I’m on a mission to visit a different attraction every weekend, somewhere reasonably close to my neck of the woods. So far we’ve ‘done’ the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, the Harry Potter Studio Tour, Marwell Zoo and now The Hawk Conservancy Trust. The museum and zoo had been done once before but simply aeons ago.
Years ago, when the sons were very young, we went in for weekend outings big-time and used to traipse round National Trust country houses (not that the husband has any affinity at all for your average UK aristocrat’s house.) Or we’d try out industrial museums. One such Victorian museum, far away, up in the industrial bits of Yorkshire, so scared son no.1 (at the tender age of three or four) that I felt it should be re-named the House of Victorian Horrors, complete with a notice outside warning anyone of a certain height to steer clear of the place. It didn’t leave me untouched either. There’s nothing like a bit of Victoriana for putting the historic wind up you. They would go in for gigantic machines, full of teeth and claws, not to mention their equal fondness for gigantic, forbidding stuffed animals (also teeth and claws) in their hallways; and their obsession with dreary and depressing interior décor, stuffed to the gills with huge and sombre oak furniture, making every room feel like a funeral parlour. This museum was also full of narrow, winding corridors (lined with ominous paintings of Victorian nobodies, the kind where the eyes follow you and make the hairs stand up on your neck) connected to countless stairways filled with musty, dank air. I mean what was this museum thinking – really?
But how things have changed over the course of roughly 30 years. For your average touristy attraction now knows how to pull the visitors in and keep them there.
Yesterday we visited The Hawk Conservancy Trust near Andover. Our last visit here had been about 25 years ago, so we must have deemed it not worth going back to. I had a clear memory of walking past one line of hawks, eagles and a couple of owls, tethered to posts in the ground (some with hoods over their heads) and watching a flying event in a bog standard field. Apart from that there was very little else going on, and I don’t think it even had a café (cafés are an extremely important part of any of our days out; so much so that I think we go out just to sit in a café and stuff our collective faces.)
The Hawk Conservancy Trust was my idea (as are all our outings, being I’m the only truly invested party outings-wise) The husband is a real flight fanatic, so I thought: ‘at least he’ll be mildly interested in this one.’ He did a bit of falconry as a kid; always excitedly points out a hawk hovering at the side of a road when driving along and can’t get enough of Aircraft Investigation, which is nothing to do with the wonders of flight but rather its horrors, as it joyfully recreates plane crashes and gleefully relates how many hundreds of people were killed, and exactly how they kicked the bucket. And the husband wonders why I refuse to go anywhere in an aeroplane. Aircraft Investigation is not the only dodgy show the husband can’t get enough of. As mentioned before, he devours ‘true’ UFO stories, and ‘true’ Yeti stories, and something featuring a bloke who runs around naked in nearly every show (thus proving that survivalism and exhibitionism go hand in hand) whilst trying to find something to cover his rude bits with.
With memories of just one row of raptor birds (as they’re called) in my head and no café, we set off, got stuck in traffic (that’s another change from 30 years ago, so much more traffic) and arrived around 12 noon on a blisteringly hot day (as they’ve all been for days and days.) We paid a £14.90 entrance fee each which, as events unfolded, would turn out to be the BEST value for money for any attraction I’ve ever visited.
The Hawk Conservancy Trust is a charitable trust (the entrance fee included a charitable donation) whose focus now includes vultures. The vultures were nowhere to be seen at our last visit but are now a key attraction being an endangered species, due to being regularly poisoned by the kinds of people who kill elephants; and killed for their brains, by the kinds of people who believe that eating a vulture’s brain gives you the power to see into the future (we learned all this via a talk given by a guide at one of the flying events.) Our guide also informed us that vultures are hugely misunderstood, due to the way films and children’s books like to portray them. They are not ‘evil’ scavengers, but lovely, polite, sociable, funny (and quite naughty) friendly creatures, who also happen to mate for life……………Awwwww, went the crowd (that’s one way to get the charity giving punters on your side – absolutely nobody likes a two-timing vulture.)
On exiting the entrance/gift shop door it was a short walk to the first exhibit, a series of large enclosures (or ‘cages’) covered by high netting, variously filled with birdy inhabitants. whose names and pictures were mounted on notices on wooden fences. We looked in at vultures, all named, only I can’t remember – but sweet names along the lines of Bertie or Edward, so you wouldn’t think they were horrid vultures. There was a lone secretary bird stalking its ‘cage’, with a plume of quill-like feathers sticking out of the back of its head (hence its name it is thought, due to Victorian secretaries who used to run around with quills behind their ears) and its very long legs, doing a pretty good impression of one of John Cleese’s Ministry of Funny Walks.
Further on there was a row of striking Bald Eagles (here the husband became fully engaged as his childhood was spent in America) and we sat on a bench watching one of them open its wings and hold them out, to cool down from the heat. There were owls in a ‘cage,’ but they were all asleep (obviously) but what lovely, cutesy Harry Potter type owls they were. And then we marched over to one of the event arenas, the one we’d been to all those years before.
