Along the Playing Fields

View from Muswell Hill Playing Fields towards the cemetery

Dear Readers, I have always been interested in the edges of things, the places where one landscape bleeds into another, and so this morning I took a walk along the edge of Muswell Hill Playing Fields. Before the lockdown this would have been full of people playing football, walking their dogs, flying kites and picnicking, but today there was a handful of pooches illicitly chasing the crows, a couple of runners and us, puffing along on our daily exercise. The Fields are bordered on one side by the cemetery and on another by the woods, so there is a fair variety of things to look at.

Horse chestnut (Aexsculus hippocastanum)

Look at this sapling horse chestnut, for example. I love the way that the leaves unfurl and turn into loose shuttlecocks. When the tree is older there will be those ‘candle’ flowers that look so exotic close up, with their long stamen and carmine centres. According to my Collins Tree Guide, the middle of the flower starts off yellow and goes red after pollination. Sadly, by about July the tree’s leaves are likely to already be turning crisp and brown, having been mined by a tiny moth caterpillar. If the tree is particularly unlucky, it may also suffer from horse chestnut leaf blotch fungus. Such diseases weaken a tree, but don’t usually kill it. There was some evidence that blue tits were learning to eat the moth caterpillars, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that some ecological balance is soon reached.

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

There are lots of ash trees in the cemetery, many of them self-seeded, but this one has ‘escaped’ onto the edge of the fields. I love the way that the buds of ash look like the sooty-black hooves of tiny deer. I have learned so much about my local environment through writing this blog, and through the people that I’ve gotten to know through it: a friend mentioned the hoof comparison and it stuck, so that I can now instantly recognise an ash when I see one. We learn through metaphor, through making the connections between what we already know, and what we are trying to understand. I love that sense that we are able to constantly enlarge our mental territory, just by pushing on through the undergrowth.


This plant has always puzzled me. It grows in swathes along the edge of the playing fields, in shades from butter-yellow to palest cream. It is definitely a brassica, but which one? My suspicion is either oilseed rape (Brassica napus) or wild turnip (Brassica rapa). Both have waxy green foliage, and the leaves ‘hug’ the stems, but in rape the buds are higher than the flowers on the flowerhead, producing a ‘domed’ effect. In wild turnip, the flowers overtop the buds, leaving a little dimple.  Goodness only knows what’s going on with these – I shall have to have a proper look next time I’m there. Whichever they are, they are going strong and seem to be increasing.

I remember as a child being enchanted by the fields of acid-yellow oilseed rape when we went for a drive in the country. How beautiful they looked against the green trees and the blue sky! However, when they moved to the country, Mum hated the stuff because she always said that it had a strong smell. I have to say that I never noticed, but then Mum always was sensitive to these things. Has anyone else noticed?

It certainly makes a pretty picture alongside the cow parsley.

Now, unless I’m mistaken this little tree is a crack willow (Salix fragilis) – the shiny green foliage and the very long fruits seem indicative to me. This tree grows elsewhere in the damp places in the wood, and so I’m not surprised to see it here. What an elegant plant it is! Left alone it can grow to about 20 metres tall, but its sideshoots often break (hence the name ‘crack’ willow). Fortunately, the broken twigs can take root easily and, as the plant often grows alongside water, this forms a handy way of colonising the whole river bank. The catkins are very popular with bees, who collect the pollen for their developing broods.

I think of elder as the quintessential ‘edge’ plant, growing in hedgerows and in the places where woods thin out to meet open ground. There is an elder right at the very entrance of Coldfall Wood, and I think it might be at the very limit of its tolerance for shade. I love those big, open clusters of white flowers, beloved by hoverflies and, more recently, by those with a taste for elderflower cordial, which has become Quite the Thing here in the UK. If the flowers are left along you will end up with heavy dangling bunches of elderberries, which are full of vitamin C. I suspect that elder kept our elders healthy for many millenia.

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

And finally, at the start of May, the May (or hawthorn) blossom is out in abundance, spreading its slightly sickly sweet vaguely fishy smell out on the warm air. Hawthorn is another plant which gives multiple gifts – it supports a whole range of invertebrates, the blue tits in my garden have been plundering my hawthorn for caterpillars, and in the autumn the blackbirds will be gobbling up the haws.

May (Hawthorn) blossom (Crataegus monogyna)

And finally, here among the Japanese knotweed is a dock that is in absolutely pristine condition. Later in the year it will look blotched and tatty – so many insects and fungi feed on it that it inevitably looks like something the cat dragged in. And yet, at the moment, I think it looks rather magnificent. My guess is that it’s broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) because the leaves are only very slightly wavy at the edges (unlike the inventively-named curled dock (Rumex crispus) which has something of the Mobius strip about its foliage. However, I will have to wait for the summer to be sure. If it sends up great spikes of rusty-red branched flowers, I was right. Anything else, and it’s back to the drawing board (or to Harrap’s Wild Flowers in this case).

