Dear Readers, once something that you’ve worked hard for (such as a 60th Wedding Anniversary Party) is over, it’s easy to feel a bit purposeless and downhearted. As I dragged myself through my daily routine this week, I found myself wondering ‘what did I do with my life before I was organising flowers and negotiating about cakes?’ And more to the point, how do I reconnect with my life again? As usual, my answer is to step outside and see what’s going on in the garden. I feel as if I haven’t really ‘seen’ it for weeks. My first thought is ‘wow, what a lot of spiders’ webs there are’.
My second reaction is that the garden is a mess, even worse than it usually is at this time of year. The reeds in the pond are sagging, but are not yet far enough gone to be cut back. The jasmine definitely needs some work. Getting the whitebeam and the hawthorn trimmed last year was a great idea but, as the tree surgeon warned me, it just means that they grow back thicker. But then I stopped seeing what was wrong, and started to be drawn in.
I have a climbing hydrangea in the dark side-return of my house, and I have been amazed with how it can cling on to anything. One long stem has nearly reached next-door’s gutter, and I foresee much standing on stepladders to dissuade it. However, the way it produces roots from its stem fascinates me – it’s easy to forget that plants are mobile, because they move on such a slow timescale, but I’m sure that a timelapse of this plant would see it reaching out with its ‘fingers’, looking for a holdfast and growing towards the sun.
The aerial roots of Hydrangea petiolaris
The hydrangea was full of flowers this year, and even after they’ve died I love the way that they hold spiders’ webs and raindrops. Every so often the right plant ends up in the right place, and this is definitely one of them.
The dead flowers of the climbing hydrangea
Further along the fence, the bittersweet is full of berries,their colour changing from green to deepest scarlet. They look just like little tomatoes. I was going to root the plant out, until I saw how much the carder bumblebees loved the flowers.
The wooden steps down to the pond are slippery and so it takes care to negotiate them, but slowing down is no bad thing – I hear the plops of the frogs leaping into the pond, and see their little heads popping back up amongst the water lily pads. This area got really overgrown with great willowherb this year, and I made the decision to grub it up and replace it with some meadowsweet and some smaller loosestrife. We’ll see how it goes. The pendulous sedge has gotten a bit out of hand as well, so I might try to trim it back – it provides great cover for the little frogs, but it’s such a thug. Still, I am delighted to have my first ever bulrushes. It’s the little things that keep me going, to be sure.
My very first bulrush!
Evidence of a rapid escape?
My Himalayan Honeysuckle is doing very well this year, too – it is covered in flowers, which will be useful for the bees on a warm autumn day. The Rozanne geraniums are still in full flower, in spite of their shady, inauspicious position. I really don’t mind plants self-seeding in the woody area, because it’s so difficult to find anything that’s happy there. And my Rosa rugosa has a single rosehip.
Hardy Rozanne geraniums
My lone rosehip
Last year’s marigolds have multiplied! I buy plants from Sarah Raven whenever I can afford it, and have been extremely happy with the quality.
The end of the garden is in need of some strict discipline too, but not yet. I love the way that the vine has formed a red waterfall over the bamboo. I shall tackle it once the leaves have dropped off, because it’s so vigorous that it’s taken over one of our chairs.
My viney ‘waterfall’
This has been a great year for the crab apple too, and the self-seeded cherry laurel is being allowed to remain because the flowers are so popular with pollinators.
I have another hydrangea here too, and the long panicles are full of pollen in the late summer.
And so, although I need to do some work in the garden, it’s still full of wonders. I top up the bird feeders and within seconds, the blue tits have arrived, along with a very fine coal tit.
Blue tit visiting the refilled suet feeder
The pace of life is speeding up in the garden, and in the street – when I came home the other day every television aerial had a group of wheezy starlings on it. Hard times could be ahead, depending on the severity of the winter, and all of nature knows it. And for me, just half an hour outside has put me back where I like to be – in touch with what’s going on in a world that’s so much bigger than just me.
Plus, now Mum and Dad fancy going on a cruise. I foresee my project manager hat being dusted off very soon!
Dad giving his 60th Wedding Anniversary speech, while Mum offers encouragement….
Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Fuchsia at the side of All Saints Church, East Finchley
Dear Readers, I have always been fascinated by the flowers of the fuchsia. They remind me of dancing ladies with twirly skirts. There are the hardier, shrubbier ones like the ‘Hawkshead’ variety in the picture above. Then there are the more delicate ones, some with enormous flowers. There are several fine fuchsia hedges in the County Roads in East Finchley, all in full flower at this time of year.
Fuchsia on Durham Road, East Finchley
Yet, these plants are a very long way from home. Most fuchsias come from Central and South America, with a small contingent in New Zealand, Hispaniola and Tahiti. In their native countries the flowers are mostly bird-pollinated, which explains why they are usually red – birds are attracted by the colour, bees not so much.However, some of our native birds, particularly starlings and sparrows, have learned to take advantage of the nectar, and so have bumblebees, those Einsteins of the insect world.
The fuchsias from Oceania are extremely exotic-looking plants, not the kind of things that you would see in your average hanging basket. Here, for example, is the New Zealand fuchsia, Fuchsia procumbens, a creeping plant rather than the more familiar bushy one.
Fuchsia procumbens, from New Zealand
And here is another New Zealand fuchsia, Fuchsia excortica, or the fuchsia tree. It grows up to 50 feet tall and is the largest of all the fuchsia species. I am particularly taken with the blue pollen.
The Pacific fuchsias are said to have diverged from the rest of the family over 30 million years ago.
Fuchsia excortica, or the fuchsia tree.
However, the plants that we grow in our gardens are largely from the South/Central American side of the family. There are an extraordinary number of varieties, as you will find at any garden centre (or in the photo below from the 2011 BBC Gardeners’ World Show). Most of these pretty plants will not survive the winter, but they do grow very well from cuttings.
Cultivated fuchsias at the BBC Gardeners’ World show
Fuchsias are named after the eminent German physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501 -1566). We should probably therefore be pronouncing the flower as ‘fooks-ya’ rather than ‘fyusha’, although I can see that misunderstandings might arise from the first way of saying the name. Furthermore, the Latin pronounciation would be ‘fook-see-a’ which might be even more problematic. Better to stick with ‘fyusha’, on balance, incorrect or not.
