Monthly Archives: December 2020

I-Spy Books – A Trip Down Memory Lane

Photo One from

I-Spy books from the 1950s and 60s (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when I was a little girl I was obsessed with I-Spy books – they were a cheap and cheerful way of helping a child to pay attention, especially during a long, dull car trip. The idea was simple – each book had a variety of objects to ‘spy’, with different points according to how rare they were. If you managed to complete a book, you could send it off to ‘Big Chief I-Spy’ and would get a certificate and a feather. I had no idea that Big Chief I-Spy was an actual person, Charles Warrell, who had the original idea and self-published the first few books. He single-handedly managed all early communications with children, but his assistant Arnold Cawthrow took over when Warrell retired, in 1956, and continued as ‘Big Chief’ until 1978. The whole ‘Red Indian’ theme lasted until the early 1970s (Big Chief’s assistants were usually known as ‘Hawkeye’) when David Bellamy the botanist took over as the person who received all the completed books and the obsession with cartoon Native Americans was quietly dropped.

My personal favourite was ‘I-Spy Dogs’ – from an early age I could tell a Welsh Terrier from a Lakeland Terrier, a Norfolk Terrier from a Norwich Terrier (it’s the ears you know), and while I was an obedient little girl when it came to ‘not talking to strangers’ I was known to dash across a busy road, I-Spy Dogs in hand, to ask a bemused adult if their dog was a Sussex Spaniel (100 points!) My little brother much preferred ‘I-Spy Cars’, especially when we were out for a drive in the Ford Consul and he could note down the passing Humbers and Chevrolets. Strangely enough, I wasn’t that interested in the ones about plants and trees, coming to botany later in life, but I was fond of ‘I-Spy in the Country’ with its sheep and goats and tractors.

I am fascinated by some of the earlier titles. I imagine that ‘I-Spy in the Army’ might have been because of National Service – children then were probably much more familiar with people in uniform and army vehicles. You might look a long time to complete ‘I-Spy Country Crafts’ these days, sadly. And what on earth was in ‘I-Spy the Unusual?’ I’m sure that there was a whole social history of the era to be read in these books. And how about ‘I-Spy in Hospital’? I’m sure things have changed a whole lot, but what a good way to occupy a small child who was apprehensive.

In its heyday, there were half a million children who considered themselves part of the I-Spy ‘Tribe’. Some of the books had six print runs to keep up with demand. I remember it getting very competitive, and cries of ‘Mum, he’s cheating’ often emanated from the back of the car. But by 2002 the I-Spy books came to the end of the road. Published at this point by Michelin, it seemed that there was just not the demand anymore, probably coinciding with widespread mobile phone ownership and the rise of video games.

But wait! When I go onto the National History Book Society online shop, what do I find but some snazzy new I-Spy books? From 2016 Harper Collins has been releasing a series of titles, including ‘I-Spy Creepy Crawlies’. How I would have loved this when I was a child! It might even have prised me away from my Papillon and Pekingese obsession ( the Papillon was worth 70 points but every elderly lady had a Pekingese and so it was only worth 20).  One sign of the times is that there is an ‘I-Spy at the Airport’ (though it’s probably not so relevant at the moment). There is an ‘I-Spy Camping’ though, which might hit the spot at the moment. And how about ‘I-Spy Garden Birds’ for a locked-down child who is lucky enough to have a garden?

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One of the new I-Spy books (Photo Two)

I loved these books. They made me curious about all kinds of things, and once I’d gotten over my dog obsession I branched out into many other subjects. I am tempted to buy one of the books for nostalgia’s sake. Do you still send the books off once they’re completed, I wonder? And how has the point scoring of the afghan hound changed since 1969? I note that the rarest breed, the Shiba Inu, only counts for 20 points, which suggests that the point spread is much narrower than it used to be. Harrumph.

Photo Three from

I-Spy Dogs 2020 Style (Photo Three)

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two from

Photo Three from

A Misty Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, what an atmospheric walk we had in the cemetery today! The freezing fog seemed to muffle every sound except the cawing of crows and the screeching of jays. The frost had touched the plants on the more open areas, turning this stonecrop into what looks like a mass of miniature cacti.

We decided to take a slightly different path from the one that we usually do – when there’s no view of the sky it seems perverse to take the route next to the North Circular Road with its constant traffic. So we passed this enormous mausoleum which is the tomb of Ludwig Mond, a German industrialist and chemist who developed a way of extracting nickel from its ore (called the Mond process). He was a benefactor of many scientific institutions, including the Royal Society. The tomb is based on the Temple of Nemesis in Rome, and is Grade II listed.

On we go. I love the underused, overgrown paths through some parts of the cemetery, like ‘Straight Road’ here. To the right, the moss has grown over something. I think it looks rather like a sleeping dog.

