Category Archives: London Places

Deep in Their Roots All Flowers Keep the Light (Theodore Roethke)

Spring in the County Roads

Dear Readers, I was at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on Wednesday, watching a production of Twelfth Night. My first inkling that something was wrong was when I switched on my phone during the interval. As soon as the screen burst into life, I was inundated with messages from my husband and friends.

‘Are you all right?’

Of course, what could possibly go wrong at Twelfth Night (apart from some rather weak comedy of course)?

But soon it became clear that a terrorist attack had taken place on Westminster Bridge and at Westminster itself. People were dead. Someone was in the Thames. Parliament was in lock down.

When I left the theatre, Waterloo Bridge was a chain of red double-decker buses, bumper to bumper, and a crocodile of commuters trudged past, trying to find an alternative way home. Overhead, the helicopters droned like heavy bees.

It all felt all too familiar. I had been visiting the Tower of London with my sister-in-law and her eight-year old daughter when the tube bombings of 7th July 2005 happened. The whole transport network, tubes and buses, was closed down, and the working population of London  took to the streets to walk home, blinking like moles above ground. I remember the wail of sirens as ambulances screeched past, the women walking in their stockinged feet, high-heels in hand.

And years earlier, picking my way through barricades in the City of London after the IRA bombs, the crunch of broken glass underfoot and the window blinds in the Nat West tower flapping like sails.

And later, leaving the station and feeling a juddering through my feet and up into my stomach that could only be an explosion, and hearing that a bomb had been set off at Canary Wharf, five miles away as the raven flies.

And when it feels as if the ground has moved, there is nothing for it but to slow down, to breathe, to return to the familiar. And so today, the day after the Westminster attacks, I walk around my local streets to see what can be seen. I need to move at the pace of a small child, and allow myself to be intrigued.

What, for example, is eating my nettles and green alkanet? It seems too early for a caterpillar but there he is, not sure whether to curl up or not.  I am glad that I showed mercy to the nettles, and will leave them now for this creature to feed on.

I turn left, and notice the violets scattered amongst the broken Victorian paths and popping up at the bottom of walls. I love their strange, five-petalled faces, the purple stripes against the lilac throat, like landing lights for bees. Where have the violets come from? I cannot remember seeing them last year, but today they are everywhere. There is one particularly big patch a few houses up, and I wonder if this is the motherlode, and all the others are downwind, the seed scattered and taking root.

I turn into Bedford Road. There is a particularly fine double-fronted house with two massive trees outside, and the steep, tiered garden is full of woodplants: green hellebore and lungwort, and a bush covered in yellow flowers that look like the blooms of miniature daffodils.

Across the way is some green alkanet coming into bloom. For the first time, I notice that the early flowers are purple or even pink, turning blue as they age, just as the flowers of lungwort do, and I am reminded that green alkanet and lungwort are closely related. In fact, there will be many things on this walk that remind me of the borage family, and what a boon it is.

I’m feeling steadier already.

Some asplenium ferns are growing from a wall further up the road, and I am reminded of the ones that I saw in Somerset, and had never seen in London before. Another thing about walking slowly is that it enables me to make connections, in time and place. For a second I can see a tiny part of the complex web that holds all of us together, for, deny it or not, we are all much more closely related than we think.

The Camellias are in full bloom, and how glorious they look! But the rain will mar their perfection, and never was a flower more easily ripped from its stem. They are a brief glory, but a glory nonetheless.

One house has an enormous plaster pineapple as a gate post. I have always loved it, while having no idea at all what it means. It looks a little big for this particular house, and I would love to know if it was originally on the gatepost of some local mansion. But for now, I just admire it and move on.

The white comfrey outside my friend A’s house is doing very nicely – the flowers are such a brilliant white that I have to turn down the exposure on my camera to get any kind of photo. That whiteness only lasts for a brief time, though, before it’s stained with brown.

