Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

A St Pauls Perambulation from London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – Part Two

London plane tree in Bow Churchyard

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!

In East Finchley Cemetery

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.

Ripe cones

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.

The cross below is much more splendid, though it’s tricky to work out exactly what plants are represented. There are at least some roses, I think; it’s said that the more full-blown a rose is, the longer the person had lived (children’s graves often show rosebuds).

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?

At Walthamstow Wetlands (Again)

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.





Bugwoman on Location – The Search for Green

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.

The churchyard

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?

A liriope-fest

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.

Photo One by By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Bugwoman on Location – Alexandra Terrace, Dorchester

Alexandra Terrace starts just below the tree….

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.

Bugwoman on Location – The National Gallery

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.

Photo One by By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Southern globethistle (Echinops ritro) (Photo One)

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.

St Michael

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.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,







Standing and Staring

Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) and Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais utricae) on buddleia

Dear Readers, this year I did the Butterfly Conservation Trust Big Butterfly Count for the first time. Sadly, it was a windy day, and all I spotted were two small whites and a painted lady, but it did give me a taste for standing next to a buddleia and seeing who turns up. So, this weekend I was in Somerset, and my Aunt Hilary’s garden was sporting an unusual variegated buddleia with deep purple flowers. It was a warm, sunny day, and so I decided to wait and see how many different species I could spot if I didn’t have a time limit.

First up were the red admirals (Vanessa atalanta). They seemed quite combative on occasion, pursuing one another but I am not sure if their intentions were aggressive or libidinous. What is lovely about them, however, is that once they are feeding you can approach them very closely without them seeming to be the slightest bit disturbed.

Red admirals are unmistakable when their wings are open, but one way of identifying them when their wings are closed is by the pale yellow blotch at the top of the hindwing, which you can see in the photo below. I love the chocolate-brown velvet of their wings, with those tomato-red markings.

The red admirals looked mint-fresh. Some of them could be visitors from mainland Europe – the main ‘fall’ of these migrants is in May and June, but it continues all summer. These migrants lay eggs as they head north, and by this time of year some adults will be emerging from their chrysalises. These new adults may hibernate in sheds or lofts, or they may head south again.

The caterpillars feed on nettles, and they sew the leaves together with silk – keep an eye open if you have a nettle patch nearby. The larvae are black spikey fellows with a yellow line along the side, but it can be difficult to tell them apart from those of other species, such as the small tortoiseshell and peacock. My Guide to Garden Wildlife book by Richard Lewington suggests growing a container full of nettles, ideally at different stages of growth, in a warm, sheltered spot.

For a long time, there was a belief that the name ‘red admiral’ was a corruption of ‘red admirable’. However, it was found that the name ‘admiral’ is much older, and the generally accepted explanation now is that the ‘admirals’ were butterflies that had patches of white or yellow in their upper wings, which reminded the viewer of the ensign raised when an admiral was on board a ship, which had white patches in the corners.

Red admirals were also often believed to reference the flames of hell: it is said that a ‘red butterfly’ was hunted as a witch in the north of England and the Borders. We are fortunate that these days we can largely enjoy the natural world without demonising it.

Then, a single small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) turned up. These are not as common as the red admirals, and had something of a bad year last year, so it was good to see one. Part of the problem may be a parasite, a little fly called Sturmia bella. It lays its eggs on nettles, and these are then ingested by the caterpillars (who are sociable creatures, unlike those of the red admiral, which lead solitary lives), and you may spot a web full of tiny black larvae, again on nettle. When the eggs hatch, they eat the unfortunate larva from the inside out. The parasite is surviving over winter more often, so this could be another side effect of climate change.

Small tortoiseshells have a characteristic resting posture, with their wings angled downwards as if they were wearing a cloak.

The males are said to be territorial, and any passing females will be hotly pursued. However, this one was just tetchy to begin with, chasing off the red admirals until finally s/he seemed to realise that it wasn’t worth the expenditure of energy, and settled down to feed.

Those blue spots along the edges of the wing are pretty much diagnostic for the small tortoiseshell, though its orange-ish colour means that it’s sometimes mistaken for the painted lady. I love that in Germany the small tortoiseshell is known as ‘the little fox’.