You might think that such a tender plant would not naturalise easily in the UK. However, Fuchsia magellanica, or the hardy fuchsia, is very at home in places such as the west of Ireland with its damp, mild climate, and can be seen making a psychedelic display alongside the naturalised montbretia,
Or, you might see the plant happily engulfing an abandoned tractor.
Fuchsia magellanica engulfing a tractor in Kerry, Ireland
Whenever I see a fuchsia bush, I always have a good look to see if I can see any of these extraordinary creatures.
This is an elephant hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor). Although its native food source is willowherb and bedstraw, it seems to have taken a liking to fuchsia. If you have some of the plant in the garden, it’s always worth checking out, though don’t be surprised if the three-inch long caterpillar rears up and takes on the appearance of a four-eyed snake. I should think that this would be enough to scare any inquisitive bird out of its wits.
The adult moth is an extraordinary candy-coloured creature.
Elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor)
You might think that the flowers of the fuchsia would be a pretty addition to a cake or a summer drink, and you’d be right – unless they’ve been sprayed with something, the flowers of all fuchsia species are edible. What I didn’t realise was that the berries are consumed wherever the plant grows wild, from Costa Rica to Hispaniola. The taste varies from deliciously sweet to ‘meh’. For some fuchsia berry jam recipes, and an interesting guide to edible fuchsias, have a look at the ‘Fuchsias in the City’ blog here.
The berries were also used by the Maori in an aromatic post-childbirth bath, and the flowers can be used to produce a red dye.
You might expect such a handsome and exotic plant to feature in a few still-lives, and here it is, indeed.
Lilies and fuchsias by Johan Laurentz Jensen (1800-1856) (Public Domain)
But here it is attracting the attention of Egon Schiele, better known for his self-portraits and his explicitly sexual nudes ( one of the more ‘Safe For Work’ examples is shown below). Schiele painted very few still lives, and i wonder if the exotic form of the flowers was what fascinated him, as it does me. There was something of a hothouse atmosphere in Vienna when he was painting there, for sure.
Incidentally, for anyone wanting to see an exhibition of the drawings of Schiele and his contemporary, Klimt, there is a link to the Royal Academy’s 2018 show here.
Fuchsienzweige by Egon Schiele (1910) (Public Domain)
Green Stockings by Egon Schiele (1914) (Public Domain)
Finally, I cannot here the word ‘fuchsia’ without thinking of Lady Fuchsia Groan from Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary Gormenghast trilogy. Lovely readers, you can keep your Lord of the Rings, just leave me in a quiet corner with Gormenghast and I’ll be happy for at least a week. If you love all things gothic and slightly twisted, if you enjoy a building that’s as much a character as the humans, you’re in for a treat. Ignore the TV series of a few years back -nothing can encapsulate this strange, rich world.
Fuchsia is the sister of our hero, Titus Groan. She is 15 when he is born, and, being a girl, she cannot inherit and is furious with her little brother for existing at all. She expresses great glee when he is dropped on his head during the naming ceremony, which involves him being wrapped in the pages of the book containing all the law of Gormenghast. Peake introduces her to us thus:
‘As his lord stared at the door another figure appeared, a girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered.
A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was a flaming red.
For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch. ‘Come here’, said Lord Groan as she was about to pass him and the doctor.
‘Yes father’, she said huskily.
‘Where have you been for the last fortnight, Fuchsia?’
‘Oh, here and there, father’ she said, staring at her shoes. She tossed her long hair and it flapped down her back like a pirate’s flag. She stood in about as awkward a manner as could be conceived. Utterly un-feminine – no man couldd have invented it.
“Here and there?” echoed her father in a weary voice. “What does ‘here and there’ mean? You’ve been hiding. Where, girl?” “‘N the libr’y and ‘n the armoury, ‘n walking about a lot”, said Lady Fuchsia, and her sullen eyes narrowed. “I just heard silly rumours about mother. They said I’ve got a brother — idiots! idiots! I hate them. I havn’t, have I? Have I?” “A little brother”, broke in Doctor Prunesquallor. “Yes, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, a minute, infinitesimal, microscopic addition to the famous line is now behind this bedroom door. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, he, he, he, he! Oh yes! Ha ha! Oh yes indeed! Very much so.”
“No!” said Fuchsia so loudly that the doctor coughed crisply and his lordship took a step forward with his eyes drawn together and a sad curl at the corner of his mouth.
“It’s not true!” shouted Fuchsia, turning from them and twirling a great lock of black hair round and round her wrist. “I don’t believe it! Let me go! Let me go!”
As no one was touching her, her cry was unnecessary and she turned and ran with strange bounds along the corridor that led from the landing. Before she was lost to view, Steerpike could hear her voice shouting from the distance, “Oh how I hate people!”.’
And how this exchange conjures up all the overheated arguments of the teenage years. Gormenghast is wild fantasy, but Peake’s characters are never less than human.
An ink drawing of Fuchsia Gormenghast by her creator, Mervyn Peake (Public Domain)
Dear Readers, many of you have been following the tale of my Mum and Dad’s 60th Anniversary Party for the past year, with all its ups and downs. Regular visitors here will know that neither of them are in the best of health, and indeed just a fortnight ago, Mum was in hospital following a suspected heart attack, so it has been stressful for all of us. But on Thursday the day finally arrived. This is the scene in the Sealy Suite at the Crown Hotel in Blandford Forum just before all the people arrived to make it untidy.
The calm before the storm…..
You can get a message of congratulations if you’ve been married for 60 years, and so the postman was very impressed when the ‘by appointment’ envelope arrived on Wednesday. Mum noticed that there was no postage on it, so I pointed out that it’s not called the Royal Mail for nothing. Mum was absolutely delighted, and everyone got a chance to admire the card.
Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1957. And The Card.
A local lady called Eva made the most spectacular pair of heart-shaped cakes, one coconut and one lemon, with individually-created sugar flowers on top. The real flowers included apricot roses and mum’s favourite, freesias.
And then everyone started to arrive – we had 49 guests, and everyone was in a celebratory mood. There was a palpable feeling of affection in the room which it was lovely to be part of. I had worries when Mum and Dad upped sticks 17 years ago, to leave London and live in Dorset, but I had underestimated how welcoming Milborne St Andrew was, and how adaptable and friendly my parents are. They became involved locally, but they never tried to take over, a mistake that people sometimes make when they move somewhere new. And now, it feels as if they really are part of a proper community. It makes me very happy.
