Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Bugwoman on Location – Hampstead Village


The Wonky Chimneys of Flask Cottages, Hampstead

Dear Readers, this week I was in Hampstead, delivering an enormous bag of knitting wool to a charity called Knit For Peace who match keen knitters with good causes. I am a great believer in the healing power of crafts of all kinds – it’s hard to stay angry and resentful when you’re trying to work out how a Fair Isle pattern is supposed to work. And look at the excellent use that your master(mistress)pieces can be put to once the many hours of work have been completed!

Willow the cat and my blanket.

Being in Hampstead gave me an opportunity to explore. I started off on Flask Walk, where I am always intrigued by the wonky chimneys in the first photo above. Why are they so eccentric? My delving into the internets has produced nothing on the subject, so feel free to chip in with any suggestions.

Hampstead seems such a quaint and attractive area, rather Bohemian you might think, a great place to bring up a family. However, as average house prices for the area are over £1.6m (and a ‘detached family dwelling’ is getting on for £6m) I don’t imagine the average family will be moving here any time soon. In the meantime, however, I spent some time admiring the water droplets on the leaves and plants, and trying not to look too suspicious, what with my camera and all. There are a lot of security teams around here, as you might expect.

One reason for advancing along the road is that this is the location of Burgh House, the site of Mr and Mrs Bugwoman’s marriage in September 2010. Sadly, the building, and hence the delightful cafe, was closed until 10th January, but I recommend a visit for both food and edification, as the Hampstead Museum is also here. I took a few photos and remembered some of the details of the day – for example, when my dad and I got into the vintage Rolls Royce we’d hired to get to Burgh House and he said ‘I suppose I should be giving you some advice, but you know it all already’. Well, I was forty.

Burgh House, Hampstead

This was all very splendid but I hadn’t seen any animals yet, apart from one of the many blackbirds who have popped out in the past few days to make the most of the muddy conditions and the superabundance of worms. Incidentally, I was walking in the cemetery today with my most excellent friend A, and we observed a similar blackbird.

‘I don’t like to dwell upon blackbirds eating worms in a graveyard’, she said.

But when you think about it, how wonderful it would be to be recycled as a blackbird!

A Hampstead blackbird

I decided to pop over to the other side of the village and have a look at the churchyard. The church itself is the Parish Church of St John at Hampstead, although I note from the website that it wasn’t initially clear which St John was intended – it was only in 1917 that it was declared that it was the St John the Evangelist. The current church was consecrated in 1747, although there have been religious buildings on the site right back to 986.

The Church of St John in Hampstead

As you might have expected by now, I was drawn to the churchyards. There is one around the church itself, and a second one across the road.

The churchyard around St Johns

I was not exactly dressed for muddy paths and bird watching, what with my bright red coat and boots and all, but I slithered around nonetheless. There is an atmosphere of melancholy under those dark, ancient trees, and sitting on a bench right in the middle of the churchyard was a young man, deep in thought. How these places support us when we need peace and solitude! I sneaked past as quietly and unobtrusively as I could and noticed how the robins have suddenly started singing, just in this past few days. How sensitive their clock is to the length of days.

Around the side of the church, a tombstone had split and weeds were growing in the cracks, a metaphor for life’s persistence and resilience if ever one was handed to me.

And then I headed off across the road, to the ‘overflow’ graveyard that was opened in 1812.

The place was full of birds. Robins sang from the gravestones and, as I nearly went flat on my bum under an alder tree, a gang of long-tailed tits came along to have a good laugh.


A long-tailed tit, no doubt laughing his head off

There was a small flock of redwings in the yew tree, and when one flew out to perch nearby, I was able to capture this candidate for Wildlife Photographer of the Year (not)


Redwing! Honestly!

I found this exquisitely beautiful tomb, with an angel kissing the forehead of a small child. It is the last resting place of Eve Hammersley, who lived locally and died in 1902.


I found a gorse bush in full flower, and noticed for the first time how the petals at the base of the bloom have a little hole in them, like a jawbone.


And, in addition to the long-tailed tits (who aren’t really tits) there were blue tits and great tits, which are.

And so, as the rain started, I turned and headed for home. There are lots of interesting graves here: Hugh Gaitskill and Peter Cook are among the luminaries buried amidst the yew trees and the moss. And yet, as always, it’s the life that intrigues me and lifts my spirits in a cemetery, not the death. The call of birds and the bursting forth of new green life always reminds me that there are other cycles beside our day-to-day artificial bustle of Christmas and New Year, accounting year-ends and sales. For the birds, and for the plants, spring has already put a twinkle in their eye. If we stop and breathe and listen, it will do the same for all of us.



A pathway in the second churchyard







A Dorset Christmas

Dear Readers, you may remember that our Christmas plans had to change this year, because Mum and Dad both had serious chest infections and were not well enough to travel to London.  So, at the last minute we decided to take Christmas to them. What logistical challenges ensued! For one thing, there was the issue of sorting out the all-important Christmas Food. Fortunately there was still a slot for a Christmas delivery by Tescos, and so I ordered lots of brussel sprouts and chipolatas. Unfortunately, Mum and Dad’s carer went down with the lurgy on the day when it all arrived, and so they were confronted with about twenty bags of Stuff to put away.

