Not Austria Day Three – A Mystery on Muswell Hill Playing Fields

Dear Readers, one of the things that I like most about Austria are the way that the plants seem to grow in great drifts of colour and shape. In the meadows they are a feast of colour, while along the riverbanks they mass in cool shades of blue, pink, lilac and frothy white.

Meadow view

River view

I had pretty much despaired of finding anything so splendid in East Finchley and environs. But then as I walked around Muswell Hill Playing Fields yesterday, I was stopped in my tracks by the site of a swathe of plants that looked almost like an early work by Piet Oudolf. Creeping thistle, greater knapweed, ox-eye daisies, red deadnettle, black horehound, greater burdock, lady’s bedstraw, common mallow and a dozen other species vied for attention.

Photo Two by Esther Westerveld from

Piet Oudolf’s garden in Maximilian Park, Hamm, Germany (Photo One)

Greater knapweed and creeping thistle

Greater knapweed, ox-eye daisy, comfrey, dock, creeping thistle, lady’s bedstraw

Greater burdock

Greater knapweed

Now, the rest of the area between the Fields and St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is much, much less diverse than this: there are some baby sycamores and crack willows, some thistles, some brassicas of different kinds, and a lot of brambles and Japanese knotweed. But this looks almost as if it was once planted on purpose, and has retained some of that sense of ‘stuff planted in groups’. Plus, there are a few plants that have popped up that are not what you would expect.

Here, we have some Lambs-ears (Stachys byzantina), which is not native, but is much loved by wool carder bees, who stroke the hairs from the fuzzy leaves to use in their nests.

Stachys byzantina

A few months ago I also spotted some aquilegia here, a typical cottage garden plant. It was right in amongst the other plants, so it hadn’t been just dropped in. What on earth is going on?

I spoke to some of my friends who have lived in East Finchley for much longer than me, and asked about the history of the playing fields. It used to be ‘Horseshoe Farm’ until some of the land  was bought in 1854 to create the cemetery. In the Second World War, a lot of vehicles were dumped on the area that is now the Fields and then the whole lot was grassed over. One friend told me that the council used to cut the grass right up to the cemetery fence, but they were asked to stop so that there could be a bit more diversity for bird and bees. There’s certainly plenty of that in this little patch here.

So, I wonder why this corner of the Playing Fields is so much more biodiverse than the rest of the area. Could it be that it was once the garden of the farmhouse, and that those plants have, somehow, persisted in the seedbank? Is some lovely person throwing a few seeds in now and again? I have no idea, but I do know that there are plants here that I haven’t seen anywhere else in my ‘territory’, and this has become my go-to site for new ‘Wednesday Weeds’. I also know that I didn’t expect to find a little patch of Austrian meadow so close to home, and it lifts my spirits so much to see it. On a breezy afternoon with the bees wobbling on their way into land on the thistle heads, I could be marching along a hilltop path on my way to get an Almdudler and an apfelstrudel.

Photo One by By Loimo - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Almdudler. A delicious fizzy herbal drink much loved in the Tyrol (by me, anyway) (Photo Two)

But, would I have noticed it if I hadn’t been primed by thinking about the mountains, if I hadn’t been trying to distil the essence of what my holiday so special into my present situation? I like to think that I would have been impressed, but maybe I wouldn’t have made the connection. I do believe that if we go out with an open mind and a longing in our hearts, we often find an answer.

Photo Credits

Photo  One by Esther Westerveld from

Photo Two By Loimo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

15 thoughts on “Not Austria Day Three – A Mystery on Muswell Hill Playing Fields

  1. Christine Dodds

    Thank you for introducing me to Piet Oudolf. Having Googled him I’m now really looking forward to watching his film “5 Seasons” this evening.

      1. Christine Dodds

        I’m afraid what I thought was the whole film on YouTube turned out to be a trailer only. There are currently no screenings and there’s no DVD available yet either. Sorry!

      2. Bug Woman

        No worries Christine, but what a shame – we shall all have to keep our eyes open. I’m sure the whole film will pop up somewhere eventually!

  2. Anne

    You make some interesting connections here and I particularly like the thought of the ancient seed bank that might be coming to the fore. I notice this when we visit ruins of homesteads in the middle of nowhere, baking in the sun and surrounded by indigenous thorn veld – yet in a shaded spot one might find remnants of what had once been a garden. It is a lovely connection with the past.

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Maybe whoever asked the Council to stop cutting up to the edge of the field decided to throw a few seeds around to see what would happen (and to emphasise the point). Some of those meadow photos certainly look like you could be in the Alps. 😊

    1. Bug Woman

      I wonder if I’ll ever find out? All the usual suspects (I have friends who are into a little undercover re-wilding) deny all knowledge. I think I shall just enjoy it 🙂

  4. Liz Norbury

    How wonderful to discover a meadow which is new to you, yet so close to home! Close to my home are three miles of grassy sand dunes – I know some of the paths between the hills so well that I could follow them in the dark, and yet only in the last few months, I’ve found hidden pools and sheltered valleys which I didn’t know were there. Some years ago, on the fringes of the dunes, I came across what I have since discovered are the ruins of the First World War National Explosives Works, obscured by rampaging brambles, cotoneaster and clematis – so I was fascinated to read about the known and unknown history of Muswell Hill Playing Fields. I can see why this meadow lifted your spirits, whether the plants are the result of recent seed-planting or survivors of a lost farmhouse garden.

    1. Bug Woman

      Gosh, I hope that plants are the only things buried at the National Explosives Works – maybe you need an explosives-sniffing dog to accompany you on your rambles 🙂

  5. Pingback: Sunday at Muswell Hill Playing Fields | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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