Category Archives: London Invertebrates

The Infestation

Dear Readers, I am off to Austria at what is officially known as ‘stupid o’clock’ tomorrow, so here is my Saturday blog on Friday night. Wednesday Weeds will continue as normal for the next few weeks, but my Saturday blogs may have a Tyrolean feeling…..

Dear Readers, going to  Canada for two and a half weeks in April is not ideal from a gardener’s point of view. When I came back, the garden had turned into a jungle, the pond had become a bog, and I have been fighting to get things roughly back under control every since. And now we’re off to Austria for another two weeks, and there’s some rainy weather forecast. I shall have to hone the machete for our return.

It’s not just that everything has grown, either. Growing is fine. What if the bramble at the back of the garden is now dangling over, heavy with blackberries? What if the hedge, trimmed only last year, is now too high for me to reach and I have to send my husband out with a step-ladder? What if, in spite of the sterling work of the man who comes to look after the cat, the pond is a more-or-less complete carpet of duckweed? These are all things that can be remedied with a bit of sweat and a pair of secateurs or a net.

No, what worries me are the uninvited guests.

Take a look at my great willowherb. I have allowed a fine stand of it to grow next to the pond, because the bees love it, and its bright pink flowers are cheerful. However, I doubt that we will get many flowers at all this year, because a tiny seamstress has been at work. The leaves of almost every shoot have been stitched lovingly together, turning each bud into a fat purse.

My great willowherb in happier days….

The ‘purses’ are so well sewn up that it’s actually quite difficult to open them, and when I do, it’s clear that there’s somebody at home.

Mompha epibiella caterpillar, snug as a bug

So, this little chap is a caterpillar. There is a vast group of tiny moths ( called micro-moths) who go about their business largely unnoticed. Some of them are so small that they can make their homes between the layers of a single leaf – you can often see their trails wandering about in plants like sow-thistle. Horse chestnuts in the UK have their own delightful leaf miners, which are turning the leaves brown even as I speak.

Slightly larger micromoth caterpillars make their homes by stitching leaves together, burrowing into stems and buds or eating their way into roots. They can be polyphagous (which means they eat lots of plants) or much more picky. Some live only on birches, some on roses, and some only on willowherbs. My gut feeling is that the culprit in my garden is Mompha epilobiella, a rather drab moth which specialises in  the Epilobium (willowherb) family.

By Donald Hobern (Flickr: Mompha epilobiella) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mompha epilobiella (Photo One – see credit below)

When I say ‘drab’, however, it’s more a reflection on me than the moth. Here is the same species, spread-eagled as a specimen (poor thing). The wings are edged with long ‘hairs’ called cilia – these interlink in flight to give a bigger surface area for lift, and make the moth appear to be trailing clouds of glory. How intricate these tiny creatures are. I think that calling any living thing ‘drab’ indicates a failure of attention on my part.

By Michael Kurz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Specimen Mompha epilobiella (Photo Two – credit below)

The caterpillars are protected while they are at their smallest and juiciest in their bivouac of leaves. Other members of the Mompha family also like willowherbs, but will mine the leaves rather than stitching them together, or live in the stem, so there is no direct competition. I do wonder why the blue tits haven’t worked out what’s going on, as they are highly intelligent little birds, but maybe it’s too much effort when there are other exposed caterpillars about. The caterpillars are also protected from the various wasps who would love to feed them to their offspring. What a successful strategy for such a small, otherwise defenceless creature.

Av Stainton - http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/25081, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16901734

An 1873 drawing of a Mompha epilobiella caterpillar (Photo Three – credit below)

However, when the caterpillars pupate and drop to the soil, they are at their most vulnerable to attack from the wasps who couldn’t penetrate their leafy sanctuary. Those that survive will overwinter as adult moths, ready to launch into another campaign as soon as the weather warms up. However I fear that they will have to search elsewhere: I was planning to pull up the willowherb this year because I can no longer see the pond from the house, and plant something a bit more low-growing. There is no shortage of willowherb around here, so I feel only slightly guilty. I had hoped for elephant hawk moths, but when you plant a wildlife garden you really do have to be ready for whatever turns up.

