Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Bugwoman on Location – At Crossbones Graveyard

On a Thursday lunchtime, the streets around London Bridge station are mobbed with folk heading for Borough market to pick up their artisan coffee and hog-roast sandwiches, but just a few hundred yards further on is the garden of the Crossbones graveyard, a place of pilgrimage for many and a space for quiet contemplation amidst the traffic, human and vehicular.

It is  said that the site was originally a medieval burial ground for the sex-workers, or ‘Winchester Geese’ who worked in the area, and who were required to be buried in unhallowed ground. I went to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in the 1990’s which showed a variety of skeletons, and told what could be learned from their condition. One of the bodies, exhumed from Crossbones,  was of a woman estimated to be 16-19 years old, only 4 foot 7 inches tall, and with well-advanced syphilitic lesions of the skull. I remember being haunted by the delicacy of her bones as she lay exposed in a glass case. I have always been simultaneously fascinated by what these remains can tell us, and appalled at what feels to me like desecration. I imagine that the young woman now lays in a vault in the Museum of London – the circular building in the middle of the roundabout there is an ossuary, full of historical bones.

The site was subsequently used as a pauper’s graveyard. Over 15,000 people too poor to afford burial were buried here, many of them children under a year old. The graveyard itself fell into disuse after 1853, at which point it was said to be absolutely full of remains, with one body thrown on top of another.When the site was used for the Jubilee line extension in the 1990’s, 142 bodies were disinterred, among them the young woman mentioned above.  The ribbons attached to the memorial gates of the site record the parish records for some of the people buried at the site.

‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2,1725’

‘Margaret Keen, Fishmonger Alley, 22’

‘Mary Ann Jupp, Silver Street, Age 4 months’

People also attach remembrances of those who have died more recently, so that the gates are covered with tokens of those who are no longer on this earth.

Inside the garden there is a quiet space, where the rattle of trains en route to London Bridge is interspersed by the flapping of a wood pigeon’s wings and the song of a blackbird.

The entrance to the garden is via an elegant ‘goose’s wing’ shelter. There is a feeling of hopefulness and renewal, as the plants break into flower and the bees go about their work once again.

A queen wasp resting in the euphorbia

The willow tree was positively abuzz with honeybees collecting pollen to feed the larvae back in the nest. I love the little orange ‘baskets’ on their legs. It just goes to show that even in such an urban spot, insects will be attracted if we grow the right plants.

There were some other excellent pollinator plants in the garden as well.The early spring bees were all over the periwinkle, but were a bit too fast for me to get a photograph.

Vinca major (Periwinkle)

The brunnera was doing a great job of attracting pollinators as well – this is a great woodland plant, and mine is just popping up again in my garden (though it’s well behind this one).

Brunnera macrophylla

The green men statues are honoured at a ceremony in the autumn giving thanks for nature’s generosity.

The boards at the end of the site shows a map of the area in medieval times, and two poems taken from the ‘Southwark Mysteries’, a contemporary Mystery play written by local author John Constable, and performed by 50 professional actors and a cast drawn from the local community, at the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral in 2000, and again in 2010. The plays, with their ribaldry and boisterous nature, attracted a great deal of controversy, as you can read here. However, the overall message of the production was that no one is beyond redemption, and I’d have thought that this was something that was intrinsic to Christian belief. In 2007, before the garden was officially ‘a garden’, one of the on-site security guards, Andy Hulme, began to construct ‘the invisible garden’ behind the gates and shrine which were at that time the main focus of the site. One of his works was the Pyramid, into which seeds have been scattered over the years. One side of the pyramid is covered in oyster shells from Borough Market – oysters were once the food of poor people, washed down with gin or stout. Many of the people buried in the graveyard would have eaten them.

The pyramid built by the Invisible Gardener

The most moving part of the garden though, for me, was the shrine behind the gates. A statue of the Virgin Mary tenderly cradles a goose, surrounded by flowers and tokens, and by broken chains. For many people, the statue also represents the Goddess, and it is typical of the inclusivity of Crossbones that, if you look, you will find symbols of many faiths. The principle here is divine love, whatever form it comes in.

The garden is currently leased from Transport For London (who recognise its role as public space) and is managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust and the Friends of Crossbones, who provide volunteers to open the garden between 12 and 2 pm on weekdays, and for a longer period at weekends. The garden is free to enter, but do sign the visitors book on your way out – when the usage of a space is recorded, it’s much easier to protect it from the ‘powers that be’. There have been many times in its history when Crossbones has been under threat.

