Monthly Archives: November 2020

A Sunny Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, after last week’s trudge through a downpour it was lovely to see some sun this week. The cemetery was positively abuzz with people tidying up the graves after the mud and leaves of the past few weeks, and I was even lucky enough to bump into my friend A who had found some most interesting fungi.

The crows were out in force, and even they seem more relaxed when the weather is not as unwelcoming.

I popped over to the woodland burial area to see ‘my’ swamp cypress, and very fine it looked too. Isn’t it funny how sometimes we’re just drawn to particular plants? I honestly love this tree, even though it bears a passing resemblance to Chewbacca from Star Wars.

And look at this beautiful bark, it looks as if someone has given the trunk a good old polish with a chamois leather. The photo doesn’t do justice to the high gloss effect, and I can’t wait to pop back in spring to verify my ID.  I’m thinking that it’s Tibetan Cherry (Prunus serrula), and a very fine example it is too.

Tibetan Cherry (Prunus serrula) (Fingers crossed)

I have a kind of mental block about the difference between the English Oak and the Sessile Oak, even though I have posted about it here on the blog – as soon as I’m out and about, I know that one has stalked leaves and unstalked acorns, and the other has the reverse, but I can’t remember which is which. I took some photos of the leaves on this tree, and as they appear to have stalks I am going to say that it’s a sessile oak. Feel free to correct me :-).

There is another fine batch of fungi popping up in the grass – I am relying on my friend A for a rough ID, as my closest guess would be some way off.

There are still a surprising number of plants in flower – there’s prickly oxtongue, Oxford ragwort and lots of yarrow, with its tiny white flowers, all set off by the leaves of cow parsley and what looks rather like chervil.

And as we stroll back, it suddenly hits me how many of the smaller trees in the cemetery are ash. Look at all these. All of the many-stemmed grey-trunked trees are ash. What will happen if and when ash dieback takes hold, and so many of them are gone? In other parts of the cemetery there are some large ashes too. Maybe I’ll write to the Cemetery Management people and see what their plans are.

On one of the woodier paths, a woodpigeon seems to have met with an untimely end, though the feathers on these birds are so loosely attached that they can sometimes escape even with the loss of a few primaries. Certainly there’s no actual corpse.

As we walk back towards home, via the overgrown Tram Path (there used to be a tram in the cemetery for shuffling the coffins about) we come across two chaps with magnifying glasses, cleaning cloths, water sprays and a bucket. I ask them what they’re up to, and a tale unfolds. It appears that they are looking for the grave of a music hall performer, A. P. Hollingsworth, who died in 1865 and is thought to be buried in the cemetery. They have tracked the possible grave site down, and are now cleaning up the overgrown memorials at the side of the track. How I wish I’d asked what their connection was! But we shall see next time we go if they’ve managed to restore Mr Hollingsworth to his former glory. The cemetery is full of mysteries, every stone representing a life lived and now largely forgotten. I cheer inwardly every time a story is unearthed and remembered.

A Walk in Bluebell Wood

Bluebell Wood as seen from Winton Avenue

Dear Readers, the talk by David Bevan about North London’s ancient woodlands gave me the impetus I needed to go and rediscover Bluebell Wood, a tiny fragment of oak and hornbeam forest just behind the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green. I love the way that you discover this wood at the end of a suburban street, as if by magic.

Although it’s called Bluebell Wood, there haven’t been any bluebells for years, apart from the odd hybrid that’s jumped over a garden wall. I seem to remember seeing wood anemones there a good ten years ago, but I could have been hallucinating.

As you can see from the map, it borders some rather fine allotments (last time we were here they had an open day and were selling tea and cake). Ah, those were the days. At the moment, the lockdown means that even if you can find someone prepared to sell you a beverage, you can’t stand around and drink it because it’s takeaway only. Let’s hope that it helps to bring the R number down so that we don’t get a massive spike before the vaccination programme kicks off.

But as usual I digress.