Dad stood up to give a speech. He’d lost his reading glasses, which didn’t help when he came to read his notes. Then Mum joined in, and she’s a natural comedian. I honestly think she missed her vocation. And everyone cheered and clapped, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t quite as Dad had intended, because people understood the spirit in which it was intended. And my brother made a speech celebrating those 60 years together, and everyone clapped and cheered again.
And then, we had the cutting of those beautiful cakes.
Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….
And the following day, Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, even better than her wedding. So it was worth all the sleepless nights and the playing with spreadsheets and the organising of menus.
I’d better make the best of the break, though. Mum and Dad are now talking about her 65th Wedding Anniversary party.
Dear Readers, many of you have been following the story of my Mum and Dad’s 60th Anniversary Party last Thursday. It went very well, and for some photos and a few more details, have a look at my second post today called ‘The Party’. On the other hand, if you come here for the wildlife, read on……
False Widow Spider (Steadota sp.)
Dear Readers, I know that autumn has arrived when I can’t get to the shed without walking through a web, and when the children returning from school always stop to point at the many, many spiders who are making their homes in the lavender in my front garden. However, it is surprising to see how many different habitats these creatures can make use of, and how thoroughly at home they can make themselves with the slightest of encouragement.
Apologies in advance to any arachnophobic readers. You might want to move on at this point. No spiders next week, I promise.
if you want to create a wildlife reserve actually inside your house, I can recommend nothing more than a disinclination to dust and some old-fashioned sash windows. For, at the back of my house, guarding the kitchen and gobbling up all manner of small insects is a rather splendid False Widow Spider. I have no idea of the species, because this can only be determined by killing the spider and dissecting her genitalia, and I have no intention of doing any such thing. Instead, I am watching the spider (who I have named Beverley on the basis that this can be a male or female name, and his/her sex is yet another thing that I don’t know) as s/he goes about the business of repairing her web.
For most of the day, s/he keeps a low profile in the little hole that used to house a window lock.
Yoo hoo Beverley!
But sometimes she ventures out to see what’s going on. Her web reminds me rather of Stratford Bus Station (or maybe that’s just me).
Stratford Bus Station
False Widows have been the subject of many overwrought headlines in the more distasteful parts of the British press, and I dread to think how many perfectly innocent spiders have been squished to ‘save our children’ from being bitten. Just persuade little Johnnie not to stick his finger into the spider’s house and all shall be well. Even the mention of ‘Widow’ can be enough to put some people into a flap, in spite of the word ‘False’ at the start. But it’s probably just as well not to get me started, or we shall be here all day.
Apparently a female False Widow can live for up to five years, and as I’ve had a spider living here for a while, I’m guessing that she may turn into a long-term companion.
Anyhow, as far as I’m concerned s/he is not just a spider, but is guarding the back entrance of the house from from evildoers like a trusty bullmastiff. As her web is stronger, pound for pound, than steel, I feel that this is only a slight overstatement.
But who is guarding the front of the house? Meet Frances/Francis.
Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus)
Fran has made a web the size of the entire windowpane, and seems to be growing bigger every day. I often wonder why there are no spiders about, and then suddenly hundreds of them, but it seems that it’s largely because, by the end of August, they’ve grown big enough for us to start paying attention.
I love the crucifix of white dots on the abdomen of these spiders, not to mention their little stripey legs. They seem, like caterpillars, to be creatures of childhood. My mother was terrified of spiders, but always managed to hide it from me, which meant that I found them delightful rather than horrifying. I always loved Charlotte, the canny spider of Charlotte’s Web, and would spend hours watching the spiders carefully spinning their webs.
Spiders seem to me to be something that we all have in common, for every nation that I know has some kind of spider that spins an orb web and has a whole mass of folklore about the creature, from the Ancient Egyptian goddess Neith (thought to be the precursor to the Babylonian Ishtar and the Greek Arachne) to Anansi in Western Africa, and the Lakota Iktomi. Spiders feature in Australian Aboriginal art, in the ancient mythology of Japan, and in both the Islamic and Judaic oral traditions. Who could not look at a spider and not marvel at her skill and her patience?
Francis/es and her/his reflection
But out in the shed, it’s a whole other story. The place is full of cobwebs, and the corpses of unfortunate flying insects who met their end amongst the bird food and the power tools. And, somewhat surprisingly, these spiders are the most ferocious of all, not to humans but to other spiders.
Cellar Spider (Pholcus phalangoides)
This creature is also known as the Daddy Long-Legs Spider, but that way madness lies. For me, a Daddy Long-Legs is a cranefly. In North America, a Daddy Long-Legs is what I call a harvestman. So I’m going to stick with calling these creatures Pholcus. They look like some kind of lunar landing module, or possibly a virus. You can tell you’ve found a Pholcus if you disturb it and it vibrates up and down like some kind of very, very angry small dog.
For all their sinister appearance, these spiders are totally harmless to humans. However, they seem to be adept at catching and eating other spiders, even those that are much larger than they are. My friends on the Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe Facebook group report that Pholcus reduce the biodiversity in their houses by killing and eating all the other spiders. Furthermore, they breed rapidly when happy, and can soon outnumber all the other species. Some members of the group devote themselves to catching every Pholcus they can find and putting it out into their sheds. I feel that I have fallen amongst friends. I thought I was the only person who would put off getting the window cleaner in until the winter because of the spiders, but it appears that there are numerous other folk who are just as eccentric as I am. Which is something of a relief.
So, there we have it. I’m sure this is only a tiny fraction of the spider species in and around my house – I haven’t seen an actual house spider this year, for example, and I’m sure that there are lots of others hiding in the undergrowth and lurking under stones. Personally, I find them fascinating, and I’m only sorry that the jumping spider who sometimes creeps across my front door like a Special Forces agent on surveillance didn’t put in an appearance. And soon, all these eight-legged wonders will disappear as autumn edges into winter, and all the adult spiders either die (many providing a meal for their offspring), or go into a state of torpor to wait out the cold. They represent a brief explosion of life, the last bloom before the stillness falls.
Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum sp)
Dear Readers, I found a tree pit full of nasturtiums in Muswell Hill today, and it occurred to me that I know next to nothing about this popular plant, except that it is often used as a peppery addition to salads, and that it is a favourite food of greenfly. As usual, the common name causes some confusion: Nasturtium is actually the generic name for watercress, and I assume that ‘our’ nasturtium got the name because of those tasty leaves. The actual genus name for this plant, Tropaeolum, was given because it reminded Linnaeus of an ancient Roman custom, where the armour and weapons of defeated enemies would hung from a pole called a tropaeum. The leaves reminded Linnaeus of shields, and the flowers of bloody helmets.