Crossbones role as a memorial garden for the outcast dead is what makes it unique.  We are all just one mental illness, one financial catastrophe, one crushing bereavement, one addiction away from becoming outcasts ourselves. And in a city where everything moves too fast, and follows the money too enthusiastically, it is easy for people to be left behind. Only by including everyone can a city or a community thrive, and Crossbones is a powerful symbol of those who were not, and are not, included. Ceremonies of remembrance are held on the 23rd of each month at 7 p.m., not just for those buried in the garden but for all our outcast, dead and alive.

All blog content free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Bugwoman on Location – The Survivor

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica 'Vegeta')

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’)

Dear Readers, this magnificent elm tree, over 100 feet tall, was for a long time the only surviving elm tree in Westminster. It is estimated to be about 150 years old, and was probably planted as a sapling in the grounds of the parish church of St Marylebone. Unfortunately, the church was so badly damaged during bombing in World War II that it had to be demolished, so now the tree finds itself marooned on the pavement outside a tiny Garden of Rest.

img_9680As I stand under the tree and lean back to take my photo, I become aware of what an enormous organism this is, dwarfing the people under it. It has the a presence, a sense of individuality that I often recognise when I spend time with old trees. And this one is a survivor twice over, because not only did it escape the German bombs, it was also somehow bypassed by the Dutch Elm Disease of the 60’s, which killed over 25 million trees in the UK alone.

img_9684Dutch Elm Disease had been in the UK since the 1920’s, but this was a mild strain of the micro-fungus which causes the disease, and which usually just killed a couple of branches. The fungus is carried by bark beetles, who normally do only minimal damage when their grubs dig tunnels through the bark. Unfortunately, the 1960’s brought a much more dangerous strain, carried into Europe in a consignment of logs from North America. As the fungus enters the wood, the tree reacts by plugging up the xylem that brings nutrients and water to the leaves. Gradually whole sections of the plant die off, and so the leaves that bring nutrients to the rest of the plant fall, and the tree starves. Over 75% of all the elm trees in the UK died.

Elms that have been incorporated into hedgerows survived the fungus, which only really starts to impact on the tree when it grows above 5 metres. However, all over the country the giant elms, the preferred nesting trees of rooks, succumbed. Among them was the largest elm ever recorded in the UK, the Great Saling Elm, with a girth of 6.86 metres and a height of 40 metres. The elms in the paintings of John Constable are also mostly gone.

By John Constable - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

John Constable ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden (1823 version) (Photo One – see credit below)

This tree has been our companion since at least classical times: the Linear B lists of military equipment found at Knossos mention that the chariots were made of elm wood, and elm was used by medieval bowmen if yew couldn’t be found. The Romans also used elm saplings as supports for their grapevines: the ancients spoke of the marriage between the elm and the vine. As Ovid put it,

‘ulmus amat vitem, vitis non deserit ulmum’ (the elm loves the vine, the vine does not desert the elm)

Elm wood was hollowed out to make many of London’s underground waterpipes, and to make lock gates on the canals. The original Tyburn Tree was a huge elm, before it was replaced with a gallows. And Seven Sisters in north London originally referred to a stand of seven elm trees, referred to in the mosaic by Hans Unger on the platform of the tube station. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called ‘The English Elms’ about this very subject:

Seven Sisters in Tottenham,

long gone, except for their names,

were English elms.


Others stood at the edge of farms,

twinned with the shapes of clouds

like green rhymes;

or cupped the beads of the rain

in their leaf palms;

or glowered, grim giants, warning of storms.


In the hedgerows in old films,

elegiacally, they loom,

the English elms;

or find posthumous fame

in the lines of poems-

the music making elm-

for ours is a world without them…


to whom the artists came,

time after time, scumbling, paint on their fingers and thumbs;

and the woodcutters, who knew the elm was a coffin’s deadly aim;

and the mavis, her new nest unharmed in the crook of a living, wooden arm;

and boys, with ball and stumps and bat for a game;

and nursing ewes and lambs, calm under the English elms…


great, masterpiece trees,

who were overwhelmed.

To hear her read her poem, have a look at the link here.

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two - see credit below)

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two – see credit below)

I noticed that wire had been twisted around the trunk of the Marylebone Elm, I suspect as a support for Christmas fairy lights. This is something of an indignity, but I suspect that the tree is less perturbed than I am. I sometimes think that we treat trees with such disregard because we can’t imagine that they are living things because they are so large, and live on such a different timescale from us. Certainly, we seem to view them with all the compassion that we would extend to to a lamp post. And yet, I have cried hot tears at the callous cutting down of trees, and at the disrespect that we show them, and it seems I am not the only one: in Sheffield recently, two ladies were arrested for trying to prevent the cutting down of their local street trees, an event which commenced at 4.30 a.m. to try to avoid public outcry.

img_9685But, at least the Marylebone Elm is still in good health, and the buds are just appearing. Soon, there will be the crisp, veined leaves, and then the yellowing into another autumn.