Panic ensued, and I was phoned at 9 a.m. and asked where they should put it all. As I was not there, this was a bit of a challenge.

‘Put the frozen stuff in the freezer, in the bags, put the fridge stuff in the fridge and leave the grocery stuff and I’ll sort it out when I get there on Saturday’ I said, trying not to be too distressed by Mum’s description of the sheer volume of food.

I spent an hour worrying about what was happening. Had Dad fallen into the chest freezer? Had Mum done herself a damage trying to manhandle the all-important tonic water? I am not given to catastrophising (ahem) but by 10 a.m. I was convinced that they were both laying on the kitchen floor having simultaneously tripped over one another (there is precedent for this particular worry).

And then Dad phoned back.

‘It’s all put away’, he said, ‘And there’s even a bit of spare room. Now I’m off to make a cuppa’.

And so, that was that.

And then we arrived, and the rest of Christmas seemed to be made up of

  • Making tea
  • Making more tea
  • Making trifle
  • Eating Christmas Cake (which had been very well-fed with brandy)
  • Making Creme Caramel (Dad’s favourite)
  • Wondering how Creme Caramel and Trifle were going to fit into the fridge
  • Digging the chicken out of the chest freezer, and worrying about where the promised giblets had gone (AWOL as it turned out)
  • Making blinis with smoked salmon
  • Discovering that there are endless back-to-back re-runs of Father Brown on the Alibi channel (eight in one day)

And so it was that on Boxing Day, for a few brief hours, the sun shone, the torrential downpour stopped, and my husband and I stepped out for a walk. It was a relief to stretch the legs, and to look off to the horizon where there were some rather fine sheep. I love the black faces and black legs on this one, it looks like the ur-sheep, the quintessential essence of sheep-ness.

Further along the way, a statue of a lady was leaning against a weeping tree. She could even have been weeping herself. Possibly she was overwhelmed with chipolata preparation, and if so I know exactly how she felt.

I love the way that the veins of the ivy are picked out by the change in its colour.

And here is a very unimpressed cat, enjoying a little winter sunshine, and refusing to engage with passersby, in spite of their very best cat-attracting noises.

Up the hill we went. It was a pleasure to walk with John – usually I do this walk on my own, so it was good to have someone to show ‘the sights’ too, such as they are.

There’s always somebody working over the roofs for little insects, like the pied wagtail on the thatched roof below, and the sparrows on the tiles.

I could show John St Francis of Assisi, and all his little animal friends – the number and variety grow every time I visit, and it’s somewhere that I always stop.

There are a fine bunch of calves in the cowshed, curious as always.

And the hills stretch away, gentle and green. So we walked on and on, until we came to a farm. There were three motorbikes parked in the middle of the path, which wasn’t a problem. Then, I noticed that the derelict farm building next door and all the land around it were literally ankle-deep in beer and cider cans. Hmm. Maybe I was over-cautious, but it seemed to me that this might be a good point to turn round. I’ve seen Deliverance, you know.

On the way back, there were some unusual birds in the bare trees, but I’m not sure what they were. I’m thinking maybe Fieldfare by the size of them in comparison to the crow, but all comments gratefully accepted.

There were some corrugated roofs that were overgrown with ivy last time I took this walk, but they’ve now been cleaned up somewhat. Still lots of lovely moss, though.

The roof last time I was here……

And the roof now

And some attractive moss

We pass the calves again, and one little Aberdeen Angus calf in a field all on his own.

Back down the path.

There is a hedge full of mahonia and lichen-encrusted twigs, and the colours are exquisite in the sunshine.

But who is this?

Fortunately, I have a picture from 2005 to reveal who is under the hat….it’s a very fine pig.

It’s a pig!

And as we get to the bottom of the hill, I become aware that the robins are singing all around us, announcing their territories and getting ready for the hard work of the spring. They’re a bit early, but maybe the sunshine warms their bones and tells them the world has turned towards the light again.

Back at home, all is peaceful. Mum and Dad are dozing in their chairs, Father Brown is solving yet another case, and it’s not yet time to peel the potatoes for dinner. I consider  sneaking off to read the paper and have a nap.There will be plenty of time to get back into the Christmas spirit in an hour or so, when everyone lurches back into alertness for Paul O’Grady’s programme about Battersea dogs, and the Strictly Christmas show, followed by a cut-throat quiz in which Dad beats everyone. In other words, it’s Christmas, as usual.

Dad wearing his Christmas hat at a very jaunty angle. And no, he hasn’t been at the gin 🙂



Bugwoman on Location – The Best Laid Plans

Clematis seedheads in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, you may remember that last week I reported that Mum had been stricken down with a chest infection, but seemed to be on the mend, and was at least not in hospital. Well, on Sunday I phoned Mum and Dad, and realised that Dad had succumbed to the same bug. Add to this the fact that one of their lovely carers is currently struggling with her own health emergency, and that the washing machine has broken irreparably, and the only feasible course of action was to leap on a train and head down to Milborne St Andrew on a rescue mission.

