A May Walk in Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood

Sunlight through hornbeam leaves

Dear Readers, sometimes when I walk through one of North London’s ancient woodlands, I am reminded of how much I have learned through writing the blog over this last 7 years. Although there is still so much to find out, it makes me happy that I can look at the muscular trunk of a hornbeam and identify it, and that I can imagine it as a younger sapling, a mass of twigs that were probably cut back once or twice when the tree was a baby, before coppicing was abandoned and the tree was left to grow.

The tree above has five distinct trunks growing from the same ‘stool’ – they interweave with one another in a kind of slow-motion dance as they reach towards the light. I love the silvery bark of hornbeam, and the way that it is covered in a web of ‘veins’ and ‘sinews’ like a weight-lifter’s arms.

There is so much to notice, and yet so often we don’t, absorbed in our thoughts or in our phones.

And here’s a horse-chestnut seedling, optimistically growing in a patch of sunlight.

Last time we walked in these woods it was Boxing Day, we were ankle-deep in mud, and there were hundreds if not thousands of people on the paths. But today it’s a weekday, the children are back at school, most folk are at work and it feels as if the woods are breathing again.

There is a new dead-hedge around the little pond, though whether this will keep an enthusiastic golden retriever out of the water remains to be seen.

A pair of great tits have made their nest in this dead tree stump, a great advert for leaving dead wood where it is.

The coppiced areas in the middle of the wood really show off the oaks as they reach for the sky.

But hang on, who is that on the path? My keen-eyed husband spots a creature just past the ‘cross walk’ in the picture.

There are rats in all of the woodlands that I’ve visited this year. There are always a few around, but with more people also in the woods they’ve been noticed a bit more. In Cherry Tree the council have put down poison, so there are now dead rats. Let’s hope that they don’t become food for foxes, dogs, cats, crows, buzzards, magpies, owls etc etc.

Rat populations (like pigeon populations) are almost entirely governed by availability of food. There has been a huge increase in littering in wild places and parks all over the country, with people seeming incapable of taking their rubbish home. Lots of creatures have taken advantage. Plus there is a kind of hysteria about rats. We have become so detached from wildlife that some people seem to feel that if their toddler sees a rat they will keel over with Weil’s disease. I understand that you wouldn’t necessarily want to share your house with wild rats, but in a woodland?

Someone recently posted a short film on our local community Facebook page of an elderly rat being harassed by crows, so let’s not forget that in the natural world these rodents are way down the food chain. However, this crow was rather more interested in something in the stream.

I wonder if the crow is looking for invertebrates in the mud at the bottom of the rivulet? They are such intelligent animals generally, but all members of the crow family seem to be super-attuned to possible food. You can almost see them working out what’s what.

There is a little drift of wood anemones here too, an indicator of ancient woodland because they don’t travel very far over the generations. They are partially protected by the fence, which is probably why they’ve survived the huge growth in footfall in the woods during the lockdown.

And then, there is a patch of hybrid bluebells in the sun, close to where the boundary of the wood meets the local housing. Sometimes people throw their garden rubbish over the fence in these situations, which is why there is often such diverse non-native flora in these places. The evidence seems to show that in a ‘real’ bluebell wood, hybrids can’t outcompete the native bluebells, though they may still make incursions at the edge where there is normally more light. At any rate, these are pretty and have some value to pollinators clearly. In an urban wood such as this I suspect any increase in biodiversity isn’t to be sniffed at.

6 thoughts on “A May Walk in Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood

  1. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    The wood still looks quite busy to me. I saw only 6 people on my 8.5 mile walk the other day and 4 of them were right at the beginning. It must seem very crowded in those woods at weekends!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hah! That’s the joy of the mountains for you! I don’t know Highgate Wood well enough to know where the most quiet places are, but I’m sure there must be a few bits that are less trodden, as there are in Coldfall….

  2. Sarah

    I so miss lovely Highgate Woods, I used to go there almost daily when I lived nearby in the early 90s. Last weekend I went to Haggerston Park and Victoria Park and saw plenty of rats in both. Interestingly a lot of the park visitors seemed quite well disposed towards them, pointing them out to their friends and taking photos. I was glad to see such tolerance. I do feel differently about the rats in my garden though, especially since they set up home in my garage and nibbled a big hole in my expensive new tent!

  3. Ann Bronkhorst

    Your descriptions of hornbeams are spot on, especially that ‘muscular’ look. Still, I sometimes wish there were a few more beech trees in this part of north London, but the soil’s not right for them.


Leave a Reply