And then, an unmistakable butterfly, the comma (Polygonia c-album). No other butterfly in the UK has those ragged wings, and yet this is an energetic, fast-flying creature, and it took me quite a while to get a photo of one. It was worth it, though. It looks like a sliver of Baltic amber.

The comma suffered a considerable set back during the 19th century – its caterpillars largely fed on hops, and with the decline in the beer industry it lost most of its foodplants. At one point, it was thought to be limited to the Welsh Border counties. However, the adults started to lay their eggs on nettles, and the butterfly has staged something of a comeback. ‘Our’ comma is probably hatched from a spring-laid egg: these butterflies are much lighter in colour than those who have hibernated over winter.

The name ‘comma’ comes from a white mark on the underside of the wing (which you can just about make out on the photo below).

So, after all these colourful insects (all of them are known as vanessids) we move on to the sparrows of the butterfly world, the satyrids. First up was a speckled wood (Parage aegeria).  This chap wasn’t interested in feeding from the buddleia: he gets most of his nectar from honeydew secreted onto leaves by aphids, and this explains the way that he was licking these rather raggedy leaves.


These are really woodland butterflies ( I’ve written about them before here) but it was good to see one in the garden. The eggs are laid on long grass, as are those of many other butterflies, so in addition to your bucket of nettles it’s good to leave a corner of the lawn unmown. When I’ve watched speckled woods before, they’ve been very aggressive, spiralling up into the air to attack other passing males, but this one seemed very peaceable, so maybe it was too late in the year to be bothered.

Below we see a female meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) (the females tend to be lighter in colour than the males, but both have the characteristic eyespots). These are the commonest butterflies in the UK and exist in huge colonies on grassland. It’s another creature that lays its eggs on long grass, and the caterpillar is hairy, green and very difficult to see when it adopts its characteristic pose against the stem.


So, it’s clear that a patch of buddleia will attract many butterflies, but increasingly it’s being realised that we need to grow plants for the insects to lay their eggs on too, and for their caterpillars to feed upon. Things like nettles and long grass may make for a more untidy garden, but it’s no use having butterflies on the wing if they can’t reproduce. In my ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas, he recommends doing your research first to see what animals are likely to already be in the area – there’s no point in growing a foodplant for a creature that has never been seen locally. Also, have a look at what environments are close by – our little patches of ancient forest in East Finchley are where the great spotted woodpeckers and jays that visit my garden live for most of the time. Personally, I’m hoping for speckled wood in my garden, because I know that they live locally, and I am lucky to have several mature trees.

But it is also useful to have nectar-rich plants for hungry migrants such as painted ladies and red admirals, and seeing these insects makes me happy, which is reason enough to grow them as far as I’m concerned. As I look out  of my office window, I can see the last flowers on the buddleia in the front garden swaying in the wind, and a bumblebee trying to land. The honeybees from the local allotment are feeding happily, and a red admiral just flew away, flapping to gain height and get over the roof of the house. There is a lot to be said for just stopping and staring, and seeing what’s going on. Nothing is better for slowing down that monkey-mind that so many of us suffer from these days, and for grounding us back into the present.




Bugwoman on Location – A Trip to Smithfield

Animal trough in West Smithfield

Dear Readers, I used to work in the Smithfield area but hadn’t been back for ages, so I decided that the area was ripe for a re-visit. As I stepped off the number 17 bus, the smell of the place drifted back to me; Smithfield is London’s wholesale meat market, and I remember the distinctive smell of blood from the carcasses that are processed here.  Smithfield Meat Market was the site of slaughter of over 74,000 cattle and a million and a half sheep per year , right up to the 1850’s. Animals were driven via Highgate and Islington from all over the country: animals too weak to walk the past few miles were often killed in Highgate, which used to have a preponderance of butcher’s shops (and pubs for the drovers to ‘wet their whistle’).The raised pavements in these areas were to prevent the smart ladies and gentlemen from getting their clothing soiled by all the dung from these benighted creatures.

