Monthly Archives: January 2018

Bugwoman on Location – Hampstead Village


The Wonky Chimneys of Flask Cottages, Hampstead

Dear Readers, this week I was in Hampstead, delivering an enormous bag of knitting wool to a charity called Knit For Peace who match keen knitters with good causes. I am a great believer in the healing power of crafts of all kinds – it’s hard to stay angry and resentful when you’re trying to work out how a Fair Isle pattern is supposed to work. And look at the excellent use that your master(mistress)pieces can be put to once the many hours of work have been completed!

Willow the cat and my blanket.

Being in Hampstead gave me an opportunity to explore. I started off on Flask Walk, where I am always intrigued by the wonky chimneys in the first photo above. Why are they so eccentric? My delving into the internets has produced nothing on the subject, so feel free to chip in with any suggestions.

Hampstead seems such a quaint and attractive area, rather Bohemian you might think, a great place to bring up a family. However, as average house prices for the area are over £1.6m (and a ‘detached family dwelling’ is getting on for £6m) I don’t imagine the average family will be moving here any time soon. In the meantime, however, I spent some time admiring the water droplets on the leaves and plants, and trying not to look too suspicious, what with my camera and all. There are a lot of security teams around here, as you might expect.

One reason for advancing along the road is that this is the location of Burgh House, the site of Mr and Mrs Bugwoman’s marriage in September 2010. Sadly, the building, and hence the delightful cafe, was closed until 10th January, but I recommend a visit for both food and edification, as the Hampstead Museum is also here. I took a few photos and remembered some of the details of the day – for example, when my dad and I got into the vintage Rolls Royce we’d hired to get to Burgh House and he said ‘I suppose I should be giving you some advice, but you know it all already’. Well, I was forty.

Burgh House, Hampstead

This was all very splendid but I hadn’t seen any animals yet, apart from one of the many blackbirds who have popped out in the past few days to make the most of the muddy conditions and the superabundance of worms. Incidentally, I was walking in the cemetery today with my most excellent friend A, and we observed a similar blackbird.

‘I don’t like to dwell upon blackbirds eating worms in a graveyard’, she said.

But when you think about it, how wonderful it would be to be recycled as a blackbird!

A Hampstead blackbird

I decided to pop over to the other side of the village and have a look at the churchyard. The church itself is the Parish Church of St John at Hampstead, although I note from the website that it wasn’t initially clear which St John was intended – it was only in 1917 that it was declared that it was the St John the Evangelist. The current church was consecrated in 1747, although there have been religious buildings on the site right back to 986.

The Church of St John in Hampstead

As you might have expected by now, I was drawn to the churchyards. There is one around the church itself, and a second one across the road.

The churchyard around St Johns

I was not exactly dressed for muddy paths and bird watching, what with my bright red coat and boots and all, but I slithered around nonetheless. There is an atmosphere of melancholy under those dark, ancient trees, and sitting on a bench right in the middle of the churchyard was a young man, deep in thought. How these places support us when we need peace and solitude! I sneaked past as quietly and unobtrusively as I could and noticed how the robins have suddenly started singing, just in this past few days. How sensitive their clock is to the length of days.

Around the side of the church, a tombstone had split and weeds were growing in the cracks, a metaphor for life’s persistence and resilience if ever one was handed to me.

And then I headed off across the road, to the ‘overflow’ graveyard that was opened in 1812.

The place was full of birds. Robins sang from the gravestones and, as I nearly went flat on my bum under an alder tree, a gang of long-tailed tits came along to have a good laugh.


A long-tailed tit, no doubt laughing his head off

There was a small flock of redwings in the yew tree, and when one flew out to perch nearby, I was able to capture this candidate for Wildlife Photographer of the Year (not)


Redwing! Honestly!

I found this exquisitely beautiful tomb, with an angel kissing the forehead of a small child. It is the last resting place of Eve Hammersley, who lived locally and died in 1902.


I found a gorse bush in full flower, and noticed for the first time how the petals at the base of the bloom have a little hole in them, like a jawbone.


And, in addition to the long-tailed tits (who aren’t really tits) there were blue tits and great tits, which are.

