The summers of 1947 and 1948
20 June 1947
20 June to 28 June 1947 and 14 June to 30 September 1948
Mary spent at least part of her summer holidays during these two years on some of the Welsh islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire. We know that research Mary conducted on 10 July 1948 contributed to her journal article ‘An ecological account of the vegetation of Grassholm Island, Pembrokeshire’ published in the Journal of Ecology, vol. 41, 1953, and, fortunately, we have Mary’s holiday journal from her 1947 visit to Skokholm. Here are some excerpts from that diary:
Friday 20 June 1947
After a hurried scuttle round the lower regions of the Marine Hotel [Mary’s student accommodation in Aberystwyth] at 5.30am in search of eggs to boil for our breakfast, Monica and I set off on the early train for Haverfordwest via Carmarthen. For my part the week ahead was to be one long scuttle round after eggs but of a very different and more exciting kind than those laid by the unenterprising domestic fowl …
Saturday 21 June 1947
The five of us at Dale who were due to sail for the island this morning rose to a ‘light’ breakfast at 7am with promise of a larger meal to come when we reached our destination …
The crossing was good though choppy enough to be interesting, especially as we came through the tide race off St Anne’s Head. What with the wooded promontories giving way later to the more severe cliffs facing on to the open sea and the long low shape of the island growing ever larger before us there was plenty to interest us even had it not been for the bird flocks which came about us in greater numbers as we approached their island sanctuary …
Razorbills, oystercatchers and lesser black-backed and herring gulls joined us soon after we left the haven but not until we were approaching their homeland did the puffins come forth to meet us. They skimmed low over the water beside us, their ridiculously large red feet trailing behind, or rode the waves and goggled at us clownishly before diving beneath the surface …
Despite the comparative comfort of our crossing the sea was yet rough enough to prevent our making an orderly landing at the one and only ‘quay’! It was half tide and great waves alternately submerging and exposing the stone steps of the quay made a close approach impossible so we stepped gingerly into the dinghy which had stood on its tail behind us during the crossing and edged our way gently, and with much shouting to those onshore, into a cranny of the rocks. Here we were bade to leap on to a sloping rock as well as we may and then form a human chain to pass up the stores. And so I set foot on this little Atlantic island that had until now been a ‘Dream Island’ indeed, only accessible, I thought to the elect and chosen few …
As we proceeded on our tour of initiation the warden [Peter Conder] spotted a half grown gull chick near sea level in Mad Bay [shown below]. This, he decided, must be ringed, so down the steep cliff scrambled eight or nine previously sane adults after this one poor morsel of bone and feathers. Mad Bay they called it, perhaps it was well named, but then had any incident from this crazy week been enacted out of its context it would be like enough to cause amusement among the more prosaic members of our too civilised world.
… I fell to grubbing down the clifftop holes for puffins but got so severely bitten for my pains by several of the irate owners that I gave it up until such time as I was wearing a glove, and so proceeded to climb and sit and look. I was already suffering mental indigestion and wondered how soon it would be before all these wondrous sights became a mere commonplace. Things seemed all upside down here. Later in the day there was great excitement over a blackbird caught in a trap; during the whole week no-one saw a sparrow and yet such rare creatures as puffins and razorbills swarmed everywhere …
A puzzling contrivance under a little roof on the knoll at the back of the house [see photo at top of page, which shows, from left, Gordon Goodman, Mary, Peter Conder and the 'contrivance'] proved to be a pollen catcher. A sticky glass slide, which was the only part of the apparatus that mattered, was periodically changed and the used one sent to the botany department of the Museum of Wales where someone separated the pollen grains from the dust swept from the wheelhouse floor and examined the former. Recently they had found some pollen which had been wafted across the Atlantic from America …
It was eleven o’clock before I climbed the ship’s ladder to the ‘Angel Loft’ under the point of the roof and laid me down fully clothed on my pallet bed. All had received instruction to awaken the warden at 1am should they be conscious at this hour, in the hope that someone at least would be awake.
When I awoke it was pitch dark and I had no idea what the time might be but the air was filled with such an unearthly clamour that I knew it was high time I rose. I had never heard the manx shearwaters at play before but there was no mistaking that Mephistophelian din which sounded like a thousand devils let loose over the face of the island. [And then everyone went out to ring as many shearwaters as possible.]
