Picturesque port's feathers ruffled by film's legacy of doves

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The Independent Online

Visitors strolling along the cobbled streets of Charlestown's Georgian harbourside, admiring the tall ships at anchor, often describe the experience as like walking through a scene from a period drama.

They're not wrong. The Cornish port stood in for 18th-century Bristol in the long-running telelvision series Poldark. It was the backdrop for an adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion, and it also featured in the 1993 version of The Three Musketeers and in the wartime tale The Eagle Has Landed. That's without mentioning A Respectable Trade and Frenchman's Creek, also both set in the popular tourist town.

However, it is the avian legacy from the remake of another Austen tale, Mansfield Park, which is causing a stir in this picturesque corner of the world.

The producers of the 1999 film, starring Frances O'Connor as the grown up Fanny Price and Harold Pinter as her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, brought with them 200 white doves to feature in one of the dramatic closing sequences.

But when Hollywood called it a wrap and the stars moved on, they left the birds behind. Luckily for them, a local potter, Joan Fergus, took pity on the feathered extras and has been feeding them everyday since. That is until the end of this week when the 57-year-old retires. She fears that when she shuts up shop after 18 years in Charlestown no one will be left to take care of the birds, which have become a minor tourist attraction in their own right.

"I just don't know what is going to happen to them once I have gone," said Mrs Fergus. "They live in every nook and cranny they can get into around the harbour."

In what has become a daily ritual, she lays down birdseed at 10am each day, getting through 25kg every two weeks. "They are always here waiting for me. When I arrive they all go mad with excitement," she said.

Since they appeared in the film, numbers have dwindled to 78. A few members of the next generation have lost their brilliant white lustre after breeding with some of the local pigeons. Ornithologists think the birds are farm-bred white forms of the feral pigeon, a distant relative of the wild rock doves of western Scotland.

Charlestown's harbour was dug in the 1790s during the heyday of the china clay mining industry, by a local landowner, Charles Rashleigh, who named it after himself. The population grew from just nine to 3,184 at its height in 1911. Cornwall's mining went into terminal decline during the past century, however, and the port is now home to the Shipwreck Museum and is a stopping-off point for the nearby Eden Project.

Mrs Fergus thinks that the birds being left behind was the best thing about the film. "I did watch it because I wanted to see the birds, but I got bored. People love the doves here - they are not aggressive like the sea gulls. People are always asking if they can take them home and I tell them: 'If you can catch them you can have them'."