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Castles in the air

Picture gallery: David Pratley talks to newburytoday about his palaces fit for sparrows

Sarah Bosley

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Sarah Bosley

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Seeing a little sparrow hopping happily in and out of its nest is enough to make most people smile.

And it is with this in mind that David Pratley spends hours at his workbench, painstakingly creating tiny, intricate homes for these feathery friends.

“I am a firm believer in spreading a little bit of sunshine where you can,” says the 77-year-old from Newbury. And that is exactly what his bird boxes do for all of the children who pass his home on their way to and from John Rankin Schools every day.

“It started when I made an elaborate bird table as a gift for someone and it just went from there,” says David.

The former engineer, who started his career as a draughtsman before he began working for a Hungerford company that made technical instruments, has now created a number of ornate bird boxes of local buildings, including Highclere Castle and Newbury Town Hall.

They are all made to scale and contain such complex details as the exact number of windows in the original building.

David, who was born in the same road that he now lives in, takes photographs of the building and then scales them up to work out the exact measurements needed for his box.

He creates the actual nest box itself first, as he says that is what governs the size of the whole structure.

He then spends around five weeks on each box, which is made out of solid timber, usually oak or teak.

“Basically, I go out and buy old furniture, then smash it up and build the boxes out of it,” he laughs, recalling the bemused faces of the people he has bought wood from over the years.

Since he began crafting his little masterpieces around five years ago, David has been seeing the town with a renewed clarity.

“It is only when you start doing something like this that you realise how much you have never actually seen,” he explains.

“That was the case with Newbury Town Hall. I couldn’t get the sides to fit together, so I went to have another look and realised that the corner is block stone not brick like the rest of it.

“It is also three storeys high around the side, while only two on Market Place.”

The pleasure that David gets from seeing the birds actually using the boxes is also evident.

“This year all of the boxes had a minimum of four sparrows in each... and experts say there aren’t as many sparrows around nowadays,” he enthuses.

“This year was phenomenal, with each pair having three broods each.

“Around February time they usually all come back again and I feed them, but it became difficult because of cats.

“So I decided to design a bird feeder that only sparrows could get in to. After much trial and error, I managed it.”

But not everybody likes to use the delicate structures for the purpose for which they are built.

“My niece married at Highclere Church so I built one of that for her.

“It was probably the most difficult one I’ve ever done and now it is on display in her living room because she won’t put it up outside.”

With his engineering background it is easy to see why David has slipped into this craft.

“It was a hobby and a job and I just kept on making things,” he says.

“I used to make crystal sets too, but for me it was really all about designing and making the machine to cut the stones.

“I am a firm believer in keeping my old grey cells going and that is what this does. It keeps me occupied.”

There is one building, however, that he admits has defeated him.

“I was asked to do the Catholic church in Newbury [St Joseph’s, just off the Robin Hood roundabout], but I think I am going to have to admit defeat on that one; it is just too difficult.”

Although he says there is no more room for his creations on his own walls, he is still constructing two more boxes as surprise Christmas presents for friends.

After that he may finally hang up his chisel and lathe, but the children passing on their way to school will still be able to enjoy the familiar sight of the sparrows darting in and out of their stately homes for many years to come.

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