The oaks in Bluebell Wood are largely sessile oaks (Quercus petraea). In this species, the leaves have stalks and the acorns mostly don’t, while the English oak (Quercus robur) has it the other way round, with stalkless leaves and stalked acorns. You might think that they would hybridise, but according to my Collins Tree Guide this is unusual, as the sessile oak flowers a fortnight after the English oak. It might be interesting to see what happens as climate change confuses things.

I love this time of year, as the leaves fall away to reveal the shape of the trees. And I loved the caramel colour of the hornbeam leaves below, as they twist and contort.

Hornbeam leaves (Carpinus betulus)

There is quite a lot of hazel in the understorey too, probably because the wood seems a lot more open than some of the other woods.

There were a few indignant squirrels, who are no doubt willing the hazel to put on a growth spurt so they can have a break from eating endless acorns.

Two young women are sitting socially-distanced on a huge log, while their dogs, a Shiba Inu and a ‘bitzer’ (as my Dad would have said – ‘Bits of this and bits of that’ in other words) run around in the leaves in a kind of canine ecstasy. This week I read that smelling the scents of other dogs actually releases serotonin in the doggy brain, making it all the more important to let them have a good sniff when they’re out for their walk.

There’s a very pronounced ditch to the north of the wood, which would have been a way of keeping the commoners’ animals out of the forest (which was another part of the Bishop of London’s extensive estate). In his talk, David Bevan mentioned that the woodland inside the ditch was technically ancient woodland, while the trees that had appeared on the other side were classed as secondary forest. Who knew? Another reason for attending these London Natural History talks.

And then, a quick loop back and out. There was some cherry laurel, but a few ‘exotics’ don’t seem to do any harm. If it was rhododendron it might be more of a concern, as this is much more invasive. I was also intrigued by the bird poo on the lower branches, which implied to me that a bird sits round about regularly. I wonder who, and what they’re doing?

The cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is just starting to show through, ahead of its flowering in May. I love how sweet and green these first leaves look.

On the way to the garden centre we pass a bed with some Roseanne geraniums, still in flower, and a splendid salvia (I’m thinking Amistad?)

Geranium ‘Roseanne’

Salvia (Amistad)

And there’s a whole bed of Mahonia, a real boon for queen bees emerging on the warmer days for a sip of nectar. It smells sweet, too.

Now Readers, I wanted to ask you a question on the subject of Mahonia. I have one rather sad plant in a pot, which has a single stem, a rosette of leaves at the top and some flowers. If I put it into the ground and cut that one stem back, do you think it would produce multiple stems or do you think it would just keel over at the insult? I will not hold you responsible for your advice, I promise.

And finally, here is the pyracantha hedge. I do hope that it attracts birds, in particular waxwings, who are known to frequent supermarket car parks because of these berries. And if a flock does descend, I hope that I somehow find out about it. We’ve had waxwings on one of our street trees several times in the past few years, so I will keep an eye open there too. Fingers crossed.


Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) on street tree in East Finchley


The Difficult Life of a Street Tree

Dear Readers, I have always been very fond of the strange crab apple tree that grows towards the end of my street. Back in 2014 I commented on the way that it had been pruned, remarking that it looked as if a wood-nymph was trying to escape from the trunk. Alas, the life of a street tree can be a difficult one. Not only do they have to contend with drought, flood, exposure, pollution and wind, but in some cases they also have to deal with living in an extremely narrow road where there is a lot of building work going on.

Earlier this week, the tree had an unfortunate encounter with a hastily-delivered skip. It says something for our road that everyone, from the builders to the home-owners, were horrified at what had happened, and that the council have got on board unexpectedly quickly – one of their tree officers will come to have a look and see if it’s possible to save it. Several people have noted that it looks like a much older tree than most of those in the street (its trunk must be twice to three times as thick as that of the other crab apples) and people are anxious to preserve this veteran if they can. What do you think, Readers? I suppose the ‘wound’ could be tidied up and maybe protected from frost, but let me know your thoughts, and I will let you know how we get on.

