Dear Readers, last week I had not one but two visits to the dentist, and his clinic happens to be just around the corner from the New River Walk. So, I took the opportunity to disappear into this magical path, which was once the last part of a system of watercourses that, from the 1600’s, brought water all the way from Hertfordshire to Sadlers’ Wells in North London. These days, the water mostly stops at the reservoirs in Stoke Newington, but a final trickle wends its way between the posh mansions of Canonbury, and the council houses along the Essex Road. To go through the gate is to leave the traffic noise and pollution of the city, and to enter a watery, cool, hidden world.
You might think that such an urban environment would be devoid of life but, just like the waterholes in Africa, it actually concentrates creatures who depend on streams and ponds. For example, it is very popular with moorhens.
There seemed to be a small family of moorhens every twenty metres or so, the babies at that wheezy stage where they are actually independent but still don’t like to be far away from their mother. I have to say that one thing I adore about moorhens and coots is their outsize feet. They always remind me of clowns, managing their super-sized digits. These long toes help them to spread their weight when they’re walking on weeds, and are even more pronounced when the chicks have just hatched, and look like black cotton-wool balls with giant spiders attached to each leg.
Islington council have put up some nest boxes (the sturdy concrete kind that deters squirrels and woodpeckers) and at least one was inhabited by a family of blue tits.
I love the eager little face peering out, but wonder how on earth the nestling got so high up in the box, and fear that he is standing on the heads of his less athletic siblings. I saw the parent birds fly in and out several times, so there are plenty of caterpillars about.
As I got towards the end of the path, I saw a man on a bike slow down, stop, look at a floating straw bale in the water (presumably put there to help clean up the water), and then pedal off. So, of course I slowed down for a look as well.
I think that this is a yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta), and I fear, judging by the size of him, that he may have been living here for a while. In the 1980’s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started a craze for pet terrapins, which many parents found themselves unable (sadly) to resist. Unfortunately, most people didn’t realise that terrapins are messy eaters, can be smelly if not cleaned out often enough and, worst of all, they have the audacity to grow bigger every year. Many of the reptiles found themselves liberated into rivers and ponds once they were no longer small and cute, and were found, in fact, to be live animals, not toys, with a propensity for grumpiness and a rather sharp bite. The film was reprised last year, and I suspect that a second wave of terrapin buying might have been encouraged. The red-eared terrapins that were the main victims last time are now banned from import, but several of their close relatives can still be purchased. Maybe this chap was one of those. At any rate, he seems happy enough at the moment, and maybe his sheltered situation and the abundance of food (there is one spot where ducks are regularly fed more bread than they can possibly eat) has seen him through the winters. I hope so, somehow. There is little evidence that an occasional terrapin does any harm, and no evidence that they are able to breed in this country, even if by a miracle they meet up with a friend of the opposite sex. If this chap lives out his remaining lonely days in the sunshine, I for one won’t begrudge him his fate.
It never fails to impress me how many secret places they are even in the busiest parts of London where, if you walk quietly and keep your eyes and ears open, you are bound to see something surprising, something that will take your mind off an impending dentist appointment and put all your worries on hold for a few sweet minutes. If you walk through these municipal gates, you may find a kind of enchantment.
I did, however, notice some very strange insect behaviour yesterday. There is a patch of cherry laurel, standing in full sun but without any flowers whatsoever, yet it was the hub of a lot of bee excitement, both bumblebees and honey bees. They seemed to be drinking or licking something from the undersides of the leaves, though when I turned the leaves over, I couldn’t see anything, or taste anything (I am definitely going to poison myself one of these days, but hopefully only mildly). Are the insects finding some water, I wonder, or are they (as my friend the beekeeper suggested) picking up honeydew from aphids? If anyone has any idea, do please tell! I am most intrigued.