Category Archives: London Places

Bugwoman on Location – King’s Cross

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

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

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

The Victorian station

The New Concourse

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

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

‘Hotlips’ salvia with bee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waitrose has taken over another old loading bay and warehouse.

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

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

Lots of lovely nepeta

Mexican fleabane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas holder as flats

Gas holder as park

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

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

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

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

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

Inside King’s Cross station

Twenty-Six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day

Dear Readers, I had great plans for the blog today, but the deluge started. As I sat in Costa Coffee and looked out at grey skies and slick pavements, I felt a bit down and hopeless. But then, I started to notice the effect that the rain had on everything, and so, with apologies to Wallace Stevens and his poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, I’ve found 26 ways of looking at a rainy day.

1.Grey skies and rain make all the colours look brighter. The reds of the buses and the yellow of the AA van are almost startling. The traffic cones that Affinity Water have put along our road (lead water pipes have been discovered, oh joy) positively pop with brightness.

2. Raindrops form a constantly changing geometric pattern of interlacing circles and bubbles and tiny explosions.

3. Rain really highlights the terrain, the slopes and ridges and the long down-hill towards the tube station

4. The rain also highlights the places where vehicles have parked on the pavement, breaking the paving stones and creating the ideal home for miniature ponds and lakes.

5.People walk faster, but give one another little smiles and eye-rolls. ‘British summer, eh’. You can never go wrong with the weather. A month and a bit ago, we were all moaning about the heat. Today, I have the heating on. In August.

6.You can hear the shape of things by listening to the rain. I remember a radio programme where a chap who was blind said that he loved the rain, because he could ‘see’ the shape of the bushes and trees in the garden. I shall have to try that out, but I love the sounds of tyres in the rain, and the rain on the roof and the windowlights. In Cherry Tree Wood, you could hear the raindrops hitting the leaves.

7.Rain brings up all the smells – there is a word, ‘petrichor’ for earth after rain.  And I wish I could share the smell of these roses with you.

8. The rain brings out all the colours of the bark on the plane trees on the High Road, and the ornamental trees on the County Roads.

9. The rain paints the trees and houses, making it clear exactly where it falls.

10. The rain emphasises out the muscularity of the trunks of the hornbeam trees.

11. I love that some people ignore the rain, and go running anyway. In fact, when I used to run I loved the wet days most of all, the splashing through puddles and the splat of my footsteps, and the fact that I got soaking wet but was going to have a shower anyway.

12. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro talks about the way that the rain ‘washes all the scum off the streets’. He was talking metaphorically, but it does clean our streets up for sure. Look at how clean and new the nettles look after their bath.

13. I love that you can sometimes get a perfect reflection in a raindrop.

14. Reflections on a wet pavement are a whole other area of interest. Each car has its own upside-down double attached to its wheels. The awning at Tony’s Continental (the best greengrocer on the High Street in my opinion) looks even more splendid when reflected on wet paving stones.

15. The reflection of traffic lights on a wet surface blurs them romantically.

17. Where do the insects hide during the rain? A big raindrop can knock a butterfly off course or disrupt the busyness of a bee. As the rain (briefly) eased, all kinds of insects reappeared.

17.The rain doesn’t put the birds off, that’s for sure – the starlings bathe, and the crows are still looking for chips in the gutter outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I should tell them that their dietary habits are cannibalistic, but I doubt that they’d listen.

18.Some people have wonderful rainwear, like the lady completely encased in a yellow poncho who just popped into Costa Coffee. Practical and bright.

19.You see more grown-ups in Wellington Boots, and that’s not a bad thing. It always makes me think of the seaside.

20.Generally, people drive more slowly and carefully, as if suddenly aware that they are piloting a ton of metal through a world filled with creatures made of flesh and bone.

21 .My water butts will be full, ready for this ‘drought’ that we’re supposed to be having.

