‘The trees are in their autumn beauty, the woodland paths are dry
Under the October twilight mirrors a still sky’
~William Butler Yeats~
We checked out a new playground in Nottingham which was about an hour drive away. The trip was a treat for Babe’s birthday for an exhibition in a deer park. We were at the Wollaton Hall for the Dinosaurs of China exhibition. We left the casa at 10.30 am on a wet morning with the mercury at 12.5C. Thankfully, when we arrived at the park, the sun came out. It was quite a long drive to the house with several car-parks but we wanted to park as close as possible to the house. After parking at the Lime Tree car park and paying £5 for all day parking, we made our way up the hill and the view of the house was just stunning. The front view were pavilions with Dutch gables and acroterions.
Wollaton Hall, real name was ‘Olafston’, came into the hands of the Willoughby family during the first half of the 14th century, while Edward III was on the throne. Today, it was a Grade I listed Elizabethan country house standing on a small but prominent hill in a sprawling 500 acre deer park. It was built between 1580 and 1588 for Sir Francis Willoughby, the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, a wealthy coal baron, and was believed to be designed by avant –garde architect Robert Smythson. The building was of Ancaster stone from Lincolnshire and the decorations had been described as ‘fantasy-gothic’. Paintings on the ceilings of the two main staircases and round the walls of one were attributed to Sir James Thornhill and perhaps Laguerre, carried out around 1700. The building was later bought by Nottingham County Council and opened as a natural history museum in 1925.
The terrace gardens at Wollaton once had the reputation of being the finest in England and was influenced by Du Cerceau.. The cedars and sycamores lined the avenues with gorgeous manicured gardens and woodlands to stroll through. Cassandra Willoughby, Duchess of Chandos had some masonry and stone carvings brought from Italy in 1702 adorning the hall and the grounds, including the decorative but ludcrous gondola mooring rings carved in stone on the exterior walls. A unique camelia house was built in 1823 and thought to be the oldest cast-iron glass house in Britain.
The former stables housed the industrial museum, steam engine house, gift shop and cafe. There was also a small walled botanic garden, adjacent to the stable block that had been developed by volunteers from the Nottingham branch of the Hardy Plant Society since the early 1980s. Unfortunately, it was only open on Sundays between April and September. In 2011, key scenes from the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises were filmed at Wollaton Hall, as a setting for Wayne Manor. Another fact about the relevance of the Hall being the home of Batman was that Gotham was just 5 miles north and where Gotham City got its name.
Apart from the house, we were here to see The Dinosaurs of China exhibition. It took six years of planning. Nottingham City Council and the University of Nottingham had collaborated with the Beijing-based, Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology and the Long Hao Institute of Geology and Paleontology in Inner Mongolia to bring the dinosaurs to the city. It was a world exclusive for Nottingham, the only place in the UK to display these spectacular exhibits and it was the first time they'd been displayed outside Asia. This wasn’t a touring exhibition so it was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to see some of the most important fossils in the world. It was a case of “East meets West” exhibition. Some 250 different types of dinosaurs had been named from Chinese fossils and several important specimens were on display, such as Lufengosaurus, the first dinosaur from China to be scientifically described. One of the key themes exhibition was to tell the story of Chinese palaeontology.
This cleverly constructed exhibition featured a total of twenty-six prehistoric species, plus a wealth of other exhibits and artefacts that told the story of how one group of dinosaurs – the Maniraptora, evolved into the birds that lived alongside us today. There were lots of helpful information panels to help guide visitors, including the beautiful artwork that accompanied the fossils created by the famous Chinese palaeoartist Zhao Chuang. The collection told the story of how dinosaurs evolved into these birds and featured some of the biggest dinosaur skeletons in existence.
As soon as we stepped into the stunning main hall for the “Dinosaurs of China – Ground Shakers to Feathered Flyers” exhibition, I found myself standing between the legs of the Giant Mamenchisaurus!!! And when I looked up, I had to strain my eyes to see its head, just about skimming the ceiling. At the height of three double-decker buses, it took my breath away and it was the tallest skeleton ever displayed in the UK. What an introduction to the whole exhibition. The neck was a fraction under ten metres in length and it contained nineteen giant bones (cervical vertebrae), a lot for a neck that supported a small head. The Mamenchisaurus, was a plant-eating saurapod similar to a brontosaurus, roamed China around 160 million years ago. The skeleton was a replica, cast from the original fossil bones, but visitors could touch a real thigh bone, 120cm high and 65 million years old. How could I resist.