Looking at Barnet’s Tree Policy, it looks as if they will try to preserve the tree if possible, which will please everyone involved with our crab apple.  I also note that the council  will refuse a request to prune or cut down a street tree for the reasons listed below. I find this rather refreshing. After all, if you move into a house with a tree outside, it’s difficult to argue that you didn’t notice.

  • Interference with satellite dish TV reception
  • Residents perception that a tree is too large
  • Obstruction of view or light
  • Seasonal nuisance (leaf fall, fruit litter, allergies to pollen, nuisance caused by insects or birds)
  • Residents’ perception that the tree will cause damage in the future
  • To replace a healthy mature tree to create space for the planting of new trees.

Street trees are so important in terms of biodiversity, shade, reducing flood risk, supporting mental health and bringing nature closer that it feels important to conserve them, and to plant more. Now, if we could just stop backing into them with our cars (so many of the trees on our street are tilting in a very obvious way) and knocking their branches off with skips, we’ll all be happy.

Saturday Quiz – Rare and Unusual

Dear Readers, this week I was inspired by Peter Marren’s book ‘Chasing the Ghost’ to see if we can identify some plants that we’ve probably never seen before, purely on the basis of their resemblance to more common plants. Can we spot a lungwort or a catchfly even if we’ve never seen this particular species?  I have chosen 15 species from his list of 50 rare and unusual plants. You might not have seen them, but hopefully you’ll have seen something like them.

This week I have gone for slightly smaller photos which will hopefully help a bit with all the scrolling up and down, but do let me know if you preferred the bigger ones.

All you need to do, as usual, is to match the species from the list below with the photograph and pop your answers into the comments if you want to be marked. Feel free to play along even if you don’t want to publicise your brilliance. So, if you think the plant in photo 1 is Alpine Rock-cress, your answer is 1)A)

I will post the answers next Friday, so if you want me to work out your score, please enter your response by 5 p.m. UK time next Thursday. If you don’t want to be influenced by those who’ve already submitted, I recommend writing your answers down before you go to the comments :-).

Onwards, and good luck!

A) Alpine Rock-cress (Arabis alpina)

B) Tasteless Water-pepper (Persicaria mitis)

C) Ribbon-leaved Water Plantain (Alisma pedunculata)

D) Whorled Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum verticillatum)

E) Few-flowered Fumitory (Fumaria vaillantii)

F) Leafless Hawk’s-beard (Crepis praemorsa)

G) Slender Cotton-grass (Ephiophorum gracile)

H) Upright or Tintern Spurge (Euphorbia serrulata/Euphorbia stricta)

I) Copse Bindweed (Fallopia dumetorum)

J) Alpine Catchfly (Silene suecica)

K) Wild Gladiolus (Gladiolus illyricus)

L) Blue Heath (Phyllodoce caerulea)

M) Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum)

N) Early Marsh-Orchid, cream-coloured form (Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp ochroleuca)

O) Alpine Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea alpina)


Photo One by By Rolf Engstrand - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Three by Mathilde DUVERGER [CC BY-SA], via Tela Botanica, CC BY 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Four by HermannSchachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Five by Franz Xaver, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Six by Björn S..., CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Seven by I, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eight by MurielBendel, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Nine by HermannSchachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Ten by Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eleven by Andreaze, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Twelve by Franz Xaver, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

12) (Hint – have a look at the Latin names)

Photo Thirteen by Jerzy Opioła, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Fourteen by Joachim Lutz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Fifteen by Karelj, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons



Saturday Quiz – Little Brown Jobs – The Answers!

Photo One A by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Female red-backed shrike (Lanus collurio)(Photo One A)

Dear Readers, we are all doing very well this week, with Fran and Bobby Freelove and Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus both getting 15 out of 15. A special shout out to Molly who completed her first quiz this week and also got 15 out of 15! And an extra special shout out to Rosalind and her husband, who had a jolly good bash at the quiz in spite of both professing ignorance on the subject of little brown jobs – you got 8 out of 15 which is more than half so that still counts as at least a silver star in my book. No wooden spoons here (unless you are short of one in the kitchen, in which case I’ll see what I can do). Well done everybody, and thank you for having a bash. 