‘Our’ nasturtium is actually a hybrid of three wild species, all of which come from South America. It grows here as an annual, and seems to prefer full sun and poor soil – in rich soil, it produces lots of leaves but few flowers. It is much more of a scrambler than a vine, though it can overwhelm smaller, more delicate plants. I rather like the tumble of leaves above, and the variety of colours.
As mentioned above, the leaves of nasturtium can be eaten raw, but the flowers are also edible, and often show up in the dishes of high-end restaurants. In fact, there is a whole section of delicious recipes on the BBC Good Food website here, including one for caramel sticky toffee cake. It seems to me that the nasturtium flowers are not integral to the bake, but then anything with the words ‘caramel’ and ‘toffee’ in the title must be worth a look, regardless.
I have mentioned that nasturtiums attract a lot of aphids, and one reason for planting this exotic-looking interloper is as a companion plant, as the aphids attract ladybirds, lacewings and other predatory insects. Some gardeners also plant them as a ‘trap crop’ , in the belief that cabbage white butterfly caterpillars prefer nasturtiums to the broccoli and cavolo nero that has been planted for human consumption. I would love to hear what experience you intrepid vegetable gardeners have had.
Medicinally, nasturtium has been used to make cough medicine, and it is also said to have some antibiotic properties. In Germany there is a herbal antibiotic made solely from nasturtium leaves and horseradish root, for use in sinusitis, bronchitis and urinary tract infections. In a study it was comparable with ‘normal’ antibiotics, but had fewer side-effects. We will certainly need new antibiotics as bacteria continue to increase in resistance to our existing drugs, so this sounds most promising. On the other hand, as the article has been translated from the German, I do wonder if the ‘nasturtium’ is actually watercress. Such are the confusions of common names.
Nasturtiums were also caught up in a scientific debate over a mystery that became known ‘Elizabeth Linnaus phenomenon’ in the eighteenth century. Elizabeth was the daughter of the famed taxonomist Linnaeus. One evening in the family garden in Uppsala, Sweden, she noticed that, at dusk, the flowers of yellow and orange nasturtium appeared to ‘flash’. Although she was only 19 and had no formal education, she wrote a scientific paper about this strange sight, published in 1762. It was long believed that the ‘flashes’ were a result of some kind of electrical activity in the plant itself – it was a time when everyone was getting very excited about electricity, and were inclined to credit it for causing more or less everything. The idea influenced the poetry of Wordsworth, among others: think of his famous poem ‘Daffodils’:
‘They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude.’
Do daffodils ‘flash’? I’m not sure, and never have been, but the idea of flowers putting out little sparks of electricity was certainly on Wordsworth’s mind. And here is a quote from Coleridge’s poem ‘Lines Written at Shurton Bars’:
′Flashes the golden-coloured flower
A fair electric flame′
However, in 1914 the idea was finally debunked by Professor F.A.W Thomas of Germany, who revealed that the effect was an optical illusion, caused by the eye’s reaction to the contrast of the orange/yellow flowers and the green leaves at dusk. What a shame. I rather like the idea of flowers producing their own lightning.
Elizabeth Linnaeus (1743 -1782)(Public Domain)
I am frequently surprised by the places that this blog takes me, and so it is again today. I found this picture of nasturtiums by the Romanian painter Octav Bancila, and immediately assumed that he was a painter of still-lives.
Panselute (Octav Bancila, 1872-1944, date of painting unknown (Public Domain)
Bancila was, in fact, mostly a painter of people: the poor, the dispossessed, peasants and the Roma people, who were much despised (and still are today, and not just in Romania). Following the Romanian Peasants’ Revolt of 1907 he painted a series of pictures showing the conflict, including his most famous painting ‘1907’ showing a peasant running into gunfire.
1907 (Octav Bancila, painted in 1907) (Public Domain)
Bancila was a pacifist, and during World War One used his art to comment on the bloodshed of the conflict. He was also an ardent opponent of anti-semitism, and a supporter of worker’s rights. In other words, I wonder why I have never heard of him, and am very glad that nasturtiums have led me to him today.
And finally, a poem. This is from Thom Gunn’s 1992 collection ‘The Man With Night Sweats’, which is largely a meditation on the impact of AIDS on the gay community in New York during the terrible decade when the poems were written. There is a sense of hopefulness in this poem, however, a dream of escape and freedom. And like all well-observed work, it conjures the spirit of the plant, and of all the ‘weeds’ that we overlook.
Born in a sour waste lot
You laboured up to light,
Bunching what strength you’d got
And running out of sight
Through a knot-hole at last,
To come forth into sun
As if without a past,
Done with it, re-begun.
Now street-side of the fence
You take a few green turns,
Nimble in nonchalance
Before your first flower burns.
From poverty and prison
A prodigal has risen,
Self-spending, never spent.
Irregular yellow shell
And drooping spur behind . . .
Not rare but beautiful
—Street-handsome—as you wind
And leap, hold after hold,
A golden runaway
Still running, strewing gold
From side to side all day.
Dear Readers, I have always loved caterpillars. When I was a youngster, living in a tiny house in Stratford, the garden was full of the woolly bear larvae of tiger moths and yellow and black-striped cinnabar moth caterpillars. Once, I even found a spitting puss moth caterpillar. But they seem rarer these days, or maybe I just don’t pay as much attention as I used to. Anyway, this wonderful chap had been found in my friend A’s garden, and she had brought ‘him’ round for me to try to identify.
As it turns out, this is the caterpillar of the Knotgrass moth, a member of the Noctuid family of small, greyish-brown moths that make up 70% of all my finds if I put out a moth trap. The caterpillars are spectacular creatures, usually hairy, often brightly coloured. It seems almost a shame from a human point of view that they end up being so inconspicuous, but of course this works well for the moth. The hairs on the caterpillars are an irritant for predators (and also sensitive humans) but the moth has no defence except camouflage.
Caterpillars are curious creatures. The name literally means ‘hairy cat’ (from the Old French caterpelose’) although not all caterpillars are hairy. As any one who has ever looked after a caterpillar will tell you, they live to eat, and are perfectly adapted for the job. They have three pairs of ‘thoracic legs’ at the front, which they use for grasping the leaves that they eat: these are the ‘true legs’.Then there are a further five pairs of sucker-like legs, called prolegs, for hanging on to things – if you hold a caterpillar you will notice how hard they are to remove from your skin.
