Monthly Archives: July 2023

The Much-Travelled Painted Lady

Dear Readers, I am finding the buddleia outside my office window very distracting, with its red admirals and peacock butterflies and even the hummingbird hawk moths, but today was my first painted lady (Vanessa cardui). Every year I become excited at the prospect of a ‘fall’ of this species – it’s migratory, and its numbers in the UK depend largely on conditions thousands of miles away. The ones in England generally arrive over the Atlas mountains in Morocco, driven ever onwards by the need for food: it’s thought that when the population density reaches a certain level in an area, the adults move on to pastures new, being driven as far north as Orkney and Shetland. This is also the only species of butterfly ever to have been found in Iceland. However, some butterflies make an even longer journey: some butterflies were recently found to have originated in Central Africa, which seems to indicate that the painted lady can make an annual round trip of about 12,000 km.

However, it’s important to note that no individual butterfly makes this whole trip: the butterflies will lay their eggs en route, and the life cycle is a short one, with the process of turning from an egg to an adult taking as little as three weeks depending on temperature and food availability. The caterpillars are fond of thistles, burdock, stinging nettles and viper’s bugloss, and will make a little ‘tent’ out of the leaves to protect themselves. The fully-grown caterpillars are black and spikey, like those of their close relatives the red admiral and the peacock. Sadly, the painted lady cannot survive the winters in the UK and further north in any form, so it’s all a matter of timing.

Painted lady caterpillar (Photo Harald Süpfle, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons)

I remember the great ‘fall’ of painted ladies in 2009 – I was still living in Islingon, but was treasurer for our local community garden, Culpeper Gardens. I popped over, as I did every day, and every single flower and wall seemed to be hosting an painted lady. I had never seen such a concentration of insects of one species in one place, and it felt like one of those miracles that we are blessed with a few times in a lifetime. Often these occurrences are correlated with El Niño years, maybe because the heat dries up the nectar sources in Southern Europe and North Africa, and so the butterflies have to move on, crossing the Mediterranean and the English Channel and flying over the cliffs of Southern England until eventually they end up on some end-of-season buddleia in a North London front garden. Growing a few plants for these wanderers to feed on feels like such a small thing, and it’s so rewarding.

For a very long time, no one could work out whether painted ladies made the journey back south – everyone figured that they probably did (otherwise where would new adults come from every summer?) but we didn’t have the technology to spot them. But in the early 2000s scientist Jason Chapman used a kind of vertical radar to ‘watch the skies’. During the autumn of 2009, Chapman managed to identify the southwards migration of the species at between 200 and 600 metres, using a tailwind to fly at an average speed of 45 km/h. It’s thought that, unlike on the northerly migration where successive generations are involved, on the flight south it’s likely to be done by individual butterflies, meaning that an adult hatched in Scotland could end up migrating some 5000 km south to its final breeding grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. Whoever thought that butterflies were fragile had clearly not met this species. In Martin Warren’s wonderful book ‘Butterflies’, he calls the migration of the painted lady “one of the most outstanding phenomena of the butterfly world…..eclipsing even the famous migration of the Monarch butterfly in North America’. 

But how does a newly-emerged painted lady know whether to head further north in search of food, or to hurry south to escape the approaching winter? It’s thought that, even in the chrysalis, the butterfly can detect daylength, which will trigger the general direction in which it flies. Once airborne, the insect can use the time of day and the position of the sun to orientate itself – it uses its antennae to detect daylight, and its eyes to find the sun. On cloudy days, it can use polarised light to detect where the sun is, and they also have a magnetic compass. In order to survive the trip, Monarch butterflies increase in size and fat storage, and a hormone delays the development of eggs, which increases the butterfly’s lifespan, and this may also be the case for Painted Ladies.

Sadly, these finely-tuned creatures with their complicated life cycles are often used at weddings, and released as ‘live confetti’.  As you might guess, the idea of releasing live creatures, possibly into an unsuitable environment following a wedding, appals me just about as much as the recent fashion for dyeing doves in different colours and then releasing them for gender-reveals and weddings. Have a bit of respect, people! Animals are not toys.

The caterpillars can also be bought to be reared so that children can understand their life cycles. As far as this goes, wouldn’t it be better to grow caterpillar food plants in the garden, and encourage children to watch them in their natural state? There are plenty of wonders out there, we just have to look for them. Admittedly I’ve sometimes ‘rescued’ caterpillars from areas where they looked to be running out of food or in danger of being strimmed, and it’s fascinating to see them change over time, but I think that’s different from buying in caterpillars for the purpose. Or maybe I’m being unfair. In a way, anything that encourages children to take an interest in the natural world is great, but I think we need to move away from seeing it as a commodity that we can buy, and move towards seeing it as part of our environment, and something that needs to be cherished in situ. What do you think, Readers?

