Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Abel Chapman of Houxty (NY856784)

Houxty is a large-ish residence which sits on the west bank of the River North Tyne about a mile upstream from Wark. Its supreme claim to fame is that it was the home of well-known naturalist Abel Chapman for the last 30+ years of his life. Chapman, well-educated and widely travelled, was one of those great conundrums of his age: both a keen game hunter and an enthusiastic protector of the natural world.

Chapman was born in Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, in 1851, into a fairly well-to-do family with a long and strong interest in the very areas in which Abel was to excel. He spent his early years learning field-craft in the wilds of Northumberland, where he quickly developed a love of the outdoors. He attended Rugby School, then went into his father’s brewery business (Lambton’s) which enabled him to begin his overseas travels. As the years passed, he journeyed ever more widely, to take in hunting trips to, most notably and initially, Scandinavia and Spain. He co-wrote a book entitled Wild Norway concerning the former, and helped create a nature reserve in the latter – as well as (in Spain) discovering Europe's major breeding ground for the flamingo and saving the Spanish Ibex from extinction. Two books on his Spanish adventures followed.

After the family business was sold in 1897, he moved to Houxty in the North Tyne valley where he set about creating his own little nature reserve around his new home. When he moved in in 1898 it was a dilapidated sheep farm, but Chapman loved the spot on account of it being the haunt of blackcock. He rebuilt the house and laid out and managed the gardens, plantations and moorland thereabouts to attract wildlife which he could then study – a set-up which brought many other naturalists to his little estate, as well as a troop of boy scouts who visited him as part of the very first Baden-Powell scouting camp in 1908 who were staying a few miles away (see here).

Chapman later developed an interest in South Africa, his experiences there leading him to help form the early incarnation of their still-existing Kruger National Park. He continued to travel abroad, paradoxically both hunting and preserving wherever he went, wrote many works on his subject matter, and eventually died at Houxty in 1929, aged 77. His last words were “Take care of Dash,” his favourite spaniel.

During his hunting days Chapman amassed many wildlife specimens, which now lie scattered across natural history collections in London, Newcastle and his native Sunderland.

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