Although the head looks as if it has two enormous eyes, these are actually what’s known as the head capsule. The true eyes are tiny spots underneath. A caterpillar also has two tiny antennae underneath the eyes, and two very fine jaws for munching.
Caterpillars need to breathe, but they have no lungs – spiracles, tiny openings along the side of the animal, enable oxygen to reach the tissues of the animal directly, without the need for a complicated blood system. Caterpillars have no veins or arteries, but their organs, such as they are, are bathed in green ‘blood’ called hemolymph – the fluid itself is clear, but may be pigmented green by the caterpillar’s food.
You can see the spiracles of ‘our’ caterpillar in the photo below: the spiracles are the tiny white spots. Behind each one are a series of branching tunnels called tracheoles, which deliver the oxygen into the hemolymph and hence to the rest of the body, including the 4000 muscles (compared to a human’s 629) and the digestive organs.
This simple body system means that there are first aid measures that work well on insects in general, and caterpillars in particular. If a caterpillar tumbles into a water butt, for example, rolling it in kitchen paper to pull the water out of the spiracles can often effect a near miraculous recovery. Similarly, if a caterpillar is slightly punctured due to some unfortunate accident, a tiny piece of sticking plaster may preserve it until its next change of skin.When I was a child I planned to write a book called ‘The Caterpillar Hospital’, but feared that it might not have many takers. Instead, at age 8, I wrote a masterpiece called ‘Riding and Stable Management’ even though I’d never actually touched a horse, let alone ridden them. I followed this up with the magisterial ‘Snakes of the World’, although I had never seen a snake. It’s nice, these days, to be writing about plants and animals that I actually have some acquaintance with.
The locomotion of caterpillars is, for me, part of their enduring charm. I love the way that they wave the front half of their bodies in larger and larger circles, reaching out with their little ‘arms’ in the hope of grasping something tasty. They have very poor sight (as we’ve seen, those ‘big eyes’ are fake) so they do everything by scent (using those tiny tiny antennae) and taste. They also have a good sense of touch, which is amplified by all those hairs (technically ‘setae’). When touched, many caterpillars will hunch up to make themselves appear bigger (like this one does) or roll up like a Cumberland sausage and crash to the floor. After all, nearly every other creature, from the energetic blue tit to the near-invisible parasitic wasp, likes a tasty caterpillar.
Caterpillars don’t have a brain, as such – they have a line of nerves that resembles a vestigial spinal cord, but along their ventral surface. It’s safe to say that caterpillars need to be reactive when danger threatens, but they don’t need to mate, or indulge in social relationships, or bring up babies. They simply need to eat the right things, and as much of them as possible.
A butterfly, however, has a rudimentary brain, known as a cerebral ganglion, probably because its life has now gotten a lot more complicated – it needs to find a mate, maybe defend a territory, or even migrate for thousands of miles. However, recent research has shown that butterflies and moths remember what they learn as caterpillars. In the experiment, caterpillars were given a shock at the same time as being exposed to the smell of acetate, and as butterflies they would (very sensibly) avoid the smell. I do wonder why, instead of being scared out of their wits, the caterpillars couldn’t be given something overwhelmingly tasty, so that at least they had a pleasant memory rather than one based on fear and pain. The poor things probably need therapy to get over the trauma. It does show, though that there is much more to caterpillars than we understand.
For many children caterpillars are their first introductions to the strange and wonderful natural world outside their back door. They are ideal in many ways – small, harmless (unless you pick a dermatitis-inducing one) and they are easy to rear. They are not so easy, however, to take right through to the butterfly stage. Plus, I remember being filled with horror when a caterpillar that I was looking after literally exploded into a mass of parasitic wasp larvae. What lessons they can teach us about the short, brutal lives of many creatures, and the moments of soaring beauty that pepper existence.
Alice talking to the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, illustration by Arthur Rackham (Public Domain)
Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera)
Dear readers, I am glad to report that I have not yet seen Himalayan Balsam in my East Finchley ‘territory’, but when I spotted it on a trip to see my parents last week I realised that I wanted to write about it. It is a member of the busy lizzie family, but if you look at it through narrowed eyes it looks much like one of those exotic orchids that you can buy in Marks and Spencer. It’s also known as Policeman’s Helmet, for its hat-like shape.
It’s not hard to see why Himalayan balsam was introduced to the UK – it is a most attractive decorative plant, and comes in a wide variety of colours, from palest blush pink through princess-skirt pink right up to intense cerise. Is there something a little sinister about the buds though? The stems remind me of bony hands.
The plant is said to be sweet-smelling (though I would have had to wade through a drainage ditch to get to them, so I’ll take my plant guide’s word for it). It is certainly extremely popular with bees, though as the Non-native Species Secretariat points out, this could be a problem in itself, as, with fewer bees about, native plants might not receive so many visits from pollinators.. It is common throughout the UK – when I look at my Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain, all but the most mountainous areas of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are a solid red colour, indicating the presence of the plant. It is particularly implicated, according to the book, in replacing plants such as the tansy, which is the only food of the endangered tansy beetle.
Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
Tansy Beetle (Chrysolina graminis)
Himalayan balsam arrived in the UK in 1839, part of a trifecta of invasive plants that included Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed. These three were selected because of their ‘splendid invasiveness’ (which meant they were cheap) and their ‘herculean proportions’. Ten years after being introduced, Himalayan balsam was already galloping across the country like a runaway horse. The plant is an annual, but its seeds are fired when the seed capsules are triggered by touch (incidentally, the plant’s hair-trigger is the reason for the genus name Impatiens, meaning ‘impatient’).Up to 800 seeds are released with every explosion, and Richard Mabey reports that, in a competition held by schoolchildren to see how far the seeds would go, the record was 12 metres. Mabey also mentions that children know that if the seedpods are held in a closed hand, the ‘explosions’ feel as if you are holding a squirming insect. What fun!
The seeds are unaffected by water and so, much as plants like Oxford ragwort and buddleia were spread along the railways by the draughts created by passing trains, so Himalayan balsam is spread along rivers and streams and canals by the currents.