If it hadn’t been named after the province of China where it was discovered, it might have been called ‘Neckosaurus’ It was discovered in 1952 on the construction site of the Yitang Highway in Sichuan and given the name Mamenchisaurus which meant ‘Mamenxi or ferry lizard.’ It was believed that it never raised its head and kept parallel to its body and only ate low lying foliage. Some palentologists had asserted that it used its long neck to poke its head into dense forests and was able to feed in wet, soaked areas where the ground was too soft to walk without sinking. Mamenchisaurus was a sauropod, whose intelligence was the among the lowest of the dinosaurs. Oops!!!
The exhibitions on the ground floor were all lined against the wall and we just followed them. The majority of the dinosaurs found on the ground floor dated from the Jurassic. In contrast, the exhibits found on the first floor featured Cretaceous prehistoric animals. The displays had been carefully laid out so that visitors were taken on a journey through geological time. There was a transition from the Jurassic through to the Cretaceous which reinforced the idea that dinosaurs evolved into a myriad of different forms The art on the walls were also captivating to look at. The paleoart used for each exhibit was beautifully done and guided the visitors to see what the dinosaurs may have looked like when they were alive and moving around, just like they did millions of years ago. Another feature was the information plaque next to each exhibit.
Several of the specimens featured were relatives of much better-known dinosaurs from North America. American dinosaurs such as Triceratops may have a bigger profile with the general public than their Asian ancestor Protoceratops, but to a palaeontologist, it was the “first horned face” from Mongolia, that was the by far the most significant in terms of the amount of fossil material to study. They were small, inoffensive, horned and frilled dinosaurs that were mostly famous for being on the lunch menu of the theropods. It was believed that Protoceratops may have been the origin of the Griffin myth. The first written accounts of the Griffin-a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the wings and front legs of an eagle- appeared in Greece in the 7th century. The writers were elaborating on accounts by Scythian nomads, who came across the fossilised skeletons in the Gobi Desert.
The most intimidating feature of these gentle dinosaurs were their teeth, beak and jaws which were used to clip, tear and chew the tough vegetation in its arid and unforgiving Central Asian habitat. To accommodate these, the skulls were quite comically large compared to the rest of its body, giving it a distinctively ‘top-heavy’ profile. Due to their pig-like proportions and lack of defensive capabilities, they travelled in herds of hundreds to keep safe from the hungry raptors and oviraptorosaurs.
I particularly enjoyed the Mamenchisaurus and Sinraptor skeletons as they gave you a fantastic insight to how big some dinosaurs really were. It was a nice touch to add a mirror next to the towering display so visitors could become fully immersed with the size of the whole animal. I also like how you could go up to the banisters and looked down on most of the Mamenchisaurus and the Sinraptor. It added to the shock and awe of how large these dinosaurs really were.
Sinraptor, which meant Chinese raptor’ was first discovered by a joint Chinese and Canadian expedition in the Shishugou Formation of China in 1987. A formidable hunter, it was built to terrorize the herbivores of mid-Jurassic China. They were likely one of the alpha predators in its environment. Like other allosaurs, they hunted in packs to bring down larger game. An interesting fact was the raised tail as the body was held and horizontally and it stood on two feet without requiring support from the tail.
Guanlong lived in China approximately 155 –160 million years ago during the late Jurassic period. It was known for its elaborate head crest, the inspiration for its name Xu Xing which meant ‘crown lizard.’ This crest rose up from the snout between the nostrils and eyes and curved over in an arc above the back of the skull. Paleontologists had studied the crest and determined that it must had used for display because it was too weak to had been used in combat or defense. Since it was only for display, it was likely that it changed colours over time during mating season.
