Dear Readers, last time I was here with my friend S, the site was closed due to flooding, so it was a relief to actually be able to see the reservoirs and lakes this time. The whole place was full of dragonflies, not one of which sat still long enough for me to get a photo. Still, they are such a delight, zipping about like those toy planes powered by elastic bands that you used to get for about a shilling when I was a girl.
They currently have a Moomin trail for the children. I was never a great fan of the little critters, but my lovely friend Susie, who died much too young, was an avid collector of all things Moomin, so I had to take a few photos for her.
On the ‘real’ wildlife trail, though, my Birdnet app proved its worth again. I heard some calls coming from what I thought were small birds in one of the goat willows. Well, I was half-right – they were small birds, but they were Little Grebes, or Dabchicks (Tachybaptus ruficollis). According to my Crossley Bird Guide, their ‘very well-known call is like whinny of tiny horse or slightly insane giggle’. I love this book!
The young birds can apparently retain the stripes on their head through their first winter, which I think is what is going on with this bird. It has a fluffy tail too, which leads Crossley to describe the bird as a ‘floating rabbit’. All in all it’s a slightly bedraggled-looking little bird, but it bobs under the water with all the efficiency of its larger relatives and then bounces back up like a cork. Dabchicks eat insects and larvae, so any baby dragonflies had better watch out.
On one of the other lakes, I spotted an adult bird, looking a bit more dapper. That splendid chestnut neck is diagnostic for the species, and I’d have though that the white mark below the bill was a good indicator too.
Adult Little Grebe
What’s going on with the water, though? Although in some places it looks like one of those Venetian marbled papers, it does look a little alarming. It’s not duckweed, and it doesn’t seem to be chemical pollution, so I’m assuming that it’s algae.
And how about this fabulous spider, who was floating in mid-air half way across the path and wasn’t best pleased when we accidentally undid all his/her hard work by walking right through the web…
There’s also some flowering Japanese knotweed (though as we know there are only female plants in the UK so it’s not the seeds that are the problem, but the roots) and! apparently some Giant Hogweed though I couldn’t see it. For those of you who don’t know, the sap of this plant can cause blisters, and it also makes the skin photosensitive so that it becomes red and sore on exposure to sunlight, sometimes for years afterwards.
There are lots of rosehips about too, including this sweetbriar( Rosa rubiginosa) – the hips have much longer sepals than on a dog rose.
A lot of the paths are out of action at the Wetlands at the moment – when ducks moult they lose all their flight feathers at once, and so are extremely vulnerable and need places to hide without disturbance. It’s always a great place to wander around, though, with lots to see if you’re patient. Today felt like summer’s last gasp, with temperatures in the high twenties, and so it was good to make the most of it. Plus, the cafe does the most delicious sandwiches and cakes, so it makes it easy to just ‘hang out’. What a great addition Walthamstow Wetlands is to the green spaces of London!
Dear Readers, it’s taken eighteen months, but on Saturday we finally said goodbye to my Dad, Thomas Reginald Palmer. We were blessed with one of those glorious days that Dorset does so well: soft sunlight on green fields, the glow of old stone, finches singing in the hedgerows and a great calm over everything.
The church had been dressed for the harvest festival, and the flowers looked as if they were illuminated from inside.
Dad’s sisters arrived and I showed them to the grave. I hadn’t seen them since the start of the lockdown, and I think for them Dad’s death hadn’t been real until they’d seen the headstone. I left them to spend some time with Dad on their own. How hard it is to lose someone of your own age, and because Dad had moved to Dorset they hadn’t been able to see him as much as they would have liked. But how much time is enough, when someone you love is gone?
The service itself went in the blink of an eye: I managed to deliver my eulogy with only a few tears, something that I don’t think I could have done if the service had been closer to Dad’s death. We listened to some Spanish guitar music, to ‘The Lark Ascending’, and to the Celtic Blessing
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
And then there was home-made cake and sandwiches, and a lot of memories shared. Lots of people came from the village and it was lovely to catch up with people’s lives. I wondered if this would be the last time that I’d come to Dorset – all the tasks related to Mum and Dad are now done – but Dorchester and Milborne St Andrew are so imbued with their spirit that I think I’ll still come to visit, to see my Dorset friends and to enjoy this beautiful part of the country.
Before we headed home, I walked out to the grave on my own to say goodbye, and God bless, to Mum and Dad. What remains for me, now, is an immense stillness, filled with sadness but also with so much love.
Thomas Reginald Palmer 5th December 1935 – 31st March 2020.
