice Gomme’s book, my neighbour’s five-year-old daughter introduced me to a modern-day piece of childlore as I was gardening one afternoon. Called ‘Chicken or Hen’, the game, which she tells me she plays with her friends at school, involves picking a flower (or seed head) and then presenting it to the recipient, who has to decide whether the bloom best resembles a chicken or hen.

image6_parnell_chicken-or-hen

‘Chicken or Hen’ – a new children’s game? (Photo: Edward Parnell)

‘I don’t understand how it works!’ I protest, trying to read too much into the game’s simple rules, which only seem to require the briefest of identifications of said chicken or hen – albeit not an entirely obvious binary decision to make!

Gomme’s book now held in front of me, I turn to the letter C, but sadly the game isn’t listed there (nor in Opie and Opie); I try Google too but find no mention, which leads me to suppose it’s a local game yet to lay down deeper roots. And yet, given the vagaries of how these games appear to spontaneously arise and mutate, it seems entirely possible that in years to come ‘Chicken or Hen’ will, by some strange agency, take a foothold in the infant schools of Norfolk and beyond…

I look at the seed head I’ve been presented with. ‘Chicken,’ I say.

My neighbour’s little girl laughs at me like I’ve just said the most ridiculous thing.

‘It’s a hen!’ she replies.

References

Beyond Text (2009–2011). Children’s Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age. Collaborative research project.
See: http://projects.beyondtext.ac.uk/playgroundgames/index.php

Boyes, Georgina (2001). A Proper Limitation: Stereotypes of Alice Gomme. Musical Traditions Internet Magazine.
See: www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/gomme.htm [accessed 29 May 2016].

Gomme, Alice (1894). A Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, Part I: Traditional Games. Volume I: Accroshay–Nuts in May. London, David Nutt.

Gomme, Robert (online edn, May 2006). ‘Gomme, Alice Bertha, Lady Gomme (1853–1938)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
See: www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/38616 [accessed 29 May 2016].

Gomme, Robert (2004). ‘Gomme, Sir (George) Laurence (1853–1916)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press. See:
www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/38616 [accessed 29 May 2016].

Opie, Iona, and Opie, Peter (1959). The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

University of Sheffield (2012–2017). Childhoods and Play. British Academy Research Project. See: http://www.opieproject.group.shef.ac.uk/

Livermere and M. R. James

Last week I visited Great Livermere, just over the Suffolk border, the childhood home of M. R. James, whose father was the rector of St Peter’s Church in the village. James himself was deeply attached to Livermere, according to Michael Cox’s excellent 1986 biography, and it wasn’t hard on a rain-soaked, ghost-grey November day to see how the atmosphere of the place might have had an effect on the young Monty.

Walking around the churchyard I came across the grave of the Mothersole family – the surnname will be familiar to James’s readers as that of the witch from his story ‘The Ash Tree’.

mrj_mothersole

A friendly and very vocal familiar – the local black-and-white cat – came over to investigate what I was up to, before slinking back through the wet grass.

mrj_churchyard-cat

Various headstones bore suitably gothic reminders of mortality: skulls, bones and the like. Rich pickings, perhaps, for the young Monty to store away for later use? I myself felt a little like the character Viscount Saul from ‘The Residence at Whitminster’, so memorably described as “whimsical” and “given to moping about in our raths and graveyards”. Hopefully though I’ll manage to avoid the boy’s fate! (I managed somehow to miss the headstone of James’s parents, which Monty had erected – that will teach me to try and do my reading before visiting a place!)

mrj_what-lies-beneath

A distinctive feature of Great Livermere is the lake just behind the church, which gives its name to the village. I’d never actually visited it before, though knew of its reputation as a good birding site (I remember being jealous of my brother who saw a Black-winged Pratincole – a rare wading bird – there in the 1990s.) On the day I visited there was nothing there so exotic, though a female Scaup (a scarce diving duck on inland waters) was a good spot, and a Kingfisher flashed by. This Grey Heron (or Harnser to use one of my favourite old Norfolk bird names) was sitting in a rather stately fashion in the waterside trees:

mrj_harnser

The lake itself is made up of two parts: Ampton Water, the narrow snaking and tree-lined southern half, and the aptly named northern Broad Water. With its part-submerged trees and indistinct shoreline this part of the mere struck me as particularly atmospheric, a kind of post-diluvian landscape that seemed to offer a glimpse of a peopleless world in which the waters have overwhelmed the land. (Perhaps that was just the strengthening rain playing with my mind though!)

mrj_across-lakemrj_lake2

Leaving the lake behind I felt it only right to see the Rectory itself, the place where Monty spent his childhood when not away at prep school or later at Eton. En route I passed this gate in presumably the wall at the back of the Rectory’s extensive garden (or of another of part of the old Livermere Estate). It brought to mind the scene in Monty’s last published ghost story, ‘A Vignette’ (pub. 1936):

“You are asked to think of the spacious garden of a country rectory, adjacent to a park of many acres, and separated therefrom by a belt of trees of some age… A close gate of split oak leads to it from the path encircling the garden, and when you enter it from that side you put your hand through a square hole cut in it and lift the hook to pass along to the iron gate which admits to the park…”

mrj_gate2

Back past the surrounding scatter of houses and I could get a glimpse of the Rectory itself, long since a rather grand private residence, through a gap in the scatter of trees.

mrj_rectory

(Looking now at the photo it’s quite a disappointment to find no half-formed faces peering out from the attic window, though perhaps when I look again there will be something – see ‘The Mezzotint’!)

