Monthly Archives: November 2022

The Capital Ring – Streatham Common to Balham Part One

The peppermint-green mosque close to Streatham Common Station

Dear Readers, it was a short walk this week – I am road-testing a new combination of walking boots, socks and strategically-placed plasters, plus my Open University assignment is due on 30th November and I have to write up my Sciencing! experiment, so it’s all a bit full-on. Plus, I need to write my Christmas cards for my friends outside the UK, and with the post workers going on strike, I need to allow a bit of extra time.

And so off we went on Saturday morning to Streatham Common station. For the first 200 metres we walk alongside the railway line, with the pale-green local mosque on the other side of the road. The council (London Borough of Lambeth ) seems to have planted some London Plane trees here, and I can’t help wondering if they’re storing up trouble for themselves at some point in the future, as we’ve seen how large these trees can grow. At the very least there will be some ambitious pollarding.

On the other side of the fence is the main line to Brighton and Gatwick Airport – the line itself dates back to 1846. In 1953, a short film called ‘London to Brighton in 4 Minutes’ was filmed in the driver’s cab of a train whistling along this route, and great fun it is too. If you have four minutes to spare, buckle up! I must confess to finding it rather exciting. Plus, Victoria Station didn’t look too different to this when I was a child in the 1960s, and there were slam-door trains until the 1980s.

If you want to do a ‘compare and contrast’, they remade the film in 1983, complete with electronic music which sounds like sub-par Kraftwerk to me. It’s very interesting to see how much additional building has taken place in 30 years, and also that the quality of the film has actually gotten worse.

And Gawd help us if in 2013 they didn’t do it again, but this time running all three films alongside one another, with slightly better music.

I can’t help thinking about how exciting the first film must have seemed – fast motion photography wasn’t so common then, and I imagine some viewers must have been on the edge of their seats. There’s a real sense of doing something new in the first film that I find rather enchanting.

Anyhoo, today we passed under the railway line via the underpass, which has just about the lowest head room of any such structure that I’ve used recently. The second part has an attractive arch, but the first part is very low indeed.

There are lots of plants still in flower at the moment, among them Green Alkanet, a spikey member of the borage family with the most delicious bright blue flowers.

But what is this on the other side of the road? Is it a temple? Is it some kind of council palace?

No, it’s Streatham Pumping Station, built in 1888 for the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company.

What a very fine building it is! You might remember that we passed another impressive pumping station many miles ago when we were in East London. Those Victorians loved to make functional buildings such as railway stations and waterworks look like cathedrals, and this one is no exception. Take note, too, of the coloured panes of glass in the left-hand side of the photo above, which are something of a theme on this walk.

When originally built, the pumping station accessed groundwater via a borehole. As with all many water sources, this had started to dry up by the 1940s, and so the pumping station now acts as a booster station, moving water from Norwood Reservoir. Apparently there is still sufficient water in the old borehole to be used in an emergency – the water is stored in an enormous tank under the lawn at the front of the building.

Onwards! We interrupt a large-ish flock of pigeons who are taking advantage of a householder’s generosity.

We pass this magnificent oak tree. There are a number of splendid trees on this walk.

We pass Streatham Methodist Church, which has a little patch of wildflowers at the front. Last time we did this walk (about twenty years ago), we remember the churchgoers setting up for a jumble sale, with someone carrying in trays of cupcakes, and someone else arriving on a bicycle with a hugely precarious bag of clothes tied to the back. Today, all was quiet, and we noted that part of the building now seemed to be being used as a Montessori nursery.

The wildflowers outside Streatham Methodist Church

There are some very, very impressive houses around here, and they haven’t gone unnoticed. Some are looking a little ramshackle and have been subdivided into flats, but still have their original features, like these panes of coloured glass (see, I told you there was a theme).

Some buildings have real terracotta shingles.

There are decorative plaques on some buildings.

But amidst all this splendour, there are some buildings where a whole ecosystem is growing in the gutter, and the damp is spilling down the walls and along the drive.

But wait. Look at this excellent photo of a cat in someone’s front window.

And then the cat blinked, and we realised that s/he was a real cat, and very pretty too. There is something soft-focussed about this photo, as if there was vaseline on the lens, but I fear that it might just be condensation inside the flat.

