Monthly Archives: August 2022

Wednesday Weed – Bracken

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

Bracken (Photo One)

Dear Readers, I am off to Dorset today for my regular visit to Mum and Dad’s grave, and on the journey west I thought I’d make a note of the ‘weeds’ that I saw along the embankment between Waterloo and Dorchester South. I’m always curious about how things change, and love to speculate about why, though without a proper scientific analysis it is just that – speculation. However, after the banks of buddleia between Waterloo and Walton-on-Thames the side of the railway was completely covered for a while in bracken, and I realised that I didn’t even know what it was.

For sure, bracken is a fern, but specifically it’s Pteridium aquilinum, also known (though not, I think, in the UK) as eagle fern. It is described as a ‘large, coarse fern’, and indeed it has none of the airy beauty of some other members of the fern tribe. Why ‘eagle fern’ though? Some people have thought that the plant resembles the wings of an eagle in flight, but Linnaeus explained that a transverse section of the root reveals an eagle. I have hunted the internets for photo to support Linnaeus’s assertion but no luck yet.

Whatever else it is, it’s clear that bracken is extremely successful. it can be found in temperate and sub-tropical regions on both hemispheres, and the extreme lightness of its spores is surely the reason for its spread along the South Western Railway line – like buddleia and ragwort, the seeds are blown along by passing trains, settling in appropriate soil and setting up home. However, spread by seed is not the plant’s only strategy for reproduction – a single rhizome can penetrate to a depth of 11 feet, and can reach 49 feet in length. The shoots pop up along the length of the rhizome and can reach several feet in height before uncurling as new growth. All in all  this is a rather daunting plant which can be extremely invasive in the wrong place – in Yorkshire it’s displacing heather, bilberry and other upland species in some areas, and it’s quick to take advantage of disturbed soil (it has a preference for acidic soils, but can clearly thrive in a variety of situations).

In autumn the fern starts to turn orange, and very pretty it looks too.

Photo Two by Ilka Christof, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two

Bracken is also known to be carcinogenic – there is some correlation between stomach cancer and the consumption of bracken (of which more shortly), though a causal link in humans doesn’t seem to have been established. It is thought to be a cause of haemorrhagic disease in cattle and other grazing animals, and milk contaminated with the active chemical, ptaquiloside, is thought to have been responsible for an outbreak of gastric cancer in the Andean regions of Venezuela. It’s thought that ingestion of the spores, the meat from animals that have been feeding on bracken and water sources where the plants grow can all be dangerous, though there’s some evidence that dosing those who’ve come into contact with the carcinogen with selenium can help to offset the effects.

None of this has stopped people from eating the plant, however – it is the fifth most widely distributed weed species in the world, and it has been and is consumed in a variety of ways. The root was eaten during and after the First World War in the UK (though the Royal Horticultural Society now explicitly advises against its consumption). In Korea, the plant is known as gosari, and is an ingredient of bibimbap, a traditional rice dish. In Japan, it’s warabi, and a jelly-like starch made from the root is used in a dessert, while the new shoots are steamed, boiled or salted. In the Canary Islands, flour is made from the roots and then baked into a traditional bread. All these traditional methods will detoxify the carcinogen – boiling denatures it altogether, and the salt, ash and baking soda often used in the preparation of bracken will also greatly reduce the danger. Even without knowing the chemical mechanisms that cause a plant to be dangerous, people often devise workarounds to make something that is nutritious both safe and palatable. I’m always impressed by the adaptability and ingenuity of human beings.

Photo Three By Sous Chef -, CC BY 2.0,

Bibimbap (Photo Three)

It used to be believed that, because bracken didn’t flower, or appear to have seeds, the seeds must be invisible, and whoever held the spores of the bracken in their hand on St John’s Eve would also become invisible. Witches were said to hate bracken because its cut stem contains an ‘X’, the symbol of Christ. In Ireland, however, cutting the stem at three points was said to reveal the letters ‘G-O-D’. Between the ‘X’s, the GODs and the eagles, the stem of bracken has a lot to live up to, clearly. Rather delightfully, on the Plantlore website someone reports that if you split the stem of bracken you would see an image of Charles II hiding in an oak tree, and wonders what people saw before the reign of Charles II. However, in Scotland the plant is said to hold the image of the devil’s foot, so clearly it’s not all good.

And finally, a poem. Edward Thomas wrote all his poetry during the period 1914-17, and he died in the Battle of Arras in 1917. His poetry conjures the beauty of the English countryside at this period, but there is also a sense of something lurking that will destroy it, not just the war but the creeping industrialisation of agriculture and the sense that things are changing irrevocably. See what you think of this poem, ‘The Lane’.

The Lane

Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed …
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter’s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedges lasts—
One mile—and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.

Photo Credits

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

Photo Two by Ilka Christof, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three By Sous Chef –, CC BY 2.0,







A Bank Holiday Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, as we’ve been walking the Capital Ring  on Saturdays for the past few weeks, I’ve been neglecting my beloved St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. But today we popped over to see how things were doing. For some plants, autumn has definitely come early, though the rains of the recent few days are starting to revive the grass. What an astonishing plant this is! No wonder it took over the world.

I make my poor husband stand around for twenty minutes while I try to take a photo of the ivy bees feeding on (guess what?) the ivy. These bees are relatively new arrivals to the UK and are the last solitary bees to put in an appearance, dependent as they are on ivy flowers. Lots of other pollinators are attracted to it too, from bumblebees to this rather handsome hoverfly, but I didn’t manage to catch a shot of the ivy bees. There are some on the linked post above though if you want to have a look.

The poor horse chestnuts, with their leaves frazzled by leaf-miners and drought, are looking even worse than usual. Nice fat conkers though….