Here are the answers, and I can promise you that tomorrow’s quiz will be a little bit different…

Photo One Jacob Spinks from Northamptonshire, England, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

1)H) Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Photo Two by Steve Garvie at

2)G) Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus)

Photo Three by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

3)E) Corn Bunting (Emberitza calandra)

Photo Four by Rory from Glasgow, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

4)J) Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

Photo Five by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

5)C) Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Photo Six by Matt Prosser, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

6)M) Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Photo Seven by Charles J Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

7)N) Spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Photo Eight by Alpo Roikola, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

8)O) Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Photo Nine by cheloVechek / talk, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

9)A) Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Photo Ten by Andreas Trepte, CC BY-SA 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

10)D) Chiffchaff (Phyllosopus collybita)

Photo Eleven by David Friel, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

11)B) House sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Photo Twelve by Ken Billington, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

12)F) Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

Photo Thirteen by Francesco Veronesi from Italy, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

13)L) Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata)

Photo Fourteen by Stefan Berndtsson, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

14)K) Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Photo Fifteen by Charles J Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

15)I) Whitethroat (Sylvia communis)

Photo Credits

Photo One A by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo One Jacob Spinks from Northamptonshire, England, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Steve Garvie at

Photo Three by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by Rory from Glasgow, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Matt Prosser, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by Charles J Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eight by Alpo Roikola, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by cheloVechek / talk, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by Andreas Trepte, CC BY-SA 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eleven by David Friel, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twelve by Ken Billington, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Thirteen by Francesco Veronesi from Italy, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fourteen by Stefan Berndtsson, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fifteen by Charles J Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunrise in Cherry Tree Wood

Dear Readers, Cherry Tree Wood is much more of a park than Coldfall Wood, although it was once part of the same extensive forest, used by the Bishop of London as his hunting ground. So, although it has many things that Coldfall does not – toilets, tennis courts, a children’s playground, even a cafe – there are the same magnificent oaks and hornbeams. And, for a few weeks every year, the sun is just about rising through the trees at 8 a.m. when we go for our walk, so I thought I’d share a few photographs with you. This is something of a dangerous occupation as the park is also frequented by cyclists, joggers and, this morning, a chap on an e-scooter. Gosh these things are dangerous – fast and completely silent. At least a cycle has a bell.

I had never noticed this very twisty hawthorn before – when the leaves drop off the underlying structure of a tree is revealed. I suspect this one must have been cut back a few times when it was a mere sapling and has since gone its own way, much as many of the trees have.

I loved this little field maple (do tell me if it’s not, I have constant trouble with my maples). The leaves look too small to be sycamore to me. There’s something about the way that it shines yellow in the shade of the bigger trees that is very appealing, it almost seems to shimmer.

Looking back across the field, you can see the sun just starting to warm up the oaks and hornbeams. The field is completely waterlogged, but I like the reflections. Sometimes there are hopeful seagulls trying to swim in the puddles, but not today.

And when you enter the fragment of wood, the tree trunks seem to be dancing, much as they do in Coldfall – the hornbeams were probably coppiced a few times, but were then left to grow into trees. They look very sinuous to me, like snakes as they’re charmed.

Look at this little tree tying itself into a knot.

Just as spring during lockdown felt very special, as I slowed down and paid attention, so there is something particularly wistful rising in me as I look at the trees. Was there ever anything more beautiful? So many colours are interwoven to make that copper/orange/chestnut/golden medley.

And as we are about to leave, I look back and catch this little oak in its moment of glory, lit up by the morning sun. My heart rate seems to go down in the presence of big trees – it’s as if I somehow fall into sync with their slower pace of life. Trees seem to invoke serenity. It’s a great way to start the day, with a little dose of calmness, before all the mad rush of work starts.