And then we’re on the corner of Tooting Bec Common, waiting to cross the road, when I see this. Does anybody know what this thing is? I’m inclined to think that it’s the modern day equivalent of a stink pipe, but I could be completely wrong. Let me know if you know! It has a number of big metal boxes at the base that could contain all kinds of measurement equipment.

Finally (for this part of the walk) we pass Tooting Bec Lido, opened in 1906 and named for the famous Venetian bathing beach. It is the largest freshwater swimming pool in the United Kingdom, at 100 metres long and 33 metres wide. It was nearly closed in the 1990s but was saved by the campaigning work of the South London Swimming Club, who have exclusive access to the Lido during the winter months (though anyone can join for an annual fee of £28 plus £110 for year-round access). It looks like a splendid way to spend a couple of hours (or possibly a couple of very invigorating minutes at this time of year).

Tooting Bec Lido (Photo by Nick Cooper)

And so, we head off across Tooting Bec Common, in the general direction of lunch. See how we got on tomorrow!

Rolling Down the Hill…

Dear Readers, this morning I decided to catch the bus from East Finchley down to Islington where I do my pilates (and I’m not sure if a more middle-class sentence than that was ever written). It was the most glorious day, after a week of rain, and I am always awestruck by the view as you head down from Archway towards the City. I didn’t have my camera, so these images are from my (ancient) phone, but hopefully you’ll get the idea. First up, St Pauls Cathedral and the Walkie-Talkie coming into view through the grubby bus window in the photo above.

This is a very complicated junction (the bus is heading towards central London and Holloway) but does anyone else think that this looks like a man standing on one leg while balancing a brick on one arm?

And then there’s the Shard in the distance, which looks ridiculously out of scale with everything else in London, at least at the moment.


The spire of St John the Evangelist church comes into view – at the moment there’s an enormous Christmas Tree ‘plantation’ popping up in the grounds, which will no doubt contribute to the traffic problems of the area.

But what I’m really loving are the leaves, like these yellow specimens close to the junction with Seven Sisters Road.

And how about these at the Nag’s Head junction? Everything really was illuminated this morning, in a last hurrah before the wind and the rain blow the leaves into mulch. And now, for some much-needed stretching and bending, after a week hunched over a computer.

Back From the Brink – The Field Cricket

Field Cricket (Gryllus campestris) (Photo by Roberto Zanon)

Dear Readers, the field cricket is a sturdy insect, and at almost an inch long one of our larger invertebrate inhabitants. Alas, their physical robustness did not save them from coming close to extinction – in the 1980s there were less than 100 individuals at just one site in West Sussex.

Field crickets have only one brood per year and are flightless, so they clearly can’t travel very far. In the spring, the male digs a burrow (a task which takes less than ten minutes), makes himself a little platform and then ‘sings’ his heart out, beating up any other males that wander within range. The females travel about listening to the various ‘songs’, and when they hear one that they like, mating takes place. The female then lays her eggs close to or in the male’s burrow. The nymphs hatch in the summer and shed their skins until they are large enough to survive winter hibernation, finally emerging for their final moult in April of the following year, whereupon they join the chorus. Have a listen to some field crickets in the recording below (made by Gareth K in the UK, these are some of the insects from the species recovery programme)

Field cricket next to his burrow – Photo by Roberto Zanon

So, why were field crickets so endangered? Our old friend intensive agriculture was part of the reason, along with the breaking up and reduction of habitat. But one established way of helping a species to survive is to enlarge the area where they currently live, making the edge of the habitat more suitable, and also to translocate the insects to another suitable habitat. And this is exactly what happened. Field crickets were reintroduced to the RSPB reserves at Farnham Heath and Pulborough Brooks, and corridors were established between parts of the existing sites so that the crickets could travel to ‘meet’ one another more easily. As you can see from the photo above, crickets need areas of bare ground to construct their burrows, and so areas of bramble were cleared from some parts of the reserves.

The results were very heartening.  In 2010, 12 field cricket nymphs were moved to Farnham Heath. By 2013, just three years later, 43 males were heard calling at the reserve. And by spring 2019, 337 males were heard calling, a truly remarkable result, with other populations becoming established at Pulborough Brooks.

