Category Archives: London Birds

A Surprise

Dear Readers, we were expecting snow in the UK last weekend, but not in London, so it was a bit of a surprise to be woken by the strange light that snow produces seeping through the curtains. It’s been seven years since the last substantial fall, and so there were little children  who had never seen it before. But we woke up early, and everything was hushed.

My first thought was ‘the birds!’ and so we squeaked through the fresh snow to fill up the seed feeders and the suet feeders and the bird table. By the time we went out for a walk to get breakfast, a few children were already running about, their cheeks pinched pink from the cold. They were scraping the snow from the cars to make snowballs, but this year’s fashion seems to be for plastic sledges. A well-wrapped toddler sat like a little princeling surveying his kingdom while his father dragged him along the road.

On East Finchley High Street there were no buses, and just an occasional car travelling slowly and carefully. Michael at Tony’s Continental (the best greengrocer in London in my opinion) was relating how the North Circular Road had come to a complete standstill. An elderly lady was standing at the bus stop in conversation with a woman who was explaining that the bus garages had closed, and offering to walk her home if she wanted.

The red-hot pokers from the Wednesday Weed were wearing little hats of snow.

The various berries looked particularly festive.

I love the way the snow gathers on the undulations in the bark of the plane trees.

And here is a particularly fine festive doorway.

Back in East Finchley after eating my blueberry pancakes and drinking several Flat Whites, I noticed that the Bald-Faced Stag statue above the eponymous pub had turned from gold to white.

On the corner outside Kentucky Fried Chicken there was a single, very friendly pied wagtail. He or she has been there for several days now, and I suspect is living on a diet of discarded chips. Lots of birds hang out here: the crows wait around for discarded bones, the pigeons throw the debris about, and the foxes crunch up anything that’s left. I’m tempted to throw some food down for the wagtail but I suspect everyone else would get there first.

Pied wagtail

Back in the garden, every scrap of food had gone, so out I went again. Although the weather is unkind to animals, it does bring some unexpected visitors, and it also increases their tolerance of both humans and one another.

A small flock of goldfinches have been regular visitors for weeks, so no surprises here.

Goldfinch

But I was delighted to see a family of siskins.In the south-east we only see these birds in the winter, but they are year-round residents in the rest of the country. They are much smaller than the other finches, and flash citrus yellow against the snow.

And then some real excitement – a new species for the garden, a brambling (Fringilla montifringilla), another winter visitor and normally a bird of beech woodland. It is said to be ‘orange-washed’, and this is what helped me to see that this wasn’t ‘just’ another chaffinch. Sadly, she only stayed for a few brief minutes and then headed off. These are shy birds, and the rough-and-tumble of the garden can be a bit much for them.

A brambling (to the left of the picture)

There was a fine collection of birds pecking up the mealworms and suet that we’d scattered – not all birds are comfortable on feeders. The robins, for one, don’t seem to like them, although they are very happy on the bird table.

Robin and Chaffinch

Chaffinch (right) and two siskins.

I should have guessed that it would’t take long for the big guns to move in. I don’t mind, though. These creatures need to eat too. And then I tried to ring Mum and Dad, and got no answer from their telephone. What could have happened? Had it snowed so much in Dorset that the lines were down? Why couldn’t I reach Dad on his mobile? I had a spell of serious catastrophising. Regular readers will know that my parents are not very well, and both are currently recovering (very slowly) from a horrible chest infection.

And then, of course, it turned out that Dad had just knocked the phone off the hook,  and that they were well, without a single flake of snow, and my heart went back to its normal tempo.

I am sure that anyone who has been a carer, or who has had a family member who isn’t well, will recognise this syndrome – a kind of hypervigilance, an expectation that every phone call will require a springing into action. It takes some time to come down from the adrenaline rush, and to accept that all those little internal emergency workers can stand down. But having a garden full of hungry mouths to feed certainly helps take the mind off such things, because this is something that I can do, a way in which I can help. In a world of uncontrollable happenings, I can at least top up the feeders and make sure that there’s fresh water. I am repaid by beauty and interest and a sense of connection with the animal members of the local community.