22. Leaves are both waterproof, and designed for rain to run off and fall where it’s needed, the soil beneath the plant.

23. The rain brings out the snails. And I have a great fondness for snails, in spite of their bad behaviour.

24. Walking in the rain when you don’t have to feels a bit anarchistic, but (whisper it) it can be fun. Children know this, we seem to have forgotten it. Best save any puddle-jumping for a quiet spot, though. I get enough funny looks as it is.

25. People walk closer together, sharing umbrellas, holding one another’s arms. We could all do with walking a bit closer together.

26. Tomorrow is meant to be dry and sunny. Let’s make the most of the rain while it’s here.

Wednesday Weed – Dwarf Mallow

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

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Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta)

Dear Readers, I found this tiny plant in the grass in front of our local children’s nursery. It is so small and delicate that it’s hard for me to believe that it’s a close relative of the stonking great pink mallow in my back garden, but indeed it is, for this is the dwarf mallow (Malva neglecta). It is an ancient introduction, possibly brought here by the Romans. So many plants arrived with the Romans (everything from radishes to walnuts) that I sometimes imagine them skipping along Watling Street scattering seeds in all directions. Why this little plant would be one of them I have no idea, but it was probably an interloper, maybe arriving with harvested seed and setting up home when it was planted.

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All of the mallows have been used widely for medicinal purposes (herbalists call the mallows ‘innocents’ because they have no bad qualities), and the name ‘Mallow’ and genus name Malva come from the Greek word Malakos, meaning soft and soothing. Dwarf mallow has been used to make salves and lotions for bruises, inflammation and insect bites (the herbalist Gerarde said that it was ‘good against the stinging of scorpions, bees, wasps and such’), and as a treatment for lung and urinary complaints. The plant is said to be better than common mallow (Malva sylvestris) for these purposes, but the creme-de-la-creme of mallows for medicine is the marsh mallow (Althea officinalis). Dwarf mallow is also described as an excellent laxative for small children, though here, as in all matters medicinal, extreme caution is advised.

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The leaves of dwarf mallow are edible, though most foraging websites mention that the mucilaginous quality of the leaves, which make them so effective in treating bruises and skin problems, is rather unpleasant when the leaves are cooked. So, in other words, if you don’t like the slimy quality of okra, you’d be better eating dwarf mallow raw. However, as I mentioned in my post on common mallow, if the leaves are steeped in water the resulting fluid can be used as an egg white substitute in meringues and souffles, which seems like a minor miracle to me. It can also be used as a binding agent in vegan cookery, as in this recipe for Mallow Leaf and White Bean Burgers.

One potential problem is that dwarf mallow seems to concentrate nitrates for fertilizer in the leaves, so be careful where you harvest from.

The round fruits are said to look like tiny cheeses (and in Yorkshire were known as ‘fairy cheeses’) and are full of nutritional value, though a bit on the small side in this species. On the other hand, they were used in a dormancy experiment and apparently germinated after a hundred years, so there can be no doubt that they are well protected and full of everything that a plant might need to grow when the conditions are right.

By Stefan.lefnaer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A dwarf mallow ‘cheese’ (seedhead) – Photo One (see credit below)

I must add a small note of sadness here as well. Just along from the nursery where the dwarf mallow is growing was the car park for GLH, the cab company. The wall along the front was full of willow herb and ragweed, and there was a fine buddleia growing at the front. Well, the building has been sold to erect some new flats. I’m all for affordable housing, as you know, but more than a thousand local people objected to the design of the building on the basis of its design, the risk of over-development and the way that the project added to the chronic traffic congestion in the area (there is no on-site parking) and this was completely ignored by Barnet Council.  All the weeds have been sprayed, and a man was erecting a plywood hoarding with a door in it. As he stepped through to the demolition site and shut the door behind him, it reminded me of how much seems to be going on behind closed doors at the moment. Let’s hope that there’s still a way to moderate this most grandiose design.

