In the short time I’ve been blogging I’ve never “shown” any of my own commercial writing. Today I’m going to make an exception partly because I revisited the place in the article over the weekend and partly because I have a weakness for English eccentrics.
Sir Charles Waterton was certainly eccentric and yet many of his so-called eccentricities led him to become one of the earliest environmentalists. What follows is part 1 and I give you advance warning part 2 comes tomorrow. I hope you enjoy it.
Sir Charles Waterton
By any standard, Sir Charles Waterton was a most unusual man. Naturalist, explorer, conservationist and occasional practical joker – his passion for nature and travel took him from his home, Walton Hall in Yorkshire, to Europe and the Americas.
Although chiefly remembered as a great eccentric, Waterton was also a pioneer environmentalist, creating, in the park around his home, the first nature reserve and fighting one of the earliest battles against the pollution from rapidly growing local industry.
Born in 1782 into a devout Catholic family, Waterton did not have the usual opportunities open to him that a man of his class would normally enjoy. As a non-Conformist, he was unable to hold any public office, army commission or attend an English university. So, after completing his education abroad, Waterton began a series of what he called “Wanderings” in British Guyana and North America.
During these travels, he captured the local flora and fauna not only recording them in his notebooks but also hunting and killing specimens to take back to Walton Hall. Over time, he amassed a large collection for which he developed new methods of preservation and taxidermy. Many of the specimens are still in excellent condition, housed in Wakefield Museum.
On returning from his travels in 1813, Waterton appears to have experienced an epiphany in his relationship with wildlife and the environment. He proceeded to turn the park and lake around Walton Hall into a wildlife reserve, permitting no animal to be hunted or shot, (except the brown rat for which he had an acute antipathy) and excluding no animal except the fox and badger. He states in one of his essays, “having suffered myself and learned mercy, I broke in pieces the penal laws which the knavery of the gamekeeper and the lamentable ignorance of other servants had hitherto put in force”.
Waterton nursed the old trees on his estate, keeping them standing when most would have felled them. He planted holly hedges and ivy for nesting sites and created a “quarry face” to encourage sand martins. Wildfowl were enticed back to the lake surrounding the Hall. However, his most ambitious project was to build a high stone wall enclosing the park and creating a sanctuary not only for wildlife but also for himself.
If Waterton thought he could now lead a settled life he had a rude awakening. He was already acutely aware of the impact of growing industrialisation in the country around him, but events were to bring it right to his doorstep…(to be continued)