Bath Botanical Gardens gets a visit from Bath City Language Coaching. Learn the origins of a few idioms and watch a squirrel nibble Simon’s conkers.
There are many parks in Bath, but my favourite is the Botanical Gardens. Every season provides the visitor with something different to see. In spring and summer the trees and beautiful flowers are in bloom, and the songs of newborn birds fill the air. In autumn the golden sunshine looks amazing as it shines weakly through the brown and orange leaves as they fall from the trees. And in the frosty winter there is a stillness as you walk on the crispy grass and past the frozen ponds.
But whenever you go, Bath Botanical Gardens always has its friendly squirrels that will come up to you begging for food. A friend of mine calls grey squirrels “rats with good PR”. She believes they are just vermin that look cute. It is believed that the grey squirrel was brought over to Britain in the 1890s and that they soon interbred to become super-squirrels who went on to wipe out the vast majority of British red squirrels. However, many scientists believe it is humans who are to blame for their spread throughout the UK. Most people see these fluffy foreigners as animals that need help, and we humans love to feed them. By giving them nuts and conkers (as I did on my visit), perhaps we are at fault.
Shortly after filming the video below, a woman approached my bench. She was being followed by about six squirrels, two magpies, and about twelve pigeons because she was throwing handfuls of seeds and nuts as she went. She told me she had names for some of the creatures that she sees everyday when she comes to feed them. She knew exactly when and where other species of birds would turn up. As soon as she mentioned John the Jay, a jay bird landed on a tree next to her. Then, she called out the name Goliath and a large black crow appeared. The woman told me she had found this bird on its own as a chick when it had fallen from its nest, so she had taken it home and nursed it back to health. Now, it comes every day to the same spot, where she throws pieces of cooked sausage into its open beak. Bath Botanical Gardens staff and the council have warned her she faces a fine if she continues feeding the birds and squirrels here, but she is undeterred. “The rats that come to pick up the excess food are wild rats and are different from the rats that live in the sewers,” she said. The pushchair she wheels around the Botanical Gardens does not contain a child, instead it is piled high with shopping bags containing plastic containers of nuts, seeds, meat, and other treats for the animals.
My trip to Bath Botanical Gardens was on a nippy November morning, and I was inspired to talk about the idiom “brass monkeys“, as in “it’s brass monkeys outside today“. This comes from the saying “it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” (meaning it’s very cold indeed).
According to some, in the days when sailing ships went to war, cannonballs were kept on a brass tray called a “monkey“. When the weather turned cold, the brass monkey would contract and the cannonballs would fall off. However, most historians think this explanation is completely false. Others say that the brass cannons were called “monkeys” and the firing lever was called a “tail”. When the weather was freezing, the tail would break off. The original saying might have been “it’s cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey”, and in later years people changed “tail” to “balls” in reference to brass statues of monkeys that had their testicles showing. Whatever the real origins, most British people will know what you mean by “it’s brass monkeys outside today“, even though the saying is going out of use.
Talking of monkeys, “I don’t give a monkey’s” (the full phrase being “I don’t give a monkey’s nuts“) means that you don’t care at all about something. The woman I met in the park “couldn’t give a monkey’s” about what the Bath Botanical Gardens staff say about her feeding the animals there. She is determined to carry on. And fair play to her.