Category Archives: London People

Flâneuse-ing on the County Roads

IMG_7356Dear Readers, for many years I have been intrigued by the idea of the Flâneur. This was a 19th century French character, invariably male, who would wander around a city wearing a top-hat and carrying a cane, and was described as a ‘connoisseur of the street’. He would get into all kinds of adventures and encounters, and would have a thoroughly interesting time. However for women, it was somewhat different.  In her new book ‘Flâneuse – the (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities’, Lauren Elkin records how women doing exactly the same thing as the Flâneur could be subject to harassment and suspicion, and were sometimes accosted or even arrested. Nonetheless, I strolled forth intrepidly (though without top-hat and cane) to explore the County Roads here in East Finchley.

The County Roads are a set of six roads, built at the turn of the twentieth century, and they are all named after old English counties: Lincoln, Leicester, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford and Durham. They are a jumble of different Victorian/Edwardian styles, and vary from the ornate to the simple, from the grand to the (relatively) humble. What they all have, however, are front gardens, and for a naturalist like myself, that’s good enough. Who knows what I might see? I was especially intrigued to see how the pollinators were getting on, and what was attracting their interest.

My first step was right outside my front door, to admire my giant buddleia. It is true that it needs yet another prune, but I’m reluctant to get rid of those enormous racemes of flowers just yet. Plus, the more I hack at it, the larger it grows. Yesterday afternoon, it largely attracted honeybees.

IMG_7353Onwards! I head down to the High Road and, as if for the first time, notice what a strange shape the London Plane trees are after their pollarding. Each one appears to be trying to accommodate the buildings around it. Apart from the peculiar topiary effect, however, they are looking very healthy at the moment, though we could do with some rain – my water butt has run dry for the first time since we installed it five years ago. Every night the clouds gather and then dissipate away over Muswell Hill. Who knows what we have done to anger the gods.IMG_7362IMG_7385If bumblebees could vote with their many little hooked feet, I’m sure they would put their crosses down for lavender. The County Roads are very obliging in this respect, and there is a fine patch at All Saint’s Church on Durham Road, while many individual houses have handsome stands of the plant.

IMG_7373IMG_7374Although modern roses are not a favourite, the ones that are closer to the wild type attact some attention.

IMG_7371On another note, the bollard on the corner of Leicester Road is still not fixed (or maybe was fixed and got walloped again). Is there a gremlin here that attracts collisions?

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Lesser-spotted bollard

Alongside some very splendid cultivated sweet peas, there are some stands of a wild cousin, Broad-leaved Everlasting Peas (Lathyrus latifolius), and very pretty it is too.

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Broad-leaved everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius)

I stop to congratulate a man who is two-thirds of the way up a ladder, re-painting some of his plasterwork cornice. He nearly falls off with shock, but recovers himself to say how much he loves these old buildings and the little details that make them different from one another. I couldn’t agree more.

Someone is having much more luck with Nepeta (Cat Mint) than I did. I planted mine in a pot, and came downstairs to find that I had apparently grown a cat, though it just turned out to be some stoned feline who had crushed it in his frenzy, and who gazed at me with a demented expression.

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Honeybee on catmint (Nepeta).

It's no good trying to look innocent.

Evil cat-mint destroyer in pot.

Evil cat-mint destroyer

It’s no good trying to look innocent, though you are a very fine cat indeed.

I stopped to view a particularly wildlife-friendly garden that met with full Bugwoman approval. It had verbena and nicotiana (for the moths), some sedum just ready to come into flower, an interesting yellow vetch and all manner of other delights. I stopped to photograph it when, dear reader, I was finally accosted, by a lovely lady with a bunch of lavender from her allotment in her hand. She asked me if I was Bugwoman, and so of course I could not demur. Then another lovely lady approached, and I was introduced to her too. My cover was blown! Maybe I should create a Bugwoman costume, perhaps with dangly antennae and wings, though it might be difficult to handle the camera with extra legs.

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Sedum – a great plant for autumn pollinators

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Verbena bonariensis and nicotiana, amongst other pollinator-friendly delights

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Honeybee on Verbena boniarensis, a great bee and butterfly plant

Now, East Finchley readers, have you noticed our magnificent pigeons? We have our fair share of the normal blue-grey birds, and very fine they are too. But we have more than our share of birds which are partially white, and also ones that have a pinky-grey colouration, which is known as ‘red’ in the trade, I think. Huntingdon Road has its own resident pair of red birds, which I fear is due to the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner, and concomitant rubbish which is strewn at that end of the street (in spite of the litter bin). (Don’t get me started).

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A red pigeon about to indulge in KFC chips

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One of many pied pigeons in East Finchley

As I loop up towards the corner of Bedford and Durham Road, I stop to look at the fennel growing in one of the gardens. All of the umbellifers (plants with flat, multi-flowered blooms like Cow Parsley and Hog Weed) are pollinated by insects smaller than bumblebees: all kinds of flies, wasps, honeybees and beetles. It is thought that flies, in particular, are not so skilled at pollination, and don’t have the ability to cope with the complicated flowers that bumblebees do, so they tend to prefer single flowers, and lots of them.