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

The proposed flats on East Finchley High Street (Photo from The Archer)

Photo Credit

Photo One (Mallow seed head) – By Stefan.lefnaer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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 Street Trees of Archway Part Two

Dear Readers, when I left you last week I had reached the highest point of the North London street tree walk from Paul Wood’s new book ‘London Street Trees: A Guide to the Urban Forest‘. As I walked along Cheverton Road I was struck by the fact that there were no street trees on this stretch of road at all. How bare and exposed it felt! But a little further down, the trees started again, and among them was a whitebeam. I have a great affection for these trees, as I have one in my own garden and value its generous shade. I had never noticed before how twisted the trunks often are, as if the tree had followed the sun in tiny circles when it was young and had not managed to untangle itself.

Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

A typical twisted whitebeam trunk

There was some building work going on on the other side of the road, and, when one of the builders saw the camera, he danced across the road like an escapee from ‘Fame’. Unfortunately I failed to capture his moves on my camera, and when asked to repeat them he became as shy as a toddler hiding behind his mum. One has to be ready to take a picture at all times.

The view from the other end of Cheverton Road is pretty impressive as well.

However, my path led me away from the twinkling roofs of Canary Wharf, and towards one of London’s street tree ‘hotspots’, Dresden Road.

There were some very fine trees, including this broad-leaved cockspur thorn (Crataegus x persimilis ‘Prunifolia). This is a type of hawthorn, one of my very favourite trees, both for its wildlife value and for the way that it heralds the start of summer. I love the pink pollen.

Not far from the tree there was a very fine cat. He didn’t want to talk at all but if he had I think that his utterance might not have been very polite.

There was beautiful bark on this Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis ‘Fascination’). It reminded me of the curls from a pencil sharpener.

But what is this fine tree, positively abuzz with bees? My guide tells me that it’s called Bragania or Erect Crab Apple, and that it’s from the Levant, Anatolia, Thrace, and an arc of the higher altitudes through Israel, Lebanon, Syria and western Turkey with a few isolated pockets in Europe. On Mount Lebanon it grows at altitudes of more than 1000 metres. In the Evros Mountains of Greece it was traditionally safeguarded by local communities for its fruit, but may be forced out when the land comes under pressure. How wonderful to see it as part of the international woodland along Dresden Road (which also includes crepe myrtle from the southern USA, a hankerchief tree from China and a Judas tree from the Eastern Mediterranean). The flowers of Bragania remind me a little of rock roses, and several of the trees were in full flower when I walked past last week.

And here is a much more friendly cat. So friendly, in fact, that I had to make a run for it to prevent being followed home. Sorry, puss cat…

I have already remarked on the extraordinary variety of trees in Dresden Road. The next few roads, however, show how a planting of a single type of tree can affect the look and feel of the street.

Lime trees on Gladsmuir Road

The vast majority of the trees on Gladsmuir Road are common limes (Tilia x europea), and how cool they made it seemed. These trees can live in excess of three hundred years, and were the preferred urban planting prior to the London plane, not just in the UK but also in Europe – think of the Unter den Linden in Berlin. The lush vegetation is almost tropical at this time of year, though I wonder how the local car owners like it – the tree is notorious for supporting a fine harvest of aphids, who make a habit of dropping honeydew on anything parked below. I love the flowers, and the scent, but the pollen is one of the worst offenders for hayfever sufferers. What a lovely hiding spot for small birds, however, and for the many insects that I’m sure will enjoy the leaves.

Then it’s a quick trip across the Archway Road (with a brief glance back at The Shard) and into Despard Road, which is also mostly planted with a single tree species, the white-berried rowan(Sorbus aucuparia).

This is a tree with airy, ethereal foliage, and fluffy, short-lived flowers. The tree itself is also short-lived, and is usually on its last roots after 25 years. Wood sees it as a safe, but uninspired choice, although no doubt the berries will be much appreciated later in the year.

And then, finally, to Magdala Avenue, the home of the Whittington Hospital. You may remember that I had cause to spend several painful weeks visiting my mum here in 2015/16, and so it was with trepidation that I retraced my steps. The flowers on the corner are doing very well, while some of the other beds seem to have dried out and reverted to the usual sowthistles and dandelions (not that there’s anything wrong with them, of course!)