Flint nodule from wall in Milborne St Andrew

And so, I have been on tea-making/cooking/washing machine wrangling/cleaning/medicating duty for the week, and have been trying to persuade Mum and Dad that they need some additional help while their carer is sorting out her own crisis. I have met with some resistance (understatement) because they love their current carers, and would rather not have to deal with anyone else. Plus, Dad in particular is sanguine about the future, which is lovable but occasionally infuriating. For example, on the coldest day of the week I returned from the walk that I am about to describe, only to find that the enormous wheelie bins had been put on the kerb for the dustbin men. Yes, in spite of barely being able to breathe, Dad had wrangled them outside, in -5 degrees of wind chill.

I love that Mum and Dad are so determined to be independent. I think that their sheer cussedness and determination is what’s kept them going so far. I just worry myself sick about them. But they are of sound mind, and I don’t want to be one of those children who railroads their parents into doing things that they don’t feel comfortable with. So, on Thursday, while they were having a nap, I wrapped myself up and went out for a walk.

The sun was so low on the horizon that for half the walk I could barely see where I was going.

Bugwoman’s shadow….

I stomped along Chapel Road, and stopped as a flock of blackbirds erupted from one of the gardens. What could have brought these normally solitary birds together? I inhaled a deep lungful of sweet apple scent, and realised that the kind house owner had left the windfalls for the birds.

And it wasn’t just blackbirds who were ready to feed – I also spotted my first redwing of the year.

Onwards I trudged, feeling my anxiety ease with every step. I even made the mistake of thinking it was warmer than I’d thought. Hah! I was to discover the error of my ways when I walked back, into the wind.

A mole had been very busy in the ex-cabbage field, and the soil was the colour of cocoa. These little animals are very common, and yet I’ve never caught a glimpse of one. How busy they are, turning the soil and munching on the worms and leatherjackets.

Earlier in the year, I’d passed a dry stream bed, and speculated that maybe it was a winterbourne – a river that only runs in the winter. It seems that I might have been right. Many villages in Dorset are called Winterbourne something, such as the nearby Winterbourne Whitechurch.

Over a stile, and then a decision on which of three paths to take. In the mood of Robert Frost, I decided to take the one less travelled, diagonally up hill and into a little copse of trees. The low sun burnished the dry thistles into something softly miraculous.

At the top of the hill was the path through trees, which looked strangely menacing compared with the open field. But somehow I wasn’t ready to turn back yet, and so up I went.

And when I came out on the other side, there was a view of another cabbage field, and a single wind turbine.

Back I go, and immediately realise that it’s colder than I thought.

I pause at a sign before the wood. I have not heard shots here, and so I don’t think that I’m in danger of being peppered with pellets. Plus, I am wearing a bright red (and very unsuitable) coat, so I should at least be obvious. I know that shooting things is part of country life, but I confess that I loathe it, especially when it’s done for sport and the dead creatures are not even eaten. Still, you could argue that at least a pheasant has had a decent life before it meets its end, unlike a factory-farmed chicken or pig.

I’m out into the field again, and heading home. I spot the sheep from my last walk on a field across the way.

The tractor ruts are full of water, necessitating some clever manoeuvering to keep my feet dry. At least I’m wearing suitable walking shoes.

I fall in love with this dancing bush. It looks to me like a couple in the middle of a tango, and rather reminds me of the Fred and Ginger House in Prague….

The Fred and Ginger House, Prague.

It’s becoming colder, and I notice that some of the water in the ruts here is frozen. A pied wagtail is picking over the puddles, and the hedgerow is full of goldcrests and long-tailed tits. As usual, I don’t get a photo of them, but the wagtail is very obliging, flying along just a few feet ahead of me as I pick my way through the muddy morass.

Pied Wagtail

There is a huge bonfire in the wood to the left of the path as I turn for home, and I soon realise why. You might remember that last time I reported on this walk, I mentioned a very fine dilapidated barn in some woodland. Well, most of the woodland is now gone, and the logs are stacked up. I walked through a veil of woodsmoke, which lingered in my hair (and probably my lungs) for the rest of the day.

As I got to the brow of the hill, I noticed how some of the trees have previously been heavily coppiced, but have now grown into trees.

Notice all the tree trunks growing up from one horizontal trunk

It occurs to me that this was maybe once a hedgerow, or at least a piece of ancient woodland coppiced for firewood, which has been allowed, over many years, to grow freely. On the other side of the path, a hedgerow is still maintained, and I was struck by the similarity in the pattern of growth, but on a miniature scale. It would take me a lifetime to be able to truly read this landscape, but I am determined to learn while I can.

Part of the hedgerow

And as I passed another modern barn, I noticed the moon rising.

How serene it looked above the trees.

Underneath an abandoned farm building, a piece of old machinery was burnished with late afternoon light.

I had seen a few starlings roosting earlier, but now the big oak tree was full of twittering, whistling birds bedding down for the night.

And in the field opposite, the very last rays of the sun seemed to blessing a pair of horses.