Rather incongruously, parked just oppposite the entrance to the house was this most-unexpected vehicle – a mobile  Insect Circus Museum no less! – while adding to the late autumn atmosphere were the various mushrooms poking up through the leaf litter.

Great Livermere is a wonderfully strange and atmospheric place, and certainly somewhere I’ll be returning to in future.

mrj_mushroomsmrj_circus

(I should add that I visited Livermere in the wonderful company of my friend, the film-maker Clive Dunn, who made the excellent ‘A Pleasant Terror: The Life and Ghosts of M. R. James’, which is well worth trying to catch up with!)

 

 

‘He has some power over your eyes’

Visiting Salthouse on the North Norfolk coast last weekend, I was taken by the eerie flat light and these rusted remnants of a fence whose posts were desperately trying to cling to the shingle. I took some photos, realising when I got home that a couple had wandered into the right-hand edge of the shot, bringing to mind the end of M. R. James’s wonderful ghost story ‘A Warning to the Curious’.

warning-lo

Fin-Back

Last Friday (21 October) I went to look at the immature female Fin Whale that had washed up dead on the beach at Holkham on the North Norfolk coast the previous day.

It was a very moving sight, something I’m going to write about in more detail in future. For now though here are some photographs I took, which I think capture something of the sculptural beauty and grace of this magnificent 40-foot animal, a species I’ve been lucky enough to have witnessed on several occasions at sea where essentially all the whale reveals of itself is its distinct tall dorsal fin and spectacular blow, wonderfully described by Melville as a “straight and single lofty jet rising like a tall misanthropic spear upon a barren plain”.

dscn5130

dscn5145

dscn5167dscn5170

dscn5193

RIP whale.

New childlore article for #FolkloreThursday

'Hide and Seek' by William Merritt Chase (The Phillips Collection)

‘Hide and Seek’ by William Merritt Chase (The Phillips Collection)

I’ve written a new article for the FolkloreThursday website focusing on A Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, Part I: Traditional Games by Alice B. Gomme , which is now live on their site. Check it out! #FolkloreThursday

(There’s quite a lot of folklore in The Listeners too, from retellings of the Babes in the Wood and Mistletoe Bride legends, to various local Norfolk superstitions including lantern men and the Devil’s Pit, as well as all sorts of odd stuff that William believes in. I’m not sure how much childlore there is – William is  too busy roaming the woods on his own to engage with any!)

Waved Black: a rare Norfolk moth

Waved Black

Waved Black, Wymondham, 12 August 2015 (Photo: E. Parnell)

I started using a moth trap last June – a simple harmless light positioned above a wooden box, which attracts moths at night and then holds them until I check the box the following morning. Since then, with only occasional use, I’ve caught more than 150 species of the larger macromoths, as well as almost 50 of the trickier-to-identify micromoths. The undoubted highlight in terms of rarity though has been a small, dark moth: the Waved Black.

I first caught one of these black and yellow moths on 12 August 2015. Initially, I assumed it must be something common that I was unfamiliar with (most species at that point, and probably still now!), but searching through my field guide it took me ages to find this rather butterfly-like creature. There it was though, Waved Black (Parascotia fuliginaria). Looking it up on the excellent Norfolk Moths website, I was surprised to note that at that point there had only been around 25 records in Norfolk of this species, which is largely confined to an area around London, Essex and the Home Counties, with an outlying population around the Severn Estuary.

DSCN4536

12 July 2016 (Photo: E. Parnell)

Fast forward to July 2016, when I noticed another little black moth resting in the back of my trap while emptying the catch from the evening of the 12th; this time I knew instantly what it was. Two night later on the 14 July, I caught another slightly differently marked individual and received my first moth ‘twitchers’, as various other Norfolk moth-ers (‘moth-ers’, not ‘mothers’!), including James Lowen (visit his excellent wildlife blog), came to take a look.

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Waved Black, Wymondham, 4 August 2016 (Photo: E. Parnell)

Finally, on 4 August, I caught another individual, attracting another wave of visitors to look at this scarce little moth. The fact that the species has occurred two years running in my garden suggests that these aren’t migrants, but part of a small population probably occurring in the sallows/wet woodland that border my garden. Incredibly, the area seems to be the Norfolk hotspot for the species! Hopefully, however, having now made that bold claim, the August individual won’t turn out to be the last garden record that I have…