In North America, great willowherb is a noxious weed, and there has been some excitement at the arrival of Mompha epilobiella. It’s hoped that the moth will keep the willowherb under control (and I suppose that the arrival of a natural predator, even an alien one, might be a cause for rejoicing). However, the local parasitic wasps have already discovered that the pupae make a delightful home for their larvae, illustrating how the arrival of non-native species can cause a whole series of unexpected effects.

When we tend a garden, what we are really doing is facilitating a whole host of living things, providing opportunities for them to thrive. And boy, do they take advantage of what we do. We slightly disrupt or add to one part of the complex web of relationships, and the next thing we know we’re inundated. It will be interesting to see what happens as the summer moves on – will the willowherb bounce back, or will it languish? Will I see lots of new tiny parasitic wasps? And when I clear the willowherb area, what will come into the garden to feast on whatever I plant next? Life is certainly full of surprises.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Live moth) – By Donald Hobern (Flickr: Mompha epilobiella) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Specimen) – By Michael Kurz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (drawing of caterpillar) – Av Stainton – http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/25081, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16901734

 

Accidental Beauty

Dear Readers, this week I have been filled with rage, horror and sadness at the unfolding tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. The completely needless deaths, the cynicism of those in power and the divide between rich and poor in the capital in particular and the country in general has made me feel physically sick. I look at the photographs of the dead and missing, and I see everything that makes London rich and meaningful to me: the handsome Syrian man who had finally reached ‘safety’, the woman sitting in her tiny sitting room like a queen surrounded by the beautiful things that she had made and scrimped to buy, the elderly man sitting serenely with his grandchildren. I donate, I sign petitions, I look at the faces of the refugees that are in my English class and I know that it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

And then, I walk. Because unless I reconnect to the real world around me, I can feel myself starting to grow thin and tattered, and I need to be strong. I have people who depend on me, and things that I believe in, and I need to have my feet on the ground in order to  serve them.

Community is not just some abstract concept, though the way that the word is sometimes bandied about might make you think so. For me, it starts with the soil under our feet and the plants that grow in it, and the creatures that visit it. Each garden  has its own style, the inhabitants of the houses announcing their particular tastes and preferences through the things that they plant, and the things that they allow to remain. The grace and beauty of an area comes often through the accidental juxtaposition of different elements, the way that things just ‘happen’.

The lavender is in full bloom outside my front door. This year I thought that it had grown too  woody and was thinking of replacing it. Then the bees came.

A few days ago, I came back from the shops and a little girl had paused outside with her Mum. She was counting the bees.

‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven!’ she shouted, her voice rising higher with every bee spotted. ‘They’re so happy!’

And so, I think the lavender is reprieved, again. Bees like a lot of flowers, all of one kind. They can remember up to three different ‘designs’ of flower type, but when they encounter a fourth, one of them has to go. I sometimes think that humans can’t hold too many paradoxical ideas in their heads at the same time either, so it doesn’t do for us to feel superior.

I note that there are several very interesting plants just coming into flower. The Passionflower is said to include the crown of thorns,the nails and the scourge from Christ’s crucifixion.

Passionflower

The solanum is a member of the nightshade family.

This jasmine is exquisite, and flowering much better than mine which produces masses of leaves and nary a flower in my north-facing garden.

But wait, what is this? Has the summer of love returned to East Finchley? I feel my spirits lift.

What a very fine camper van. I hope that the inhabitants will wear their tie-dye teeshirts and loons to keep the ambiance consistent.

I particularly like the sign in the window.

Further along the road is my favourite hebe: I would say that it flowers for ten months out of twelve, and is a go-to pitstop for early emerging queen bumblebees, and those in need of a snack in the winter. I do hope that the owner of the house knows how much the plant is appreciated, and how valuable it is.

I cross the road to have a look at where someone has planted up the tree pit on the corner. I love these acts of unnecessary kindness. Goodness knows we need it, and cosmos is another great choice for pollinators.

