Category Archives: London Places

A Return to the Barbican

Dear Readers, you may remember that I visited the planting at the Barbican Centre in London a few years ago, and was very impressed. Today, in an attempt to get back to something like normality, I went to see a matinee of Macbeth featuring Christopher (Dr. Who) Eccleston in the Barbican Theatre but before I settled down I wanted to see how the gardens were standing up, and what they looked like in the most uninspiring month of the year. By January, most gardens are looking a bit tired, and one is lucky to have more than a few things in flower. It’s all about texture, and these plantings have that in spades.

The light at this time of year can be strong but the sun is low in the sky, and this creates all kinds of strange effects between the tower blocks. It’s here that the grasses come into their own. The seed heads look molten, glowing with an unearthly fire. I felt as if my poor parched senses were drinking the beauty in.

The icy wind whistles between the buildings, but there were hardy souls weeding and tidying the beds. I told one man how much I enjoyed the gardens at any time of year, and he pointed out a few things that were in flower, a salvia and a little cranesbill. But strangely enough, it’s the starker delights of bark and twig that appeal to me at the moment.

I found one spot, sheltered from the wind, where I noticed the fur on this frosty-leaved plant. I love the way that each leaf has a centre-parting, like a damp-haired schoolboy.

The euphorbia and the Japanese Anemones are still going strong where they have some protection from the cold.

Because of the way that the sun reflects from the windows, there can be strange, fleeting puddles of light.

There is a pond under one of the buildings, and went to see if there was a yellow wagtail, as there had been on a previous visit. Today, there was nothing but reflections.

There are some big, concrete containers that have been planted with a wildflower mix. I was surprised to see cornflowers and mayweed and yarrow still in bloom. I have seen wildflower plantings in a number of other places, but have my doubts as to the provenance of the plants – near to my house in East Finchley, an area has giant yarrow and the largest-flowered creeping thistle that I’ve ever seen. Possibly these are cultivars, but they look remarkably like the wild plants on steroids. The plants here, though, look pretty much like the real thing.

I used to visit the Barbican regularly at lunchtime (I worked just across the road), and it was a most unimpressive place, with the beds full of regimented primulas and well-behaved geraniums. Today it’s a wild and woolly prairie, full of interest even at this time of the year. When I visit in summer the place is full of pollinators having a pit-stop for nectar and pollen. This is an exposed and variable habitat, where the wind scours the soil and the sun blazes down, but the garden is doing well. It just goes to show what can be done with a bit of imagination.

And Macbeth was pretty good too, with the part of the witches taken by three scary children in identical red dresses, and Christopher Eccleston giving it his all in a northern accent and body armour. I get a bit fed-up with the handbrake turns that the characters take, but I think we have to blame Mr Shakespeare for that rather than the performance. It sometimes feels like one of the few Shakespeare plays that could actually do with being a bit longer to allow for the deterioration in the characters’ states of mind. But still, if you fancy a couple of hours of supernatural goings on, the descent of one of the lead characters into madness and all manner of surprising goings-on, this is your play.

 

Bugwoman on Location – Big Wood

Oak trees with golden leaves, Big Wood, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Dear Readers, this week I decided to take myself off for a small adventure, in a place that is near at hand but completely new to me. Big Wood is just around the corner from East Finchley, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is not actually a very Big Wood, but at 7.3 hectares it is bigger than nearby Little Wood, at 1.2 hectares. It was originally part of the Bishop of London’s estate but was leased to many different owners, who coppiced the wood for fence posts and firewood. From 1810, however, it seems that the wood was turned over to oak timber – most of the magnificent oaks date from the 19th century. Furthermore, the understorey is largely hazel coppice, rather than the hornbeams from my local Coldfall wood. The remnants of ancient woodland in North London have been heavily managed since medieval times, and probably for far longer.

It’s not all oak and hazel, however. This tiny wood holds over 80 wild service trees, who spread only from the root of the parent plant in the UK because it’s too cold for the seeds to germinate. They are therefore an indicator of the age of the wood, and also a sign that, however the wood has been managed, some parts have been left alone for centuries. There were still a few of the golden-yellow leaves left.

Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

There are also true wild crab apple trees. The thick spiny growth on the trunk indicates that these are not ‘wildlings’, trees which have grown up from discarded apple cores, but original trees – some are over a hundred years old. I shall have to visit again when the trees are in blossom – there are lots of wild cherries here too, some of them as tall (though not as robust) as the oaks.

Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

As I walk slowly through the wood, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Are the males setting up territories already? I hear one bird and then another, a little further away. There is lots of standing dead wood, perfect for nest holes, digging for grubs and percussion.

Nuthatches are scurrying along the branches, excavating under the loose bark for small insects.

An imperfect photo of a¬† nuthatch (as my photos usually are ūüôā )

But the rowdiest of the forest inhabitants are undoubtedly the ring-necked parakeets, with their squawking and their arguing. I have mentioned before that they are amongst the earliest of the hole-nesting birds, getting themselves settled well before the woodpeckers and the stock doves. A pair in the tree above me were definitely house-hunting, and weren’t above making their own alterations, digging out the hole that they’d found and showering me with bark.

I often find that when I go for a walk I start out at a brisk trot and get slower and slower, eventually coming to a complete halt. And it was while I was sitting on a bench that I noticed how the sun was lighting up the spider silk in the bush opposite me. The more I looked, the more strands I saw.

Onwards! In one part of the wood, the hazel coppice has been cut right down to the ground. The health of a wood depends on having trees of various ages, and the young oak trees here do badly because the older trees completely screen out the light. So, the people managing the wood are transplanting failing young trees into this much brighter area to the north-east of the wood, in the hope that they will thrive there. They have also planted a variety of local woodland flowers in the hope of increasing the biodiversity. I shall have to pop back in the spring to see how it’s all doing.

A coppiced area in Big Wood

As usual, though, it’s often the small things that catch my eye. There are miniature forests of moss on some of the hazel branches.

The holly and the ivy grow together, appropriately as Christmas approaches.

The way that the root of a fallen tree tangles together reminds me of something from the Kama Sutra

And through it all, the dappled sunlight.

Big Wood is a well-used spot, full of children and dog-walkers and runners, and yet it retains a certain wildness, even so. It has seen so many generations come and go but here it still is, getting on with the business of photosynthesising and decay. The cycle of life goes on regardless, and on some days that is a comfort. There’s nothing like standing next to an oak tree to give one a sense of perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn in Cherry Tree Wood

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that it hasn’t been the easiest of years, what with the gradual decline in my parents’ health, and the recent decision to admit them to a nursing home. In the aftermath of all this, I find myself vulnerable, as if I’ve lost a layer of skin. The downside is that I never know what will make me cry: an advert on the television, a snippet of an old song, a memory conjured out of nowhere. But the upside is that I am seeing things as if anew. I can be caught by a glimpse of sudden beauty that stuns me into stillness. This can make me cry too, but there is less of despair and loss, and more of hope about it. And so I took myself off for a walk in Cherry Tree Wood in East Finchley at this breeziest, sunniest time of the year, just to see what I could see.

A trio of bright pink leaves caught my eye to start with. Nothing natural here, unless you include the tendency of the human to want to mark their territory. Once seen, I noticed it everywhere.

But for the first time I noticed how the hornbeam and oak trees are dancing, their trunks twisting as they reach towards the sun, but on a timescale much slower than our own. What tangos would be captured by a stop motion sequence! They lean back, they swivel, they revolve around their own axis, trying to find a space in the canopy, a dance of years and decades rather than moments, but a dance none the less.

And in the main part of the wood a huge oak rises from a lake of golden¬† leaves. How many autumns has this giant seen¬† come and go? And of the eight autumns that I have had in East Finchley, how come this is the first time that I’ve noticed it?

And among the leaves, the squirrels are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, from skinny little runts to great fat imperial squirrels. Most of them are carrying an acorn in their mouths, and they will bury their prize in the ivy or under a layer of oak leaves.¬† Some tiny proportion of the nuts that they don’t eat during the winter will germinate, some¬† of them far from their parent tree, and the dance towards the canopy will start all over again.