For a while, there was a programme of ‘Balsam bashing’ which attempted to control the plant by battering it to the ground. Alas, this was not probably the best way of dealing with an adversary that fires its seeds on contact, and the eventual conclusion was that cutting and removing the plant made more sense.
Why, you might ask, has Himalayan balsam been so successful, in such a short period of time? It can’t all be down to having artillery as a seed dispersal mechanism. One theory is that the plant uses something called allelopathy, which means that it secretes a toxin that negatively affects neighbouring plants. Bruising the plant and leaving it to rot means that these chemicals are concentrated, another reason why Balsam bashing was a sub-optimal control method.
If we look at the plant in context, however, another reason hoves into view. Himalayan balsam prefers waterways where there is eutrophication, or a high level of nutrients, usually phosphate-heavy fertilizers, from farmers’ fields. Our native plants generally prefer cleaner water. So all we have to do is clean up our waterways. Simple. There is also a school of thought that suggests that sometimes Himalayan balsam is the only thing that will grow along our most polluted canals and streams, and that it is better than no plants at all. I suspect that the only way to view the situation is pragmatically, on a case-by-case basis.
Pale pink Himalayan Balsam
In Wiesbaden in Germany, an attempt has been made to make the plant pay for its own iradication. After visiting the website of the Bionic Control of Invasive Plant Species, I have discovered that they are making jam from the flowers of Himalayan balsam, along with a relish and a jam from Japanese knotweed, and jams from stinging nettles and dandelions. Good luck to them, I say.
One feature of recent plant introductions is that they have few ‘enemies’, because they’ve left them all behind in their original homes – in fact, in Clive Stace’s magisterial ‘Alien Plants’ (New Naturalist series) he describes the situation of recently arrived non-native plants as being ‘enemy release’. Often, it takes a long time for native generalist insects and fungi to start recognising a newIy arrived plant as a food source, and any specialised ‘enemies’ often don’t make the journey with the plant.In the UK, a rust fungus has been released to control the plant, which fills me with some trepidation: we have a native Impatiens, called the touch-me-not balsam, which is nationally scarce (confined to parts of Wales). Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the paths of these two plants don’t cross.
Touch-me-not balsam (Impatiens nolitangere)
Medicinally, Himalayan balsam is one of the five plants used in Rescue Remedy, one of the Bach flower essences that is used specifically for anxiety. In the village of Kishtar, described as being in ‘the lap of the Himalayas’, the roots and leaves are crushed and applied to the forehead, hands and feet to produce a cooling effect and, interestingly, a decoction of the leaves is also used for anxiety. The flowers are used as a treatment for snakebite.
I have a positive cornucopia of riches for you on the poetry front this week. As a starter, here is ‘Wild Balsam’, one of ‘four Flower Remedies’ by Katherine Towers, a poet that I hadn’t come across before. To read the rest of them, go here.
a remedy for impatience
I gave short shrift to motherhood and flung my children from me. Who’d have those tiny shoots under their feet all day?
I want to think and work. I want to make of my hamstrung life a brilliant fever.
Then, there is a poem by the Irish poet Tara Bergin, called ‘Himalayan Balsam for a Soldier’. I generally don’t cut and paste the work of living poets (because after all, this is how they earn their living) but you can hear the poet read her work, and see the poem here.
And finally, here is ‘Himalayan Balsam‘, by Anne Stevenson. It’s a poem of many twists and turns, but don’t let that put you off. It is apparently an AS level text, so there is a handy presentation on Youtube explaining it to death.
So, what a problematic plant Himalayan balsam is. Beautiful and invasive, nectar-rich and explosive, a beautifier of polluted riversides and a smotherer of native plants, it is impossible (for me at least) to come to a definitive conclusion about it. Hero or villain, I have no idea without knowing the context, and will be full of doubt even then. As with most ‘alien’ organisms, it’s our fault that it’s here in the first place, so it seems a little churlish to be quite so hostile. On the other hand, we are losing biodiversity hand over fist. I suspect that, as climate change continues to bite and urban areas continue to grow, we will need to be both humble and intelligent in our relationship with the natural world. However, as I write this I note that some chaps in Florida are actually firing their guns into the approaching hurricane, although whether out of frustration or some atavistic belief that bullets will overpower Mother Nature I have no idea. It seems we have some way to go before that humble and intelligent attitude prevails, but I continue to live in hope.
Dear Readers, my visit to Mum and Dad was hectic this time – the 60th Anniversary Party is on 21st September, and we needed to decide who was sitting where for the meal. I was expecting this to be a palaver, but we sorted it out very efficiently. We had two guidelines: we weren’t going to ask anyone where they wanted to sit (because experience has taught me that this pretty soon leads to a meltdown) and we were going to try to seat a variety of people on each table so that folk had somebody new to talk to.We have also decided to accept that we can’t control whether people have a good time or not – we can provide a nice setting, but after that it’s up to the folk involved. I suspect that the party will go swimmingly, but if it doesn’t we can’t have done any more.
And so, after all that, I needed a walk. I headed off, past the church, and through the massive gate posts that lead to Manor Farm. I noted that these are striped with Coade Stone, an artificial stone invented by Eleanor Coade in 1770, and it is renowned for its ability to weather well. It makes a wonderful home for spiders and other small creatures.
And then it was on and over a stile, and into a field so full of young cabbages that there was a faint whiff of school dinners as the sun warmed them up.
The hogweed was still in full bloom. Just look at the number of small pollinators that this one flower head has attracted.
There were still a few bumblebees about, mostly common carders.
As I walked along, it became clear that there was a stream on the left. Great beds of comfrey were in flower, both creamy-white common comfrey and flamboyant pink Russian comfrey.
Russian ComfreyThe fallen flowers remind me a bit of the milk teeth that I used to leave under the pillow for the tooth fairy.
I was somewhat less delighted to see the flamboyant flowers of Himalayan (Indian) Balsam. Such a pretty plant, and such an invasive one. This plant loves watercourses of all kinds, and is well established along this stream. Its orchid-like flowers come in shades of deep cerise to palest pink, and they are loved by bees, and I suspect that it will soon be featuring in a Wednesday Weed. People have very strong views about this plant, so I shall have to write it and then duck.
Pale pink Himalayan balsam
At the end of the field, I see a steep, well-trodden path heading down to the water. I find myself in a hidden world, probably used by youngsters eager to escape their parents’ oversight.
