Category Archives: London Birds

Deep in Their Roots All Flowers Keep the Light (Theodore Roethke)

Spring in the County Roads

Dear Readers, I was at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on Wednesday, watching a production of Twelfth Night. My first inkling that something was wrong was when I switched on my phone during the interval. As soon as the screen burst into life, I was inundated with messages from my husband and friends.

‘Are you all right?’

Of course, what could possibly go wrong at Twelfth Night (apart from some rather weak comedy of course)?

But soon it became clear that a terrorist attack had taken place on Westminster Bridge and at Westminster itself. People were dead. Someone was in the Thames. Parliament was in lock down.

When I left the theatre, Waterloo Bridge was a chain of red double-decker buses, bumper to bumper, and a crocodile of commuters trudged past, trying to find an alternative way home. Overhead, the helicopters droned like heavy bees.

It all felt all too familiar. I had been visiting the Tower of London with my sister-in-law and her eight-year old daughter when the tube bombings of 7th July 2005 happened. The whole transport network, tubes and buses, was closed down, and the working population of London  took to the streets to walk home, blinking like moles above ground. I remember the wail of sirens as ambulances screeched past, the women walking in their stockinged feet, high-heels in hand.

And years earlier, picking my way through barricades in the City of London after the IRA bombs, the crunch of broken glass underfoot and the window blinds in the Nat West tower flapping like sails.

And later, leaving the station and feeling a juddering through my feet and up into my stomach that could only be an explosion, and hearing that a bomb had been set off at Canary Wharf, five miles away as the raven flies.

And when it feels as if the ground has moved, there is nothing for it but to slow down, to breathe, to return to the familiar. And so today, the day after the Westminster attacks, I walk around my local streets to see what can be seen. I need to move at the pace of a small child, and allow myself to be intrigued.

What, for example, is eating my nettles and green alkanet? It seems too early for a caterpillar but there he is, not sure whether to curl up or not.  I am glad that I showed mercy to the nettles, and will leave them now for this creature to feed on.

I turn left, and notice the violets scattered amongst the broken Victorian paths and popping up at the bottom of walls. I love their strange, five-petalled faces, the purple stripes against the lilac throat, like landing lights for bees. Where have the violets come from? I cannot remember seeing them last year, but today they are everywhere. There is one particularly big patch a few houses up, and I wonder if this is the motherlode, and all the others are downwind, the seed scattered and taking root.

I turn into Bedford Road. There is a particularly fine double-fronted house with two massive trees outside, and the steep, tiered garden is full of woodplants: green hellebore and lungwort, and a bush covered in yellow flowers that look like the blooms of miniature daffodils.

Across the way is some green alkanet coming into bloom. For the first time, I notice that the early flowers are purple or even pink, turning blue as they age, just as the flowers of lungwort do, and I am reminded that green alkanet and lungwort are closely related. In fact, there will be many things on this walk that remind me of the borage family, and what a boon it is.

I’m feeling steadier already.

Some asplenium ferns are growing from a wall further up the road, and I am reminded of the ones that I saw in Somerset, and had never seen in London before. Another thing about walking slowly is that it enables me to make connections, in time and place. For a second I can see a tiny part of the complex web that holds all of us together, for, deny it or not, we are all much more closely related than we think.

The Camellias are in full bloom, and how glorious they look! But the rain will mar their perfection, and never was a flower more easily ripped from its stem. They are a brief glory, but a glory nonetheless.

One house has an enormous plaster pineapple as a gate post. I have always loved it, while having no idea at all what it means. It looks a little big for this particular house, and I would love to know if it was originally on the gatepost of some local mansion. But for now, I just admire it and move on.

The white comfrey outside my friend A’s house is doing very nicely – the flowers are such a brilliant white that I have to turn down the exposure on my camera to get any kind of photo. That whiteness only lasts for a brief time, though, before it’s stained with brown.

The waxy blossoms of the magnolia are just about to erupt and one house has a magenta magnolia with buds that look like elegant hands.

Some twittering on Durham Road makes me look up, and there are a pair of blue tits working their way along a gutter, along with a goldfinch. I suspect that little insects sometimes turn up here, maybe trapped with the dead leaves. At this time of year the tits are so busy. One has taken to pecking at the blossoms on my skimmia, though whether for nectar or invertebrates I have no idea.