But what I’d come to see was right opposite the main entrance. I hadn’t noticed it during those difficult former visits, though I wish I had. This is the champion Chinese Lacebark Elm in the whole of the UK, the tallest one of all. It looks rather delicate for all its height, especially when a police car with its lights flashing is parked just out of the photograph. How many human dramas has this tree witnessed, I wonder: people bringing home their babies, people who have just said goodbye to their loved ones, people who have received a hopeful diagnosis or crushing bad news. People, like me, laden down with bags and paraphernalia as they ease their mothers or fathers into the taxi which will take their frail but grateful bodies home. All this has swirled around this tree and yet there it stands, unmoved. I find solace in the timescale of great trees, their long slow lives, their deep roots and their seasonal cycles. It reminds me that, compared to some of these great organisms, we are as ephemeral as mayflies.

Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)

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The Street Trees of Archway Part One

Japanese Pagoda Trees (Styphnolobium japonicum) outside Archway Station

Dear Readers, we are surrounded by street trees but they go largely unnoticed, flowering and fruiting and developing autumn foliage without so much as a glance from us as we hurry past. Yet our built environment would be so much poorer without their shade and freshness, and so would our wildlife. I was very excited to find that, in Paul Wood’s new book ‘London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest‘, there are a number of walks to follow. One of them is in Archway, just a mile or so down the road from East Finchley. And so, on a day of volatile weather, I took myself down the hill to explore this familiar place with a new focus.

The area outside the station is newly pedestrianised, and there are a variety of young trees, including some Japanese Pagoda trees. Wood points out that these are easily identified by the green bark on the new growth.

Note the green bark on some of the twigs

This tree is a member of the pea family, and, when it’s all grown up, it may have racemes of white flowers. I say ‘may’ because you can wait 30 years for a tree to flower. In the meantime, it has soft, feathery foliage and an elegant, graceful habit. The tree is Chinese rather than Japanese, and in Chinese legend it is believed to attract demons. Let’s hope that this isn’t the case, as the area around the station attracts many lost souls as it is.

By Penarc - naturalezaysenderos.com - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sophora_japonica_(1).jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44138116

The flowers of the Japanese Pagoda Tree (in case you can’t wait for thirty years to see them) (Photo One – see credit below)

In fact, the space around Archway has been somewhat ‘tarted up’ over the past year. All the bus stops have moved, a source of considerable irritation to folk like me who haven’t worked out where the 143 goes from. Also, a cycle lane runs right across the middle of the pedestrianised area, so we will see how that works out.

Newly modernised blocks around Archway (pedestrianised area to the bottom left)

Japanese Pagoda Tree. Is the cage to keep the demons in, or out?

Following the route in the book, I head along Junction Road. Here, I see a splendid example of all the things that street trees have to put up with.

A pit a metre deep has been dug around this tree, and this is currently full of bits of yellow plastic drain pipe, drinks cartons and cigarette ends. No one was working there when I visited, so I will be interested to see how long the poor tree remains with some of its roots exposed. Plus, there is a lot of traffic here, so the plant also has to contend with a lot of pollution. No wonder London Planes are the trees of choice for so many of London’s big roads, what with their resilience and the way that they regularly shed their bark, along with any unpleasant chemicals.

I turn left onto St John’s Grove and there, towards the junction with Pemberton Road, I see two Dawn Redwoods (Metasequioa glyptostroboides).

I must have walked past these trees on my way to the Cat Protection shelter on Junction Road hundreds of times when I was a fosterer, and yet not noticed them. Dawn Redwoods come from a single Chinese forest, where there are less than 5000 individual trees left, and they were only discovered by scientists back in 1946. In its native Lichuan the plant is known as the Water Fir.  It is related to the Giant Redwoods, and though not quite as much of a goliath as these trees it can still grow to 200 feet. It is unusual in being deciduous, and has a light, delicate appearance. It came as a surprise to me to see a tree that is classified as Endangered in the wild is doing well just off the Holloway Road, but then life is full of surprises.

Foliage of the Dawn Redwood

Looking back down Pemberton Road, I see that the council tree surgeons have been hard at work.