This dinosaur had been called the earliest tyrannosaur ever found. The jaws and teeth suggested that it was a carnivore. But its small size meant that it went after smaller prey and a scavenger, eating leftovers from bigger carnivores of the time. The Guanlong was the only dinosaur that bore a close resemblance to both lizards, as well as birds due to their fur-like feathers and a lizard backbone. .
Lufengosaurus, meaning Lufeng Lizard was discovered in 1943. It had the honour of being the first dinosaur to ever assembled and mounted for display in China. It roamed in the Yunnan Province during the Jurassic period, nearly 200 millions years ago. The long-necked plant eater was the biggest around at the time, at 30 feet long. This strange dinosaur had large powerful hind legs and smaller arm-like front legs. With a broad snout and mouth filled with closely serrated teeth confirmed it to have lived on a diet of leaves. It had sharp claws, particularly on the thumb, which was thought to had been used for defense or for raking foliage from trees.
It was on the next floor when we came across real jaw-dropping moments when we saw some of the exquisitely preserved fossils of feathered dinosaurs. These remarkable fossils, most of which were more than 100 million-years-old, provided the “smoking gun”, linking the birds to the Dinosauria. The ground shakers such as the huge Mamenchisaurus skeleton were simply awesome, but these were mind-blowing.
Check out the amazing Microraptor, a 125 million year old four-winged flying dinosaur. Microraptor was a small feathered dinosaur with an amazing story. It was one of the 300 fossils found to date that hinted at the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs. Its fore and hind legs were covered in long feathers designed for flight. These were true flight feathers as seen in modern birds. Less than a metre long and possessing a claw designed for climbing, Microraptor was at home in the forests of China.
Having climbed high into a tree, it would only had been capable of gliding from tree to tree by spreading its limbs to form two pairs of rudimentary wings. This ability helped it pursued prey or escaped an enemy. It was vulnerable in the ground as the rest of its body was thickly covered in plumage as well, and a large, fan-like array of feathers also surrounded the end of its tail. its These long feathers made it clumsy when moving.
When the fossil of this Oviraptor was unearthed in 1923 in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, it was sitting atop a clutch of fossilised eggs. The name was Latin for ‘egg taker’ or ‘egg seizer’ referring to the fact that the fossil was discovered on top of what was thought to be Protoceratops eggs. It was only in the 1990’s that showed the eggs in question belonged to the Oviraptor itself and that it was actually brooding its eggs when it died at the nest. What a huge misunderstanding. They should have changed its name after they found out that it was a mother minding her brood.
Oviraptor was one of the most bird-like of the theropod dinosaurs especially with its parrot-beak. Its rib cage displayed several features that were typical of birds, including a set of processes on each rib that kept the rib cage rigid. It had 2 long, well-developed hind limbs, each had 3 clawed fingers that were used to hold, rip and tear their prey which might be molluscs and crustaceans which it cracked open with its toothless beak. In lieu of teeth, they had spikes on the roof of their mouths.
Alongside the 3D models were original fossils, many of which were relatively recent discoveries in the last 20 years, and some as recent as 2015. These were perfectly preserved fossil birds still embedded in rocks. Some fossils still revealed soft tissues, which weren’t usually preserved in prehistoric reptile remains. Among them was the Confuciusornis, still preserved in layers of very finely-grained volcanic ash, enabling exquisite details from a specimen that lived 120 million years to be studied.
Nearby was the most recently described animal in the exhibition, the bizarre Yi qi (pronounced ee-chee), which was named just two years ago. Discovered in 2007 and named which meant ‘strange wings’ in Mandarin, it was the first dinosaur with strong evidence for having a skin membrane for a wing. The three-dimensional replica on display preserved astonishing detail about this little Theropod. The pigeon-sized Yi qi had downy feathers like a young bird and a huge novel elongated bone that jutted out from its writ called the styliform helped support the wing membranes which resembled those of a bat. It probably was an accomplished glider.
Beside it was the Wukongopterus, a genus of basal pterosaur found in Liaoning from the Daohugou Beds, of the Middle or Late Jurassic. It was unusual for having both an elongated neck and a long tail. It also had an uropatagium, a membrane between the hind legs. The genus name was derived from San Wukong, the Monkey King, the main hero of the Chinese classic novel ‘Journey to the West’, and a Latinised Greek pteron ‘wing’.