By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The strange flowers of the English elm (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (see credit below)

elm-leaf-231855Although the Dutch Elm disease problem has never gone away, there have been thousands of new plantings of the trees, including some in W1, the postcode of the Marylebone Elm . Elms are complicated trees, with many subspecies and varieties, and some have more resistance than others. Plus, as already noticed, small trees can survive as saplings or in hedges for many years. The elm is still here, under the radar, still providing nesting places for blackbirds and food for over 82 species of insects, including the white-letter hairstreak butterfly, whose caterpillar feeds only on elms. The numbers of the butterfly were much reduced by the death of their foodplant, as you might expect, but they are now fighting their way back.

By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) (Photo Five – see credit below)

The giant elm of Marylebone seems strangely out of place these days, slotted in among the buildings as if every last inch of space that it takes up is begrudged. And yet, here it still stands, a survivor of fire and destruction, and of the insidious fungus that destroyed so many of its compatriots. It reminds me of that generation of people who survived the trenches and saw untold horrors, and yet who just got on with it. And that is what living things do, given half a chance – they carry on, until they can’t. May the Marylebone Elm carry on for many years to come.

img_9672 Credits

Photo One (Constable) – By John Constable – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Photo Two (Seven Sisters Mosaic) –© Copyright Oxyman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three (Elm Flowers) – By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Elm Leaves) – By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (White-letter hairstreak) – By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

I discovered many of the elm facts included in this blogpost in this article by James Coleman at The Londonist, and very informative it is too.

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!







Bugwoman’s Third Annual Report

IMG_5397Dear Readers, what a year it’s been! It started in February 2016 with a rather disappointing revisit to the Abraham Cruzvillegas installation at Tate Modern, which contained soil from different sites in London, and was supposed to provide an idea of the diverse flora from the capital. Sadly, it was rather underlit, and none of the raised beds were labelled, so it was impossible to know where each sample of soil had come from. Plus it finished in February, just before everything started to come into flower! A most frustrating exercise which could have been both artistically and scientifically interesting. Harrumph!  It did provide an excuse for a bracing walk along the Thames, however.

IMG_5528March was all about frogs and this poor little fox, half eaten up with mange. It was the start of my daily walk to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I dropped medicated food to try and clear up the fox’s skin problem. As a result I met a group of people dedicated to looking after the cat population in the cemetery, and the other animals too, especially my friend B. To my surprise, the homeopathic medication sent from the National Fox Welfare Society worked, and I gained many glimpses of the foxy population.

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

The first frogs of the year

The first frog of the year

Fox at sunset

Fox at sunset

By April there was some improvement in the original fox, and she had a mate. Plus, from looking at her underside, it seemed that she had cubs, though I didn’t see them while they were very small.

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)


The dog fox waiting for his dinner

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

Yet another fox

Yet another fox

On the Wednesday Weed front, I found some honesty

IMG_5987and some fritillaries.

IMG_6003May brought comfrey and lady’s smock, and a few more foxes


Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)


The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox – the vixen definitely looks as if she’s feeding cubs

And by June, I think this is the first sight of a cub. Plus, we had fledgling long-tailed tits, and a rather surprising creature spotted while on the New River Walk in Islington

IMG_7158IMG_6662 IMG_6639IMG_6793In July, I was off to Austria for our annual two weeks in the Alps. Where it snowed.

IMG_7258Though not all the time, fortunately….

IMG_7221August saw my first visit to Woodberry Wetlands and a trip back to my roots in the East End, to see what had happened to Stratford since the Olympic Games. I was impressed with the wildlife that I saw in both places.  And the fox cubs were out and about in the cemetery.

Woodberry Wetlands

Woodberry Wetlands


Heron and Mute Swan at Woodberry Wetlands

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Another young fox

Another young fox in the cemetery

September saw my first ever pied flycatcher, during a visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset.

img_8010I had never seen so many rose hips as there were in the cemetery, either.

img_7989And the horse chestnuts reminded me of my Auntie Mary. How often the fruits of the season jog my memory, putting me in mind of people and places long gone.

img_7954And the foxes were still about, of course.