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Little and Large….

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Ichneumon wasp on fennel

And some surprisingly complicated flowers can be ‘cracked’ by bumblebees, who really are the brains of the pollinator world. It’s been shown that, given sufficient incentive, they can tell the difference between human faces, so a passion flower is easy-peasy.

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Bumblebee on passionflower

As I make my last turn around the County Roads, the sound of cawing alerts me to the fact that the crow family have reproduced successfully again. Earlier, one of the parent birds was trying to persuade a fledgling to come down and eat a suspiciously new-looking slice of bread that they had filched. By the time I returned, the adult was watching as the youngster pecked about in the gutter of a nearby house, looking for food.

Parent crow

Parent crow

Fledgling

Fledgling

Dear Readers, I had a very fine walk around the County Roads, and I wasn’t arrested once. Even in a built-up area there is lots to see and enjoy. I would like to leave you with a brief clip of the bees feeding on a particularly lovely patch of lavender, where the heat of the sun was bringing up the scent, and the lazy droning of the insects (only partially obliterated by a plane heading home to Heathrow) made me wish that I had brought a deckchair with me. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. There is so much more ‘nature’ in a city than people often think.

 

Coming Home to East Finchley

Somebody has been eating my ox-eye daisies.

Somebody has been eating my ox-eye daisies.

Dear Readers, for most of last week I was in Dorset with my parents (who are both doing very nicely at the moment). So, when I got home I decided to take myself for a walk around the ‘hood. The first thing I noticed, on stepping out of my front door, was that the snails have been eating the petals from my pot of Ox Eye Daisies. Now, I have no problem with molluscs, but this was a bit cheeky, especially as one baby snail was snuggled up asleep in the middle of one of the now semi-bald flowers, probably replete from his midnight snack. Others were hiding under the leaves, and had found a spot under the rim of the pot. I collected all of them and tossed them into the lavender bush.

IMG_6470Whether they’ll make the journey back or content themselves with the dead vegetation that they now find themselves reclining upon remains to be seen, but I suspect that this is only the first skirmish in a long-running battle. Where oh where are the hedgehogs when you need them? I would also exchange my queendom for a bevy of toads, who are more resistant to dessication than frogs and could therefore maybe live in the south-facing front garden. Unfortunately, many of them were killed off by those little blue slug pellets that gardeners took a shine to a few years ago. You can never kill just one species without leaving a big hole in the ecosystem.

Onwards! I decided to give you all a break from Coldfall Wood and the Cemetery (though I will give you a fox update at the end of this blog, once I’ve been myself and found out what’s been happening) and to head for Cherry Tree Wood. The first thing I notice is that the lovely people from N2 Community Garden have made a little plot next to the children’s nursery, and opposite the station.

IMG_6353Already there is a blaze of colour: bright orange poppies, the magenta of Bowle’s Mauve wallflowers, a bright red Heuchera (I think), a purple geranium and some white alyssum. What a lovely, bright-coloured plot for the toddlers and their mothers to look at on their way to and from the nursery! As I passed, a man was cutting the grass, and taking care to avoid the marigolds.

IMG_6358 IMG_6357 IMG_6355 IMG_6354The Wood itself is already in its first flush of green.

The entrance to Cherry Tree Wood

The entrance to Cherry Tree Wood

The cow parsley and hawthorn are in full flower, the latter filling the air with its feral, fishy scent.

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Hawthorn Blossom

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

There is an enormous plot of dusky cranesbill, which surprises me because I’m sure that it wasn’t here last year, and I wonder if someone has been a-scattering with seeds. If so, they made a good choice – the plant is both native and a popular bee plant, and the purple flowers are a great foil for the pale blue of the forget-me-nots and the white of the umbellifers.

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Dusky cranesbill

There is bird song everywhere: a flight of long-tailed tits peeping their contact calls, the ‘teacher, teacher’ calls of great tits, the buzzing of blue tits, the outrage of blackbirds.

My one long-tailed tit photo. They are so speedy, and so hyperactive!

My one long-tailed tit photo. They are so speedy, and so hyperactive!

But one bird, which is silent, is turning over the leaves, and I recognise a mistle thrush, surely one of the ones that I saw last year. When I arrive at the other side of the wood, I see a second mistle thrush, with its beak full of worms. It looks as if they have a brood somewhere, and this makes me so happy. Mistle thrushes used to be common in every park, but have become less and less so in recent years. Big, bold birds, I love the way that they run, listen, and stab their prey. It’s easy to forget that ‘predators’ include the blackbirds and robins that hang around our gardens, or even the tiny blue tits. Even mostly gramnivorous birds may turn insectivorous at this time of year – I remember seeing house sparrows hawking for flies a few summers ago.

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Mistle Thrush

I also did a spot of tidying up while I was in the woods: my friend A always takes a carrier bag with her, and I have taken to doing the same. Some young people had built a little den, which is fine, provided they’re using dead branches and not destroying the trees. There was also a fine collection of soft drink cans, which I put in the litter bin.