Smithfield was second only to Tyburn as  the site of many executions, including the Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler and the Scottish knight Sir William Wallace, of Braveheart fame. Swindlers and forgers were boiled to death in oil here in the 15th Century. In short, the amount of human and animal misery that these stones have witnessed should surely have left their mark. Peter Ackroyd, that august chronicler of the Capital, believes that certain places in the city retain their character in spite of attempts at modernisation. It will be interesting to see if this plays out in the Smithfield area.

There is an extraordinary amount of building going on. I spend a lot of time trying to get my bearings, and on every corner there seems to be a chap in a high-vis jacket and a hard hat, shouting about deliveries into a mobile phone.  Many of the old buildings remain, after a fight to retain them, and the Museum of London is due to be relocated here at 2021. There is lots of modernisation but I also read recently that it is planned that the meat market, along with Billingsgate fish market (currently in Poplar) and Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market (in Leyton) will all be relocated to Barking. What will happen to the remaining Smithfield buildings remains to be seen.

The entrance to the Grand Avenue at Smithfield

A Smithfield Dragon – symbol of The City of London

However, this is all very well, but I am really here to investigate an interesting new project in the little park in West Smithfield. Wayward Plants is an organisation that, among other things, has been organising the ‘adoption’ of unwanted house plants from events such as the Hampton Court Flower Show, which can only be a good thing. In Smithfield, they have put up a ‘greenhouse’ called ‘The House of Wayward Plants’. This is a pun on the ‘Wardian Case’, which was very popular as a way of displaying and growing ferns during the Victorian era: you might remember that I have written about ‘fern mania’ or ‘pteridomania’ during this time, when whole areas were denuded of (sometimes rare) ferns by eager collectors. My first sight of the ‘House’ was from behind a human drinking fountain,

And when I got a proper view of it, I realised that two chaps were sitting on the table inside having their lunch. They agreed that it was a most excellent spot for sandwich munching, especially when it was raining.

As you might expect, the planters are full of ferns – maidenhair and male fern and our old friend hart’s tongue fern.

There is a programme of events being held in the House of Wayward Plants, including botanical drawing, gardening and music. I suspect that our diners may sometimes have to find an alternative spot for their sarnies.

The Smithfield gardens hold another surprise, however. They are very proud of their Caucasian Wingnut trees, who are in full flower at the moment. In spite of sounding like something that the Monty Python team would invent, these are magnificent trees, competing very well with the huge London plane trees that would normally dominate the space. I would have said that I had never seen one before, but in ‘Street Trees of London’, Paul Wood points out that there is a heavily pruned example in Islington, where I lived for eight years. It all goes to show how easy it is to just walk past things rather than paying them any attention.

Flowers of the Caucasian Wingnut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia)

The tree comes originally from the Black Sea, and is native to the Caucasus (as you might expect) – the notice on the railings says that they come from Iran. The notice also mentions that you shouldn’t try to grow a Caucasian Wingnut in your garden, because it can grow to over 30 metres tall and has a dense, spreading canopy. I also rather like the fissured bark.

Onwards! I decide to have a wander through the grounds of St Bartholemew’s Hospital. Looking down the road, I can see the figure of Justice from the roof of the Old Bailey.

There is also a truly awful example of what The Gentle Author has dubbed ‘ghastly Facadism’ – developers seem to think that they’re doing their duty by preserving the front wall of a building whilst knocking up a dreadful generic glass office block (or some ‘luxury flats’) behind it. I have no idea what was here before, but I suspect that what replaces it will not be as interesting as what was there originally. It sometimes feels as if we are losing this part of London faster than we can fight the applications.

There is a restful courtyard in the middle of the hospital complex, with some sympathetic pollinator plantings and a fine fountain.

This is one of the oldest parts of London, still full of winding medieval streets. There are two churches which are associated with the hospital and the parish, St Bartholemew the Less (which is actually in the church grounds) and dates back to the 12th century, and St Bartholemew the Great, which was founded as an Augustinian friary in 1123.

St Bartholemew the Great

This hasn’t stopped the building of one or two strangely unsympathetic buildings, however.