Dear Readers, I am back in Dorset for a few days for my Dad’s Memorial Service in MIlborne St Andrew. He died in March 2020 but apart from a brief visit for his interment a year ago, I haven’t been back. And so, today, I am almost overwhelmed with memories. Every shop, every restaurant, reminds me of when I was visiting every few weeks while Mum and Dad were in the nursing home. The walks through the fields were taken at Christmas, when Dad was still alive. I turn to the natural world to take me out of myself, to remind me that life goes on and that every thing is both beautiful and temporary. In fact, maybe the beauty comes from the transitory nature of things.
But first, I am delighted to see these two moggies asleep in one of the windows on the High Street.
And then, look at these sunflowers!
And I love these woodpigeons, up to their shoulders in meadow grass.
And there is a Himalayan Honeysuckle down by the old machinery that used to flood the meadows.
I am pleased to see that there are sheep out on the field.
And I didn’t even realise that I’d seen a heron as well until I got home and uploaded this photo.
There is some lords and ladies….
and the harts tongue fern looks glossy and somehow primeval.
I believe that this might be our old friend wild angelica, though I have to say that it hasn’t done as well as the one in my garden.
And then I was distracted by the snails…
The field that was pasture last year is now full of sweetcorn, though the magnificent oak trees don’t seem to mind.
So by now I’m starting to feel a little less distressed. On I go along the bridle path.
I am passed by three runners – apparently there’s a charity road race on on Saturday in aid of MacMillan Cancer nurses. But once they’ve passed, silence reigns. I spot a new plant – this is red bartsia, which is apparently partially parasitic on grass and has its very own bee species. I sense a Wednesday Weed coming on….
And then there is a single patch of rosebay willowherb which is abuzz with common carder bees – these little ginger critters are amongst the last bumblebees on the wing.
And how about this henbit deadnettle, another new plant for me (though very common). The whole plant seems to be exploding with enthusiasm.
And then I turn for home, and pause by the sheep because something catches my eye.
The swallows are circling and diving, catching the insects that the sheep have disturbed, fuelling up for their long flight back to Africa. And it might sound strange, but it makes me weep because the year is turning, and the swallows are going home, and maybe Mum and Dad have gone home too, but they’ve left me behind. Grieving can be so lonely, and that’s why grieving collectively is so important, and why I sense that I’ll feel better once we’ve gathered to say goodbye to Dad properly.
Bon voyage, swallows. Travel well, until the world turns.again.
Dear Readers, after saying goodbye to the falconer and his Harris hawks yesterday, I made my way across the Strand and into the Middle Temple via a twisty little lane called Devereux Court. Wood describes this as ‘entering another world’, and so it is – the sound of traffic falls away, to be replaced, in Fountain Court, by the splashing sound of the oldest fountain in London, dating from 1681.
The two twisted trees to either side of the fountain are black mulberries – although they look ancient, they were planted for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. I was just a little early to see them in fruit, so a return journey is definitely in order! Although James I is credited with trying to kickstart the British silk industry by importing mulberries back in the 1600s, Wood explains that archaeologists have found Roman-era mulberry seeds in remains in the city, so the berries have probably been on the menu since well before the silk link was established. Incidentally, black mulberries are the wrong species for silk worms, who prefer white mulberries, but black mulberries are apparently infinitely better eating.
Leaves of the black mulberry
One of the black mulberries being given a helping hand…
The gardeners in the various parts of the Temple are obviously extremely busy people, as we shall shortly see. I love that they have adopted that most insect-friendly of plants, the echium, as a statement in some of their beds – they crop up everywhere, and I am possessed with a need to try to grow one, after my success with my giant angelica this year. Echiums are in the borage family, and viper’s bugloss is an echium, though this plant is probably Echium pinana from the Canary Islands, otherwise known as Giant Echium, for obvious reasons.
On I go, past some more magnificent plane trees and the Middle Temple Hall, said to be central London’s finest Elizabethan building. This is probably where the first ever performance of Twelfth Night was held, and Shakespeare himself is thought to have been in attendance.
Middle Temple Hall
I have a quick look at Middle Temple Garden, which is a lovely spot, notable for its splendid acers and a particularly lovely peach-coloured climbing rose.
Middle Temple Gardens
A splendid rose…
Then it’s off into Pump Court. I am rather taken by the geometrical branches of the Tree Cotoneasters in this gloomy spot – they seem to be trying to sketch out a Mondrian painting.
A pump in Pump Court
Some very geometrical cotoneaster branches
I pause briefly at Temple Church (where a barrister friend got married), and am very taken by the pale blue clematis (possibly Blue Angel, but feel free to put me right) growing up the banisters to the Master’s House. This is my kind of garden, and I know how much effort it takes to make something look this informal. However, I haven’t seen anything yet.
Steps up to the Master’s House
Clematis (Blue Angel?)
Then it’s a quick turn into King’s Bench Walk, which is mostly a car park, though again the London planes are magnificent.