Dr Adam Smith from the Nottingham Natural History Museum and Exhibition and his team had also skilfully contributed to the informative story-telling aspect of the exhibition by including a selection of fossils and other objects from the Museum’s own collection. It was a no mean feat in itself, as the museum was one of the largest dedicated natural history museums in the UK with over 750,000 items, including some 40,000 genuine fossils. It was quite interesting to take a closer look at these ancient creatures such as trilobites and ammonites.
We had a vey quick browse around the museum. It was a bit unsettling for us to see a vast amount of stuffed animals that were once the rage. Although there were signs pointing out that the new collection was humane and no animals were actually harmed doesn’t make it right. They were not recent animals but a collection from the family at that time. Recreated in the style of a 1930s display, the Bird Gallery contained taxidermied Victorian birds and game heads. Many of the birds were collected in Ethiopia and Sudan by the 19th century Nottinghamshire explorer Mansfield Parkyns.
We also managed to see some parts of the house and one of them was the stunning Cassandra Room. The room focused on the first hundred years of Wollaton’s new hall from the 1580s. It was about a dramatic saga of the Willoughby family during those years, told through the eyes of Cassandra Willoughby, who arrived at the Hall to become its mistress in 1686 until her marriage in 1713 to her cousin, James Brydges, MP and paymaster of the forces.. Sir Francis Willoughby was her great, great grandfather. Cassandra, Duchess of Chandos (1670-1735) was the only daughter of Francis Willoughby the naturalist and his wife Emma, the daughter of Sir Henry Barnard. She’d overseen the restoration of the gardens and rebuilding of the house which had been empty since a fire in 1642.
Something that I did found out much later was that the Dilophosaurus sinensis and the Alexasaurus were housed in a separate building, the Nottingham Lakeside Arts building. Unfortunately, this separate building was not labelled very clearly, and we missed this part of the exhibition entirely!!! As we were about to wander around the grounds, we came across Hunter, the Sinraptor dinosaur who came out to play with the school children. He was a hit. The theme used for the event sums up what the exhibition was about perfectly, “Ground shakers to feathered flyers”, the transition between prehistoric dinosaurs into modern day ones. If you were after the usual ‘T-rex’ content that you could see everywhere, you will be disappointed because the exhibition was about the newer and lesser known dinosaurs.
We were walking down the steps towards the immaculately kept formal gardens and woodlands, when we heard the familiar roars and grunts that sounded like ‘a cross between a chainsaw and a burp’. We rushed towards the golf course and among the golfers were these handsome Red deer stags strutting about. A fence separated us from the golf course which was a shame but then Stags were aggressive during the rutting season. Some how, the golfers weren’t too bothered at all. I think they’d seen it all. We stood there watching one which was really full of testosterones coursing through every vein.
It was quite surreal to watch the Stags throwing back their heads to roar and showing off their thick necks and manes to their best advantage. The main vocalisation was bellowing, often several times a minute, combined with low grunts. These deep, guttural bellowing weren’t war cries but were seduction calls to the hinds. The sounds was suppose to bring the viable hinds into heat in readiness for mating. In the world of the Red deer, the most attractive stags were the ones that roared the loudest and the most often. There were a few hinds around but they weren’t interested. This one was left lip curling, as he accessed the pheromones that laid heavy in the air.
He kept on calling and calling, while marking his territory, creating rutting stand and thrashing the grass which wouldn’t be popular with the golfers. I bet the grounds-men were constantly filling up these holes. We also watched the stag thrashing the ground so that the vegetation was caught up in his antlers and made them looked larger. There was the making of scrapes and wallows in which he churned the ground, then urinating in the quagmire and rolling in the resultant mess. It apparently made them more attractive to the ladies. He seemed content to do his work sitting down, allowing his heavy bellows to announce his presence. After more bellowing, he went off to sleep. What an anti-climax.