And as I wend my way through, I can’t resist finishing my walk with a visit to the planting at the Barbican, just to see how it’s settling in. As usual, I’m  not disappointed. I’m especially pleased with how the waterside planting is going, Even on this dull day, there are plenty of bees and hoverflies about.

And so, it’s time for my sandwich and a flat white. I am a little underwhelmed by the Wayward Plants greenhouse (though the idea is fascinating, and I am pleased with the ‘recycled plants’ idea). However, I have seen my first Caucasian wingnuts, and am pleased to have reminded myself of the byways of Smithfield. London is endlessly fascinating, and you can find interesting plants in the most unlikely places.




Bugwoman on Location – A Bittersweet Visit

Some splendid hollyhocks near my Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester

Dear Readers, as you might remember, my Dad is in a nursing home in Dorchester. He has vascular dementia, and so when I go to see him it’s impossible to guess in advance how he’s going to be. Last time, he decided he really wanted to come home with me on the train, and I had to trick him to make sure that he didn’t follow me to the station. But this time, he was waiting for me when the lift doors opened.

‘I saw you coming up the road, so I thought I’d bring your Dad over to the lift’, said the carer. ‘And then I thought, maybe you weren’t coming straight here!’

But I was, and there was Dad. He looks so suave these days, and actually much smarter than he was when during his last few years at home, when his beard and hair ran rather out of control.

I delivered the coffee and custard tart that I always bring, and Dad brought me up to speed.

‘We had some music across the road’, he said, ‘it went on for 24 hours!’

I’d noticed the marquees on the way in.

‘Was it good? ‘ I asked.

‘Marvellous’, said Dad. ‘There were seventy thousand people there’.

And I have to smile at this point. Had the carers taken a minibus full of folk to Glastonbury? But actually, Dad was always an exaggerator. His tales of his travels abroad – the anaconda that he saw in Venezuela that were 50 feet long, the steaks that were the size of a dining room table – used to keep my brother and I amused for hours when we were callow teenagers. But now, I love him for his desire to still tell an impressive story, to keep his audience enthralled. And unlike some people, who tell these tall tales in order to trick people, I’m convinced that Dad has always believed what he’s saying. I wish that he had realised that he was quite remarkable enough, this man who left school with no qualifications at 14 but who was soon travelling the world making gin for United Distillers, speaking Spanish and mixing with all manner of people. People ‘like us’ didn’t do those things, but Dad did.

At Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary ‘Do’, I was talking to one of my cousins, who was a little boy when Dad started travelling abroad.

‘I always thought of him as being a bit like James Bond’, he said, ‘Jetting off with his suitcase to places I’d never heard of. I was always so proud to have such an exciting uncle’.

I don’t think Dad ever understood the impression that he made, not just on my cousin, but on all of us. For me, he made foreign travel seem possible, something desirable and something achievable. He was always so curious, and touchingly innocent. Once, at a hotel in Venezuela, a woman with a small child approached him. Dad chatted away to her, but was surprised when the waiter he had befriended called him over for a phone call. When Dad got up, the waiter gently told him that the woman was a prostitute. I remember how Dad kept shaking his head when he told us the story.

‘But she had a little boy with her’, he kept saying. ‘I thought she just wanted someone to talk to’.

Holm Oaks outside the nursing home

When I went back to the nursing home on the following day, Dad was a bit more agitated.

‘All the presents are gone!’ he said.

He’d given me a list of things to buy – a clock, some chocolate, polo mints, a razor, a hair brush. Things do go for a walk in home sometimes: usually Dad just puts things down and forgets them, whereupon some of the other residents pick them up. One lady has an eye for any neglected cups of coffee, which she swoops upon with the skill of a Dickensian urchin.

I showed Dad the many things I’d bought, and he was distracted for a minute, but still worried about the ‘presents’. I had noticed that his room was a bit bare. Then, he stood up to go to the toilet, and grabbed one of the red-framed walkers that was ‘parked’ nearby.

‘Don’t fall over!’ said M. She is one of the residents, and is constantly worried about other people tripping or needing something.

