by Heather Elvidge
In the manner of a pantomime villain, the three-week heatwave vanished in a clap of thunder. A good thing, too – the downside of extreme heat is wildfires, drought, and stressed wildlife.
So it’s back to average summer temperatures, and a mix of sunshine and showers. Usually we’d be seeing more butterflies now – little brown ringlets flitting among the bramble flowers, or small tortoiseshells sipping nectar from the flowers of lavender and red valerian. But this has not been a normal year.
With luck, two larger butterflies should be on the wing soon. Peacock caterpillars dine on nettles, and the adults emerge from the chrysalis during August. There’s no mistaking the peacock with its staring, misty blue eyespots. But first out is often the comma, which has a ragged edge to its mottled, russet wings.
With spring said to be the coldest for 50 years, things have been tough for butterflies. The charity Butterfly Conservation is keen to see if populations recover during the summer. If you’d like to help with its Big Butterfly Count, visit www.butterfly-conservation.org where there’s also a chart to aid identification.
In the past, the transformation from earthly caterpillar to winged beauty made butterflies and moths symbols of the soul. In Yorkshire, they were said to be the souls of babies who had died before being baptised.
However, most of the recorded folklore involved bad luck, at least for the butterflies. Some said the first one seen each year should be crushed, so your enemies would suffer a similar fate. White butterflies were dubbed “papishes” and hunted by gangs of boys, while red butterflies were targeted in the Scottish Borders, in case they were the soul of a witch.
Thankfully, one belief didn’t involve killing. If your first butterfly were white, then you’d eat white bread for the rest of the year; in other words, you’d be blessed with money to buy fine food. But if the first butterfly happened to be brown, then humble brown bread was your lot for another year.
Fruit-bearing trees and shrubs are having a bumper year, so hopes are high for a record-breaking berry at Egton Bridge’s Old Gooseberry Show. First held in 1800, this show is the oldest surviving example of a nineteenth-century craze.
In those days only wealthy folk could afford exotic fruits, which meant the gooseberry was king. Enthusiasts formed clubs to swap growing tips and inevitably, stage competitions.
The First World War saw off many of the old gooseberry clubs, yet the secrets of the monster berry were preserved in the Esk Valley.
Sizes have increased so much that today’s champs are double the weight of winners from the 1820s. In 2009, Bryan Nellist set an official World Record of 35 drams with his “Woodpecker” gooseberry. (In case you’re wondering, there are 16 drams to one ounce.)
If you’re intrigued by the world of Big Berry, then head for Egton Bridge on August 6.
The show, in St Hedda’s Church School Room, opens to the public at 2pm. There’ll be music in the afternoon, and two pubs within walking distance. It could be the perfect day out.