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A den….I’m hoping that these branches had already come down during the high winds of the past couple of weeks

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Cans in need of a tidy-up. Maybe it’s not ‘cool’ to put them in one of the many litter bins?

I struggle to understand why someone would come all the way to the wood to dump this, though.

I wonder what happened to the table top?

I wonder what happened to the table top?

On the way back, I decide to have a quick look at the N2 Community Garden beside the station itself. Last time I wrote about this, I was berated on Twitter by someone who maintained that ‘if I was honest, I would accept that it was full of weeds’. Well, one woman’s weed is another woman’s wildflower. At the moment, the plot is full of forget-me-nots and white deadnettle, the latter a nectar source for bumblebees – I saw two species in the ten minutes that I was there. Chard and beans are growing in the vegetable plots, a clematis montana is wending its way through the wire fence, and love-lies-bleeding and centaurea are in full flower, along with dill, the first leaves of wild strawberry and garlic mustard.

IMG_6407 IMG_6408 IMG_6411 IMG_6414 IMG_6416 IMG_6417 IMG_6418 While I am taking photos, I hear the soft wheezing call of a baby bird, and catch the briefest of glimpses of a young robin. In the branch of one of the shrubs there is what I think is a failed long-tailed tit nest. It could also possibly be something that someone has hung up to provide nesting material for the birds, but I tend towards the first interpretation. Do write in the comments below if you know one way or the other.

A failed long-tailed tit nest?

A failed long-tailed tit nest?

Long-tailed tit nests are delicate, stretchy structures, manufactured from moss and grass and dead leaves, bound together with spiders’ webs. This one looks as if it might have incorporated some dog-fur or thistledown as well.  A completed nest looks something like a weaver bird’s nest, perfectly camouflaged, with a downward pointing opening. I once found a deserted nest and was amazed by how stretchy it was, like putting my hand into a magic glove. This one is only half completed, and probably just as well – it’s a very public spot for a nest, and one all too easy for cats to get into. I have noticed before that long-tailed tits can put a ridiculous amount of energy into nest building in the most inauspicious of sites, like the pair that part-built a nest in a viburnum bush in a public square in Islington, right behind a bench much frequented by drinkers and courting couples.

IMG_6423I very much enjoy the little patches of colour that the N2 Community Gardeners bring to East Finchley. I like the informality of their plots, and the abundance of wild and ‘domesticated’ plants. While others might prefer a more structured, formal ‘look’, I think that there is much to be said for serendipity, for happy accidents. There is also much to be said for growing plants that actually like the conditions that they are presented with, rather than insisting on species which would be much happier in somewhere shadier or with lighter soil. And from my visit this morning, the bees and the birds are happier with this approach too. If it were not classified as a ‘weed’ I’m sure that many of us would be planting white deadnettle, both for the subtle beauty of its flowers, and for the way that the bees preferred it to anything else on the plot. Planting a garden that includes everyone, not just humans, is what a real ‘community garden’ is all about.

Later in the afternoon, I headed off to the cemetery, where I found a happy crow bathing in one of the bowls that are used to carry water to the graves when visitors are washing down the stones or watering the flowers.

IMG_6435 IMG_6433And I also found the foxes. The dog fox who is part of a pair was laying happily on his usual tombstone, waiting for his sandwiches. And shortly after I saw the vixen and the other dog fox. So, all is well here, which is always a relief after a few days’ absence. How strange that I seem to think that if I visit every day, things are less likely to happen. Or is it just that I fear returning to the cemetery to receive bad news? I know that to love something or someone, just as I love these foxes, is to be constantly vulnerable – they are wild animals after all, and I have no control over what happens to them. But would I swap my unease and potential distress for indifference? Absolutely not. All love has an edge of fear, but without it we might as well be dead.

IMG_6438All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Feel free to use with attribution,and with a link to the blog.

 

The Cemetery Is Not Just About Foxes…..

A new fox!

A new fox!

Dear Readers, today I am going to share sightings of some of the other animals and plants that live in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, but I thought I’d start with a fox update. We have a new fox visiting the feeding area, and what a handsome animal s/he is: this one is a loner, a little bigger than the dog fox who usually visits with the vixen. They all arrive at about the same time, so I’m fairly certain that the vixen is getting her share of the medicated sandwiches and the dog food that I’m distributing during the cubbing season. No sign of cubs yet, but it’s a real joy to see these three animals, and to note that although the vixen is still skinny, she definitely seems to be getting her fur back, and her limp has pretty much gone.

The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

So, with this week’s fine weather as a spur to action, I decided to do a complete circumnavigation of the cemetery. There is one long road that winds along the top edge of the cemetery, parallel to the North Circular road, and so haunted always by the rumble of traffic. And yet, where the path is lined with big old trees, the noise level drops away dramatically. I spotted young magpies in the trees, squawking and arguing, and an adult bird flying from headstone to headstone.