I’d researched when the flying events took place before our arrival. There had been a Wings of Africa event at 11 am, so we were too late for that. But we were in time for the vultures’ event and then, later on, the owls’ event. And this is the point where we noticed things had really been upgraded.
There are now three event arenas at the conservancy. One has been done out to resemble a British version of an African savannah. One is set in a place called Reg’s wild flower meadow and the third is a sort of medieval rural glade, complete with a miniature fake church at the bottom and several tombstones.
We’d queued up for the vultures’ event in the meadow in sweltering heat. This took the form of hanging about outside a rope which had been stretched across a section of the field. To its side was an original shepherd’s hut which now served as an ice cream van. So we nabbed some ice cream before entering the arena. Reg’s wild flower meadow turned out to be a gigantic field, full of wild flowers (pretty obvious really but not expected) with several large wooden posts dotted about and a wooden bench, all alone in the middle of it. To the left of the field was row upon row of wooden seats, laid out in a gentle curve and rising up to the top of a hillside. We got ourselves seated at the top but, after 10 minutes, I left the building (as it were) to go and sit at the side of the field beneath some trees; the heat was too intense.
Beyond this field lay a patchwork of British countryside that was so beautiful and so sort of other worldly that I felt I’d been transported to a different time and an utterly different place. Far, far away, in the middle of this green patchwork stood an imposing house on a hill. The only house for miles. Above it all there was a clear, stunningly blue sky.
At 2 pm the show got going. Our guide (female, very professional and mic’d up) regaled us with a potted history of the conservancy. Reg (he of the flower meadow) turned out to be the person who’d started the whole thing off. Reg had been a farmer and didn’t much like people (could get quite ratty with the visitors our guide said) so had created himself this meadow, where he could escape during the day, for a walk and a bit of peace, and return to the visitors all polite, pleasant and cheerful. ‘Sounds like a man after my own heart,’ thought I. She explained that the lone house was ‘London Lodge,’ also known as the house on the hill, but no further explanation was given. After much burbling she directed our eyes to the sky behind the arena and the seats. I only had to look left from my standing viewpoint at the right of the meadow, but the husband and son no.3, about a hundred yards away, had to turn completely around in their seats. ‘Look up,’ she said, ‘look up as far as you can see, can you see our first visitor?’ I looked up and saw a black dot circling high up in the sky (the birds all had names, as I mentioned before,which I can’t remember, but we’ll call this one Speeder) – ‘that’s Speeder, an endangered Griffon vulture!,’ our guide screeched excitedly (very much in the manner of a predatory bird actually) and he’s a 1,000 feet up in the air!! There were suitable exclamations from the masses on the benches. ‘And Cedric (Cedric was the young falconer, who was unbelievably called Cedric) is now going to call him down.
‘CAW, CAW, CAW,’ bellowed Cedric from his place in the meadow and, from 1,000 feet up, Speeder heard his flimsy human cry and began descending. Down he came, circling all the while until he was fully in view hurtling towards his audience, and ended by flying inches above their heads onto Cedric’s hand.
After imparting much information about the poor endangered Griffon vultures (who can reach heights of 37,000 feet) our guide informed us that the vulture flying team would now be making an appearance. Suddenly, right on cue, 5 large vultures flew in at low level, from the enclosures behind the arena, and swept up and over the audience’s heads to rest in the field. ‘Right,’ our guide said. ‘Some very important health and safety information. From now on be prepared to duck, and I mean to get your heads onto your knees!’ A trio of young falconers then appeared, one on top of the hill behind the benches and two at each side of the benches. They raised their arms and made calling noises. The vultures rose into the air, alighted at the side of each falconer, who motioned them to fly just inches above the audience’s heads. Backwards and forwards they went, rising each time so that they flew over the entire audience. This went on for about 10 minutes, whilst the audience became more and more enraptured by the raptors.
I looked at the husband and son no.3, high on the hill top, ducking their heads and laughing. Suddenly a heavily built middle-aged man came lurching towards me. ‘It’s sweltering out there,’ he managed to gasp and plonked himself down on the bench I was sitting on under a tree. ‘Yes it’s too hot,’ I mumbled. There was no reply, just heavy laborious breathing. Suddenly he leaned over (to be sick thought I? In which case I’d have chucked up too) but no, he opened a bottle of water and poured it over his very red bald head (no hat I noticed), his breathing getting heavier and heavier, while he uttered several low moans. ‘Please don’t have a heart attack,’ I inwardly bleated, ‘I can’t do first aid and I can’t phone for an ambulance either.’ He remained seated at my side in a sort of spread-eagled position. Five minutes later a very old lady appeared, in a t-shirt, shorts and baseball cap, hobbling her way to my bench, very thin and almost bent double due to a curve in her back. She was nearly speechless due to the heat. She sat down on my other side, breathing heavily and emitting a curious continual humming sound. ‘Please don’t keel over,’ I inwardly pleaded, gradually becoming more obsessed with the two nearly comatose people at my side, rather than with the birds filling the skies. I remedied the situation by escaping and standing underneath a beach tree.
