The truth about Britain’s parakeets

To gasps of genuine astonishment from the audience, he showed slides of objects so pristine in their gold and garnet glory...

Pesky parakeets

In this issue of Sherds, we will revisit some past stories and report on subsequent developments, starting with ring-necked parakeets – or ‘squawkers’, as they have come to be known in popular parlance. Since Sherds first wrote about the mysterious origins and rapid spread of parakeets in the city parks of the UK (see CA 312), they have extended their range even further and are now said to number in excess of 40,000 birds. They are being compared to grey squirrels for their ability to outcompete native bats and birds for food and nesting sites, and the threat that they pose to fruit growers is so serious that the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs is now considering a cull.

Numerous theories have been aired about the origin of Britain’s feral parakeets: that they escaped from pet shops or aviaries, or from Ealing Studios during the filming of The African Queen, or that they were deliberately released by Jimi Hendrix in Carnaby Street sometime in the 1960s. In fact, they have been in Britain since the mid-19th century and researchers from Queen Mary University, University College London, and Goldsmiths, University of London, have shown that today’s populations do not derive from a single ‘release event’, but from multiple releases.

LEFT Ring-necked parakeets have become a potentially dangerous invasive species in Britain, outcompeting local animals for food and nesting sites.
Ring-necked parakeets have become a potentially dangerous invasive species in Britain, outcompeting local animals for food and nesting sites. Photo: TheOtherKev.

These reached a peak during outbreaks of the pneumonia-like disease psittacosis, also known as ‘parrot fever’, in 1929-1931 and 1952. The disease is spread by infected birds – especially members of the parrot family. Sarah Elizabeth Cox, from Goldsmiths, announcing the conclusions from their study, said that newspaper reports of people dying from psittacosis and calling on the government to ‘stop imports of danger parrots’ frightened parakeet owners into letting their birds go. ‘If you were told you were at risk being near one, it would be much easier to let it out the window than to destroy it’, she said.

Medieval mobile homes

Sherds has observed on several occasions in the past that monarchs have not always enjoyed the luxury of a settled palatial home with all mod cons, and that many medieval monarchs lived a largely peripatetic existence, always on the road and often camping in temporary tented accommodation or prefabricated timber constructions that could be dismantled and transported by baggage train. Christopher Taylor, author and former Head of Archaeological Survey at the English Royal Commission, has sent Sherds an offprint of a paper that he wrote on the history and archaeology of temporary medieval camps that was published in the Landscape History journal (Volume 40, Issue 2, October 2019).

Chris points to the ample literary evidence for temporary settlements associated with battles, sieges, tournaments, hunting, and political and diplomatic meetings, or to provide brief accommodation in areas that lacked suitable lodgings. Archaeological evidence is much harder to find, not least because the kind of small embanked enclosures that are most likely to have marked such sites are one of the commonest types of earthwork in Britain. Then, in what he modestly describes as an exercise based on ‘many guesses, wild surmises, and perhaps misguided analysis’, he proceeds to identify the possible site of one of Edward I’s temporary camps of 1284. This is recorded in a Wardrobe Account entry for that year, which mentions payments to William de Bassihawe, tentmaker, and to James de Stafford, ‘for the wages of 6 diggers or trenchers digging round the king’s chamber and around the tents and pavilions’ during the king’s victory journey through Wales after his defeat of the Welsh in 1283.