The lesser celandine is popping up everywhere.

Outside the church on Durham Road there is a big patch of creeping comfrey. A few years ago this was almost completely eradicated, but here it is again. The blooms start off with a red throat, which goes blue as the flower matures, and they are a magnet for hairy-footed bees and bee flies and bumblebees, even on a cold, breezy day like today.

I always look at the little microhabitats at the bottom of trees. The chickweed is in full bloom already, with its flowers like little stars. The blossom from the early-flowering cherry trees blows along the pavement.

There is one magnificent twisted cherry tree on Leicester Road, that looks as if it could have come from a Japanese vase. It arches over the garage and out over the road as if in a complex yoga pose. I nearly get run down taking a picture from the middle of the road. Such are the dangers of trying to be intrepid in East Finchley.

There is a particularly fine forsythia bush, too.

I am rather taken by the early flowers of yellow corydalis, when they are cream-coloured with a kiss of pale green. Later, they turn sunshine yellow, which is not quite so elegant.

And for the first time I notice the tiny flowers of a laurel, erupting from bunched fists into four tiny chocolate petals.

I turn for home, and can’t resist a final photo of the moss on a nearby wall, the capsules reminding me of the head and neck of a swan, a world in miniature.

And my final, final picture, of rosemary in flower, each bloom a little homunculus, orchid-like in their beauty.

When Death’s trumpet blares from every headline, I need to remember that this is only part of the story. We get so caught up in our own stories, our tragedies and our triumphs,  that we forget that there are different stories to be told.  Other living things are getting on with their lives, preparing for the next cycle of seeds and eggs and frantic gaping mouths, just as they always have. There is such tenderness in the soft shoot of a violet, and yet it has pushed through concrete to get to the light. Life is ferocious and it will not be denied, and I do believe that our urge towards the light is much stronger than our need for the darkness, however much it might sometimes seem otherwise. In the words of Theodore Roethke, that great, vulnerable, brave poet:

‘Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.’

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Feed The Birds

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Dear Readers, last week my friend J and are were in the bird food aisle at our local garden centre. How confusing it all is! There is food for finches, food for robins, food for sparrows and food for tits. I didn’t notice any food for pigeons or squirrels, so maybe I am the only person in the world who is happy to have them come to visit. What did strike me was how cynical a lot of this is, and how much money people might spend to keep all their avian charges happy. Don’t do this, people! Let me share with you the food that I normally have available in the garden, and who benefits from each kind.

Sunflower hearts

Sunflower hearts

Firstly, seeds. Cheap seed is full of filler and husks. The birds don’t mind it, but probably half to two-thirds of it goes to waste. It’s worth paying out for the best seed that you can afford. My preference (or rather the birds preference) is for sunflower hearts. These are eye-wateringly expensive, but are taken by all the finches, the woodpigeons, the collared doves and the house sparrows. And also the squirrels, of course. I hope you’ll enjoy this short film, taken during Storm Doris yesterday.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder



My second food is whole peanuts, but only from August through to the end of January – there is evidence that if fed to baby birds, the nuts can choke them. If I have peanuts, I can watch the acrobatics of the squirrels, but even more delightfully, I can expect visits from the jays. How the word gets round that the nuts are out, I have no idea, but there we go.

RSPB's buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available :-)

RSPB’s buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available 🙂

My third food is some form of suet, normally suet pellets. RSPB do a nifty variety called buggy nibbles, which apparently contain the remains of insects as well. The starlings adore this stuff, and many of the other birds will also take it, particularly the blue, great and coal tits that are regular visitors, and the long-tailed tits that occasionally breeze past. Another seasonal visitor is the greater spotted woodpecker who hammers away at the suet feeder like Michelangelo wielding a chisel. If I put it on my ground feeder or makeshift bird-table everyone eats it – the blackbirds, the woodpigeons and the collared doves. The foxes will also pop by once in a while for a feed, as, unfortunately, do several cats. I suppose that suet is animal fat, after all.