Turning dizzy laps in the woods is a small¬† white dog.He skids past me, leaves flying in all directions, and heads back, ears flapping, tongue lolling. He hurtles along the path and increases the diameter of the circle. I don’t know where his owner is, but I sense they are somewhere at the epicentre, like the sun.

I catch glimpses of him as I walk on through the woods. Once, there would have been deer here, but today he seems like the spirit of the place, a dishevelled London pooch, full of life and spirit. And when I stopped to film the falling leaves, there he was.

There is so much to be said for a slow, careful walk in autumn. The colours, the movement, the smell of burning leaves and damp vegetation, the call of crows and the whistle of starlings all serve to remind me that outside my poor, overworked brain there are other lives going on. However lonely we might feel when tough times come to visit, we are part of something so much bigger.

 

Barnwood, East Finchley

Dear Readers, there is a little patch of green and gold wildness in Tarling Road, just off Oak Lane in East Finchley.  For many years it has been locked up behind a chain mesh fence and allowed to go its own way, with brambles bursting into berry and the leaves of sycamore yellowing and falling. But this is all about to change. This secret place is going to be managed as a space for the whole of the local community, from fungi and plants and birds to people.

I met Leo Smith, a member of Grange Big Local and one of the people behind the site’s resurrection. Leo has form when it comes to wildlife gardening. Look at this wonderful hedge that he planted 9 years ago.

The site used to form part of the grounds of the Old Barn Community Centre, (hence the name¬† ‘Barnwood’) but when the community centre fell into disuse, the little wood was left neglected and unloved. For many years Leo and other local people¬† have seen the potential of this tiny site, and have wanted to make it a place that people could visit. The first stage has already begun – paths have emerged through the bramble thickets, each one curved so that you can’t see what’s around the next corner.

Each twist  reveals something something new in this overgrown but enigmatic site.

In the very middle of the wood an open space has been cleared. This is where Leo envisages that events will take place. Maybe people will carve wood into benches, or make bug hotels, or put up bird and bat boxes. Maybe they will sit and tell stories, or share their memories. Maybe children will learn about the wildlife and plants that surround them. There is so much possibility here.

Maybe people will harvest the blackberries, or even get to the cobnuts before the squirrels.

There are other plans, but the important thing is balance. There might be a rain garden, or a wildflower meadow, to increase the biodiversity of the site. Some trees are in a dangerous condition, and may need to be cut down, but others will be planted in their place. People will be able to walk straight from the spanking new (and currently empty) community centre into Barnwood.

The new (empty) community centre

It’s possible to underestimate the importance of tiny wild places such as Barnwood. But in a city, every resting place and food stop for birds and insects is important. As I have a cup of tea with Leo after the visit, we discuss all the birds that we’ve seen in East Finchley, and watch as the goldfinches and chaffinches visit Leo’s feeders. A patch of trees and shrubs might not account for much on its own, but when you see how it forms a corridor with other green places in the area, you start to appreciate how animals can survive even in the built-up environment of the city.¬† And the plan will make the site even more attractive to birds and invertebrates. Every half-acre counts, whether it’s a garden or a park or a place like Barnwood.

On Sunday 25th November, from 1-3 pm, there will be a community bulb planting event at Barnwood. Native snowdrops will be planted, as part of the Holocaust memorial, and as a symbol of new beginnings, hope, purity and consolation, alongside native bluebells and snake’s head fritillaries. All are most welcome.

 

 

 

Coming Home at Last

Dear Readers, it’s some indication of how the summer has passed that I have not created a post about East Finchley since June. But this morning was so beautiful that I had to go out with the camera for a stroll around the County Roads. I have been so stressed that I have become completely unmoored, and the cure is to walk, slowly, to pay attention, to breathe and to notice. What better place to start than with the plane trees on the High Street, that seem to be holding the sun in their branches? They are the last species around here to come into leaf, and the last to lose those leaves.

The Bald-Faced Stag gazes towards Cherry Tree Wood, as usual.