‘I’ll look after him, M’, I said, as I steadied Dad for the short trot to the toilet.

‘My husband died’, she said. ‘Good man. Worked hard’.

‘I’m sorry’, I said, as I always do. M and I usually have a chat about her husband while I’m in. But then she tells me something that I hadn’t heard.

‘We were in the Salvation Army’, she says. ‘In Bridport. We all sang. My brother played the trumpet’.

And then M gives the sweetest smile in the world, and for a second she reminds me of my Mum.

And then Dad is back, and he’s delighted.

‘I found the presents!’ he says.

And there, under the seat of the walker, are all Dad’s treasures: a couple of photos, a hair brush, a clock, my postcard from Obergurgl.

So I ask him if he wants me to put them back in his room, and he does. At least he’ll have multiple iterations of the things he needs, which should last him till I visit again.

I  pop back in the morning for one last visit before I head home. Dad had a bad night – one of the new residents had wandered into his room in the middle of the night (ironic since this is what Dad was doing for months). He was semi-clothed and groggy when I came in, and didn’t even look at me. One of the carers was ‘sorting him out’, and so I sat and drank my coffee while I waited for Dad to come back. When he appeared, he looked much more spruce, but didn’t seem to recognise me – he walked straight past, to the consternation of the staff nurse.

‘Tom, there’s your daughter there!’ she said, steering him back towards me.

He stops, and looks at me as if he knows that I’m someone he knows, but can’t remember who. And then he brightens.

‘You’re beautiful!’ he says.

‘So are you, Dad’, I say.

And I know that this is one of those moments that I’ll remember when things get tough. It feels like a gift, just as Mum telling me she loved me before she died was a gift. I am trying to get past my fear of what is happening to Dad, so that I can appreciate and respond to the person who is  still here. My fear makes me rush around to sort things out, when it would be better if I just sat and listened and became calm, so that that calmness could permeate Dad too. Sitting can be the hardest thing of all, and yet I believe that it often does the most good. Presence and attention can be the best gifts of all.


Bugwoman on Location – The Panoramaweg

View of the Seenplatte from Hochgurgl, Austria

Dear Readers, when I go for my annual trip to Obergurgl in Austria, there is always one day when the cloud is so low that the scenery disappears behind a veil of mist. I rather enjoy these days – the sound is muffled, the walkers are few, and familiar scenes become mysterious. We always call these days our ‘panoramaweg’ days, in tribute to the information boards at popular tourist sites which set out the view that we should be seeing, with the mountain peaks named and the paths and ski-runs clearly marked, all completely invisible behind an interminable blanket of grey. Sometimes the clouds lift, sometimes they don’t, but we always keep our fingers crossed and head out anyway.

Heading up in the Hochgurgl lift

The walk we’re doing today is from the middle station of the Hochgurgl lift, back to Obergurgl. It’s a pleasantly varied walk, involving mountains, bogs and forest. We are greeted on arrival by the usual bunch of cows. Unusually, this time the calves are running with their mothers – in the village, the calves seem to be separated almost as soon as they’re born. And for a few moments the cloud lifts.

There is a positive posse of snowblowers already for action during the winter season. This year, there was a snowfall of several metres in May, and as noted in last week’s post, the vegetation is well behind where it should be. I wonder what will happen to the skiing industry as natural snow becomes less and less predictable? This valley earns the vast majority of its income in the winter season. Everything is changing, and we seem ill-equipped to deal with it.

And then the cloud rolls back in. The alpenroses (actually a type of azalea) are just coming into flower – some years they have already finished by the tme we arrive.

And I have always been fond of this chap.

As we turn the corner towards the boggy bit of the trail, we are confronted by a most unusual sight. There are several cars and vans parked beside the track. There is a man wearing only swimming trunks under a massive fur coat. My husband tells me that there was also a woman in swimwear but for some reason I didn’t notice. There are cameras and one of those white umbrellas that photographers use.

Clearly, no one told the photographer what the weather forecast was.

As no shooting was going to take place any time soon, we ambled on down the path, stopping only to take a photo of a rather splendid hat that is presumably going to be utilised when/if the cloud lifts.

