‘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.
The 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
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.
For the fox story so far, have a look at the posts below:
Dear 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.
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.
A miniature panther was patrolling the cemetery, and he was not alone.
There 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?
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.
And as I watched, the last piece was carried off to be enjoyed in peace.
Dear 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.
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.
As 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.
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’.
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.
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’.
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.
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
“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
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 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.
The Reed Bed. No Bearded Tits yet…..
Today, I can vouch for the crystal-clear waters of the stream, and the complete lack of smell.
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.
During the past week, my husband John and I have been going for a walk around Coldfall Wood after dinner every night. We can both sense that the darkness comes a little earlier with every passing day, and soon, it will be night time before he gets home.
When I open the gate to the wood, it’s as if I’ve entered another world. The branches of the oak and hornbeam meet overhead, so the area underneath is still and dark, the only sounds the chippy calls of robins sorting out their territories. These are ancient, twisted trees that look as if they’ve been caught out in the middle of a dance, and will start to gyrate again once we’ve moved on.
The wood is only a few hundred metres deep at this point. As we follow the path, we can see the sun setting, the space between the trees glowing copper-red, an abstract painting of molten light and matt black. As the path turns right, we are right up against the fence that separates the wood from the allotments. And there, in the fork of a small tree, I see something that makes me catch my breath.
It looks as if someone has woven a delicate cup out of strands of caramel. In fact, it’s a spider’s web, layer on layer of threads twisted around and around the twigs. Beautiful in itself, it’s now backlit by the sunset. And to complete the illusion of something supernatural, every individual silken hair is moving gently in the whispering breeze.
Such moments, when we see something as if we’ve never seen it before, feel sacred to me, as if for a few moments we’ve been granted a view of the innate beauty and perfection of everything on this earth. It makes me wonder what I miss every day as I go about my business, oblivious.
In a few minutes, the sun has disappeared and the web returns to invisibility. We walk on, loop up onto the playing fields. There are dozens of crows here, digging at the turf, chatting away, walking around with their feet turned inwards and what looks like their hands behind their backs. They always remind me a little of Prince Charles – it must be that slightly self-conscious gait. Crows have such a variety of cackles and coughs and giggles and caws, and as they fly backwards and forwards from the trees to the football field, they use them all. This is a big crow community, and I wonder what they talk about.
We turn back into the darkness of the wood, turn right over a tiny muddy brook, one of several that criss-cross between the trees. Towards the road, a big bed of reeds is growing, planted deliberately to try to reduce the polluted water that comes from the road above. There is a small scuffling noise in the brambles, and a rat appears. I’ve seen one here everytime I’ve taken this walk, but I have no way of knowing if it’s the same one, or if there’s a family. They seem to be especially common this year – maybe the warm weather has meant more picnics, and hence more food-waste, although the wood is normally very unlittered. The rat sits up on his haunches, gnawing at something that he holds between his little pink hands. He is surprisingly tame, and lets us approach to within ten feet before he scuttles off into the undergrowth.
We turn the final corner to head home. A young man wearing a beret and glasses is there with a small hairy dog. We say good evening, pass him by, go on a little further, and stop. There, amongst the dead leaves, is one of the biggest cats I’ve ever seen.
‘Hello!’ I say. The cat looks a little unnerved, but comes forward all the same. It has a mass of long hair, in cream and tabby and swirls of grey. Its ears have little tufts on them, as if were a lynx.
‘He looks like a Norwegian Forest Cat’, I say to John. ‘What a beautiful cat’.
The young man turns.
‘Yes’, he says, “He is a Norwegian Forest Cat. He sometimes comes for a walk with us when I bring the dog out’.
The little dog rushes up to us, jumps up for a sniff and a lick and a scratch on the head
‘Careful’, says the young man, ‘He’ll cover you in mud’.
But it’s a dry evening, and so the damage is minimal.
‘It’s a bit of a pain when the cat comes out, actually’, says the young man. ‘I have to watch out for all the other dogs in case they chase him. He might be big, but he’s really soft’.
The dog runs up to the cat, who head butts him. They are obviously good friends.
And so, that finishes off a fairy-tale evening. We’ve had cups of gold, talking crows, tame rats and cats that go out for a walk with their dog and human friends. Coldfall Wood really is a magical place.