There are a lot of tropical Fatsia plants in some of the south-facing front gardens on Lincoln Road. The buds look like little green artichokes, bursting into waxy white flowers.

There are lots of members of the daisy family still coming into flower, loosening those tight-fisted buds one petal at a time.

Michaelmas daisies are everywhere, I love the way that the stamens go from yellow to purple as the flower ages.

Michaelmas daisies

A pumpkin left over from Wednesday’s Trick or Treating gives me the side-eye…

And the autumn berries and hips and fruit are set off by the blue sky.

Each burst of colour feels like a small electric shock. I ask myself where the summer went? Since July every waking moment has been spent organising, planning and worrying about my parents. Now that they are in the nursing home I feel redundant, without purpose. This will pass, I know, but at the moment I feel as if all the grief that has been stored up over the warmer months is exposed by the extravagance of autumn. It all feels just a little too much, beautiful as it is.

I spent a few days with Mum and Dad in the nursing home last week. I had a chance to have a good talk with Mum and to take her through what had happened, step by step. She seemed to understand, finally, that we were unable to look after her at home anymore, and that we wanted to carry out her wishes to be with Dad, and to be close to the friends and neighbours¬† that she loves. She hasn’t mentioned going home since, though I am not optimistic enough to assume that this will be the end of the conversation. But things look better than they did last week, and that is a bonus.

And now, I have to work out what I want to do when I grow up. As I am nearly sixty, I’d better get a move on. And in the meantime, I am walking the streets with my camera, making friends with the local cats.

There is one garden that I really love. It is a tiny space but absolutely full of nicotiana, borage, and other pollinator-friendly plants. There are a few honeybees even on this chilly day – one of the benefits of a south-facing plot is that it warms up the insects and helps the nectar flow. As I watch, I hear a low-pitched humming, and a queen bumblebee as big as the first joint on my thumb appears. Maybe the warmth of the day has roused her from her hibernation, and she needs a snack. The borage shudders and bows under her weight.

I float along to the High Street again. For a whole hour I haven’t been worrying about whether the nursing home are taking dad’s slight chest infection seriously, or what they will do about the fact that he’s now more or less nocturnal and keeps waking mum up. I realise that though I still have a role to play, the day to day care is not something that I need to meddle in. The home is happy for me to phone whenever I want, but I do think that after being so involved for such a long time, I need to step back from the small stuff. The trouble is, it’s a reflex, and it gave my life purpose.

What do I do now, with my one wild and precious life?

Well, one thing seems to be that I take photos of bollards that have been knocked over. The one on Leicester Road is no sooner concreted into verticality than it’s prone again. This cycle must have been repeated a dozen times since we moved to East Finchley in 2010. And there’s a bollard on the High Street that is similarly afflicted. I could extract some cheesy metaphor about persistence and resilience, but actually it seems a bit Sisyphean, a never-ending task that seems to have no more meaning than a grudge match between bad drivers and some long-suffering council workers.

On Bedford Road there is a rather beautiful tree. It is poised like a heron about to take off, one branch flung back and arching over a garage, the other leaning over the pavement and almost kissing the tops of the cars. What a deeply inconvenient being it is, no doubt blocking out the sun from the front windows and depositing leaves in great russet piles. And yet, it is obviously loved, and encouraged, and valued. There is room on these streets for the strange, the unusual, the awkward. I feel at home here. One day it will be my turn, too, to leave. I hope that I will have planned ahead so that the transition will feel like one that was a choice, rather than imposed on me. And in the meantime I hope to make the most of the harvest, and of the glory that it brings.

 

 

 

 

The Golden Hour

Dear Readers, it has been a difficult few weeks. Mum was in hospital until yesterday (Wednesday) but has been weeping because she wants to come home for at least a fortnight. At one point I honestly thought that Dad would ‘spring her’ from the hospital and drive her home, in spite of his dementia. Now she is home, and I am trying to make sure that we have the correct care at the correct time. My worry is that whatever we plan it still won’t be enough. Mum is intermittently confused, extremely weak, and seems to have forgotten many of the things that she was able to do just a few short months ago. Getting off the toilet is a problem, for example, not because Mum is too weak to do it, but because she has forgotten the sequence of physical actions necessary to make it happen. I hope that the muscle memory will come back, but in the meantime it is a worry for all of us.

