FSC | Field Studies Council

Field Studies Council: Bringing Environmental Understanding to All

1953 John W. Cowan, Associate Tutor at Flatford Mill since 1982 - FSC Flatford Mill

While I was attending a Plant Ecology Course at Flatford in July 1953, Jim Bingley, Warden, encouraged me to come on the Fungus Week in the autumn. This I did and immediately became hooked on the study of this group of organisms

Attendance on these courses also introduced me to some very interesting people. For a start the tutor, Dr. Frederick Parker-Rhodes was a great character with a good sense of humour. He was not primarily a mycologist, but a mathematician, based at Cambridge, and concerned with the computer translation of languages, this in the early days of computers. I admired the old brass microscope that he brought with him. He enjoyed a pipe and took snuff. His wife, Damaris, sometimes came to join us with their dog, and she was just as much a character as he was. They were Quakers and Damaris wrote a very erudite book, which I found difficult to understand.
On the Sunday of the first fungus week I attended, Mrs Bingley organised a play reading in the living room of Valley Farm, then the Warden’s accommodation. On this occasion the play was George Bernard Shaw’s “You never can tell”, which fortunately I had seen in London, and I was allocated the part of Mr Comas the Solicitor, rather a coincidence as I was then training to be one.

Concurrent with the Fungus Week there was a party of Cambridge students and their tutors. One of the Cambridge students brought with him a moth trap, fitted with a mercury bulb (costing £2) to attract moths at night. It was very successful and collected thousands in the height of summer. While I was with its owner, who was catching moths that were trapped, a hornet came and crawled into the trap. It was the first time I had seen one. The “trapper” was very pleased as he wanted a specimen, but I had mixed feelings! He told us that he had been stung once and had had his arm in a sling for a week. He made several attempts to catch the hornet in a specimen box while one or other of us (there were several onlookers) took away the cone holding the bulb. On one occasion when I held this, the hornet followed and unfortunately I dropped the holder onto the lawn and the light went out. I thought for a horrible few minutes that the bulb was fut. After an adjustment to the holder, however, the light came on again, but the hornet was lost. Jim Bingley told us that there were too many hornets around the place.

The Cambridge University expedition went trawling and the fisherman with whom they went gave them a couple of lobsters. All the students were invited into the great hall of Valley Farm to enjoy them. The very tasty lobster flesh was neatly placed on small pieces of pastry and was accompanied by glasses of sherry.

The pattern of the fungussing day was to forage in the morning and early afternoon, then return to Flatford to examine our specimens and lay them out for all to see. One of the most popular woods was in East Bergholst on an estate owned by the Wake-Walker family. We would start with the fungi on the lawn and progress to the extensive woods with both broadleaved trees and conifers.

In 1954, Frederick was not available to take the fungus week and instead we had Dr. F. Bayard Hora of Reading University, a very able field mycologist, who later was joint author of the Collins Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools. He oozed infectious enthusiasm for the fungi we gathered.

Two regulars at Fungus Weeks were Hailes Freytag and Gertrude Wolf, German born employees of the Shoe and Allied Trades Association (SATRA). Their professional work was to translate research papers of interest to SATRA. I do not know how many languages they covered, but Hailes was fluent in Russian. Hailes and Gertrude were not young, but their friendship flourished till they eventually married. One of the regular excursions included a lunchtime visit to Shingle Street, on the Suffolk coast north of Felixstow, not rich in fungi, but of interest to Damaris for the bird life. Hailes always insisted on having a swim despite the very dangerous currents there. When he returned to the shingle he gave himself a preliminary wipe over with his wet trunks and this removed much of the water before using the towel. I thought this a good idea so that after a bath I always use my wet flannel before my towel.

                               The photograph shows Hailes and Frederick

In 1953 there were few books with good pictures of mushrooms and toadstools. Wakefield and Dennis’ Common British Fungi was the popular book, with authoritative descriptions, but the illustrations were not up to modern standards. For really good illustrations Jacob Lange’s Flora Agaricina Danica published in the 1930’s was the gold standard, but was prohibitively expensive even if you could find a copy. Frederick had a copy, which he brought with him and Flatford had its own, given by A.A. Pearson, author of a number of excellent monographs with keys to some genera. Most of the illustrations in the Collins Guide mentioned above co-authored by Jacob Lange’s son and F.B. Hora were reproductions of those in Jacob Lange’s book. Others were by Beatrix Potter. A number of photographic guides followed, but it was not until J.B. Phillips published his book that I was persuaded that photographs could be as useful as botanic illustrations. Nowadays there is plenty of choice of useful books.

Before there were available comprehensive keys for fungi, apart keys by Pearson to a few genera, Frederick produced some, which I found useful. Frederick’s mathematical mind clearly influenced the way the keys were set out. His keys were eventually submitted to the Ray Society for possible publication, but sadly were not accepted. Frederick had his own ideas of nomenclature and classification that were not in tune with the majority view.

I joined the fungus week whenever I could and even after our first child, Andrew , was born my wife and I were at Flatford, being privileged to stay in staff accommodation in the mill itself. Andrew was then 9 months old and not yet independently mobile. After that we stayed at Castle Headingham youth hostel and joined the fungussing party in the field.

Eventually Frederick decided to retire from running the course and I tentatively offered to take over. Frederick and Jim Bingley were both pleased at this arrangement so the next year, 1982, I took over – except there was a hitch. Just before I was due to go to Flatford our baby, Jonathan, was admitted to hospital with a fever and I needed to be at home. Very fortunately Frederick agreed to substitute for me until I arrived, two days late. After a day together he left me to it.

If, on fungus courses, we found sufficient edible fungi, we repaired to the kitchen to cook and sample them. Remarkably the cooks over the years tolerated this invasion of their terrain and it was fun to experience fungi other than the field mushroom. I was always impressed by the immaculately clean kitchen and wondered at the abliity to cater for so many people from such a small space. During my time running the course, Andrew, now adult, and his friend, Louis, and his wife came. At the evening’s cooking, before I realised it, Louis ate some raw – not advisable as some fungi need to be cooked to destroy toxins. During the last day we collected shaggy parasols, edible but causing stomach upsets in some people. Unbeknown to me Louis and his wife took some of these home with them and had them for supper. At 2 a.m. the next day the local hospital telephoned me, anxious lest they had eaten death caps. I was able to assure them that we had not seen a death cap all weekend. However the hospital gave them the works, including a stomach pump. This incident alerted me to the possibility that a serious mistake could lead a claim for damages. I then examined the possibility of insurance cover, but this was not economical, so we gave up these cooking sessions.