The air is heavy with the sickly-sweet smell of privet flowers.

There is a big patch of a yellow-flowered daisy-like plant, possibly a santolina – always a favourite with hoverflies, who can’t cope with the complicated flowers of lavender and foxglove.

And goodness, haven’t hydrangeas come a long way? I remember when they were big, blousy flowers in blue or pink, according to the soil. I have a climbing hydrangea in my back garden, and in five years it has reached the level of the loft on the second floor. But look at these! Truly East Finchley is a hydrangea hotspot. I’ll forgive them for having no wildlife value whatsoever.

Oh, I spoke too soon. Look, somebody loves them.

I love the accidental beauty of some of the paths, where yellow corydalis and ferns, bellflower and green alkanet have created something as pretty as anything you could create on purpose.

There is one garden that is different from all the others around here, and I stopped to admire it.

I was taking some photographs of the Queen Anne’s Lace (Cow Parsley) when the owner of the house walked up to the front door.

‘What a lovely garden!’ I said, ‘I love how fresh it looks’.

The man looked a bit sheepish.

‘I keep telling my son to tidy it up’, he said, gesticulating at the bits and pieces that were laying about, and which I hadn’t even noticed.

‘I think it’s gorgeous’, I said, but he wasn’t convinced. And so I’m glad that I have a few photos of it in all its glory, before the strimmer gets into action.

I love these glass birds, nesting in a terracotta pot.

And a bank of trailing rosemary provides a home for lots of spiders, judging by the webs.

A blackbirds sings from a chimney pot, but then the air is filled with the racketing of a helicopter. The sound always fills me with a sense of foreboding. Helicopters mean a terrorist attack, or a terrible accident, . But then it veers away, and peace returns, and the blackbird is still singing.

At the corner of the road is a huge ceanothus (California lilac) bush, absolutely alive with bees. There are clouds of hoverflies, and each one seems to be laying claim to a few inches of flower. They may, in fact, be males, each one guarding some flowers in the hope that when a female comes to feed they’ll be able to ‘persuade’ her to mate. I took a short film to give some idea of the hectic activity.

And then, I spotted this lovely front garden.

This is just my kind of garden – a mixture of plants, not too tidy, full of life. The front door opened and I complimented the owner on her quirky choice of plants.

‘It’s a happy accident!’ she said. ‘Most of them have self-seeded, or just appeared’. And she told me about when her cat caught a pipistrelle bat (fortunately unharmed, and subsequently released) and when her son took a picture of a local fox asleep on her shed roof. When the picture was enlarged, it revealed her cat sitting happily next to it.

I am reminded that this week is the anniversary of the murder of MP  Jo Cox, with her famous quote that ‘we are far more united than the things that divide us’. She was right, of course. But  we should recognise cynicism and venality and disdain when we find it, for the sake of the most vulnerable, the people who are ignored and treated with contempt, the people who may have lost their lives for the sake of a few pounds more expenditure on fire-proof cladding.  There are so many experiences, so many different perspectives and stories, so much richness that is never reflected because it doesn’t fit with the way that the media moguls and the powerful view the world. I hope that things are changing, that Grenfell Tower will be the point at which people say ‘never again’.  I look forward to the music that will arise when all of us are heard.

 

The Unexpected Spider

Large house spider (Tegenaria gigantea) on bathroom mirror

Dear Readers, some people have mentioned that they have a degree of cognitive dissonance on realising that Bugwoman writes so little about invertebrates, and I can see what they mean. I can only recall one post on true bugs (the one that I did ages ago about Cuckoospit and froghoppers).Other small creatures, such as bees and woodlice and butterflies and slugs, make occasional appearances, but I am not really living up to my name. So when this magnificent house spider (Tegenaria gigantea) appeared on the glass medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom, I decided that she had to feature in a post.