Meantime, Dad has been ringing me up more or less every night in the wee small hours, asking me where Mum is, where the carers are, when the cab is coming to take him to hospital. At least now that Mum is home I might get a little bit of a break from all that, though it’s possible that all that will happen is that the questions will change.

The situation is evolving faster than we can respond. I am up and down to Dorset visiting nursing homes ‘just in case’. It is very hard to find somewhere where Mum and Dad can be together with their different needs, but I shall keep trying. As much as anything else, I want to be prepared for the next emergency. So far in the last few months they’ve spent 9 weeks apart because one or the other has been in hospital. At least in a nursing home they wouldn’t have such frequent admissions, and would be released more quickly.

In short I am at my tether’s end, and beyond.

However, outside my rapidly shrinking world of care rotas and supermarket orders and medical appointments, the world goes on.Between 17.30 and 18.30 on a fine day in October, the light has a quality that is unlike that at any other time. Photographers call it ‘the golden hour’, that short window when the sun’s rays are low and diffuse, and everything is lit up as if from within. On Wednesday my husband came home early, and more or less dragged me out of the door, onto the County Roads in East Finchley and down to Coldfall Wood.

I hadn’t noticed that the trees had started to redden, but it must have been going on for ages. And look at the berries! My heart lifts at the thought of redwings and waxwings and blackbirds having something sweet(ish) and natural to fatten them before winter comes.

I hear the chuckle of jackdaws overhead, and it puts me in mind of Dorset, where they are commonplace. Here in North London, a pair moved in a few years ago, and this year I was visited by a family of five. The crows are still more commonplace though, perched on the television aerials and surveying the scene for a feeding opportunity.

And then into the woods. By the main entrance the colours are subdued and muted, shadowy and understated, but as we walk west, everything is touched with the setting sun. The leaves of the twisted hornbeams catch the last rays and shimmer.

The sun hits some trees like a searchlight, illuminating every detail of bark, revealing the corrugations, the crisscross stems of ivy, the spikes of holly.

A single leaf dangles from a strand of spider silk, and is transformed.

And when I look back, I see that the sun has painted a long pathway into the woods that seems to open for a few short moments before the sun sinks too low, and it’s gone.

I have been so busy, moving quickly because I think that I can outrun what’s coming for me, and for Mum and Dad. The last thing I want to do is meander through the trees and let myself be caught. But here in the woods there’s the sense of life proceeding on a scale that is far greater and older than our human span. The sun goes down whether I want it to or not, and sometimes all there is to do is to drink in both the poignancy and the beauty of that¬† moment.

 

 

 

Bugwoman’s Fourth Annual Report – Part Two

August 2017

Dear Readers, one of my most popular posts from last year was created during a deluge. ‘Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day’ was so much fun to write. The main challenge was keeping the camera from getting water-logged during the downpour…

It hasn’t been a particularly ‘foxy’ year, unlike 2016 when I was spending a lot of time with the foxes in the cemetery, but I did spot this little darling, sleeping under the whitebeam in the garden.

And I also spotted some common carder bees buzz-pollinating in the garden, a first!

September 2017

The month started a visit to the new gardens around Kings Cross station, for an assessment of how helpful they were to wildlife. The answer was that it’s early days, but the signs are very hopeful. Sparrows, vanishingly rare in central London, have already moved in, and there was an active wasps’ nest. I shall have to visit again soon to see how things are shaping up.

The month continued with my friend A bringing me a Knotgrass caterpillar for me to identify. What a fine creature! It has now pupated, and is back in A’s garden, with a barricade of twigs for protection. One day, no doubt, it will emerge and fly away, probably when no one is looking.

A theme throughout last year was my Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary party. At times it was all very stressful, and it was good to go for a walk around their village, Milborne St Andrew, and to reconnect. There’s always something wonderful to spot, and slowing down to actually see things is a very fine way of gaining perspective.