And so I walk briskly home as the light fades and the wind picks up, chilling my face and making me yearn for a centrally-heated living room and a cup of tea. The parents are both asleep in their reclining chairs. Dad’s chest is wheezing gently, while Mum’s is distinctly more crackly. I put the kettle on, knowing that regardless of how deeply asleep he is, Dad will launch into alertness for our daily watching of ‘Pointless’. I am filled with such a rush of love for the pair of them that I’m brought to the edge of tears. I have to learn to relax into the uncertainty of the situation, and not try to control every decision (hard as that is for someone who thrives on making things happen). Sometimes, it’s best to just listen and trust that, in the words of Julian of Norwich:

‘All shall be well,

and all shall be well,

and all manner of things shall be well’.

Bugwoman on Location – Cake-Making and Bird Spotting in Milborne St Andrew.


Dear Readers, it has been something of an exciting week for Mum and Dad. On Sunday, they were walking up the steps to their front door (which have two very sturdy handrails) when it appears that one of them slipped, and the other one tried to save them (the story varies somewhat according to who you talk to). The end result was that they both ended up laying in the front garden, unable to get up. Fortunately Dad had his mobile in his pocket, and was able to ring a) an ambulance and b) one of their neighbours/carers who lives just down the road. Dad had hit his head, and Mum had a bad pain in her hip, but Dad managed to get himself up with some help. Mum, however, was stranded in the garden, because no one wanted her to get up if she’d potentially fractured something. The lovely neighbour wrapped Mum up in blankets and made her as comfortable as possible.

Two and a half hours and several calls to the ambulance service later, an ambulance arrived from Swanage (some distance away), and took Mum and Dad to the hospital for observation. A few hours, an X-Ray and a CT scan later, they were released and got home for a well-earned cup of tea, and a rest.

So it was no surprise that when it came to making this year’s Christmas cake, Mum wanted to supervise rather than stand up and actually make it.

‘And then you’ll know the recipe’, she said, ‘And it can pass on down to you’.

And so I creamed the sugar and butter, taking Mum’s advice and using a fork (‘Much quicker’). I added the eggs and the flour a bit at a time, taking the mixture in for Mum’s approval (‘Add a bit of milk, that looks too dense’). And then in with the fruit (‘Cut the cherries in half!’). And then, into the oven at 140 degrees (‘It’s supposed to take four hours, but it never does, so let’s check on it in two’).

Just enough time for Mum and Dad to have a nap in their reclining chairs, and for me to go out for a walk. The fog had finally lifted, and the sun streamed in through the window of the bungalow.

I felt a bit sad. All these years Mum had been making the Christmas cake, and she prides herself on being the one to bring it to the Christmas feast. It felt like a bit of a defeat, but at least we’d have a cake. I put on my walking shoes. A trot through the countryside always cheers me up.

I noticed a fine spider’s web on the doorway of their house as I went out.


I headed down towards the church on the other side of the main road through Milborne St Andrew. I had done this walk back in September, before Mum and Dad’s party, and I wanted to see what difference six weeks had made.

The spiders’ webs were thick in the hedges, and so white that I had to check them  to make sure that they weren’t something leftover from Halloween.


One of the houses is for sale, and very fine it is too. I loved the hanging basket holders, shaped like a wren and a robin. If anyone is looking for a house in Milborne I would definitely have a peep at this one.


The horses were in the field, as usual.


But there were some new inhabitants in the field opposite.


They looked like so many clouds scattered about the hill.



A rook called out from the top of a tree.


Last time I did this walk, there was Himalayan Balsam and Comfrey in full flower. But today, the prevalent colour was green, from new nettles and goosegrass and feverfew.


All the plants by the little river had been cut back, but the hedgerow was alive with wrens and flocks of tits.



The cabbages on the field on the other side of the track were gone, but something new had already been planted.


The last of the cabbages, missed in harvesting


New crop. Of what, I have no idea. Maybe it will be clearer next time I visit.

At last, at the top of the field, I find a few things in flower. There is the odd dandelion and hogweed still blooming, but then there is the ivy. It’s the main nectar source at this time of year and I must have seen a dozen red admirals stopping for a quick sip and then hurrying on as I did this walk, not one of them hanging around long enough for a photo.


A lonely dandelion


The Sputnik-shaped flowers of ivy, with a lone honeybee

At the end of the track I stop, and look at my watch. Still an hour and a quarter before the cake needs to be looked at. I have three choices: right, diagonally right, and left. I decide to go up the hill to the right, and just see where it goes.


The first thing I notice is how hot it is on this south-facing hedgerow – I’m sorry I’ve worn a scarf. And then I notice the sound of insects, a persistent drone every time I get close to the abundant ivy. I look around for bumblebees (and do see an enormous queen disappearing back into her hibernation burrow in the grass) but the noise is actually coming from some hoverflies.


This is a drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), and its resemblance to a male bumblebee is supposed to give it some measure of protection from predators. It certainly sounds like a bee, although its big eyes and shiny body are much more fly-like. It loves farmland: the larva is known as a ‘long-tailed maggot’, and it thrives in nutrient-rich, polluted water, which can often be found where there is nitrate run-off. The larva breathes via a breathing tube, which is how it got its name. The adult lives on nectar and is one of the few hoverflies that can be found all year round. A tough creature, indeed.