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it



The next foods are ‘optional extras’, because I have no children and so can afford to indulge my garden visitors, who will not need supported through university and rarely require nappies. I normally have some dried mealworms, which I scatter on the garden for the robin and dunnock, and mix with the suet. If you really want to see some spectacular ‘bird action’ you could try live mealworms, which you can buy from one of my favourite companies, Wiggly-Wigglers. I have stopped using them because I couldn’t bear to send all those little wrigglers to their deaths, which is just pure hypocrisy because I seem to be able to overcome my moral doubts when they’re already dead. Some people recommend that the dry ones are soaked in water first, which might be a good idea in the breeding season. They are the number one most loved food in the garden and last for about twenty minutes.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

And lastly, I’m currently feeding something that the RSPB have developed called ‘Bird Granola’. It’s a mixture of suet, seeds and mealworms, and the birds have gone crazy for it. Like all suet products (including the buggy nibbles mentioned previously) it can dry to a solid lump if it gets wet, and can also turn a patio into a skating rink.

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

I also feed things like leftover grated cheese (beloved by the wrens), chopped apples and pears that are past their best (on the ground or bird table, for the blackbirds and any other thrushes that pop in), leftover cake (no icing) and things like rice if it hasn’t been salted. I had good results with some stuff called Flutter Butter (again from Wiggly Wigglers) – you get a jar of ‘peanut butter’ that you can hang up, and which is very popular with the tits. Normal nut butters are too salty for birds, however.

Robin picking over the leftovers

Robin picking over the leftovers

There are also things that I never bother with.

  • Nyjer seed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to be the thing that the finches love, but in my garden they much prefer the sunflower seeds
  • Anything in a net – birds get horribly injured when they get tangled up in the mesh. I do sometimes put out suet balls, but always in a proper feeder
  • Bread (not much nutritional value generally)

I honestly think that you could get away with putting out sunflower seeds, suet pellets and some chopped apples/grated cheese, and get a very fine range of species if everything else is in place. And what is everything else?

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Water – I have the pond (as you know) but I also have a bird bath. It’s surprising how much the birds like to bathe, particularly in winter.

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Blue tit in the lilac

Blue tit in the lilac

Somewhere close to the feeders for the birds to perch. I’m lucky (or lazy) because my garden is fairly overgrown, but birds do like to grab something from a feeder or bird table and then retreat to safety. This is worth thinking about when you position your feeding station or table – the spot needs to be open enough so that next door’s cat can’t hide close by, but close enough that the birds don’t feel exposed to airborne predators liked sparrowhawks. I think that  little birds in particular are very attuned to the presence of birds of prey, and they are much commoner than you’d think – I once looked out of my kitchen door and found a sparrowhawk eating a pigeon on the step outside.

Fluffed-up starling

Fluffed-up starling

This is, of course, a very personal view: the birds that visit the garden will depend on where you live, and how urban (or otherwise) your area is. My garden is suburban, twenty minutes from central London by tube, but it benefits from having two scraps of ancient woodland and a huge Victorian cemetery nearby. My parent’s bird feeder at their home in Dorset is monopolised delightfully by the house sparrows who make their nests in their ten-foot tall beech hedge. My friend J was recently visited by a pair of parakeets. I am visited by lots of chaffinches, who are rarely seen in the garden of my friend A, who only lives around the corner. And if you live in the US or Canada or Australia, your guests will be very different. But there is something in many of us that derives great pleasure from helping our feathered neighbours. For me, it’s a small thing that I can put back – we have taken so much in terms of habitat for nesting and opportunities for feeding with the growth of our cities and the intensification of our agriculture. And whose heart doesn’t lift when a flock of long-tailed tits drop by in a chorus of contact calls, or a jay descends on the birdtable in a flash of blue? These moments can give us an instant of wonder and a surge of connection with the world around us.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that the song ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins always leaves me with a lump in my throat. It’s sentimental, sugary-sweet, and these days any old lady selling bird food on the steps of St Pauls would be hauled off for a night in the cells. And yet I still find myself wiping away a surreptitious tear. See what you think.

‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins

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




To have a garden is to be regularly reminded about death. As I was clearing away the stalks of hemp agrimony last spring, I found the frail, headless corpse of a male blackbird, its decapitation a strong indication that it had been brought down by a sparrowhawk. It weighed heavily in my hand, for I knew this particular bird.

img_9584 At twilight he would cling on to next door’s rooftop television aerial and and pour out his mellifluous song, the notes trickling down like honey. Later, there might be some kind of upset in the bushes, and his maniacal alarm call would set off everybody else. But he was also subtle. I once walked past him in semi-darkness as he sat in the lilac bush, and heard him making a soft ticking call, like a feathered clock. Apparently this call is used to deter other males from roosting in the blackbird’s territory overnight, but it sounded to me as if he was trying to comfort himself, like a lone child whistling in the dark.

And then, after his death, there was a year without blackbirds and darkness fell without serenade. But this year, they are back, in force.

Young male blackbird (Turdus merula)

Young male blackbird (Turdus merula)

There is at least one adult male, a female, and a young male. The young males have a charcoal black and dark brown livery in their first year, and this chap is regularly seen off by the adult male. But the youngster is determined, and I often see him sitting in the whitebeam tree, shuffling his feathers and looking around anxiously. Although blackbirds are ostensibly monogamous, and mate for life, a study has shown that up to 17% of offspring are not fathered by the female’s partner, so maybe the youngster is just waiting for his chance.

Adult male blackbird

Adult male blackbird

The garden is the adult male’s territory, and in the morning I often see him picking over the patio, or throwing leaves aside in a search for little insects and other titbits. His beak is as orange-yellow as a crocus, and this colour is thought to be an indication of dominance and health: in experiments, male blackbirds react more strongly to orange beaks than to yellow ones, and are largely indifferent to the black bills of first year males. Someone should tell my blackbird that he’s meant to leave the young guys alone.  At any rate, only his mate is tolerated: as soon as he sees another blackbird, the male bows, fluffs himself out, sometimes lets out a semi-hysterical cackling war cry and flies directly at the offending bird. He seems to spend a large proportion of his time in this way. I hope he has the energy left for child-rearing later in the year.

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

Female blackbird (Photo One – credit below)

I wonder about the female, too. Blackbirds mate for life, but it could be that she has taken up with this dashing gallant following the death of her previous partner. On the other hand, as blackbirds try to hold the same territory for life, and I saw no blackbirds at all for a year after the death of the male, this could be a completely new pair. The female spends a lot of her time feeding at the moment – egg-laying and chick-rearing is highly expensive in terms of energy, and she’ll need every morsel she can find. Plus, she builds the nest by herself, sometimes in thick undergrowth, sometimes in a shed, sometimes in the most unlikely places, such as a pair of unloved wellington boots or, as I once saw on Orkney, in the radiator grille of an abandoned car. They sometimes seem a bit clueless in the spots that they choose, and many, many nests fail due to predation. Mind you, round here you’d need a gun emplacement and barbed wire to keep the cats out, so any chicks that get to the fledging stage are doing well. Blackbirds apparently have different alarm calls for cats ( a ‘chook-chook-chook’ call) and for aerial predators like the sparrowhawk (a ‘seeeee’ call which is difficult to locate).

The last three crab apples just about to disappear....

The last three crab apples just about to disappear….

Blackbirds are ground feeders – I occasionally see the male perched cockily on my bird table, but they can’t manage the other feeders. They do love berries, however, and work their way through the haws and the hips with great enthusiasm. As I was watching today, the male ate the last of the crab apples, but these are not favourites: sweet and juicy fruit is much preferred, not just by blackbirds but by most thrushes. I once put out some grated apple for a fieldfare who had been downed during a snowstorm, and it was much appreciated. I often throw out apples and pears that are past their best – once they’re all brown and bruised they’re ideal thrush food.

By Downloaded from Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain,

‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ cover (Photo Two – credit below)

Blackbirds are woven into our childhoods and our folklore. Take the popular nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, for example:

‘Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocketful of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds

Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,

The birds began to sing

Wasn’t this a dainty dish

To set before a king?’

Because blackbirds were (and still are) so common, they would have been a handy addition to the diet in hard times, but the pie here sounds like a more extravagant affair. Just as married couples sometimes release doves or butterflies at their nuptials, so there was a fashion for slapping a pie crust on top of some cowering birds so that they would burst forth when the lid was cut. I only hope that the blackbirds made their way towards the sky and escaped.

