Book review: Inn Search of Birds by John Lawton

ANYONE lucky enough to have seen one remembers that momentous first encounter with a wild golden eagle.

For RSPB vice-president Prof Sir John Lawton, it came in 1959 when he was 15 and on holiday with his parents and younger brother on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides

He writes: "I can still see the huge bird in my mind's eye. It blew me away."

This line is from Prof Sir John’s excellent new book, Inn Search of Birds.

As the title indicates, this natty and briskly-written paperback is an exploration of bird-related pub names and signage past and present

It is all fascinating material, but occasionally - to his credit - the author meanders off-message to reminisce about some of his best birding experiences.

For instance, his observations about the Bustard Inn (a building which is no longer a pub) on Salisbury Plain and its namesake in South Rauceby in Lincolnshire prompt him to reflect on his single encounter with the species.

"I have only ever seen great bustards once in the wild," he recalls. "It was in April, 1986, in the Kiskunsag National Park in Hungary with a birding friend and work colleague, Gabor Lovei.

"We watched from about a mile away, across a vast grassy plain, as five males displayed to four females - it is one of the most bizarre displays in the bird world."

Of his first viewing of a storm petrel, he writes: "It wasn't until the end of June 2001, 50 years after I first started seriously birding that I caught up with it on Skomer off the cast of Pembroke.

"We could also smell them - they have a pleasant, musty odour.

"Of course, you can see storm petrels out to sea during sea-watching sessions from land, as they pass close to the coast, or from a boat. It is just that I never encountered one."

This brings the author on to a now-demolished pub called The Stormy Petrel in Market Drayton, 50 miles from the sea in landlocked Staffordshire.

He notes: "The name may have had its origins not in a vagrant seabird but from the description of a person fond of strife and subsequently transferred into the bird by a previous owner or sign writer. We may never know."

Of the cormorant, which has a pub in Portchester, Hampshire named after it, the author is not kind having disliked ringing them when, in 1964, he was working as a National Trust warden in the Farne Islands off the Northumberland Coast.

"I slipped shin-deep into a gulley full of liquid cormorant excrement," he recalls.

"The smell was so bad I had to peg my shoes in a rockpool for several days after, scrubbing them for ages, and I still had to throw them away.

"I have never really liked the birds since."

Inn Search of Birds is full of anecdotes such as the above - plus more than a few puzzles for which answers are sought.

How is it, for instance, that on the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales at the entrance to Wensleydale, are four pubs, within a five-mile radius, all named after black swans?

And why do so few pubs in Scotland Wales, compared with England, have birds either in their names or their signage?

In his preface, Prof Sir John admits: "There are many areas in the story of pub birds that I do not understand.

"I see Inn Search of Birds as work in progress, to be picked up and re-worked by others to correct my mistakes and add to the sum of human knowledge."

Any room for improvement? Yes, the content might have been enriched if Prof Sir John had spoken to a few more landlords, bird sign artists and directors of pub-owning companies such as Batemans, Greene King or Youngs. Perhaps all that is for a later edition?

Superbly illustrated and with excellent indices, Inn Search of Birds is published at 18.99 by a go-ahead Caithness-based firm, Whittles Publishing  ( )