As with last week, this success story was the result of collaboration between a number of wildlife and conservation charities, but it was also picked up by the media, and the ever-popular UK wildlife TV programme Springwatch did a feature on the field cricket, an insect that I’m sure most people had never heard of or met. The collaboration continues, with local landowners meeting to discuss ways to extend the range of the field crickets even further. Although this is still a delicate recovery (after all, 337 crickets is not really very many), it is a sign of what can be done when people work together. And here is a short film of a field cricket doing what it does best – stridulating. Long may it continue.

A young field cricket. More of these, please! (Photo By Lilly M)

Red List 2022 – Number Four – Skylark

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) Photo by Corinna John

Dear Readers, when we used to go on holiday to Dorset as children, we would often walk around the ramparts of Maiden Castle, an Iron Age fort with row upon row of grassy ramparts and ditches. We would run up and down, and everywhere there was the sound of skylarks, each one erupting from the grass and singing all the way up until it was just a speck in against the hot blue of those eternal summers.  A male bird can stay up, hovering and singing, for more than an hour, and this ability is taken by the female birds as evidence of fitness and health, both desirable characteristics in a partner.

Maiden Castle (Photo by Chris Downer)

For those of you who have never heard a skylark, imagine a perfect summer day, with a bit of a breeze, and the hills rolling green before you (recording by W. Agster)

And I do think that Vaughan Williams captured something of the sound, though as I chose this for my Dad’s memorial service, I have to listen with care.

Skylarks are essentially agricultural birds, and this is where they have suffered, like so many of our countryside inhabitants. There is less to eat in the stubble, and the use of herbicides means that there is less available for these seed-eating birds. Then, the sowing of late crops meant that the foliage was too high for the birds to nest in. A lot of farmers with their huge machines only leave ‘nature-friendly’ patches at the side of fields, and skylarks prefer to be better protected from predators. Various measures have been tried, but so far none of them have worked. If you have a few pennies (though who has at the moment), the British Trust for Ornithology is running a Farmland Birds Appeal, which will do research into the best ways to restore the habitat not only the skylark but other birds such as the yellowhammer, corn bunting and turtle dove.

When I went walking around Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, weighed down with worries about my parents, I was often taken out of myself by the flash of yellow that is a yellow hammer, or a flock of linnets. But one day I walked past a barren field and a skylark erupted from the rubble, singing all the way up, and taking my heart with him. Let’s hope that people of goodwill can save this bird yet.




Wednesday Weed – Moth Orchid

Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis sp)

Dear Readers, until fairly recently orchids were strange, exotic things, desperately expensive and the preserve of the very rich. And then, suddenly, they were everywhere: in the plant sections of supermarkets, in garage forecourts, on top of the upturned crates in front of the local all-night shops. But we’d better make the most of them, because I read an article earlier this week that suggests that the heyday of the cheap orchid is going to end very abruptly.

Phalaenopsis or moth orchids come from a swathe of India and the rest of south east Asia, with many species in Indonesia and the Philippines, and some in Papua New Guinea and Australia. They are epiphytes (they live on other trees) or lithophytes (which live on rocks) and they are pollinated by a variety of bees and moths, although they don’t provide nectar – many are thought to resemble female insects, and so the males rush in and attempt to mate, getting dusted with pollen in the process.

Producing flowers is extremely expensive for the plant, and so one species of Phalaenopsis recycles the flowers once they’re pollinated and turns them into leaves instead, which is a near trick if you can pull it off.

Phalaenopsis with flowers turning to leaves 

In general, moth orchids have proved to be pretty tolerant in the conditions in your average house. They are tropical species so would probably prefer us to keep our houses a bit warmer, they like high humidity but seem to be able to cope without, and they thrive in relatively low light, ideal for that bathroom shelf or darkish patch in the corner of the living room. However, they must be kept at at least 60 F, and herein lies the rub. In an article by journalist and scientist James Wong in The Guardian this week, he reports being taken to a Dutch bulb grower who was shutting up shop after decades of flower-growing. He walks through a room where there are no less than two million orchids in a steamy room the size of an aircraft hangar. This is where the plants that are bought in their thousands every week are not only grown, but also propagated – every week there seem to be new varieties and new colours.