A drone fly on yarrow. In this photo you can just about make out the rust-coloured patches on the fly’s ‘hips’ which identify it as Eristalis pertinax

And then I look up.


I have been waiting for years to actually get some photos of a buzzard (Buteo buteo). They are not rare in Dorset, but I still find them magnificent as they ride the thermals, searching for a rabbit to pounce on or a carcass to investigate. They are adaptable animals, able to hunt for themselves or scavenge, and they’ve even been seen marching over a ploughed field and pulling up worms.


This one is an adult (you can tell from the mostly cream-coloured underwings). Last time I did this walk I got a distant view of three buzzards, an adult and two juveniles. Today, it was just this one bird, effortlessly soaring over the fields, changing direction with the merest twist of a tail. I wondered if it was enjoying its freedom now that the fledglings were off-hand. There certainly seemed to be a kind of joy in its flight.


I realise that the track isn’t actually going to give me a short-cut home, and so I turn to retrace my steps. At the bottom, I decide to take a chance on another track, which seems to head back towards Milborne.


And who is this handsome chap/pess, perched on the telephone wires?


I wonder if it’s some kind of thrush, but it’s not until I get home that I am able to blow the photo up and identify this as my first ever meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis). How do I know? Well, the general look of the bird, but the clincher for me was the description of the bird as having a ‘long back claw’. Furthermore, the bird is described as ‘near-threatened’. I have a new spring in my step.

IMG_2208 (2)

I pass a derelict barn hidden  in the woods. How I would love to explore it! I bet it’s home to bats, or owls.


The farm buildings and machinery are a playground for pied wagtails and sparrows.



And a horse looks like he or she wants a chat. Or an apple.


I know I’m nearly home when I see the stag on Stag House, a private dwelling that was once the house of a Mr Cole. The stag was a gift from Earl Drax, for ‘support during an election campaign’. The Drax estate is still a major land owner in these parts.


As I reach Mum and Dad’s house, the smell of baking cake and mixed spice reminds me that I’ve had no lunch. I put my key in the door, and something catches my eye. The sunshine is low, shining through the spider’s web that I spotted on the way out. It is making rainbows.


It reminds me that there is always more than one way to look at a situation. Looked at one way, this is a simple spider’s web. With a tilt of the head, it becomes magical, a scintillating interplay of colour and light.


I am sad that Mum is no longer well enough to make the Christmas cake on her own, but how good it is to work together to create something. I am reminded that I don’t know everything, and that I could, if I chose, be a little less inclined to try to do everything for Mum and Dad, as if they were helpless. Instead, I could allow myself to receive the many things that they still have to offer – wisdom, experience, love.

The cake looks as if it will be delicious. We’ve pricked the top so that Mum and Dad can feed it with brandy over the next month, until I return in December, and then we’ll put on the marzipan and the icing. Together.











Bugwoman on Location – Dundee: ‘I Was a Stranger, and Ye Took Me In’

The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter

Dear Readers, back in the 1980’s, when I was as energetic and as naive as a spring lamb, I spent three years working in Dundee at a nightshelter for single homeless people. This week I travelled back for the first time in thirty years, to visit the site of the shelter at 5 West Bell Street.

The place is deserted, though it is apparently scheduled for conversion into luxury flats. Pigeons nest on the windowsills, and weeds spring from the steps. But the words  ‘I was a stranger and ye took me in’ show me that I am in the right place. The old double door was useful when we were letting in the people who wanted a bed for the night – this was a ‘dry’ shelter and everyone had to be searched to make sure that the only alcohol they were bringing in was already in their stomachs. There were two, maybe three of us on shift, and some nights all of the 50 beds were full, plus up to 20 folk popped in for a bowl of soup and a roll. At ten o’clock, all those without a bed had to leave, even if there was snow on the ground. Occasionally, someone would walk down the road to the police station and break a window so that they could have a bed in a police cell for a night.

I cross the road. There is a new university building here, right where ‘The Bothy’ was – the workers from the shelter used to fall into the bar at the end of an early shift (10.30 p.m. finish). The irony that we were drinking after an evening spent looking after folk who included many alcoholics wasn’t lost on us. The ‘beer garden’ where the lads gathered to share a few cans of Strongbow cider or drink their way through a bottle of QC British Sherry is long gone. But in my mind’s eye I can still see the lads lining up as they did at 5 o’clock every night, waiting for the doors to open.

There’s Andy at the head of the queue, with his coat tied together with a piece of string around his ample middle, his feet bursting through his shoes, his legs like tree-trunks. He doesn’t take a drink, but his disreputable appearance has him barred from every shop and mall within a 5 mile radius. One of our workers took him out to buy new slippers, and only managed it by telling the shop manager that she was his grand daughter. How proud Andy was of his new footwear, though with the miles he walks, they didn’t last for long. He always has a terrible pun for us, and will bash on the counter where we sell the cigarettes at 5p each with his stick if we’re tardy.