IMG_6217As I draw alongside a stand of conifers, I look through the trees and see that there is a purple haze all along the path and blanketing some of the graves. I can’t resist going off piste for a look. The ground is soft and mossy, and there are violets everywhere –not the violas and pansies that I see on so many of the graves, but real wild dog violets. Each individual face is so tiny and shy, and yet here there is an ocean of them. I have never seen so many in one place. What is it about this particular spot that makes it so perfect? Who knows. I find myself kneeling on the ground, taking photograph after photograph. It’s been such a time of rushing about that I’ve forgotten how nice it is to make time to really look.

IMG_6172IMG_6176As I walk north, I pass another  area that is glowing, this time in royal blue – the bugle is in flower. What an interesting plant this is! The leaves and stem of this variety are  a deep chocolate brown, and the flowers are the deepest lavender blue. The individual blooms remind me slightly of the ‘bunny rabbits’ on an antirrhinum, and the bees love them, forcing their way between the petals and then droning away to the next flower like a fleet of miniature bomber planes. I lay down on the warm grass to take some photos, and all I can hear is the buzzing, the sound of the birds and the constant roar of the North Circular Road.

IMG_6187IMG_6189As I walk back to the path, a black cat walks out of the wood. He isn’t one of B’s little collection of four – this is a much slinkier cat, who obviously hasn’t been feeding on chicken legs and Sheba. He glances at me, blinks once, and bounds through the grass and over a fence into the houses beyond. It is like a brief meeting with a miniature black panther.

A mysterious black cat

A mysterious black cat

I turn right at the top of the path. By now I am alongside the road, separated only by a six foot wire fence and a verge on either side. The speed and noise and fumes of the traffic are constant, with the occasional rumble of an articulated lorry. But on my side of the fence there are hawthorn trees and a great stand of garlic mustard, its grass green leaves looking as fresh as salad. And looping around it is an male orange-tip butterfly. Soon the females will emerge, mate with the males and lay their eggs on this plant, so it was good to see so much of it, looking so healthy.

IMG_6210 IMG_6208 IMG_6228I walk on, turning right, back down the hill. I pass a big wall covered in plaques remembering the dead. There are vases of flowers and pot plants all along the wall beneath, big blousy orange lilies and yellow chrysanthemums. Here, the headstones are all the same, granite with a black plaque in the middle, and they have none of the charm of the angels and urns in the rest of the graveyard. I hope that the place doesn’t turn into somewhere regimented and manicured. It seems that we take up more room than we should even after we’re dead.

I detour through another area of tombstones, and am astonished to see, on one grave, a four-foot tall statue of an Egyptian cat. Well, I’m not supposed to take photos of graves, but surely they can make an exception for something so surprising. The grave belongs to a man who died in 1971 so it’s not some Victorian artefact. There are lots of references to the Sun God, and I sense that the man buried here was a lover of ancient religions, something of a pagan. It moves me to find the cat here, gazing out over the graveyard with the same imperious expression as one of Beryl’s cats.

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One of B's cats

One of B’s cats

I circle back to check on the foxes, and find that every scrap of food has gone. I say hello to  the Dog Unit man and to B, who is feeding Boris the cat and cleaning her husband’s grave. The German Bee Man pops in as well – last year he had so much success with the bees on his allotment that he ended up with twenty hives, but this year it’s been a cold, wet start. We chat for a while, and then I head back. It’s a luxury not to be shivering or soaked, both of which have happened in the past week.

There is a kind of peace to something that happens regularly, be it writing or exercising or knitting or meditating. I have tried many different places to write, for example, but always end up back in Costa Coffee on East Finchley High Street, because I’ve written there so often that the very air feels imbued with inspiration and commitment . Equally, I’ve been going to the cemetery pretty much daily for a couple of months now, and that just feels natural, too – I feel the tension in my shoulders relax as I walk through the gates. There is always something to see, if I pay attention. Some days I go in through the front gate, and out through the front gate, and the round trip takes about 30 minutes. Other days, I wander for an hour or more, keeping my eyes open for the stories of the day, because there are always stories, and that’s what I want to share. It occurs to me that I enjoy my fox postings because they’re telling an open-ended story, one which could continue for as long as I’m alive and well enough to be able to report on it. And what of all the other lives and stories here? There’s a novel in it, for sure. Who knows where it will all lead.

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Distressing News From the Cemetery

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‘My’ mangy fox, with the healthy fox in the background

Dear Readers, the plot has thickened regarding the foxes in St Pancras and Islington cemetery this week. On Monday, B informed me that she had seen three foxes, two with mange and one without.

‘Blimey’, I said, ‘I’m going to have to buy more jam’. As you know, I’ve been trying to medicate the fox in the photo above with a homeopathic remedy from the National Fox Welfare Society, which I’ve snuck into some jam sandwiches. ‘My’ fox seems to be on the road to recovery, much to my amazement – I’d been very skeptical when I’d started the process. I fairly skipped back to my house, passing en route a lovely patch of fritillaries, which may well crop up in a Wednesday Weed at some point in the future.

