50 Years Remembered

At this exact time, fifty years ago tomorrow, Frank Horrocks and six lads in their late twenties gathered in the Britannia Inn on St. Helens Road in Leigh to talk about forming a society which would promote the case for the conservation of Pennington Flash. This was not the first attempt at forming a local conservation group, for in 1938 Tom Edmondson, although still a pupil at Leigh Boys’ Grammar School, had brought together three friends with an interest in birdwatching to consider creating a naturalists’ recording group. This ambitious move would hopefully evolve into a group with wider objectives, most notably “preserving and protecting” the countryside, but the beginning of the Second World War brought the venture to a disappointing end, and later attempts, in 1948 and 1958, to follow a similar course towards the conservation of Pennington Flash came to nothing! 

And so to the early Spring meeting in the Britannia Inn! As I recall, there was no proven specific threat to the flash at that time, but an uneasy feeling that the future was unpredictable and that if we could achieve some form of protective status for the flash it would counter any unwanted “development” and prevent the adverse effects of power-boating and shooting on what the short-lived 1958 initiative had advocated - “to create an area of undisturbed natural beauty”. In those distant days, the flash was not watched on most winter days and sightings went unrecorded! The seven friends who came together were all in full-time employment, but some still managed to make brief visits. 

In the preceding 1970-71 winter, typical features of the flash were the wintering flocks of hundreds of predominantly drake Pochard, large gatherings of Common Snipe and occasional visits by Short-eared Owls to the north bank grasslands. My diary informs me that in the days following the Britannia meeting 5 Garganey arrived, 12 Wigeon passed through and, unexpectedly, Ruff and Red-necked Grebe made brief visits in the last few days. By the end of the moth, Skylark and Meadow Pipit songs dominated the north bank choruses and Spring was well under way. 

The Britannia meeting lasted for over an hour! There had been some worries about what “the proposed development of Pennington Flash”, presumably by Leigh Corporation and Lancashire County Council, would entail, though what the exact details of the “development” were eludes my memory! What is clear, and is documented in the very first Society minutes book, is that Charlie Owen suggested that our group should bear the title “Leigh Ornithological Society”; there would be an annual Leigh Bird Report; and I was to write to Leigh Corporation and Lancashire County Council expressing our concerns about plans for the flash. 

At the second get-together, Charlie was appointed Treasurer and I was appointed Secretary; the initial subscription was to be 5/-; Roy Rhodes was to design and supply headed note paper! We were on our way, uncertain and cautious of how we would proceed, but, for four of us, there was a compulsive determination to give our all to pursue rhe mission to help conserve the varied flash habitats. We were also to widen our horizons by going public and adding meetings and publications to our aims towards involving like-minded supporters in what would be a service to the general public and wildlife alike! Fifteen members contributed towards the 1971 Report, 24 to the 1973 Report and double that by 1975. 

The Derby Room in Leigh Library became almost a spiritual home. Attendances at Friday evening meetings soon exceeded 100 and twice reached 132; membership rocketed throughout the Leigh area; and individual Committee members worked tirelessly towards safeguarding important local sites - the late Raymond Yates at Low Hall Park; Tony Middlehurst at the Wigan Flashes; the late Alban Wincott at Doffcocker and Rumworth; Ken Green and Brian Derbyshire at sites in Chorley; Peter Barlow at Risley Moss; and Roy Rhodes at Astley Moss and Hope Carr. 

And so to the present! The indefatigable David Shallcross and Paul Richardson are committed to promoting the conservation cause throughout the area; Joan Disley and Eddie King continue their dedication to producing excellent publications; and, over the years, members too numerous to mention have enhanced the Society’s reputation in the fields of education, site visits and, perhaps, most of all, in extending the hands of companionship and friendship to old and young from many walks of life. In conclusion, an opportune meeting two days ago dispelled some of my worries about what has been happening at Pennington Flash, and the next half century is likely to bring long-awaited benefits for all - with a state-of-the art visitor and information centre, adequate on-site staffing and the prospect of becoming an integral part of the proposed National Nature Reserve! In the fulfilment of this vision, I trust that present Society members will be involved in deciding what should happen - as informed participants in a grand vision rather than passive onlookers at what others may deem to be appropriate! What would Tom Edmondson, Frank Horrocks and many other dear departed friends have thought of these forthcoming goings-on? 

Hopefully, I and many of my contemporaries, will be able witness the long-term benefits of this welcome initiative, grateful that the Society’s original intentions and the commitment of countless members has been rewarded. Covid restrictions prevent any form of a celebratory Britannia reunion on our anniversary date, but I am fortunate to live close to the flash and tomorrow, at half-past-seven, I intend to spend a short time by Pennington Brook and recall the events of fifty years ago. The bypass now blocks my view of the flash, but I’ll look towards Byron Hall and think of a young Tom Edmondson making his way there to meet his boyhood friend, John; I’ll allow my memory to transport me to the north bank and join Frank Horrocks, lighting his pipe, sheltered from the wind behind a cinder bank, and enjoying a conversation about what to look back on, what to look forward to, and the musical pleasures offered to us both by Beethoven, Schubert and Sibelius! 

And, certainly, my mind’s eye will take me through the wooded brook bank to the towering Pennington church and, just beyond it, the Britannia Inn, the cradle of some young men’s aspirations half-a-century ago. I’m pleased that I was part of the movement to conserve a special place - but even more pleased that there are so many present Society members determined to continue working towards guarding and enhancing a vital part of our cherished wild heritage!