Behind him is young Chris, shivering in his leather biker jacket and  ‘A For Anarchy’ ripped teeshirt. He came straight out of care and into the shelter. He is a cheeky, handsome lad in spite of his acne, and he often runs errands for the older lads. Today, though, he is talking to Jack. Jack is wearing a smart jacket and polished shoes. He has many tales of violence done (by him) and wrongs righted (by him) and his ice-green eyes exude a manic menace. He is only in his twenties, but has been in jail twice. Some of the older ‘hardmen’ make a bee-line for Jack, as if to see if his air of single-pointed danger is real. Once, I was in the office sorting out cigarettes when I had a crunch from the kitchen. Jack had broken someone’s nose with a single punch, and was putting on his jacket to leave.

‘He was nipping ma heid*’, said Jack, reaching down to wipe a spot of blood from his shoes with a white hankerchief.

Next in the queue outside the shelter is Shug. Shug is an ex-soldier in his late 60’s, a tall, distinguished man. He probably always had a drink problem, but after he left the army and lost the structure that it gave him, he fell to pieces. He has Korsakoff Psychosis, lesions on the brain that cause failure of memory. He can be as playful as a grandfather, or he can take an instant, violent dislike to someone that he mistakes for a former enemy. His mood swings are the stuff of legend, and have him barred from the shelter on a regular basis. But every night he washes out his single shirt and hangs it up to dry, and every morning he shaves. He leaves the shelter with a steady stride, and sometimes returns on his hands and knees.

Behind Shug is Mark. Mark was also a soldier, but much more recently. He was in Northern Ireland. We talked one night, and he told me how, after being in a virtual war zone, everything else seemed dull.

‘Nothing compares to going on patrol, Vi, nothing. It was the only time I ever felt really alive’.

Mark does not have a drinking problem yet, but he has lost his wife and child because he couldn’t adjust to civilian life. He is picking up odd-jobs, but has no idea what he will do next. He shouldn’t be in the shelter, but there is nowhere else for him to go. His loneliness is palpable.

Sheila is next in line. There are only three beds for women in the shelter and Sheila is a long-term resident. She is in her seventies now, and acts as mother to many of the other men. I sometimes wonder why she’s here – she has no obvious addictions or mental health problems. I have come to the conclusion that she finds community here, and friends, and doesn’t want to be lonely in some dismal council flat, or warehoused in a home. As soon as the doors open she will be downstairs stirring the soup and helping us to make sure that everyone eats. She’ll be the first with the mop afterwards, as well.

And then there’s Peter, a tiny elfin man. He drinks once a week, and always buys chips to share with the workers.

‘Hae a chip! Hae a chip!’ he’ll chirrup, throwing the chips everywhere, before retiring to bed. Peter was rehoused in Whitfield, a housing estate 8 miles outside Dundee, where the snow drifts can reach twelve feet in the winter, where packs of discontented youths terrorise the old and vulnerable, and where it costs too much to travel into town. I’m not surprised that he’s back.

And there’s Charlie, who only visits in the winter – he is the only true ‘gentleman of the road’ that we have, with his long wild grey hair and his weather-beaten face. In the summer months he roams the lanes of Scotland with his long strides, but the snow and cold are too much for him now he’s in his seventies.

And bringing up the rear are Bobby and Wullie. Bobby walks with the tiny steps of someone with arthritis in their feet, and Wullie is in a wheelchair. Both are incontinent. Both have dementia. It is sometimes my job to give Bobby a bath, and it always goes the same way. He’s embarrassed, but tells me

‘Och, I’ll just pretend you’re my mother’.

He has his bath, and then he holds my hand and sings me a Scottish lullaby.

Then he becomes convinced that I’ve stolen his money, and he curses me out soundly and spits at me while I’m trying to get him dressed.

And then he falls asleep.

At least he doesn’t have two sticks like Wullie, who can be lethal when armed.

Working at Dundee Cyrenians taught me most of what I know of community and of honour,  It taught me to look beyond appearance. I was enriched beyond measure by my years in Dundee, and the stories here are only the briefest summation of the complexity of the lives that I describe. In many ways they are not my stories to tell, but who is left to tell them, and remember?

Where are they now,the lads and lasses of 5 West Bell Street? The average age of death of a homeless person in the UK is 47. I doubt that any of the people that I’ve written about, even the youngest, are still alive in 2017.  But on the streets of Dundee and London, Manchester and Cardiff, there are many people without the tiniest spot of this good earth to call their own. People huddle in doorways and clamber over fallen masonry to make a nest in derelict buildings. They lay on the grates behind the swimming baths, and put out their cardboard and sleeping bags in the doorways of shops. Changes to the benefits system, lack of housing, lack of mental health services all play their part. The people that I cared about are gone, but the problem is even worse.

The queue in front of the shelter fades out, one by one, until all that’s left is the cooing of pigeons.

*’Nippin’ ma heid’ (literally ‘nipping my head’) means to talk at someone in a boring, monomaniacal way. Frequently occurs after too much boozing.

**Names have been changed, but these were all real people.

Bugwoman on Location – A Cabbage Field in Milborne St Andrew

Heading off on my walk….

