He was said by Charles Darwin to be "an amusing strange fellow" and created a grotesque stuffed animal from bits of porcupine and tortoise. But he also set up the world's first nature reserve, in the heart of grimy Yorkshire. Roger Ratcliffe goes in search of Charles Waterton
By any standards in the 19th century, Charles Waterton must have been considered mad by his friends.
He believed in the act of blood-letting as a cure and regularly drank his own blood - "tapping the claret" he called it. While travelling in South America he slept outside in the open with his flesh bare to tempt blood-sucking vampire bats.
Back home in Yorkshire, as he awaited the arrival of guests at his ancestral mansion of Walton Hall, near Wakefield, Waterton hid under a table. The moment they appeared he bounded out on hands and knees, snarling like a savage dog, and sank his teeth into someone's leg.
One night after dinner, to the horror of those he was entertaining, he brought out a dead gorilla which smelled exceedingly high after its long journey from the tropics, and dissected it on the dining room table.
But it was Waterton's obsession with protecting birds which confirmed him as a lunatic in many eyes. In the 19th century even the smallest birds had but one interest for most people – they were for eating. Yet Waterton built a stone tower specially to house nesting starlings, hardly a rare bird, and never ate one of them.
He once threatened to strangle his gamekeeper for shooting a barn owl, and, to protect ground-nesting birds in his woods he had the foxes that preyed on them trapped and then released back into the wild many miles away.
But perhaps Waterton's greatest eccentricity was the construction between 1821 and 1826 of a three-mile long circular wall – 16ft-high in places – to stop people killing birds on his estate. It cost him 9,000, then a small fortune, which he let everyone know was paid for by giving up alcohol. However, no one knew it at the time, but his wall enclosed what turned out to be the world's first nature reserve.
Forget the blood-drinking and the smelly gorilla. It's for this that Charles Waterton is world-famous, with his pioneering conservation work acknowledged by a national park being named after him in Canada.
He was born in 1782 into a family which counted among its ancestors Vladimir the Great and St Anne of Russia, Queen Margaret of Scotland and several European royal houses. Refusing to convert to Protestantism at the Reformation, the family's title and much land were confiscated by Henry VIII, but, despite this, Charles Waterton was always referred to in the Wakefield area as "Squire Waterton".
For much of his life he was known as a traveller, diarist and inquiring spirit. He is credited with bringing the anaesthetic agent curare to Europe, and was one of the first campaigners against pollution in Britain.
Today, anyone who goes in search of Waterton's legacy will inevitably start at Walton Hall, on the southern fringes of Wakefield, and find that there's a lot to be seen. Sections of the famous wall can be found while exploring the footpaths, and one of his stone watchtowers – the first nature observation hides ever constructed – has recently been restored. His passion for planting holly and ivy is evident by the amount present in surrounding woods.
The Georgian mansion of Walton Hall still stands on an island on the 26-acre lake which formed the centrepiece of Waterton's nature reserve. The building is now an hotel, reached only by an iron footbridge, while the grounds have been laid out as an 18-hole golf course despite a campaign in the 1990s to have them restored as a nature reserve.
Richard Bell, one of the Wakefield Naturalists Society team who mounted the unsuccessful campaign, has written a small book to guide those arriving to find out about Waterton.
From Waterton's records, Bell found that one year there were 24 kestrels' nests and a colony of 36 herons in the park, but today's human disturbance means that just a few kestrels are to be seen while the heronry survives only as the name of a wood.
"The grounds are still a remarkably good place for birds," Bell says, "although one end of the lake has silted up since Waterton's time." Waterton is credited with having invented the nest-box, creating special "owl houses" from trees. And as well as building his famous starling tower, he constructed a "sand-martin wall" which was demolished as recently as the 1980s. He also made nest holes for birds like robins, redstarts and chaffinches, in an old gateway known as "water gate" which can still be seen today.
He used hollowed-out trees as observation hides around the lake's fringes, sometimes sharing them with a nesting owl or a jackdaw, allowing him the kind of intimate views of nestlings being fed which are now familiar to viewers of David Attenborough and Bill Oddie TV programmes.
At the point furthest from Walton Hall, even as an old man he often climbed one particular oak tree in summer and would sit there watching for kingfishers. When he died in May, 1865, his funeral procession was by boat from the hall to a grave beneath the tree, and it can still be found with some perseverance – as well as the permission of the hotel – in one of the most overgrown areas of woodland.
"There's a story," says Bell, "that Waterton once set off from home to visit his close friend, Dr Richard Hobson, in Park Square, Leeds. He wrote that he heard a blackbird singing when he left Walton Hall, and heard another when he arrived in Leeds, but there wasn't so much as peep from a bird on the journey. I think we forget how much the pollution of industry created huge sterile areas in Yorkshire, and I suppose what Waterton did was create a sort of little paradise amongst all those factories and coal mines."
A little-known fact about Waterton – something the Wakefield archivist John Goodchild has found in the family's papers – is that Waterton's travels in South America, about which he wrote in books and diaries, were a direct result of him going there to supervise the family's slave-run estates in what was then British Guiana.
"It's an interesting thought in this year when the
two-hundredth anniversary of the slave trade abolition is being celebrated," says Goodchild.
"We've no idea how many slaves they had, but Charles Waterton himself ultimately claimed that slavery was the Devil's invention. The estates were run for the benefit of his siblings, having been bought by his father as an investment for them, so at least Waterton never actually benefited from slavery himself."
Considered eccentric, even mad, in his lifetime, Waterton was liked by the ordinary folk in Wakefield.
As an old man he would dress almost like a tramp and walk down to talk to people at the end of Walton Lane.
Today it is said that Charles Waterton still haunts the grounds of Walton Hall, and that his spirit has taken the form of a particularly white heron sometimes seen flying over the lake.
n Waterton's Park by Richard Bell is available from www.willowisland.co.uk and costs 2.95. John Goodchild's archive of Waterton papers can be viewed by arrangement at Drury Lane Library, Drury Lane, Wakefield, WF1 2TD. Telephone 01924 298929. Many of Waterton's stuffed birds and animals, including the strange tortoise/porcupine composite, can be seen at Wakefield Museum in Wood Street, Wakefield. Telephone 01924 305353. There is a special display at the Waterton Countryside Discovery Centre and nature trail at the Anglers Country Park, near to Walton Hall. Telephone 01924 303980.