IMG_6001The next day, bearing an additional sandwich, I walk down to where B feeds the foxes. I’m a little late and I don’t see B, so I creep down to the feeding spot, behind the grave with the full-sized stone Labrador on it. This unlikely memorial celebrates a man who died rescuing a dog from drowning, and is always adorned with artificial flowers.

A very skinny, mangy fox watches me briefly from the other side of the hedges, and then crosses the path at a trot. I sit down with my camera. This is not ‘my’ fox, but I remember what B mentioned about one healthy fox, and two mangy ones. I see the fox again among the gravestones, just his ears and one bright eye. Then he’s on the move again, looping round behind the bins where the cats live. I sit a little longer. And then he’s back in the hedges, eyeing up the jam sandwiches with obvious longing.

I spot B making her slow progress towards where she feeds the cats. She raises her stick in greeting. I stand up and walk over, leaving the fox to his snack.

‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ says B. I have always liked the way that she looks at me directly, honestly.

‘Ok’, I say.

‘The Dog Unit man said he found a dead fox further up the road’, she says, and pauses. ‘A fox with mange’, she adds.

I have to look away for a moment.

‘What happened?’ I ask.

‘Martin thinks he was run down’, she says. ‘The cemetery people will take the body away’.

‘Where was it?’

B waves her hand vaguely. ‘He just said further up’, she says.

And so it may be that ‘my’ fox is dead. My mind is racing. I wonder if the body is still there, so that I can know for sure which fox has been killed. But then, I know that it’s hopeless. I’m sure that the evidence is already tidied away. Even if I saw the body, would I know?

And how am I going to cope with the unknowing?

'My' mangy fox

‘My’ mangy fox

I am reminded of people whose beloved cats and dogs just disappear, and they never know what happened to them. But a fox is dead. The question is, what am I going to do now?

B can tell that I’m upset, but she carries on fussing over her cats, bending over, pouring the food into their bowls.

‘The thing is’, she says, ‘that we do what we can do. And that’s all we can do. They’re wild animals, after all. They come and go, and live their lives, and one day they’re gone. ‘

She straightens up.

‘A bit like people’, she says.

Her husband and father are both buried in the cemetery, and B visits them every day.

‘Did you see that skinny little fox over there?’ she said. ‘He’s got the mange really bad’.

And of course, my decision is made for me. ‘My’ fox, the one that drew me here, is most likely dead, but there are other foxes here that need help. Am I just going to give up now because all my hopes were pinned on one animal?

There’s a rustle in the brambles and the skinny fox heads off at a brisk trot. His whole tail and hindquarters are bald. He looks back briefly and accelerates his pace, until he is bounding off.

‘I’m down at Mum and Dads next week’, I say to B. ‘Could I leave the medicine with you for a few days?’

‘Of course’, says B. ‘And I’ll see you at the weekend’.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, you will’.

The healthy fox.

The healthy fox.

For the fox story so far, have a look at the posts below:

Jam Sandwiches in the Rain

News From the Cemetery

Fox Update

News from the Cemetery

IMG_5777Dear Readers, after a week in Dorset with my parents (about which more next week) I was eager to get out into the cemetery to see what was going on (for the back story to this post, have a look here and here). My lovely friend A had taken over my jam sandwich duties while I was away, but had only seen the tail end of a fox disappearing into the brambles. So, on Good Friday, I dropped off my jam sandwich at the usual spot and was heading off when I saw the fox above, who ran between the graves and attempted to hide himself behind this rubbish bin. I rather think that it might be ‘my’ mangy fox.

'My' fox?

‘My’ fox?

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

Who knows. If it is ‘my’ fox, he looks a little better, but I couldn’t see the relevant side of the animal to judge how the mange was doing.

We walked on a little further. What a beautiful evening it was, and, according to the weather forecast, the last decent day of the four-day bank holiday. The shadows are so long at this time of year, the birdsong so loud that I felt as if I was walking in a dream. And then, we turned a corner.

IMG_5778A miniature panther was patrolling the cemetery, and he was not alone.

IMG_5751There is a small colony of feral cats who live in the cemetery, and who are cared for by a fine London lady. I shall call her B. She has long white hair and blue eyes the colour of forget-me-nots. Every day, she visits her husband’s grave, and then comes on to leave food for the four identical (to me, at the moment) jet black moggies. She told me that one of them, Boris, is an unneutered tom that no one has managed to catch, and that he is always getting into fights. I shall be keeping my eyes open for Boris.

Of course, the food doesn’t only attract the cats.

Who is this sneaking away in the background?

Who is this sneaking away in the background?

B knows my little mangy fox, and says that he often waits patiently until she moves away, and the cats have had their fill – they are more than a match for any fox who tries to push in. And so, now I have a new place where I can leave a jam sandwich, in the knowledge that it has some chance, at least, of reaching the intended diner.

Which is just as well, because as we walked back past the place where I’d left the medicated food, I noticed someone enjoying it who was not the intended recipient.

IMG_5781And as I watched, the last piece was carried off to be enjoyed in peace.

IMG_5782It seems no one can resist a jam sandwich.