Dog Fox

Dog Fox

October brought a trip to Venice with an 89 year-old friend of mine, and a particularly wonderful encounter with a young vixen in the cemetery.

img_8087img_8066img_8314img_8247In November, I discovered the joys of a slow shutter-speed on my camera, and had an encounter with a grey wagtail at the Barbican Centre.

img_8613-2 img_8615-2

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

December brought a return to Milborne St Andrew, some very fine Islington cats, and a supermoon. It also introduced me to the hidden meaning of having pampas grass in your front garden.

Ice on a Dorset stream

Ice on a Dorset stream

A very fine Islington cat

A very fine Islington cat



Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Pampas grass

Pampas grass

And finally, January has brought a stroll along the Mutton Brook in East Finchley, stinging nettles and a Very Fine Cat Indeed.

The Mutton Brook

The Mutton Brook

Stinging nettles with small 'friend'

Stinging nettles with small ‘friend’

Bailey, the world's most magnificent cat.

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat.

So, dear Readers, what an exciting year it’s been! If there are things that you’ve liked particularly, do let me know (and yes I will be spending more time in the cemetery on fox watch in the months to come). I am also open to suggestions if I have missed your favourite ‘weed’, or if there is somewhere in London that you’d like me to take an excursion to.  In the meantime, thank you so much for your support, and I look forward to your company in 2017. The world is an uncomfortable place for many people at the moment (including me) and there is much solace to be gained in the plants and animals that surround us.

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.







Bugwoman on Location: The Animals of Venice (Part Two)

img_8255Dear Readers, when my 89 and a half year-old friend M and I were in Venice a few weeks ago, it was impossible not to notice that the Venetians appear to have a thing about lions, particularly winged ones.

Pensive lions....

Pensive lions….

Imperial lions....

Imperial lions….

Distressed lions….

Bronze lions who may or may not be Phonecian

Turkish bronze lion from 300 BC

The winged lion is the symbol of  Venice, and is associated with St Mark. The story goes that when Venice was first founded, it was felt that it needed a saintly relic to consolidate its position as a new power. The body of St Mark was stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and was smuggled out under some pickled pork so that the Muslim guards could not find it. This was something of a coup for Venice – other cities might have a saint’s finger, or a piece of the Holy Cross, but Venice was the only place with a whole saint. The symbol of the lion may be a reference to a legend that the saint was thrown to the lions, who refused to eat him. In many images and statues in Venice, the lion is holding a book with the words ‘Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus’ said to be the words of an angel heralding St Mark, which means ‘Peace to thee, Mark, my Evangelist’. The rest of the quotation, so well-known to Venetians that it is rarely shown is ‘Hic requiescet corpus tuum’, meaning ‘ here your body will rest’, which is rather handy under the circumstance.  Where the lion is shown with his wings around his head, as in the image below, it is said to be ‘ in moleca’, or in the form of a crab, especially appropriate for the symbol of such a watery place.

Terrifying lions.....

Lion ‘in moleca’

When I first came to Venice, there were lots of little live lions around, in the form of stray cats. In 2009, we came across a positive ‘cat city’ in front of a church, lovingly built from wooden boxes so that the cats could have shelter in the cold weather, and with dozens of saucers of cat food and water left out.

The 'cat city'

The ‘cat city’

Since then, there has been an attempt to control the numbers of cats by neutering them, and the cats that I saw this time were pampered animals with collars. One ginger cat ran happily along the path in front of us, over two bridges and finally in through a cat flap on an august Venetian front door. On one of the smaller canals to the north, we found a little blind cat sitting behind the window grilles, soaking up the sun in complete safety. But of the scrawny, sad, runny-eyed creatures of sixteen years ago, we saw not a single one.

Little blind cat on the Fondamenta Della Sensa, soaking up the late autumn sun

Little blind cat on the Fondamenta Della Sensa, soaking up the late autumn sun

There are also a surprising number of dogs in Venice. This year, there seem to be inordinate numbers of French Bulldogs, including one adorable chubby puppy waiting for the vaporetto on Murano. Dachshunds abound, as do all kinds of indeterminate mongrels. On the Cannaregio canal, where we were staying, a dog seemed to be as essential as a wheeled shopping basket, and you could guarantee to see the same dogs and owners going for a morning constitutional at the same time if you happened to look out of the window. The lack of earth and green spaces seem to deter these water-dogs not a  whit as they happily trot on and off of vaporettos and in and out of water taxis. Their owners are, largely, good about collecting and disposing of the inevitable consequences of owning a live animal, and I would say that these Venetian hounds have an interesting life, with lots of opportunities to bark at seagulls and sniff the behinds of their neighbours.