I have no idea what she is up to. As you can see, she has built a web right across the opening  between the two glass doors. How she even managed it amazes me: she was slipping and sliding as soon as she stepped off of the silk. Normally, a house spider makes a sheet behind some furniture, or, in the case of my parents, inside their Tiffany uplighter, and then sits underneath with a foot poised on the web, waiting for the slightest vibration of some unfortunate ant or beetle. The web is not sticky, so the spider relies on speed to capture its prey, subdue it with a venomous bite and truss it up for later. My spider was therefore most unfortunate in her choice of site. I would like to say that the pristine state of the upstairs bathroom made it her only option, but in fact there were dozens of spots where she could have prepared her trap and not been noticed for years.

Sadly, I had to move her on: for one thing, my husband needed to get his shaving soap out of the cabinet. I was amazed at how strong the spider silk is, giving a palpable resistance as I separated the doors. And the spider was undaunted as well, hanging on and caressing the glass with one hopeful leg.

She looks absolutely enormous in these pictures, I realise, but at full stretch she was only about the length of my index finger. I know that, for some of you, that will be quite big enough. But there was a kind of elegance about her, svelt creature that she was. I suspect that the way that house spiders move is a major cause of fear: they have a kind of silent, inexorable, mechanical advance that invites a shudder if you are that way inclined. Of course, it’s the male house spiders advancing across the carpet in search of mates in autumn that cause most trouble. I well remember my grandmother dropping a hot water bottle on one when I was a child, surely the most unusual demise of any spider. As house spiders hold the speed record for true spiders (1.83 mph) she must have had most excellent hot water bottle depositing skills.

For anyone interested in the various creatures that share our homes, I can heartily recommend Richard Jones’s wonderful book ‘House Guests and House Pests – A Natural History of Animals in the Home’. He points out that house spiders were cave and forest dwellers long before there were houses, and that their predatory instincts are just as beneficial in maintaining the ecological balance in our homes as they are in ‘the wild’. If we made sanctuaries for spiders deliberately, who knows how the ant/fly problem might be ameliorated? I could create little houses that fitted into the spaces by the skirting board – Twentieth Century Modern ones would have tiny concrete cantilevered overhangs, and the Victorian ones could have bay windows and stained glass. I can just imagine how happy the house spiders would be as they moved in.  I’m sure that there’s a whole new business opportunity here, but sadly not for me, as no one in my family is as tolerant of our eight-legged friends as I am. In the end, I picked up this fine lady in my hand, and deposited her gently out of the window, where I watched her run under the eaves to set up another, hopefully more sensible, web. And at last my husband can get back to shaving. That stubbly look is so unflattering in anyone who isn’t George Clooney.

And for those of you with a few minutes to spare, can I recommend this story by David Sedaris, about his encounter with a house spider? It made me laugh until I cried.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Bugwoman on Location – At Crossbones Graveyard

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

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

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

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

‘Margaret Keen, Fishmonger Alley, 22’

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

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

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

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

A queen wasp resting in the euphorbia

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

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

Vinca major (Periwinkle)

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

Brunnera macrophylla

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

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

The pyramid built by the Invisible Gardener

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

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

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

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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)

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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

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Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

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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

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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.

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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!

Supermoon!

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Pampas grass

Pampas grass

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

The Mutton Brook

The Mutton Brook

Stinging nettles with small 'friend'

Stinging nettles with small ‘friend’

Bailey, the world's most magnificent cat.

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location: Woodberry Wetlands

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Last weekend, we went for a trip to a brand new nature reserve called Woodberry Wetlands. It’s close to Stoke Newington and to Manor House tube station, and is based around two reservoirs. The West Reservoir is used for sailing and kayaking, but the East Reservoir is now a haven for birds and insects. Overlooking it all is an enormous Berkeley Homes housing development. There is a tower (flats starting at £960k) and they are currently working on ‘The Nature Collection’, which should be finished in 2018, and where a 2 bedroomed flat starts at 670k. So much for ‘affordable housing’.

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As is our wont, we go first of all to the café. It’s a bit noisy and haphazard, but then it hasn’t been open long. There are only two toilets, which I suspect will be a problem on a busy sunny Sunday, especially as everyone seems to come with babies and toddlers attached. It’s all concrete floors and metal chairs, and so the noise level is extraordinary.