London Planes in King’s Bench Walk
There is a heap of building work going on, and I felt a little sorry for these poor echiums peering out over a hoarding…
But then I entered Inner Temple Garden. Oh my goodness! If you have never been here before, do make time when you come to London – it’s one of the most idyllic, beautifully designed gardens that I’ve ever come across. It has a breezy informality and romanticism that must take a shedload of work. It’s extremely pollinator-friendly which of course keeps me happy, and, as you would expect from a tree walk, it has some magnificent trees.
So, here we go. First up is a hybrid strawberry tree with rust-red bark, which was full of fledgling blue tits when I visited.
Hybrid Strawberry Tree
Mexican fleabane and ox-eye daisies have seeded themselves in the cracks on the steps.
The entrance/exit to the gardens
On one side of the path, euphorbia and verbena and a host of other flowering plants pour over the gravel….
…while on the other side, there is a meadow of mixed grasses, poppies, ox-eye and other daisies.
There is a magnificent Atlas Cedar with blue-grey foliage, and the sound of goldcrests coming from the branches…
…and the bed on the other side of the path as I turn towards the Thames is themed in dark red and white, with the largest scabious I’ve ever seen….
…some amazing white foxgloves with deep magenta centres and a kind of lacy frill around the edge (much appreciated by bumblebees as you can see)…
and some deep purple poppies…
There is a very unusual Manchurian Walnut…
And although the alliums are going over, their seedheads are still very striking.
There is a magnificent dawn redwood….
And then there’s an avenue of London planes. I defy anyone’s blood pressure not to drop as you walk along this green passage, regardless of the traffic belting past just over the wall.
There are 3 enormous plane trees planted in the lawn which are thought to date to the 1770s, but the avenue is younger – Wood thinks that the trees on the northern side (on the right-hand side of the first photo above) are probably nineteenth century, the ones on the southern side (closest to the river) are early twentieth century. When you look at the girth of the trunks you can see that those on the left are clearly still slim and youthful, while middle-aged spread has taken the ones on the right.
There is a lovely little fountain with the waterlilies just coming into flower.
And a splendid view back to the Manchurian Walnut.
The next border is a positive cornucopia of different varieties of hydrangea – it’s not my favourite plant, but some varieties are attracting bees who are after the pollen.
I have just missed the flowering of the tulip tree, but it does gift me with one blossom. This is a very fine tree. Its branches look like a cupped hand. I also appreciate the way that the gardeners have left a wide circle unmowed under pretty much all the trees in the lawn.
Tulip Tree flower
I walk past a young woman who has posed a china tea set with a shortbread biscuit on a tiny miniature table with a gingham table cloth against a backdrop of pink hydrangeas, and who is clearly taking a photo for her Instagram feed. I imagine it will be very pretty.
I am rather taken by this enormous plant. The chair underneath it is full-size. It looks a bit like Gunnera but not as spikey – some giant version of Rodgersia perhaps? I obviously have a thing for giant plants currently….
And then there’s this very unusual fuchsia.
A final turn, and I’m heading back towards the gate. It’s like being kicked out of Narnia…..
…because just a few hundred metres out of the garden I come to the Embankment, and this is the sight that awaits me.
Holy moly, what’s going on? Well, apparently it’s the Tideway Super Sewer, which aims to collect and transport more of London’s sewage (the current Bazalgette sewer was built when London’s population was only half the size). Every year, millions of tonnes of raw sewage end up in the Thames and its tributaries, so if this can be cleaned up it can only be a good thing. At the moment it looks a bit of a nightmare, but it will no doubt be great once the carpet’s down, as my Nan used to say. In the meantime, I would stick to the peace and tranquillity of the Inner Temple Garden if I was you. It’s open from 12.30 to 15.00 on weekdays (nb not weekends or public holidays), and I would check before making a special journey as I think it’s sometimes closed for special events. Well worth a look though, and another splendid walk from Paul Wood’s book.
Dear Readers, the second part of my tree walk features lots of plane trees. This is hardly a surprise in the middle of London, but what was startling was the size of some of them. Look at this one for example, in the courtyard of St Mary Le Bow, thought to be the ‘Bow Bells’ that Cockneys need to be born within the sound of (rather than the church at Bow in East London). However, spectacular as this is, there is another a few hundred metres away on the corner of Cheapside and Wood Street. This is the Cheapside Plane, a landmark for several hundred years, and a truly venerable tree.