Real Life

 

IMG_5116Dear Readers, today I would like to share a piece with you that I wrote during my mother’s recent stay in hospital. I know that many of us have loved ones who are unwell for one reason or another, and I was interested in the way that the NHS regards non-human nature. I’ll be back to the normal birds, insects and plants next week.

My mother and father came to stay with me in London this Christmas. All three of us knew it was a risk. Both my parents have the full range of late-onset ailments ( COPD, diabetes, dicky hearts) but this is the only holiday that they get, and, besides, prizing safety above all else means that we gradually retreat into our shells, like hermit crabs, afraid that every shadow is a shore-side bird waiting to gobble us up.

On Christmas morning. Mum was trying to pin one of the brooches I’d bought her onto her jumper, fumbling with the clasp. She sat back and smiled, the filigree butterfly a little skew whiff. Then, I remembered.

‘One last present,’ I said.

I’d almost forgotten the orchid that I’d hidden away in the bedroom. As I walked back downstairs, I looked at the flowers. I am not a great fan of orchids – they have an alien quality that looks sinister to me. And yet, my mother has a gift for coaxing them into flower time and again. This one was pale pink with mauve bruise-like blotches. The mouth of each bloom opened like a man-trap with long, backward-pointing teeth.

‘It’s beautiful!’ said Mum, as I passed it to her.

As I removed the wrapping, one of the flowers detached itself and floated to the ground. I picked it up, feeling the waxiness of the petals. I showed it to Mum.

‘Oh, put it in some water’, she said, ‘I can’t bear to think of it just getting thrown away’.

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Won’t it just die anyway?’

But she looked so upset that I found a dish and floated the flower in it. It’s still there now.

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Early on Sunday morning, I heard a rasping whisper from Mum and Dad’s bedroom.

‘I think you need to call someone’, Mum said. ‘I can breathe in, but I can’t breathe out’. I could hear her chest wheezing and crackling from across the room.

An hour later, she was in an ambulance, being given oxygen, heading for the nearest London hospital.

The doctors confirmed that she was 80 years old. They heard the recitation of her health problems, shook their heads over her oxygen levels and the sounds coming through their stethoscopes. They ascertained that at her best she could walk only ten paces without having to stop to gather her breath. They admitted her to the hospital. She was put in a huge room on her own. There were no windows, but there were lots of empty navy-blue storage cupboards, as if this had once been a kitchen but all the appliances had been removed. The fluorescent light gave off a constant background hum. It was like being in the belly of a great machine.

‘I’m not afraid of dying’, said Mum. ‘But it makes me so sad to think that I’ll never walk around Marks and Spencer again, or walk in a park. And I know I’m lucky and there are lots of things that I can still do, but somehow, just now, that doesn’t help’.

Normally I try to protect myself by avoiding what is really being said in these conversations, by trying, like Pollyanna, to look on the bright side. But today, I just sat, and held her hand, and cried with her.

IMG_5085As I walk to the hospital, I notice how bright all the colours seem, as if I’m hallucinating. The thoughts are chasing one another round and round inside my skull, as scratchy as rats. There is a wall alongside me and beyond a wildflower garden, at head height. The low winter sun lights up a patch of trailing bellflower. I see the way that the stamen are casting a hooked shadow on the lilac petals, the way a single raindrop trembles on the edge of a leaf before falling, in what seems like slow motion, onto the soil. And for a moment, I don’t think about Mum at all, and I feel my shoulders relax. I take a deep breath, then another. And then I walk on.

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It used to be that hospital wards were full of flowers, the stink of lilies and gently decomposing chrysanthemums rising above the smell of antiseptic and hospital cooking. But now, all plants are banned ‘for hygiene reasons’. Probably the nurses are so overworked that they don’t have time to cope with browning foliage and wilting poinsettias. But I can’t help thinking that something alive and beautiful is as important for healing as drips and antibiotics. Mum’s bunker looked completely sterile. But I had underestimated her.

At Christmas dinner, I had handed out some crackers that I’d bought from a wildlife charity. Each one contained a card that, when opened, released a snippet of bird song. The game was to guess which bird was singing – nightingale, blue tit, wren? Mum had put the cards in her bag. When the very important Consultant and his two trainees came along to see how she was doing, she produced one of the cards and pushed it into the Big Man’s hand.

‘Open that’, she said.

He looked at her askance, and opened the card. The sound of a song thrush in full-throat filled the bare room, flooding the place with the sound of woodland wildness.

The consultant’s face changed. He closed the card and opened it again. He turned to the two trainees.

‘I know you want to go home’, he said to them, ‘But listen to this!’

And he ‘played’ the  song again, before closing the card and handing it back to Mum with a bow.

After a few days, Mum is moved to a different ward. As usual, she hates it at first – relationship is what Mum thrives on, and in each new location she has to charm everyone all over again. But she does have a window now.

‘At night, I can see all the planes flying over’, she says.

I notice that there’s a spider outside the window. At first I think it’s dead, but then I see that it is on a web, blowing backwards and forwards as the wind buffets the building. I decide not to tell Mum. She isn’t the world’s biggest spider fan. But it makes me happy to see this little note of anarchy in this antiseptic place.

