Dear Readers, at this time of the year the pace of change is almost too quick to keep up with. Every time I go to the cemetery it feels new-minted. This week, the blossom on what I think is a Japanese crab apple (though glad to be told otherwise) is just opening from tight, dark-pink buds.
And finally there is a flush of green on the swamp cypress, right at the very top where the twigs get the most sun.
There are blue tits everywhere, pecking over the twigs for hibernating insects
The snowdrops are going over…
….but the daffodils are coming out.
I love this path through the trees…
I hear a buzzard calling, but can’t spot it. All the other birds can though – the crows are up in arms in an instant.
I love the loop around Kew Road. These are among the least trodden roads, which is probably why I enjoy them so much. This grave is full of spring flowers – crocuses and miniature daffodils.
Last week’s early crocuses are still going strong, and are being visited by honeybees and bumblebees. I always thought that my back garden would be too shady for crocuses, but these don’t seem to mind the dappled light. Maybe Crocus tommasinianus would be just the thing after all.
The primroses are out as well.
And so are the first scillas. How intensely blue these flowers are! Almost as blue as gentians.
And finally, I have always been intrigued by this grave, largely because of the unusual name ‘Syssyllt’. The Honourable Syssyllt Avis Gurney was the daughter of Frederic George Morgan, 5th Baron Tredegar, which is an estate in Monmouthshire, Wales, dating to 1859. Syssyllt seems to have been a Welsh family name, and the lady herself was extremely well-travelled, and well-heeled – she lived on Charles Street, which is close to Berkeley Square in Mayfair, and I have passenger lists which show her arriving in Bristol from Bermuda in 1948 and travelling to Port Said in Egypt in 1930. In 1932 she left Rangoon in what was then Burma to travel back to the UK, but there was also a voyage to Colombo in Sri Lanka in the same year. Goodness, what was she up to? It’s very frustrating not to know more of the story. She seems to have spent some of her later years in Aberdeenshire, but was back in London when she died. Interestingly (to me anyway), Gurney was in correspondence with Compton Mackenzie who wrote ‘Whisky Galore’ for over twenty years. If you want to see the letter where he explains what his inspiration for the book came from you can see it here.
What I can’t find is anything about her career, or her life. Right Honourable usually refers to a Member of Parliament, but I can’t see anything about that aspect of her life. Her grave is in a lovely spot, and I always wonder about her whenever I pass by, as I do about so many of the graves that I pass. On a beautiful sunny day like today, it’s easier to feel not downcast but uplifted here, to think about all the lives that have come before, how rich and interesting they seem, and about how all of our stories will one day come to this, all sound and fury spent. We all contribute to the extraordinary richness of history, even if we don’t realise it.
Dear Readers, this week I have decided to see if we know how to tell the difference between a bee, a wasp, a moth and a fly. Not as easy as you might think, with all this mimicry going on! And I wonder how many hornet hoverflies have been walloped with a rolled-up newspaper, having been mistaken for their cousins (not that you should be walloping actual hornets, obviously).
I personally think this is megatricky (a word I just made up), so here are a few hints:
There are 3 photos in each category (wasp, bee, fly, moth)
The antennae, the eyes, the number of wings are all useful for categorisation.
As usual, answers in the comments by 5 p.m. on Thursday 4th March (UK time) if you want to be marked. I will ‘hide’ answers when I see them, but if you don’t want to be influenced, you might want to write your answers down first.
‘Just’ look at the photos below, and decide if the animal shown is a wasp, a bee, a moth or a fly. I will give an extra point if you can identify the species (some of these are very unusual).
So, if you think the creature in Photo One is a fly, your answer is 1) Fly.
Dear Readers, I always make it tough for myself when I don’t do a multiple-choice quiz! For this week’s quiz, I’ve given a full mark where the animal was identified to species level where this was possible – so for Question 5, ‘dragonfly’ got a half-mark, ‘Broad-bodied Chaser’ got a full mark. The results are in, and this week Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus triumphed with 15/15, with Fran and Bobby Freelove with 12.5/15 and Clare with 11/15, a sterling effort from everybody! Well done, and let’s see what pops up on Saturday….
