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The Walrus and the Honeybee: Remembering Buckfast
As Monday mornings go, that’s not bad. There is a chill in the air which seems only right given the time of year, but the sun is shining and I have settled down to write something for my humble blog. Well, it’s a bee blog actually, but it’s also small, and occupies a quiet, little-visited corner of the web. There are no tumbleweeds going on in this part of the internet, just graphs of visitor statistics that remain stubbornly flat. When I worked for General Electric, they were obsessed with “double digit growth.” You won’t find anything like that here, although I suppose “0.0” is double digits, sorta? oh well
This weekend we had a visit from our relatives from Kent which was very nice. I took him to see my apiary yesterday and was pleased to see some of my bees still flying and bringing in pollen. I saw a live wasp, so I’ll keep the wasp traps out for a while longer. I also saw hundreds of dead wasps, drowned in the sweet liquid at the bottom of the traps. I don’t hate wasps, but a walrus must defend its bees.
I went through the interview I had with David Kemp in August. He is a bit of a legend, who worked with brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey from 1964 to 1974, and then became an inspector of bees for many years. He spent a lifetime with bees and was a part of the history of beekeeping in this country. He kindly allowed me to have some photographs of his time at Buckfast which will feature in my next book. They still need a bit of cleaning up in Photoshop to remove bits of dust and odd imperfections, but they offer a fascinating insight into a bygone age. Many thanks to Andy Wattam for making the digital scans and sending them to me. Andy was the National Inspector of Bees until a few years ago, and also spent time at Buckfast Abbey, but in the 1980s David Kemp was their boss.
One thing I immediately noticed about Mr. Kemp is that he can talk. This is a good thing because in our interview I had very little to do, apart from checking the battery levels of my recording device. However, he rarely answers a question directly. It was probably because my questions were rubbish, or maybe because they triggered memories, because he was going off on tangents down memory lane. That was fine by me; all I wanted to do was enjoy my time with him and hear his stories.
We were in a pub called The Fox in Kelham, on the River Trent near Newark. I had arrived at 11:50 with a burst bladder, after driving on the penis in the walrus car, and was shocked to discover that the pub does not open its doors until noon. Ten minutes may not sound long, but unfortunately, it was longer than my aquariums could handle, because I had to sneak to a quiet area by a hedge and have a relief (the other kind of wee). I think I might have been arrested for “hedge poisoning” or something, but I haven’t been found out.
Here is a small excerpt from my interview with David:
DK But after returning from the moors, they were taken and weighed on a scale, and if they needed it, they would be fed with a large tray feeder. They raised the hive and because they knew the weight of the trees they could work out what stores were needed. The honey was removed from the land. We were climbing with a team of men on a truck. The beekeepers took the supers from the hives – they had been left in bee escapes over the weekend – and we piled the supers on the truck, and went to the next apiary.
He was brilliant at organization, he was Adam. He was punctual, typical German.
SD You were one of the many who helped o…
DK no. When I first went, the ad said “Beekeeping Assistant needed for Buckfast Abbey” and I’ve been keeping bees since I was 9 years old, and I had this fascination with how they worked. bee. I had dabbled in buying bees from France and the Isle of Wight from Douglas Roberts, and I could see the crosses. Douglas Roberts’ bees were fantastic, not only were they quiet, but they used to bring a lot of honey. The French bees were vicious.
SD Were they?
DK Oh… they do well, but punish? When I was a keeper, I had some French bees, and my Labrador came and got stung all around his lips and ears. He left me for the first time, he came home
SD I can’t really blame him
DK Every time I went to the hive after he stopped about 25 meters away. But the French bees I had were ugly. He could deal with them on a very good day, but the slightest hint of rain or thunder or anything like that… and if they were confined for a long time, they would just turn it on the beekeeper.
While I was at Buckfast you never wore gloves. No clothes like people wear now because it wasn’t around.
SD Just a veil?
DK I had an African Rifles hat from World War II and a black headscarf, and an apron. The ribbon of the apron held your veil, and the apron protected you from stealing with sticky honey.
But going back to the staff, when I got here and met Brother Adam for the first time, on a Saturday morning, he came in with his hands pulled up in his sleeves and his hood up… he looked like something out of MacBeth. He took me to the bee department, where brother Pascal was working, who was also an excellent beekeeper – he had been on bees for 25 years – he was really good…
DK So there was Brother Adam, Brother Pascal and myself working on the bees. Brother Bernard did the mail and things like that; publish honey for Christmas – it used to go to Fortnum & Masons and a couple of stores in London, and a lot of it goes privately in small boxes to many people. So, we ran like this for many years.
SD So you were in a pretty privileged position
DK Yeah, and looking back, how do these things happen? Why did I apply for a job at Buckfast Abbey? Although it was the game, which was in the previous six years, I saw that everything was going to change. All guns went to money. When I asked about the beekeeping job, one of the old gamekeepers said it was the best thing he had done and that all the shooting went to money.
It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I really enjoyed my 4 hours of chats and I’m happy with some of the stories I got. Just think, when he went to Buckfast for the first time, there was no varroa, no rape, and there were vast white meadows with clover. They had to deal with the often bad weather around Dartmoor, and much later with a lousy brood, but for a while it had to be an idyllic place to keep bees and to learn from brother Adam, who was “a man in advance of his time”. “according to David Kemp.
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