Lizards, Newts and Natterjacks

The sandhills and beach at Ainsdale, where natterjack toads and sand lizards abounded in the 1950s.

The sandhills and beach at Ainsdale, where natterjack toads and sand lizards abounded in the 1950s.

My fondest memories are of Ainsdale, near Southport, where I was brought up in the early 1950s. My father took me for rides on a chair attached to the back of his bicycle. He’d chain up his bike near the golf course and we’d be off on one of our many nature walks.

We crossed dunes, ventured through pinewoods, combed the beach and inspected fresh water pools and slacks. We had our favourite spots for looking for lizards, and nearly always saw one. Fresh water pools had newts in them, and we often came across a natterjack toad, sporting a yellow stripe down the middle of its back.

My father knew where to look for owl pellets on the ground. It was quite amazing to see him pull them apart and show me the bones and even the whole skull of a small rodent. We walked by one spot where we regularly heard a loud ‘plop!’ as we approached a water hole. Eventually we tracked down a water vole that used to sit on a bank then dive into the water as we approached. Nature seemed so bountiful.

Ainsdale still has one of the best-preserved dune systems in the country, but there’s been considerable development since my childhood. Several of the species my father and I saw regularly are now much rarer and protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Off on another nature hunt! David on the back of his father’s bicycle.

Off on another nature hunt! David on the back of his father’s bicycle.

I also had several adventures on my own. I once found a dead hedgehog at the bottom of our garden. I gave it a privileged position on the seat of a go-cart which my father had made from old fruit boxes and pram wheels, and pulled it up and down the road so that all the neighbours could see my find. It was one of the proudest days of my life!

My mother persuaded me to bury the hedgehog. I did this, but couldn’t resist the temptation to dig it up after a couple of weeks to check that it really was dead, and not pretending. Sure enough it was covered in maggots. I left it alone after that!

On another occasion I got through a hole in the fence and ventured into Mr. Northrop’s garden next door. Mr. Northrop had a shed that was raised from the ground, and I was able to crawl underneath it. I explored the darkness as if it were a newly-discovered continent, and to my delight I discovered the largest frog I’d ever seen, hiding in a corner. I reached out with both hands, and it was mine!

Needing to share my joy I rushed into Mr. Northrop’s back door to show him my find. He was startled to see me, and the frog slipped from my fingers and started jumping around the kitchen floor. I was amazed to see that our neighbour didn’t appreciate the frog, and even told me to get it out of his house!

When I grew older I visited a friend, Roy, and had tea at his house. The next day he confided in me that he’d told his mother I knew more about lizards than anyone else in the school. Apparently Roy’s mother had said I even looked like a lizard myself. I was really flattered that a grown woman found me so attractive!

We moved house soon after my eighth birthday and I spent the 1960s in West Kirby, Wirral. It was a sad farewell to the friends and the nature of my childhood,

David Healey.

David Healey’s father Alex, a lover of nature.

David Healey’s father Alex, a lover of nature.