In other news, Mum and Dad seem to like their new carers, which is a great relief. And the preparations for the Great Western Christmas Migration are more or less in place. This time next week we will (hopefully) be in Dorset, doing the final preparations for 25th December. And while I was sorting out the Tesco food delivery for the parents for next week, I glanced up and saw this.

And then, a few moments later, this.

I love the florid sunsets of winter, their drama and their fleetingness. In five minutes, the light show was gone, and darkness overwhelmed the colours. But for a few moments, it was glorious, and I felt privileged to have been lucky enough to see it. I wish for quiet moments of witness for all of us in the busyness of the next few weeks, moments when we can take a breath and remember what really matters: love, truth, and everyday beauty,

All Change!

Male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Dear Readers, normally I would be starting to decorate the house and make food for the festive season this week, but Mum and Dad are still unwell. They are both breathless and weak, and the doctor has told them that it will be several weeks before they’re back to ‘normal’. And so we’ve come to the decision that it will be better if they stay in Milborne St Andrew  rather than undergo the stress of the travelling to London and being away from home. So,  John and I will take Christmas to Dorset instead of looking after them here, and much re-organisation has ensued. There have been rooms, trains and taxis to book and, most importantly of all, a supermarket delivery slot to get so that I don’t have to carry three days worth of Christmas food down to Dorset on South Western Railways. And now, with everything in place, I’ve been able to spare a few minutes to look out of the window and see what the rest of the world is doing.

It has been a boisterous, unpredictable couple of days, with the weather varying from warm and rainy to freezing cold with bright sunshine and blustery winds. We even have an outside chance of snow over the weekend. The bird feeders have been close to horizontal on several occasions, depositing seed all over the path. The starlings seem to play in the wind, throwing themselves into the air and careering sideways with every appearance of glee. They sway on the branches, bicker on the feeders and are able to rid the bird table of much larger birds by simply showing up in large numbers and descending on the food. They argue among themselves, but, en masse, they are a formidable opponent.

Starling surveying the bird table and gauging her moment for descent….

I was reminded of the importance of supporting one another today. I was having my usual morning flat white in Costa Coffee on East Finchley High Street when a woman started to abuse the young women behind the counter. From what she was saying it was clear that she had mental health problems, but as the tirade got more and more unpleasant, and as one of the younger targets of the abuse was in tears,  I found myself going over to stand with the baristas. I say ‘found myself’ because I didn’t appear to have much choice – my legs just seemed to carry me there. I had no idea what to say or do, but I didn’t want to simply be a bystander – I’ve been too scared to intervene in situations like this in the past, and have always felt ashamed of myself afterwards. As soon as I got to the counter two other customers got up and stood with the young women too. It was important to me that we didn’t demonise the woman who was ranting away, because she was clearly a troubled soul who was in need of care, so we gently tried to calm her down, and to suggest that if she had problems she should take them up with the manager, and eventually she gave up and left. Did we help? I have no idea. But there is a strength in simply standing together that the starlings seem to know instinctively, and that humans often don’t appreciate.

Collared doves waiting for breakfast

Back in the garden, the collared doves stand guard in the whitebeam above the seed feeder. Every so often they descend to feed and promptly start fighting with one another, but in the tree they seem serene and unconcerned.

The chaffinches are back in force, with their mothy flutterings. I doubt that there is a more elegant British finch, and I never tire of their blush-pink breast feathers and slate-blue heads. The females are less brightly coloured, but are graceful little birds. I  love the way that they swoop and bound over the pond.

Female chaffinch

We have been adopted by a small flock of goldfinches, too. They roost in one of the big plane trees on East Finchley High Street, but during the day they pop into the garden every twenty minutes or so. They are such dapper birds, their pale-grey beaks tipped with charcoal and their faces masked in crimson.

Goldfinch

The black and white feathers on the wings remind me of Mondrian, the artist, and so does this most unusual of visitors. It has been almost a year since I’ve since a woodpecker on the suet feeder, and here he is again, hammering away, propped up with his stiff tail feathers. Last time he was here it was Christmas Day 2016 and I gave Mum the binoculars so that she could see him. She is so small and frail, and she swayed slightly as she raised them to her eyes. She said she saw the bird, but I’m not sure if she did or if she just said it to please me.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

And in good news, Mum and Dad have finally accepted that they need a bit of extra care for a while, and I have found an agency that seems caring and responsive. The new carer starts next week, and I hope that they are nice, and that Mum and Dad like them. Life at the moment seems to be something of a steeplechase, with unexpected obstacles around every corner, but I am hoping that we have at least cleared this one. And in the meantime, I look at the birds, and thank them for the moments of peace that they bring me, and the way that they lift me out of myself with fierce wings.

