Monthly Archives: September 2017

Bugwoman on Location – A Cabbage Field in Milborne St Andrew

Heading off on my walk….

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.

Common 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.

Himalayan balsam

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.








Wednesday Weed – Mugwort

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.

The Brook

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.
“No one’s been here before” was what she said
And what I felt, yet never should have found
A word for, while I gathered sight and sound.
Last Poems, 1918.





Bugwoman on Location – King’s Cross

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

Mexican fleabane

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.

Inside King’s Cross station