The waxy blossoms of the magnolia are just about to erupt and one house has a magenta magnolia with buds that look like elegant hands.

Some twittering on Durham Road makes me look up, and there are a pair of blue tits working their way along a gutter, along with a goldfinch. I suspect that little insects sometimes turn up here, maybe trapped with the dead leaves. At this time of year the tits are so busy. One has taken to pecking at the blossoms on my skimmia, though whether for nectar or invertebrates I have no idea.

The lesser celandine is popping up everywhere.

Outside the church on Durham Road there is a big patch of creeping comfrey. A few years ago this was almost completely eradicated, but here it is again. The blooms start off with a red throat, which goes blue as the flower matures, and they are a magnet for hairy-footed bees and bee flies and bumblebees, even on a cold, breezy day like today.

I always look at the little microhabitats at the bottom of trees. The chickweed is in full bloom already, with its flowers like little stars. The blossom from the early-flowering cherry trees blows along the pavement.

There is one magnificent twisted cherry tree on Leicester Road, that looks as if it could have come from a Japanese vase. It arches over the garage and out over the road as if in a complex yoga pose. I nearly get run down taking a picture from the middle of the road. Such are the dangers of trying to be intrepid in East Finchley.

There is a particularly fine forsythia bush, too.

I am rather taken by the early flowers of yellow corydalis, when they are cream-coloured with a kiss of pale green. Later, they turn sunshine yellow, which is not quite so elegant.

And for the first time I notice the tiny flowers of a laurel, erupting from bunched fists into four tiny chocolate petals.

I turn for home, and can’t resist a final photo of the moss on a nearby wall, the capsules reminding me of the head and neck of a swan, a world in miniature.

And my final, final picture, of rosemary in flower, each bloom a little homunculus, orchid-like in their beauty.

When Death’s trumpet blares from every headline, I need to remember that this is only part of the story. We get so caught up in our own stories, our tragedies and our triumphs,  that we forget that there are different stories to be told.  Other living things are getting on with their lives, preparing for the next cycle of seeds and eggs and frantic gaping mouths, just as they always have. There is such tenderness in the soft shoot of a violet, and yet it has pushed through concrete to get to the light. Life is ferocious and it will not be denied, and I do believe that our urge towards the light is much stronger than our need for the darkness, however much it might sometimes seem otherwise. In the words of Theodore Roethke, that great, vulnerable, brave poet:

‘Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.’

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Bugwoman on Location – At Crossbones Graveyard

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

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

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

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

‘Margaret Keen, Fishmonger Alley, 22’

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

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

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

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

A queen wasp resting in the euphorbia

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

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

Vinca major (Periwinkle)

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

Brunnera macrophylla

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

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

The pyramid built by the Invisible Gardener

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

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

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

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Bugwoman’s Third Annual Report

IMG_5397Dear Readers, what a year it’s been! It started in February 2016 with a rather disappointing revisit to the Abraham Cruzvillegas installation at Tate Modern, which contained soil from different sites in London, and was supposed to provide an idea of the diverse flora from the capital. Sadly, it was rather underlit, and none of the raised beds were labelled, so it was impossible to know where each sample of soil had come from. Plus it finished in February, just before everything started to come into flower! A most frustrating exercise which could have been both artistically and scientifically interesting. Harrumph!  It did provide an excuse for a bracing walk along the Thames, however.

IMG_5528March was all about frogs and this poor little fox, half eaten up with mange. It was the start of my daily walk to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I dropped medicated food to try and clear up the fox’s skin problem. As a result I met a group of people dedicated to looking after the cat population in the cemetery, and the other animals too, especially my friend B. To my surprise, the homeopathic medication sent from the National Fox Welfare Society worked, and I gained many glimpses of the foxy population.

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

The first frogs of the year

The first frog of the year

Fox at sunset

Fox at sunset

By April there was some improvement in the original fox, and she had a mate. Plus, from looking at her underside, it seemed that she had cubs, though I didn’t see them while they were very small.

