Village Hall Talks at Wootton-By-Woodstock

The project was conceived to raise funds to renovate the village hall in Wootton-by-Woodstock, which was built almost entirely from timber over eighty years ago. Few who have attended the talks would disagree that the evenings have been an engaging mixture of serious insight and comedic observation and we think we are catering for the current thirst for live events in smaller venues.

The Mark Avery Talk

The Mark Avery Talk

One of the most melancholy episodes in the ecology of the world occurred a hundred years on September 1st 1914 when the last passenger pigeon on Earth, called Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo in the United States. Dozens of other species of bird have become extinct in recent decades – but what makes this story even more poignant was that the bird was the most numerous on the planet, with flocks in its native North America estimated at several billion just 50 years before the species vanished forever. Its demise is also unique in that the precise time of its extinction can be pin-pointed to within a few hours.

In his passionate and highly informative talk on September 19th, Mark – a former Director of Conservation at the RSPB – told us how he had seen flocks of starlings on the Somerset Levels estimated at about a million. But these were nothing compared with the flocks of passenger pigeons which were so vast that they often took several hours to pass overhead and sometimes blocked out the sun for hours at a time.

Mark read out first-hand accounts from some of the leading naturalists and writers of the mid-19th Century in which they attempted to describe their wonder at the sheer numbers of birds in a single flock. James Fenimore Cooper wrote: “The pigeon is not a noisy creature, but a million crowded together on the summit of one hill, occupying a space of less than a mile square, did not leave the forest in its ordinary impressive stillness”

Simon Pokagon, who campaigned for Native American rights, wrote how he had seen the birds “fly in unbroken lines from the horizon, one line succeeding another from morning until night, moving their unbroken columns like an army of trained soldiers”.

Mark also quoted John James Audubon, probably the most famous name in American ornithology, who saw a flock near Hardinsburg, in Kentucky, which he estimated at over a billion. In his Ornithological Biography, Audubon described how flocks were passing “in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, and, for a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons – and talked of nothing but pigeons”

Mark told us the passenger pigeon had been a key part of the ecology of the north-eastern United States, but there were no legal restrictions on hunting them and so nesting colonies provided easy pickings, as long as people could find out where they were - and the expansion of the telegraph assisted this process. The growth of the railroad also opened up vast areas of the country as a market for cheap meat and the combination of increases in population, communication and transport allowed the supply of passenger pigeon meat to become an industry rather than a rural pursuit. An even more meaningful ingredient was the astonishing speed of the wholesale destruction of forests – which contained the birds' chief food source of beechnuts, chestnuts and oak acorns – and the ploughing up of the prairies.

However, Mark posed the question of why did the last remaining passenger pigeons, maybe numbering 10,000, die out when there was little commercial hunting after 1885 and, indeed, laws were passed to protect the bird? One explanation, he added, is that passenger pigeons simply “gave up” after their populations fell very low and life became tougher rather than easier, although a more plausible theory might be that the bird needed the stimulation of many others to get in the mood for mating and reproduction.

However, another negative factor was the huge increases in the human population, especially in Michigan and Wisconsin, where the passenger pigeon survived to breed last – and as the birds travelled to nest in diminishing numbers, they were shot out of the skies in increasing numbers. In addition, the passenger pigeon was a tasty dish for predators like the squirrels, jays and crows – and it was also attractive to goshawks and peregrines. The fragmentation of forest cover meant the bird was forced to nest in smaller colonies and to feed in smaller flocks – all of which lessened their ability to cope with a level of natural predation that it would have survived when numbered in billions Mark pointed out there are other examples of the mass slaughter of animals, such as the bison, which saw its numbers fall from several million in the US to just few thousand surviving in the wild – but controls have been put in place which should prevent its extinction.

However, he told us the future is still far from certain for many species, including some in the UK, where Mark highlighted the rapid decline of the turtle dove on farmland close to his home in Northamptonshire. “Will this be another passenger pigeon and this time, will we care and will we save it?” he asked. However, he did highlight the more positive example of the Chatham Island Robin, which was reduced to a population of five, including one fertile female, but numbers are now over 200 after the intervention of the New Zealand Wildlife Service.