Appropriating Welsh history

The king and his court journeyed from Chester to Bristol over a period of nine months, from March to Christmas, visiting the castles (now World Heritage sites) whose construction he had ordered. He also took in Roman and Arthurian sites, and hosted a series of Round Table pageants, featuring Arthurian props and ceremonies along with military contests. Chris argues convincingly that one such Round Table was held in May 1284 at the well-preserved Roman military complex at Tomen y Mur (see CA 370). The stone-walled Roman fort had already been used as a quarry for the material used by Edward’s military engineers to build Harlech Castle, 14km to the south-west.

photo: Aerial-Cam,
Tomen y Mur is a Roman military complex near Trawsfynydd in the Snowdonia National Park. It includes what has previously been considered a small amphitheatre, but could this actually be the remains of Edward I’s encampment? Photo: Aerial-Cam,

An ovoid enclosure at Tomen y Mur has long been interpreted as an amphitheatre but, as Chris points out, it is too small and there is no other example of an auxiliary fort in Britain with an amphitheatre attached. Instead, he suggests that the enclosure is the site of the llys (royal palace or court) of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the princely ruler of this part of Wales, and his beautiful but adulterous wife Blodeuedd (the name means ‘flower-faced’). She conspired with her lover to kill her husband and, when he was magically restored to life, she was turned into an owl and condemned never again to see the daylight. The story is told in Book 4 of the Mabinogion (compiled in the 12th and 13th centuries), and was the inspiration for Alan Garner’s novel The Owl Service.

Tomen y Mur had great resonance for a king who sought to associate himself with the mythical history of Wales and who was probably familiar with the tales in the Mabinogion. Chris reckons that James de Stafford’s team of diggers were not numerous enough, nor paid enough, to construct the enclosure bank and ditch from scratch. Instead they probably heightened and strengthened the banks of that early medieval princely residence, from whose heights Edward I addressed the members of his Round Table and watched the tournament being played out on the ancient Roman parade ground below.

Alan Sorrell’s archaeological archive

Alan Sorrell (1904-1974), the artist and pioneering archaeological illustrator, produced memorable reconstructions of both Harlech Castle and the nearby Roman fort of Segontium. His work has often featured in this magazine (see, for example, CA 285), but the ownership of his archaeological archive has long hung in the balance. Now Sherds learns that his 240 book illustrations, 140 working drawings, 26 sketchbooks, 20 diaries, and much correspondence with the leading archaeologists of his day have been purchased by the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Professor Eleanor Standley, Curator of Medieval Archaeology, says that the archive ‘provides a window into the collaborative process between Sorrell and a large number of influential archaeologists of the 20th century’. The Museum now faces the challenge of raising the necessary funds for the cataloguing and conservation of the collection, which will also be digitised for online access and made available for viewing at the Museum’s Von Bothmer Study Centre.

The Dig

Sherds has a vivid memory of attending a Society of Antiquaries lecture in 1973 at which Rupert Bruce-Mitford, surrounded by a bevy of young conservationists from the British Museum, revealed the results of some 20 years of painstaking work to clean and conserve the finds from Sutton Hoo. To gasps of genuine astonishment from the audience, he showed slides of objects so pristine in their gold and garnet glory that they could have been mistaken for modern replicas. It was the first time that the finds from the ship burial had been seen in public since their excavation in 1939, and the world had forgotten just how well-preserved the great gold buckle and the purse lid were, even after 1,300 years in the ground.

The story of their discovery is told in a newly released Netflix movie called The Dig, based on John Preston’s novel of the same name (see p.63). The film goes to great lengths to achieve authenticity, not least in Ralph Fiennes’ pitch-perfect portrayal of Basil Brown, the original excavator of the site. Fiennes not only looks remarkably like Brown as depicted in photographs of the original excavation, but also manages to speak in what, to a non-Suffolker, sounds like a convincingly genuine Suffolk accent.

One detail in the film departs utterly from the truth, however. Tranmer House – the rather plain Edwardian home of Edith Pretty that was given to the National Trust in 1998 and now houses displays explaining the history of the site (CA 355) – was rejected as a film location in favour of a grand Lutyens-esque property whose stunning Arts and Crafts interiors form the background to much of the film’s indoor action. Where is this house? Sherds has utterly failed to track it down in any of his books on Edwardian architecture, and perhaps more than one property was used. Since much of the film was shot not in Suffolk, but in Shackleton, Surrey, it may well be located in the vicinity of Guildford. Readers, do enjoy the film, and let us know if you recognise this very attractive house.