Incidentally, the ‘four calling birds’ of The Twelve Days of Christmas probably refers to ‘Colly (Coaly) birds’, i.e. blackbirds.

img_9584Last night, I stood by the window as dusk fell and the fading sunlight turned all the bricks of East Finchley rose-red. And there, back on the television aerial, was the blackbird, vibrating with song. Listening to him, all my worries fell away. I was reminded of Edward Thomas’s poem, Adlestrop:

‘And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’

A flock of starlings rolled overhead, on their way to their roost in one of the big plane trees on the High Road, and the last twitterings of a charm of goldfinches faded into silence. And I thought about blackbirds, and their short, unremarked lives, and the struggles, both human and animal, that surround us everyday. But also the joy. We must never forget the joy.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Female Blackbird) – By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Nursery Rhyme Cover) – By Downloaded from Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain,

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.







East Finchley’s River – The Mutton Brook (Part Two)

img_9451Dear Readers, last week I left you as I was just about to cross Falloden Way, a busy road that channels traffic through Hampstead Garden Suburb and onto the North Circular Road. For most of the route so far I’d been able to hear the robins singing and the sound of the brook, but for the next stretch it was all about the rumble of traffic. I was most disconcerted by the sign above: what was polluting the stream? Was it just the continual run-off from the road, with all the concomitant petrol spills and diesel oil, or something worse? I know that in Coldfall Wood a lot of the pollution was due to misconnections of household appliances such as washing machines, so I was pleased to see that the Brent Catchment Project are looking at such events along the Mutton Brook.  It also looked to me as if it was a spot where the river floods, at least by the sight of the decaying sandbags at one side of the bridge under the road, but if I want to check, I can look at the government’s Flood Information Service website here.

img_9452The river continues along this side of Falloden Way for a couple of hundred yards, and there is a path on the east bank so at least I didn’t need to walk alongside the traffic. But this is a rather unloved stretch of the stream, with broken-down fences and crumbling walls.

img_9457img_9460And then the stream heads back under the road, and I find that I have to retrace my steps back to where I originally crossed the road. Just as well that I am wearing my Fitbit, so all this extra activity at least counts for something.

img_9462 img_9464 img_9465As I trudge along to rejoin the river, I am stopped in my tracks.

img_9469Someone has built a narrow garden full of all kinds of found objects and idiosyncratic delights.

img_9470img_9471I wonder if robins or blackbirds ever nest in the boots and beermugs? I must make a pilgrimage in the spring to find out.

img_9472Every pot and pan has been placed with as much love as a bowerbird expends when he builds his bower. I would love to meet the gardener, I suspect that we would be kindred spirits. It was well worth crossing the road for. And as I walked on, I passed a magnificent squirrel who watched me with no concern at all. I half-expected him to ask me a riddle as I passed.

img_9476And then the river reappeared, and it seemed to have a touch of joie de vivre about it. Maybe it was glad to have some land between it and the road again, for it travels inland here.

img_9477 img_9480And who is that standing on a rock in the middle of the stream but a grey wagtail, husbanding his stretch of the waterway. I had briefly spotted one in the earlier part of the walk, but this one stayed around long enough for me to get a couple of (inadequate) photographs. I love the sulphur-yellow undersides of these winter visitors to our brooks and rivulets.

img_9485It is still very cold. There are places (rather like my back garden) that the sun never touches, and which still crunch underfoot in the afternoon. You can see exactly where the warm spots are just by looking at where the frost still sits.


img_9504I follow the stream on until it gets to Henlys Corner, a major crossroads with turnings towards Temple Fortune and Golders Green, and to Finchley Central. I have to leave the river, cross four lanes of traffic and then descend again, for the last stretch of the walk.

Over the bridge....

Over the bridge….


….and back to the Mutton Brook

According to my map, another underground stream joins the Mutton Brook here. I look up the hill, and sure enough, there’s another manhole cover, of a most interesting shape.

img_9499 img_9498And on I go, still accompanied by robins and the sound of running water.