A Walk of Small Pleasures

St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, I haven’t been to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery for months – we went every Saturday during the two years of lockdown, but since then the pace of life has picked up and we seem to be doing so much ‘stuff’ that the simpler pleasures have been squeezed out. But today we returned, and nature has been just doing her ‘stuff’ the whole time.

The dandelions have gone, but the catsears and nipplewort are still in full flower.

I love the way that the leaves of the nipplewort are going purple from the tip, as if gently dipped in ink.

I love this very characterful small tree – I suspect that it’s dead, but with the sun behind it it looked rather like a cartoon character with a particularly hairy wig.

In the woodland graveyard area the ragwort is still in full flower too – I went looking for cinnabar moth caterpillars but couldn’t find any. Still, this plant is extremely popular with all sorts of pollinators. In the countryside it’s reviled for poisoning horses and cattle, but this is really only a problem if it gets mixed up with other hay plants. No chance of poisoning any livestock here.

And the rosebay willowherb is coming into flower – always worth a look in case there are any hawk moth caterpillars. In fact, it’s always worth a look anyway.

I said hello to the swamp cypress, my favourite tree. Soon she’ll be turning the colour of rust before she sheds her leaves (an unusual case of a conifer that’s deciduous).

I stopped to admire the flowers on the burr, another popular plant with pollinators (there’s a common carder bumblebee on this one).

And then we had a walk around the new area close to the rear of the cemetery, where a meadow has been cut and re-turfed, and a tarmac path popped in. Just look at the cracks that are appearing already! Nature will have its way, for sure. It’s just a shame that the central area of this path is so bland compared to what was there before. I imagine that some new graves will be going in soon.

But there’s still a wild area at the back of the site, where some teasel is attracting the bumblebees.

I have a friend who has lovingly grown 200 teasel seedlings. She wasn’t impressed when I told her that my crop of teasels has grown from a single teasel that I planted two years ago. Once you have one of these pollinator-friendly plants, you’ll have them forever :-). The only good thing is that the seedlings are relatively easy to identify and remove if surplus to requirements.

An abundance of teasel in the back garden

At the back end of the cemetery path, the brambles are extending their eager fingers across the tarmac. I noticed that in some places the blackberries are already ripe, which is good news for foragers of all species.

And look at the thistledown – it always astonishes me how much can be packed into a single seedhead. No wonder creeping thistle is such a successful plant.

And it’s been a good year for the ash trees too, which is good to see in the light of ash dieback. How many of these ‘keys’ will make it to adulthood is anyone’s guess.

Late July/August is a time for a pause: the birds are moulting, many plants have already flowered, and the heavy labour of spring and early summer is done. It’s time for many creatures to have a rest, and I know how they feel – at work so many people are on holiday and there’s a sense of pause and taking stock. Let’s enjoy this time if we’re able to, before the world turns again towards the work of autumn, with its new academic term and general increase in pace. And let’s take pleasure in the small things. There are plenty around if we give ourselves time to look.

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – August Updated

Common toadflax

Dear Readers, how did we end up in August already? This can feel like the tipping point of the year – some plants are still in flower, while berries are already appearing on many more. The birds will mostly have done their breeding for the year, and the garden may seem strangely silent. There should still be lots of insects about though, and maybe even the first orb spider webs – the spiders have been in the garden for ages, but this is the first time that they’ve grown big enough to be noticed. Let’s see what else is in store for us….

Things to Do

  • As we get into the second half of 2023, a lot of organisations haven’t yet posted any events. However, I did discover that the Royal Parks have a selection of self-guided walks for you to download – some, such as ‘Music for Trees’ (which has pieces of music to be listened to under particular trees) have an app to download, while others, such as the ‘More Than Bugs’ trail and the St James’s Park Tree Walk have maps for you to follow. Just the thing if it isn’t too hot.
  • The London Natural History Society has a number of very interesting walks in August and you can see the whole programme here. Two particularly caught my eye – the first, ‘Looking at trees around St Paul’s Cathedral‘ could not be more central, and I know from my street tree walk in the area that there are a lot of very interesting specimen trees to be examined. The walk takes place on Saturday 12th August from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The second LNHS walk is at Richmond Park, on 5th August and will be looking at the ecology and entomology of this very interesting area.
  • On 10th August at 7.00 pm there’s an online talk by Nathalie Mahieu on ‘Fab Peregrines‘ – although all peregrines are definitely fab, this is particularly about the peregrines that breed on Charing Cross Hospital, otherwise known as the Fulham and Barnes (FaB) peregrines. I’m fascinated by how these birds are adapting to city life, and it will be good to hear what Nathalie has to say.

