While I was a wee laddie, growing up in the deepest parts of the Waveney Valley, my parents spent many hours teaching me about the countryside around me. In fact, they both taught me everything they knew, from how not to get stung by nettles through to identifying different birds, plants, and insects.
It’s hardly surprising. After a career in dairy farming, my mum and dad had spent every single day either on the farm or in the garden. They missed nothing in the natural world.
I know how jumping spiders caught their prey. I knew how to spot early signs of Myxomatosis, a too-often deadly disease which was a massive blight on the rabbit population of my youth.
But perhaps one of my more fun memories of my mum and dad’s keen natural history interest was the infamous Emperor Moth incident of 1989. Since that one takes some explaining — not to mention a great deal of amusement at the expense of my oldest sister — I’ll save that for another day…
My parents weren’t the only ones giving me such incredible tuition. Once a month or more, I ventured to Wheatfen, the home of renowned teacher and naturalist Ted Ellis, to help carry out conservation work on this beautiful, important reserve. While I never met the late Ted Ellis — he died before I started helping there — I got to know his wonderful wife Phyllis Ellis MBE, a retired teacher herself who still lived in the tiny cottage on the marshes . Despite her senior years, still headed out to the Marshes to help with conservation work and bring us volunteers her famous soup, bread, and chocolate concrete.
Why, you wonder, am I telling you about all these influential Natural History experts in my life?
Because of my toe.
When you’re a kid, especially one with a musical ear, nothing helps you memorise birdsong quite as quickly as making up different phrases for each call. And I’m certainly not alone in this one either.
For centuries, countryfolk have made up different names or put words to bird calls as a way of memorising them. For example, in Norfolk, you may have heard of the Yaffle, the folk name given to Green Woodpeckers because of their laughing call. (Children of the late 70s and early 80s will also know this name from the wonderful Bagpuss, a show I still adore to this day.)
Others will know of the Pewit, more commonly known as the Lapwing. Like the Yaffle, it was given its name due to its distinctive, ‘Peeee-wit!’ call.
(They are also tenacious creatures, and bomb-dive any perceived predator, especially dogs who venture too close to their ground-based nests and young.)
This leads me nicely to the wood pidgeon, whose distinctive call is normally described as being something along the lines of: ‘ My poor sore toe do bleed! My poor sore toe do bleed! My poor sore toe do bleed! Look!’
There are other variants, but in our family, the one above has prevailed, sometimes replacing the word bleed with the word hurt.
Now it’s time to come up to the present day. As a mum, I’ve failed in my attempts to teach my kids about the world around them, especially the natural one. But I do pride myself in trying to be as fun a mum as possible.
So, a few weeks ago in Bristol, I was trying to keep child number 2 happy, while playfully embarrassing child number 1 — a stern 10-year old who thinks anything I do is embarrassing.
Child number 2 — and eventually child number 1 — and I started to skip. And then I started to chase them and life them both up together, the pair giggling in shock, awe, and embarrassement that even aged 9 and 10, I could lift them both up together.
And then it happened. I either landed wrongly on my right little toe, or my daughter did. Either way, pain shot through my foot.
At the time, it felt more like a bruise than anything else, and turned a wonderful shade of black, then purple, blue, and red over the next 24 hours. An acquaintance of mine, a retired doctor, said it may be broken but hinted very little could be done about it.
Stupidly, I didn’t strap the poor toe to the good ones.
So here we are, two weeks later. The bruising has gone and the swelling is much reduced. But for some reason, the pain is still there, and my toe looks… well. Wrong.
Two days ago, I started strapping the toe, and started taking the pain seriously. And today, I’m going to find myself heading to the nearest medical facility for a check-up.
As with any grown-up kid, big or small, the task them became one to tell my mother, when next ringing her, what I’d done.
Alongside the genuine concern for my health and a plea for me to ‘get it checked,’ my mum couldn’t resist singing me something very simple.
‘My poor sore toe do bleed! My poor sore toe do bleed! My poor sore toe do bleed! Look!’
I smiled to myself as I said my goodbyes. Even after all these years, my mum cares for me just as much as she did when I was little.
Thirty-three years later, I’m a mother myself. But it’s moments like these which remind you what a big impact being a mother can have on not only your life, but those of your children.
And it reminds me that wherever we go, whatever we do, those experiences are ours to keep, forming our very identities as we continue down the path that is life.