What animal is shown in each of these photos?
1) Toadspawn from Common Toad (Bufo bufo)
2) Water hog louse (Asellus aquaticus)
3) Great Ramshorn Snail (Planobarius corneus)
4.Smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris)
5. Broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) – Male
Dear Readers, I was a great fan of Jean Sprackland’s book ‘These Silent Mansions’ which I reviewed here, so I wanted to have a look at her earlier work, ‘Strands’. Sprackland knows that, in a year, she will be leaving her home in the north west of England to live in London. So, she keeps a kind of diary about the things that she finds on her local beach, ‘ended by Southport Pier to the north and Formby Point to the south‘. Her mission is
‘…to cut through the blur of familiarity, and explore this place as if for the first time. Some of my finds may be real surprises, and others more predictable; but I shall pick them up and hold them to the light, regardless‘.
One of the joys of beachcombing is that sense of the unpredictable. You never know what the sea will bring, and you have to be quick, because at the turn of the tide they can be taken away or hidden again. In spring, Sprackland finds no less than three wrecked ships, uncovered by a combination of tide and wind, including the Star of Hope’, a barque wrecked in a force 10 gale in 1883.
‘Until the sands shift and reveal it, the Star of Hope is sealed in its sandy tomb. From time to time there are tantalising clues: sometimes the place is indicated by a group of wooden stumps sticking up out of the sand at low tide, like grave markers, squatted by a couple of cormorants with hunched black shoulders and reptilian necks. I’d walked out to those mysterious stumps dozens of times, kicked them experimentally and found them solid, speculated about what might lie below the surface‘.
And on this day
‘There was an abrasive wind, and the sea was flattened to a sullen grey line on the horizon. But the wreck was an astonishing sight, sitting on the sand in a shallow pool of water like an overgrown toy boat in a puddle…..The Star of Hope has her own, very curious afterlife. She’s been sinking and rising, sinking and rising for over a century, in a ghostly reprise of that first calamity‘.
I was fascinated by this. I’d heard that wrecks were sometimes uncovered during storms, but had no idea that they appeared and reappeared in this way. And they are not the only things: in winter, storms uncover the footprints of aurochs and red deer from over 5,000 years ago, and also the footprints of the humans who lived at that time. They, too, appear and are washed away – the scientists who study them have learned to make plaster casts as soon as new traces appear. There is a sense in which things are both ephemeral and eternal; the children of Neolithic parents played on this beach, just as people do today, but every trace of them can be washed away at the turn of the tide.
Of course, me being me I particularly loved the sections of the book that dealt with the natural world – Sprackland investigates mermaid’s purses, jellyfish, sea squirts, star fish. I love the way that her work moves from natural to social history, from personal observation to folklore. I particularly loved the section on the ‘sea mouse’, a kind of scaleworm with iridescent ‘hairs’ on its back. Sprackland describes her first sight of the creature:
‘It’s exquisitely beautiful, like a strange piece of vintage jewellery….and yet at the same time it is slightly alarming, even repellent’.
Sprackland does some research to find out what the creature is, and finds out how people have longed to see a sea mouse – the American natural history writer Sue Hubbell even wrote a book about her search, called ‘Waiting for Aphrodite‘, (the Latin name for the sea mouse is Aphrodita aculeata‘). The poet Amy Clampitt wrote a whole poem about the creature, which Sprackland quotes:
‘The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to
admit the sea mouse’.
But this is a difficult creature to see, living as it does at the bottom of the deep sea, embedded in mud. It is usually only seen after a storm has ripped it from its hiding place. As one scientist that Hubbell talks to says, ‘No one has ever seen Aphrodite except when it was unhappy‘.