However, the rising costs of energy are thought to be about to put at least half of all orchid growers in the Netherlands, the epicentre of the potted plant, out of business. An orchid can sell to a supermarket for a euro, but cost five euros to raise.

I’ll leave the summing up to James Wong. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I have always been torn about plant prices. On one hand, the drive to make plants cost ever less has meant the increasing dominance of a few industry giants that stock an ever-more narrow range of mass-produced offerings. On the other hand, it has meant that species such as moth orchids have been turned from collector’s item for the wealthy to something within reach of almost anyone at supermarket checkouts.

However, the downside of this is, much like fast fashion, these artificially low prices have created a throwaway culture where once-prized plants are just binned when they stop flowering. With the current cost of living crisis, it’s difficult to argue that we should all be paying more for luxuries like plants, yet it’s years of undervaluing their true cost that has got us to a very precarious place. While the knock-on effects haven’t been seen on our shelves yet, maybe over the next few months we will begin to learn to truly appreciate these everyday wonders.” James Wong

It is possible to bring orchids back into flower again, as my Mum could testify. There are different techniques, but the plants often need a bit of a rest before they decide it’s time to get going again. As with so many flowering household plants though, I suspect that many of them end up in the bin once they’ve ‘gone over’. Maybe, as they become rarer and the price goes up, we’ll give the ones that we have a little more tender loving care.

Phalaenopsis hieroglyphica.

And of course, here is a poem. Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet, who was adopted as a baby and who met her mother much later in life. I love this, and it deserves a couple of readings. See what you think.

Keeping Orchids by Jackie Kay

The orchids my mother gave me when we first met
are still alive, twelve days later. Although

some of the buds remain closed as secrets.
Twice since I carried them back, like a baby in a shawl,

from her train station to mine, then home. Twice
since then the whole glass carafe has crashed

falling over, unprovoked, soaking my chest of drawers.
All the broken waters. I have rearranged

the upset orchids with troubled hands. Even after
that the closed ones did not open out. The skin

shut like an eye in the dark; the closed lid.
Twelve days later, my mother’s hands are all I have.

Her voice is fading fast. Even her voice rushes
through a tunnel the other way from home.

I close my eyes and try to remember exactly:
a paisley pattern scarf, a brooch, a navy coat.

A digital watch her daughter was wearing when she died.
Now they hang their heads,

and suddenly grow old – the proof of meeting. Still,
her hands, awkward and hard to hold

fold and unfold a green carrier bag as she tells
the story of her life. Compressed. Airtight.

A sad square, then a crumpled shape. A bag of tricks.
Her secret life – a hidden album, a box of love letters.

A door opens and closes. Time is outside waiting.
I catch the draught in my winter room.

Airlocks keep the cold air out.
Boiling water makes flowers live longer. So does

cutting the stems with a sharp knife.

Season of Mists….

Dear Readers, we woke up to a fine old foggy morning this morning – it’s just starting to brighten up but the collared doves are still confused, bless them. It got me to thinking about the only autumn poem that people regularly quote, Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’. I think it’s been ruined for many people because it was badly taught at school, which is a shame because it is actually rather beautiful, and well-observed – I love the ‘wailful choir’ of small gnats, and ‘thy hair soft-lifted by a winnowing wind’….

To Autumn

John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, 
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease, 
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells. 

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? 
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find 
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, 
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; 
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, 
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook 
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers: 
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep 
   Steady thy laden head across a brook; 
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, 
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours. 

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? 
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— 
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; 
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn 
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft 
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft 
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; 
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

However, it isn’t all about Keats. I make no apology for posting this poem by Clive James again, because it is one of those poems that leaves a silence when you finish it.

Japanese Maple

Clive James

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

On a more cheerful note, this poem by Gillian Clarke is rich and full of the bounty of the time, and the interconnectedness of things.


Gillian Clarke

When their time comes they fall
without wind, without rain.
They seep through the trees’ muslin
in a slow fermentation.

Daily the low sun warms them
in a late love that is sweeter
than summer. In bed at night
we hear heartbeat of fruitfall.