Hartstongue fern on the streambank
A calligraphy of roots
Someone plays here, for sure
I see that the stream bed is completely dry, and I realise that I’m looking at a winterbourne – a stream that only runs in the winter. Many of the places around Milborne St Andrew are named for such features – there’s Winterbourne Whitechurch just up the road for instance – but I’d never seen one before.
I go over a stile, and admire the sinous shape of the trees here. And then I realise that it’s nearly time to head home (pancakes for lunch!)
So I walk speedily back up through the cabbages.
I am passed by a happy poodle and a chap with a beautifully tended beard, who is wearing flipflops. I wonder if hipsterism has come to the village? Has it been ‘discovered’? The pub will be selling skinny macchiatoes next.
The black blob is the poodle
It’s often when I’m in a rush that things happen that bring me to a complete halt. What, for example, is this?
Nothing less than a freshly-emerged, box-fresh peacock butterfly.
There was so much about this insect that it’d never noticed before. There’s the blending of blues and creams and black and russet around the ‘eyes’ on the wings, the stripes on the ‘shoulders’, the hazy, dewy quality to the colours. Truly, I live surrounded by beauty every day of my life and yet I often stride past it, head down, shoulders hunched, on to the next thing. But not today. Today I stopped and was so filled with wonder that everything else went away. What a gift.
As I head back down the hill, I pass the rectory, and notice a fine gathering of rooks in the old tree.
What are they up to, I wonder, with their cawing and their chattering? They must be saying something important, because as I stand there I notice that they are arriving from all sides, a great black feathery spiral pouring out of the sky.
And so I head home to make pancakes, to go with Dad in the car to get some petrol, to look at fridges online and to finalise the table settings, and, much like the rooks, something in my heart has folded its feathers and settled.
Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Dear Readers, it is always a pleasure to write about a very common and widespread ‘weed’, especially one that may have slipped under our radar. So it is with Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), a member of the Daisy (Asteraceae) family. It has sprays of little, unobtrusive flowers, deeply-cut leaves that look silver underneath, and it is said to be faintly aromatic, though as usual I forgot to check out the scent.
Mugwort looks like a quintessential ‘weed’ – not the kind of thing that you’d want to pop up in your garden for its good looks. Indeed, Richard Mabey reports that in Lancashire it’s known as ‘Council Weed’ because it always seems to appear after the local council have sprayed everything else. And yet, it was once known as Mater Herbarum (the Mother of Weeds) and is one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons:
‘Remember, Mugwort, what you made known, What you arranged at the Great proclamation. You were called Una, the oldest of herbs, you have power against three and against thirty, you have power against poison and against infection, you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.’
Medicinally, it seems to have been mainly used in two ways: to ease period and childbirth pains, and to lessen the shaking of ‘the palsy’. It was thought in Wales that a bunch of the plant tied to the left thigh of a woman in labour would ease her distress, though the plant had to be removed immediately after delivery to prevent haemorrhage. The dried leaves were used to ease ‘hysterical fits’, and were also thought to be a cure for epilepsy. It was probably these medicinal properties that resulted in it being imported into the UK in ancient times (it’s native to mainland Europe, Asia, North Africa and Alaska, and is naturalised throughout North America).
One of Mugwort’s alternative names is ‘Poor Man’s Tobacco’, and the dried flowers have been smoked by young people since time immemorial. Smoking the plant is said to cause vivid dreams. As if being an intoxicating drug wasn’t enough, it has also been used to flavour beer (much like ground ivy), and some think that this is where the name ‘mugwort’ originated, beer being drunk from a pottery mug in those days rather than a glass. If you would like to have a bash at creating your own Mugwort beer, there’s a recipe here.And if you get very keen, there’s a recipe for an ancient gruit beer here: gruit beers predate hops, and so are closer to what our medieval ancestors might have glugged down, just before they fell, singing, into a hedge.
An alternative reason for the name might be that ‘mug’ is a variant on the old word ‘mouchte’, meaning moth – the leaves have long been thought to be efficacious against clothes moths.
In Cornwall, the leaves were used as a tea substitute when ‘real’ tea grew too expensive during World War ii. It is also used as a culinary herb for stuffing roast goose on St Martin’s Day in Germany, although as it is closely related to that bitterest of herbs, Wormwood, I suspect it may be an acquired taste. Mugwort is used extensively in Korean and Japanese cuisine, but the plant they use is not ‘our’ mugwort. Some members of the genus Artemisia are much more bitter in flavour than others.
Mugwort has a long association with St John the Baptist, and with travellers. The saint was said to have worn a girdle of the plant for protection when he was in the wilderness, and stuffing your shoes with mugwort is said to be a talisman against everything from fatigue to being attacked by wild beasts. In Holland and Germany, the plant was gathered on St John’s Eve (23rd June) as a protection against misfortune in the year to come. I note that this is very close to the Summer Solstice, and may be yet another example of the blending of Christian and Pagan beliefs.
You might think that the Latin name for Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, links the plant back to Artemis/Diana, the goddess of hunting in Greek and Roman traditions. However, there is some thought that it is actually named after Artemis II of Caria, a botanist, medical researcher and naval strategist who died in 350 BC. She managed to hold off the navy of Rhodes, who advanced on the little island of Caria because they thought that a female ruler would be easy to defeat. She soon showed them their marching (sailing) orders. However, she is best known to history as the woman who drank her dead husband’s ashes in a goblet of wine every day as an act of extravagant mourning. The fact that her husband was also her brother adds a salacious frisson to the whole tale. Many artists took to their brushes to depict this scene, rather than her naval victories.. Women are so much less threatening when they’re imbibing their husbands and looking mournful. Especially when their blouse is dropping off.
Artemisia Prepares to Drink the Ashes of her Husband (attributed to Francesco Furini, circa 1630- Public Domain)
And to end, here is one of the last poems of Edward Thomas. I don’t recall the honeycomb smell of ‘mugwort dull’, but there is something about this work that captures that moment, poised between summer and autumn, between hope and despair, that I feel in my bones. I’ve read it once, and then again. It haunts me. Strange days, indeed.
Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted. From aloft
He took the heat of the sun, and from below.
On the hot stone he perched contented so,
As if never a cart would pass again
That way; as if I were the last of men
And he the first of insects to have earth
And sun together and to know their worth.
I was divided between him and the gleam,
The motion, and the voices, of the stream,
The waters running frizzled over gravel,
That never vanish and for ever travel.