And it appears that I am not the first person to have passed by recently either.

img_9507And soon, I walk under another tunnel, where the sound of water drops and the play of sunshine on the tiled roof makes it feel almost like the courtyard at the centre of a riad (or at least, it might feel like that if it wasn’t a few degrees below zero).

img_9508When the end comes, it’s  almost an anti-climax, except that yet another robin is trilling his watery song in the sunshine.

img_9509The Mutton Brook joins the Dollis Brook, and the two together become the River Brent, which eventually becomes part of the Thames.


The Mutton Brook (foreground) joins the Dollis Brook coming in from the right to become the River Brent.

And so, I’ve walked the Mutton Brook from end to end, from its ambiguous beginning to its final merging. I can heartily recommend a river-led adventure as a source of unexpected delights, and as  a way to really learn the character of a body of water, and how it changes along its length. I had always taken water for granted, and yet it is mysterious, emerging where it will and, as much as we like to try to control it, volatile in its moods. There is much to contemplate when walking by a river, however humble.

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





East Finchley’s River – The Mutton Brook Part One

Cherry Tree Wood, 18th January 2017

Cherry Tree Wood, 18th January 2017

A few weeks ago it occurred to me that, at the grand old age of nearly 57, I have never walked along a river from its source to its end. I have always wanted to do this with one of the great rivers of the world: the Nile, say, or the Orinoco, or the Amazon. Or, failing that (and I’m sure there are logistical reasons why you can’t actually walk the length of any of the rivers mentioned), I would like to walk the Thames. Well, not much chance of that at the moment either. So, how about a much more local stream?

The Mutton Brook is East Finchley’s own river. It is said to ‘arise in Cherry Tree Wood’, though previous visits had left me a little puzzled about that. Then, it flows through Hampstead Garden Suburb and skirts the edge of Temple Fortune before meeting up with the Dollis Brook and becoming the River Brent, which empties into the Thames. Today being a bright, cold day, I decided to follow the river as far as the Dollis Brook, and just see what I could see. I left behind my pith helmet and took my camera and a copy of an old map of the Suburb to help with navigation.

Well, the first challenge is finding where exactly the Mutton Brook arises. Cherry Tree Wood is notoriously prone to dampness and becomes a bog with little encouragement: the Summer Festival of a few years back had to be cancelled because of the quagmire, and watercress used to be grown in the stream. The theory is that it was called the Mutton Brook because drovers bringing their animals to slaughter at Smithfield would water their sheep here. But where is it within the wood? There is no obvious brook anywhere. My guess is that the river starts somewhere behind the tennis courts.


This area is always damp, and there are often flag irises growing, along with other bog plants.

img_9361You can follow a path of muddy puddles right along the edge of the wood itself, past the football fields. This morning, some areas give an ominous creak when I stand on them, as if the ice will break and I will be plummeted into the mud below. A man slides backwards and forwards on one of the more extensive puddles, and so does a small, hairy dog.

img_9363But the clear evidence of the stream is hidden away. I have missed it numerous times when I’ve been in the wood, and it was only the sound of running water that alerted me to it today. Beside the tube line, surrounded by undergrowth and a green metal fence, a stream runs down a concrete culvert, and is directed sharp left under the embankment. It’s the last time it will appear above ground for over a mile.


My first definite sight of the Mutton Brook, as it’s channelled under the tube line at East Finchley

img_9371I have an old map of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which clearly shows that the Mutton Brook reappears on a road called Vivian Way. I cut round behind the station, passing along Edmund Walk and emerging into an area of Tudor-themed suburb houses. There are some magnificent weeping willows in the middle of the green here, and I wonder if they are tapping into hidden water.

img_9374I always find interesting garden plants in the suburb, and today is no exception. There is a lovely frosted knot garden, and a very interesting legume – if anyone knows what it is, do tell me!

img_9377 img_9375When I get to Vivian Way, I can find no sign of the poor old Mutton Brook. The green, where it is supposed to run, comprises a lot of grass, three birch trees and a hungry blackbird.

img_9378There is, however, a huge manhole cover plonked down in the middle of the area, and it occurs to me that maybe the stream has been taken underground here, but can still be inspected via this access point. The manhole cover itself is a miniature garden, moss on one side, lichen on the other.


One side of the manhole cover.....

One side of the manhole cover…..