The ponds along the track, which are sometimes dried up by this time of year, are full of water, and even contain a few tadpoles.

We march on upwards through the mist. We can hear the jangle of bells in the distance, but are unsure whether they come from particularly acrobatic cows, goats or the long-eared Italian sheep that graze here. Finally we find out as we see a little family of sheep silhouetted against the skyline. They are unusually skittish and gallop off up the mountainside, though I suspect that the rustle of a lunchpack would soothe their nerves.

Onwards! The next part of the path leads into the Konigstal, a particularly difficult valley (from the point of view of someone still recovering from a sprained ankle). It was a popular spot for smugglers crossing into Austria from Italy – they brought tobacco, sheep, furs, and even tea. There is still a customs hut at the top of the Konigstal, and I suspect that many a backhander was passed over – how else could someone drive an entire flock of sheep past, even at dead of night?

On the way we pass some black vanilla orchids. I’ve seen about four species of orchids this year, and I know that many more pop up later in the season. This place really is a botanist’s dream.

Black vanilla orchid (Nigritella nigra)

To cross the Konigstal you have to go a long way into the valley, and to keep your fingers crossed that the bridge is still there. One year it wasn’t, and we ended up wading across. It’s always a relief when it looms into view.

There is a lot of snow about this year, and where it’s melted back there are the alpine snowbells. These are the first flowers to appear once the snow is gone, and they take advantage of the lull before the other plants, overwhelm them. I love the fringes on the ‘cups’, and think of them as the quintessential Alpine flower. They only grow above 900m and are normally seen just after the snow melts.

Snow in the Konigstal

Alpine snowbells (Soldanella alpina)

From now on the walk is one long descent, through the pine forest and eventually to Obergurgl. The clouds appear to be lifting a bit (or we’re getting lower) (or both).

We can hear the constant calls of nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) above the trees – these are a kind of jay, and are responsible for planting a lot of the pines, as they bury the pine nuts for winter sustenance and often don’t eat all of them. They are rambunctious birds and at this time of year often have youngsters in the nest, but they are also shy and difficult to photograph. So here is a photo taken by someone with infinitely more patience than I have (and probably a better camera too)

Photo One by Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Spotted Nutcracker (Public Domain)

I love this part of the path, where the smell of pine resin rises and the walking becomes a little easier. The sun finally comes out, persuading us to take off our waterproofs.

There are gentians of some kind along by the path – probably trumpet gentian (Gentiana acaulis) though they seem a tiny bit pale. I am holding out hope that they are the slightly rarer Clusius’s gentian (Gentiana clusii). I really must get a better book for ID of Alpine flowers – does anyone have any recommendations?

Clusius’s  gentian?

And finally, Obergurgl heaves into view. I cannot believe the amount of building work that is going on this year (we have a morning coffee every day and admire the different cranes and lorries that are operating on the Edelweiss and Gurgl hotel and the new conference centre). But from here, all is peaceful, and we are starting to look forward to a Radler (shandy) or an Almdudler ( a traditional herbal drink which tastes like a cross between ginger beer and green tea).

We climb up again to cross the final waterfall before heading down into the village. One year we were staying here and learnt that a woman at another hotel was terrified of heights and also of crossing running water. The whole holiday must have been purgatory for her. I can only imagine that she was very poorly advised.

The penultimate leg of the walk…

And finally we meander into the village through a mass of meadow plants, including this magnificent clover. There must be a dozen different clovers and vetches in the fields around Obergurgl and this year I’ve been able to enjoy them for the whole fortnight: normally the first cut of the meadows has been at the end of the first week in July, but this year the weather just hasn’t been good enough, though the hay trucks are starting to roll now.

And so tomorrow we will be heading home after another holiday in Obergurgl. It’s hard to explain how much this place means to me – it seems to be quintessentially healing for the mind and the body. I always come back to London feeling refreshed, and this year is no exception. I still have challenges to face, and no doubt all sorts of things will be waiting for me at home, but I feel better able to deal with them. And now, it’s off for a final apfelstrudel. Tschuss!