 

 

A Street Tree Harvest

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Dear Readers, the man a few doors along from me gets very frustrated with the crab apple street tree outside his house. In October and November you can see him sweeping up all the rotten fruit , and if you pause he will explain why he hates it.

  1. The fruit, when freshly fallen, is as hard as a ball-bearing, just waiting to catch out the unwary.
  2. The fruit quickly degenerates into a squishy mush, which is even more slippery  than the ball-bearing stage, and is rather unpleasant to walk on even if you don’t fall onto your derriere.
  3. If you leave the rotten and fermenting fruit, it attracts clouds of drowsy wasps.
  4. While the fruit is still on the tree, it attracts noisy and badly-behaved parakeets who add to the mess with their droppings.
What are you looking at?

A noisy and badly-behaved parakeet

Fruit trees as street trees can be problematic, because the fruit is attractive to all kinds of creatures that some people wouldn’t want on their doorstep.  I have no problem with the poor wasps, who are imbibing the last sweet thing that they’ll ever taste, and who could blame them for wanting to get a bit tipsy after a hard year of caterpillar-catching and grub-grooming. And I don’t have a problem with the parakeets either, who bring a touch of exotic beauty to the street.

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But then there’s the mess. It’s not a problem, generally, with cherry trees, because the fruit appears early and the thrushes and blackbirds eat every last morsel. But the autumn fruits can be something of a problem. After all, how much crab apple jelly can anybody eat? And even the more edible fruits can prove difficult to handle in their sheer abundance and generosity.  When I went on a street tree walk earlier this year, I visited a group of sand pear trees whose fruit was so succulent and heavy that it was bombarding the pavement and any cars that were parked underneath with a deluge of sticky-sweet puree. As you might remember from that piece, half the street wanted the trees cut down, and the other half wanted them preserved. Peace broke out when it was decided to do something radical and harvest the fruit to be turned into perry (the pear-based version of cider). It’s almost as if we have forgotten what fruit trees were originally planted for.

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A sand pear tree off Holloway Road in North London

I was very heartened to read in Time Out this week that a group of people are harvesting the apples from street trees, and trees growing on public land, to make cider and to give the fruit to foodbanks and organisations that prepare meals for isolated people. Although crab apples are not immediately edible(at least for humans), tons of perfectly good fruit are wasted every year because nobody picks it. There must be a better, more connected way to bring the hungry together with their food, and to make good use of nature’s bounty, and there are a lot of interesting experiments going on to do just that.

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The fruit on my garden crab apple – popular with the thrushes (when everything else has been eaten)

And it occurs to me that where a tree is just plain messy at certain times of the year, it wouldn’t hurt me to dig out my broom and give the man who lives a few houses down a hand. It’s so easy to become territorial in a row of houses, and to think that your responsibility ends at the edge of your garden wall. That might be strictly true, but it’s not a community I’d want to live in. When we had snow a few years ago, my husband cleared a path not just in front of our house, but for a good distance in either direction. He grew up in Canada and knows how to clear snow, but also recognises that it’s easier for some of us to do heavy work than it is for others. And yes, I know the old story that you can be sued if you clear your snow and someone falls over anyway, but from my research that seems only to apply if you’ve done something really stupid (like try to wash it away so that it freezes into an ice-rink).

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So, as autumn turns into winter, and the sun seems to be low on the horizon all day, I’m determined to be more aware of the bounty around me. There are some handy maps that you can use, in London at least, to look out where your local fruit trees might be, and to keep an eye open for any seasonal bonanzas – here, for example, is one for Hackney, provided by the organisation Hackney Harvest. For a general map of street trees in London, have a look here: you can enter your postcode, and it will tell you what’s growing in your area. All the usual provisos about health and safety apply, but I’d be willing to bet that if you passed by some of these trees in the autumn, the fruit would be literally dropping off. Wash it well though, you know how keen some councils are on spraying things.