Plants for Pollinators

The RHS guide to Plants for Bees (in January’s RHS magazine) suggests Field Scabious as the ideal plant for the month – it provides food for two specialised species (the small scabious mining bee (Andrena marginata) and the large scabious mining bee (Andrena hattorfiana), plus many other species, including the beautiful red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarious) and a whole host of hoverflies and beetles.

Field scabious (Knautia arvensis)

Large scabious mining bee (Andrena hattorfiana) (Photo By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) Photo Image credit: Tom Ings

Other suggested plants include greater knapweed, globe thistle, catmint (though not if you have feline visitors to the garden as it will most likely get squashed), fuchsia (so good for hawkmoths of various kinds) and my favourite, wild carrot.

Bird Behaviour

  • As I’ve noted before, August can be a very quiet time in the garden – many adult birds are moulting and so are keeping a low profile, and there is starting to be plenty of food in parks and woodland and hedgerows, from acorns and beech mast to berries and rosehips. This is the start of the big autumn feed-up, both for birds who stay in the UK and need to endure the lean months, and for those who are planning to migrate.
  • Juvenile birds may well be forming mixed flocks – tits and finches in particular do this, and it can be fun to see if there’s anyone unusual in amongst the ‘usual suspects’. You might get a brief glimpse of an unexpected young nuthatch or even a lesser spotted woodpecker that has been ‘caught up’ in a flock. There’s strength in numbers, and more eyes means more chances to spot food and avoid predators, plus the pressure to form territories and find partners is off until the spring.
  • The swifts, the last to arrive in the UK in May, are also the first to leave, and you will be lucky to spot any after the end of this month.
  • You might find that your local house sparrows have disappeared, too – they often ‘take a holiday’ in August, if there are seeding plants around. They won’t usually go more than a mile, and will be back by September, homebodies that they usually are.
  • And this is the prime month to see goldfinches feeding on thistles and teasel. The males have slightly longer beaks, and so are more able to cope with the long spines that protect the teasel seeds, leaving the females to eat the thistles.

Juvenile goldfinch on a seedhead at the Olympic Park, Stratford

Plants in Flower

Judging by my posts from previous years, Japanese anemones are putting in an appearance now, along with agapanthus, the small hardy geraniums (such as hedge cranesbill), common toadflax (as in the first photo), bristly oxtongue and nipplewort, and Japanese knotweed (ahem). Buddleia might still be in flower, and so will the more showy hydrangeas. Hemp agrimony and purple loosestrife are both resplendent alongside the pond.

What is really noticeable though is the amount of fruit – everything from elderberries, brambles and rosehips on the dog roses to conkers and acorns, through sea buckthorn and pyracantha. No wonder all the birds have gone AWOL. By the end of the month, most of the haws on my hawthorn tree will be gone.

Hawthorn berries

Other Things to Look/Listen Out For

  • If you’re on a seaside holiday, spend some time watching the gulls and their antics. Many a café owner will be patrolling the seafront with a water pistol to try to deter some of the herring gulls. Good luck with that!
  • Six of the nine species of British blue butterfly will be on the wing.

Holly blue butterfly sunning itself

  • The larger bumblebees will be a bit less in evidence, but the common carders will be out and about for a few months yet. In my garden they are late to appear, but are also the last bumbles to be on the wing.

Common carder on Michaelmas daisies in October!

  • Keep an eye open for the sycamore moth caterpillar, a very flamboyant creature. As the name suggests, you’ll find it on sycamore trees, maples and horse chestnuts.

  • Juvenile green woodpeckers might be independent, but they might also be being ‘shown the ropes’ by their parents, as was the case with the one below. The adult was hammering into an ants’ nest when it was ‘seen off’ by a magpie. What outrageously cheeky opportunists they are.

Adult green woodpecker being ‘seen off’ by magpie

Juvenile green woodpecker

  • Keep your eyes open for clouded yellow butterflies – these are migratory, and if conditions are right, you might see them in some numbers in high summer. The last big ‘Clouded Yellow Summer’ was in 2006, so we are well due for another one.

Clouded yellow (Colias croceus) Photo By Charles J. Sharp

  • Generally a quiet month for foxes, but make the most of it – as autumn approaches it can sound like all hell has broken loose in the garden.
  • There are two full moons this month. The first, on 1st August, is known as the Grain Moon or Lynx Moon. The second, on 31st August, is the Wine Moon or Song Moon. When two full moons appear in the same month, the second one is known as a Blue Moon.