Chasing the Ghost – My Search For All the Wildflowers of Britain by Peter Marren

Dear Readers, on a day when I would normally be knocking up a Wednesday Weed, I thought it might be fun to think about the plants that you would never normally come across in a quick march around your local green space. Who among us is regularly falling over Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) for example? Who has ever seen Whorled Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum verticillatum)? And has anybody ever seen ‘The Ghost’ of the title, the Ghost Orchid (Epigogium aphyllum)? Well, Peter Marren’s book ‘Chasing the Ghost‘ enables you to follow him as he attempts to find 50 plants that he’s never seen before.

Photo One By BerndH - Picture taken by BerndH, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ghost Orchids (Epipogium aphyllum) (Photo One)

When I read the title of the book, I thought that Marren was going to be starting from scratch in his hunt for plant species, but fortunately (because otherwise the book would be the size of a small drinks cabinet) he has already seen most of the commoner species. He looked through his much-thumbed volume ‘The Concise British Flora’ and found that there were exactly fifty species unticked. However, there were difficulties afoot:

A few are plants that flower erratically, while others are found only in remote corners of Britain, and some bloom underwater….More problematic was that some of them flowered at the same time at opposite ends of Britain. ….over the whole enterprise hung the spectre of Epipogium, the Ghost Orchid- a plant almost as unattainable as the Holy Grail. Unless someone found it during the year, which, on recent form, seemed unlikely, it was a built-in guarantee of almost certain failure’. 

Goodness, how I love a quest! I am reminded of the travel and nature writer Peter Mathiesson, with his attempt to see a snow leopard (which I heartily recommend if you’ve never read it). But how much danger could there be in a search for some wild flowers? Well, quite a lot as it happens. Marren isn’t getting any younger, he has health problems which become more apparent as he gets continually rained upon and knocked over, and some of these plants grow in precipitous spots. Here he is looking for Norwegian Mugwort (Artemisia norvegica) on ‘a high, bare ridge, Cul Mor, Scottish Highlands’ for example: he has just identified the plant when:

Then there was the most almighty bang, followed by a flash. The storm had arrived. In terror, I splashed back up the slope as fast as my clunky boots could carry me. The right thing to do was to find shelter well below the rocks on the ridgeline and wait out the storm. But both sides plunged down steeply, and my only thought was to get off the hill as quickly as possible. Another flash burst over Cul Mor, a blast of white light, mighty close, horribly assertive. I swear I I smelt electricity. If I live, I thought, I might find this quite funny – the terrified fleeing figure with the thunder god hurling bolts at him’.

Photo Two By pellaea -, CC BY 2.0,

Norwegian mugwort (Artemisia norvegica) (Photo Two)

Not all rare plants are in such inhospitable spots however. Take the Childing Pink (Petrorhagia nanteulii) which grows behind a pub in Sussex:

When I pulled up at the forecourt they were rolling beer kegs from the back of a lorry, with metallic rattles and clangs. Behind the clubhouse is a narrow backwater with a few moored boats. Across the narrow inlet lies a desolation of dredgers and warehouses: VW Heritage, Travis Perkins, Screwfix(‘Open 7 days!’). The only beauty lay at my feet, in the patch of a tiny flower growing in bare sand’.

Photo Three By Javier martin - Own work, Public Domain,

Childing Pink (Petrorhagia nanteulii) (Photo Three)

And then there’s the Fen Ragwort (Senecio paludosus), which grows to 7 feet tall, and is now known only from a ‘ditch on the busy road from Ely to Newmarket….the ragwort’s ditch regularly fills with rubbish: in 2001 four sackfuls were removed in one day, along with ‘a road sign, three drums of lubricant and a traffic cone‘. This plant was declared extinct in 1857, but suddenly reappeared when its ditch was dug in 1968, having lain dormant in the soil for all that time. Some seedlings have been replanted in Woodwalton Fen, where maybe, one day, it will start to proliferate.