The Cheapside Plane
In London Street Walks, Wood is of the view that the tree is likely to have been planted in the eighteenth century (there are older planes in the capital), and not only is it protected by local bye-laws, but the shops underneath it are too. The square that the tree stands in was the site of one of the 37 churches that was destroyed during the Great Fire of London: the tree also survived a direct hit during the Second World War. It stands with its roots in a very tiny, dark, damp square, surrounded on three sides by the fire escapes and air conditioning units of the adjacent buildings, but it looks healthy and strong. According to ‘The Great Trees of London’ it used to hold a rookery, but rooks are a very rare sight in even Greater London these days: it’s thought that the rooks left when the horses did, and when people no longer raised sheep locally. The rooks used the fur from these animals to line their nests, and the fact that the last major stronghold of rooks in the capital is close to Richmond Park, with its large herds of deer, supports this theory.
The shadows of the branches of the Cheapside Plane on nearby buildings.
At the end of Wood Street lies a most peculiar tower: this is St Alban Wood Street, all that remains of a Wren church destroyed in the Blitz. The tree at the bottom is a nettle tree (Celtis australis) which can live for 1000 years in its native Southern Europe, but is often seen off by the frosts in the UK. I imagine that living in the middle of an urban heat island must be helping this one to survive, The building is now a private residence, and I would give several eye teeth to have a look inside and see how they’ve managed to make it habitable.
I love how the new and old buildings in London suddenly come into stark juxtaposition. Sadly I haven’t noted down which church this is, but I’m sure you get the general idea.
On I go to St Mary Aldermanbury, close to the Guildhall and site of a rather splendid copper beech.
But I managed to miss the Judas Tree, which I’d written about in an earlier post. Still, it’s looking very healthy, and there’s always next year. I’ve always wanted to see the magenta flowers bursting out from the branches and even the trunk. My tree book describes them as ‘budding endearingly’, and who could resist such a description? I must make a date in my diary.
Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum)
And now, here’s a thing, and many thanks to Wood for pointing it out. As you walk around the corner onto Aldermanbury Square, there are some plane trees which are being trained into a kind of pergola, akin to a wisteria or a vine. I imagine that this is a phenomenal amount of work – as we know, plane trees seem to want to grow up, rather than out. The shadows are very fine, however, and several people were enjoying a sandwich and a coffee under their shade. I was a little flabbergasted that plane trees could be ‘persuaded’ to grow in such a way, and I did wonder why the planners hadn’t chosen something more amenable to this kind of treatment, but I guess that only time will tell.
There are some Himalayan birch on the other side of the square, bang smack up against the hoardings for a major refurbishment of the Brewer’s Hall, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London so probably in need of some tender loving care. I have a strong suspicion that a couple of the birches have been removed to make room for the skips, though.
Himalayan birch plus skip.
On the other side of the passageway that skirts the Brewer’s Hall I stopped to listen to a blackbird singing from somewhere very high up. I thought that it might be in the Honey Locusts that shaded the spot, but I couldn’t see it. Maybe it was on top of one of the many, many cranes. I paused to look at this statue of ‘The Gardener’, by Swedish sculptor Karin Jonzen. It looked very familiar to me, and when I did some research I discovered why – he used to be in the gardens at Moorgate where I would often meet Mum before we travelled home together. Now he’s in this shady spot next to a building site, serenaded by blackbirds.
On I go, under the Terry Farrell-built Alban Gate and past Richard Rogers’s ’88 Wood Street’ with its brightly coloured steam-ship inspired heating outlets.
Air conditioning by Sir Richard Rogers
I pause to have a quick look at the Roman Wall on Noble Street, uncovered by war damage in the Second World War and now surrounded by a rather nice mixture of wildflowers of various kinds and ferns.
The Roman Walls
Trailing bellflower on part of the Roman Wall
On the roundabout there are some Chinese Red Birches, which Wood explains can be distinguished by the reddish-brown bark on the younger branches. They are a welcome sight in this traffic-heavy, intensely urban area.
Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis)
But, Dear Readers, there is one more thing that I want to share with you, but to do it justice, I’m going to leave it until tomorrow. Not far to go now, I promise!
Dear Readers, although my heart will always belong to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (just up the road from me) I do like an occasional wander around the more-manicured East Finchley Cemetery. Although it is in the Borough of Barnet, it is actually owned by the City of Westminster, which makes life very confusing. I discovered today that the two magnificent Cedars of Lebanon on the front lawn were planted when the cemetery was opened in 1856, and they look very fine indeed.
Cedar of Lebanon in East Finchley Cemetery
I was especially taken by the new young cones – female and male cones are borne on the same tree, with the female ones emerging at the beginning of September, followed by the male ones.
Fresh young cones (prob. female0
The cones take a full 18 months to mature, and then the pine ‘seeds’ drop off gradually over a period of weeks or months, while the cone gradually disintegrates.