The secretive slugs crawl home
to the burst honeys, are found
in the morning mouth on mouth,

We spread patchwork counterpanes
for a clean catch. Baskets fill,
never before such harvest,
such a hunters’ moon burning

the hawthorns, drunk on syrups
that are richer by night
when spiders pitch
tents in the wet grass.

This morning the red sun
is opening like a rose
on our white wall, prints there
the fishbone shadow of a fern.

The early blackbirds fly
guilty from a dawn haul
of fallen fruit. We too
breakfast on sweetnesses.

Soon plum trees will be bone,
grown delicate with frost’s
formalities. Their black
angles will tear the snow.

And finally, here’s a John Clare poem that I hadn’t read before. He always paints such a clear picture of the English countryside as it used to be. I particularly like the final verse – I was once lucky enough to see a sow and a dozen piglets in the New Forest feasting on acorns, and what a sight it was!


John Clare

I love the fitfull gusts that shakes
 The casement all the day
And from the mossy elm tree takes
 The faded leaf away
Twirling it by the window-pane
With thousand others down the lane

I love to see the shaking twig
 Dance till the shut of eve
The sparrow on the cottage rig
 Whose chirp would make believe
That spring was just now flirting by
In summers lap with flowers to lie

I love to see the cottage smoke
 Curl upwards through the naked trees
The pigeons nestled round the coat
 On dull November days like these
The cock upon the dung-hill crowing
The mill sails on the heath a-going

The feather from the ravens breast
 Falls on the stubble lea
The acorns near the old crows nest
 Fall pattering down the tree
The grunting pigs that wait for all
Scramble and hurry where they fall

And so, over to you lovely readers! Do you have a favourite autumn poem? Share away!

The Capital Ring – Crystal Palace to Streatham Common Part Two

The Shard from Beaulah Road in Upper Norwood

Dear Readers, you might remember that yesterday I mentioned that this was quite a hilly walk, and so it is – peering through the autumnal smog yesterday the Shard could be seen glinting, apparently just behind the Walkie Talkie although in reality they are some distance apart. But I was more intrigued with the sunshine through the leaves, and with the fine crop of yew berries on this small tree.

Then we turn into Biggin Hill. You might have heard of the aerodrome of the same name, from which British fighter planes launched during the Second World War, but the hill itself is one of the highest points in London, at over 690 feet above sea level. On the road itself there are several references to Charles Dickens:  on the site of a house where he stayed, Springfield, there is now a modern housing estate called Dickens Wood Close, and just across the road is Havisham Place.

The view from the top, on this sunny day, makes even the modern buildings of Croydon look rather splendid.

By now I am beginning to wish that I’d remembered to tie my walking boots rather more tightly at the ankle, as I am suffering from that situation where my foot slides forward and I end up bruising my second toe. And this is a rather steep incline. Still, all in all things are much more satisfactory than in any of my other choices of footwear so far. Apologies for the foot update, I fear I am becoming a foot bore.


Now, we’re in Biggin Wood, where we briefly meet up with a lady with a small Jack Russell Terrier, and her friend. They are both extremely helpful in pointing the way (it’s all gotten a bit vague at this point), and also suggesting ways to circumvent the mud, of which there is plenty, of the sticky, slippery kind. Still, we march on, past an area fenced off by Thames Water, and to which some wag has attached a sign saying ‘please don’t feed the kangaroos’, though apropos of what I have no idea.

Biggin Wood

But then, this building comes into view.

This is Norwood Mansion, and this is the only bit that survives (the East Wing). It was built for Arthur Anderson, joint founder of the company P&O (which stands for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Company, who knew?). He was MP for the Shetlands, which goes to show that absentee politicians are not a recent thing, though presumably Mr Anderson didn’t appear on a reality TV show, up to his neck in cockroaches. Anderson was also a great fan of Crystal Palace football club.

The two ladies catch up with us at this point, and tell us how wonderful the gardens used to be, and how Croydon Council have let it all go to wrack and ruin. Apparently the upper floors of the mansion are now private apartments, and the bottom part is a children’s nursery. An elderly man was sitting outside on a bench, taking in some sunshine, and we paused to look at a plaque celebrating Mr and Mrs Nettlefold. Mr Nettlefold was an industrialist who bought and then donated the land for the original local library.

The trees are splendid, as you might expect.

