Every dry afternoon brings a voyage of discovery for our Ukrainian house guests. HMS Beagle is a buggy with a wonky wheel containing the two-year-old. Steered by Captain Mama, it circumnavigates the local park. The seven-year-old, seeking natural wonders, is Charles Darwin.
This is a good time of year for the proto-naturalist. Many trees are dumping their annual crop of nuts, with colourful leaves to follow. Half-term at the beach may be too chilly for kids to spend long in the water. But strolls along the strand can yield shells, fossils and other marine riches. Upland walks offer green rushes and sheep bones.
Back home, the seven-year-old is all questions, via maternal translation. “What are the conkers for?” Two things, I reply. First, new horse chestnut trees. Second, an ancestral British tournament of skill and nerve.
“Can I get a seed out of this cone and grow a pine tree?” Maybe, if you leave it on the radiator to open.
“What is this weird thing I found?” That, my friend, is the antler of a stag beetle, noblest of insects. Treasure it.
The collecting impulse, mediated by scientific inquiry, gave birth to modern biology. No self-respecting 17th-century aristocrat was without a Wunderkammer, a room stuffed with curiosities. Here is the tooth of a giant, he would boast. Here is a unicorn’s horn. Here is a coin embedded in lava from Mount Etna.
Domestic nature tables are the modern equivalent. Good luck to you if you have room for one. Most urban families do not. When my kids were small, each new discovery found space on the mantelpiece. Older specimens were displaced to a series of shoeboxes.
This involved classification, which can be applied to children as well as objects they find. If your offspring is precociously mathematical, explain loftily during woodland walks that a pine cone embodies the Fibonacci sequence. If the sprog is combative, pierce and string a couple of conkers and let battle commence.
The aim is to smash your opponent’s horse chestnut with a well-aimed blow. Only cads cheat at conkers, as noted by eternal schoolboy Nigel Molesworth in How To Be Topp. His own defeated conker was “huge and glossy, like a racehorse”. The cad’s had been “baked for 300 years in ancestral ovens”. The bounder wears a monocle and a smirk in the illustration.
Beachcombing is a more gently competitive activity. Each praiseworthy find enriches the Commonwealth rattling in a plastic bucket. On British beaches, you can reliably pick up the unoccupied shells of limpets, cockles and whelks. Sanibel Island, Florida, recently battered by Hurricane Ian, is the place to go shell collecting in the US, I’m told.
Fossils abound on some British beaches. What child with poetry in their soul could fail to be thrilled at the prospect of finding petrified sea monster poo? Charmouth offers ancient reptile coprolites, as these trophies are officially known. Ammonites are plentiful on parts of the Dorset and Yorkshire coast. Some of the latter are displayed in the promising new Yorkshire Natural History Museum.
A beach cobble rarely breaks open with one tap of a hammer to reveal a perfect cephalopod shell. I spent one awkward New Year holiday sharing a Lyme Regis cottage with a warring couple we knew. The husband lurked in the garden shed chipping angrily at a prize ammonite he had found. It split in two on the last day of the trip. His marriage went the same way soon after.
If you are rambling in the uplands, look out for clumps of common rushes. Challenge children to see how much of a rush’s green skin they can strip, leaving a wick for a cottager’s rush light. They may meanwhile pick up bleached sheep bones as fascinating evidence of the Grim Reaper’s depredations. Dip these in disinfectant if kids insist on bringing them home.
Collecting should be safe for young naturalists. When I was a kid, we collected owl pellets, breaking them up to find the tiny skulls of mice and voles. With avian flu around, I would avoid this now.
Leave living organisms where they roam or root. You may be able to persuade a stag into the back of your family Range Rover with promises of deer nuts. But your house or apartment, however spacious, would cramp its style.
Many countries with precious wildlife patrimonies prohibit tourists from taking specimens home. They rightly believe it encourages trade in endangered species.
Besides, the appeal of most natural finds fades with the lifetime enthusiasm or posthumous renown of the owner. I recently visited a Veronese palazzo. A small, dusty specimen case languished in one room, containing shells and shark teeth. It was all that remained of the Wunderkammer of a long-dead nobleman.
Picking up conkers, shells or bones is a celebration of the day when it is done. The finds are ephemeral. The activity is eternal. In 2013, the sea uncovered tracks of early human adults and children on a Norfolk beach. You can bet one of the kids was running after their parent shouting: “Hey! Look what I’ve found!” — or grunts to that effect.
Jonathan Guthrie is the head of Lex
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