Photo Four byAlgirdas at the Lithuanian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Fen Ragwort (Senecio paludosus) (Photo Four)

In some ways, this is a perfect lockdown book, though it did make me yearn for the days when I could jump onto a train and head off in pursuit of some natural wonder or another. It also made me nostalgic for being able to meet up with friends and head off on an adventure – everywhere that Marren goes, he is helped in his search by fellow botanists, friends, conservationists and sometimes complete strangers. There is a kind of comradeship in being an enthusiast – when other people write you off as an eccentric for standing in the cold and rain with binoculars or a hand lens, there is, if we are lucky, someone who understands and will wait around with you. I grew very fond of Marren – if you read the book, you will see that some of his life experiences overlap with mine, and there is a kind of fellowship in suffering, too. He is good company – he wears his extensive knowledge and experience lightly, and he has an irrepressible sense of humour, invaluable when you’re up to your personal parts in bogwater.

I heartily recommend this book. I will certainly be looking at the author’s back catalogue – he has written Rainbow Dust, about our love affair with butterflies, and a guide to Fungi which is extremely readable. If only there were more hours in the day for all the things I want to read!

Photo Credits

Photo One By BerndH – Picture taken by BerndH, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two By pellaea –, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three By pellaea –, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four by Algirdas at the Lithuanian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


London Natural History Society Talk –

Dear Readers, I was really excited about this talk: David Bevan is a hero of mine, for a variety of reasons. He was one of the key players in the coppicing of Coldfall Wood and Queen’s Wood, a decision which greatly increased the biodiversity in both of these fragments of ancient woodland. He was the conservation officer for Haringey, the council where Coldfall Wood is located, for many years. But lastly, he only started to work in areas where his passion for plants could be used when he was in his forties, following a course at Birkbeck on Ecology and Conservation. It is never too late to learn new things, or to change your direction.

The talk was wide-ranging, and so I’m just going to pick up here on a few key points, though you can watch the whole thing here.

Bevan started with a review of the many fragments of ancient woodland that still exist in North London, and pointed up a number of very interesting differences between them. Although, as I’ve often mentioned, Coldfall Wood, Queen’s Wood and Highgate Wood are all oak and hornbeam woods, a wood that I visited recently, Big Wood, was completely clear-felled in 1820. As a result, the understorey is dominated by hazel instead, which is a boon for both insects and for the squirrels.

Photo One by By Iridescenti - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Big Wood (Photo One)

Bevan also managed to get into Turner’s Wood, which is a scrap of woodland in Hampstead Garden Suburb that is completely surrounded by houses. Those with adjoining houses set up a company to manage the wood, and access by the public is prohibited. Bevan reports that the woodland is largely sessile oak rather than pedunculate (English) oak in the other woods, and suspects that these might have been planted rather than being remnants of an older wood.

Photo Two by By Dudley Miles - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The locked entrance to Turner’s Wood (Photo Two)

Bluebell Wood is another tiny remnant of ancient woodland not far from my favourite garden centre in Bounds Green – in spite of the name it doesn’t have bluebells (at least not these days!) To digress slightly, Bevan felt that the danger to bluebell woods from Spanish and hybrid bluebells was overstated (and recent research bears this out) – although hybrid bluebells might be found on the edge of colonies of English bluebells, they are unable to encroach into the colony as a whole, which is something of a relief.

Bevan then moved on to the trees and other plants that are found in these North London woods, and also had some interesting things to say about the wildlife that depends on them. One thing I didn’t realise was that hawfinches are very attracted to hornbeam seeds, and the birds have been recorded in Coldfall Wood, so definitely something for me to keep my eyes open for. I’ve never seen these magnificent finches with their big beefy beaks.

Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

Bevan mentioned that the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), an important indicator that a woodland is ancient, is present in all of the North London woods, although it doesn’t set seed very often in this country. When seeds are produced, they  need hot summers and cold winters in order to germinate, and with our winters becoming milder and wetter this seems unlikely.

Flowers of the wild service tree.

Bevan also mentions that the wild pear tree (which was described by Oliver Rackham as one of the rarest trees in England) grows in Queen’s Wood – until coppicing took place it didn’t flower, but finally it did, producing not only flowers but ‘iron pears’, the hard, inedible fruit.