The one hour display ended with a group of harrier hawks performing aerial acrobatics around the head of Cedric, the falconer, swinging his lure around his head and throwing bits of food up into the air, as our guide informed us of all the falconry terms that have entered the English language, such gems as: hoodwinked, to be kept in the dark, make a pass at. The hawks then flew gracefully around whilst stirring music emanated from sound speakers in the meadow. But it wasn’t over yet.
Our guide then instructed us to look towards the house on the hill. One of the bald eagles had been released at the start of the show, two miles away, and was now on its way back to the arena. We had to call out the moment we saw him. I spotted a black flying dot coming in between the house and a tree and inwardly shouted ‘there he is!’ The audience spotted him too and pretty soon he was approaching the end of the meadow. ‘Let’s play him in!’ our guide cried, and stirring film-type music filled the air as the bald eagle grew larger and larger and then flew directly at the crowd, swooped up onto the hill, turned and flew back down to Cedric in the meadow. And then the show was over.
I was curiously overcome with nameless emotions; the sort of thing I’d felt on our Disney World holiday many holiday moons ago, when watching their spectacular shows, and that’s when I understood why your average British tourist attraction is so much better than it used to be.
They’ve simply copied what the Americans do, which is to create a stunning ‘stage’ for your attraction and then fill that stage with emotional music.
The next flying event took place 45 minutes after the vulture one and was called Woodland Owls A Mystical Experience. We nipped to the café (there’s now a café only it’s called the Feathers Restaurant) and had a quick sandwich, being the kitchen had closed at 2, and then headed to the owls arena. This was a charming woodland glade, a mini-church about 12 feet high at one end, with a gravestone and stone cross in front of it. In the middle were large tree stumps, an oval wooden sculpture with a hole in the middle and ivy covered trees. Some of the trees had wooden ladders perched against their sides. Behind us a sound speaker blasted out what I referred to as Lord of the Rings type music. Son no.3 mentioned that one of the owls was called Tolkien, he’d seen him in his ‘cage’ when we came in. The lilting mystical music carried on whilst the wooden benches, arranged in a semi circle around the arena, gradually filled up. Then our next guide appeared, again female.
She explained that we were sitting in front of a church because owls were known for hanging around graveyards. In the past this led people to fear them, but we know that they’re just attracted to freshly dug earth. The show began with a tawny owl, called Charlie, who a local family had found by the side of a road and taken him home for 6 weeks. They’d kept him alive but had unfortunately caused him to forget that he was an owl, so he can never be released into the wild. He doesn’t know how to hunt, despite the falconers trying to teach him, and can only manage to catch a worm or an insect about twice a week. Little Charlie flew around the arena, and in and out of the hole in the sculpture, and over our heads (I got to experience this effect, being the glade was in cooling shade) before flying back to his enclosure. Next up were two very large owls called Walter and Delta (I remember the owls names because it turns out that I really like owls.) This is strange because, in the dim and distant past, almost every culture feared and despised them, believing them to be harbingers of bad luck. Their large faces were perfectly round and shaped like radar dishes and they had alarmingly large yellow eyes. They swooped around the glade (we were instructed to listen for the noise of their wings and couldn’t hear a thing) and landed on various tall posts which provided photo opportunities.
Up close, these owls’ plumage was remarkable. The feathers were striking enough, but beneath them was a layer of thick fluffy white stuff (more feathers?) and a pair of incredibly thick, strong looking legs attached to gigantic claws.
The final ‘act’ was a couple of barn owls. The glade went silent and then a church bell tolled ominously. On about the fourth ring the owls came flying out of a tiny window in the church tower and flew around the arena, to the accompaniment of a suitably sombre hymn. Then Ben, their engaging young falconer (when you reach my age most nice young men are ‘engaging’) ran around the arena signalling the owls to follow him. Then he climbed a ladder on one ivy covered tree and signaled one owl to fly to this tree, where he landed in a hole in the tree and perched there, peering out of this hole in a very cute and comical manner. Here’s a little video which doesn’t convey any of the atmosphere at all.
At one point a barn owl landed on the back of the bench where we were sitting, directly behind my head, which was such an unnerving and exciting experience that I got quite giddy about it all. Our guide then thanked us profusely for coming, and contributing to the running of the conservancy, and pleaded with us to spread the word amongst friends and neighbours about what a brilliant place the conservancy was (which I’m doing via the blogosphere.)
And then we went home.
We could have stayed on and witnessed a ferret race (the crowd were decidedly not up for this, but I’d have even gone to a snail race, such was my new-found level of love for this place) and umpteen other fascinating and wondrous things, but the husband and son no.3 wanted to get going, as we’d been there for over 5 hours. That’s a record for us at any attraction and, more importantly, at no point did the husband say: ‘we can probably get round this in 45 minutes’…………….that’s as good a recommendation for the Hawk Conservancy Trust as any you’ll find on TripAdvisor.