And now we pass onto Streatham Common, and are in some need of a cup of tea and a sit down. We are advised by our two new friends to seek out the Rookery café and so we do, and very nice it is too. A cup of builder’s tea and a toasted sandwich later, we’re ready for the final leg back to Streatham Common Station.

The Common has a rather splendid municipal horse trough, now a planter. These were put up all over London so that the poor beleaguered working horses, and cattle being driven into Smithfield, could get a drink. I can just about remember the last working horses in London – there was a milkman’s horse that used to refuse to pass one particular house until the lady owner had popped out with an apple. It was a bit of a novelty even then, in the very early sixties, and the horses were soon replaced with electric milk floats, which were rather ahead of their time.

And this is a fine view too, down to Streatham’s Parish Church of Immanuel and St Andrew, built in 1854.

Streatham High Street is said to be the longest in London at a mile and a half. It has been rather denigrated in the press – it was once voted Britain’s worst and most polluted High Street, which always seemed unfair to me, especially as it was conducted by Radio Four. I listen to Radio Four too, but it doesn’t seem to have a particularly broad demographic, and people can be so snooty.  The street has a lot of very useful shops, lots of cheap and cheerful restaurants from all corners of the world, and if it’s got a few Poundshops it’s none the worse for that.

And here’s The Rabbit Hole pub, previously a coaching inn called The Greyhound, which served people travelling through Streatham and on to Brighton in the early 18th century. I confess to rather liking the rabbit and roses motif.

The Rabbit Hole pub

And finally, we pass the war memorial, all the more poignant as it’s the day before Armistice Day. The statue of the soldier is very well done, I think, though the pigeon is not quite as respectful as it could be.

And so, farewell to Crystal Palace, and Norwood, and Streatham, though we shall be starting from Streatham as we set off for Wimbledon Park, hopefully next week if the weather/train strikes/ foot problems all point in the right direction.

After the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, it is so nice to be stitching London back together again in my mind. There’s nothing like walking to help you remember a place.

The Capital Ring – Crystal Palace to Streatham Common Part One

Crystal Palace Station

Dear Readers, today was a glorious autumn day and so we set out on section 4 of the Capital Ring, from Crystal Palace to Streatham Station. We arrived at Crystal Palace station, which is really quite something – it was originally opened in 1854 to cope with the crowds arriving to see the Crystal Palace, and these days it is something of a hub, with trains to London Bridge, Victoria and on the overground to Highbury and Islington. Being a North and East Londoner I find the web of rail lines in South London very interesting – you can board a train at London Bridge, potter through Crystal Palace and end up back at Victoria Station, which feels a bit confusing to me. It must be great to have so much choice.

Outside the station I find a little patch of our old friend Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora) and nearly miss the turn of the traffic lights as a result. Curiosity is a great thing, but those of a botanical bent can be a little annoying to more destination-minded folk. Fortunately my other half is extremely tolerant of me coming to a sudden halt without signalling.

We pass the Paxton Centre, named after the man who designed the Crystal Palace, and I stand to admire the paintings of the dinosaurs and the man himself that adorn the building.

Just to digress (for a change), I was so taken with the dinosaurs on my last walk that I have been using one of the photos as my Zoom background. This is all very well when it’s a friendly team meeting, but I’m not sure that I set quite the correct professional tone when I went straight on to another meeting with a megalosaurus peering over my shoulder. Ah well, I’ve reached the stage in my working life when a little eccentricity is only to be expected.

The backdrop in question

I read with some trepidation that ‘you are now in one of the hilliest parts of South London, and will soon climb steeply over two ridges’. This week I am wearing my Austrian hiking boots, in an attempt to correct the constant problems with my feet. So far, so good.

The houses in these parts are a delightfully eclectic mix. I do love an original encaustic tiled front path…

And look what a lovely display someone has made on the steps up to their front door! If it was me I’d be tripping over them, but it seems that these folk are rather more nimble.

We climb up to Belvedere Road, and look, some of the very grand houses have an actual ‘Belvedere’, a rooftop lookout that must give splendid views over South London and maybe even the South Downs.

You can tell that houses are posh when they have a Cedar of Lebanon, usually a tree of cemeteries and grand estates, in their front garden.