Sunday 22 June 1947
Less than ten minutes after I had set foot on the island the previous day the warden had enquired whether I would be willing to do some work on the plant ecology of the island and, feeling most inadequate, I could do little but say I’d have a shot at it. As soon as ‘chores’ were completed this morning he gave me the low down on what was needed. Pre-war work here had been done almost exclusively on birds and, apart from a listing of species and production of a skeleton card index, nothing had been done on the flora. I went forth miserably with a pile of flora and reference books under my arm and a sea of ignorance swamping my intellect …
At dinner the warden asked if any brave spirits would care to accompany him on a visit to the stack. “One creeps across a swaying sixteen foot plank between sheer rock walls with the tide racing through far below … rather fun in fact” said he with one of his infectious, open air grins. We were not so sure but my two newly found friends from Bath and myself were determined not to be outdone by mere males … The crossing could only be made at very low tide but, just prior to our arrival on the scene, Peter had deemed the time ripe and he was just commencing, with two assistants, the hazardous descent with the sixteen foot plank [see photograph at bottom of page].
We descended to sea level and the first obstacle – a gully full of oarweed and ribbon weeds and what not, with the waves sweeping gently over the slippery boulders, which had to negotiated in order to attain the first islet. And thence up and over to the next gully, which could not be crossed without the aid of the plank. I think I must have chosen the wrong route. As I dropped the second sheer six-foot wall on to a ledge scarcely wide enough to accommodate my two feet, I wondered how on earth we should get back, although, in actual fact, the return journey was quite easy.
With a skill born of much practice the awkward sixteen-footer was placed diagonally across the twelve-foot chasm but, as we regarded the almost sheer wall of rock beyond, we decided that the plank was not the most hazardous part of the journey. Attitude is everything – we needed more cameras just then. As I could not refrain from remarking as I was half way over on one side of my seat and one foot, the other leg dangling, “there are ways and ways of crossing bridges”. However, being first across, I was able to enjoy the others’ sufferings far more than they had enjoyed mine … And all for the purpose of ringing two greater black-backed gull chicks …
[Later] One of our number was a famous Swedish doctor of botany, Dr Dahlbeck, a plant ecologist who specialised in maritime communities. This person, one of the most gentlemanly of his sex it has been my pleasure to meet, was head of the Swedish Nature Protection Society and a great figure on various international committees. He was on a flying visit only … This august personage was kind enough to take me under his wing and, on one four-hour stroll round the island on hands and knees, I learnt more botany from him than in many a month at college. My only regret was that my mind was not more absorbent as he expounded the whys and wherefores of the bit of turf on which we were spread-eagled.
Half way to the house this young Dr threw himself on the grass and motioned me beside him. He picked half a dozen blades of herbage, told me what they all were and why, in his high-pitched, lilting English. Several things, strangers to him, I was able to identify, dubious that I could tell one so great anything that he did not already know, but he looked them up in his book and nodded. Never have I been so grateful for the Latin names that seemed so tedious in my childhood. Popular English names serve little purpose when conversing with those from other countries.
Monday 23 June 1947
I was seated happily on a tussock with pencil and notebook and the water half way up my gumboots when I perceived the warden tearing across the island to me like one pursued. Realising that my presence was required I made in his direction to find that there was a boat in South Haven waiting to take us to Skomer Isle … we got through and into the sheltered waters under the Wick. Here, on this great grey cliff face which overhung so that we passed beneath it at times, was a never-to-be-forgotten sight of birds and more birds, until one wondered how they all found room to sit. It was a mixed colony and guillemots and kittiwakes with, so far as we could see, not a razorbill among them, although this bird was far commoner than either on Skokholm.
[Back on Skokholm] What was left of the evening I spent grubbing down puffin burrows with a party of six on the north coast … The puffin chicks we found were quite delightful, being clownish little objects swathed in black down and putting me in mind of a dodo.