Frazzled horse chestnuts

Elsewhere, though, there is fruit in abundance. The dog roses and the hawthorn are laden down with hips and haws.

The ash trees are full of keys…

Right next to the North Circular Road there’s an apple tree full of fruit – I wonder if it’s from a seed dispersed by birds, or if someone twenty years ago ate an apple and tossed the core out of the car window?

Then there’s the pyracantha, which I assume was planted as a barrier shrub to shield the path from the passing traffic, and some cherry laurel…

Pyracantha (firethorn)

Cherry Laurel

And then there’s the acorns. Lordy, the acorns! I have never seen so many. There is a theory that trees produce more fruit when stressed, as if they suspect that they won’t survive and so are desperate to reproduce. I wonder if the abundance of fruit and nuts so early in the year means that the drought has changed the internal clock of these shrubs and trees  (and I’m not the only one). I regret more than ever not keeping a consistent nature notebook, to map the first occurrences of flowering and fruiting, the first appearance of the frogs and the fledging of the starlings and to see how things have changed even in my lifetime. At least the jays will be happy,

We trundle around the new circular path in what used to be the meadow, and which, judging by the standpipes so that people can water their flowers, will soon be new graves. I am strangely gratified by the way that the ‘weeds’ are already taking over the verges next to the paths, with this Redshank (Persicaria maculosa) popping up impudently through a crack in the tarmac. I love weeds, their persistence and their opportunism, and I suspect they will eventually outlive us all.

About eighteen months ago, someone cleared all of the horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) off of this grave. Alas, it, too, has fought back, and is even flowering.

And this grave is completely covered in the pretty leaves of pink sorrel (Oxalis articulata). It’s funny how this one is so full of the sorrel, and yet there are no other plants nearby. Maybe someone planted a few bulbs and off it went.

And so, some plants are thriving and others are suffering, and for some the jury is out. Cracks have appeared in the turf, but the green leaves of new growth, stimulated by the rainfall, are also there. It will be interesting to see what happens going forward. It was good to reacquaint myself with my local ‘patch’ after my wanderings further afield. After all that wandering, there really is no place like home.

The Capital Ring – Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick Part Two

Dear Readers, after we left the Lea River at the new Ice Skating Centre yesterday, we followed the tow path beside the Lee Navigation, the ‘canal’ part of the Lee/Lea. We were both remarking on how different this whole area was since the last time we did the walk back in 2010. Then, the Olympic Park (of which more soon) was a building site, and so were many of the residential buildings along the Lee. There are now lots of attractive-looking apartments, such as this one over looking the canal. My husband is a balcony connoisseur, and he heartily approved of these for year-round use.

Very fine balconies

There are still plenty of coots and cootlets around, and this parent saw off two Canada geese who came too close to their youngsters. What fierce, feisty birds they are! I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of a coot.

We pass under a low bridge…

…pass this very attractive cottage on the opposite bank….

and come to Curtain Gate Bridge. Before we cross it, I notice a stream of bubbles, presumably from a device to keep the water oxygenated. There are mats of algae and duckweed all along this stretch – presumably it’s slower moving, and so these things have more of a chance to form.

Immediately on the other side of the river is the site of the Middlesex Filter Beds, which were used to treat water – some of the old concrete architecture still stands.

The filter beds were part of Hackney Marshes, a rather wild place when I was growing up- travellers would camp and graze their horses here, my Mum and Dad both did evening shifts at Hackney Stadium which was used for greyhound races, and it was well known as a place that you didn’t want to frequent at night. Latterly, it’s become the home of 82 football, rugby and cricket pitches, and on Sunday the air is thick with the sounds of hungover footballers desperately trying to get the ball in the back of the net. It was also home to the UK’s largest car boot sale for a while.

Along the navigation the path has turned into a narrow path. There is a very smooth attractive cycle path a few metres away, but some cyclists are still steaming along the tow path. I stop to take a photo of the canal and a cyclist passes me at speed (yes I did check the path before I stopped), coming so close that he literally makes my hair stand on end. Still, I’m here to tell the tale, and most cyclists are very decorous, slowing down and tinkling their bells.

A death-defying view up the canal.

I love how some of the house boats have gardens on the top.

And here is another new-to-me apartment block. Trouble is, I bet most of the people who live around here can’t afford to buy a flat here. I think this is Matchmaker’s Wharf, on the sight of the old Lesney works – they used to make ‘Matchbox’ toys, which were highly collectable. My brother had a whole range of the little cars, including a Batmobile that I coveted greatly. It always seemed so sad to me that the toys that are worth the most are the ones that are still in their boxes, rather than the ones that are battered from being crashed into one another by some boisterous little boy.


A bit further down the navigation, the duckweed is so thick that you’d  think you could walk on it.

We pass under the bridge that carries the main A102. Underneath there’s the usual smell of urine and the unusual sight of the concrete supports, wildly decorated not just with grafitti but also with all manner of boxes and objects. Someone (or a group of people) have gone to a lot of time and trouble to construct this strange urban mosaic.

And talking of strange urban objects, the Arcelor Mittal Orbit comes into view. This is both a viewing platform and a helter-skelter. I have been quite tempted to pop up for a look, but have no intention of whooshing down, though I admire those of a daredevil tendency who might.

The Arcelor Mittal Orbit in the distance

On the left is ‘Here East’, which was the press centre for the Olympic Games in 2012, and is now something of tech hub, with a vegan cafe and a branch of the ever popular ‘Breakfast Club’. This whole area is now an absolute magnet – last time we were here, there was a viewing platform over the building site, and if we had tumbleweeds in East London there would definitely have been some on the road to the station. But now there are people everywhere, strolling, eating, cycling (precariously), drinking, taking their children to the playgrounds and shopping (though you wouldn’t know it from the very well-timed photo below)

Here East

We pass a lovely Dutch sailing boat moored up alongside the canal – called the Gebroeders,  she was built in 1879 to ply the canals and inland waterways of the Netherlands, and is now used as a pleasure craft, cruising the east coast of the UK and parts of Northern Europe. And very fine she looks too!