There are not one, not two but three scaffolding lorries parked further up the road, erecting the trickiest, most precarious-looking scaffold that I’ve ever seen around a domestic dwelling. They mind not a jot that they are blocking the pavement, swearing their heads off and playing rap music from one of those reinforced radios that all scaffolders seem to have at full blast. They bring a fruity nonchalance to these quiet streets, and I rather admire them for it – they seem to know that nothing can happen until the scaffold is up, and they reserve the right to do this dangerous job in whatever way works for them.

And look! This is where the man who designed the dinosaurs used to live. I wonder if he knew that his ‘prehistoric monsters’ would still be delighting children, young and old, all these years later? Legacies come in such a variety of ways.

And this is the South Norwood transmitter, which is a backup in case there’s a problem with the Crystal Palace tower. According to the Croydon Advertiser, they have been dubbed ‘the Eiffel Towers of South London’, which might be pushing it a bit. They are pretty impressive works of engineering nonetheless – the South Norwood transmitter was originally meant to carry the ITV signal, back in the days when there were only two channels. Apparently from very early on people attempted to climb both towers, both for fun and to protest, which was something of a headache for the engineers who had to look after them. I can just imagine the cat and mouse that ensued.

On the corner of Fox Hill there’s this house, with its intricate brickwork, and this little metal box on the chimney stack. I’m not sure what it could be – it’s too small to be a coal hole (and clearly in the wrong place). Any ideas, Readers? I am stumped. But I do love the painted (or maybe glazed) bricks.

This is a view back down the road…

And this is a painting of Fox Hill (from the bottom looking up) by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), who clearly lived in South London for a time.

And then we enter Westow Park which is officially in Norwood (named for the Great North Wood which is, of course, in South London). Here, I fall in love with this tree. It is all on its own, and has clearly been buffeted over time. There is something very ballerina-like about it, from the twist in the trunk to the ‘arms’ held aloft. It seemed both lonely and resilient, and I found myself wishing it well.

For a moment I remembered how, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s  ‘The Ancient Mariner’, the mariner finds it in himself to bless the sea snakes that he sees. All his shipmates are dead, and he is alone, the albatross that he has shot rotting about his neck.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

I don’t know why, but it seems to me that wishing something or someone well, especially when they or it are unknown to us, adds to the sum of good in the world, and softens and opens us to truly see what’s around us.

Anyway, back to the quotidian. In amongst all the Victorian edifices, there are these flats, which must have a splendid view of the park at the front, and of the whole of South London from the back. I do hope that they’re affordable in the true sense, so that people who are less rich but just as deserving can enjoy the undoubted benefits of living around here.

We pass a boulder, one of the 20 placed around the London Borough of Croydon to celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2015. These have proved to be ‘controversial’ – they were originally placed in New Addington to deter illegal parking at a cost of £7000 according to the website ‘Inside Croydon‘, which has this to say about the current siting:

Croydon Council, having removed the notorious 20 boulders of New Addington, have managed to come up with an idea to dispose of them which is, if anything, even worse. It has used the 50th anniversary of being incorporated within Greater London as a spurious excuse to distribute the 20 lumps of rock around the borough, adorned with plaques to mark an event of utter disinterest to the vast majority of Council Tax-payers.

I am not sure that they are using the word ‘disinterest’ properly (a bugbear of mine) but we’ll let it pass because clearly tempers are running high, as you can see….

It was the grand Victorian artist and designer, William Morris, who said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” The stones of Croydon fail Morris’s test on both counts, unless each ward or high street needed something for their residents’ dogs to cock their legs against.

Oh, and the concept has another flaw: while 20 stones have been distributed, one each to a ward, there are 24 wards in the borough…”

Oh dear. I will let you make up your own mind. Croydon Council definitely hasn’t impressed its residents for quite some time, so I can see that the stones are just another way to irritate everybody.

One of the twenty ‘boulders of Croydon’

And then we leave Westow Park and walk along Eversley Road, where I am very taken by the autumn colour. Truly this is an exceptional year, though I worry that the trees are only so beautiful because the drought stressed them so much.