What really struck on me on this visit, though, were the sheer number of headstones in the shape of Celtic crosses. Some were extremely rugged and robust, while others were fancier. There are quite a few of these in St Pancras and Islington, especially (as you might expect) on the graves of Irish people, but here there is a positive plethora, which has fairly got me wondering.
There has long been an Irish community in North London, so this would certainly explain some of the crosses, although people of Scottish, Welsh and Cornish heritage often choose them too. The Celtic cross, with a circle representing the sun behind a more typical cross, harks back to the legend that St Patrick brought the pagans of Ireland to Christianity by combining the two symbols. The flared arms signify that this is an Ionic cross, said to symbolise everlasting salvation, love and glory.
And this one is covered in the most delicate filigree. The mid 1800s were the time of the Celtic Revival, and there was a fashion for all things that spoke of misty hilltops and rolling heather-covered hills, so I suspect that many of the grave markers do not necessarily indicate ancestry. This was also the time of the Irish Potato Famine, when many Irish men and women emigrated to the United States and Canada. You can certainly see many Celtic crosses in the graveyards there.
Incidentally, the three steps leading up to many of these crosses are said to represent the steps that Christ took on his way to Calvary to make atonement at the cross. They also denote faith, hope and charity.
These two crosses, bound together with warning tape, are on the verge of falling over – there is a lot of ‘heave’ in the cemetery, probably due to both the prevalence of majestic old trees and also the combination of parching heat and heavy rain that has been the norm for the past few years.
And I couldn’t resist going to visit my favourite headstone in the whole cemetery. I still have no idea who Muriel was, but what a lovely tribute. I am almost convinced that it’s for a child, but I can think of quite a few older ladies for whom it would be a good fit (though if it were mine I’d like a few more beetles and maybe a dragonfly).
And what, I wonder, used to live in this fine mosaic cubbyhole?
I don’t know what it is about cemeteries that appeals so much to crows of all kinds, but their cawing and the machine-gun rattling of magpies is the soundtrack for any visit.
And no visit is complete without a trip to the War Cemetery. This time, I noticed that several of the people commemorated were in the Home Guard.
And just in case we forgot the sheer variety of soldiers during the war, here is Private Wazir Mohammed, who died in July 1945.The Pioneer Corps did everything from constructing bridges and roads to stretcher-bearing. In the early days of WWII it was one of the few units that ‘enemy aliens’ could join, and it’s estimated that one in seven German-speaking Jewish refugees joined the British forces, in spite of the extreme danger of being executed as traitors if they were captured.
And, finally, here is the grave of Dame Fanny Houston, the woman who stood bail for Emmeline Pankhurst when she was imprisoned, who has been called ‘the saviour of the Spitfire’ for her generous donations to various air races which raised the profile of the British aeronautical industry, and who, unfortunately, also admired Hitler and Mussolini as ‘strong men’ and who nearly gave a gift of 200,000 pounds to Oswald Moseley. She was so bereft at the abdication of Edward VIII which she considered the result of Russian intervention, that she had a heart attack and passed away at the age of 79. This is the wonderful thing about cemeteries – there are so many threads, so many stories, so many lives lived. I wonder if any of them need a Writer in Residence?
Dear Readers, there is a condition known as pareidolia, in which we see faces in inanimate objects. But, really, how could one resist this little fellow, who is actually an old meter, set into the wall of the Engine House cafe in Walthamstow Wetlands? I almost offered him a bite of scone. But soon it was time to walk out amongst the reservoirs, and so I had to leave him behind.
The air was zipping with house martins feeding on the gnats that were rising from the water. Soon, the birds will be heading off to Africa, so I hope that they got a decent number of calories. Dragonflies were patrolling the paths too. I felt sorry for the prey insects as they were picked off, but I suspect there are many more that passed unharmed. You really do get a feeling for the importance of invertebrates as the basis of many food chains.
And everywhere, it was autumn.
I spotted some tansy, which may well appear as a Wednesday Weed, so I shall say little about it now, except that I was delighted to see it.
Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
There were lots of chaps fishing in the reservoirs as we wandered past: some of them had masses of equipment, and two-wheeled trollies to help them get all their stuff down the steep banks to the fishing spots. They were positioned, one by one, like so many herons, each with their ‘spot’. I wonder how much of this time spent in quiet contemplation helps to calm the spirit after a long week at work. Personally, I’d rather not harass the fish, who I think have quite enough bother as it is, what with the herons and the cormorants and the constant risk of pollution, but I can see what folk enjoy about it.
Along the fence posts of the island opposite there was a whole row of other anglers.
Gulls and herons
But what really amazed me this time was the large number of great-crested grebes. What handsome birds they are, set against that mercury-silver water. They are always up to something – fishing, diving, preening, and even having a little practice of courting behaviour – I watched two birds performing a kind of ritualistic dance, bobbing their heads, swimming alongside one another, rising up and bowing down. This is only a shadow of what will happen in the spring, but maybe it’s a way of pair-bonding, of reminding one another who they are in the absence of parental duties.