And so we head home as one of us has a nine a.m. team call (and one of us is free to write their blog). On the way, I notice the crows, who are socially distanced and are pecking for earthworms – it was very wet yesterday so their lives have been made a bit easier. i watch as an over-excited young dog tries to catch a crow, who only flies up at the very last minute, before settling down again just far enough away for the dog to keep a vestige of hope in its little canine heart. So many animals like to tease dogs that it seems a bit unfair – I’ve seen squirrels taunting them, crows chasing a greyhound and once, in India, some Hanuman langurs jumping down from a tree, slapping a poor sleeping hound and bouncing back into the branches before the dog could even look round. What is that about, I wonder? Dogs are so intelligent but they also have a kind of innocent naivete that other intelligent creatures seem to take as carte blanche to be hooligans.

Crows socially distancing

Incidentally, when I was growing up I was taught that crows were anti-social creatures, hanging out in pairs. If I saw a lot of black crows together, they were undoubtedly rooks. However, I think it’s different in the cities, where there is abundant food – I regularly see a dozen crows bathing in the stream in the woods for example, and I pass a park in Hackney where there are hundreds of crows. There is a scientific study going begging on urban corvids, I’m sure. What have you noticed? I wonder if this is just a London thing, or if, like many animals, crows in cities lose their territoriality. And I further wonder if, with food being scarcer during the lockdown, things will change.

20 thoughts on “Along the Playing Fields

  1. Anne

    Having just returned from my first walk outside our garden in six weeks (albeit only around the block), I thoroughly enjoyed your wander in more congenial circumstances – mine was head down and go!

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Anne, does that mean the lockdown has been loosened a little bit? I know that ‘head down and go’ feeling for sure. I always feel a bit guilty when I’m out with the camera, but I’ve got quite adept at taking shots ‘on the move’ 🙂

      1. Anne

        We are now allowed to exercise between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Yes – I won’t even try to explain the logic for we are still trying to fathom that.

  2. christineburns2013

    As always loving your blog. I find rape flowers very strongly scented. When they were out I could smell it driving past. Not unpleasent, in fact a sweet smell though you could feel that enough was enough quite quickly. Christine

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Like you I love the sight of the bright yellow oilseed rape, but I’m afraid it’s a no-no as far as my hayfever is concerned. While living in the Vale of York (a notorious collector of pollen) I would have hayfever from maybe mid-April until mid-July. On Sunday mornings the boys and I would occasionally drive into the country to do a cross country run and once, while running alongside the edge of a rape field, my legs came out all red and blotchy. I hoped that living in Switzerland would ‘cure’ this allergy, and it did the first year (when I only suffered for 3 weeks). But it’s now back with a vengeance, though it doesn’t start until much later in the year, but then goes on through the whole summer! What makes it worse of course is the farmers cutting the grass twice per year and leaving it out to dry before collecting it in again. ☹

    1. Bug Woman

      My husband had a similar experience – he had severe hayfever in Canada, where he was born, largely due to the ragweed there. Then when he came to the UK he had a few years grace, but now he’s as bad as ever. I imagine the hay making is a right nightmare…

  4. bindyamc

    It’s amazing u identify every tree n shrub lining the play field.Enjoyed reading through. I love to see those yellow flowers ,they resemble mustard seed plants .

    1. Bug Woman

      Not quite all of them, bindyamc – I don’t mention the ones that I can’t ID :-). And you’re right, the yellow plant is very closely related to mustard.

      1. bindyamc

        Loved ur candid response.Thank you.Mustard seed oils r used for cooking, they say it has omega 3 fatty acid,mustard seed sprouts n leaves r also sauteed and used in many dishes.its part of many recipes.

      1. Bug Woman

        Hi Chris, I can see why you’d think that, but the way the leaves kind of hug the stem is pretty indicative for wild turnip or oilseed rape. This is a pretty tricky family though!

  5. nevilleyoung

    This is lovely, and very interesting. I am there every day with the dog too, as I have been for many years, and I absolutely love it. Thanks for the brilliant write-up!

    1. Bug Woman

      You’re welcome, Neville – I love seeing what’s happening along the edge of the fields. There’s a most surprising variety of plants and insects, almost as if it was our own East Finchley/Muswell Hill hedgerow…

  6. Veronica Cooke

    I would agree with your mum. Oil seed rape has a very distinctive heavy oily smell. I dislike it, too but agree it looks very pretty when seen at distance.

    I had never come across oil seed rape before I moved to Bedfordshire in 1981. I commented to a colleague one day that Bedfordshire seemed to grow a lot of mustard (the only bright yellow plant I knew) and she fell about laughing and told me what it was.

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts even if I don’t always comment.

    Take care and stay safe

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you Veronica, much appreciated. I think oil seed rape crept in as a crop in the late 60’s/early 70’s, at least that’s when I started to notice it as a child. And it is very closely related to mustard, so not a silly comment at all!

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