Soon, we will be in the second part of the walk (of which more tomorrow) but in the meantime, how about this? It looks rather like a Tudor rose inside a sun, and it’s right on the top of the roof of this rather fine house. The house next door has one too, but none of the others. As with so many roads in London, I imagine the houses were built a few at a time, sometimes by different builders. It’s what gives a street, and even part of a street, its own individual character, and I absolutely love it.


So, tomorrow we will advance through some more of the Great North Wood, find a very splendid mansion, and hear from some more locals about Croydon Council, so that will be something to look forward to 🙂


The Leicester Road Bollard

Dear Readers, I may have been rather too complacent about the bollards here on the County Roads in East Finchley a few weeks ago, because although the bollards on Lincoln Road are still resplendently upright, the one on Leicester Road most certainly isn’t. Something or someone must have hit it a right old wallop to do all that damage. What on earth is going on? Is it just the constant stream of Ocado, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury, DPD, Amazon and Fedex vans that rampage up and down the road and occasionally have to retreat at speed? Is it a frustrated person with a sledgehammer? Is it the world’s largest mole?  I am open to all suggestions, however silly, and if someone local happens to have witnessed the event do let me know. This is yet another occasion when a trail camera would come in handy.

The bollards on Lincoln Road

As you can see, the bollards on Lincoln Road are not only in one piece but are developing a little ecosystem of what looks like chickweed and possibly shepherd’s purse. Is it just that these are positioned a little further back from the corner? If I was the Leicester Road bollard I would be taking it all a bit personally.

Anyhow, I think from the tone of subdued hysteria that you can probably tell that it’s been One of Those Weeks at work. Still, it will soon be Christmas! I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but it certainly seems to have come around speedily this year. My Mum used to say that the years speed up as you get older, and she was right. But tomorrow we might actually manage to get out for a bit more Capital Ring, after being rained and train-striked off for the past few weeks. Keep your fingers crossed, and watch this space…..

Back From the Brink – The Shrill Carder Bee

Shrill Carder Bee (Bombus sylvarum) Photo by Ivar Leidus

Dear Readers, after my piece on the Barberry Carpet Moth last week, several people commented that it was nice to hear some good news for a change. And so, I’m going to make Fridays a time for finding out about all the progress that is being made to preserve our endangered species. I know that action on so many things needs to happen on a global or national scale, but I also think that what can be done at a local level by people of good will is often astonishing. We are never so powerful as when a group of us are concerned enough about something to act.

The poor old shrill carder bee is known from only five areas in the UK: the Thames Estuary, the Somerset Levels, and in Wales the Gwent Levels, Kenfig–Port Talbot, and south Pembrokeshire. The Gwent and Thames Estuary populations seem to be doing best, but when you have such widely distributed groups of bees, there’s a danger that they will become inbred, especially as the bee isn’t much of a traveller and prefers to look for flowers close to the nest. The bee has a black band between the wings, a black band on the abdomen and although in general it is a rather drab, straw-coloured bee, it has a tail the colour of Lucozade.

As its name suggests, the Shrill Carder Bee has a distinctive high-pitched buzz, and it requires areas of  grassland, with lots of black horehound, birds-foot trefoil and red clover. To add to the complications, this is a bee where the queen emerges fairly late from the nest in spring, and the nest continues into the late autumn, with new queens emerging just when many farmers mow their land for hay or silage.

The bee was the subject of the ‘Back From The Brink’ project which helped out last week’s moth, and again it worked by helping the local community to identify the bee, so that they knew what they were trying to save. Then, it talked to hundreds of landowners to think about their land management – simply pushing back the final grassland cut by a couple of weeks helped to provide flowers for the bees to feed on. A well-fed queen is much more likely to survive through the winter, and to rear her youngsters in the spring. Over 189 hectares of flower-rich grassland were also restored to help the bee.

It will be a while before we know whether the bee’s populations are improving, but what gives me hope is the sheer variety of charities, local groups and councils that are involved. Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (both excellent organisations) have been leading the project, along with the RSPB. Over 55 landowners have been involved in face-to-face meetings, and over 90 local sites have been surveyed. To think that all these people are trying to save this little bee gives me hope, and reminds me that people do care about their local wildlife. Sometimes, all it takes is a little organisation, and a lot of hard work.

Shrill Carder Bee – worker (Photo by Ivar Leidus)