‘At least I can get a breeze here’, says Mum. ‘Though when I was standing up next to the window yesterday they made me get back into bed in case I caught a chill’.

Her temperature is still too high, she is coughing most of the time and she’s pulled her canula out.

‘ I thought I’d be feeling a bit better by now’, she says. ‘But they’ve still got me on that bloody antibiotic that doesn’t work’.

I know that doctors don’t like to be told their jobs, but still.

‘Did you know that Mum’s been hospitalised for Proteus infections several times?’ I ask the doctor when he’s next on his rounds.

‘No’, he says. ‘Maybe we should talk to the people in Metabiotics’.

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Proteus is a super-bug, and Mum probably acquired it in a hospital. Along with MRSA and C.Difficile, it is infecting our clinics and operating theatres. Proteus is so-called because it hides in the body, changing location. There are several variants, many of them immune to one antibiotic, some to several. The use of several antibiotics simultaneously is called Metabiotics.

This is the age of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On a bad day, I feel that we are standing on the threshold of apocalypse. I remember a display I saw about the Jamestown settlers in America. Several of them died from a simple tooth abscess that could not be treated, became infected, and spread through the body.

As we seek to sterilise our homes and hospitals and schools, life is creeping back through the keyhole, pouring under the door, finding the draughty spaces around our windows.

The doctors change the drugs. My mother’s body becomes a battleground. At 3.30 a.m. she rings me.

‘I’m in The Game’, she says. ‘I’m trapped in a room, and they’re murdering people next door, and slaughtering them like animals, and they won’t let me out’.

‘Mum,’ I say, heart racing, ‘You know that none of this is real?’

‘I know’, she says, ‘but I want to get out and they won’t let me go’.

The phone goes dead. I call the ward. After what seems like a year, the nurse answers. I explain the situation.

‘I’ll talk to her’, he says. ‘It’s the drugs’.

The next morning, Mum can’t remember any of it, but her breathing seems better. Then her blood sugar climbs to 32, a dangerously high level. It seems that, somehow, the bacteria are fighting back. This is not going to end any time soon.

On my visit, Mum hands back the cards with the bird songs in them.

‘Take them home’, she says. ‘Keep them safe. They don’t belong here’. And she closes her eyes, a look of concentration turning her face to marble. She is not beaten yet.

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Today, there is finally good news. The blood sugars are under control. Mum’s breathing is improving. Her poor body has fought back again, and if all goes well, she will be out of the hospital in a couple of days.

I am making my peace with the orchid. The buds are clenched fists, but the newly opened flowers are poppy-shaped, like cupped hands, around the soft inner petals. I see that the long, tongue-like leaves have a fine layer of dust.

‘I’d better clean you up’, I say to the plant. ‘Before Mum comes home’.

Update

Mum finally left the hospital on Thursday, and is travelling back home to Dorset with Dad and I on Sunday. She isn’t fully well yet, as might be expected, but she is getting better.I am deeply grateful to all the staff at the Whittington Hospital in north London for their unfailing care of my mum, and for their patience and dedication. The NHS truly is a pearl beyond price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Save a Wood

Brighter.....

Dear Readers, you might think that a wood that has been in existence for more than a thousand years would be well able to look after itself, but in fact such spaces are often in need of both management and protection. Fifteen years ago, Coldfall Wood was far from being the biodiverse, much-loved urban woodland that it is today. I met Linda Alliston and Ann Bronkhorst, long-time members of the Friends of Coldfall Wood, in Ann’s cosy kitchen. How had things changed?

“The Wood was full of burnt-out cars”, said Linda. “People would drive in across the Playing Fields and leave all these wrecks. Youngsters would ride their motorbikes through the Wood and buzz the dog-walkers and the mums with their prams. It was a terrible mess and it made me angry to see it”.

It was not, however, the state of the Wood that was the initial impetus to action.

Muswell Hill Playing Fields today

Muswell Hill Playing Fields today

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“Word got out on the rumour mill that someone was planning to turn the Playing Fields into a Golf Driving Range”, Linda said.

I remember a Driving Range close to where I used to live. The floodlights were on until late at night, and the whole place was surrounded by an enormous chain link fence. It was an ecological desert.

“Can you imagine the impact on the bats and the other wildlife?” asked Ann.

“So, a group of us dog-walkers and some of the regular footballers who used the playing fields got together, and spoke to the council to try to prevent it”, said Linda.

This was an excellent example of ‘nipping things in the bud’. The council decided not to sell the Fields when they recognised the strength of local feeling, and so, as nothing formal had been set into motion, that was the end of that. Flushed with success, the Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood was born.

Once the threat of the Driving Range was seen off, Haringey Council set about securing the Fields so that the cars and motorbikes couldn’t access them. However, this still left the problem of the existing dumped vehicles.

“We took truck-load after truck-load of debris out”, said Linda. “We could not believe how much there was.”

Once the wood felt a little less wild and dangerous, more people felt safe about using it. But there were still several problems.

