Dear Readers, for many years I have been intrigued by the idea of the Flâneur. This was a 19th century French character, invariably male, who would wander around a city wearing a top-hat and carrying a cane, and was described as a ‘connoisseur of the street’. He would get into all kinds of adventures and encounters, and would have a thoroughly interesting time. However for women, it was somewhat different. In her new book ‘Flâneuse – the (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities’, Lauren Elkin records how women doing exactly the same thing as the Flâneur could be subject to harassment and suspicion, and were sometimes accosted or even arrested. Nonetheless, I strolled forth intrepidly (though without top-hat and cane) to explore the County Roads here in East Finchley.
The County Roads are a set of six roads, built at the turn of the twentieth century, and they are all named after old English counties: Lincoln, Leicester, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford and Durham. They are a jumble of different Victorian/Edwardian styles, and vary from the ornate to the simple, from the grand to the (relatively) humble. What they all have, however, are front gardens, and for a naturalist like myself, that’s good enough. Who knows what I might see? I was especially intrigued to see how the pollinators were getting on, and what was attracting their interest.
My first step was right outside my front door, to admire my giant buddleia. It is true that it needs yet another prune, but I’m reluctant to get rid of those enormous racemes of flowers just yet. Plus, the more I hack at it, the larger it grows. Yesterday afternoon, it largely attracted honeybees.
Onwards! I head down to the High Road and, as if for the first time, notice what a strange shape the London Plane trees are after their pollarding. Each one appears to be trying to accommodate the buildings around it. Apart from the peculiar topiary effect, however, they are looking very healthy at the moment, though we could do with some rain – my water butt has run dry for the first time since we installed it five years ago. Every night the clouds gather and then dissipate away over Muswell Hill. Who knows what we have done to anger the gods.If bumblebees could vote with their many little hooked feet, I’m sure they would put their crosses down for lavender. The County Roads are very obliging in this respect, and there is a fine patch at All Saint’s Church on Durham Road, while many individual houses have handsome stands of the plant.
Alongside some very splendid cultivated sweet peas, there are some stands of a wild cousin, Broad-leaved Everlasting Peas (Lathyrus latifolius), and very pretty it is too.
I stop to congratulate a man who is two-thirds of the way up a ladder, re-painting some of his plasterwork cornice. He nearly falls off with shock, but recovers himself to say how much he loves these old buildings and the little details that make them different from one another. I couldn’t agree more.
Someone is having much more luck with Nepeta (Cat Mint) than I did. I planted mine in a pot, and came downstairs to find that I had apparently grown a cat, though it just turned out to be some stoned feline who had crushed it in his frenzy, and who gazed at me with a demented expression.
I stopped to view a particularly wildlife-friendly garden that met with full Bugwoman approval. It had verbena and nicotiana (for the moths), some sedum just ready to come into flower, an interesting yellow vetch and all manner of other delights. I stopped to photograph it when, dear reader, I was finally accosted, by a lovely lady with a bunch of lavender from her allotment in her hand. She asked me if I was Bugwoman, and so of course I could not demur. Then another lovely lady approached, and I was introduced to her too. My cover was blown! Maybe I should create a Bugwoman costume, perhaps with dangly antennae and wings, though it might be difficult to handle the camera with extra legs.
Now, East Finchley readers, have you noticed our magnificent pigeons? We have our fair share of the normal blue-grey birds, and very fine they are too. But we have more than our share of birds which are partially white, and also ones that have a pinky-grey colouration, which is known as ‘red’ in the trade, I think. Huntingdon Road has its own resident pair of red birds, which I fear is due to the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner, and concomitant rubbish which is strewn at that end of the street (in spite of the litter bin). (Don’t get me started).
As I loop up towards the corner of Bedford and Durham Road, I stop to look at the fennel growing in one of the gardens. All of the umbellifers (plants with flat, multi-flowered blooms like Cow Parsley and Hog Weed) are pollinated by insects smaller than bumblebees: all kinds of flies, wasps, honeybees and beetles. It is thought that flies, in particular, are not so skilled at pollination, and don’t have the ability to cope with the complicated flowers that bumblebees do, so they tend to prefer single flowers, and lots of them.
And some surprisingly complicated flowers can be ‘cracked’ by bumblebees, who really are the brains of the pollinator world. It’s been shown that, given sufficient incentive, they can tell the difference between human faces, so a passion flower is easy-peasy.
As I make my last turn around the County Roads, the sound of cawing alerts me to the fact that the crow family have reproduced successfully again. Earlier, one of the parent birds was trying to persuade a fledgling to come down and eat a suspiciously new-looking slice of bread that they had filched. By the time I returned, the adult was watching as the youngster pecked about in the gutter of a nearby house, looking for food.
Dear Readers, I had a very fine walk around the County Roads, and I wasn’t arrested once. Even in a built-up area there is lots to see and enjoy. I would like to leave you with a brief clip of the bees feeding on a particularly lovely patch of lavender, where the heat of the sun was bringing up the scent, and the lazy droning of the insects (only partially obliterated by a plane heading home to Heathrow) made me wish that I had brought a deckchair with me. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. There is so much more ‘nature’ in a city than people often think.