Finally, we managed to check out the rest of the very beautiful compound. There was a lot of people about enjoying the sunshine. The rain had stopped and the sun came out. A huge flock of Canada Geese were munching their way through the manicured lawns moving in an orderly manner They were particularly drawn to lawns because they could digest the grass easily and they also had a wide, unobstructed view of any approaching predators. Apart from the lawn, they also ate aquatic vegetation, roots, young sprouts, grain and corn.
We heard more bellowing and in the middle of the field, a pair of testosterone-charged stags with thickened manes and dripping musk which made a fearsome sight were eyeing each other. They were taking turns to roar with muscles rippling and breath billowing, walking in parallel, chest out strutting their stuff in a defiant show of strength. The roars that ricochet were deliberate, full of intent and threatening territorial. They even moved differently, adopting a loping trot. We were spell bounded and waited for some action but not today.
Actually fights between stags were infrequently witnessed. More often sounds, displays, postures and chases were sufficient to settle disputes. These antlers were impressive weapons and could inflict serious injury, or fatal wounds on a rival, so these battles weren’t to be taken lightly and were avoided if at all possible. Fighting were only between stags of familiar size that couldn’t assess dominance by any of the other means. In the meantime, there was a great deal of roaring, posturing and running around in small circles. Fortunately, a herd of hinds came into view and one of the stag went after it. The other stag continued bellowing and having a fight with the ground that the vegetation was caught up in his antlers. We left him alone.
We walked towards the lake and was greeted by a pair of Egyptian geese. This was the first time I got so close to these pale brown and grey goose, that I could see the distinctive dark brown and eye patches that made them looked like wearing dark glasses. Related to the Shelduck and a native of North Africa, they were introduced as an ornamental bird in the late 17th century and had escaped into the wild, successfully breeding in a feral state. They were officially declared a pest in 2009 but you still needed a legitimate reason under the general license to kill them.
An elderly couple who was walking by the lake saw them and started calling ‘Hensel’ and ‘Gretel’. And off they flew with loud calls that had a distinctive braying quality. During flight, when their wings were fully spread, the contrasting white wing patches was very conspicuous. They must be residents here as the couple was very familiar with them. They brought along a big plastic of bread pieces and started scattering them on the ground. The rest of the birds, ducks and waders tucked in too. We don’t have the heart to tell them that feeding bread to the ducks were damaging to their health.
We changed our mind about walking around the lake because we were exhausted and it had been a long day. We made plans to visit again next week when the rutting was its peak. We’d a last look at the house with the Stag still bellowing from time to time. We walked through the woodland when we saw a herd of hinds with young. Suddenly, we heard loud shrieks followed by a flash of green zooming past our head and a couple of crows chasing after it. It was a Ring-necked Parakeet, our first sighting ever and that definitely confirmed our next visit.
A week later, we fulfilled our promise and so did hundreds of other visitors. Oops!!! When we arrived at the entrance, there was a queue to get in and the first 2 car-parks were already full. There was a small fair nearby. We continued on and had to park at an overflow car-park. When I was in the waiting in the queue to get the parking ticket, I asked what was going on. It was the end of the school holidays and everyone wanted to enjoy their last day out with their family. There were also orienteering and running clubs out and about and dog-walkers. That don’t sound good.
We walked through the woodlands again and saw small herds of hinds with young feeding under the trees. They were very mobile especially when a few dogs were off-leash. We headed straight to the main field where a single Red Stag was having a rest. He was either an elderly stag or an exhausted stag having a rest, Stags lose condition rapidly during the rut, and were completely exhausted at the close of it. After the rut, dominant males lost 20% of their body weight. Now, was the time to recover from their amorous exertions, which meant trying to recover on sleep, putting their body fat on and going off to lick their wounds, which they’d sustained from fighting rivals.
We left him alone but he was being harassed by the visitors who wanted a photograph with him. We were quite uncomfortable seeing the visitors getting too close but who are we to tell them off. We quickly made our way to the lake to do our walk. But we changed our minds seeing the number of people walking, running and unleashed dogs chasing everything into the water. I think we have to come on a week day when hopefully everything would be calmer. We decided to walk along the fence that separated the golf course and we spotted several exhausted Red Stags resting under the shade. I think we can confirmed that we’d missed the peak of the rutting season.