But then we go outside, and all is miraculously calm.

IMG_7598There is a path around half of the reservoir, bordered on one side by woodland, and on the other side by a thicket of reeds which susurrate gently in the breeze. A pair of mute swans have pulled out on to an island in the middle, and there is the sound of baby coots wheezing away to their parents. A heron is poised to strike, all focussed attention. A row of herring gulls stand on a ridge in the middle of the reservoir, one leg tucked under, their pale eyes glowering. A little flock of house martins fly twittering overhead, probably on their way south.

IMG_7601IMG_7594IMG_7613It interests me how few people are venturing out into the reserve itself. It’s a beautiful day, and the path would be easy for prams or wheelchairs. Maybe the café has become something of a community hub, as there doesn’t appear to be much else around here. Plus, the reserve is free to enter, so you could happily just use the café.

There are volunteers out here on the reservoir, cutting back the reeds where they are blocking the water inlets, sorting out some wooden chairs in the little educational unit at the top corner of the reserve. There are beehives, too, and I notice that they run a beekeeping course. There is much here to engage – bat walks, bird walks, foraging, woodland crafts. I’m not sure what woodland crafts are, but I suspect a bit of reed-weaving might be in order.

Fish in the New River

Fish in the New River

We can’t walk right around the reserve because the path is closed during nesting season (a great idea in my view) but we can walk along the New River Path, which takes us back to our starting point. The water is crystal-clear here, and I can see shoals of fish, some of them nearly a foot long. There are the usual coots and moorhens here, and a pair of swans, and dragonflies stitching patterns in the air. If we carried on along this path, we’d end up in Hertfordshire in one direction, and Islington in the other.

A fluffy baby coot

A fluffy baby coot

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Common Darter Dragonfly

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Coot and Cootlings 🙂

For the first part of the walk, we are parallel to the council estates that the new development is replacing. There is block after block of mid-rise red-brick apartments, and then one that looks as if it was designed in the thirties. When we get to the end of the walk, John talks to the people in the Marketing Suite (which is how we found out the prices), and discovers that this is the biggest housing development in Europe, and that all the council housing will be replaced by 2035. Of course, that means that the people currently living here will spend the next twenty years living next to a building site. I am also curious to know what kind of housing these people will be offered, and hope that some kind of ‘like for like’ deal has been negotiated. The least we should be doing for folk is giving them something as good as they currently have, but I imagine there will be all kinds of shenanigans before these people are finally rehoused. The sound of pile drivers and the clouds of dust must already be making living here difficult.

Existing council housing. The folk here might have a long wait for their new flats...

Existing council housing. The folk here might have a long wait for their new flats…

As we turn the corner, we enter the area next to the flats that have already been built. They do look neat and clean, with landscaped areas and seats and flat pavements.

New Flats

New Flats

In the childrens’ play area there are carved figures from Wind in the Willows – a Mr Toad and a Mole. But there is something a bit woebegone about the development, as if it doesn’t yet have a heart. The best new developments that I’ve seen have shops and cafes right in the heart of the residential area, so that people can meet one another and socialise. There doesn’t appear to be anything like that here. No wonder the café is so crammed all the time. I imagine that living here would be lonely.

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And so, we come back to the entrance, a copper building that covers the bridge into the reserve with the words ‘Woodberry Wetlands’ cut out. We live in a time when a number of new wetland nature reserves are being created: one on Walthamstow marshes promises to be the largest wetland site in the country. It interests me how much is being done in cities to protect wildlife, even as vast swathes of the countryside become agricultural monocultures or fenced estates where hen harriers and owls are killed to protect grouse or pheasant. There’s evidence that there is now more biodiversity in urban and suburban settings than in many of our supposedly ‘wild’ places, and this is a trend that’s set to continue, I suspect. For today, I am just grateful that there’s another place for birds to nest and rest undisturbed, and for dragonflies to crackle through the sky.

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