And so, as the rain started, I turned and headed for home. There are lots of interesting graves here: Hugh Gaitskill and Peter Cook are among the luminaries buried amidst the yew trees and the moss. And yet, as always, it’s the life that intrigues me and lifts my spirits in a cemetery, not the death. The call of birds and the bursting forth of new green life always reminds me that there are other cycles beside our day-to-day artificial bustle of Christmas and New Year, accounting year-ends and sales. For the birds, and for the plants, spring has already put a twinkle in their eye. If we stop and breathe and listen, it will do the same for all of us.



A pathway in the second churchyard







Wednesday Weed – Crab Apple

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…..


Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)

Dear Readers, when you see all the different varieties of ‘domestic’ crab apple, such as this splendid one on Durham Road in East Finchley, it’s easy to forget that this is a native British tree, now vanishingly rare. This is partly due to interbreeding with the domestic apple (Malus pumila), but also because this slow-growing tree has a high light requirement, which means that it largely survives on the edges of woods and as solitary trees in hedgerows.In ‘Flora Britannica’, Richard Mabey mentions that these lonely crab apples were often used as boundary markers, and are mentioned in nearly 10% of the 658 Anglo-Saxon and Welsh charters examined. It may also have been used as a plough marker, something for the farmer to line up with when setting out to turn the soil. These little trees have been part of the landscape for a very long time indeed.

In its wild state, the crab apple has tiny yellow-green fruit and white blossom. Domesticated varieties can vary in colour from the crimson of the tree on Durham Road to the bright orange of the one in my garden, and the blossom can be every colour from pure white to darkest maroon.

Photo One by By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Fruit of the wild crab apple (Photo One)

Why ‘crab apple’ though? I wondered if it was because the fruit was so lip-puckerlingly sour ( the genus name ‘Malus‘ means ‘evil), but most sources think it’s because the tree itself looks rather twisted and elderly even when relatively young (crab apples can live to 100 years), and also because the stems can develop spines. When we talk about someone being ‘crabby’  we mean  that they are irritable and quick to take offence, and I imagine that this is what’s intended by the use of the word ‘crab’ here. However, crab apples are wonderful trees for the small garden, with their blossom in spring and fruit in the winter. I do note, however, that it is one of the last types of fruit to go from my garden. Maybe even the thrushes find it a little harsh to stomach. However, it’s sourness was seen as a benefit by the Anglo-Saxons, who included it in the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ as ‘a cure for the bite of another poison’.

Photo Two - by Judith Wakelam at Mildenhall Air Force Base (

Blackbird feeding on crab apples at Mildenhall Air Force base in Norfolk, UK (Photo Two)

These days, crab apples either fall to the pavement and make a mess/feast for wasps, or they end up in crab apple jelly, which can be a most delightful pale pink colour. I always think that it looks better than it tastes, but maybe that’s my sweet tooth talking. Crab apples are a very useful source of pectin for jam making, too. The Woodland Trust have a collection of three recipes here, including the ubiquitous crab apple jelly, but also featuring crab apple liqueur, which makes my eyes light up somewhat. Then, there is a recipe for crab apples turned into toffee apples, which sounds like a way to surprise small children, and not in a pleasant way either.

Photo Three by

Crab apple toffee apples. I have my doubts, gentle readers…..(Photo Three)

In Shakespeare’s time crab apples were sometimes added to warmed ale or winter punches, hence this from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:


And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl

In the very likeness of a roasted crab

And when she drinks, against her lips I bob

Typical Puck. What a naughty boy he is.

There is little doubt that the crab apple was an important ancestor of the ‘real’ apple, and as we have seen it hybridizes with domestic apples quite happily. Crab apples are often planted among eating apple trees because their blossom attracts bees who will cross-pollinate the apples, and if there is a shortage of bees, the flowering branches from crab apples might be brought into an orchard to encourage the pollinators. Crab apples are also sometimes used as root stock for domestic varieties.

