The school motto of Bristol Grammar School is a Victorian, Latin, pun. Ex spinis uvas, ‘from thorns to grapes’, is presumably supposed to describe the educational impact of years spent at the Grammar School but it also refers to the brothers Thorne, Robert and Nicholas, who were its founders in 1532. Geddit?
I spent a very pleasant weekend at a school reunion with a difference: in fact with two differences. First, although this was a group of people with whom I had learned Latin and Maths, and rugby and cricket, and something about growing up, the main thing we had in common was not academic or sporting but ornithological. The dozen or so of us were all members of the Bristol Grammar School Field Club (see Fighting for Birds pages 3-4); we had learned to identify birds together.
Second, although we did get together and enjoyed each others’ company (very much as far as I was concerned) the main purpose of our gathering was to thank, and to honour, one of the masters who had provided us with the opportunity to learn about birds at local sites such as Chew Valley Lake, Steart, the Somerset Levels and Slimbridge all those years ago. Two masters, Derek Lucas and Tony Warren, had been our main guides and mentors, and had driven a bunch of spotty teenage boys around in a minibus on alternate Sundays in term time.
A few years ago, Derek Lucas died and many of us, myself included, felt guilty that we hadn’t done much if anything to keep in touch since leaving school, and hadn’t made the effort to thank Derek (‘Mr Lucas’ still seems more appropriate) for the great start he had given us in our hobby of birding. So last weekend we gathered, a bunch of 50- and 60-year old grapes (or sultanas or raisins now) to say ‘thank you’ to Tony (‘Mr Warren’).
Appropriately enough we started at Chew Valley Lake on Saturday lunch time. There were a few people who I had never seen before, a few with whom I had kept in touch over the years but a majority whom I had not seen for between 40 and 35 years, since school or university. The plumage, in terms of hair length, coverage and/or colour may have changed but those subtle diagnostic features, the movement of the head or the extravagant waving of both hands, or the calls, were still very much the same. Identification was pretty easy. And it was striking that we had all aged, but none had changed very much. The critical components of jizz were very much intact.
We slipped back into the same roles as 40 years ago and the conversations were adult (fairly adult) versions of those of our youth. As we walked around Chew Valley Lake we chatted and we birded. We talked about birds seen here decades ago, and on other Field Club outings. How amazing it would have been to see a Little Egret or Hobby, or hear a Cetti’s Warbler, here in our youths, and how many more farmland birds there would have been. And different people recalled different moments, but as they did, the memories came back.
Tony, Mr Warren, left us young ones (ha ha!) to have a boozy meal together in Jamie’s at the top of Park Street, which we mostly remembered from ‘our days’ as George’s bookshop, and then we reassembled for more birding on the Levels the next morning (about which, more later), and then we had lunch in a pub before heading off on our separate ways.
Over lunch, Tony talked to us all about his memories of those days, and of Derek, and of trips that some of us remembered.
It was fun. I’m glad we did it. It was good to see each other again, although the fact that we had managed without each other for decades was clearly true, but it felt important that we had done something to show our individual and collective appreciation for the opportunity that we had all been given to get to know birds all that time ago.
My years at BGS were incredibly important to me. I had an eduction that propelled me to Cambridge and onwards into a career in science and then nature conservation. For that I will always be grateful. In some ways my school days turned me from a grape into a thorn, I think, or at least equipped me with an intellect and character to be a bit prickly at times.
But those BGS days also fostered a love of both birds, and the camaraderie of birders. I would not be able to tell the difference between a Garden Warbler and a Blackcap in song, were it not for those days. And I wouldn’t care to do so, if it weren’t for those days. Some of my school friends have remained as keen birders and some have lapsed; I think I could easily have guessed which would be which, and I don’t think any the less of those whose interests have headed off into other directions. But I am immensely glad that the sparks of interest that were present when I entered the Grammar School gates as a nervous 11-year old were fanned into flame in those days, and that they still burn brightly now.
Are today’s spotty teenagers having the same experience, I wonder? If they aren’t then I’m not sure they themselves will be any the less happy, but I do feel that society will be a bit poorer for the loss of that perspective. So, in case you are reading this Tony, Mr Warren, thank you again for all that you did for us, and for many others too.