A sleeping moss dog?

We pass the grave of poor Percival Spencer, described here as an aeronaut – he was in fact an early adherent of hot-air ballooning. Legend has it that this tomb once bore the effigy of a balloon, but there’s no sign here. Spencer was the third generation of balloonists in his family, and made many cross-Channel crossings. He was the first person to fly a hot-air balloon in India in 1889, and subsequently passed his knowledge on to Ram Chandra Chatterjee, who was the first Indian to fly solo later that month. In the same year, Spencer was the first person to parachute safely in Ireland (one worries somewhat about the unsafe parachute adventures, but history has drawn a veil over those proceedings). After such an exciting life, Spencer’s end was decidedly earth-bound – he passed away from pneumonia at his home in Highbury, aged only 49.

Close by is this splendid headstone – there are a few of these monumental blocks in the cemetery, but none of the others have an artist’s palette on the front. Sadly, the wording is almost gone so I’m unable to tell you who was buried here. My husband thought that the palette was the cartoon figure of a man’s head smoking a cigar, and once you’ve seen it it’s difficult to see it any other way.

Further on I passed this rather cubist piece of tree surgery. I find all the planes and the way that the algae is shading the faces fascinating. The tree itself seems none the worse for the experience, and is already bursting with buds.

Then we pass another very fine mausoleum, this one with gold mosaics and a finely-wrought angel over the door. It’s the tomb of Letizia Melesi who, in 1913, was struck and killed by a taxi cab – this might have been the first road accident. One of the panels at the front shows the poor lady being helped to heaven by an angel while an alarmed taxicab driver gesticulates from his vehicle. The other panel shows Letizia’s husband, Gaetano, praying beside the tomb. All progress comes at a cost, for sure.

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Photo One

Photo Two from

Photo Two

I think I’ve featured William Alexander Lamond before, but I never fail to be impressed by his statue. He looks almost as if he’s just about to step off his pedestal. He died in 1926, aged just 57, but his loving wife, Helena, lived on until 1961 when she was 95. Whenever I pass, he always has a bunch of flowers in his hand. Someone still loves him, clearly.

By now I’m thoroughly chilled to the bone in spite of the thermals, so we head for home.

But what is this, blooming by the side of the path? Did no one tell this plant that it’s the end of December? Well, this is winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced from Italy in 1806 and known from the wild since 1835. The little flowers are said to be strongly almond-scented, but there are too few of them, and it’s too cold for them to make much of an impression today. Still, if any bumblebee was foolish enough to stick her furry head outside for a quick nip of nectar, at least her search wouldn’t be totally in vain.

Flower of winter heliotrope

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two from

Winter Wonderland – The Answers!

Title Photo by Alan Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Polar Bear (Title Photo)

Dear Readers,  what a splendid showing we had with the quiz this time! It tested everyone to the limit. In third place was Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus with a very respectable 21 out of 31 (I gave an extra mark for anyone getting the blood-thinner question right on the Christmas food section). In second place was Rosalind and her husband with 23/31. But the overall winners were Fran and Bobby Freelove who got an extraordinary 29/31. Well done to all of you, and thank you for taking part, you are all stars as far as I am concerned. 

Winter Wonderland 1 – Winter Trees

Photo One by

Question One

B) A Scots PIne

Photo Two by© Copyright Richard Law and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Question Two

C) A Yew

Photo Three by © Copyright johnfromnotts and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Question Three

C) Mistletoe

Winter Wonderland 2 – Christmas Plant Folklore

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

Question 4) C) A specific hawthorn in Glastonbury was believed to flower at Christmas because it grew from a staff planted by Joseph of Arimithea

Photo Five by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Question Five) D) Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) was believed to flower on Old Christmas Eve (5th January), particularly in the Isle of Man.

Photo Six by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question Six )B) Ivy (Hedera helix) is considered to be unlucky if brought into the house except between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night.

Question Seven) A) Holly is actually known as ‘Christmas’ in Cornwall.