By now we are coming to the end of the walk, and take a last look at the Orbit, and at the rust-coloured tower which is part of the King’s Yard Energy Centre. This was created to provide energy to the various stadiums, swimming pools and residences during the Olympic Games, and has been used subsequently to heat homes and businesses in the local community, using a combination of gas and biofuel.

And finally, here is Hackney Wick station. I couldn’t believe all the crowds outside. This area has certainly become a real draw, which can only be good for business. Let’s hope it benefits everyone who lives in the area.


The Capital Ring – Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick

The view along Casenove Road

Dear Readers, our 3.7 mile long walk today started at Stoke Newington Station. Typically we had decided to get there with a combination of bus (102), tube (Piccadilly Line to Wood Green) and bus (67 to Stoke Newington), which was a bit long-winded but gave us a chance to sit on the top deck and admire the splendid houses along the route. When we eventually arrived, our first stop was Cazenove Road, with its magnificent avenue of London plane trees, planted shortly after 1900. These giants make such a difference to the temperature – this was to be quite a hot, exposed walk, and in retrospect I should have bathed in this cool, shady spot for a bit longer. Alas, not all the plane trees have made it to 2022, and I did wonder how much they shaded the front gardens of the houses. A small price to pay for all this lush greenery I’d imagine.

This one didn’t make it, clearly….

This borderland between Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill is home to many different communities – members of the Orthodox Jewish community were walking home after prayers, there are lots of Turkish and Caribbean cafes and shops, and we passed a mosque which had been cleverly created from three of the terraced houses. It reminds me of how many people have made their homes in the capital, and how much they have enriched all of our lives.

We pass Jubilee Primary school, and I fell in love with the pavement art outside. The children’s drawings have been turned into plaques, along with their descriptions of what living in Hackney was like. This one says “When I’m in Hackney I hear birds tweeting like happy families”.


This one says (rather less optimistically’ “When I’m in Hackney I smell fumes flowing like fire in the air”.

And it looks as if the words of this youngster have been cut off, because all that remains is “When I’m in Hackney”, but I think I can identify a space theme going on, and it is 100% adorable as far as I’m concerned.

Further down Filey Avenue there is the most splendid lilac-blue hibiscus.

And then we turn left into Springfield Park, but before we do I am much taken by these flats. The towers (which I assume house a fire escape or other staircase) are most striking. I haven’t been able to find out anything about the estate, but with a pleasant view over Springfield Park I imagine that it’s a nice place to live.

By now we’ve been walking for oh, about twenty minutes and so our thoughts are turning to lunch. And what better place than Springfield Park? The park was originally the grounds of Springfield House (built in the 19th century) but it was taken over by London City Council in 1909. And if it’s a nice day, and you fancy sitting peacefully, watching the crows imitate that bit in ‘The Birds’ where they congregate before tearing chunks out of Tippi Hedren you could do much worse. I had the most splendid avocado, hummus and halloumi on ciabatta bread and considered myself very lucky.

View from the Springfield Park Cafe

Crows menacing the invertebrates in the grass.

Some very handsome Egyptian geese

Springfield Park also apparently has a community orchard, but I missed it – what a shame. It would have been interesting to compare it to Barnwood in East Finchley.

We walk down through the park, and discover that the geology of the area is actually rather special – it has been designated as one of Greater London’s Regionally Important Geological Sites (which makes me curious as to where the others are – I feel yet another blogpost coming on!) Apparently the park contains not only ‘Hackney Gravel’ deposited by the River Lea a quarter of a million years ago, but on top of this it has fine ‘brick earth’, a wind-blown loess known as rock flour. The two components together make the site perfect for making bricks, and these two components are laid on top of the more typical London clay that forms the basis of the geology of most of London. Roman sarcophagi and a Saxon boat were found during excavations in the park, and it’s thought that the lake is probably the result of gravel extraction over the years.

The view from the hill in Springfield Park

And then it’s downhill to the Lea/Lee Valley Navigation. This waterway used to mark the boundary between Essex and Middlesex, and now delineates the line between the London Boroughs of Waltham Forest and Hackney. The spelling of the name of the area has more or less settled down now, with ‘Lea’ referring to the river Lea and its natural manifestations, and ‘Lee’ referring to anything man-made. The river Lea itself runs for about 50 miles, from Luton to Bow Creek, and the Capital Ring follows it east for about three miles.

First up is the Springfield Marina. There are river boats moored along the whole length of the walk, some of them in fine fettle and some of them on what looks like the verge of disintegration. It’s also a walk that lacks shade, and I was very glad that I’d brought my Factor 50 suncream.

To start with, the path is broad, and we walk along the edge of Walthamstow Marshes, just slightly south of the Walthamstow Wetlands reserve that I visit on a regular basis. The ditch by the side of the path is full of bulrushes, purple loosestrife and other water plants, and I get a brief view of a reed bunting before it disappears back into cover.

Common Reed Bunting (Photo One)


I love that the skies are so big here. Also, the path is relatively wide, which means that the cyclists who zoom past have plenty of room. In the later part of the walk, the path is much narrower and encounters can be a bit more fraught.

There is a delightful pub on the other side of the river, but as my Capital Ring book points out, the little ferry that used to take you across ceased in the 1950s. Alas, for we have been walking now for forty minutes and surely we’re due another sit down?

The Anchor and Hope – so near, and yet so far.