The pollarded plane trees always look to me as if they are raising their fists to the sky in fury. They appear to be almost indestructible, however.

Pollarded tree coming into leaf

Paul Wood explains that the main reason that trees are pollarded is prevent the tree from becoming too large. A big tree is a thirsty tree, and it may drink up all the water in the soil. This is known to lead to subsidence, a particular problem, I imagine, in the hilly environs of Islington. If the trees are pollarded every three years, then a court will most likely throw out any claims by a householder, on the basis that the tree always takes the same amount of water. At any rate, although the pollarding looks ugly, it seems to only encourage the trees (at least if the behaviour of my whitebeam following its pruning eighteen months ago is anything to go by – every time it’s cut back, it grows through more vigorously).

Onwards! I cross Holloway Road, and head along St John’s Villas, the scene of much tree-related drama a few years ago.

Sand Pear trees (Pyrus pyrifolia)

There are seven Sand Pear trees in this street, an unusual choice of fruit tree, as they  produce particularly large and abundant fruit. In 2007 there was a particularly splendid crop of fruit. As no one knew what to do with it, the pears splattered onto residents’ cars and turned the pavement into a slippery mess. This highlights one of the problems of fruit-bearing street trees – if no one harvests the fruit, the result can be piles of fermenting crab apples or rotting plums. On my street, a neighbour spends much of the time in autumn sweeping up slushy crab apples. At any rate, in St John’s Villa some residents wanted the trees cut down, while others were ready to link arms to protect them. In the end, the council agreed to harvest the pears, and some of the residents took to making perry, a kind of pear cider. A win/win solution for everyone, I’d have thought! When I visited the road was quiet, except for the chirping of baby blue tits from one of the nest boxes, so it seems that the Pear Wars have come to an end, at least for now. For more on this story, have a look at Paul’s blog here.

As I walked along Prospero Road, I was literally led by the nose to the most beautiful show of jasmine and climbing hydrangea I’ve seen in a long time. It perfumed the air for tens of metres in every direction. I only wish that this blog were scratch and sniff, I’d love to share it with you.

On the corner of Lysander Grove, Wood points me to another unusual tree, the Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Remember the name, because we will meet another of these trees next week.

This elm is largely resistant to Dutch Elm Disease ( I posted about the English Elm here ) and has a kind of splendid grace and poise. It seems to be very popular for Bonsai, but I rather like it as a ‘proper’ tree, bringing a touch of elegance to a North London Street corner.

During a mistaken detour along Lysander Grove, I spot an over-enthusiastic Clematis montana, sharing its beauty with everyone. I wonder where it will end up? Crouch End at this rate.

Once back on the correct path, I see the most splendid green roof on top of a garage, full of red campion and ox-eye daisies. Well done, that home owner! It goes to show that even a small space can provide some beauty and interest.

The garage green roof

Up past the Village Garage on Cressida Road (yes, there’s a Shakespearean theme in these parts), and there are two Photinia ‘Red Robin’ trees. What a shame that I’ve missed the height of their flowering. I must pop back when they’re in their autumn colour. Photinia are much more often grown as shrubs, but these two are very striking in their tree form. The plant is a member of the rose family and is related to the apple: the fruit is said to be popular with birds such as thrushes and waxwings, a good example of how valuable street trees can be for wildlife.

Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’

And now, as I hit the halfway point of my walk, I look back towards the towers of Canary Wharf, with the pyramid of One Canada Square reflecting the fleeting sunshine. I had no idea of the sheer variety of the street trees here, and the walk has thrown up a number of surprises. As I head towards what Wood describes as ‘one of the street tree hotspots of London’, Dresden Road, I wonder what else I will find.

London friends, if you want to know what the street trees are in your area, have a look at this map. It’s not perfect, but put in your postcode and see what’s on your streets….

Photo Credits

Photo One (Japanese Pagoda Tree flowers) – By Penarc – naturalezaysenderos.comhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sophora_japonica_(1).jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44138116

Paul Wood’s fascinating blog is here, much recommended.

 

 

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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