As we headed down towards the Coppermill (about which I wrote on my last visit) I spotted a very fine cormorant, who flew low over our heads and plopped into the water. S/he walked laboriously up the concrete slope that led to the bank, raising each foot carefully and keeping a blue eye on us the whole time. I hadn’t realised how stiff the tail feathers were, or how wet the bird gets – cormorants don’t seem to be completely waterproof, hence their need to spend a long time drying their wings. They nest on one of the islands in the reservoir, so it’s yet another reason to visit in the spring – between the cormorants and herons nesting, and the great-crested grebes doing their mating dance, it must be quite the scene.
And finally, as we turned for home, a mute swan flew overhead, wings swishing, neck outstretched. Swans are at the upper limit for size when it comes to flying – the bigger you are, the more powerful your chest muscles need to be to operate your wings. However, muscle is heavy, and so a bird the size of a swan or pelican is about as big as you can get unless you are able to just launch yourself from a mountain top – this is what scientists assume that the giant flying reptiles used to do. But aside from the science, a swan in flight always seems magical to me, as if the laws of the universe have been briefly put to one side.
It is good to come back to a place that has difficult memories. Last time I was at Walthamstow Wetlands, I was in the middle of the painful process of settling Mum and Dad into their nursing home. Mum was determined to go back to their bungalow, even though she was much too sick, and the choice was actually between being in the nursing home or being in hospital. Dad just wanted Mum to be happy, and if that meant going home, that was what he wanted too. I honestly felt as if my heart was broken, with no way forward and no way back. Mum eventually made her peace with being in the home, and Dad is now about as happy as he can be, but as I trudged those paths last year everything seemed dark and desperate. Even then, though, I found myself distracted by the plants and animals that I saw, and I went home feeling just a little lighter. Today, I feel sad but peaceful, which is a definite improvement. I am glad to have overlain the remembrance of my last visit with the joy of strutting cormorants and dancing grebes. Things are in constant flux, much like the weather, and if you just hang on in there and wait, you might be surprised at what happens.
Dear Readers, I have just completed week three in my new job. The office is based in the heart of the City, round the corner from Bank and Cannon Street stations, and this is my usual lunchtime view. Note the strange skyscraper on the horizon – a friend of mine was once convinced that the country was being taken over by Owl People, and cited this (and the MI6 building at Vauxhall) as proof. Personally, I think that the Owl People might make a much better job of it all.
Anyhow, it’s fair to say that the City is bustling, fast-paced and impersonal. It makes me feel like a very small frog in a very large pond, and so I decide to do what I always do in these circumstances – try and find something alive to ground me. So, this week I explored the little area between Cannon Street and King William Street, and found some very strange things.
Right opposite the office is St Stephen Walbrook church, a most magnificent edifice. But does it have a churchyard? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.
The tower of St Stephen Walbrook.
Like so many spots around here, it is completely hemmed in by office buildings. This is a nice, calm, peaceable place to have a read and a think, though. It is also blessed with vast beds filled with liriope, which seems to be the plant du jour around these parts. They have the alternative name of ‘lily-turf’. Who knew?
There is a rather uninspiring modern concrete pond at the other end of the churchyard, with a dead box moth floating in it. I’m not sure that this bodes well for the hedges next year. What a pretty moth it is! I was most taken with it when I first spotted it at the Barbican, but this year there were clouds of them. The species seems to have taken to the UK with great enthusiasm, and our topiary will never be the same.
You can only exit the churchyard through the front gate – there is a very modern office block at the back of the space, but pedestrians are not allowed to walk through the atrium. There is so much private space in the City these days – I was slightly concerned that wandering about with my camera would attract some unwanted attention from the security guys who are everywhere, but I made sure that I was always taking my photos from public space.
On the way out, I spotted that Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans, was buried in St Stephens. He was also one of the original patrons of the Terence Higgins Trust (which campaigns on issues around HIV and provides services for people with the disease), and was at one point the chair of the Mother’s Union. He was a man of good conscience, and goodness knows that we need more people like him.
On the way out of the churchyard I am alarmed by this sign.
I suspect it relates to this very impressive metal fire-escape which is presumably lowered in the event of fire. I wouldn’t want to be underneath it, for sure.
I wonder if there is any other green space to be found, and the answer is ‘yes, but not for the likes of you’. There are several gardens and green spaces, all of them private.
There is at least some more liriope and some Japanese anemones to offer something for the pollinators though.
And then, I spot this.
And to the left of the sign is a small ornate wrought-iron gate. And it’s open. Well, that’s all I need.