There is, however, a railway viaduct which goes to Clapton and takes people off to Stansted Airport. Apparently an aviator, A.V.Roe, used to create his early airplane prototypes in the arches of the viaduct, and the marshes used to cushion his inevitable crash landings.

Looking along the river, we catch a glimpse of a family of swans and a lone oarsman. The swan on the right looks a wee bit defensive to me. In situations like this, my money is always on the swan, but we didn’t hear any splashing or screaming so presumably all was well.

Looking into the distance I noticed some cows. They were most uncooperative as far as getting a nice photo goes, but they have been reintroduced to the marshes to help with the habitat. We underestimate the role that grazing animals play in biodiversity, I think.

Cows’ backs.

Cows’ backsides

And at this point, the River Lea and the Lee Navigation separate for a while, and our way ahead is blocked by some building work on the new Ice Skating Centre, which will enable people to do their double axels and pirouettes all year round. We are leaving the wide open spaces next to Walthamstow Marshes, and are heading into something altogether more urban. But for that, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow….



No Need to Feel Blue….

Photo One by PJC&Co, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Large Blue Butterfly (Phengaris arion) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, it’s a sunny Friday here in East Finchley, and so I wanted to share some excellent news with you in the midst of all the current misery. This has been the best year so far for the Large Blue butterfly, a species that was declared extinct in the UK in 1979. It’s a fascinating story, that begins with the life cycle of this enigmatic insect, the details of which were only unravelled by entomologist Jeremy Thomas during the 1970s and 1980s. This account of what happens comes from ‘Butterflies’ by Martin Warren, a fantastic book that I thoroughly recommend.

It all starts normally enough – the Large Blue lays its eggs on wild thyme, and the caterpillar chomps away until it has shed its skin three times. At this point it is only a few millimetres long. The larva is an outrageous cannibal and so only one is likely to survive on each flowerhead. Then the caterpillar falls to the ground and waits until it attracts the attention of a passing ant – it has a special ‘honey gland’ that produces honeydew that is irresistible to them. Once the ant has tasted the honey it will alert other ants, until they are all clustering excitedly around the larva.

Photo Two by Marcin Sielezniew from

Large Blue caterpillar on wild thyme (Photo Two)

After a while, the larva suddenly rears up and inflates its body – this seems to drive the ants into a frenzy, and one of them will pick up the caterpillar by the scruff of its ‘neck’ and and carry it off into the nest. It seems that the caterpillar produces chemicals that persuade the ant that it is, in fact, an ant grub that has escaped from the colony, to the horror of the adult ants. The frenzied activity smears the larva with the scent of the ants, in effect making it ‘smell’ like one of them. These chemicals continue to be produced once the caterpillar is in the colony, and once ensconced its behaviour changes – instead of being a passive producer of honeydew it becomes a rampant predator on the ant grubs. Sometimes it can consume the entire brood, and by the end of the process it will have increased in weight 100-fold. It turns into a chrysalis, and even when it emerges as a butterfly it is covered in droplets of a liquid that the ants seem to relish –  they will surround the interloper even as it inflates its wings, and leaves the nest to start the cycle all over again.

However, not all species of ants will tolerate this underhand behaviour, and if the larva is identified it be killed. The Large Blue caterpillars only survive well with one species of ant, Myrmica sabuleti. This ant thrives only in warm, short-grazed turf, and this knowledge unlocked the key to the reintroduction of the butterfly.

12 new sites across the South West of England were managed at a landscape level to provide suitable habitat for the Large Blue, which requires warm slopes where the plants are short-grazed by animals such as rabbits, cattle and horses. This habitat used to be common across the UK, but has since become vanishingly rare. What is so inspiring about this joint effort (between the National Trust, Somerset and Gloucestershire Wildlife Trusts, the J&F Clark Trust, Natural England and Oxford University, with the restoration being overseen by the Royal Entomological Society’s David Simcox and Sarah Meredith ) is that restoration of the habitat has not only helped the Large Blue, but has also benefitted many other scarce species, including the Shrill Carder Bee (Bombus sylvarum)  (probably the UK’s rarest bumblebee) and the Duke of Burgundy butterfly (Haemaris lucina), whose caterpillars feed only on cowslips and primroses.

Photo Three by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Shrill Carder Bee (Bombus sylvarum ) (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Charles J. Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina) (Photo Four)

Large blue caterpillars were reintroduced to the designated sites from Sweden, and have since set up home very nicely. Since then the insects have thrived, having their best year yet in 2022, with the South West of England now holding the largest aggregation of this species in the world.

There are fears, however, that the drought this year will have reduced the numbers of larvae who have survived – more ant nests will have failed, and stressed ants are apparently more able to spot the trickery of the large blue caterpillars. One way to offset the effects of global warming has been to include damper, cooler microhabitats, which would not be suitable for the ants in ‘normal’ conditions but might be taken up in extra hot years like 2022. It will be interesting to see how things play out over the years to come, but for now I think we can celebrate an initiative which is benefitting a whole plant and insect community. The restoration of whole habitats, with their complex and poorly-understood interactions, must surely be the way forward for conservation.

Photo Five by By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE - Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), CC BY-SA 2.0,

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) – a species also thriving on the restored grassland.(Photo Five)

Photo Credits

Photo One by PJC&Co, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Marcin Sielezniew from

Photo Three By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Five by By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE – Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), CC BY-SA 2.0,

At Tate Modern – ‘Surrealism – Beyond Borders’

Swans Reflecting Elephants by Salvador Dali (1937)

Dear Readers, whenever I hear the word ‘Surrealism’ my mind instantly heads for Europe and Salvador Dali, René Magritte and André Breton. Indeed, for many people Dali ‘is’ Surrealism, and in 1980 my mum and dad queued around the block for several hours to see his exhibition at the then sole Tate Gallery on Millbank. Dali is the people’s surrealist, and so many people have a copy of one of his canvas lurking somewhere in their house. My mum, an artist herself, was mainly taken by the strange realism of his images, I think, and his undoubted technical skill.