Dear Readers, my visit to Mum and Dad was hectic this time – the 60th Anniversary Party is on 21st September, and we needed to decide who was sitting where for the meal. I was expecting this to be a palaver, but we sorted it out very efficiently. We had two guidelines: we weren’t going to ask anyone where they wanted to sit (because experience has taught me that this pretty soon leads to a meltdown) and we were going to try to seat a variety of people on each table so that folk had somebody new to talk to.We have also decided to  accept that we can’t control whether people have a good time or not – we can provide a nice setting, but after that it’s up to the folk involved. I suspect that the party will go swimmingly, but if it doesn’t we can’t have done any more.

And so, after all that, I needed a walk. I headed off, past the church, and through the massive gate posts that lead to Manor Farm. I noted that these are striped with Coade Stone, an artificial stone invented by Eleanor Coade in 1770, and it is renowned for its ability to weather well. It makes a wonderful home for spiders and other small creatures.

And then it was on and over a stile, and into a field so full of young cabbages that there was a faint whiff of school dinners as the sun warmed them up.

The hogweed was still in full bloom. Just look at the number of small pollinators that this one flower head has attracted.

There were still a few bumblebees about, mostly common carders.

As I walked along, it became clear that there was a stream on the left. Great beds of comfrey were in flower, both creamy-white common comfrey and flamboyant pink Russian comfrey.

Common Comfrey





Russian ComfreyThe fallen flowers remind me a bit of the milk teeth that I used to leave under the pillow for the tooth fairy.

I was somewhat less delighted to see the flamboyant flowers of Himalayan (Indian) Balsam. Such a pretty plant, and such an invasive one. This plant loves watercourses of all kinds, and is well established along this stream. Its orchid-like flowers come in shades of deep cerise to palest pink, and they are loved by bees, and I suspect that it will soon be featuring in a Wednesday Weed. People have very strong views about this plant, so I shall have to write it and then duck.

Himalayan balsam

Pale pink Himalayan balsam

At the end of the field, I see a steep, well-trodden path heading down to the water. I find myself in a hidden world, probably used by youngsters eager to escape their parents’ oversight.

Hartstongue fern on the streambank

A calligraphy of roots

Someone plays here, for sure

I see that the stream bed is completely dry, and I realise that I’m looking at a winterbourne – a stream that only runs in the winter. Many of the places around Milborne St Andrew are named for such features – there’s Winterbourne Whitechurch just up the road for instance – but I’d never seen one before.

I go over a stile, and admire the sinous shape of the trees here. And then I realise that it’s nearly time to head home (pancakes for lunch!)

So I walk speedily back up through the cabbages.

I am passed by a happy poodle and a chap with a beautifully  tended beard, who is wearing flipflops. I wonder if hipsterism has come to the village? Has it been ‘discovered’? The pub will be selling skinny macchiatoes next.

The black blob is the poodle

It’s often when I’m in a rush that things happen that bring me to a complete halt. What, for example, is this?

Nothing less than a freshly-emerged, box-fresh peacock butterfly.

There was so much about this insect that it’d never noticed before. There’s the blending of blues and creams and black and russet around the ‘eyes’ on the wings, the stripes on the ‘shoulders’, the hazy, dewy quality to the colours. Truly, I live surrounded by beauty every day of my life and yet I often stride past it, head down, shoulders hunched, on to the next thing. But not today. Today I stopped and was so filled with wonder that everything else went away. What a gift.

As I head back down the hill, I pass the rectory, and notice a fine gathering of rooks in the old tree.

What are they up to, I wonder, with their cawing and their chattering? They must be saying something important, because as I stand there I notice that they are arriving from all sides, a great black feathery spiral pouring out of the sky.

And so I head home to make pancakes, to go with Dad in the car to get some petrol, to look at fridges online and to finalise the table settings, and, much like the rooks, something in my heart has folded its feathers and settled.








Bugwoman on Location – King’s Cross

St Pancras Station seen from Pancras Square, outside King’s Cross

Dear Readers, for as long as I’ve lived in London, King’s Cross has had a dire reputation. When I was working just off Gray’s Inn Road, groups of cadaverous teenage girls used to gather outside the post office, drinking cans of Special Brew and shivering while they waited for their next client, or their next fix. When I caught an early train to Luton airport one morning, the women on the opposite platform were chased by a junkie wielding a needle and threatening them with AIDS. And my husband was once asked if he was interested in ‘business’ by a young woman while he was taking photographs of the gas holders at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. But gradually the area has been ‘cleaned up’ (which means that people have been moved on, to Euston and to Camden), and now it’s much more of a destination. Whole areas have been demolished, shiny new office buildings and restaurants have opened, and I heard from a friend that some areas have been made much more wildlife friendly. So, I took myself and my camera off to explore.

The station itself is an extraordinary melange of Victorian ironwork and twenty-first century post-modernism.

The Victorian station

The New Concourse

There is no doubt that this is an improvement over the old station building, which was always overcrowded and had a pervasive smell of pee. But I was more interested in what was going on outside.