Dave Wilson - Founder Member of the L.O.S.

'Pennington Flash Memories' by Dave Wilson

Here is Dave Wilson's original cine film entitled 'Pennington Flash Memories' which he used to give a talk about the importance of Pennington Flash as a home and nesting place for resident birds and feeding station for migrants as well as a home for wild flowers. There is currently no sound although I'm hoping be able to add some form of commentary later.

Memories Of 50 Years Ago by Jeff Hurst

As most if not all of you will already know the Leigh Ornithological Society is 50 years old this year. This got me thinking back to when it all started.

I had already been in contact with Dave Wilson about something and then he told me about a meeting that would take place and it was about possibly forming a bird society. I attended this meeting where a small group of people explained about this idea they had about forming a bird society and told what they were trying to achieve etc. There was some good feedback from the people that had gone to the meeting and from what was said by the end of the evening it was decided that it would be worth forming a society so I joined on that evening before a bird society had even been formed and this was to be the Leigh Ornithological Society.

Of course it took a little while to set things up and put everything in place but eventually I received Newsletter No 1 dated November 1971 which was just three side of foolscap long. For any of our younger members “foolscap” was the size of the paper we used to have before “A4” appeared on the scene. This was a little longer than A4 but slightly narrower and on it was the bird records for August, September and October 1971. At the beginning of the newsletter it started by saying that in March of 1971 it was decided to form the Leigh Ornithological Society.

At first there were no organised site trips as such but in Newsletter No 4 was printed a list of local bird watching sites with a contact name at the side so you could arrange a visit for a look round. For Pennington Flash you could contact Dave Wilson, for Borsdane WoodRoy Yates, Chat Moss was Howard May and so on. I had never been to Chat Moss and didn’t know much about this area so eventually I wrote to Howard May saying I was interested in a visit. He wrote back to say a few other people had also shown an interest in the area so he would arrange a walk and would get back to me with the details on where and when to eet up etc. Not long after this, as good as his word, he wrote to me again to say he had arranged for a walk on 6th May and this was in 1973.

From memory Charlie Owen and Tony Middlehurst came on the walk plus a few other people but I am not sure they were. Two of these people I got to know while on the walk were Harold Theobald and Bryce Rigby. The three of us got on well together so after this we would usually sit together or near each other at the Derby Room meetings. Sometime later we started with our trips outside our area when we usually had a spring trip around the middle of May and an autumn trip in September/October and these were coach trips that were usually fully booked up. When we arrived at our final destination everyone would split up into smaller groups and again Harold, Bryce and I would normally walk round together.

In 1985 I received the shock news that Harold had died so after this Bryce and I would sit together at the Derby Room meetings until sadly Bryce died in 2019. Over all these years every now and again we would talk about one or other of the trips we had been on but one trip that came up a few times was our trip to Chat Moss with Howard May, he had “walked our legs off” that day but I think we had all really enjoyed it.

As for the birds we saw, these are as follows: - There were the more common birds such as Magpie, Blackbird, Blue Tits etc., but also Wheatear – Whitethroat – Goldfinch – Corn Bunting – Lapwing (with young) – Greenfinch – Curlew – Willow Warbler – Yellowhammer – Redpoll – Swallow – Pied Wagtail (carrying food) – Reed Bunting – Partridge – Little Owl (being mobbed by Robin and Blackbird).

We also heard Pheasant, Cuckoo and Turtle Dove but unfortunately didn’t see these and in a more wooded part of the Moss we found a Mallard’s nest with eggs in it. Not a bad list and I had seen or heard 4 new species and it was interesting to walk round a new type of area I had never seen before.

I am pretty sure I won’t be around for the next 50 years but it is possible the Leigh Ornithological Society will be to create another 50 years of memories; so for the moment this is in memory of Howard May, Harold Theobald and Bryce Rigby.

Jeff Hurst

Tribute to Charlie Owen

On Friday 10th March 2023 members of Leigh Ornithological Society and friends gathered at the former Teal Hide for its official renaming to 'The Charlie Owen Hide', to scatter his ashes and to say goodbye to Charlie, a founder member of the L.O.S. who was Chief Ranger at Pennington Flash Nature Reserve.

From Teal Hide to The Charlie Owen Hide

It’s very apt that a hide should be named for Charlie as he and the Flash were almost synonymous with each other nearly all of his life. He grew up a few streets away from here in Etherstone Street. When he was child, the area that is now the Country Park and Reserve was an abandoned dessert of rubble and left over railway embankments and was a mecca for local kids to play at, which Charlie did with his best friend Howard May. 

Photo by John Tymon

When he got into his teens, despite suffering quite badly, all of his life with asthma, he somehow persuaded his mother to let him have a dog, a springer spaniel and during those exercising dog walks – at the Flash of course – his interest in bird watching grew and grew. He was emotionally much attached to the Flash, as anyone who grows up in one place very often is. He remained involved with it, and it was his ambition to work here, which eventually he did and was responsible for planning much of the reserve and wader scrapes, even working on some parts during the reserve creation, driving JCB’s and bulldozers! 

Photo by Roy Rimmer
The Reserve and the Flash as a whole was always his ‘pet project’! You could take the man out of the Flash and make him go on holiday but I always had the suspicion that away was ok, but getting back round the Flash again was all that really mattered! Reuniting him this final time with his beloved Flash, by scattering his ashes here, will surely mean his soul has finally come home. R.I.P. Charlie. 

Article by Pauline Greenhalgh 

Photo by David Boardman