The exhibition that I went to yesterday, though, spreads its net much further, and looks at how surrealism morphed and changed as it was picked up by artists across the world. It pays much more attention to people of colour, and to woman, who contributed greatly to the Surrealist movement but who didn’t get the acclamation of the ‘usual suspects’. I’d like to concentrate here on just two artists: Ted Joans, a black American musician, writer and artist, and Remedios Varo, a Spanish-born artist who worked for most of her life in Mexico.

Photo One by By [1], Fair use,

Ted Joans (Photo One)

Ted Joans (1928 – 2003) was born in Cairo, Illinois, the son of parents who worked on the river boats of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He was an avid jazz trumpeter – he once said “Jazz is my religion, and Surrealism is my point of view”, but he was also a poet (he is seen as being one of the originators of the spoken-word movement) and a visual artist.

Joans moved to New York and was a friend of Jack Kerouac and, for a while, a room mate of ‘Bird’, Charlie Parker. One of his most famous images is ‘Bird Lives’, painted after Parker died. The image was to be replicated in graffiti all over New York.

‘Bird Lives’ (Ted Joans 1958)

What intrigued me most about Joans’s work, though, was a piece called ‘Long Distance’. This was based on the Surrealist idea of the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ (cadavre exquis), a game whereby a painting or poem is passed from person to person, with each person only being able to see the last entry. As Joans was friends with practically anybody who was involved in the art work this made for some very interesting collaborators, including Allan Ginsberg and Dorothea Tanning, who painted this compelling work.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 Dorothea Tanning 1910-2012 Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1997

‘Long Distance’ travelled the world until 2 years after Joans’s death, and in its completed form is 30 feet long. It’s fascinating to see how the drawings of the 132 participants feed into one another, and you can watch a Youtube video of the whole thing here. It rather reminds me of ‘Consequences’, a game that we played as children where each person had to enter details of an encounter, then fold over the paper. How we used to laugh, especially if it was smutty. I love the idea of this kind of collaborative working, and it’s something that was a theme amongst the Surrealists, who often formed collectives in response to political or social concerns. Considering the times in which they were working and the horrors that were happening, I suppose this isn’t surprising. Simone  Breton, an early Surrealist working in Paris, described how collaboration could release ‘images unimaginable by one mind alone’.

‘Long Distance’ by Ted Joans

It also linked people across many countries and regions – Joans travelled widely across the USA and Europe, spent his winters in Timbuktu in Mali, and also spent a lot of time in Morocco. Typically, Joans preserved all the envelopes and wrapping that he used to post ‘Long Distance’ from one participant to another. I love that it carried on travelling for two years after his death. What a rich and varied life he had!

‘The Skins of the Long Distance Exquisite Corpse (1976-2005) by Ted Joans

The second artist that I’d like to look at is Remedios Varo (1908-1963).

Photo Two from By Kati Horna - Original publication: unknownImmediate source:, Fair use,

Remedios Varo (Photo Two)

Varo was born in the village of Anglés in Catalonia, Spain. Her father was a civil engineer, and he encouraged his daughter in her artistic interests, encouraging her to copy his technical drawings, and providing her with the books of Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe. Her mother was a devout Catholic, and Varo was sent to a Catholic girl’s school, where she was something of a rebel. You can see the influence of that technical drawing in Varo’s work, and she also reproduces some of the architectural features of the buildings from her home village.

Varos had an event-packed life – she fought in the Spanish Civil War, and was imprisoned in France just before the Nazis arrived. In 1944 she went to Mexico, and never left.

The triptych is both the story of her life, and something more universal. In the first picture, ‘The Tower’, a group of young girls are cycling away with a Mother Superior figure. The sky is dark, and birds fly from the tower. The girl in the centre looks out of the painting directly at us, while her companions appear dull-eyed and hypnotised. I have no idea what the man with the sack is doing, but that’s Surrealism for you.

Photo Three from

Hacia la torre (The Tower) by Remedios Varo (1960) (Photo Three)

In the second picture, ‘Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle’, a group of women are at work creating the world, with the cloth pouring out of the windows of the tower. They are watched over by the rather sinister figure with the book, who seems to be providing the thread for the women’s work. Varos had great anxiety over the conflict between her Catholic upbringing and her scientific/humanist inclinations, and although this is an alternative ‘creation story’ it doesn’t look overly joyful to me.

Photo Four from

‘Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle’ (Bordando el manto terrestre) (Remedios Varo 1961) (Photo Four)

The final picture in the triptych is The Flight (La Huida). It shows a young woman escaping to the mountains with her lover. I love how the light is turning gold to the right of the picture, and the way that the woman’s hair is uncurling, in a rather similar way to the woman with green hair in the Dorothea Tanning picture above. Clearly wild hair is associated with some kind of liberating power. The characters seem to be standing in some kind of boat – it almost looks like a coracle, a Welsh boat made out of oiled skins.

Photo Five from

La Huida (The Flight) Remedios Varo 1961(Photo Five)

Varo saw surrealism as being ‘a way of communicating the incommunicable’, and there is something about her work that reaches beyond the conscious, a keystone of the Surrealist movement. Like Joans, Varo was in close contact with the key artists of the kind: she has a long-standing friendship with Leonora Carrington who was also a Surrealist, and in Mexico with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She did less collaborative work than Joans, and had a deeply individual vision. After she died of a heart attack in 1963 her partner catalogued her work and she has become more known, with one of her paintings recently selling for $3.1m, and an exhibition of her work in 1971 at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City having the largest attendance in history, with more people coming to see her work than went to see Diego Rivera, the father of Mexican painting.