There is one kind of dog, however, which seems unchanged since the days of the artist Carpaccio, back in the sixteenth century. Carpaccio is my favourite Venetian artist, because he packs so many details of ordinary Venetian life into his paintings, and because, of all the Venetian artists, he seems the most humorous and ebullient.

Miracle of the Holy Cross by Vittore Carpaccio

Miracle of the Cross at the Rialto Bridge by Vittore Carpaccio – notice the little white dog in the gondola on the right


This is a little scruffy white dog, that the artist depicts in several of his paintings, and which you can see jauntily inspecting the fondamenta on any morning. In fact, one of these dogs is shown in a painting that I always visit when I go to Venice, as if it were an old friend. It is at what I always call the School of the Dalmatians (more properly the Schuola di San Georgio degli Schiavoni), which features many of Carpaccio’s greatest works.

There is  a ‘Saint George and the Dragon’, which includes bits of dead bodies and frogs and toads and lizards.

Vittore Carpaccio - St George and the Dragon (1502)

Vittore Carpaccio – St George and the Dragon (1502)

There is a painting of St Tryphon exorcising a demon from a young woman – the demon is a very small dragon/donkey cross, who looks rather disgruntled at being exposed.

Vittore Carpaccio - St Tryphon and the Basilisk (1502)

Vittore Carpaccio – St Tryphon and the Basilisk (1507)

There is the painting of St Jerome bringing the lion that he has befriended in the wilderness back to the monastery, and all the monks fleeing in terror like so many winged creatures.

Vittore Carpaccio - St Jerome and the Lion (1509)

Vittore Carpaccio – St Jerome and the Lion (1509) Was there ever such a gentle and inoffensive lion?

But as much as I love all of these works of art, and look forward to visiting them, only one painting in this room moves me to tears, every time. A monk is in his study, writing a letter, when he looks up as if suddenly realising something. Experts now think that the monk is St Augustine, and that he has been granted a vision that the friend that he is writing to, St Jerome (the man with the lion in the previous picture) has died. But what makes the picture for me is the small, scruffy white dog sitting on the floor, looking at his master with puzzlement. Across all those years, it speaks to me more eloquently than any of the works of the othergreat artists because who doesn’t recognise the scene – the moment of dawning truth, the dog who knows something is wrong, but has no way of understanding what is happening, or what he can do to comfort his master. The painting speaks to me of love, and loss, and of the way that animals are so often silent witness to our most private moments.

Vittore Carpaccio - The Vision of St Augustine (1509)

Vittore Carpaccio – The Vision of St Augustine (1509)

Carpaccio Paintings in public domain. All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially but please link back to the blog, thank you!

Bugwoman on Location: The Animals of Venice (Part One)

img_8314Dear Readers, last week I took a trip to my favourite city in the world (after London of course), with my intrepid 89.5 year-old friend, M. M had mentioned that she had a yearning to see Venice ‘one last time’ and, as I’ve spent many happy weeks there over the past ten years, and really enjoy M’s company, we decided to take a chance on a visit. Last time M. visited, she had an unfortunate stumble when she was rushed off of a vaporetto, and ended up with twenty stitches in her shin and a rather exciting ride in a speedboat ambulance across the lagoon. We were determined that nothing so unfortunate was going to happen this time, and indeed it didn’t.

Casa  Tre Archi

Casa Tre Archi – our apartment was on the top floor

For the past four visits, I have rented an apartment with a company called Visit Venice: it’s on the Cannaregio canal, which is much quieter than ‘the main drag’ around St Marks, and it gives me a chance to shop and cook, which I enjoy. I was a little worried that M would have trouble with the precipitous staircase, but she managed it like a trouper, as she did all the other steps and trip hazards of the city. Indeed, her turn of speed when we wanted to visit a 12th Century basilica on Murano that was due to close in 20 minutes was such that I had to hurry to keep up.

But surely such a watery, stony, cramped environment would be somewhat bereft of animals? Well, dear readers, what it lacks in biodiversity it makes up for in opportunism, for I have seldom felt every mouthful of croissant being watched so carefully. If you sit by the canal with a panini, you will soon be accosted by all manner of seabirds. Huge menacing yellow-legged gulls stand on the mooring posts, eyeing up your mozzarella with a calculating look.

img_8326The smaller black-headed gulls swoop like sea-swallows. Pigeons peck at your feet, some of them with interesting patterns of iridescent and white feathers on their necks, and sometimes a cheeky sparrow will land on the back of a chair and consider, with tilted head, whether he can make an assault on your half-empty plate.

img_8318In short, all the usual seaside suspects are here, and if you want to examine gull behaviour I can recommend a coffee next to the fish stand by the Guglie Bridge, where you can witness every possible gull tactic, from distraction (one gull struts along at the front of the counter while another gull is pulling squid from a bucket at the back), ambush (one gull steals a sardine and is then chased until he drops it by a bigger, older gull) and subterfuge (a gull sneaks underneath the fish stand and pulls at a fish until it falls off, unnoticed).