....and the other side

….and the other side

I am always surprised by how quiet the Suburb is during the day, especially after the relative bustle of East Finchley. I’m sure that this calm was something that the architects of the scheme wanted to achieve, and I know that there is a thriving community here. However, there is something a little spooky about it too. In my entire walk I saw only a handful of people.

I cross the main road, and head up Norrice Lea. The synagogue and the Jewish school are here, and there are usually security guards, as there are outside the nursery school that I pass later. It distresses me that this should be necessary, but I understand the need. I try to look as inoffensive as a middle-aged woman carrying a camera can look, but just before I get there I notice the Mutton Brook has emerged from underground and is tumbling under my very feet.

img_9385To follow it, I have to head into Lyttleton Playing Fields, where a small Chinese man is doing his morning tai chi in spite of the cold. I find the stream behind the tennis courts (again). On the other bank there are some rather fine mansion blocks, but it’s a sad little river here: confined between beaten up pieces of wood and crumbling concrete walls, and smelling slightly of sewage.

img_9388 img_9392The banks are mainly bramble and cherry laurel, and there is rubbish bobbing along. At one of the bridges (and at several other points along the brook) there is clear evidence that it occasionally floods, and that the banks subside – I’m very careful not to get too close to the edge along this part of the stream, as there are several places where the soil has fallen in, and I don’t want to follow.

img_9394There are some magnificent oaks and hornbeams along this stretch, their branches stretching over the path like tentacles.

img_9403 img_9397Shortly, I come to Kingsley Way: the brook  leaves the playing fields and flows on into a little ornamental park. There is a measuring device here which I find very puzzling. It looks as if it measures the depth in metres, but it has ‘63’ in red letters at the top. This is about the same height as the bridge, which could well be 6.3 metres from the base. But how high does the river actually rise? I must pay attention and see how often, and how badly, the Mutton Brook misbehaves.

img_9404Once the brook emerges from under the road, it takes on a completely different character.  The stream meanders through a narrow channel, burbling to itself as it goes. There are some fine specimen trees here, and a robin seems to be singing from every one.

img_9411 img_9412The grass is still frozen, and crunches underfoot. A French Bulldog in a jumper goes careering past, dead leaves flying around him. And as I get to the end of the park, where the river goes under another bridge, I am stopped in my tracks by a delicious smell. There are two viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ shrubs, and the scent is divine, even on this freezing day. The pink flowers on the bare branches against the bright blue sky remind me of a Japanese print.

img_9419 img_9415By now, I am cold and in need of a loo. And so I cross Meadway, and stop for a coffee in Cafe Toulouse in Market Place. And very fine coffee it is too. This is a favourite stopping-off place for walkers and mums and friends, and I can see why. I love that it’s called ‘Toulouse’ not because of a fondness for France, but because it’s on the site of a former public toilet.

My walk takes me into another little park, where the Mutton Brook still wanders along in a decidedly civil manner. I sense, however, that it is getting more ambitious.

img_9431img_9432Once past the tennis courts it becomes wider and wilder. I watch the woodpigeons scuffling through the leaf litter, and observe a robin having a titanic battle with a very resistant earthworm.

img_9436 img_9442 img_9443Who knew that earthworms could put up so much of a fight?

The river is nearly invisible behind the brambles now, and when I go to see if I can see it, I find a fine patch of cyclamen leaves.

img_9448I can hear the water, but it’s nearly drowned out by the roar of traffic from Falloden Way, a sound that will be my constant companion from now until pretty much the end of the walk. I steel myself to cross the main road, and see where the stream goes next. But for that, gentle readers, you will need to wait until next week.

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



After Christmas in the Cemetery

img_9246Dear Readers, I visited St Pancras and Islington Cemetery during the week after Christmas, there seemed to have been an irruption of artificial poinsettia. It was the first choice of the many people who had come to visit the graves of their loved ones during this most poignant season of the year. And now, as the wind shook the bare branches and the sun shone down indifferently, the red ‘flowers’ added a somewhat incongruously festive air to the place.