Holidays and Celebrations

  • 1st August – Lammas (Christian)/Lughnasa (Gaelic/Pagan) – first harvest festival
  • 7th August – Summer Bank Holiday, Scotland and Ireland
  • 20th August – Women’s World Cup Final in Sydney, Australia
  • 26th to 28th August – Notting Hill Carnival
  • 28th August – Summer Bank Holiday, England, Wales and Northern Ireland


St Francis and The Birds by Stanley Spencer

St Francis and the Birds 1935 Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1967

Dear Readers, to continue with the St Francis of Assisi theme I wanted to share this painting, by Stanley Spencer, showing St Francis as a large, avuncular figure, surrounded by the chickens and ducks in the farmyard. It seems to me that it manages to combine the sacred and the profane rather well: Spencer said that St Francis was based on his father, who would go out in his dressing gown to feed the birds. The committee of the Royal Academy were not impressed back in the 1930s however, rejecting this painting along with several others. Spencer resigned his membership of the Royal Academy in protest.

The painting is based on the story of St Francis preaching to the birds: one account tells of how, when passing through a woodland with his companions, he asks them to excuse him while he goes to ‘preach to my sisters, the birds’. The birds are said to have listened attentively, with not one of them flying away.

St Francis and the birds, fresco by Giotto (1266-1337)

St Francis of Assisi was the first person to set up a living nativity, with an actual ox and ass, in 1223. The Sunday closest to St Francis’s  feast day, 4th October, is often used for a service to bless animals, and one of the largest ceremonies (with the most diverse selection of animals) is held at St John the Divine in Manhattan, but there will be smaller services in many countries. I imagine that it’s quite the occasion, and that keeping all those different animals from getting up to mischief would be quite a challenge. Has anyone ever been to one of these services, dear Readers? Do share.

An Alpaca being blessed at St John the Divine (Photo from

The Wolf of Gubbio

St Francis with the wolf of Gubbio (from Sasseta’s altarpiece, 1437 – 1444)

Dear Readers, it might not surprise you to hear that St Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) is my favourite saint, both for his humility and service to the poor, and for his devotion to the natural world, and so it was a no-brainer to visit the exhibition about the many representations of his life at the St Francis of Assisi exhibition at the National Gallery (which finishes on Sunday 30th July so hurry if you want to see it!). The National Gallery itself is a bit of a building site at the moment, in advance of its 200th birthday next year, so it’s almost as if this exhibition, which is free, is an attempt to make up for all the inconvenience.

However, even before the exhibition one of my very favourite paintings in the whole gallery is the depiction of St Francis with the wolf of Gubbio from the Sasseta altarpiece. The whole altarpiece shows eight scenes from St Francis’s life, from him renouncing his father, a rich cloth merchant, when he commits himself to a life of poverty and founds the Franciscan order, to him walking through fire in order to impress the Sultan of Egypt who he met in 1218. It’s the wolf story that I keep coming back to, though, and anyone who has ever visited the National Gallery with me will have been dragged to look at this picture (probably en route to admiring Whistlejacket by Stubbs).

Have a look at the image above. The Wolf of Gubbio was a notorious killer and eater of people – on the right of the painting there are various bits of body, and there are bones strewn along the path. However, St Francis has taken the paw of the wolf in his hand, and is gesturing to the notary, sitting on a stool on the left, while the townspeople look solemnly on. The wolf has sworn not to eat anymore of the locals, and the notary has written it all down. In the sky, the flock of birds has changed direction abruptly, hopefully a good sign. It has a cartoonish appeal that must have made life easier for the mostly illiterate viewers of the altarpiece, and as always I adore the little details.

There is something about this that I find very touching – the idea of a pact between man and nature that has been so lost over the past centuries. St Francis was unusual in not taking that idea of ‘dominion’ literally – he seems to have seen the animals as both a source of divine inspiration, and of companions and partners in the world. What a healthy and respectful way to consider this extraordinary world that we live in!

St Francis composed a poem called The Canticle of the Sun. I’ve reproduced it in full below.

The Canticle of the Sun

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which you give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those who will find Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.[3]

The more observant (and older amongst us) might remember a song by Donovan called Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which appeared in a film of the same name by Franco Zeffirelli about the life of St Francis. If you watch the video, be prepared to grit your teeth at the sight of a curly-haired youth gamboling like Fotherington-Thomas (of Moleworth fame) through a meadow, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Well, this was practically the 1960s when such things were allowed.

