Corinna Downes spent much of her life as a headmaster's secretary and full time mother, bringing up her two daughters. Then she met the director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, and her world was never the same again.
My mother can oft be heard to say, upon hearing
someone giggling, ‘he/she has spied a titter’s nest and is laughing at the
eggs’. I cannot find any definitive reference
to this, but have found several clues
(perhaps). For example, one of the several collective
nouns for magpies is a tittering.
often alluded to in phrases of this sort, for example, lion's share, dog's
breakfast, bird's-eye view etc. Of
course, this one is different, in that mares don't make nests - the allusion
was meant to be comically ironic. That humour is reflected in several of the
early citations of 'mare's nest' (or horse's nest, as some early references
have it), which refer directly to laughter, for example, John Fletcher's
Jacobean tragedy Bonduca, circa. 1613
Why dost thou
laugh? What Mares nest hast thou found?
The joke was
pushed further by Dr. [Jonathan] Swift, in the play Miscellanies, 1751:
What! Have you
found a mare's nest, and laugh at the eggs?”
Or is it perhaps just one of those old
lines quoted by someone such as Frankie Howerd?
His well-known “Oooh no missus, titter ye not” doesn’t really have any
connection as such, but somehow I can just hear him saying “Oooh missus, he has
spied a titter’s nest and is laughing at the eggs”.
So, is there anyone else out there who
has heard of this saying? And if so, do they know from whence it originated?
I came across this old photo taken – I think – on Redondo Pier, Southern California back in the late 1990s. It would appear that I am chatting to the seagull about the notice. Maybe we were wondering when we could expect to see the arrival of those oft-celebrated fish on bicycles. Perhaps after their annual ride around the pier?
We – that is Jon, Pru and I - had left Woolsery on a bright,
blue-skied, cotton-clouded, spring Sunday morning. Our mission? To visit a bird auction in Northam, visit
Northam Burrows to do a spot of wader-hunting, call in at Asda to purchase some
provender, and then on to Huddisford Woods to take Pru for a walk, while
visiting the frog spawn we had been noting for the past few weeks. We also wanted to take a look at some of the
well-used animal track-ways that we were keeping an eye on.
The auction was
being held in the village community centre, its main eye-catching feature
(apart from the birds of course) being a
huge, magnificently painted galleon in full sail adorning the back wall. Amongst the frightened budgies was an
assortment of equally worried-looking avian specimens. We left Pru in the car, obviously, but she
was oblivious to our departure, as she was too busy being briefly occupied in
announcing her presence to a rather splendid-looking female basset hound, whose
owner was taking her for a short perambulation around the grassy area of the
car park, whilst her husband (I assume) unloaded more feathered exhibits from the
boot of his car.
There seemed to be
an ongoing skyward battle between the sun and mist – every so often the former
seemed to win and shine through, its reign soon usurped by the grey miasma. By the time we got to Northam Burrows, the
latter had definitely won the day – the whole place was covered in an eerie
blanket of the stuff. It was creepy. It swirled around like a hundred wraiths,
wrapping itself around bushes and clumps of grass, leaving tiny droplets of
water against webs spun by conscientious spiders. There were a few golfers about, and a few
people walking their dogs, or just themselves, and a small amount of through
traffic, but the place seemed devoid of bird-life; the only other beings to be
seen being the various horses and ponies that wander around the burrows,
chomping their way industriously from one part of the place to the other. A wooden post provided one pony with an ideal
implement on which to scratch its chin contentedly, the beast’s moult in full
flow by the look of its rather dishevelled coat. From out of the mist came shapes - odd
distorted shapes – that once becoming closer showed themselves as nothing more
than a person wearing a stiff, water-proof jacket, its unbending angles no
longer taking on the appearance of something completely different and indefinable.
The tide was out, and whilst you could see the defined tracks of several birds
making their soggy way across the pale brown mudflats, we only saw one herring gull and two other gulls
of some description sitting on a rock, undefined due to their distance.
On the way back
across the burrows, trundling carefully and zig-zagging down the slightly
pot-holed road, we became virtual tail-end charlies at the end of a queue of
traffic.... a very odd situation to find oneself in such a weirdly desolate
place on a spring Sunday afternoon. It
was not until our car moved with the line, that we realised what the holdup
was. One of the horses, swathed in a
rather tatty looking brown blanket, had
taken it upon himself to stand stock still right in the middle of the already
narrow thoroughfare, forcing both lines of traffic to go alternately, and very cautiously, passed the animal. One wonders what was going through its mind
as it stood there – an equine traffic island – completely oblivious to the amusing
and not at all irritating disturbance it was causing. As we slowly moved passed it, I wound down the window
and it curiously turned its head and reached its soft muzzle in, a sad left eye
recognising the human form inside the metal box beside it. All this much to the consternation of Pru,
who was sitting in the boot space of the car where she has taken to watching where
she has been disappear into the distance behind her.
But the absence of
any interesting bird life was excitedly enlivened by the appearance, at the
last moment, of a little egret standing gracefully quite near the side of the
road. In my urgency to pull over I must
have confused the car behind somewhat as I accidentally indicated to go right
rather than left, but considering the other day I discovered that I had driven
all the way to Bideford in broad daylight with the main beam on, that was
nothing in comparison. Besides, we were only travelling at around 5 mph. Jon managed to snap a picture of the bird
just as it took flight, and it has become another name on the ever-growing list
of birds spotted out-and-about with Jon and his camera.
typical supermarket on the afternoon of the seventh day; nothing much to talk
about, nothing much to see, and not a
lot of cheapo, reduced-to-clear goods to be purchased either.
On then to
Huddisford Woods, where Pru could have her constitutional, and where we found that
‘our’ tadpoles had hatched and were wriggling around enthusiastically. Such bigheads, those pollywiggles. The recent wet weather had done wonders for
the track-ways....deer prints were clear as day and so were a few other large
prints; the wet earth making an excellent medium for indentation.
By the time we got
home, the mist had won the battle for supremacy over this part of Devon and
whilst the day had begun with a promise of warm weather on the horizon, the
late afternoon sent a completely different message. Don’t throw out the thermal underwear quite