And so, after her first introduction to the sea mouse, Sprackland looks and looks for more, and is disappointed until one day, after a March storm, she finds five, each one alive and laying on its back in distress. Being the good souls that they are, Sprackland and her husband pick each one up and deposit it back into the water.
‘Each one, when we slide it into the shallow water, revives quickly and seems to feel the pull of home. It has endured its time under the glare of the sky and wants only to return to obscurity. it begins to bury itself with a slow shuffling motion into the wet sand, until there’s nothing left to see but a soft oval outline, disintegrating eo smoothness under the in-and-out of the waves.‘
I love the way that this book makes connections between animals, plants, people and the landscape. I learned a lot of interesting things, and was forever interrupting my husband’s reading with ‘I never knew that!’ It’s beautifully written, and I found Sprackland a great companion – I felt that I was walking along with her as she explores the strandline. Above all, it shows me what can be done by observing a single place in depth, over time, provided you approach it with a spirit of curiosity. Highly recommended.
Dear Readers, if you saw my Sunday post you will know that I am once again completely in love with the early crocuses that are in bloom in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. I am revisiting this post from 2016, if only because I love all three of the poems at the end of the piece, in particular the curmudgeonly offering from Edna St Vincent Millay.
However, I also wanted to look at a question raised by a good friend of mine, who planted a variety of crocus bulbs in her lawn, but over the years has been left with just the lavender ones (though whether Early Crocus or Dutch Crocus I do not know). However, the folks at New Scientist had noticed a similar thing, and had waded in with a variety of explanations. One is that birds, particularly sparrows, will peck at and eat the yellow flowers but ignore the other ones. It’s also said that the grey squirrel and some other rodents also have a preference for the yellow crocuses, though the furry chaps in my garden seem much less pernickety. However, a third explanation is that apparently the yellow ones flower before the others, and so are much more likely to be caught out by a sudden spell of wintry weather that ruins their reproductive ambitions for the year. Thoughts, people?
Dear Readers, close to the entrance of Coldfall Wood there is a tiny patch of Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus). How fragile this plant is, and yet how strong! It has burst through the hard-packed clay soil, sometimes lifting whole twigs and stones in its urge to reach the sunlight.
There are two very similar species of crocus that you are likely to see naturalised in the UK. The Dutch or Spring Crocus (Crocus vernus) looks similar to the Early Crocus, but it has a mauve or purple ‘throat’ which is never lighter in colour than the flowers themselves.
Spring/Dutch Crocus (Crocus vernus) – notice the mauve ‘throat’ to the flowers. (Photo One – see credits below)
‘Tommies’ are native to Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia, and were named for the botanist Muzio G. Spirito de Tommasini (1794-1879), who was Mayor of the city of Trieste. They are relatively late arrivals, first cultivated in 1847, and not recorded in the wild until 1963, although this may have been due to confusion with the Spring Crocus. The plant naturalises easily in lawns and churchyards, and there is a fine patch in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, which has no doubt grown from a handful of bulbs planted on a grave.
You might not think it to look at them, but crocuses (or, indeed croci) are part of the Iris family. The name is thought to derive from the Sanskrit word for ‘saffron’ (kunkuman) although it is the autumn crocus (Crocus sativus) that produces this spice, not these spring-flowering species. They do have the most intense yellow pollen, however, and you can see how the name has arisen.
In Greek mythology, Crocus was a human youth in love with a nymph called Smilax. Apparently irritated by his audacity, the gods turned Crocus into, well, a crocus. Smilax was turned into either a yew tree or bindweed, depending on your source. The Greek gods were certainly a touchy bunch.
In the financial world, a ‘crocus’ is a company or sector which recovers quickly after an economic downturn. The waxy cuticle helps it to survive even when there is late frost or snow on the ground, so you can see how the comparison has developed.