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I’ve written before about how ‘plant-blind’ many of us have become. Whereas a generation or two back plants were in relationship with us, whether as medicines, or food, or as food for the imagination, nowadays it’s so easy to barely notice them. Writing the blog has opened my eyes a bit, but there is still so much more to notice and to learn about. I have grown to love the diverse plant community around my home, and to value it for the way that it roots me in place, and in history. If you are feeling a bit stale or lacklustre, put on your coat and hat and gloves and go for a fifteen minute walk. I guarantee that, if you walk slowly and pay attention, you’ll see something that piques your interest and takes you out of yourself. And maybe you’ll even find something to take home and turn into a crumble.

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In East Finchley Cemetery

My favourite gravestone

 

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that I’m a great fan of cemeteries. My heart is already given to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with its Victorian trees, tumbledown tombs and colony of feral foxes, but I occasionally like to walk in East Finchley cemetery. This is a much more manicured, controlled space, but it has some spectacular specimen trees, and is a haven for birds.

I spend a lot of time listening as I walk – I find it helps me to tune in to what’s going on. There are lots of conifers: cypresses and spruces, pines and fir trees. They vibrate with the twitterings of small birds. I see goldcrests and long-tailed tits, and hear the scolding of blue tits. None of them stay long enough for me to get a photo, but it’s enough to know that they’re there, working their way through the needles.

There’s the sing-song squawking of ring-necked parakeets, the cackling of magpies, the cawing of ever-present crows. The goldfinches sound like little bells. There’s a flight of finches at the top of one of the big, bare trees, but they’re too far away for me to see what they are. When I get home, I see that they are most probably greenfinches, at least judging from the heavy beaks and the gold wing bar that I can see on one of the wings. These birds were hit very hard by a parasitic disease (Trichomonosis) a few years ago, and the British Trust for Ornithology noted a decrease in the number of gardens who were visited by the birds of 40%. So, it’s cause for celebration if they’re recovering. Fingers crossed.

There’s a theme of wings in the cemetery. Secretly, I always wished that I could fly, and our myths and legends are full of humans who took to the air, from Icarus to the angels. We seem to want the freedom of the air, and perhaps also a release from our heavy, earthbound bodies.

I find the garden of remembrance, where the sound of running water is added to the bird calls. There are still a few last roses in bloom, but mostly they are now well-pruned and dormant, waiting for spring. I sit on one of the benches and wait to see what will happen. Nothing does, except that I notice how the golden of the leaves on some silver birch is offset by the darkness of the firs behind it, and how the yellow foliage on the topiary box bushes make them look as if they’re touched by sunshine.

When I am walking, I often think that something will happen, and then I’ll know that it’s time to go home. There’s often a moment when I think ‘Aha, this what I was meant to see/hear/smell’. I am, I suppose, waiting for a sense of completion, and permission, a sense of closure. But what will it be this time?

I walk along a path towards the crematorium, and am stopped in my tracks by the waves of scent coming from a most modest little bush on one of the graves. I have to stop, bend down, and take a good long sniff. We think we know what a rose smells like, but there are subtle differences: some perfumes have a lemony edge, some are deep and spicy. This little rose is pure floral, essence of rose.

I take a little path along the very edge of the cemetery and, as I meander along, I have a feeling of being watched. Who, or what, is it? And there, perched stock-still on one of the gravestones is a squirrel. I laugh out loud, because he looks so much like a glove puppet. And there he sits, unmoving, as I walk along the path and then away. While every other squirrel scurries away at my approach, this one seems to believe that if he sits still, I won’t see him. As he looks plump and confident, it seems to be a strategy that’s served him well.

Once I’ve laughed with delight, I know that my job here is done and I can head home, but my eyes are attracted (much like a magpie’s) to some bright red fruit on the ground. I have found a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), a member of the heather family. The fruits look delicious, and are apparently edible fresh, although they bruise very easily. I love the tableau that they make amidst the sedum and the grasses.