Now, on to the coppicing. Coldfall Wood’s biodiversity has been improved immeasurably by the cutting back of some of the hornbeams – it immediately lets light into the understorey, and some seeds which have been waiting for up to a century will spring up life (foxglove in particular has a very long life in the seedbank). Bevan notes that wood anemone, early and common dog violet, yellow pimpernel, ragged robin, St. John’s wort and cow wheat were all recorded, along with the only orchid in the ancient woods of North London, a broad-leaved helleborine.

Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine)

And finally, Bevan did a study of the garden plants that turn up in Queen’s Wood. His study showed that while the edges of the wood had a number of garden plants, these ‘exotics’ found it much more difficult to penetrate further into the wood. He noted cherry laurel, buddleia, Himalayan honeysuckle and late cotoneaster, but is largely unworried by such ‘interlopers’. His view is that in urban woods at least, garden plants are very unlikely to be a problem, and may even increase biodiversity.

Here in North London we are extremely lucky to have such areas of woodland. Ancient woodland is defined as an area that has survived continuously since at least 1600, and each scrap has its own individual character. Bevan points out that all the woods that have survived are on very hilly land, which might be what saved them from destruction by developers during the building boom of the 60s and 70s. Today they have helped to support many thousands of people through the lockdowns of 2020. Let’s hope that people’s new appreciation of our woods will help to protect them in the future.

Coldfall Wood, October 2020


This Week’s Highlights From New Scientist

Photo One from

The ‘Giant Paperclip’ squid (Diplomoceras maximum)

Dear Readers, I am an avid devotee of New Scientist magazine, in particular the short articles which present research from around the world, and which often reveal all sorts of wonders. So, this week I thought I’d share my two favourite articles.

The ‘Gian Paperclip’ Squid  That Might Have Lived for Centuries

While Tyrannosaurus Rex was wandering the land 68 million years ago, a 1.5 metre long ammonite with a strangely twisted shell was patrolling the oceans, and individuals could have lived for up to 200 years. The ‘Giant Paperclip Squid’ (Diplomoceras maximum) had one of the most unusual shells of any ammonite (this group was one of the ancestors of the cephalopods that exist today), as you can see from the artist’s impression above. 

The scientists who are studying the animal, Linda Ivany and Emily Artruc at Syracuse University, have been able to take the chemical signature of that strange shell and, comparing it with annual methane emissions that we know occurred in the oceans, they have come to the conclusion that, as with trees, each ‘ring’ in the shell represented a year. By counting the rings, it’s very likely that these animals lived for centuries. And as the shell grows by accretion, with each ring adding to the next, it might go some way to explaining the ‘paper-clip’ look of the animal.

This long life is very unusual because cephalopods are normally very short-lived creatures – many octopuses only live for a year and the longest-lived member of the family, the nautilus, lives for a maximum of twenty years. The scientists speculate that because the paperclip squid lived in Antarctica, it may have had a very slow metabolism and breeding rate to cope with the difficult conditions.

The name ammonite means ‘Horn of Ammon’, the ram-like god of the Ancient Egyptians, and you might recognise the more typical shell below. Sadly, all the ammonites were wiped out in the same incident that destroyed the dinosaurs, and there are several theories about why these oceanic animals became extinct when other ocean-goers didn’t. One theory is that ammonites lived on plankton (their beaks are very different from present-day cephalopods, which eat much bigger prey), and we know that there was a long period when plankton populations crashed, so it’s possible that only more omnivorous families of animals survived. 

A second theory is that the young of ammonites floated closer to the surface of the oceans, and their shells were destroyed by the acidity of the water following the meteor impact which wiped out the land animals. Creatures who lived deeper in the ocean, scientists believe, were more likely to survive.

Whichever was the case, it seems a shame that this group, so common in the fossil record and so successful for over 300 million years, was wiped out in the geological equivalent of the blink of an eye.