In we go. My first surprise is that there is astroturf instead of a lawn.
And then, what on earth is this?
It appears that most of the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and that what remained was used by French Huguenots until 1820, when the rest of the church was demolished. The only part that still remains is the tower on the corner, to which I paid absolutely no attention, being distracted by the trees and the statuary. But here it is, indeed.
The remaining tower of St Martins Orgar church (Photo One)
The churchyard is said to have been around since 1250, but I shall have to make the most of my visit, because, as I suspected, it is actually in private use – the very fancy picnic chairs and table should have given me a clue. I am guessing that the gate is left open so that the people who work in the office building behind the churchyard can have access. Still, at least I was able to have a quick look, and any place with astroturf is not going to do my soul good – I can just imagine the earthworms choking underneath.
It feels distinctly as if every non-human creature in the City has been squeezed into the smallest interstices between the glass and steel. Trees peer out, lean over, see themselves reflected in the mirror but can’t see one another. Maybe it’s just my mood, but it feels as if it’s a microcosm of what’s going on everywhere. However, I am determined to find somewhere a bit wilder, with a bit more room for nature. Watch this space for my meanderings.
Dear Readers, when I visited Dad in his nursing home in Dorchester this week he was in very high spirits.
‘I’m called ‘Captain Tom’ now’, he announced, to my befuddlement.
All soon became clear. There had been a group boat trip from Weymouth to Portland and back, and Dad had been in charge of the steering for most of the way. He sat in the captain’s seat, and sailed the boat on the correct course (‘to the right of the yellow buoy!’), to much applause. He was a bit put out that he wasn’t allowed to keep the captain’s hat, but I hope to be able to find a substitute somewhere on the internet. Dad was absolutely delighted with himself, and so was everybody else.
Dad always loved any means of transport. He was always fiddling with motorbikes when he was a young man, and our first transport as a family was a motorbike and side car. Later we had the cars: Thunderball the Ford Popular, Sunshine the Ford Consul. A few days before he went into the nursing home, Dad took his Toyota ‘out for a spin’. I thought about stopping him, but realised that this might be the last chance he ever had to experience the joys of a country lane, and the freedom of his own transport.
Little did I know that he’d have the chance to ‘drive’ a boat full of elderly folk with dementia.
I have a feeling that if I sat Dad down in the driving seat of a car he’d know exactly what to do, and would be safe as far as the actual steering of the vehicle went. He just wouldn’t remember where he was, or where he was going. He still sometimes asks the staff if they’ll take him out to buy a second-hand car.
I love that he had this adventure, and that he had a chance to feel useful and competent again. I have been so obsessed with what Dad has lost that I sometimes forget what he is still capable of.
And so I left the nursing home feeling strangely lifted, and decided to detour via Alexandra Terrace, one of Dorchester’s many lanes and alleyways. It passes a Grade Two listed terrace of eight mid-nineteenth century houses, but what fascinates me are the little patches of garden outside. I have no idea if they are owned by the people who live in the houses, or if they’ve just ‘arrived’.
From Trinity Road, the view is most unprepossessing.
But I do love a brick wall, and the plant and animal communities that live there. There are ferns and spiders….
Ferns and a spider and moss
There is ivy-leaved toadflax, one of my favourite wall-weeds with its three-lobed flowers
And there are even some attractive bolts to stop the whole edifice from falling apart…
There is some buddleia, and therefore there are some pollinators, mostly hoverflies.
And there is a statue of a German shepherd dog that has seen better days. It reminds me of when I was a child and used to put my toy animals in amongst the dahlias in the summer, only to find them looking gaunt and traumatised later in the year.
I was very impressed by this crimson glory vine (Vitis coignetiae), whose leaves were almost as bit as my hand. I have been watching it through the seasons, but I love the way that the colour is just beginning to change, and the way that, in the second photo, the bunched stems are holding a feather. I shall have to pop back next month to see if the plant lives up to its name.
And as usual, when I slow down and start to breathe instead of dashing about with a to-do list the size of the Domesday Book, I notice things. I can feel myself coming home to myself. Going to see Dad is always a little stressful, because I don’t know how he will be. Sometimes, like this time, he is happy and laid back. Other times he will be agitated about something, and will want me to take him home. But a slow walk, with my camera as an excuse to pay attention, always helps me to focus.
I can smell that autumn is well underway, and see it too, in the many, many spiders who have emerged, in the state of the foliage, in the dampness in the air and filming the leaves of the montbretia.
The seedheads of the opium poppy look ready to pop, but the flowers of the snowberry are just emerging. It is that tenuous time of year, the tipping point when we could be in for a burst of late summer, or the first whispers of winter.