Apple pips will often grow into trees when they’re deposited in suitable soil by birds, and because they never ‘come true’ from seed these ‘wildings’ can give indications of genetic ancestors long-since extinct. To quote Richard Mabey again:

I know a green lane near Bovingdon in the Chilterns, not far from an area of one-time orchard land, in which there are three wilding trees, one with apples like miniature Cox’s Orange Pippins, another whose fruit has a bitter-sweet, almost effervescent taste, like sherbet, and a scent of quince, and a third whose long, pear-shaped apples have a warm smoky flavour behind the tartness, as if they had already been baked. On the shingle beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk there is a prostrate apple of unknown provenance which bears fully ripe fruit before the end of June’ (Flora Britannica pg 202)

What an extraordinary resource these wilding trees are. We are becoming more and more reliant on a tiny number of food plants, and, with the climate changing, it seems to me that we should be saving every variety that we can find, and diversifying, not narrowing. But yet again I digress. Back to the crab apple!

Photo Four by By Kilo22 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A flowering crabapple in Washington D.C. (Photo Four)

Crab apples are a popular food of many moths and butterflies, and you can find a complete list here. Here are a couple of the moths whose caterpillars have been found on crab apple, and what a varied and attractive bunch they are. They make me very happy to have such a useful tree in the garden.

Photo Five by By ©entomart, Attribution,

The brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata) (Photo Five)

Photo Six by CC BY-SA 2.5,

Common emerald (Hemithea aestivaria) (Photo Six)

Photo Seven by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Cherry-bark tortrix (Enarmonia formosana) (Photo Seven)

Photo Eight by By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Emperor moth (Pavonia pavonia) (Photo Eight)

Crab apples have a number of traditional and folkloric uses in the British Isles. They were made into a spiced drink at Lammastide (1st August), and young women used to lay out the fruit on a loft floor in the shape of their various boyfriends’ initials on 29th September each year. Those initials which were least nibbled by mice, kicked over by passing beetles or relatively undiminished by mildew were said to indicate the boy with the warmest feelings for the lady concerned. There is much room here for sabotage I’m sure, and also some scope for a comedic short story if anyone out there has the inclination.

For an even more entertaining evening, it is said that if you throw the seeds from a crab apple into a fire while intoning the name of your beloved, the seed will explode if his/her love is true. Just the thing for a winter’s evening!

I note that in the Bach Flower Remedies, crab apple is a cure for self-dislike, despondency, obsessions, fussiness, and anxiety.

The village of Egremont in Cumbria has, since 1267, held a crab apple fair, at which the fruit would be distributed to the peasants. No doubt they were overwhelmed with gratitude. These days, however, the fair is the site of the annual Gurning Competition, in which folk put their heads through a horse collar and see who can make the most alarming ‘funny face’.

Photo Nine by

The 2013 Gurning Championship winners, and what a fine selection they are (Photo Nine)

To start 2018 with a bang, click here for  a rather splendid poem by Vicki Feaver, called Crab Apple Jelly. This definitely makes me want to read more of her work. And here is a rather melancholy piece called ‘Crabapple Blossoms’ by Carl Sandburg (winner of no less than 3 Pulitzer prizes). It reminds me rather of the fading of blossom, and the passing of time, which is rather appropriate considering how quickly 2017 galloped past. Carpe diem, friends!

Crabapple Blossom by Carl Sandburg

SOMEBODY’S little girl-how easy to make a sob story over who she was once and who she is now.
Somebody’s little girl-she played once under a crab-apple tree in June and the blossoms fell on the dark hair.

It was somewhere on the Erie line and the town was Salamanca or Painted Post or Horse’s Head.
And out of her hair she shook the blossoms and went into the house and her mother washed her face and her mother had an ache in her heart at a rebel voice, ‘I don’t want to.’

Somebody’s little girl-forty little girls of somebodies splashed in red tights forming horseshoes, arches, pyramids-forty little show girls, ponies, squabs.
How easy a sob story over who she once was and who she is now-and how the crabapple blossoms fell on her dark hair in June.

Let the lights of Broadway spangle and splatter-and the taxis hustle the crowds away when the show is over and the street goes dark.
Let the girls wash off the paint and go for their midnight sandwiches-let ’em dream in the morning sun, late in the morning, long after the morning papers and the milk wagons-
Let ’em dream long as they want to … of June somewhere on the Erie line … and crabapple blossoms.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – by Judith Wakelam at Mildenhall Air Force Base (

Photo Three by

Photo Four by By Kilo22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Six by CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Seven by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Eight by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Nine by