We continued on and spied a Jay feeding on the acorn. As soon as it spotted us, it gave a mighty screaming call and we could see its distinctive flash of white on the rump when it flew off. A small, excitable flock of Long-tailed tits roved through the woods, their distinctively high-pitched twittering contact calls revealing their presence. Their fluffy pink, black and white plumage had been linked to a ball of cotton wool and this had given rise to the names ‘muffin’ and ‘mumruffin’.
Suddenly we heard the loud squawks and we quietly followed the calls. We saw a few magpies flying in and out of a tree and screeching loudly. We stood under the tree and strained our necks and eyes trying to spot something among the green leaves. Suddenly, I found the bird that we were looking for, the Ring-necked parakeet, very-well camouflaged amongst the green leaves. The magpies were still screeching trying to scare it off but it kept on preening. Suddenly, it noticed us under the tree and started checking us out but the magpies kept on flying at it forcing it to blend further into the trees.
The Ring-necked parakeet, also known as the Rose-ringed parakeet, was the UK’s only naturalised parrot. It became established in the wild in the 1970s after captive birds escaped or were released. Their native range was a broad belt of arid tropical countryside stretching from West Africa across lowland India south of the Himalayas, where they were common birds. Despite their tropical origin, these colourful beauties were able to cope with the British winters, especially in suburban parks, large gardens and orchards, where food supply was more reliable. They fed on a wide variety of fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, grains and household scraps.
The Parakeet was once thought of as a charming, exotic bird, with its lurid green feathers, long tail, red beak with black and pink ring round its neck, hence the name. And despite being an introduced species, these birds were protected in the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Now, their distinctive squawking calls were a harbinger of doom for the native birds. Aggressive, and a hole-nester, they were thought to drive out our native hole-nesting birds like wood-peckers and there were calls to cull them. In my opinion, if the government wanted to see an end to non-native species living in the UK, it should ban the importation and breeding of them for the pet trade.
We decided to turn back after the Parakeet refused to budge from its hiding position. The Park was getting busier as more and more people were pouring in. The Red Stag was still in the field and had moved to be in the sunshine. There was people queuing outside the renovated stable to get into the cafe. A herd of hinds with young were still feeding under the shaded trees. I planned to come again in December or perhaps on Christmas Day, if it was open, for a winter walk around the lakes. When we reached the car, the overflow car-park was already full. It was going to be a very busy day at the Park.
Apart from Wollaton Hall, we also checked out our favourite playground. We headed straight to Baldwin Hide and was chuffed to have spotted a perfectly formed Fly Agaric hidden among the stacks of wood by the footbridge. Usually, there were dozens sprouting here but I am pleased to have seen this one. This vibrant toadstool was poisonous and infamous for its psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties. It was commonly found on Christmas cards in Victorian and Edwardian times as a symbol of good luck and its colours were thought to have been the inspiration for Santa Claus’s red and white suit.
In the hide, we spotted a Heron sunning itself on the nearby branches. In the water, there were Shovellers, Cormorants, Teals, Coots and Mallards enjoying the autumnal sunshine. We heard a delightful, melodious trilling and a Grey wagtail flew in with its undulating flight and landed on the island, right beside the hide. We watched it surveying the island, frantically bobbing, ducking and dashing about, pumping its tails up and down as if for fun. After feeding at the water’s edge, it went in and had a wonderful time splashing about.
After a delicate shake, it flew on to the tree stump to dry out. Here, we can see that Grey wagtails were more colourful than their name suggested with slate grey upper parts and distinctive lemon-yellow undertail with pinkish-brown legs. The tail was noticeably longer than those of Pied and Yellow wagtails. They were very versatile predators, catching small dragonflies on the wing, a variety of insects off the ground, and fishing tadpoles out of shallow water. We left the Hide when it flew off.
Little trotty wagtail, he waddled in the mud,
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water-pudge, and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.