Egrets can sometimes be seen patrolling the edges of the quieter canals, watching for the tiny fish that eat the algae on the steps that are used by the gondoliers, or picking at the crabs that haunt the hollow places. They are not averse to using the gondolas themselves as a perch.

img_8312img_8311Venice is located on some of the main migratory routes from Europe into Africa, and so it was no surprise that there were many flocks of starlings heading south. Men in camouflage gear often puttered quietly out into the lagoon at first light, sometimes with a little dog standing at the bow, nose twitching, as if it was already possible to smell the scent of wild duck. And as we stood on the Tre Archi bridge one evening, a man pointed skyward, and we all watched as a flock of birds flickered overhead, on their way to warmer climes. I am always moved by these vast movements of animals from one place to another  and mentally bid them good luck as they run the gauntlet of hunters and starvation, ill winds and sudden freezes. May they reach safe harbour, may they prevail.


But most of the biodiversity of Venice is tucked away out of sight. You are never more than a few steps from a canal here, and the sound of water slapping against stone, the sun dancing on ripples, is the quintessence of this place. It all seems somehow unreal, like a dream, at least until the chug of a waterbus or the mewing of a gull brings you back to reality.

img_8251The walls of the canals quickly become home to algae and snails and all manner of invertebrates, who are in turn eaten by crabs and fish. Each waterway, each set of steps, becomes its own microhabitat, washed by the tide twice a day like any stony beach. In general, the water is cleaner than it has been for years – although Venice has a reputation for being a smelly place, I have never noticed this (although in fairness I do visit out of season – the combination of crowds, mosquitoes and heat in high summer are a bit more than I care do deal with). There is even talk of the lagoon becoming a destination for divers  who want to explore the many wrecks and the undersea communities that have grown up around them. img_8319For animals, I suspect that the whole of Venice is a kind of stony island, full of wasteful creatures who aren’t too careful where their crusts end up. It always interests me to think about how a non-human would view a city, and somehow nowhere is this clearer than in that magnet for everyone who visits Venice, the Piazza of St Marks. There are some of the most important historical sights in Europe crammed into this space, and yet, for the seagulls, these matter not. Yellow-legged gulls cruise around the mosaics of the Basilica, circle the campanile, and terrify the small children who are attempting to feed the pigeons. All our works are nothing more than a potential perch and, probably, a bit of a nuisance. There is a Venice that is navigated by the birds, and a Venice that is visited by us, and these two cities are superimposed, one on the other, just as there is a ‘dog’ Venice, and a ‘cat’ Venice, and a Venice as experienced by small children. The Venice of a sailor or a gondolier must be very different from Venice as loved by a rather scruffy middle-aged insect fan and her 89 and a half year-old friend. How interesting it would be to bring all these experiences together! It makes my head spin to think about it.

img_8355img_8358img_8357All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share, but please link back to the blog, thank you!

The Weed of Hercules

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Dear Readers, during my trip to the Olympic Park a few weeks ago I was astonished to notice an eight-foot tall Giant Hogweed standing on the bank of the canal next to the Aquatic Centre. I saw ‘astonished’ because the area does not want for gardeners, and also because this is not a shy demure plant of the kind that I usually write about. No, this plant is a pirate, with flower heads the size of dinner plates and a potential height of up to 18 feet tall. It is also not something that you want to have around if you have children, or anyone vulnerable, for this is that unusual thing: a plant that lives up to the hype.

Those of you old enough to remember the 1980’s might remember a programme featuring, I think, Esther Rantzen, in which the full horror of Giant Hogweed was revealed. The plant’s  sap contains chemicals  called furocoumarins, which are released when the plant is damaged, whether through strimming when the plant is young, or through being macheted down when mature. Children are particularly attracted to the plant because of its extraordinary size – it makes even an adult feel as if they are in Land of the Giants – and the hollow stems invited use as a blowpipe. Unfortunately, the sap, whilst initially appearing to cause no problems, actually changes the structure of the skin if it touches it. If that skin is exposed to sunlight, the result can be as minor as a rash, or as extreme as severe, lymph-filled blisters that may require hospitalisation. Furthermore, the skin will erupt again whenever exposed to sunlight.  Although there have been many ‘scare stories’ in the media about perfectly innocent plants, for this one it seems that many of the claims are justified. For a full and detailed picture of what’s been happening with the plant, I recommend our old friend The Poison Garden  website, where all things Hogweed-ish are discussed. There is also an excellent section on this website about identification of Giant Hogweed, and how to tell the difference between it and the Common Hogweed (Heracleum spondylium). Incidentally, Common Hogweed (which is very common as its name might suggest) also contains furocoumarins, but seemingly at a much lower concentration than its giant relative. I would also suggest protective measures if you are strimming a patch of this plant.