And then, just as I turn for home, I see a jay perched on another gravestone. How I love these brownish-pink crows with their electric-blue wing feathers.They are everywhere in the cemetery, gathering acorns that they’ll bury for the winter. This one watches me and then flies off on rounded wings, emitting an alarming cackle.

So now I’m surfeited with wonders and can head for home. As I cross the road outside the cemetery I see a 143 bus in the distance and head towards the bus stop at a brisk but sensible trot – I still have my camera round my neck and so I don’t want to do anything foolish like fall flat on my face. Just as I reach the stop the bus pulls away, and I plump down onto a seat, defeated.

An elderly man passes me a few minutes later, and smiles.

‘Next time’, he says, ‘you’ll have to fly’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Certain Hush

Dear Readers, there is a feeling of urgency in the autumn that differs from the tumult of the spring. In autumn, it’s all about fattening up, putting on the layers of insulation that will fuel a migration, or get a small, inexperienced fledgling through the winter. The feeders are busy from first light, with half a dozen  collared doves queued up on the branches of the whitebeam while the woodpigeons hog the feeder. And then, earlier this week, I looked out of my upstairs window and there was not a single bird in sight. Except one, on the roof ridge of the houses opposite.

 

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Sparrowhawk. What boldness it takes to just sit there, in full view. Those yellow feet look so tiny from this distance, but I know from a previous encounter with a  bird very like this one how her talons are used to hold down and pierce her prey while her curved beak plucks out the feathers and rips into the flesh. No wonder the garden was so quiet.

I have noticed that the appearance of a predator sends a certain ripple through the ether. In India, you could track the tiger through the forest by the chorus of barks and squeals as each deer and each langur spotted him, the sound getting louder and louder as he got nearer. Like the sparrowhawk he was utterly unconcerned, walking out onto the path, turning to look at us and then spraying urine on to a nearby tree as if to say ‘that’s what I think of you lot’. And then he sashayed away up the path at his own pace, and he never looked at us again.

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Tiger in Panna National Park

 

I imagine the birds buried deep in the shrubs. Do mothers teach their nestlings to stay silent when that shadow is seen against the skyline? I notice no alarm calls. No one wants to draw attention to themselves.

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I am remembering a few things that separately made no sense. A few weeks ago I noticed the soft dusty impression of a bird the glass of my writing-room window. There were lots of feathers on the ground, under my kitchen window. Had a panicked bird crashed into the pane and stunned itself, making it easier for the sparrowhawk?

The hunter looks around. She seems to have all the time in the world. No hawklings in the nest at this time of year – she is hunting for herself.

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What is stirring? What tiny motion alerts her? We know that birds of prey have eyes that are alert to the smallest rustling and excellent hearing. Maybe she is not even hunting, but just scanning her territory. I watch her for a while through the binoculars. The wind ruffles her feathers a little. I raise the camera to take a few photos, though I don’t hope for much through my dirty windows (well, I can’t get the window cleaner in until the spiders have moved on).

And then, two things happen.

A feral pigeon flies at the window out of nowhere, and swerves at the very last second to avoid the glass.

And the sparrowhawk swoops.

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And then both disappear.
Within two minutes, the doves are back on the feeder, and a swarm of long-tailed tits is clambering through the hawthorn with a chorus of soft tseeping calls. It’s as if every bird is discussing their close escape, and celebrating that they are still here.
And that, of course, is anthropomorphism, but I make no apology for it. We evolved from non-human ancestors, and everything that we are had its roots in them. I know what it is to feel my heart beat a little more quickly at the sound of heavy footsteps behind me on a dark winter’s evening, and to utter a sigh of relief when the door shuts securely behind me. I would be arrogant to assume that, of all the animals on this planet, humans are the only ones to experience such feelings. We are all on this little blue boat together, and there is more capacity for joy and grief than people alone can muster.

 

 

Coming Home

Dear Readers, once something that you’ve worked hard for (such as a 60th Wedding Anniversary Party) is over, it’s easy to feel a bit purposeless and downhearted. As I dragged myself through my daily routine this week, I found myself wondering  ‘what did I do with my life before I was organising flowers and negotiating about cakes?’ And more to the point, how do I reconnect with my life again? As usual, my answer is to step outside and see what’s going on in the garden. I feel as if I haven’t really ‘seen’ it for weeks. My first thought is ‘wow, what a lot of spiders’ webs there are’.