At the end of his talk, Mark posed the question – did the extinction of the passenger pigeon matter when there are so many other species of bird, including pigeons? Of course he said, the answer is a resounding Yes! In his book - just published and called A Message from Martha – he points out the extinction is not only another depressing tale of human greed and stupidity, but it contains a vital message that it is imperative for humans to re-forge our relationship with the natural world on which we depend – and to plan a more sustainable future, otherwise other species could so easily go the same way as Martha.

If the passenger pigeon still existed, albeit in smaller numbers, Mark said it would provide an unmatchable wildlife spectacle that Americans would be proud of – and tourists would enjoy. He suggested there might be a pigeon app for an iPhone and a Pigeon Watch website, rather like Tornado Watch. They would be mentioned in the same breath as the migration of wildebeest in the Serengeti and penguin colonies in Antarctica.

Mark concluded by saying that he had recently seen the Giant Sequoia and the Blue Whale and was left enhanced by both experiences. He said he valued such “signature species” - and the passenger pigeon would also have had the “Wow!” factor. He said that humans are diminished by its loss. He added: “Let us lift up our eyes to the skies and imagine an enormous flock of passenger pigeons and proclaim that the world would be a better place if there were still a real prospect of seeing them".

“What a passionate and informative talk from a leading conservationist on top form, detailing the tragic extinction of the passenger pigeon. Mark made it clear that this moral fable is a warning from history and the world is a poorer place without the species – which nobody alive has probably ever seen. But with conservationists like Mark, there must be hope that a similar episode will never happen again – Jayne Emmett, Banbury --

David Hone

Friday October 24th 2014 (Sixth Birthday Evening)

Suitable for children over the age of 12

David has an international reputation as a palaeontologist specialising in dinosaurs and pterosaurs. He broadcasts widely and teaches a range of courses at Queen Mary’s College, London, focusing on evolution, ecology, vertebrate diversity and global change biology.

He has also written a number of scientific papers, naming a number of new dinosaurs. These include Zhuchengtyrannus magnus– a Tyrannosaurus-sized carnivore from China; Limusaurus inextricabilis Anchiornis huxleyi - a bird-like feathered dinosaur close to the origin of birds; and Linhenykus monodactylus - a small bird-like dinosaur with just one finger on each hand.

David also has a blog on palaeontology (hosted by The Guardian) called “Lost Worlds” and he has also been writing the blog “Archosaur Musings” for over five years, where he talks about dinosaurs, pterosaurs and science in the media.

He also helped launch a new site focused on pterosaurs – “Pterosaur.Net” which has it’s own blog, as well as a series of essays on various aspects of the biology of these animals. However his biggest project is called “Ask A Biologist” which he set up in 2006, when he recruited a number of international researchers to answer the public’s questions and, so far, they have replied to nearly 7,000 biology-related queries. He is also currently writing a book on dinosaurs for the Sigma series of science titles for the Bloomsbury Press.

David has also written for the National Geographic magazine and the BBC Walking with Dinosaurs website. He has appeared on many television networks, including the Discovery Channel, commenting on dinosaur stories, He has also appeared on television in China, where he lived for three years whilst carrying out research.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us

Julie Summers

Friday November 21st 2014

Julie Summers is an internationally-renowned biographer and historian, often focusing on people in taxing situations. For her talk in Wootton, Julie will tell the story of her great-uncle, Sandy Irvine, who was a key member of the 1924 Everest Expedition, along with George Mallory – the third British expedition to the world’s highest mountain, with this year the 90th anniversary.

While attempting the ascent of Everest, Irvine and Mallory disappeared somewhere high on the mountain's northeast ridge in one of the great mountaineering mysteries. The pair were last sighted only a few hundred metres from the summit and Mallory's body was subsequently discovered in 1999, although the body of Irvine, who was only 22, has never been found.