Winter Wonderland 3 – Animal Tracks

Photo Eight By DooferKiin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Question 8) B) Badger

Photo Nine by © Copyright Michael Graham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Question 9) D) Fox

Photo Ten by © Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Question 10) A) Otter

Photo 11 by

Question 11) C) Hare

Winter Wonderland 5 – Rainbow Birds

Photo Twelve By FWS - USFWS website, Public Domain,

Question 12 Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Photo Thirteen By Almir Cândido de Almeida -, CC BY 2.0,

Question 13 Cock of the Rock (Rupicola rupicola)

Photo Fourteen by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Question 14 Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

Photo Fifteen by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 15 Rose-ringed (Ring-necked) Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

Photo Sixteen by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 16 Victoria Crowned Pigeon (Goura victoria)

Photo Seventeen by Dawn Scranton from Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 17 Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Photo Eighteen by _paVan_ from Singapore, Singapore, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 18 Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster)

Winter Wonderland 5 – Christmas Food Facts

Photo Nineteen by Jonathunder, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 19 – Parsnips B) Parsnips formed part of the tribute paid to the Emperor Tiberius from Germany

Photo Twenty by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 20 – Brussel sprout D) – Brussels sprouts should be avoided if you take blood-thinning medication due to their high levels of Vitamin K

Photo Twenty One by Muffet, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 21 – Cranberries E) – Cranberry came from ‘Crane-berry’ as the flowers are supposed to look like a long-beaked bird. Also D) – Cranberries too have lots of Vitamin K so should be avoided if you are on blood-thinning medication.

Photo Twenty Two by carol, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 22 – Clementine A) Clementines are named after Brother Clement Rodier who discovered the spontaneous cross between a sweet orange and a Mediterranean mandarin in the garden of his monastery in French Algeria.

Photo Twenty Three by Jean Marconi from Brasil, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 23 – Brazil Nuts C) Brazil nuts have the highest level of dietary selenium of any food.

Winter Wonderland 6 – Christmas ‘Carols’ 

Photo Twenty-Four by Alan D. Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 24 -D)  Polar Bear

Photo Twenty Five by Jan Frode Haugseth, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 25) B) – Rock Ptarmigan

Photo Twenty-Six by dfaulder, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 26) G) – Snow Bunting

Photo Twenty-Seven by Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 27) E) – Snowy Owl and chick

Photo 28 by Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd), CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 28) A)- Reindeer (the sound you can hear is the tendons in their legs clicking)

Photo Twenty Nine by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Question 29) C) – Robin. The call is surprisingly easy to muddle up with the snow bunting I think!

Photo 30 by Anya Schlich-Davies at

Question 30) F) – Arctic Fox cub

Sound Credits

All animals sounds in Winter Wonderland 6 were from the BBC Sound Archive BBC Sound Effects (

Photo Credits

Title Photo by Alan Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo One by © Copyright Peter Bond and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo Two by © Copyright Richard Law and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three by John from Notts – see photo for further details

Photo Four  By Tom Ordelman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by Bugwoman

Photo Eight By DooferKiin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Nine by © Copyright Michael Graham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Ten by © Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo Eleven by Andy Perkins at

Photo Twelve By FWS – USFWS website, Public Domain,

Photo Thirteen By Almir Cândido de Almeida –, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Fourteen  By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Fifteen by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Sixteen by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seventeen by Dawn Scranton from Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eighteen by _paVan_ from Singapore, Singapore, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nineteen by Jonathunder, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty One by Muffet, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Two by carol, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Three by Jean Marconi from Brasil, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty-Four by Alan D. Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Five by Jan Frode Haugseth, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty-Six by dfaulder, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty-Seven by Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Eight by Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd), CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twenty Nine by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 30 by Anya Schlich-Davies at


Christmas Reading

Dear Readers, this is just a gentle reminder that today is the last day for submitting your answers to the Christmas Quiz if you decided to have a go. I have been removing completed answers from the comments so that they didn’t influence anyone who came after. Answers will be published tomorrow. 

Dear Readers, ever since I was a little girl all I ever really wanted for Christmas was books. However, it’s often hard for non-readers to appreciate this. Mum and Dad, for example, would look at my Christmas list, shake their heads, and buy me something that they wanted to buy me instead. One year it was a leopard-skin print shirt dress. One year it was a pink faux-fur dressing gown. On one semi-successful year they seem to have bought up the entire contents of The Body Shop, and I smelled of Dewberry for the next eighteen months. I was always grateful, even though the aforementioned leopard-print shirt dress was several sizes too big and creased every time I sat down. After all, part of the joy of Christmas is in the giving, and I was always glad that people had loved me enough to buy me something.

This year has been sad in many ways, but goodness, it’s been a long time since I’ve been so happy with my Christmas presents. I think that nature writing in general is having a real renaissance, and so I was delighted to get ‘The Wild Life of the Fox by John Lewis- Stempel, one of my favourite nature writers, with a long history of interesting, prize-winning books behind him. However, I was also lucky enough to get one of the publishing sensations of the year, by Merlin Sheldrake – ‘The Entangled Life’ is a mind-blowing guide to the world of fungi, an area that I’ve become more and more interested in during lockdown, partly due to the infectious enthusiasm of my friend A, who is never happier than when she’s clambering up a muddy bank in search of an elusive mushroom.

