A Weedy Walk in Muswell Hill

Prickly sow thistle (Sonchus asper)

Dear Readers, today I walked over to the Halifax Building Society in Muswell Hill to finalise the last transfers from Dad’s bank account, so that I could tie up his estate. What a journey it’s been! I must have been on the phone for a full day during the past two weeks trying to find someone who would close his account so that I could distribute the funds and pay his final debts. Every single person that I’ve spoken to has been lovely, and none of them have been able to make it happen. How hard is it to close an account? Very hard, as it turns out, especially in the middle of a lockdown. So I walk over to my local branch, and the staff sorted it all out in fifteen minutes.

I’m in tears at the end of it, partly with relief, but partly because this is it, almost the last thing that I can do for Dad. He and Mum were always so responsible with money – Mum’s idea of a ‘blow-out’ spending spree was to buy two teeshirts in different colours, or a packet of three Magnum ice creams. I think of how Dad would always insist on paying me for my train fare when I went to visit them, pulling out the notes with hands that were numb with peripheral neuropathy. The dialogue always went the same way:

Me: You don’t have to do that Dad, I love coming to visit you and Mum.

Dad: I know I don’t have to, but I want to. Here! (Shaking the money in my direction)

The woman who has been helping me asks if my Dad had been very sick, so I tell her a little bit about him, and notice that her eyes are welling up too.

‘I lost my Dad a year ago’, she says.

And we both stand there helpless. I suspect in another world we’d have hugged, but all we can do in this one is share a moment of fellow-feeling. Perhaps that’s enough, under the circumstances.

And on the way home, I find solace in the weeds, as usual. Nobody at the council has been out with the weed-killer, so there are a great variety of plants taking advantage of the scant soil at the bottom of the walls. The houses along Queen’s Avenue are splendid, but many of them were hotels, so now they stand empty and unloved, all the sadder because a lot of money has been spent on some of them over the past few years. I have taken all these photos on my phone, so please forgive the quality of some of them!

A positive ocean of Phlomis in the front garden of one of the hotels

Weeds seem to fall into a variety of categories. There are the usual suspects, such as the sow thistle in the first photo. Then there are Muswell Hill specialities, such as the mallow which seems to pop up around here, but in few other places locally – I suspect someone planted it in a garden and it’s been advancing forth ever since.

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

There is ivy-leaved toadflax growing out of the nooks and crannies. This is one of my favourite weeds, and it seems to be doing well this year, maybe because it doesn’t mind the dry conditions, being something of an Alpine plant in habit. The photo has overexposed a bit, but the flowers were much paler than usual.

Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

And here we have a veritable forest of sow thistle. Although this has to be the most raggedy, insect-bitten sad-looking weed of the lot, it is such a survivor, and those yellow flowers turn into a mass of wind-blown seeds which will soon be populating the rest of the street.

I have always been very fond of sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) with its exotic acid-yellow flowers, and here it is, growing amongst the knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare agg.) I am not quite sure about the other plants, they look almost like tree saplings – does anyone have any bright ideas?

And here is some caper spurge, which I suspect has jumped the wall from the neighbouring gardens, alongside some nipplewort.

Caper spurge (Euphorbia lathyris)

And here is another garden escape – one  of the multi-coloured decorative grasses that have become so popular over the past few years. I think that a row of these along the bottom of a wall might actually be rather attractive. What do you think?

And the most surprising bottom-of-the-wall plant of all was this one, a stone’s throw away from Muswell Hill in the rather classy Twyford Estate.

I rather think that this might be a baby false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia), self-seeded from its parent opposite. I seem to remember that a huge clump of these seedlings were turning into a small forest on the corner of the road, blocking the view of the drivers trying to turn left. I imagine that at some point this little chap will also meet with his demise.

Of course, fancy street trees are not the only trees that pop up in unexpected places. There are some sycamores finding themselves very at home on the alleyway next to All Saints’ Church, along with some cherry laurel and a smidgen of bramble.

And there is a small field of wall barley just along the way too.

And so, nature is cheerfully flourishing as the lockdown (more or less) continues. It’s a reminder that life goes on in spite of our personal griefs and problems. At some point the weed-spray man will reappear, with his tank of toxic chemicals and his lack of protective equipment, but in the meantime, plants are literally making hay while the sun shines. And I, for one, find it strangely comforting.

6 thoughts on “A Weedy Walk in Muswell Hill

  1. Anne

    I am impressed by your intimate knowledge of weeds! These photographs resonate with me as I am fond of seeing how nature takes root in the scantiest of soil. Your description of “the weed-spray man will reappear, with his tank of toxic chemicals and his lack of protective equipment,” is another dent in my vision of the first world – especially the lack of protective equipment, for that frequently happens here and is tough on the person for whom such a job is an income.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Anne, yep, the weed-spray man wanders up the street listening to music on his I-Pod. Sometimes he has gloves, sometimes not. I’ve never seen him with a mask or any kind of facial protection. I sometimes wonder if he’s just not wearing what he was given, or if he wasn’t given any protection in the first place.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Claire, yes, I love ‘Weeds’ and in fact I think I’ll do a post on it soon. In fact I love Richard Mabey full-stop – his ‘Nature Cure’ is a lovely read, as is ‘The Unofficial Countryside’, and ‘The Cabaret of Plants’.


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