Remembering hawks at Chirk

for The Peregrine's 50th anni

Reading Robert Macfarlane's marvellous appreciation of J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, celebrating its 50th birthday this month, I felt a pang of envy for my mother.

It might not immediately be clear why. She is, after all 94 years old, and - while still mentally agile - restricted to walking with a frame.

  What I envy is the nonchalance with which she just answered a question I put to her about her childhood at a castle inNorth Wales, back in the 1920s.

  The question was whether she remembered anything about the falconry and hawking to which my grandfather, occasionally dressed in medieval costume, was seriously addicted.  Evidence is on hand in the form of a series of photographs that were recently discovered and yes, there my grandfather is, magnificently kitted-out as a 16th century sporting baron. A large-eyed and fiercely beaked bird is perched on his leather-mantled wrist. A peregrine? I have no idea.

  My mother's eyes light up. 'I remember it all! she announces with a beam.

  This, in itself, is not reassuring. Age has given my mother confidence in the fact that she has participated in almost every old photograph we show her. Fair enough. Nobody is old enough to contradict her. On this occasion, however, she corrects herself. At first, she was convinced that the hawking took place down by the lake. Ten minutes later, she shook her head.

  'No. I'm wrong. It was in the field by Chirk Golf course, just across the road.'

  'And what birds did they use?'

  'A goshawk and the peregrines.' Pause. 'Mostly for rabbits. but often they'd take a bird in the air.'  A bird?

  She shrugs. 'A pheasant. Partridges. Pigeons.'

  She makes it sound so matter-of-fact. Robert Macfarlane mentions that a peregrine can drop on its prey at 270 miles an hour. A pigeon wouldn't stand a chance. Which explains why, during the last War, killing peregrines became a legal activity. In wartime, it's not helpful to kill the messenger. 32 pigeons have been awarded medals for their work in carrying messages and even saving bomber crews. (RAF bombers regularly carried pigeons on board, to act as rescue-signallers in times of emergency.)

  Today, according to Macfarlane, the peregrine population is once again on the increase and they've acclimatised to city-life. In my part ofNorth London, I've seen a kestrel, but never a peregrine, although we do have a dawn chorus of seagulls from their roost on a nearby roof. But it's hard not to envy my mother's memories of those long-ago days inWales, when her day often began with a visit to Bradd the trainer, down at The Hawk-house near the lake.

  One of the photographs shows eight peregrines, perched on cork-stands at the foot of a giant hayrick; another shows Bradd, a tidy, stocky figure in a shabby brown suit and a flat cap, chatting to the peregrine that's just alighted, wings outstretched, on his glove.

  'I never went near the goshawk,' my mother says. 'You wouldn't want to chat to him!'

  My grandfather got interested in falconry in 1907, while he was renting Audley End, a massive house not far from where J.A. Baker later cycled out every week, whatever the weather, to track the movements of those sharp-eyed predators with which this myopic, arthritic genius of a man had formed a passionate connection. Baker's interest - obsession - was with the birds; my grandfather's was with the sport of falconry.

  I'm not sure where the anti-bloodsports people stand on falconry, but it seems to me that the flying of birds for their prey stands in a different league to the use of guns. I hate to read of those Edwardian shooting parties at which massacre was celebrated as sport. I can't summon up similar distress on reading that, back in 1907, my grandfather was an admiring spectator at four days of hawking, during which five peregrines and a goshawk ('Mrs Gibson') killed seven brace of partridges, a pheasant, a kestrel and ten rabbits. By the Twenties, he'd become a conservationist and an enthusiast. At West Wratting, an isolated place set on the borderline of  Cambridgeshire andSuffolk, he kept a second mews of a goshawk and sixteen peregrines. At Chirk - the medievalBorderCastlethat he'd rented since before the War - my mother states that there were never less than a dozen birds in The Hawkhouse.

  I'm puzzled by a discrepancy in the photographs we are studying together. Some show what looks like a typical British rough-shooting day: four men and a dog (a pointer), with everyone dressed in scruffy suits. Other pictures show Lord Howard standing in the same landscape, but splendidly arrayed in silks and velvets. The falconer at his side wears less dressy attire, his shoulders supporting from two heavy straps a square wooden frame, hip-height, on which five or six peregrines are perched. What's going on?

  'For a pageant,' my mother explains. Pageants formed part of everyday life at Chirk, back then, with my mother and her sisters staging sword fights in the courtyard and my grandfather - on one celebrated occasion - reading his morning copy of The Times while seated at the breakfast table in a full suit of medieval armour.  To my mother, then, there's nothing remarkable in seeing her father out with the hawks while offering a fair impersonation of Henry VIII in his younger, sportier years. She explains that the Llangollen Festival regularly recruited my grandfather and his hawks to come and add a touch of medieval colour to the proceedings.

  Another century; another world. Summing the genial improbability of it all up is the fact that the President of the British Falconers' Club, back in the 1940s when my grandfather was still alive and himself an enthusiastic member of the club, was Sir Umar Hayat Khan Tiwana, the biggest landowner in thePunjaband honorary ADC to George V. Among their hawking circle, Sir Umar and my grandfather numbered the actor James Robertson Justice (Justice always refused to film during the sporting season) and - to my utter astonishment: Walt Disney.

  You read that right. Little evidence of Disney's enthusiasm for falconry appears on Google, but it was Walt's love of hawks that led to the making of The Boy and the Eagle (1967) It's a film that J.A. Baker might have enjoyed. A Hopi boy comes to the rescue of a sacrificial eagle that

that teaches him its skills in hunting. Finally, the boy himself turns into an eagle and flies away.

   Perhaps, as Robert Macfarlane suggests in his thoughtful, eloquent appreciation of The Peregrine, one of the most influential books about birds that has been written, that moment of magical metamorphosis was what its reclusive, obsessive author himself desired.

   Added: Saturday 15 April 2017