And then there’s this book, by an author who is new to me, Marianne Taylor. Long-time readers will know how I love to champion underloved wildlife, and as gulls are so often cast as villains I fully expect to be enlightened and cheered by this book.

Now, aside from books which will be informative and fun to read, I like to have some heavier reading material so that I can educate myself. First on the list is the new book by Jeff Ollerton, whose London Natural History Talk on Pollinators and Pollination was so interesting. This will be one that will require taking notes and highlighting things I’m sure.

And I have recently fallen in love with the British Wildlife Collection – these books are both beautiful and interesting, and range widely across their subject areas. It makes me happy just to look at them. Roll on retirement, when I can really get stuck in!

But finally, here is a very beautiful book. Not one for taking out into the field for sure, but one to dip into, and one that I’m sure will help when the Wednesday Weed returns very shortly.

Each double-page spread features two plant illustrations that are somehow related – often something from a very old flora juxtaposed with a much more recent painting or photograph. The book explores our relationship to flowers in a myriad ways, and makes me constantly question what I held to be true. Much more than just a coffee-table book (though it is extremely beautiful) I can see me poring over it for years.

And so I feel truly blessed in my friends and family this year, and can’t wait to settle down and get stuck in. In truth, if I lived to be 300 there wouldn’t be time to read all the books that I want to read, but what a joy they are! I would love to hear what Santa Claus brought you for Christmas, and how you’re getting on over the holidays. I am always up for a chat.

A Busy Walk in Highgate and Queen’s Wood


Dear Readers, it’s Boxing Day and all those who have been at home, eating turkey and watching Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special on the TV have suddenly burst out of their abodes and headed for the woods. We made the mistake of heading to Highgate Wood ‘for a change’ but it was so packed with people that ‘the dance of two metres’ became trickier and trickier, especially as the paths had been so trampled that there was thick mud on either side. It’s wonderful that people feel such a need to get out into nature at the moment (and I’m one of those people) but it does point up how much of ‘nature’ we’ve lost, when the small areas that remain are so overcrowded.

The love of the woods is clear, as seen by this bench, with its bowl providing water for dogs and its bunch of roses. The inscription reads:

I sit here with memories for company

Knowing  that if life were moments 

we’d all have a good time’.

Sean Hughes (1965 – 2017)

Sean Hughes was born in North London but raised in Ireland – he was a very successful comedian (the youngest ever winner of the Perrier Award for stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival) and was one of the team captains in ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, the TV music quiz (not that that exactly sums up the complete anarchy that characterised the show). He was a vegetarian and a lifelong animal rights activist, but had a long struggle with alcohol, ending with his death from cirrhosis of the liver in Whittington Hospital at Archway in 1917. I remember his cheeky grin and his way with a one-liner, and had no idea that this memorial bench was here. RIP Sean. The doggies love their water bowl.

On we go, side-stepping the runners and choosing paths largely based on which large groups are approaching. I do take a detour to admire some fungi. I’m thinking this is probably not the hairy curtain crust that I spotted in Coldfall earlier this week, but maybe something exciting like Stereum ramaele, which is often found on oak.

Anyhow, just after this point we give up and head into the slightly quieter and wilder environs of Queen’s Wood. For some reason this doesn’t attract quite the footfall of Highgate Wood, I guess because there is no children’s playground or grassy area for little ones to play. I like its slightly eerie atmosphere, and I find myself admiring the way that the trees grow into strange contorted shapes in order to reach the light.

There has been a lot of coppicing here over the years, which has helped to bring light into some of the darker areas. I must definitely come back in spring and see what appears (before it’s trampled into the ground anyhow).

And by one of the entrances there’s a warning as to why dumping garden rubbish can introduce all kinds of plants into ancient woodland. I think that this is probably yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeabdolon ssp argentum), a popular garden plant and one which is widely naturalised in many hedgerows and woodlands across the UK. While the plain-leaved variety of the plant is a native, this variegated garden variety is not and, as it flowers earlier than the native plant it often out competes it. However, I am reserving judgement because I have no idea if the native species grows here, and this is still a useful plant for pollinators. David Bevan, who was the Conservation Officer for Haringey for many years, was relaxed about ‘introduced species’ in his recent LNHS talk, and my instinct is to agree with him.

By this time Queen’s Wood is getting a little busy for my taste as well, and so we head back towards Muswell Hill and home. On our way along Connaught Gardens I spot this street tree, which is covered in pink catkins. I rather think that this is a grey alder (Alnus incana var ‘Ramulis coccineis’) – if so it will have red shoots when spring comes. I must have a wander along and check.

Home we toddle, through Fortis Green, where we meet this very friendly cat. He does that ‘slow blink’ thing that cats do when they’re attempting to be chums, so I stand there like an eejit and do the same until my husband reminds me that it’s lunchtime.