Julie’s book about the expedition, called Fearless on Everest, chronicles Irvine’s part in the climb, and there have been many competing theories on whether the pair reached the summit – 30 years before Hillary and Tenzing. Julie also contributed to the IMAX feature film about the climb, called The Wildest Dream, which was also broadcast on BBC Two.

Julie is recognized widely within the mountaineering literary world and is a judge at various events, such as the Banff Mountain Festival, and is chair of the Mountain Heritage Trust and represents the sport at Our Sporting Life, a major sports heritage event. She has also been involved for many years in the mountain festival at Kendal, in Cumbria, and has hosted the ceremony for the Boardman Tasker Prize - where she has interviewed climbers and writers, such as Chris Bonington, Ranulph Fiennes and Stephen Venables. The £3,000 prize commemorates the lives of Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker and is awarded for an original work which has made an outstanding contribution to mountain literature.

It was also recently announced that ITV is making a six-part drama based on Julie’s book, Jambusters, which chronicles the work of the WI on the Home Front during World War Two – and which is due to be broadcast in the autumn of 2015.

Julie’s other books include the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was caught in the icy deserts of Antarctica and The Colonel of Tamarkan – about Sir Philip Toosey, who spent years in the steaming jungle around the Death Railway, where he helped build the bridge on the River Kwai.

Julie’s book, Remembering Fromelles, was published in combination with an exhibition at The Imperial War Museum to mark the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s first new cemetery in half a century. The cemetery was constructed to hold the remains of up to 400 British and Australian soldiers found in a mass grave in Fromelles in Northern France. Julie has additionally released the audio book of The Colonel of Tamarkan, read by Anton Lesser, which was a runner-up in the Best Audio Book of the Year Award in 2010.

In addition to writing, Julie is an exhibition organizer and has masterminded ten exhibitions for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission over the past two years. She has also appeared on Radio 4’s Start the Week discussing her book, called Remembered, which is a history of the Commission’s work, and has made numerous appearances on Woman’s Hour about her work, including the book, Stranger in the House, which examined the effect on women of men returning from the Second World War. She has also lectured at the Royal Geographical Society, in London.

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Friday December 12th 2014 (70th Talk)

Drew is a leading English photographer who has worked for all the major national newspapers in the UK, as well as for many influential magazines overseas, including the National Geographic.

Drew will be giving an illustrated talk about his remarkable series of photographs, called The Descendants, in which he tracked down living descendants of famous people and recreated iconic paintings and photographs in minute detail, using costumiers, as well as hair and make-up artists.

The project was so complex logistically that it took a decade to complete and was a cornerstone of the recent highly successful Photography Oxford Festival and was featured in the Saturday magazine of The Times on September 20th.Among others, Drew’s photographs feature living descendants of the Mona Lisa, Napoleon Bonaparte, Clive of India, Charles Dickens, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Emmeline Pankhurst, Oliver Cromwell, Scott of the Antarctic and Horatio Nelson.

The level of research required was astonishing in the painstaking recreation of the original clothes, artefacts and the background.. For example, they hired experts in silk to recreate the Mona Lisa’s multi-layered dress, whilst also making an exact replica of her chair; they ingeniously copied the chains behind Brunel and even found an authentic rifle featured in the portrait of Robert Geronimo, descendant of the Apache chief, now living in New Mexico. Cromwell’s descendant, Charlie Bush was tracked down in Australia, where he was working as a farmer, and flown over to the UK for the sitting, for which the provenance of Cromwell’s chains had been found before being recreated.

Drew reflected that one of the most revealing aspects of the project was how it reminds everybody that these icons of history were living people – and that each photograph represents an unbroken genealogical line back to somebody who changed the world. --

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Richard Ovenden

Friday January 9th 2015

Richard was appointed as the 25th Bodley’s Librarian, in Oxford, last February, having worked at the library since 2003. As executive head of the Bodleian Libraries, he is the steward of more than 11 million printed items, in addition to 50,000 e-journals and a vast quantity of other material.