I can’t leave the subject of the Wolf of Gubbio, though, without sharing this much later painting, by Luc-Olivier Merson (1877). In it, we see the now reformed wolf wearing a halo, and being fed by the local butcher – part of the deal that the wolf did with St Francis was that the wolf would receive food in exchange for not slaughtering anyone. I love the bustle of this scene, from the sceptical cat at the butcher’s feet to the rather sad dog in the bottom left hand corner, and the small child stroking the wolf and looking up at their mother for approval. Interestingly, Merson himself is best known for designing postage stamps, but for me, this must rank amongst his finest work. It seems to me to suggest that it is possible for human beings to live in harmony with nature. Let’s hope that Merson was right.

The Wolf of Gubbio (Luc-Olivier Merson, 1887)

Tate Modern – Capturing the Moment

War (Paula Rego, 2003)

Dear Readers, today I popped into Tate Modern for some culture, and in  particular their exhibition ‘Capturing the Moment’, which looks at the relationship between painting and photography. And what a tricky relationship it is! The harrowing painting above, by Paula Rego, was inspired by a photograph from the Iraq War, showing a women fleeing with her baby in her arms and a small child by her side. Somehow the image of the rabbits, normally depicted as such innocent and docile creatures, intensifies the terror, for me at least. It seems to suggest that war makes animals of us all, as it so often does.

Not everything is so stressful though (fortunately). What about where the artist has made photographs out of paintings? The classic example is this photograph by Jeff Wall, called ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind’, and based on this woodcut by Hokusai (1760-1849).

‘A Sudden Gust of Wind’ by Hokusai (Brooklyn Museum of Art)

It took Jeff Wall over 100 separate shots (in Vancouver on windy days) and a whole year to compose the photo below:

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (Jeff Wall 1993)

In both painting and photo, the direction of the leaves and pieces of paper draws your eye across the image from left to right. I rather like the playfulness of both painting and photo, and admire Wall’s persistence. I can just see him looking out of the window, or checking the weather forecast, to see if the wind was going to be in the right direction for a few photographs.

Another photograph based on a painting is this one, by Indian artist Pushpamala N. The original painting, from 1898, is a depiction by Velosco Salgado of Vasco de Gama’s arrival in India.

What Pushpamala N has done is to have the parts acted out by herself and her friends. For me, the photo shows a much more sceptical and unimpressed audience for de Gama: while the painting seems to show the Indian court as somewhat overawed, in the photo there’s much more balance. These are not ‘natives’ overawed by the appearance of a European.

The Arrival of Vasco da Gama
(after an 1898 oil painting by Jose Veloso Salgado) by Pushpamala N.

Then there are the photographs of Andreas Gursky. The photo below, of a Montparnasse apartment block, had a run of only 5 prints, one of which sold for over $2m at Sotheby’s in 2013. It has the quality of an abstract painting, and the photo itself is enormous, so at least you get plenty of photo for your money.

Paris, Montparnasse by Andreas Gursky (1993)

Some paintings are based on photographs which have a troubling history. This painting, by Gerhard Richter, is based on a 1932 photo of the author sitting on his Aunt Marianne’s lap. Marianne, a schizophrenic, was later incarcerated in an asylum by the Nazis and forcibly sterilised. During the last months of the war she was deliberately starved to death, along with the other patients, and the 8,000 bodies were dumped into a mass grave. There was outrage recently when the photo was sold at auction and left Germany, to become part of a private collection. You have to wonder who would want a painting with such personal and national connections, but there we go.

Aunt Marianne (Gerhard Richter)

As you might expect, film was a big influence on many artists. Of course there was Andy Warhol – his work seems almost banal now (to me at least) but at the time he, along with Richard Hamilton and David Hockney amongst others, were doing something fresh and new.

Andy Warhol – Marlon Brando

The David Hockney painting below sold for $90.3m in 2018, then the highest price paid at auction for a work by a living artist.

David Hockney – Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) 1972

And finally, how about this last painting by Salman Toor, a gay Pakistani artist? It combines a lot of things that the exhibition has been talking about – the impact of photography and digital media on the artist and on our general consciousness. The family are sitting listening to the news. The father looks blank and numb, but his son, on the right, is naked, bleeding ink from what look like stigmata, bombarded with the images from the television, the mosque looming behind him. Toor has described the painting as a ‘‘queer self/family portrait in a conservative Islamic context’. For me, it speaks more widely about the effect of what we are seeing in media of all kinds and how it impacts us all, especially the young. Sometimes it feels like being bludgeoned over the head with a constant stream of troubling and disconcerting images.