And finally, I notice this single cyclamen in someone’s front garden, glowing like a small candle flame. I know that it’s not a fancy wild one, but it still cheered me up. And then it’s home for toast, and a cup of tea, while we wait for Storm Bella to arrive (70 m.p.h winds! Torrential rain!).

Yep, 2020 has definitely been a year for grabbing pleasures when you find them.


Christmas Day

Two Cedars of Lebanon at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, this was my first Christmas Day with just my husband and I, and no one else to care for or to worry about. At times like these, the sheer number of options could have been overwhelming, but as London is in Tier 4 as far as Covid was concerned, it made life a little less complicated. The main decision was whether to go for a walk in the cemetery before we opened the presents or afterwards. At first, I was all for sticking with my family’s tradition of having breakfast and then sitting around and opening the presents one at a time. But the day dawned so bright and cold that it seemed silly not to get out, especially as the cemetery was opening at 9 a.m.

Doing something new proved to be just the right thing. The empty chair where Mum used to sit has seemed to get more and more prominent over the last few days, and the weight of the past can become very heavy without any consideration of the future. As soon as we passed the Cedars of Lebanon at the entrance to the cemetery I could feel myself becoming a little lighter. There is something about the company of the dead that puts things into perspective: those ranks of headstones, each representing people who lived, were loved and died, reminds me that those who mourn are not alone, however much we might sometimes feel like it. Each death is a very individual experience for the people left behind, but it is also a universal one.

Of course, I go to visit ‘my’ swamp cypress. This time, I notice the rather elegant twist in the trunk.

Although the tree is now practically bare, there are still clumps of fine, feathery, copper-coloured leaves attached to a few of the outermost branches. I can really imagine this tree growing in a swamp somewhere, dripping with Spanish moss.

‘My’ swamp cypress

The last few leaves…

We walk over to Perimeter Road, where the noise from the North Circular Road is so loud that we can barely hear one another. But there are already flowers on the Cherry Laurel in one place, and well-advanced buds in another.

It has been a great year for yarrow, with many of the plants still in flower.

Every few minutes a car whooshes past, en route to a grave. I had never thought about how, for many people, this is part of their Christmas Day – they visit Granny’s grave, just as they used to go to her house or have her over for turkey and sprouts. In many cultures, the dead are included in celebrations – in China there are shrines to the ancestors in the house, and in Madagascar they go to visit the dead and tell them all the gossip while they unwrap and rewrap their bones. I suppose that this is our version, our way of not just remembering those who’ve gone, but somehow being with them. I am struck by the way that many of the people gathered are not sad, but are full of Christmas spirit and bonhomie, and this cheers me – maybe these people have integrated the sadness of someone’s passing into their lives, and are able to think of the good times, to share the happy memories.

I notice the squirrels and the jays looking for acorns that they buried a few weeks ago. The cold weather is making everybody hungry and in need of calories.

And as we pass a cypress-lined avenue, I am, as usual, stopped short by a strange animal perched on a headstone. What could it be?

Well sadly it’s not a baby owl, but a decapitated stone bird that used to hop along the top of the grave. It gets me every time.

And then it’s home, to open our presents, have a bit of lunch and for me to get peeling the sprouts. It does cross my mind that we’re having sprouts even though neither of us really like them, but then some Christmas traditions might take a bit more shifting :-).


A Christmas Eve Walk in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, by the time you read this it will be Christmas Day, so for those of you celebrating I hope you have a peaceful time, especially as for many people it won’t be the kind of Christmas that you were hoping for. I am hoping that 2021 will be a lot less ‘interesting’ than 2020 was.


The temperature dropped overnight to the high 30’s (which is coldish for us – don’t laugh, people in Scotland and Canada and other chilly parts of the world). But it was sunny and DRY hallelujah. We decided to go for a quick mooch around Coldfall Wood, which has saved the sanity of many people this year, including me. Every time I go I notice something new, and I think that lockdown has heightened my appreciation for the gradual changes of nature. How about you?

So, on the way I noticed this little posse of starlings. For once they were eerily silent – normally they’re whistling and clicking and generally making a racket. From the amount of suet that they eat every day I’d say that the inhabitants of East Finchley are single-handedly preventing them from migrating. Who’d want to fly all the way to Africa when there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet in the County Roads?

Is it just me or is this one looking a little portly?

And then we stroll into the woods. We’re a little later than usual, so the place is full of dogwalkers and small children and people going for a walk. For many of us, the Christmas preparations are a lot simpler this year. While for me this is a source of sadness, it’s also rather nice not to be run ragged. It makes me wonder what I could have dropped during previous Christmases to make it a bit easier on myself (and to make me a bit less stressed and easier to be with).  Worth pondering if you’re in the middle of a Christmas frenzy I think. 