It feels that way with Dad, too. He will be 84 this year and yet he seems healthier than he has in years: he is finally putting back some of the weight that he lost, his COPD seems stable, and even mentally he seems to have reached a plateau. If you didn’t know him you might even wonder if he had dementia, but then, as I turn to leave the nursing home, he asks me to make sure that I tell Mum (who died in December) how well he steered the boat.
‘ I will, Dad’, I say. Though I have a feeling that she already knows.
And when I visit the following morning before I head back to London, he gets up after a few sips of the ‘frothy coffee’ that I brought him, and gently tells me that he’ll see me soon, but he’s off to have his shower. And off he goes, completely at home. It’s bittersweet, after all those years of looking after him and Mum, to realise that he doesn’t need me to care for him any more. For a second it reminds me of how it must be when your child runs into school without looking back for the first time.
My days of being a carer truly are over, though I will never stop caring. Now it’s up to me to decide what to do with the rest of my life.
St Michael Triumphs Over the Devil (Bartolomé Bermejo, 1468) National Gallery
Dear Readers, wherever I am, and whatever I’m doing, my eyes are always drawn towards animals and plants. It doesn’t matter what the ostensible subject matter of an exhibition is, I’ll be the one spotting the dragon, or the beetle, or the clump of daisies. Maybe this is one reason why I have a great liking for the paintings of the 15th Century – in amongst all the saints and angels you might spot a dog or a butterfly, as with my great favourite, the Venetian artist Carpaccio. However, the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo was a new discovery for me. He is known to have painted only twenty pictures in his lifetime (1440 – 1501) and the National Gallery in London currently has an exhibition of seven of his paintings, six of which have never been seen in the UK before. I stood in front of ‘St Michael Triumphs Over the Devil’ for about ten minutes.
I adore the combination of virtuoso realism combined with dark imagination. Have a look at the armour, for example. I love the sheen, the setting of the jewels, and the texture of the velvet. I feel as if I could walk up and give the breastplate a quick rap.
Detail of the breastplate (National Gallery)
Detail of the shield (National Gallery)
But the devil is something else. He reminds of me of an angler fish rather than the more typical lizard, but there is something rather horrible about the bird-like talons with the insect-like forearm. The devil also has butterfly wings that look rather like those of a meadow brown. The devil’s breastplate has it’s own set of fishy eyes, and a second set of teeth. All in all, it looks as if Bermejo has conducted some ghastly ‘Island of Dr Moreau’ experiment, and the devil is the ghastly result.
Dragon detail (National Gallery)
Most of the people viewing the paintings of this period would have been illiterate, and so this art was instructional as well as decorative. I love the way that the Annunciation is often depicted as a shaft of light piercing the breast of the Virgin, and the way that the saints hold the instruments of their martyrdom with a blithe serenity that belies their terrible deaths.
But combined with the imagination shown in the depiction of the devil, there is very close observation of a whole range of plants, which grow at the foot of the painting. The devil’s feet are surrounded by red poppies (Papaver rhoeas), then, as now, a symbol of death.
Another plant that is sprouting at St Michael’s feet is a thistle: in the Middle Ages, the white sap was seen as emblematic of Mary’s milk.
Close up of the mysterious thistle
I am a bit puzzled by the blue flowers however, and wonder if the plant is actually a southern globethistle (Echinops ritro), a plant that is found in Spain and which may soon feature as a Wednesday Weed.
I also love the contrast between St Michael’s serene, unperturbed face, and the much more realistic face of the patron who financed the work, Antoni Joan. It incapsulates the difference between the divine world of the saints, and the real world of man.
The donor, Antoni Joan
Bermejo was a Spanish painter during a time when all the real ‘action’ was in Italy and Northern Europe. Indeed, he is thought to have been familiar with some of the works that were being created in the Low Countries during this period. But I sense a strong Spanish sensibility in his paintings. Have a look at The Desplà Pietá (1490) below. The idealisation of St Michael, and of the Virgin in previous paintings, is replaced by an unflinching realism that I find very moving.
The Desplà Pietá (1490)
And how about St Jerome’s lion, curled up in the corner? He reminds me, again, of Carpaccio’s depiction of St Jerome bringing his lion home, to the chagrin of the other monks. In Bermejo’s image there is a fly on the nose of the lion, so have a look if you visit the exhibition.
St Jerome and the Lion (Vittore Carpaccio 1502)
And so, there it is, a combination of exquisitely detailed natural features and toothy devils, of grey flesh and cuddly lions. It feels as if Bermejo almost couldn’t resist stuffing his paintings with more and more ‘stuff’. Maybe he was a show-off, or maybe he just wanted to include all the things that he could see, and most of the things that he could imagine. If you have time and you’re in London, go and have a look (the exhibition is free). It’s on until the end of September.