9 p.m. The News (Salman Toor)

So, the exhibition has had mixed reviews, 2 stars from Laura Cummings in The Guardian, 4 stars by Ben Luke in the Evening Standard. I think that both reviewers are right – it is a bit incoherent, as Cummings says, but it also has some outstanding paintings, including several Picassos, Bacon, Freud, Doig, Richter, Tuymans etc etc. Some of these are part of the Tate’s general collection (so at another time you could see them for free) but most are part of the collection of Taiwanese entrepreneur Philip Chen. However, I do note that the price of entry if you aren’t a Friend is £20, which is a lot of money. I don’t think that it’s the Tate’s best exhibition, but I did very much enjoy some of the works on offer.



The Results Are In….

Dear Readers, as you were all so long-suffering while I was studying for my Open University science degree this year, I thought the least I could do was share with you my results for my 2022/23 courses. This is the first year of study that actually counts towards my degree, so I’m very happy that I’ve got a good foundation, and I’ve absolutely loved everything that I’ve studied this year. I’m grateful that I have the time and resources to do this, and I can definitely feel it expanding my brain.

But what does the next year hold? I’m going back to Environmental Science next year, having done a year of biology, and will be studying module DST206 – Environment – Sharing a Dynamic Planet. The blurb says:

Environmental issues pose challenges. What are the biophysical and social causes of environmental change? What exactly is an environmental issue and why are they often controversial and difficult to resolve? How can we make a difference? You’ll address all of these questions as you explore four key global environmental concerns – life, water, carbon, and food – through a rich and interactive set of study materials. As you do so, you’ll develop a distinctive way of thinking about environments and environmental issues that draws on the insights of both natural and social sciences to be at once intellectually innovative and practically relevant.’

So, having been extremely ‘sciencey’ for three years, this module brings in some of the social aspects of environment issues: I don’t think that you can think about the science without considering the impact that the changes we’re seeing will have on people. I expect it to be very challenging and intellectually stimulating, and of course I’ll keep you posted on the key things that come up for me. As I’ll be retired by the time we start (and indeed have timed my last day to be the opening day of the new module) I’ll be able to devote a bit more time to it. And it will be easier to manage one course rather than juggling two this year, fascinating though it was. It’s funny how much more time two courses take, even though the marks are the same in the end.

And because I can’t get enough of this stuff,  I’ve also just signed up for the Life Sciences Online Summer School, which is free and doesn’t contribute to your overall degree, but just sounds like a lot of fun. Just look at the topics! And here’s me with a pond!

  • Survey of aquatic life: Using invertebrates as an indication of water quality.
  • Microbiology of water: Culturing bacteria from water samples
  • Investigating the effects of varying nutrient levels on different cell lines
  • Finding better sunscreens from molecules found in nature

It starts next Monday, so again I’ll keep you posted. Who knows what I’ll find out? I’m just very excited to be getting stuck into sciencing again.

Going Underground – Kingsway Tram Tunnel

The entrance to the Tram Tunnel on Kingsway, Holborn

Dear Readers, I have crossed the road here at Kingsway many, many times en route to the London Review of Books bookshop on Bury Place (major plug for one of the best bookshops in London), but have never really paid attention to this long tunnel to nowhere. However, in the 1930s this was a major part of London’s extensive tram network, linking the lines north and south of the river Thames and contributing greatly to the ‘joining up’ of the metropolis. Sadly, this all came to an end in 1952, when the powers that be decided that trolley buses, and then motorised buses, were the way to go instead. 

I should declare an interest here: my Dad, though just too young for the trams, was for several years a conductor on the trolley buses, and remembers the trams in Stratford, East London. The anecdote here is that, having spent a considerable sum on a tandem bicycle, Dad (who was steering) managed to get the vehicle stuck in the tramlines, and when the bike fell over, bashing Mum on the head and leaving her stunned in the middle of the oncoming traffic,  he rushed to pick up not my 18 year-old mother, but the tandem. When quizzed as to his priorities, he responded with

“Well, the bike might have got run over”.

I’m not sure my Mum ever one-hundred percent forgave him.

Anyhow, Hidden London (part of the London Transport Museum) organise tours ‘behind the scenes’ at various London Underground stations and other important historical locations, and they are always interesting, plus there’s that certain frisson of being somewhere that you wouldn’t normally be allowed to go. So, off we trot, down a 1 in 10 incline, into the site of the Kingsway Tram station.

The guide tells us that this incline was quite the challenge for a double-decker tram to climb, and on some occasions the tram would instead roll backwards back into the station, much to the delight of any small boys aboard.

The ’tiles’ are not tiles, but specially-coated bricks.

This light, in the centre of the entrance, is the original lamp from when the station opened in 1908. The ones at the top of the incline are copies.

The photo below shows the station (known as a subway, probably because of contemporary developments in New York) when it first opened. To begin with, the trams were single decker (later the station was remodelled to accommodate double-decker trams) and they would have operated alongside horse-drawn transport.