I noticed how the holly trees often spring up when a tree has fallen or been pruned – that little bit of light seems to help them to lurch into action. I wonder what seedlings are stirring under the fallen leaves even now?

Little holly and yew trees growing in an unshaded spot.

The cyclamen is doing very well behind its stockade of branches. How sweet that someone has cared enough to try to protect it. I think that it might need a bit more room next year though.

And here is another, more advanced holly tree growing up in a gap.

And here’s some ivy, to complete the picture.

I’ve mentioned the mud before, so here’s a photo to give you an idea of how we’re doing (though it’s much better in the wood than it is on the field – at least in the wood there are lots of trees to drink up the excess water, though they are less thirsty without their leaves).

Some little hoodlum has been graffiti-ing the trees with this time-honoured fertility symbol, though why the testicles appear to have little faces is anybody’s guess.

Does anybody see the face of the elderly man in the trunk of this tree? I suspect he’s annoyed about the phallic symbol.

The little streams that run through the wood are making their way down to the wettest area of the wood. This year, so far, it hasn’t risen too far.

The wet woodland – bulrushes dying back, and the boardwalk well above the surface of the water so far.

I rather liked this completely surreal photo of a crow flying overhead. To some people it might be a blur, but to me it’s abstract art.

The crows are bathing in the stream, and turning over the leaves to find morsels to eat.

Squirrels seem to be chasing one another around and one was investigating the hole in a hollow tree. They don’t normally nest in holes, so I wonder if it was caching food, or looking for something to eat? They are very inquisitive and adaptable animals, so nothing would surprise me.

And when I look at the hornbeams in the wood now I am reminded of David Bevan’s talk about the ancient woodland of North London, in which he speculated that although the oak trees are probably several hundred years old, the hornbeams, cut back year after year for firewood, could easily be much older. When you see a hornbeam ‘stool’ like this one, you get the idea of how long the original tree could have been around, throwing up new stems every year only for them to be regularly cut back.

Hornbeam ‘stool’

And in some places in the wood which have been coppiced, allowing the light to get to the forest floor, young hornbeams are growing up as single-stemmed trees.

And so that was our walk for the day, and we headed back so that I could write the blog. Later we’ll be watching the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College on the television, filmed under social distancing rules and without a congregation. Will I manage to stay dry-eyed as those first notes of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ sung by the boy soloist soar through the church? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Notes from an Open University Course – Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

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

Qinngorput-Nuuk in Greenland (Photo One)

Dear Readers, regular followers will know that I have a particular bugbear about the way that the knowledge of indigenous peoples around the world is ignored when explorers and scientists descend on a community. Often, new plants and animals are said to be ‘discovered’ when the local people have known about them all along. The information that is held by communities about how things are changing in their areas is not considered as important as that gathered through western scientific methods. I can see that this is changing, and just as well.

This week we have watched two sets of documentaries on the BBC. One, ‘Operation Iceberg’, dates to 2012 and involves a set of scientists looking at how icebergs form and are broken up, and the impact of climate change. It features a host of favourites, including Chris Packham and  Helen Czerski. Nobody who actually lives in Greenland is interviewed, and their only visible presence is when an Inuit guide goes ashore onto the iceberg with the scientists because there are no fewer than five polar bears living on it. You would think that if anyone had been noticing climate change it would be the folk who live in Greenland, but the only ‘experts’ are flown in from the UK.

Fast forward to this year, and ‘Waterhole’, in which Chris Packham and Ella Al-Shamahi present a trio of programmes about an artificial waterhole created in the Mwibe reserve in Tanzania. Here they do at least interview the black Tanzanian guides, who know the animals as individuals, and understand their behaviour and history. Even so, they are on screen for a vanishingly small amount of time.

My current Open University module is on the Arctic, and so I have been learning about sea ice and polar bears and ocean currents and the albedo effect. But what has fascinated me has been the lack of voices of Inuit people in my own view of the North Pole. Why do I know more about the voyages of Elizabethan and Victorian explorers than I do about the people who actually live in the region?

Which brings me to TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge). In the last few decades, scientists have finally begun to understand that people who live in an area might have an understanding of its patterns that a person from outside would miss. The elders in many communities have an in-depth knowledge of the history of their worlds, often handed down from one generation to the next. There are four ‘strands’ of TEK:

Firstly, it is usually oral – it was passed between people living in close proximity. Western ‘knowledge’ is usually written down and is available for dissemination to a wider audience. This also emphasises the importance of understanding the local language – as we know, there are many words and concepts that are not directly translatable from one tongue to another.