Tuesday 24 June 1947
It rained on and off throughout the morning but not heavily enough to do more harm than hamper our movements with raincoat and gumboots. Razorbills occupied most of my energies as I worked up and down the strip of coast from South Haven to Crab Bay …
After dinner I was busy until four o’clock with maps and card indexes coping with bog flora. At four I met the warden, assistant warden and Julian for a bird count of the island. (Peter only held counts in what he termed ‘intelligent weeks’ so we felt flattered.) …
The oystercatchers had a horrid habit of flying past and settling in front of me so that they could be counted twice; shags and cormorants on distant rocks got themselves thoroughly mixed up; and, as the first striated brown bird popped out from beside me, I panicked, wondering whether I really knew a rock pipit from a meadow pipit … I was most relieved when we got back to the record books to find that my count was approximately the same as last time and therefore probably correct.
Thursday 26 June 1947
At three, seven of us set out on a bird count, this time to include a general estimation of the auk population (i.e. the puffins, razorbills and guillemots) … I enquired as to the resident bird population of the island. I was surprised with the magnitude of the forthcoming figures: Manx shearwaters 40,000, over 20,000 actually breeding birds; Puffins 40,000; Razorbills over 2000; Guillemots 250 [shown in photo at left]; Storm petrels 1200; Oystercatchers 120; Wheatears 30; both types of pipits [Rock and Meadow] about 80 each; Gulls: LBB 1600, Herring 600 and GBB 100.
Friday 27 June 1947
Morning on this wet island off the wet coast of Wales brought forth more rain but, colds or not, nobody stayed in today. I betook myself to East Pond where I waded back and forth gathering dripping weeds until I was thoroughly soaked, returning to the house to get them sorted and identified.
Handing the warden a yellow, black-spotted caterpillar in which he was interested as the oystercatchers were feeding on it, I discovered that I had made an important find in the caterpillar’s host plant. It was the creeping willow, only wild tree on the island (which had the sense to lie down instead of standing up in the wind), recorded by Lockley but ‘lost’ for the past eight years. We presumed that it must have gone underground for the war …
Soon after supper I managed to complete my card index of East Pond and then I went forth to enjoy my last evening with a puffin hook on the north coast. My previously handsome raincoat was coated with such a merry mixture of regurgitated fish, earth and manure that I had not the slightest qualms about wriggling through wet bracken and sliding on my tummy through muddy puddles of red earth. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed being really filthy.
Saturday 28 June 1947
We awoke to howling wind and rain and the joyful news from the lighthousekeepers that a gale warning had been issued. Nobody made the crossing in the teeth of a gale warning so we felt reasonably assured of a longer stay … Much to our disgust the fog cleared and we beheld the motor boat cutting a way through the waves towards us. Aboard her were Ronald Lockley and his wife Jill [and others]. The cargo, human and inanimate was changed over amid a welter of wet mackintoshes and instructions shouted above the noise of the tide, and we sat in the boat waiting to take off …
Part of the warden’s prophecy was right – we did get thoroughly wet in spite of the tarpaulins we swathed round ourselves, but we were by no means uncomfortable. It was the kind of sea which made you thrill to be alive – a fitting climax to that wild and primitive week where man seemed no longer a misfit with the earth and sea and sky which surrounded him … somehow I knew that I had not said ‘goodbye’ to Skokholm for good. Next year, perhaps later, but something told me that I should be there again some day.
And indeed Mary returned to Skokholm the following summer as her archive also includes photographs taken during Mary’s 1948 stay on Skokholm. The staff and students with whom Mary spent her early island summers include some very well-known names. Peter Conder (1919 – 1993), who later became the inspirational director of the RSPB, was warden of the Skokholm Bird Observatory from 1947-54. Dr Geoffrey Matthews went on to be director of the Wildfowl Trust in Slimbridge and later director of the IWRB (International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau). Gordon Goodman became a well-known ecologist, lecturing for some years in biology at the University of London and, in 1989, was appointed first director of the newly established government-run Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden.
Mary’s photographs provide a wonderful snapshot of island life in those days. Though time was undoubtedly spent surveying, researching and investigating various aspects of the island’s flora and fauna, there was also time for fun and frivolity. The caption for the image at the top of this page reads: Goody, me and warden Peter Conder by the pollen catcher on the Knoll.
Mary’s captions for the photographs above are as follows:
Me with Storm petrel [left] and Piglet, Peter Driver and Gordon Goodman at the bunkhouse door [right].
Mary’s captions for the photographs above are as follows:
Peter Conder returning from the Stockholm Stack [left] and Ron Williams and me with Sugarback, the lighthouse pony [right].