My second reaction is that the garden is a mess, even worse than it usually is at this time of year. The reeds in the pond are sagging, but are not yet far enough gone to be cut back. The jasmine definitely needs some work. Getting the whitebeam and the hawthorn trimmed last year was a great idea but, as the tree surgeon warned me, it just means that they grow back thicker. But then I stopped seeing what was wrong, and started to be drawn in.

I have a climbing hydrangea in the dark side-return of my house, and I have been amazed with how it can cling on to anything. One long stem has nearly reached next-door’s gutter, and I foresee much standing on stepladders to dissuade it. However, the way it produces roots from its stem fascinates me – it’s easy to forget that plants are mobile, because they move on such a slow timescale, but I’m sure that a timelapse of this plant would see it reaching out with its ‘fingers’, looking for a holdfast and growing towards the sun.

The aerial roots of Hydrangea petiolaris

The hydrangea was full of flowers this year, and even after they’ve died I love the way that they hold spiders’ webs and raindrops. Every so often the right plant ends up in the right place, and this is definitely one of them.

The dead flowers of the climbing hydrangea

Further along the fence, the bittersweet is full of berries,their colour changing from green to deepest scarlet. They look just like little tomatoes. I was going to root the plant out, until I saw how much the carder bumblebees loved the flowers.

Bittersweet berries

The wooden steps down to the pond are slippery and so it takes care to negotiate them, but slowing down is no bad thing – I hear the plops of the frogs leaping into the pond, and see their little heads popping back up amongst the water lily pads. This area got really overgrown with great willowherb this year, and I made the decision to grub it up and replace it with some meadowsweet and some smaller loosestrife. We’ll see how it goes. The pendulous sedge has gotten a bit out of hand as well, so I might try to trim it back – it provides great cover for the little frogs, but it’s such a thug. Still, I am delighted to have my first ever bulrushes. It’s the little things that keep me going, to be sure.

My very first bulrush!

Evidence of a rapid escape?

My Himalayan Honeysuckle is doing very well this year, too – it is covered in flowers, which will be useful for the bees on a warm autumn day. The Rozanne geraniums are still in full flower, in spite of their shady, inauspicious position. I really don’t mind plants self-seeding in the woody area, because it’s so difficult to find anything that’s happy there. And my Rosa rugosa has a single rosehip.

Himalayan honeysuckle

Hardy Rozanne geraniums

My lone rosehip

Last year’s marigolds have multiplied! I buy plants from Sarah Raven whenever I can afford it, and have been extremely happy with the quality.

Marigold

The end of the garden is in need of some strict discipline too, but not yet. I love the way that the vine has formed a red waterfall over the bamboo. I shall tackle it once the leaves have dropped off, because it’s so vigorous that it’s taken over one of our chairs.

My viney ‘waterfall’

This has been a great year for the crab apple too, and the self-seeded cherry laurel is being allowed to remain because the flowers are so popular with pollinators.

Crab apples

I have another hydrangea here too, and the long panicles are full of pollen in the late summer.

Hydrangea paniculata

And so, although I need to do some work in the garden, it’s still full of wonders. I top up the bird feeders and within seconds, the blue tits have arrived, along with a very fine coal tit.

Blue tit visiting the refilled suet feeder

The pace of life is speeding up in the garden, and in the street – when I came home the other day every television aerial had a group of wheezy starlings on it. Hard times could be ahead, depending on the severity of the winter, and all of nature knows it. And for me, just half an hour outside has put me back where I like to be – in touch with what’s going on in a world that’s so much bigger than just me.

Plus, now Mum and Dad fancy going on a cruise. I foresee my project manager hat being dusted off very soon!

Dad giving his 60th Wedding Anniversary speech, while Mum offers encouragement….

Bugwoman on Location – King’s Cross

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

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

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

The Victorian station

The New Concourse

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

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

‘Hotlips’ salvia with bee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waitrose has taken over another old loading bay and warehouse.

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

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

Lots of lovely nepeta

Mexican fleabane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas holder as flats

Gas holder as park

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

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

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

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

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

Inside King’s Cross station