Down we go, into the subway itself. It is very mucky down here, and is largely now used by Camden for storage. It’s also often used as a film set – several of the Batman films had scenes here, one of the episodes of Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch) was filmed in the tunnel, and the film The Escapist was also shot here.

It takes a bit of imagination to recreate the station itself from what’s left. Passengers would have come down two flights of stone stairs, one at either end of a central platform. The trams would have been on either side, and at its peak there were 30 trams an hour passing through the station. You could, at various times, have travelled from Highbury to Waterloo, Hackney to Wandsworth, Leyton to Westminster and Archway to Kennington. The more London-savvy will have spotted that the starting stations were, and in some cases still are, in some of the more deprived parts of London, and the trams were always seen as being working-class transport – they were cheaper than other methods of travel, and although often cramped and grubby they did the job of conveying people from home to work with minimal fuss.

This is what’s left of the platform itself – you can see the stairs down in the middle of the photo. The concrete pillars would have been new and shiny, and to the right you can see the remains of the poster frames that would have held advertisements and maps.

The top of one of the pillars.

This is how the station would have looked in its heyday. I think it would have felt rather exciting to jump onto a tram here. Once the station had been updated to take double-decker trams (it closed in 1929 and reopened for business in 1931) it was hoped that, by doubling the number of passengers the tram system would be more profitable.

Efforts were made to encourage people onto the trams: have a look at this rather stylish poster from the 1930s.

But sadly, it was not to be. It seems all the more sad these days, when we are looking for cleaner modes of transport, that the very extensive tram network no longer exists. Trams can work (there are great examples in Berlin and Vienna for example), but only if there is some way of giving them priority over traffic.

The last tram ran in 1952, and if you have ten minutes to spare, it’s well worth watching this film, though have some hankies ready….

The tunnel itself now ends in a dead end – the part at Kingsway is owned by Camden Council, while the southern end, owned by Westminster Council, was converted to make the underpass which takes traffic to Waterloo Bridge.

Various ideas have been floated about how to use the Kingsway tram subway, but fire regulations have thwarted most of them – the Ford motor company apparently wanted to use it as a central London showroom, and the Royal Opera House wanted to store some of its scenery and props here, but both plans came to nought. It will be interesting to see what happens to this historic space. Surely it deserves better than to be nothing more than a storage depot for heaps of Camden Council paraphenalia?

And on the way out (with my Bugwoman hat firmly back on) I noticed this burgeoning fernery popping out from amongst the brickwork.

There is Maidenhair Spleeenwort and Hart’s Tongue Fern here, plants that I have noticed anywhere else in the vicinity. Are they gradually trying to change the walls into the Hanging Gardens of Fitzrovia? It’s rather nice to see something alive and thriving, though I am rather puzzled as to why they’ve popped up in this gloomy, polluted spot. I’m sure they’ll have their reasons.

The (Almost) Ubiquitous Jersey Tiger

Jersey Tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

Dear Readers, Jersey Tiger moths seem to have been popping up almost everywhere in the East Finchley area this week – with their Vulcan Bomber shape and bold black and white wings, they’re a hard moth to ignore. The one below was on my kitchen window and had somehow managed to get itself behind a spider’s web. I don’t usually interfere with nature, but the web looked as if the spider hadn’t repaired it for a few days so I removed it, and the moth flew away into the garden with that startling flash of their red underwings. I suspect that they’re either unpalatable to birds or pretending to be inedible, hence their extraordinary confidence.

Jersey Tigers are still listed as ‘rare’ on the Butterfly Conservation website, but they seem to have increased markedly in numbers where I live in the past few years. Some could possibly be migrants, but I have a gut feeling that they’re established and breeding, not just in Devon and Dorset but right here in London. Climate change has led to warmer winters and so, as the species spends the winter as a tiny caterpillar it probably has a better chance of survival. However, a study in Austria showed that, as hot days increase, these moths (along with several other day-flying species) are increasingly being found in caves, presumably so they can find shelter from the increasing temperatures. Like most animals, Jersey Tigers have a fairly limited range of temperatures at which they can operate, so they may also be moving north because things are hotting up too much in southern Europe.

Jersey Tiger caterpillar (Photo Leyo, CC BY-SA 3.0 CH <;, via Wikimedia Commons)

The caterpillars of the Jersey Tiger moth are what’s known as polyphagous, meaning that they eat lots of different plants. However, they seem to have a great fondness for Hemp Agrimony (which my garden is positively awash with at the moment), including stinging nettle, dead-nettles, borage, ground ivy, plantains and brambles. As the caterpillars hatch in September and pupate in May, it’s another reason not to tidy up too much in the winter, tempting though it is. All sorts of creatures are living amongst and inside those tatty plants.