A grey flycatcher silent on a fence
And I sat as if we had been there since
The horseman and the horse lying beneath
The fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath,
The horseman and the horse with silver shoes,
Galloped the downs last. All that I could lose
I lost. And then the child’s voice raised the dead.
St Pancras Station seen from Pancras Square, outside King’s Cross
Dear Readers, for as long as I’ve lived in London, King’s Cross has had a dire reputation. When I was working just off Gray’s Inn Road, groups of cadaverous teenage girls used to gather outside the post office, drinking cans of Special Brew and shivering while they waited for their next client, or their next fix. When I caught an early train to Luton airport one morning, the women on the opposite platform were chased by a junkie wielding a needle and threatening them with AIDS. And my husband was once asked if he was interested in ‘business’ by a young woman while he was taking photographs of the gas holders at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. But gradually the area has been ‘cleaned up’ (which means that people have been moved on, to Euston and to Camden), and now it’s much more of a destination. Whole areas have been demolished, shiny new office buildings and restaurants have opened, and I heard from a friend that some areas have been made much more wildlife friendly. So, I took myself and my camera off to explore.
The station itself is an extraordinary melange of Victorian ironwork and twenty-first century post-modernism.
The Victorian station
The New Concourse
There is no doubt that this is an improvement over the old station building, which was always overcrowded and had a pervasive smell of pee. But I was more interested in what was going on outside.
There are some fine big pots with bee-friendly plants, such as catnip and salvia. I am intrigued by the way that many of the flowers on the Hotlips salvia below have lost their red ‘lips’. The bees don’t seem to care, however.
‘Hotlips’ salvia with bee
There is a series of fountains, and indeed water is a prevailing theme of the area.
And of course there’s a helicopter overhead. On my trip down on the bus, I passed a group of twenty policeman standing around a poor motorcyclist who was holding an icepack to his bloody nose. I suspect he was a victim of yet another attempted moped theft, there’s been a plague of them just lately, and some of them have involved acid.
In the very top pond, there was a cream-coloured waterlily, caught in a sunbeam.
And then I crossed the road into Granary Square, passing a fine flotilla of swans en route.
The big draw of Granary Square is the collection of dancing fountains. Parents were gathered on the benches, ready with big bath towels, while small children (and the occasional adult) ran through the water, squealing and dripping. There was also a very over-excited pug, who must have run about three miles while I was watching. It’s one of the few free things here that could be used by local people – the coffee bars and restaurants are expensive, but there’s room here for a picnic (on the steps down to the canal, or on one of the green spaces). Islington has less green space than any other London borough except for the City itself, so this is sorely needed.
But I wanted to see what else was going on. There’s a new square being built in one of the old warehouses, and in the photo below you can also see the top of a gas holder that’s being converted into flats.
There are more fountains here, though they are less ambitious than the ones in Granary Square.
Waitrose has taken over another old loading bay and warehouse.
But outside there is a fine lawn, edged with lavender and Mexican fleabane, and thronged with bees and the occasional butterfly.
However, it’s just around the corner from here that a real effort has been made with the wildlife planting. Each plant seems to have been chosen for its pollinator benefit, or to attract birds, and it seems to be working.
Lots of lovely nepeta
A flock of sparrows are feeding on the seeds. I always love it when birds do what they would do in the wild and find natural food.
There is a shallow river running right the way through the garden, ideal for birds to drink from and bathe in, and probably suitable for insects in the places where it runs most slowly.
The selection of plants is inspired. Below there are Michaelmas daisies, ideal for hoverflies and honeybees.
The hemp agrimony variant below is also a great late-summer plant for all manner of pollinators
I love this bed with another variant of Michaelmas daisy, plus some kind of Cow Parsley. Great for hoverflies, those underappreciated insects.
And there were even some wild strawberries for the humans (and the thrushes)
And here’s another view of the Gas Holder flats, and some pleached lime, which makes great cover for the sparrows.
However, in case the sparrows or other birds want a different home, here’s an interesting use of old CCTV camera boxes, which have been converted into nest boxes or places to roost.
So, I was very impressed. My one worry, from the pollinator point of view, would have been how much sunshine this spot receives, what with all the buildings towering around it, but it appears that some wasps weren’t bothered, because they’d made an underground nest right against the edge of one of the beds. For people who think that wasps are aggressive, please note that I took this short film from about three feet away, and they were much too busy to bother with a mere silly human.
I have been meaning to do a separate post on some of the other London wildlife hotspots around King’s Cross – the Camley Street Natural Park is a definite must-see, and so is the canal. But I didn’t really have time to do them both justice today, so they will have to wait for a future visit. However, I did take a short stroll along the canal to get another look at the blooming gas holders, with which I am obsessed. After negotiating a very bouncy temporary wooden walkway, and just about avoiding being mown down by runners and folks on Brompton foldaway bikes, I came to the old lock.
And here are the gasholders. Two of them have been converted into flats, and one of them is just a skeleton covering a park, which hunkers down in the shade of the buildings all around it.
Gas holder as flats
Gas holder as park
For anyone who is intrigued as to how a big round area can be converted into luxury flats, here is a link to the developer’s website. I imagine the prices will be way above the reach of the folk who used to live in the little houses and council estates around here.
On the way back, I passed the swans again, and they were in a very irritable mood. The adults hissed as I passed, and I thought they were complaining about the fact that I hadn’t brought them an offering, but actually they seemed to be fed up with their offspring, chasing them off when they got too close. I suspect that many human parents will be feeling the same way after six weeks of constant contact with the younger members of the family. I wonder if the swans are trying to tell their cygnets that it’s time for them to move out and find a pad of their own?
And then it was back to King’s Cross, which has one of the nicest, most space-age entrances to an underground station that I know.
And incidentally, the two people making their way down the corridor are two of my lovely neighbours H and L, which just goes to show that London is a much smaller place than everyone imagines.
In his book ‘London: A Biography’, Peter Ackroyd speculates about whether King’s Cross, a shabby and dangerous area for its entire history, will ever be able to cast off the stain of its past. It certainly looks shiny and happy at the moment, though the canal was always a dangerous vein through its heart, a place of dark acts even to this day. King’s Cross was previously an area favoured by creative people, because housing was cheap, and there was a great tolerance for the ‘eccentric’. The fact that St Martin’s School of Art is here, in Granary Square, gives me hope that this tradition will survive, at least. But will the tattered soul of King’s Cross survive the arrival of Google and the £3 artisan coffee? That remains to be seen.