Secondly, it is both local and context-specific – one Inuit population, for example, will have knowledge that is not transferable to another community.

Thirdly, it is that much over-used word, holistic – whereas science loves to pop things into categories (wolf, caribou, grass), indigenous knowledge more often focuses on the relationships between them. TEK is shared between members of a community, not ‘hoarded’. It is seen to be part of the social fabric of the society that generates it.

Finally, TEK is highly adaptive, and will change over time as circumstances and conditions change. Although this type of knowledge is labelled as ‘traditional’, it’s the ways of knowing that are often carried down through the generations, rather than the content, so that if the caribou change their migration route, or the sea ice becomes more treacherous, these details can be incorporated into the ‘knowledge base’.

For so long, the knowledge of indigenous people has been seen as ‘quaint’, interesting but not actually very useful. With typical Western arrogance we have assumed that we have nothing to learn. However, let’s have a look at some of the child-rearing practices that were used by Inuit peoples during the recent past.

In the dialects of Inuit, there are two words for teaching: ilisayuq and isummaksaiyuq.

Ilisayuq means ‘to lecture, to correct answers by drill, to invite students to memorise, to cause learning’. It is used for the kind of school-based learning introduced by teachers from North America.

Isummaksaiyuq, on the other hand, means ‘to cause thought’ – it is about encouraging the student to observe, to experiment, and to think about the problem at hand. Here are some examples of issummaksaiyuq:

  • Inuit children are questioned and tested by adults when they go on a journey. They are asked to point to the direction of home, to say whether they’ve ‘been here before’, to notice landmarks. Navigation in such a difficult landscape, where landmarks can look very different according to the time of year or the weather conditions, is key to survival, so these children are expected to pay attention from a very young age.
  • Children are woken early and told to observe the wind and sky conditions – this daily assignment would then be shared with elders and other members of the community. Gradually even very small children learn to understand what the likely weather conditions will be.
  • Instead of forbidding children from taking part in dangerous activities, adults explain what the likely consequences are, and let the environment teach its own lessons. Because communities tend to be quite small, there would often be adults who could keep a watching eye on children while appearing to be uninterested, illustrating the old saw about ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.
  • Children are not admonished and lectured, but they are questioned about their actions from a very young age. One common question to a small child who is misbehaving is ‘are you a baby’? If the child says ‘no’, then the consequences are clear – they shouldn’t behave like one. Interestingly, if a child says ‘yes’ and pretends to be a baby, the adults consider that she is growing and learning – she knows what the difference is, and what the advantages and disadvantages of each state are.

I find this fascinating, and it makes me think about how much the controlled, programmed childhood of many western children blunts their spirit of adventure and their ability to reason things out for themselves. I wonder, these days, if I would have been shunted from one ‘activity’ to another as a child, instead of being allowed to come home and ‘muck about’ in the garden, observing caterpillars and spiders and getting covered in dirt. I suspect that I would not be as curious about the world if more of my time had been spent being ‘organised’.

However, it’s also important to note that as Inuit societies are changing (all these examples are from the 1970s and 1980s), so is the teaching style – many young people, worried by what they see in their environment, are joining scientific research programmes: there have been projects around eider duck nesting and indigenous plants. The blending of scientific method and TEK seems to me a most hopeful amalgam, a way of helping two very different communities to understand one another and achieve synergy.

There is undoubtedly a long way to go before the people who live in the areas most affected by climate change have an equal seat at the table, but it seems to me that listening and valuing their perspective, including them in positions of real power and dropping our attitude of ‘we know best’ will all help to move things in the right direction.

Winter Wonderland 6


Dear Readers, I am hiding the comments which already have the answers – I have seen them and will mark them, so don’t worry, and well done for being so speedy! I just want to give other people a chance to have a bash uninfluenced 😎.

Dear Readers, well, we’re at the end of the quiz, and today I think we’ve done enough looking at things, so I’d like us to do some listening. Can you match the calls below to the photo of the animal? I have pushed the definition of ‘Christmas’ to include some generally wintery animals, so I hope you’ll forgive me!

As you will remember, I started the quiz on the 19th December and finish today (24th December) – answers for the whole quiz will need to be with me by 5 p.m. UK time on Monday 28th December.

The links for all the previous parts of the quiz are below. Feel free to do as much or as little as you like! And have the best possible Christmas that you can, I am sending enormous virtual hugs to all of you as we navigate this most peculiar of festive seasons together.

Winter Wonderland 1 – Christmas Trees

Winter Wonderland 2 – Christmas Plant Folklore

Winter Wonderland 3 – Animal Tracks

Winter Wonderland 4 – Rainbow Birds

Winter Wonderland 5 – Christmas Fruit and Vegetables

Christmas ‘Carols’

Ok, here we go! Listen to the sounds below, and see if you can match them to the photo of the animal. So, if you think that a polar bear is responsible for sound ‘A’, your answer is 24) A)

Good luck! I think this is an advanced-level quiz 🙂 so mega congratulations to anyone who can figure it out!