The party was held on 21st September. Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, so every bit of hassle about table-settings and whether or not to have a photographer was worth it.

Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….

October

A few days after the party, we had the heart-breaking news that one of the people who had attended, someone who had battled for years with depression, had killed themselves. It was so hard, especially after the event had been such a good one. I wrote this piece in the days afterwards, and believe every word.

I also took a visit to Dundee. I worked as a carer in a night-shelter for homeless people in the city when I was in my twenties, and wondered how things were going. The shelter is about to be converted into luxury flats, the pub where we used to drink is now a college, and there’s a new branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum going up on the quayside, but there are still people asking for change on the streets. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter

The garden was visited by an amazing visitor in October: a female emperor dragonfly, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs.

And some birds in the garden had a narrow escape when we had another visit from the sparrowhawk…

November 2017

November saw me back in Milborne St Andrew, following Mum and Dad’s spectacular double fall down the front doorstep. Fortunately neither of them were seriously damaged (though after spending two and a half hours waiting for an ambulance while laying on the front lawn Mum was a little less sanguine than usual). But once in hospital, they were delighted to be placed in adjacent beds, and even more delighted to be sent home after a couple of hours. Suffice it to say that my visit the next day was well-timed. But I did manage to get out for a walk, and finally got photos of a buzzard, and my first ever meadow pipit.

We even managed to make the Christmas cake. By the time we ate it, Dad had fed it with so much brandy that I’m glad I wasn’t driving.

Once home, I went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery, where I found a strawberry tree, some greenfinches, a handsome jay, and this lovely gravestone. How I would love to find out a bit more about Muriel….

I also had a few thoughts about the use of fruit trees as street trees: there is a crab apple on our street which causes all kinds of mess, but which does attract such exotic creatures as this one.

What are you looking at?

I finished off the month with some thoughts about the passing of time, which seems to be have been a theme last year. With so many people that I love in their eighties and nineties, and with my own seventh decade approaching, I suppose that it’s inevitable that mortality should be on my mind, along with other existential thoughts, such as ‘what’s it all about’? ‘How do we live a good life, and what is a good life anyway?’ All this was prompted by watching a band of sunlight move across the garden in the space of a few minutes. I had a similar sensation last week as I watched the moon rise with Mum, and we both realised that you can actually see it moving,¬† and wondered why we’d never noticed before.

December 2017

December saw Mum and Dad struck down with a chest infection, and so I headed West again. It was a stressful time: the carer who normally looks after Mum and Dad was struck down by her own health emergency, and so I had to negotiate to try to get Mum and Dad to accept a carer who came from an agency, rather than someone that they already knew. I found it unbearable to think of them struggling on, sick, without someone to help them, and so I took myself off to the frozen fields for a walk and a think. Oh, the light on those December days. It felt like a blessing.

Then we had a spot of snow, the first that’s fallen and stayed for about five years.

Pied wagtail

And then it was Christmas, on the County Roads...

and in Dorset. We hadn’t expected to be in Dorset (Mum and Dad usually visit us in London) but they were both still too sick from their chest infections to travel. This didn’t reduce their appetite fortunately, and ridiculous quantities of the aforementioned Christmas cake were eaten, along with chocolates, roast potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts. Just as well we were able to get out for a walk.

It’s a pig!

January 2018

So, now we’re nearly back to the present day. January saw me exploring Hampstead Village, and falling in love with an angel.

It saw the very welcome arrival of a song thrush in the garden (still here as I write in February), and the continued presence of a single pied wagtail, who has been here since November. We are all hoping that he or she soon has some company.

And I took a bus ride down to Tate Modern, and a tube ride back.

So, readers, that’s the end of the review of the past year. Thank you for all your input¬† – I read every single comment, and love the community that we’ve built together. Don’t forget that if you’re on Facebook, you can find me here. I look forward to ‘meeting’ with you all in the year to come. And during the next few weeks, you will find that Bugwoman has been on a very exotic adventure, and has been living up to her name, for once. Stay tuned…..