‘Tommies’ under snow (Photo Two – See credits below)
As I researched this piece, it became apparent that the poor old crocus had been the focus of some truly execrable poetry. Certainly, its bravery in sticking its petally head above the soil into the teeth of a snowstorm has been extensively celebrated, to the extent that Sherman Alexie, the editor of New American Poetry 2015, has this to say:
‘None of us ever needs to write another poem about crocuses, or croci, or however you prefer to pluralize it. Trust me, we poets have exhausted the poetic potential of the crocus. If any of you can surprise me with a new kind of crocus poem then I will mail you one hundred dollars.’
But, wait! I wonder if Mr Alexie has ever read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem ‘Spring’. I have to confess to loving this. It made me laugh out loud at the unexpectedness of the last few lines, for all their curmudgeonliness. And if Ms Millay were still alive, I think she would deserve her prize.
To what purpose, April, do you return again? Beauty is not enough. You can no longer quiet me with the redness Of little leaves opening stickily. I know what I know. The sun is hot on my neck as I observe The spikes of the crocus. The smell of the earth is good. It is apparent that there is no death. But what does that signify? Not only under ground are the brains of men Eaten by maggots. Life in itself Is nothing, An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs. It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, April Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
Ruth Fainlight’s powerful, disturbing piece on crocuses would surely also be a contender for a new way to look at the plant. I hadn’t come across the poet before, but I shall certainly be reading more of her work.
Crocuses These crocuses are appalling: pale, bare, tender stems rising through the muddy winter-faded turf,
shivering petals the almost luminous mauve of lurid bruises on the frightened faces and naked bodies of men, women, children
herded into a forest clearing or towards a siding where a train has halted and the trucks are waiting.
Dear Readers, following all the excitement about frogs and newts yesterday, I thought I’d dig into the archives of New Scientist and see what I could find to share with you on the subject of tadpoles. One question that I’ve always had is – why do some tadpoles mature as expected and turn into baby frogs or toads, and why do some seem to spend the winter as tadpoles? This very question was asked in New Scientist in 2018, and the answers were most interesting.
One obvious answer that occurred to me is that, as climate change makes for warmer winters, amphibians overwinter as tadpoles simply because they can: if they can get a jump (see what I did there) on the newly-hatched spring tadpoles, they will have a ready source of food (sadly many species of frogs are cannibals). However, I know from my own endeavours that frogs seem to mature according to the water temperature – when I brought some tadpoles indoors because there were problems in their pond, they grew legs several weeks before their ‘wild’ relatives. So can frogs ‘choose’ when to metamorphose?
It also seems to me that in a population of tadpoles, if some mature quickly and some slowly they are covering all eventualities – whatever the winter weather, some will survive. That’s how evolution works, after all.
Another suggestion was that the rate of maturation can be delayed by imperfect conditions in the pond – overcrowding, and hence lack of food, or low water temperature will all slow things down.
But finally one lady, who is definitely a soulmate, used to observe the development of the tadpoles in her garden over seventy years ago. She returned home after the school holidays to find that the tadpoles all had four legs but still had a tail, and that it was long past time when they should be fully-developed. She had a nature book by Enid Blyton (better known for Noddy), and found that tadpoles needed iodine to mature, presumably because of its influence on thyroid hormones. Medicine cabinets used to hold iodine for cuts and grazes in those days, so she put a few drops into the pond.
‘Days later, the garden was teeming with froglets’.
Fascinating stuff. I remember treating a goldfish who had a fungal disease with a few drops of iodine, and it cleared that up too.
Now, here’s something amazing.
Newly-hatched tadpoles need to breathe air, but are too weak to puncture the surface tension of the water. So, instead they suck at the surface of the water from below so that they break off a bubble which contains fresh air from the outside world. They breathe this in to their lungs and then exhale it out. And furthermore, you can watch it in the article below.
