Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter T

T is for tortoise (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

T for tortoise. What is the attraction of this most uncuddly of animals? Perhaps it’s the nearest you can get to a pet dinosaur or perhaps it’s the idea of a domesticated reptile. The again, perhaps it’s simply that we can’t help but be moved by a creature that turns a slow steady gaze on our contrary world and moves on not a bit impressed. Daughter No 1 nearly gave home to a couple of tortoises after going on a night raid with a police inspector and his team in Birmingham (reporting on county lines for ITN). In between catching criminals (which they did) talk turned to to other things, like tortoises of which the inspector said he had a couple ready for new homes. Daughter No 1 was tempted but not being scheduled to go Birminghamwards in the near future nothing came of it … and then they got kittens.

T is for tortoise (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

One of the remarkable things about tortoises is their longevity. You can’t just take a tortoise on and think it’ll be nice for the children because the tortoise is very likely to outlive not only you and your children, your children’s children but their children too and it’s one heck of a responsibility to consider the need for ensuring a home for your pet 100 plus years down the line.  Of course, the fortunate tortoise finds itself in the right place at the right time so it can just jump ship from one life and disembark into the next – sometimes literally. Powderham Castle’s famous tortoise died in 2004 at, it is thought, 160 years of age. Probably born in Turkey he is documented as being found on board a Portuguese privateer  in 1854 by Capt. John Guy Courtenay-Everard of the Royal Navy. A stint as mascot to a number of navy vessels followed, including HMS Queen during the first bombardment of the besieged Sevastopol in the Crimean War (of which war he was the last survivor).

Detail of T is for tortoise (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Kind hands retired him to Powderham Castle, the home of the Earls of Devon where he lived out his days in the walled rose garden, a particular friend of the daughter of the 16th earl who said he recognised voices and would come to her – especially if offered a strawberry. Mating was attempted in 1926 and that was when he was discovered to be female. The name Timothy remained. During the war, she dug out her own air raid shelter under the terrace steps. Etched on her underside was the family motto “ubi lapsus, quid feci” (where have I fallen, what have I done) and from 1993 this was augmented by a less elegant though more useful label, “My name is Timothy. I am very old. Please do not pick me up.”

Sketches of T is for Tortoise

Timothy seems to be the go to name for tortoises after Gilbert White’s famous reptilian friend. Quentin Letts (now the Political Sketch writer in The Times) has a tortoise rather grandly called Tithonus (a prince of Troy and lover of the Goddess Eos, Goddess of Dawn). In his piece of April 16, in the early days of lockdown when news was a little thin,  Letts reported Tithonus’s attempt to do runner. Family scattered out of the garden, relieved to find Tithonus 50 yards away, near the road obviously trying to claw a lift into Hereford – maybe to get away from his name?

sketches of T is for Tortoise

Gilbert White’s Tiomothy was bequeathed to him by his much loved aunt when she died. He had known it well and had often observed its behaviour, being particularly interested in its preparation for hibernation and wondering whether birds did something similar (he never quite decided whether swallows migrated or hibernated). Ten days after his aunt’s death White dug Timothy out of his ‘hibernaculum’ in the flower border – Timothy resented the insult by hissing – packed him in earth and carted him back to Selbourne in a post chaise. On arrival, thoroughly awake, Timothy paced up and down the lawn a couple of times to familiarise himself with his new home and by evening he had found a new hibernaculum in another flower bed. To begin with White was inclined to think these inscrutable reptiles squandered all the many days God had granted to them and filled them with even less joy, but gradually he came to see Timothy as an individual. As Richard Mabey writes in his book about Gilbert White, White wasn’t great about individuating people. ” The humans in Gilbert White’s writings … sometimes seem a little like botanical specimens. Yet equally there are creatures who became known so intimately that they were looked on as humans, or at least as honorary parishioners.” Like Powderham’s  Timothy, Gilbert White’s tortoise turned out to be a girl.

Several Oxford colleges have tortoises. Oriel’s first tortoise (1896) became so familiar it was elected honorary vice president of a college society. It was replaced by two tortoises  whose shells bore the college arms, then in 1938 another one appeared, Testudo – the only tortoise whose birth was announced in The Times. Elizabeth Windsor’s first official visit to Oxford in May 1948 was marked by a surprise encounter with Testudo, as recorded by a photograph in the Oxford Mail.

Tortoise racing may fail to set the world alight but for one brief day a year in Oxford there are attempts to make something more of this fledgling sport. Rivalry is fierce and as the protagonists are anything but fierce, cheating is rampant. (The death of Corpus Christie’s own animal was concealed for years as borrowed animals were brought in for the event.) The race starts with tortoises being placed in the middle of a circle of lettuces (8m diameter). The first one to a lettuce wins. As male tortoises prefer sex to food, the thing to do is to field a female who likes her food and the males will follow … behind.  However, as we have seen, sexing tortoises is a bit of  lottery in itself, so it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Rosa Luxembourg had many successes for Balliol during her 42 years in college until one day she disappeared (probably hitched a lift to Hereford). In 2007 Chris Skidmore MP  a Christ Church graduate donated 2 tortoises, 1 to Christ Church and one to Balliol where he had attended an Open Day in 1999. Sadly, Balliol’s Matilda died in 2009. I think the event has become a bit too silly in recent years with reports of people in tortoise suits. The charm may have diminished accordingly.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted May 24, 2020 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    What wonderful tortoise tales! I must admit that like you, I feel that an event which includes humans dressing as tortoises may have less charm than one which doesn’t!

    • Mary Addison
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      Getting dressed up rather takes the spotlight off the tortoises!

  2. Amara Bray
    Posted May 26, 2020 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    What a charming post. I love these stories thank you.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

      That’s good to know, Amara, thank you.

  3. Nella
    Posted May 27, 2020 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Mary for another charming post. Who knew tortoises could be so fascinating!

    • Mary Addison
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

      And that’s even without mentioning Roald Dahl’s Esrio Trot!

  4. Jenny Moore
    Posted May 30, 2020 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this post, thank you. I have a tortoise – taken over from a family member who couldn’t look after him any more – and he’s surprisingly characterful. We don’t know quite how old he is but he’s been in the family for at least 50 years and was probably fully-grown when he arrived, so it’s anyone’s guess. He ambles over to me when I speak to him (mainly because I usually have food, I suspect), and is very speedy when he feels like it – in fact we’ve caught him staging two escape attempts from his large, secure (or so we thought) outdoor garden area in recent days, meaning our weekend will be spent trying to identify and block any weaknesses in the perimeter. Being outfoxed by a very small tortoise is an interesting experience…..!

    • Mary Addison
      Posted May 30, 2020 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      That’s a lovely image of a feisty creature – how nice to hear. I like the idea of being outfoxed by a tortoise!

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