Incidentally, Jersey Tigers look completely different from underneath – they have a kind of rosy glow (much like me after a brisk walk) but  they are also have a pale and fleshy quality which is slightly unnerving (ditto). The wings look a bit like stained glass though, which is very pleasant.

So, I think that the Jersey Tiger is somewhat underreported in London in particular, and I would be very curious to know if any of you lovely Readers in the UK but outside London have spotted any. Incidentally, Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count is on from now until 6th August – all you have to do is survey your garden/park/piece of countryside for 15 minutes and report what you see. And one of the insects that they’re asking you to look out for is, indeed, the Jersey Tiger, so hopefully we should get a better idea of what’s happening with the numbers. It will be interesting to see if it is travelling further north and west, or increasing its population. Either way, keep your eyes open for this striking new addition to our fauna.


Going Out In Style

Horse drawn hearse at Nunhead Cemetery Open Day (Photo by © Peter Trimming and licenced for reuse under cc-by-sa/2.0)

Dear Readers, as I sat on the 263 bus crawling back up towards East Finchley earlier today, I noticed that the reason for our slow process was an absolutely magnificent horse-drawn hearse, heading up towards St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. There were four black horses with plumes and a hearse not dissimilar to the one above – glass sided, and festooned with Arsenal Football Club memorabilia.  I would say that I see one of these hearses on average about once a month heading up towards one of the cemeteries, and I’m always intrigued. There is a certain irony about the fact that the horses and the hearse actually have to be brought close to the site of the funeral by motor vehicle – those horses have a hard enough job getting the heavy hearse from the top of Highgate Hill, and I think this particular funeral actually started from the Church of St Josephs which is just before Waterlow Park.

I am slightly amused by some of the funeral companies advertising their horse-drawn hearses as being more environmentally friendly. Mate, I just saw two enormous vehicles with ‘carriage horses’ and ‘hearse’ on the side speeding up the Great North Road.

Horse drawn hearse from just outside Cambridge © enchantingmiaow and licenced for reuse under cc-by-sa/2.0

Once upon a time, nobody needed to travel to be buried, because the coffin could easily be carried from the church to the graveyard by some strong chaps. However, gradually there was the separation between church and burial site, and so horses were often needed – historically the coffin was carried on a bier, which was basically an open cart. However, horses fell out of favour after the First World War – so many horses had gone to the killing fields of France and Belgium, along with the men who looked after them, and so there was a shift towards motorised transport.

However, people who could afford the expense of a horse-drawn hearse, and a ‘carriage master’ continued to see it as a way of giving someone a stylish send-off (our local funeral directors, Levertons, will do you a hearse and four horses for a mere £1900). (Which is actually a bit less than I imagined).  Four black horses became something of a tradition amongst the East End criminal fraternity, for one thing. And there is something about the clopping of hooves and the black plumes that makes passersby stop and stare. Nobody falls silent, or takes their hat off these days, though – I remember my parents and my grandmother, East Enders all, doing this when a funeral passed as late as the early 1970s. I must admit that I often just stand quietly when I see a cortege.

Very occasionally I see a white hearse drawn by white horses, often with pink plumes. This is nearly always because the deceased is a little girl. I find these occasions particularly poignant.

I cannot leave this subject without a few words on the Victorian tradition of the mute. A mute was a paid mourner, often a day-labourer, whose job was to stand outside the house of the deceased and then lead the funeral procession. As this could be a cold, lonely vigil, it was traditional to provide the mute with gin, with the predictable results.

This is exemplified in a quote from the secretary of an English burial society, printed in the illustrated magazine, Leisure Hour, in 1862:

‘The men who stand as mutes at the door are supposed to require most drink. I have seen these men reel about the road, and after the burial, we have been obliged to put these mutes into the interior of the hearse and drive them home, as they were incapable of walking.’ From the website of Austins Funeral Directors here.

Even more in demand was the child mute: you might remember this, from Oliver Twist, when the funeral director Mr Sowerberry considers taking Oliver on as a mute at children’s funerals.

There’s an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear, which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love… I don’t mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people, my dear, but only for children’s practice. It would be very new to have a mute in proportion, my dear.’

In fact, many young ‘mutes’ did their best not to ‘age out’ of their lucrative professions, dressing in children’s clothes and trying to look as juvenile as possible, and who could blame them? Victorian England was a terrible place to be young and poor (or indeed poor at any age), and who could begrudge an adult ‘mute mourner’ his gin? Not me, for sure.