Dear Readers, this morning I spotted my first frogs of the year. There were three in total, two already mating, although whether one of them was actually a female is open to doubt at this point – usually in my pond the males come out of hibernation over the period of about a week, followed by the more prudent females. Still, it’s lovely to see them, and in a few days the short-lived frog chorus will probably start up.
In other excitement, I spotted the first pondskater of the year. Who’d have thought that the whole pond was frozen solid only a week ago? These insects will be a problem for the tadpoles when they’re tiny, as they can stick them with their needle-like mouth parts, but at the moment the frogs definitely have the upper hand.
However, the highest excitement of the weekend didn’t come from my pond, but from my friend A’s woodpile. Her husband was tidying it up when they discovered this creature. At first. A thought it was dead, but then it started moving its arms and legs and by the time she’d popped it into a cardboard box it was positively lively.
Now, I’m not a newt expert but my best guess is that this is a smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris). My friend doesn’t have a pond, but then most amphibians don’t spend all their time in the water, and they choose a pile of stones or a woodpile as a place to hibernate. My friend popped the newt back into the woodpile where she’d found it, making sure that it was both well-covered and able to wriggle out if it wanted. I’m fairly sure that this is a female as, strangely enough, male smooth newts have a crest, but are not Great Crested newts (Triturus cristatus). Great Crested Newts are larger (up to 17cms long) and generally more flamboyant. Smooth Newts are rather splendid though, and according to my Garden Wildlife book by Richard Lewington, the males perform an elaborate courtship dance when they leave
‘…crossing in front of the female and posing dramatically, with his tail folded double and trembling urgently’.
After fertilisation, the female newt lays up to 300 eggs individually, wrapping each one in the leaf of an aquatic plant. The newt larvae, or efts, have external gills for breathing, and so look rather like axolotls .
A smooth newt eft (Photo Two)
Once they’ve left the pond, the young newts try to find a damp crevice or a wood pile or heap of stones, venturing out at night to eat invertebrates, including snails and slugs. All garden amphibians are good for the garden, eating a wide variety of nocturnal creatures that might be munching your seedlings.
When they emerge from hibernation the newts will try to return to the pond that they were hatched in: it’s extraordinary how many amphibians show such strong loyalty to the place where they were born. I wonder where A’s newt will head for, once she has woken up properly?
I have only seen newts once or twice in my pond, but then they are elusive creatures, most active at night and unlikely to be seen splashing around like frogs. I did once see a newt hanging in the water though, just drifting along in a ray of sunlight. It looked like some miniature mythological creature, a tiny dragon, something far too exotic to be living in a suburban garden pond. But that’s the wonder of a garden. You never know who is going to pop up.
Dear Readers, after the fog, the snow, the icy winds, the rain and the general gloom it was a delight to be in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery today. The crocuses seem to have all burst into life within the past few days: the temperature was in the low thirties Fahrenheit last week, but today it was nearly sixty degrees, and everything seems to be in flower. What a joy it is! I spotted this queen buff-tailed bumblebee in the grass about ten metres from a patch of snowdrops, and I was quite concerned.
I thought she was dead at first, but as I crouched down she reached out with her middle leg in a very clear ‘don’t mess with me gesture’. As I hunkered back and considered what to do she picked herself up and flew in the opposite direction to the snowdrops, only to do a big loop and head back to them. How do they know, I wonder? Are they smelling the flowers, or had she visited before and remembered them? Anyhow, she had a good feed and then headed away at speed, so it was a most welcome false alarm.
There are two kinds of crocuses in the cemetery: Crocus vernus, which is the more typical garden crocus in its shades of purple, yellow, white/maroon and lilac, and Crocus tommasinianus, which is always a delicate lavender colour, and which seems more inclined to naturalise.
Crocus vernus (Spring crocus/Dutch crocus)
Crocus tommasinianus, or Woodland Crocus
Although the Woodland Crocus gets a bit floppy and falls over more easily than the Spring Crocus, I must say that I prefer it to its blousier relative. Some graves are absolutely covered in Woodland crocus, and the bees and hoverflies are already enjoying it. What a joy it is to see some colour after such a long, dark winter. And I am reminded that Woodland Crocus is known as elfenkrokus in German, which is just about perfect.