Read more:

Photo Two from By Nobu Tamura ( - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

A more typical ammonite (Photo Two)

And for our second  glimpse into the natural world this week, this headline has attracted attention beyond the ranks of arachnophiles:

Some Male Spiders Tie Up Females Before Mating to Avoid Being Eaten

Photo Three from New Scientist

Thanatus fabricii (Photo Three)

As you might expect, this tale of spider bondage has got many news outlets over-excited, and, as with most spider stories, they choose to illustrate them with photos of completely the wrong species. So, here are the facts! No fake news here people (though please note that I’m always open to being told that I’m wrong about something – many of you are experts in your fields, and I’m delighted to learn).

The Running Crab Spider (Thanatus fabricii) lives in the Negev Desert in Israel and, as with many spiders, mating can be a fraught occasion. Lenka Sentenská at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada, had been observing some extremely fast movements made by the males of this species when they encountered a female, but, by slowing down film of the action, she was able to see exactly what was going on.

When a male encountered a female, he would rush in and bite her legs, leaving her so astonished that she would sometimes play dead. While prone, the male would bind her legs, mate with her and run away.

However, as usual, things were not quite as they seemed. The females would sometimes kill and eat a male who wasn’t fast enough, and the scientist notes that it doesn’t take much effort at all for the female to break free. Sentenská speculates that the silk used to tie the female up may contain a chemical signal from the male, and if she approves of him she is more likely to allow him to mate.

“It appears brutal, that the female has no choice, but that’s probably not how it is,” she says. So, a little less ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ than some newspapers seem to think.

Read more:

A Short, Wet Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, we have found that if we don’t get ourselves out for a walk, the rest of the day somehow never really comes into focus, so the fact that we were expecting relentless rain all day was just a reason for digging out the wet weather gear and heading to the cemetery. It’s become our place for contemplation since lockdown, and when it’s damp it’s even quieter than usual. Plus there’s something about the grey skies and the mizzle that makes the colours pop more. Look at these lovely oak leaves, for example. This is the first year that I’ve really appreciated the caramel tones of the dead foliage, interspersed with the odd citrussy yellow and green leaves.

Down in the woodland graveyard area, the swamp cypress are also showing their winter colours. This is fast becoming one of my favourite non-native trees – I love the delicacy of the foliage, and the way the leaves turn to russet in the autumn. The fruits look like little maces to me.

A much more recent addition to the area is this young ginkgo, with its bright yellow leaves. In years to come, this will look splendid with a backdrop of the fox-red swamp cypress. It already looks good with the blue-green of the conifers behind it.

One problem with my other regular walk around Coldfall Wood and Muswell Hill Playing Fields is the mud at this time of year. That’s the big ‘problem’ with clay soil – rich and nutritious it might be, but in the winter it turns quickly into a quagmire. Haringey Council have put in some paths and a sandy area at one entrance between the woods and the fields, but the problem is, what do you do? For one thing, councils have very little money to spend on public amenities following years of austerity, and for another thing it’s not necessarily great to have hard paving which can become slippery and a trip hazard, plus it isn’t good for wildlife either. I guess I’ll just have to invest in wellington boots.


Although it’s been wet (Saturday 3rd October was the wettest day in Britain since records began), it’s also been extremely mild, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see some lush pockets of wildflowers. This white deadnettle was particularly toothsome – I love the shape of the flowers. By now it was not only raining but blowing a minor gale, so apologies for the blurring.

White deadnettle (Lamium album)

And here we have some Oxford Ragwort, one of those ‘weeds’ that spread along the railway tracks, and is now common all over England.

But sometimes the rain is too much even for us. I had tucked my camera into my anorak (yes, I am a proud anorak-wearer) and could barely see through the raindrops on my spectacles. If it’s not the lenses fogging up because of my face mask it’s the precipitation these days. The person who invents little windscreen wipers for glasses will make a million, mark my words.

I had time for a few shots of the big trees on the other side of the cemetery, though – what a splendid combination of colours they are! Autumn in the UK is a bit less flamboyant than in North America, but I think it still has a charm all of its own. See what you think.