Richard has been at the forefront of the Bodleian’s efforts to acquire the personal archive of William Fox Talbot – considered the godfather of photography - in order to preserve one of the world’s most important collections and to encourage research in and around it at Oxford University.

The Bodleian’s appeal to raise £2.2 million to purchase the archive was launched in December 2012 and a large grant of £1.2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund gave the appeal a vital boost. With a recent gift of £200,000 from the Art Fund, along with donations from numerous other individuals and charitable trusts, the Bodleian managed to reach the final total in August 2014 and successfully secured the collection.

In spring 2014, sixteen images by leading contemporary photographers were donated for sale at Sotheby’s to support the campaign. They included Hiroshi Sugimoto, the New-York based Japanese photographer and architect; Miles Aldridge and John Swannell, the fashion photographers; Nadav Kander, London based photographer, artist and director, known for his portraiture and landscapes; Candida Ho?fer, internationally-renowned photographer from Germany; Massimo Vitali, Italian photographer; and Martin Parr, award-winning British documentary photographer, film-maker and photojournalist.

Richard has worked as a professional librarian since 1985 and served on the staff of Durham University Library, the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland (as Deputy Head of the Rare Books Section), the University of Edinburgh, as Director of Collections, and since 2003 at the Bodleian Libraries - first as Keeper of Special Collections and then, from 2011, as Deputy Librarian.

On his appointment as Bodley’s Librarian, Richard emphasied that the Bodleian stands at the heart of the university, working in partnership with all of the academic disciplines and supporting international scholars, as well as the people of Oxford and throughout the world who access the Bodleian digitally or visit its exhibitions.

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Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Friday February 6th 2015

Lucy is a cultural historian and author of The Pike, the smash-hit biography of the debauched Italian poet, daredevil and fascist Gabriele D’Annuzio, which won universal and unequivocal praise from reviewers and was garlanded with awards.

Last year, the book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and it was also given the 2013 Costa Book Award for biography, the Duff Cooper Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the Paddy Power Political biography of the Year. The Pike recounts how, in September 1919, D’Annunzio, a successful poet and occasional politician, declared himself Commandante of the city of Fiume in modern-day Croatia.

His intention was to establish a utopia based on his fascist and artistic ideals - and it proved the dramatic pinnacle to an outrageous career. D’Annunzio became a national hero and his evolution from idealist romantic to radical right-wing revolutionary is seen as a political parable. His ideological journey, culminating in the failure of the Fiume project, reflects the political turbulence of early 20th-century Europe and the emergence of fascism.

In The Pike, Lucy addresses the cult of nationalism and the origins of political extremism – and at the centre of the book stands the charismatic D’Annunzio - a figure as deplorable as he is fascinating.


Sunday Times - Hughes-Hallett has a great talent for encapsulating an era or an attitude …The fact that almost 700 pages flew by bears testimony to how pleasurable and readable those pages were.

Francis Wheen, Daily Mail - This is a magnificent portrait of a preposterous character … D’Annunzio was deplorable, brilliant, ludicrous, tragic but above all irresistible, as hundreds of women could testify. His biographer has done him full justice.

Daily Telegraph - Hughes-Hallett chooses not to judge, taking the position that disapproval is not an interesting response. Instead she teases apart the man from his self-made myth… She is never seduced by her subject, repeatedly reminding us of his fundamental lack of empathy, something elegantly encapsulated by the cover image itself: D’Annunzio mirrored, frozen in self-admiration.

Lucy is also the author of Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions, which won both the Fawcett Prize and the Emily Toth Award. She also wrote the highly-praised Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen. Lucy has written book reviews for all the major newspapers, in particular The Sunday Times. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

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John Lloyd & John Mitchinson Talk, Summer 2009

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Wootton Stores - The Village Shop

Robin Laurance Photography

Ashmolean Museum

The Bodleian Library - Exhibitions and Events

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