An uncoppiced area of the wood

An uncoppiced area of the wood

One was that the Hornbeam trees, which from medieval times would have been cut down regularly to make charcoal and wheel axles, had been neglected for years. The process of cutting them back, called coppicing, means that the Hornbeams don’t grow so tall and dense, and a greater variety of plants can grow. This in turn attracts more insects and birds. As it was, most of the wood was dark, gloomy and overgrown. Some management was in order.

“We were lucky to get a grant via the Lottery in 2006 to renovate the Wood”, explained Ann. “The funding was secured with Haringey’s help, and they project-managed the restoration work.”

The partnership with Haringey was a fertile one, literally. The coppicing work undertaken opened up the wood and a whole range of plants appeared. Seeds that have been buried for many years can germinate once given a little warmth and sunlight. More species of plant means more opportunities for insects and other woodland creatures. It is exciting to see new and unusual plants peeping shyly through, including Heath Groundsel, unknown elsewhere in the Borough.

In 2013, more funding was identified, again with the assistance of Haringey Council. It was decided to cut another coppice. A local woodsman, Iain Loasby, undertook the work, and used a heavy horse to take the wood out. It was a wonderful sight, which attracted a lot of local interest, even though it all took place in cold, wet January and February in order to avoid the nesting season.

The area coppiced in 2013

The area coppiced in 2013

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The coppiced area looks a little stark, with the magnificent Oak trees standing amongst what looks like a wilderness of brambles and tree stumps. But looks can deceive. Again, a wide range of plants are bursting into life. Wrens sing from the wood stacks, and I cannot wait until spring to see what plants have emerged from their long sleep.

“The thing I’m most proud of, though, is the rejuvenation of the stream”, said Linda. “For years, we went from pillar to post between the council, Thames Water and the Environment Agency, but finally we got it sorted out”.

Linda handed me a newspaper clipping, showing the stream that runs through the Wood. The article describes it as an ‘open sewer’.

“It used to absolutely stink”, said Linda. “It was polluted and dangerous”.

Following a survey by Thames Water, it turned out that some of the houses that surround the wood had been victims of ‘cowboy builders’. Their plumbing had been set up so that their household waste went directly into the stream. Couple that with run-off from the roads, and you have a recipe for a very unpleasant health-hazard.

“Of course, most people didn’t even know that they were dumping their sewage into the stream, so they were horrified”, said Linda. Once the problem was identified, it was simply a case of sorting out the pipework. But there were still other sources of pollution.

“In 2006 we used some of our funding to plant a reed-bed, to help to filter out some of the run-off from the main road”, said Linda. The reeds form an interesting habitat in their own right, and I must admit to checking them for Bearded Tits every time I pass. No luck so far, but who knows? And it is certainly a fine resting place for dragonflies.

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The Reed Bed. No Bearded Tits yet…..

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Today, I can vouch for the crystal-clear waters of the stream, and the complete lack of smell.

Crows 17

In 2012 the Fields were granted Queen Elizabeth II Playing Fields status, which gives them protection in perpetuity. And in 2013, the Woods were designated as a Nature Reserve, which should mean that they are free from the threat of development. However, the Friends remain vigilant: they meet ten times a year to discuss what’s going on, and to plan events that will help more local people enjoy and appreciate the wonder of this little piece of ancient woodland and common ground that was so nearly ruined.

What advice, I asked, would you give to anyone who wants to protect or improve a piece of local green space?

“ You need to be persistent”, said Linda, “And I personally don’t think that shouting at people does any good. After all, the people who work for the council are human beings too. It’s much better to build relationships, so that you work together”.

“And it’s good to make links with other community organisations”, said Ann. “The Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission are both good sources of support and information. The Haringey branch of the Trust for Nature Conservation have done lots of very useful work in the wood too. And it’s also important to share information with other Friends groups. You can talk about what you’re doing, how you’re involving other local people. You can pick up excellent ideas, and make links with other people”.

“And the local press”, said Linda. “They’re always in need of copy, and can be your best friends if there’s an issue that you want to highlight or to publicise”

“You have to accept that the group itself will ebb and flow”, said Ann. “Sometimes there will be lots of people, sometimes not so many. But I do think that if there was a threat to the Wood, people would mobilise. It means a lot to a lot of people”.

For me, it was clear that a small group of people, if motivated enough, can make a huge difference to the quality of an area. What a loss it would have been if the Driving Range had been built, and if the wood had continued to be a focus for anti-social behaviour, making it feel dangerous for everyone else. As it is, it is still a wild area, but one which can accommodate everyone from children to dog walkers to runners to slightly scruffy, middle-aged women with binoculars around their necks. I am eternally grateful for the hard work and persistence of the Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood. They are true friends to these green spaces, and have helped to protect the plants and animals that regard them as home, and to ensure that future generations of humans can walk amongst the trees, take a long, deep breath and feel themselves gently relax.

The Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood meet on the first Tuesday of the month at 7.30 pm at Coldfall Primary school. Their next event is a Winter Tree walk with Iain Loasby, the woodman who did the most recent coppicing. For more information, have a look at the Coldfall Wood website here.