At East Marsh Hide, we spotted a Green Woodpecker digging for ants in the middle of the island. The largest of the three woodpeckers that bred in Britain, it used its strong beak to dig into the ant colonies and catching the ants, larvae and eggs with its exceptionally long and sticky tongue. It had a heavy looking body, short tail and a strong, long bill. Rain bird was another name for these parkland birds, as they were reputed to call more when rain was imminent. Their best known call was the far-carrying descending territorial song which gave them the old name of yaffle. On cue, it began to get darker, and we left before the heavens opened.
At home, we were delighted to spot the Coal Tit having a party with our regular feathered friends at the feeder. It had a distinctive grey back, black cap and a white patch at the back of its next. It was once called by Linneaus in his famous work of classification, Systema Naturae, when translated meant ‘black-headed titmouse with white nape, ash-grey back, white breast’. What a mouthful for Britain’s smallest British tit. I’d never seen it feeding but tend to dash in, grab a beakful and dash off again. The coal tit was the only member of its family that had learnt to make a larder so that when times get hard, they’d something in reserve.
In the house, we had Harlequin ladybirds hibernating in the spare bedroom. Every year, at the end of Autumn, they gathered at the same place, all huddled together in the crevices and then when it got colder vanished behind the shelves. The house wasn’t the best place for them to hibernate as they might wake up prematurely when the heating was on. If they do and there were no food about, they might starve to death. But since they were an invasive species, we let nature takes its course.
Then it was that time of year again when witchy costumes and plastic pumpkin pots haunt the shops. The casa was decked in skeletons, banners, buntings and pumpkins. I was so looking forward to the little witches, paper-bagged goblins, rubber-masked imps and bed-sheeted ghosts as they shouted ‘trick or treat’ come knocking if they were brave enough to walk up the very dark lane with a very old tree drooping in the middle . They would then be welcomed with open arms by the witch of the haunting house with toffees and candies in her special pumpkin pail, cackling with delight by her ghostly, creaking door.
Evolving from the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain meaning ‘summer’s end’, modern Halloween became less about literal ghosts and ghouls and more about costumes and candies. The Celts used the day to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and believed that this transition between the seasons was a bridge to the world of the dead. Over the millennia the day transitioned from a sombre pagan ritual to a day of merriment, costumes, parades and sweet treats for children and adults.
At work, my colleagues and I hung up a huge spider nearly covering the whole ceiling of our office. Ghostly stickers were on the windows that illuminated at night with buntings and skeletons draping everywhere. I am thinking of putting a charity tin in the office due to the number of people popping in to check out the decorations. We even had students peering into the office. I dressed in all black and my pumpkin tights was a hit. I also baked some treats and shared it with everyone during the tea break
Rice Krispie Treat monsters
For the Rice Krispie Treats:
- ¼ cup Butter
- 1 Bag Large Marshmallows (approximately 40 marshmallows)
- ½ teaspoon Vanilla Extract
- 6 cups Rice Krispies
For the Monster Coating:
- Candy Melts (Pink, Orange, Blue and Vibrant Green)
- Candy Eyes (Small, Medium and Large)
- Cooking Oil
For the Rice Krispie Treats:
- Spray a 9" x 13" baking pan with cooking spray.
- In a large pot, melt the butter over low heat until melted.
- Add the marshmallows and stir until completely melted and combined with the butter.
- Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract and the Rice Krispies. Stir to combine.
- Pour the mixture into the baking pan. Using a spatula sprayed with cooking spray gently press down until the pan is evenly coated.
- Allow to cool until firm.
For the Monster Coating:
- Melt 1 cup of candy melts in a small bowl in the microwave at 50% power for 1 minute. Stir and then continue microwaving at 50% power for 30 seconds at a time until completely melted.
- Add ½ teaspoon to 2 teaspoons cooking oil to the melted candy melts and stir to combine.
- Dip the Rice Krispie Treats in the candy melts and set on parchment paper.
- Gently press the candy eyes into the candy melt coating to create your monster faces. Gently push the eyes slightly up towards the top of the monster's "head" to create upper eye lids.
- Allow to cool at room temperature for 40 minutes or until candy melts have completely hardened.
- Bonn Appettit.
‘October was always the least dependable of months … full of ghosts and shadows'.’