The native flowers are coming out too. I saw my first Lesser Celandine, but soon the paths will be carpeted with it.
First Lesser Celandine
There’s some red deadnettle, another favourite with the bees….
Some germander speedwell, with its sweet sky-blue and white flowers…
and of course some daisies, with their faces turned towards the sun.
But really it’s the crocuses and the snowdrops that are the stars of the show this week. They lifted my spirits and reminded me that the bulbs that I planted last year won’t be too far behind, though they are always later in my north-facing garden. Here are a few more photos, to cheer you up too…
And finally, it wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t found a grave to puzzle over. I had never noticed this one before, although it is literally the first grave that I pass if I walk my usual route.
There was a big Welsh community in the Kings Cross area of London, and I love how this headstone bears the daffodil, the National Flower of Wales. I used to live very close to Amwell Street, and just half a mile away on Pentonville Road there was a building that used to be the Welsh chapel, with the London Welsh Centre about the same distance away on Grays Inn Road. The story seems to have been a sad one: Lloyd Lloyd was listed as being an ‘invalid for the last seven years’ in 1939, while Margaret was ‘a helper in business’. Their son, David, was a ‘master dairyman and provision merchant’. However, they at least had the money to have not only a servant living with them, but also a male nurse. Margaret passed away in 1946, Lloyd in 1948, and according to the probate records, David received what would have been a very decent inheritance of almost £8,000. A little more digging reveals why – their home at 42 Amwell Street seems to have actually been a dairy, so David had taken over the family business. Something about the name ‘Lloyd’s Dairy’ rang a bell, and so I turned to Google for some help. And here is the site of the dairy. Apparently it opened in 1905 and finally closed about a century later.
What I can’t work out is if there were actually cows on the premises. Many Welshmen, especially from Cardiganshire, set up dairy businesses from about the 1860’s in London, selling milk and cream by the bottle, and also running a milk round. This continued until about 1954, so it’s not ancient history. The dairies tended to pop up along the line of the Euston Road (like this one) so even if cows weren’t kept on the premises, milk could be easily picked up via Paddington Station, which had direct links to the Welsh farms. And (light bulb moment) this is probably why the first trains in the early hours of the morning were known as ‘milk trains’.
It never ceases to amaze me how a simple headstone can reveal so much and yet so little about the people that it commemorates. I now know a lot about Lloyd and Margaret Lloyd, and yet I know nothing about them as people. Still, I think I shall take some daffodils for their grave next time I visit, to say thank you for the insights they’ve provided into a whole area of London life that I knew nothing about.
Lloyds Dairy as it was (Photo One)I found this photo on A London Inheritance, a very interesting site run by one of my classmates from The Gentle Author’s blogging class back in 2014. If you are at all interested in London and how it has changed, I recommend you dash over to A London Inheritance right this minute.
Dear Readers, I saw my first frog of the year in the front garden on Tuesday, hopping around in the lavender. There is nobody in the pond yet, but I can’t wait for the first eager little faces popping up above the water. There is something about the utter witlessness of frogs that makes me love them even more – the local cats tend to enjoy whacking them on the head with their paws, and heaven help any frog who finds themselves in the undergrowth when there’s a feline about. I shall have to get my water pistol out again.
But in the meantime, let’s see how you are at identifying the creatures that you might find in and around a garden pond. I’m not doing multiple choice this time, so it’s one point for a totally correct answer and half a point for near enough. You won’t be able to identify everything to species level because some of the little critters are confusing even for experts.
You have until 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 25th February to pop your answers in the comments, and when I spot them I will unapprove them so that you don’t influence those who answer later. I would still write your answers down on a piece of paper if you don’t want to be tempted though!