There are some fine big pots with bee-friendly plants, such as catnip and salvia. I am intrigued by the way that many of the flowers on the Hotlips salvia below have lost their red ‘lips’. The bees don’t seem to care, however.

‘Hotlips’ salvia with bee

There is a series of fountains, and indeed water is a prevailing theme of the area.

And of course there’s a helicopter overhead. On my trip down on the bus, I passed a group of twenty policeman standing around a poor motorcyclist who was holding an icepack to his bloody nose. I suspect he was a victim of yet another attempted moped theft, there’s been a plague of them just lately, and some of them have involved acid.

In the very top pond, there was a cream-coloured waterlily, caught in a sunbeam.

And then I crossed the road into Granary Square, passing a fine flotilla of swans en route.

The big draw of Granary Square is the collection of dancing fountains. Parents were gathered on the benches, ready with big bath towels,  while small children (and the occasional adult) ran through the water, squealing and dripping. There was also a very over-excited pug, who must have run about three miles while I was watching. It’s one of the few free things here that could be used by local people – the coffee bars and restaurants are expensive, but there’s room here for a picnic (on the steps down to the canal, or on one of the green spaces). Islington has less green space than any other London borough except for the City itself, so this is sorely needed.

But I wanted to see what else was going on. There’s a new square being built in one of the old warehouses, and in the photo below you can also see the top of a gas holder that’s being converted into flats.

There are more fountains here, though they are less ambitious than the ones in Granary Square.

Waitrose has taken over another old loading bay and warehouse.

But outside there is a fine lawn, edged with lavender and Mexican fleabane, and thronged with bees and the occasional butterfly.

However, it’s just around the corner from here that a real effort has been made with the wildlife planting. Each plant seems to have been chosen for its pollinator benefit, or to attract birds, and it seems to be working.

Lots of lovely nepeta

Mexican fleabane

A flock of sparrows are feeding on the seeds. I always love it when birds do what they would do in the wild and find natural food.

There is a shallow river running right the way through the garden, ideal for birds to drink from and bathe in, and probably suitable for insects in the places where it runs most slowly.

The selection of plants is inspired. Below there are Michaelmas daisies, ideal for hoverflies and honeybees.

The hemp agrimony variant below is also a great late-summer plant for all manner of pollinators

I love this bed with another variant of Michaelmas daisy, plus some kind of Cow Parsley. Great for hoverflies, those underappreciated insects.

And there were even some wild strawberries for the humans (and the thrushes)

And here’s another view of the Gas Holder flats, and some pleached lime, which makes great cover for the sparrows.

However, in case the sparrows or other birds want a different home, here’s an interesting use of old CCTV camera boxes, which have been converted into nest boxes or places to roost.

So, I was very impressed. My one worry, from the pollinator point of view, would have been how much sunshine this spot receives, what with all the buildings towering around it, but it appears that some wasps weren’t bothered, because they’d made an underground nest right against the edge of one of the beds. For people who think that wasps are aggressive, please note that I took this short film from about three feet away, and they were much too busy to bother with a mere silly human.

I have been meaning to do a separate post on some of the other London wildlife hotspots around King’s Cross – the Camley Street Natural Park is a definite must-see, and so is the canal. But I didn’t really have time to do them both justice today, so they will have to wait for a future visit. However, I did take a short stroll along the canal to get another look at the blooming gas holders, with which I am obsessed. After negotiating a very bouncy temporary wooden walkway, and just about avoiding being mown down by runners and folks on Brompton foldaway bikes, I came to the old lock.

And here are the gasholders. Two of them have been converted into flats, and one of them is just a skeleton covering a park, which hunkers down in the shade of the buildings all around it.

Gas holder as flats

Gas holder as park

For anyone who is intrigued as to how a big round area can be converted into luxury flats, here is a link to the developer’s website. I imagine the prices will be way above the reach of the folk who used to live in the little houses and council estates around here.

On the way back, I passed the swans again, and they were in a very irritable mood. The adults hissed as I passed, and I thought they were complaining about the fact that I hadn’t brought them an offering, but actually they seemed to be fed up with their offspring, chasing them off when they got too close. I suspect that many human parents will be feeling the same way after six weeks of constant contact with the younger members of the family. I wonder if the swans are trying to tell their cygnets that it’s time for them to move out and find a pad of their own?

And then it was back to King’s Cross, which has one of the nicest, most space-age entrances to an underground station that I know.

And incidentally, the two people making their way down the corridor are two of my lovely neighbours H and L, which just goes to show that London is a much smaller place than everyone imagines.

In his book ‘London: A Biography’, Peter Ackroyd speculates about whether King’s Cross, a shabby and dangerous area for its entire history, will ever be able to cast off the stain of its past. It certainly looks shiny and happy at the moment, though the canal was always a dangerous vein through its heart, a place of dark acts even to this day. King’s Cross was previously an area favoured by creative people, because housing was cheap, and there was a great tolerance for the ‘eccentric’. The fact that St Martin’s School of Art is here, in Granary Square, gives me hope that this tradition will survive, at least. But will the tattered soul of King’s Cross survive the arrival of Google and the £3 artisan coffee? That remains to be seen.

Inside King’s Cross station