A note from our Editor, Louise Robinson
Finally, after 10 long weeks many of us are emerging from our homes, blinking into the sunlight, as we embrace a new world of freedom – not so much baby steps it seems, but giant strides.
Barbecues are back, we can meet outside in groups of up to six (in England and Northern Ireland) and we can even buy a car. From Wednesday 3 June, 29 of the National Trust’s parks and gardens will reopen for a limited number of pre-booked visitors, including Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, Corfe Castle in Dorset (above), Sutton Hoo in Suffolk and Lyme in Cheshire. Mind you, many have already sold out for this week, but keep an eye on future dates here.
Tickets are made available each Friday and will still be free for members. The Trust says it will be opening more properties in the coming weeks (although the houses themselves will be shut, as will cafes and shops).
The RHS is also taking online bookings for four gardens – Wisley in Surrey, Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire, Rosemoor in North Devon and Hyde Hall in Essex, although most don’t have any spaces until next week.
Let the games commence!
The world of sport is opening up, too. How lovely is it to walk past once-deserted tennis courts and hear the thwack of balls on racquet strings again? The golfers are back and open water swimmers can get their fix, too. Keen Saga Magazine reader Jim Benson is eager for me to fly the flag for croquet – it’s estimated that more than 60% of the country’s croquet clubs are now open.
“Croquet is the ultimate social distancing sport,” Jim tells me. “The court is double the size of a tennis court so there is plenty of room for all, and the game provides both a physical and mental workout. Unlike the public perception, it really is for all ages.” Little wonder that John Lewis says demand for croquet sets is 600% higher than last year. Fancy trying your hand at it? Join the Croquet Association’s #lockdowncroquet challenge.
Even those shielding (in England and Wales) have been told they can go outside for exercise now, although I know many of you aren’t convinced that’s the right advice. “I, for one, intend to stay at home,” reader June Vowles pointed out. “There are too many people on the streets and in the parks at the moment for me to feel safe.”
On the box
I don’t know if you caught last night’s Long Lost Family Special on ITV, but there wasn’t a dry eye in our house (in a good way, I promise). We follow the story of four foundlings who are trying to trace their families. As genealogy hunts go, this must be one of the toughest gigs around. All four were abandoned as babies – in a telephone box, in a public toilet and one outside a pub in a corned beef box. They don’t know their true birthdays, never mind their parents. The team use the latest DNA technology along with painstaking detective work to see if they can uncover their true identities. Amazingly, given the time elapsed, there are happy endings and tears. Not just mine. Part one follows the extraordinary story of David and Helen and part two is on tonight, 2 June, at 9pm, so watch it if you can, or catch up on the ITV Hub.
Website of the week: Natural History Museum – www.nhm.ac.uk
You don’t get many emails titled ‘The giant squid in our basement’! But since signing up for updates from the Natural History Museum, I’ve learned amazing things, especially about that squid, Archie. Caught at a depth of 220 metres by a fishing trawler off the Falklands in 2004, he’s 8.62 metres long and now resides, pickled in alcohol (I think many of us know how he feels), in the museum’s basement along with 20 million other specimens in bottles, jars and boxes along 17 miles of shelving.
Find out more about the NHM’s specimen collection on their website. Each week they feature a different exhibit, with videos, background information and links. Next up, snakestones and Arctic duck-billed dinosaurs.
Wildlife watch: the majestic oak
Now that the trees are fully in leaf, it’s a good time to pay homage to the oak. I had no idea that the UK had two main species of oak – the pedunculate (English) oak and the sessile oak. It’s the most common tree in Britain, with over 120 million across the country. Oaks sustain more diversity of life than any other native tree, says Kirsty Paterson from The Wildlife Trusts. If there’s one near you, stand under it and watch, she suggests. The silver-washed fritillary butterfly lays its eggs on the trunk, it’s home to mosses, lichens and ferns, as well as fungi. You may spot purple brittlegill, oakbug milkcap and other mushrooms nearby, and look out for the purple hairstreak, a beautiful butterfly with shiny, midnight-blue wings, that lives its entire life around an oak tree, as it can’t survive on any other species.
Like a fine wine, oaks get better with age. As they mature, the bark cracks and peels, revealing hidden pockets perfect for roosting bats or nesting treecreepers, mouse-like birds that scurry up the trunk using their strong feet and claws. Holes form, creating cavities big enough to house a family of tawny owls. Perhaps the most important features of an ageing oak are the parts that have already died. Decaying wood supports a wealth of wildlife, from beetles to fungi, both on the tree and long after it has fallen to the ground. Find out more here.
The swallows that make a summer
Nothing says summer like a swallow: the long tail streamers and the cheerful chattering as it swoops overhead, snatching insects as it goes. Right now swallows may be feeding a brood of youngsters growing rapidly in their cup-shaped nests up in the eaves of buildings. Caroline Offord of the RSPB tells me that each brood will need to eat around 6,000 flies a day to become strong enough to leave the nest. They are easy to spot: they have dark, glossy-blue backs, red throats, pale underparts and long tail streamers (the males have longer streamers than the females). You’re more likely to see these little aerial acrobats in and around your garden if you live in the countryside as they prefer hunting over fields and reedbeds. The adult birds drink by flying just above the surface of a pond or lake and scooping up water in the lower part of their bill.
Swallows spend the summer in the UK, and then gather on telephone wires before disappearing for the winter. It was once thought they hibernated in the mud at the bottom of ponds, but now we know they head to South Africa, covering 200 miles a day at speeds of 17-22 miles an hour.
This week’s sofa culture
- Reader William Wickstead got in touch to tell me that the Proms hasn’t been cancelled, although it will look different this year. The season kicks off on 17 July with the most ambitious lockdown orchestra ever: 350 musicians playing a virtual ‘mash-up’ of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, having recorded their parts at home. Director David Pickard says he is ‘very hopeful’ that live concerts will follow for the last two weeks of the festival in late August. Watch this space!
- If, like me, you’re fascinated by politics and the machinations of all those in it, don’t miss This House, James Graham’s acclaimed play about the hung parliament of 1974 – an era of chaos, high-stakes trickery and machinations. Sound familiar? Catch it on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until Thursday 4 June. If that doesn’t appeal, Thursday’s new National Theatre online show is the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent play about political manipulation and revenge. See? Not that different to Britain in 1974, but at least there’s Tom Hiddleston as a distraction.
- This week’s entry in the ‘celebrities-virtual-singing-for-charity’ slot is a belter. Queen and Adam Lambert (singing Freddie Mercury’s part amazingly well) recorded a spontaneous version of We Are the Champions on their mobile phones, renamed You Are the Champions as a tribute to key workers. Proceeds go towards the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The video, of empty cities and medical staff in PPE, is incredibly powerful and reminds us all how far we’ve come in the past ten weeks.
Whatever freedoms you decide to exercise this week, be careful, stay safe and I’ll see you next week.
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