I loved this exhibition. There is something very satisfying about seeing the art of people who don’t normally come to mind when someone says ‘Surrealist’. There is so much here to ponder, and it has certainly made me think.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By [1], Fair use,

Photo Two from By Kati Horna – Original publication: unknownImmediate source:, Fair use,

Photo Three from

Photo Four from 

Photo Five from

A Trip to Tate Modern

Dear Readers, it will come as no surprise to regular followers that I love London – I was born and bred in this city, and yet even after 62 years my heart still races when I walk its streets. It’s the sudden and unexpected views that always get me, such as spotting the new Tate Modern extension appearing alongside the old power station tower as I turn a corner. Today I was even helped by one of the top-hatted concierges outside the Bankside Hilton, who pointed me in the direction of this unexpected view of the Shard. The Shard seems to have replaced the Post Office Tower as the building that pops up everywhere, though it looks rather like some evil triangular god peering over his realm and deciding what to blast with a thunderbolt next.

I am going to Tate Modern to see their ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ exhibition, which closes at the end of the week. Time was I tried to see everything at both Tate galleries, but now that I’m working it’s a bit trickier. I will write more about the exhibition tomorrow, as I think it deserves a post of its own, but to be honest it was a treat just to catch a tube ‘south of the river’, wander around with the camera and then catch the 17 bus back to Archway.

I have gotten a bit ahead of myself, though, because I arrived at Southwark station on the Jubilee line, which is up there with my favourite stations. It always reminds me of a cruise ship, for some reason (though I have never been on a cruise ship so who knows?)

It’s certainly got that brutal concrete thing going on, but I love it nonetheless. The blue glass wall shown below was apparently influenced by the work of 19th century Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and I can certainly see where the idea might have come from. When you take the escalator up from the platforms you are suddenly surrounded by this amazing blue dome, as if you have ascended into some kind of transport heaven.

Ascending to the blue wall (Photo by Di Chap at

The blue wall at Southwark Station (Photo by Diamond Geezer at

Schinkel’s stage set for Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1815) (Public Domain)

Anyhow, back to Tate Modern. I was a bit alarmed to see that there’s some renovation going on at the top of the power station tower.

Apart from the fact that the structure looks a bit on the flimsy side, my additional worry was for the peregrine falcons who have nested here for many years. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds used to have telescopes outside so that you could watch the birds, and they were famous for hunting at night because of the floodlights on the building. Many a local pigeon met a spectacular end at the talons of the birds, but sadly this renovation, which has taken more time than expected and more money than budgeted, has rendered the birds homeless. There are at least twenty pairs of peregrines in London, and apparently the Tate Modern birds had a quick look at St Pauls as an alternative home, but decided it didn’t quite meet their demanding criteria. I hope they found somewhere else to raise their young.

After the exhibition I took a leisurely walk back over the Millenium Bridge, which always provides plenty of photo opportunities…

St Pauls….

A whole range of skyscrapers….

View towards the Globe Theatre with pigeons who are delighted that the peregrines have moved on….

The Shard glowering under a storm cloud….

A contented gull….

Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge

And then I catch a number 17 bus almost immediately, which is a minor miracle as I usually have to wait for at least twenty minutes. Clearly, the Bus Fairy must be keeping an eye on me.

On arrival in Archway, I saw this.

It’s an old-fashioned phone box, and someone has planted it with a jasmine which is doing very nicely, thank you! It did cheer me up. Someone is obviously taking the time to water it and look after it.

And finally, here’s a random cat, sitting in a sunny spot on the High Road and refusing to respond to my entreaties. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Wednesday Weed – Catmint

Photo One by By Kurt Stüber [1] - part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Dwarf Catmint (Nepeta racemosa) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, if you want a plant that will delight your local pollinators, you can’t go far wrong with a catmint of some kind, and I have just planted some in one of my front garden containers. Plants in the Nepeta genus are named after the ancient Etruscan city of Nepete, which is thought to be where catmint originated – it can be found on the west coast of Italy, just above the ‘knee’ of the booted leg that the country so strongly resembles. The town is also the location of the castle that used to house Lucrezia Borgia, and very fine it looks too, though a bit draughty. You can get married here if that appeals.

Photo Two by By Croberto68 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Castello de Borgia in Nepete (Photo Two)

‘Our’ catmint comes from the Caucasus, northern Turkey and Iran. It is popular with gardeners (such as me) because this species is low-growing – some of the others can be positively rambunctious, but this one looks, on the face of it at least, fairly well-behaved. One popular cultivar is known as ‘Walker’s Low’, which is presumably a reference to its size rather than its effect on any passersby.

Catmint is a member of the deadnettle family (Lamiaceae), and as with all of these plants the flowers are surprisingly complex when viewed close-up, almost like little orchids.

Photo Three by Alex Hauner, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three

Anyone who has tried to grow any of the catmint family (of which there are over 250 species) knows that they have a very peculiar effect on some domestic cats. This is thought to be due to a chemical in the leaves called nepetalactone. The chemical is also a very effective insecticide, especially against mosquitoes, and it’s thought that the way that some cats positively throw themselves into the plant might provide a protective effect against all sorts of biting insects. Furthermore, a second compound in catmint, iridodial,  is thought to attract lacewings, whose larvae feed on aphids and mites.

In the photos below, a cat is getting high as a kite on dried catmint/catnip.

Photo Four by By Montrealais - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Cat under the influence of catmint (Photo Four)

It isn’t just domestic cats who react this way to catmint – leopards, cougars, lynx and servals all react in a similar fashion. However, not all cats react in this way, and it’s thought that there’s a genetic component to the attraction. In a similar way, about 10 per cent of human beings can’t smell the flowers of the freesia plant (and very sorry I feel for them too).