Incidentally the band Genesis, who were responsible for introducing both Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins to an unsuspecting public, included a song about Giant Hogweed on their Nursery Crymes album. For your delectation, here is a live rendition from 1973. You’re welcome.

Des Colhoun [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Giant Hogweed flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

The Latin name ‘Heracleum mantegazzianum’ refers firstly to Hercules (probably because of the plant’s outrageous size) and then to Paolo Mantegazza, a nineteenth-century anthropologist who may have been the first person to extract cocaine from the coca plant. The plant is originally from the Caucasus, and was introduced to the UK by the Victorians, who were rather taken with how pretty it was, and what a fine show it made alongside the lakes and rivers of their estates. Alas, as is often the case, the plant did not stay where it was put, which will be of no surprise to the readers of this blog. It can now be found in North America, New Zealand and most of Europe. Although the seeds are rather heavy (as you might expect of something this size) and fall close to the parent, they can be easily transported on the soles of the shoes of the unwary, and I wonder if they can also survive falling into water and being carried that way. Certainly I have no idea how on earth the Olympic Park specimen turned up.

© Copyright Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A Giant Hogweed bud. Don’t get too close now….! (Photo Two – credit below)

Getting rid of Giant Hogweed is an expensive and difficult business. Nothing short of full-body cover and protective glasses will do. Seeds are viable for up to seven years, and so annual spraying in the spring (with all its concomitant health and environmental hazards) needs to be take place. As John Robertson explains in The Poison Garden, the only alternative to spraying is to completely replace the topsoil, which can cost many thousands of pounds that councils currently don’t have.

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The magnificent Giant Hogweed (Photo Three – credit below)

I had a momentary dilemma about what to do about the Giant Hogweed. It is a truly magnificent plant, and in its native lands it probably goes about its business unmolested, as presumably local people know what it is, and how to deal with it. But here, in London, next to the most popular swimming pool in the capital? I sent the Olympic Park team an email telling them I’d spotted Giant Hogweed, and they emailed back to say that they will remove it. Do I feel as if I betrayed a true wonder of the natural world? Yes. But people, especially children, will be curious about the plant, and will not know about the danger that it represents. For once this particular Giant Hogweed really does meet the definition of a ‘weed’ – the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Four (credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One – Des Colhoun [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two – © Copyright Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three – By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four – © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Bugwoman on Location- The Olympic Park, Stratford


Dear Readers, I wanted to let you know that at the moment I am right in the middle of a very intensive four-week CELTA course. CELTA is a qualification that will enable me to teach English as a foreign language, and I am planning to volunteer to work with refugees and asylum seekers when I complete the course (if I pass). All free English language courses have been cut by councils as they struggle to manage their budgets, and many people who have just arrived here cannot afford to pay to learn the language, so I would like to help. So, in other words, I have not been able to respond to your comments as quickly as I usually do, but believe me I have read every one, and they have kept me going when the assignments are piling up :-). The course finishes on the 16th September, and if you hear some cheering on the breeze, that’ll be me! In the meantime, here is a piece about my old home town, Stratford in East London.

When I was growing up, the area between Stratford Station and the river Lea was a wasteland of brambles, railway tracks, small industrial units and canals. Nobody ever went there if they could avoid it, because why would you? From the platforms at the station I would occasionally spot a fox skulking amongst the rosebay willowherb, and once there was a kestrel hovering above the clinker, but largely it was a ‘brownfield site’, unwanted and unloved.

And then came the Olympics.

Today, I finally went back to Stratford to see what had been done here. Of course, I remember the 2012 Olympics and the television shots of the Aquatic Centre and the Stadium, but I’d never seen them in real life. I can see the Arcelor-Mittal tower from the streets of Muswell Hill, but I’d never stared up at it. And so, as I walked out of Stratford Station and ambled through the vast glass halls of the Westfield Centre, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of the place.