Some of the artificial plants are pretty convincing, others less so. But it is interesting how this plant, originally from Mexico, has a long association with Christmas. A Mexican legend tells how a small girl called Pepita was too poor to bring a gift to the statue of the baby Jesus in her church. An angel appeared, and told her to gather weeds and place them at the altar. Beautiful scarlet flowers grew from these humble plants and turned into poinsettias. The star-shaped leaf clusters are said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour is, of course, the blood of Christ.

img_9238img_9247img_9236img_9235The red part of the poinsettia is not, as we know, the flower – the flower is the rather insignificant mass of tiny buds in the centre of the plant, imitated rather well in the photograph above, I think. The red ‘bits’ are modified leaves, called bracts. These days we can see white, pink and variegated versions of the plant, but I think I prefer the red ones, largely because I love it when the green leaves start to go red and the veins stand out scarlet against the emerald.

But among all the plastic flowers, there was some real life going on. Although January is the middle of winter for us humans, the starting gun has already sounded for many birds. The trees and bushes were full of robins singing, blackbirds chucking and great tits making a right old racket.

img_9239img_9240The width of the band of black on the chest of a great tit is related to testosterone levels, as is the black bib under the chin of a male house sparrow. The wider the band (or the bigger the bib) the more aggressive and dominant the bird is. A Spanish study showed that, in Spain, great tits with a wide black band do better in the forest (the bird’s natural habitat) whereas birds with a narrower band (indicating a more cautious attitude) do better in the cities. But things are rarely so simple. In the Spanish birds, the narrower band also seemed to be linked to a more curious and thorough temperament, surely an advantage when there are lots of novel opportunities to be investigated. I shall leave you to decide on the possible nature of the little chap above.

img_9253In the UK at this time of year there seem to be big gangs of young magpies about. There was a group of four or five in the cemetery while I was having my walk, and they were a noisy, rambunctious lot, harassing a pair of crows and then turning their attentions to terrifying some jays. I once watched a group of twenty in an Islington square as they forced some crows to abandon their nest. Fortunately, the crows hadn’t yet laid any eggs, and the magpies soon departed to annoy someone else. I imagine that this is pre-breeding behaviour, which will cease once everyone is paired up and has their own eggs to worry about.

One of the cemetery kestrels watched on serenely.

img_9269I first spotted this bird on top of a hawthorn bush. It has endless patience, making the occasional reconnaissance flight across the gravestones and then returning to sit and watch. I know that there are lots of small rodents here( after all, I watched a young fox eat a dead one back in the autumn) and the fact that the cemetery supports a pair of kestrels presumably means that they are fairly good at finding them. I always get a thrill when I see a kestrel; they may be small but they have the enigmatic nature of all predators, a kind of self-assurance that I find very moving. Don’t they know how wicked we have been to them, historically and currently?

img_9268Kestrels also eat small birds, and so the superabundance of berries and rose hips this year, which will attract thrushes and other small avians, will help too.

A bush absolutely heaving with rose hips

A bush absolutely heaving with rose hips

img_9257But by now I was getting cold, and even I had seen enough poinsettias for one day.

img_9265And so I turned for home, stopping only to wish a very under-dressed man clutching a can of beer a Happy New Year. He was shivering with cold, but strolled off briskly into a wooded area to finish his drink. The cemetery is a magnet for lost souls of all kinds, and my heart went out to him. When I worked in a night shelter in Dundee, Christmas was always the hardest time of year: so many of the people there had lost contact with their families. It was often hard to work out whether the families had gone because of the drink, or the drink had started because of the families. But whichever it was, it was a time of great distress and soul-searching and, often, remorse. No one is born to end up in a cemetery in a tattered shirt, with drink the only available solace.

But, to end on a more cheerful note, I circled round to see my favourite non-living creature in the cemetery, the Egyptian Cat. I’ve written about him or her before  but I wanted to see how s/he was looking during the festive season. And I was not disappointed.

img_9272What a magnificent outfit! I am more in love than ever.

Now, some of you will, I’m sure, be wondering about the foxes. Truth is, I’ve not seen any for the past month or so: this is the season for young foxes to disperse, and for adults to turn their thoughts to sex. My friend B has been leaving out the medication, and all the food is being eaten, but the foxes can afford to wait until after dark to eat it, and we get booted out of the cemetery at four p.m. However, the days are getting longer, and I’ve no doubt that soon they’ll be putting in an appearance again. You will be the first to know, lovely readers!

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