If your cat doesn’t react to catmint, however, s/he might react to valerian (the proper one Valerian officinalis, not the red flower that’s all over my garden), silver vine (Actinidia polygama) or  the wood of the Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tartarica) should you happen to stumble across any. Cat people will do more or less anything to make their cats happy, so it’s good to know that there are alternatives to boring old Nepeta racemosa.

Photo Five by By dave_7 from Lethbridge, Canada - Tartarian Honeysuckle Flowers, CC BY 2.0,

Tartarian Honeysuckle (Photo Five)

Interestingly, catmint has been used medicinally to treat anxiety and restlessness in children, and also for flatulence and indigestion. In Mrs Grieve’s Herbal, she is very insistent that the plant is not boiled when a decoction is made, as this destroys the volatile oils that form the active ingredient. The herb was also used to treat headaches and hysteria, and seems to have had a general calming effect. It was also believed that rats hated the plant (maybe because of all those mad cats sitting in the middle of it).

Mrs Grieve also shares a little rhyme about the plant:

‘If you set it, the cats will eat it,

If you sow it, the cats don’t know it.’

And she believes that this is because the cats only react to bruised plants, which is more likely when the catmint has been handled and possibly damaged. I fear for my poor transplanted cat mint, but let’s see.

Photo Six by Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Catmint ‘Little Titch’ (Photo Six)

And finally, here is something by Lu You, a Chinese poet from 1182 who gets a cat to keep the rats from eating his books. As we all discover, sometimes it’s not a question of us owning a cat, more a case of the cat owning us. You can read the whole article here, but here’s a taste…

Poem for my Cat 1 by Lu You (1183, aged 58)

I got a little kitty with a bag of salt

To protect the countless books in my study.

It’s just a shame my family is poor and my wages are low

So it has no rug to lie on or fish to eat

His admiration for his cat soon grows, however….

Rats Kept Ruining my Books so I got a Cat and Within Days the Rats were Vanquished by Lu You

Conscription has left the house empty

Only my cat keeps me company

It’s so soft to touch and warm to hold in bed

So brave and capable that it has ousted the rat’s nest

As valiant as the soldier slaying enemies on the battlefield

I cannot give it much fish to eat but it doesn’t mind

Nor does it waste time catching butterflies amongst the flowers. 

His fondness also increases.

I got a Cat from a nearby Village that I’m Calling ‘Snowy’ by Lu You (1191, aged 66)

It looks like a tiger and can climb trees

It acts as if a horse but can’t pull carts

Even though it has vanquished the rat’s nest

It has no demand for fish as meals

Every so often it gets drunk off catnip

Every night it warms the rug

It must have been my child in a past life

Reincarnated to keep me company in my old age. 

But soon the cat learns which side its bread is buttered on, and I fear that this will sound all too familiar.

Poem for Pink-Nose by Lu You (1193, aged 68)

Night after night you used to massacre rats

Guarding the grain store so ferociously

So why do you now act as if you live within palace walls, 

Eating fish every day and sleeping in my bed?

Some things, it seems, never change.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Kurt Stüber [1] – part of, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two By Croberto68 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by Alex Hauner, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Montrealais – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Five by By dave_7 from Lethbridge, Canada – Tartarian Honeysuckle Flowers, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Six by Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Front Garden Update

The recycled tyre containers….

Dear Readers, you might remember a post a few weeks back when I was asking for everybody’s opinion on whether my new containers should retain their water reservoir or not, and very helpful it was too! In the end, I decided to take the reservoirs out – they seemed to take up quite a lot of the inside of the containers, and so I thought it might be better not to risk the whole thing getting waterlogged and/or frozen. I’ve kept the ‘bits’ that you need to put in the reservoir, though, so if it all goes pear-shaped it won’t be too much work to empty the containers and fit them. Let’s hope not, though….

In Container Number One, I have planted some sedum and some catmint. I put the plants out in their box while I was waiting for the containers to arrive, and looked out of the kitchen window to see an enormous cat plonked down on top of the catmint, so let’s see how long it survives. The cat managed to break one of the sedum stems, so let’s see how that does. I was half expecting all the mammals in the area to use the container as a toilet, but maybe there’s enough planting to deter them.Only time will tell.

The other container has some asters and some Bowle’s Mauve perennial wallflower, the latter chosen for its ridiculously long flowering period and most-favoured status with all sorts of bees.

I am finding the way that the volume of (peat-free) compost is slightly deforming the shape of the containers both amusing and a little alarming. Let’s see what happens.

I will be popping in some bulbs too, probably some grape hyacinths because the squirrels don’t seem to like them that much, plus some of the Sicilian Honey Garlic that I love so much, and maybe some squill. Bulbs do pretty well in the back garden too, but it’s less sunny so they take their time.

I also tidied up the green alkanet – when it goes brown it is absolutely covered in little crystalline prickles. They don’t sting, but they are very annoying. Why I was doing this without gloves on I can only put down to sheer laziness.

In other news, the windowboxes are still going strong – the honeybees are all over the marjoram, although the candytuft is past its best now. Those delosperma really were a bargain.

My Achillea is also doing well – the candy-pink flowers mature to shades of mauve and lilac, and it just keeps flowering. It’s a big favourite with hoverflies, and I seem to be getting a lot of these chaps at the moment. I think this is Syritta pipiens, a rather ferocious little hoverfly with enormous ‘thighs’. The males face off against one another like stags, pushing one another backwards and forwards until one of them gives up. The lives of these insects are every bit as complicated and interesting as those of the big charismatic mammals that we all love so much.

