Dear Readers, doing Paul Wood’s ‘arboreal ambles’ has been a lovely way of reacquainting myself with London, after an absence of nearly eighteen months. I had forgotten how much I loved the city, and how a leisurely walk can bring so much more than you expect. So it was today, when I had a splendid and totally unexpected encounter with two species of birds of prey, discovered a ‘secret’ garden in the heart of the legal district, and met some of the most extraordinary London plane trees that I’ve ever come across. I’ve lived in the capital for my entire life, and yet there’s still so much to discover.
Anyhow, we commence on Kingsway, which runs past Holborn station. The road is lined by London plane trees and a few Trees of Heaven, all of which seem to lean out away from the buildings, presumably to catch more sunlight. These are not old by plane tree standards – these were planted after the Second World War, in 1947.
Next, I duck through a narrow lane towards the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The square is lined by some fine early nineteenth-century buildings, including the Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I haven’t yet visited (some Londoner I am, but isn’t it always the way?)
I have to stop to admire a crow who is trying to work out how to get into the litter bin, and is trying to pretend that he isn’t.
Then it’s into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. For a while there was an encampment of homeless people here, in the middle of the biggest square in London, and one of the richest areas. In 1993 the fences were raised, and the people were booted out. Since then, the gates have been locked at dusk, but I noticed some people sleeping on the benches, and one soul curled up in a sleeping bag behind one of the shrubs. During the Covid lockdown we managed to provide a place to sleep for all the homeless people in London, which proves that it can be done, but as everyone seems to think we’re getting back to normal, it’s business as usual for the destitute.
There is a fine Canadian Sugar Maple enclosed in it’s own little paddock, as if the park keepers are afraid that it will uproot itself and catch the first plane back to British Columbia (though with temperatures in the 40s at the moment I would advise it to stay put). It was planted by Jean Chrétien, and as it’s a source of maple syrup it occurs to me that maybe the fencing is to keep sugar addicts out. It’s true that I would certainly do a lot for maple syrup, food of the gods.
The plane trees in the square are some of the oldest in London , and are certainly some of the stoutest. Many of them look as if all the weight has settled on their bottom halves. I can relate.
This one, to the left of the path, is particularly splendid. I had no idea that plane trees could grow into such robustness.
At the bottom of the path there’s an area planted with some very unusual tropical plants. As I nearly needed a machete to get through it’s safe to say that it isn’t much populated. My eye was much taken by this furry plant, hiding in the grove like a skinnier version of Chewbacca. If you know what it is, please tell!
And then, I leave the Fields and head towards Lincoln’s Inn itself.
And I couldn’t have been more astonished to see this handsome chap.
This is a Harris hawk, one of two that are regularly flown in the area to try to deter the seagulls who have been digging up the lawns for worms and dive-bombing the lawyers on their way to and from their chambers. I had a great conversation with the falconer who flies the birds, and found out a good deal about them. For one thing, they are weighed before being flown, because this gives an indication of how hungry they are, and how ready they will be to fly – a heavy hawk is more likely to disappear into a tree or not fly at all. The male hawk is very fond of the leather falconer’s glove (the falconer thinks that the bird likes the glove more than him), and comes readily to the hand of anyone who wears it, while the female bird is much more nervous around strangers, gloved or not.
The female is in moult at the moment, hence her slightly shabby look. Female hawks are always a good bit bigger than the males.
These birds really are built to take small mammals rather than birds – the male hawk was recovering from a bite on the leg from a rat which he had taken before the falconer was able to separate them. Look at those talons! The beak is built for tearing, the eyes are protected by a ridge of bone which both keeps the sun out of their eyes and gives some protection from thrashing prey.
And then I got a chance to actually fly the bird! Glove on the left hand and arm outstretched (away from the face, just in case), I watched as the bird swept in and landed on the glove to tear into a morsel of food. The falconer said that there always has to be food, otherwise the bird (particularly the female) feels as if a deal has been broken. It’s not unheard of for her to head off into a tree and sit there for hours until she feels that her point has been made. It’s all about trust: these are never really tamed, these birds. After all, they could just fly off if the urge took them. They come back because their primary motivation is food, and the falconer is the main supplier.
For wild birds, though, it’s more complicated. The falconer mentioned that peregrine falcons were nesting on the spire of the building behind Lincoln’s Inn, and that the Harris Hawks were very interested when they heard them. As I headed off on the rest of my walk, I heard the familiar mewing sound of peregrines, and took two photos on the off chance that they would at least show something. I got more than I expected.
In the picture below, you can see that there are three birds, one at the top, one to the right, and one perched at the bottom. I’m assuming that this is either a pair of peregrines and a fledgling, or an adult and a couple of fledglings.
And then there was another bout of mewing and I got a second shot. I showed it to the falconer and we both think this is a food drop, where a parent is teaching a youngster to hunt by dropping food for it, or where the male is dropping food for the female. Peregrines are the fastest animals in the world (achieving up to 200 mph in a full stoop) and have been known to attack eagles to force them away from a nest site. I was so lucky to see them, and so lucky to catch even these images.
So, what a spectacular day! And it’s not over yet. Tomorrow we’ll discover one of the loveliest London gardens that I’ve ever seen, and meet some more very venerable trees…