The first thing that you see is the stadium, which is now hung with banners welcoming West Ham football club. It seems strange that Upton Park, the basic, hang-dog stadium that was home to West Ham since its inception, is now empty and silent. This place is huge, and also unfinished: for the Olympics it had an athletics’ track around the edge, which meant that the audience was a long way away from the action. This has now been remedied, and the stadium will be ready for the new season. I imagine that it will often be partially full, because it’s enormous, but the transport links are extraordinary: Stratford now has not only the Central line and links to Liverpool Street, but the Jubilee line, the Docklands Light Railway and the Overground, and shortly it will have Crossrail. All in all, poor old Stratford is definitely now on the map.

IMG_7745Across from the stadium is the Aquatic Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, who also did the Birdsnest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics. What a boon to the local neighbourhood this is. I remember going swimming in Romford Road baths, in the echoing Victorian rectangle that was the main pool. This new place is popular, and enormous, and state-of-the-art.

IMG_7741There are lots of other things too: you can rent a swan pedalo to go up and down the canal. There are boat trips in a barge. There are restaurants, both in the park and in Westfield. Stratford now has John Lewis and a Waitrose! Blooming hell. It’s come a long way from the draughty, miserable shopping centre that replaced Angel Lane and most of the little shops. The lady who serves me soup in John Lewis tells me that apparently even this sixties eyesore is booming, because people buy stuff on their way to and from the Olympic Park.

IMG_7828But, me being me, I want to know what’s being done for the wildlife. Although this area might have felt unloved in the past, it was a refuge for animals, and the new park feels tidy and manicured. At first I am inclined to be pessimistic – the verges are planted with typical ‘prairie plants’ like rudbeckia and Echinacea, plants that seem to pop up everywhere these days. But as usual, the trick is to be patient.

IMG_7827I start taking some photographs, and my eye is caught by some young wagtails feeding in the grass. I notice that there are islands of clover, carefully mown around, to provide food for bees and caterpillars. This is a good start. Some youngsters on bikes are taking advantages of the paths and stairways to practice on their mountain bikes, and I wonder if there isn’t a ‘proper’ bike track somewhere, maybe over near the Velodrome.

IMG_7759I spot some Giant Hogweed on the opposite bank of the canal, and am delighted. It seems like an anarchist in a field of fairies. How has it escaped the control of the gardeners, I wonder? After all, it can cause blisters and all sorts of nonsense. I rather love it, and take some photos because I fear that it will not be around for long.

IMG_7797I plonk down on a bench opposite the prairie planting, and think. The degree of change in this area is very disorientating, and there are new tower blocks everywhere. To my right is the Arcelor-Mittal tower. This was twisty enough before they added an undulating silver tube to the outside. You can now pay to slide in this tube from the top of the tower to the bottom. Needless to say, they would need to pay me to get me to do anything so daring.

IMG_7799It takes me a while to notice that there is a small flock of birds in amongst the chrysanthemums and daisies in the border opposite, such is my reverie. But when I hear the little bell-like calls, I realise that there are twenty or thirty goldfinches feeding on the seedheads of the grasses and thistles. I love to see birds feeding naturally, and these birds are so athletic, hanging upside down to get the seeds out and clinging to the stems as they blow about in the breeze. In this way, this border is definitely working: as migratory birds pass through (and they often follow waterways such as the Lea) this will be a valuable source of food for them, just as the brambles and grasses that used to grow here were. The past has been swept away, but the lessons have not been completely lost.


IMG_7788I walk on towards the Lea itself, passing an empty carpark. A young woman in a hijab and tracksuit pounds past. Here, the borders are wilder, more overgrown: yarrow and poppies mix with sedum to form a swathe of seedheads and flowers. I am trying to get a picture of all this when, in my peripheral vision, I see a brown bird flying fast and low over the top of the plants. It disappears behind a tree, and I walk along the path, wondering where it could have gone. And then I see it, sitting on top of a wooden hut – a kestrel.

IMG_7812I take a couple of long shots, wondering how long it will sit there. Then, I notice that folk are walking past right below it, oblivious. The bird watches them go, unperturbed. I wonder if it will be as relaxed around me? So I approach it, taking a few photos every few steps, expecting it to fly at any moment, but it sits. It sees me, but it doesn’t care. I am able to get within ten metres of it, close enough to see the bars of black on its chestnut wings, its huge black eyes, the yellow skin at the base of the hooked bill. It is still sitting there when I decide that it has been patient enough, and turn to leave it. People are still walking past, buried in their conversations or their phones. I want to tell them that the bird is there, but in the end I decide not to. You can never tell what is important to people, and what their reactions to nature will be. And somehow, this feels like a present from the past.

IMG_7819Everything might have changed, it says. But there are still kestrels here.

IMG_7821All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.