Speaking of which, there are orb web spiders all over the garden at the moment – one had spun a web between the newly-planted asters and the wall within a couple of hours of me finishing off the containers yesterday. And so it’s no surprise that every so often, a pollinator will be  caught. This spider is feasting on a honeybee that was probably visiting the marjoram in the window box above. Still, that’s nature for you, and the bee will provide the spider with enough sustenance to last for a good few days. Many bees are coming to the end of their lives now, so it’s at least a more useful end than just crashing to the pavement.

The Capital Ring – Finsbury Park to Stoke Newington – Part Two

View over the West Reservoir

Dear Readers, after our bagel and coffee we leave Woodberry Wetlands nature reservoir and walk alongside the edge of the West Reservoir on the edge of Stoke Newington. There is a sailing club here, and today the air was full of the sounds of small children screaming with terror/excitement, and the muffled cursing of couples who’d misheard one another and were now stuck in the reeds. Ah joy, I well remember family holidays which had a boat-related component and how much fun they were. The filter house still stands and looks very impressive with the sun shining through its windows. Apparently it houses a café and you can still see some of the filtration equipment.

The old filtration building

But what is that strange castle-like thing in the middle of the first photo?

The Castle Climbing Centre

Believe it or not, this used to house the reservoir pumping station. The Victorians did love a folly, and many of their industrial buildings, from train stations to water works, look more like cathedrals or castles than anything more mundane. And after all, what could be more important than clean water, or enabling people to get from place to place safely and comfortably? We take so many things for granted that were novel for the Victorians. Current revelations about the inefficiency of our water companies, and the mismanagement of our railways are reminding us of what happens when things aren’t right.

But as usual I digress. These days this impressive ‘castle’ houses some rather fine climbing walls, and last time we did this walk we ended up having a cup of tea and a sandwich and watching the youngsters scuttling up the walls at great speed while we gawped in amazement. There is a rather nice video showing the goings-on here.

Then it’s onto the main road for 200 metres, before turning into Clissold Park. On the way we pass this magnificent carved lion, which surely previously marked the edge of some grand estate.

Clissold  Park itself used to be the estate of Jonathan Hoare, a Quaker, philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner. There are two lakes, named Runtzmere and Beckmere after John Runtz and Joseph Beck who persuaded the Metropolitan Water Board to buy the estate in 1887 and to use it for the public good. This heron was definitely enjoying the resource!

There are some truly astonishing trees in Clissold Park – just look at this plane tree.

And then there is this tree, which is a bladder senna (Colutea arborescens). You might remember that I saw it growing alongside the railway track at Black Horse Road, but it seems to be a popular street tree in Stoke Newington, much to my surprise. It is very striking, but clearly someone has a taste for it. Correction – this is actually a Koelreuteria paniculata (Golden Rain Tree), I got carried away at the sight of the bladders!

Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata )

From here you also get a view of the magnificent St Mary’s Church, completed in 1858 and designed in  Gothic Revival style by George Gilbert Scott. The church is thought to be based on the design for Salisbury Cathedral, and is Grade II listed. Apparently the preacher in the church that used to stand on the site was so popular that it was decided to build a bigger church, but the funds had to be raised piecemeal, and so that magnificent steeple wasn’t added until 1890. I suspect very strongly that the tree standing next to it has been judiciously pruned so as not to obscure the view.

St Mary’s Church, Stoke Newington.

Hiding around the corner, however, and looking rather sorry for itself is the Old Church, which dates back to 1563, and is apparently the only Elizabethan church left in London. The graveyard contains members of the Wilberforce family, who were heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement. It is now an arts and community centre. We were unable to get inside, but it’s good to know that it is still being used for the good of local people.

St Mary’s Old Church

Stoke Newington was a centre for dissenters and nonconformist groups, particularly the Quakers, who moved to the village in the 18th and 19th centuries. Amongst the notable residents were Daniel Defoe, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stewart Mill and Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin, David Hume and William Wilberforce were regular visitors. Until recently it was something of a hub for alternative thinkers of all stripes, but property prices are having an effect on who can afford to live here – for a long time Stoke Newington was far enough from the tube for people to think twice about buying a house, but now that so many people are working from home it’s anybody’s game.

The town hall at Stoke Newington is also listed Grade II – it was completed in 1937, and is built in a rather strange mixture of styles to my eyes, from 1930s Modernist plus some Doric columns. It apparently has a sprung dance floor made from Canadian maple which is surely something of an asset. The building was painted in camouflage paint during the Second World War, and a sign by the front door indicates that this is still visible, though sadly not to me.

Stoke Newington Town Hall

And across the road is yet another golden rain tree, and very fine it is too.

By now we are flagging a little, poor old things that we are, so we are less than happy to see that the entrance to Abney Park Cemetery on Church Street is not accessible and we have to walk around the corner and negotiate a mass of building work. Once inside, though, the place is absolutely magical. There are no new graves here, and the London Borough of Hackney is managing it both as a refuge for wildlife, and as a historical site with the graves of many famous people including William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. I think that Abney Park will deserve a visit all of its own at some point – it was set out as an arboretum, and has a beautiful and desolate chapel in the centre, which had stained glass windows reflecting the cemetery’s rosarium, which had over 1000 varieties of rose. The chapel has been vandalised over the years and is now considered ‘at risk’, though the council are hoping to raise the money to restore it.

For now, here are just a few photos to give you an idea of the place. I’ll definitely be back.

And so we make our weary way to the bus stop, for lo! there is a train strike today. And so we get the 106 to Finsbury Park and then the W7 to Muswell Hill and then the 102 to East Finchley,  admiring the fine houses with their ornate plaster and brick work that line the streets. It’s been a great walk, and I can’t wait to get stuck into the next leg next week, when we’ll be going from Stoke Newington east towards Hackney Wick.