Question 24 – Polar Bear

Question 25 – Rock Ptarmigan

Question 26 – Snow Bunting

Question 27 – Snowy Owl and chick

Question 28 – Reindeer Running!

Question 29 – Robin

Photo 30 by Anya Schlich-Davies at

Question 30 – Arctic Fox cub

A Muddy Walk in Coldfall Wood

Holly tree growing at the foot of a dead tree in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, I don’t know about where you are, but here in East Finchley the rain has been a big feature of the weather for the past few months. Couple that with clay soil and you have a positive quagmire which, while it hasn’t deterred me from Coldfall Wood, has made me a little chary about going out on to Muswell Hill Playing Fields. Why, only the other day I saw a man running in plimsolls and baggy shorts (clearly old school, no lycra at all)  come a cropper as he tried to spring like a gazelle over a particularly muddy patch. All was well, but I wouldn’t have liked to be doing his washing. Today, however, I decided that a vast stretch of slippery, squelchy ooze wasn’t going to keep me from my beloved ‘wildflower border’ beside the cemetery, and so off we went, clad in walking boots and optimism.

But first the wood. What a year it’s been for fungi! I am positively tripping over them now I’ve got my eye in. Here is some candlesnuff fungi (Xylaria hypoloxon) growing out of a stump for example. The spores, which are black, can apparently be seen as black smudges on the tree bark, but as this stump is rather damp I think that might not be visible here.

There are some felled branches further into the wood (the tree surgeons have been doing a bit of pruning and tidying up) and they are being gradually broken down by some rather lovely caramel-coloured bracket fungus which has been identified for me as hairy curtain crust (Stereum

And then it’s out across the mud and onto Muswell Hill Playing Fields. It really is a bit of a quagmire, but as with all things there are worse bits and better bits. And soon I’m distracted from the state of the ground by the austere beauty of the plants at this time of year. This shrub was glowing green, and when I got closer I could see why – it’s encrusted with lichens and moss. The branches are miniature habitats of their own. I can imagine tiny spiders patrolling through the ‘leaves’ of the lichen like panthers.

The Japanese Knotweed is a hundred shades of brown and grey. What a dense thicket of stems it forms! I would be amazed if some birds and small mammals didn’t take advantage of it.

But what concerns me a little is that I think it might even be able to outcompete bramble. I’m pretty sure it’s taking over in this part of the ‘border’ between the cemetery and the skateboard park.

There are a pair of alder (?) trees here, and I love the bark and the fruit. Look at all the different lichens on this tree! You might remember a talk that I reported on about the flora of Hampstead Heath by Jeff Duckett, where he mentioned how lichens made a comeback once the Clean Air Acts were introduced in the 1960s. It just goes to show that damage is not always irreversible if we act in time.

Incidentally, I’m not absolutely sure of the ID of this tree, so let me know what you think – the bark looks more birch-like to me, but it’s difficult to tell with all the pretty encrustations.

There are a few last maple leaves on the grass. Both of these look as if they’ve come from a Japanese Maple, and indeed there is a sapling ten metres away. Case closed, I think.

And then it’s a quick slide down a small hill to ‘the wildflower border’ that I fell in love with back in July. There isn’t much in flower now, though there is a single mallow flower, and some white deadnettle in case any bees are about.

But it’s the seedheads that I love. Everything from fennel….

to greater burdock….

to greater knapweed……

to the unexpectedly beautiful seeds of broad-leaved dock.

And maybe it’s no coincidence, but there was a flock of about 20 house sparrows flying between the shrubs and chattering away. At the very least, all the shrubs give the sparrows somewhere for cover and roosting. I wonder if they ever eat the seeds? I know that finches do.

Lots of parakeets about today as well, including this pair who seemed interested in the fruits on the London plane tree, though goodness knows why. We used to use the blessed things for itching powder.

And on the way home, I notice how the weeping willow is already changing colour. I do wonder if, when people plant weeping willows in their garden, they realise quite how big they’re going to get, or how thirsty they are. This one, I suspect, is taking advantage of the drainage ditch next to the fields.

Part of me wants to take a comb to that mane of ‘hair’.

And then it’s off home, for a cup of tea and a clean-up of those muddy boots. It’s always worth getting out for a walk, I find, especially if you can dodge the worst of the showers and stay warm. And as we turn into our street, there was a great tit absolutely singing its head off. Maybe he knows that the year has just turned, the solstice is passed, and spring is on the way.