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)

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The dog fox waiting for his dinner

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

Yet another fox

Yet another fox

On the Wednesday Weed front, I found some honesty

IMG_5987and some fritillaries.

IMG_6003May brought comfrey and lady’s smock, and a few more foxes

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Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

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The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox – the vixen definitely looks as if she’s feeding cubs

And by June, I think this is the first sight of a cub. Plus, we had fledgling long-tailed tits, and a rather surprising creature spotted while on the New River Walk in Islington

IMG_7158IMG_6662 IMG_6639IMG_6793In July, I was off to Austria for our annual two weeks in the Alps. Where it snowed.

IMG_7258Though not all the time, fortunately….

IMG_7221August saw my first visit to Woodberry Wetlands and a trip back to my roots in the East End, to see what had happened to Stratford since the Olympic Games. I was impressed with the wildlife that I saw in both places.  And the fox cubs were out and about in the cemetery.

Woodberry Wetlands

Woodberry Wetlands

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Heron and Mute Swan at Woodberry Wetlands

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Another young fox

Another young fox in the cemetery

September saw my first ever pied flycatcher, during a visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset.

img_8010I had never seen so many rose hips as there were in the cemetery, either.

img_7989And the horse chestnuts reminded me of my Auntie Mary. How often the fruits of the season jog my memory, putting me in mind of people and places long gone.

img_7954And the foxes were still about, of course.

Dog Fox

Dog Fox

October brought a trip to Venice with an 89 year-old friend of mine, and a particularly wonderful encounter with a young vixen in the cemetery.

img_8087img_8066img_8314img_8247In November, I discovered the joys of a slow shutter-speed on my camera, and had an encounter with a grey wagtail at the Barbican Centre.

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Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

December brought a return to Milborne St Andrew, some very fine Islington cats, and a supermoon. It also introduced me to the hidden meaning of having pampas grass in your front garden.

Ice on a Dorset stream

Ice on a Dorset stream

A very fine Islington cat

A very fine Islington cat

Supermoon!

Supermoon!

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Pampas grass

Pampas grass

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

The Mutton Brook

The Mutton Brook

Stinging nettles with small 'friend'

Stinging nettles with small ‘friend’

Bailey, the world's most magnificent cat.

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

East Finchley’s River – The Mutton Brook (Part Two)

img_9451Dear Readers, last week I left you as I was just about to cross Falloden Way, a busy road that channels traffic through Hampstead Garden Suburb and onto the North Circular Road. For most of the route so far I’d been able to hear the robins singing and the sound of the brook, but for the next stretch it was all about the rumble of traffic. I was most disconcerted by the sign above: what was polluting the stream? Was it just the continual run-off from the road, with all the concomitant petrol spills and diesel oil, or something worse? I know that in Coldfall Wood a lot of the pollution was due to misconnections of household appliances such as washing machines, so I was pleased to see that the Brent Catchment Project are looking at such events along the Mutton Brook.  It also looked to me as if it was a spot where the river floods, at least by the sight of the decaying sandbags at one side of the bridge under the road, but if I want to check, I can look at the government’s Flood Information Service website here.

img_9452The river continues along this side of Falloden Way for a couple of hundred yards, and there is a path on the east bank so at least I didn’t need to walk alongside the traffic. But this is a rather unloved stretch of the stream, with broken-down fences and crumbling walls.

img_9457img_9460And then the stream heads back under the road, and I find that I have to retrace my steps back to where I originally crossed the road. Just as well that I am wearing my Fitbit, so all this extra activity at least counts for something.

img_9462 img_9464 img_9465As I trudge along to rejoin the river, I am stopped in my tracks.

img_9469Someone has built a narrow garden full of all kinds of found objects and idiosyncratic delights.

img_9470img_9471I wonder if robins or blackbirds ever nest in the boots and beermugs? I must make a pilgrimage in the spring to find out.

img_9472Every pot and pan has been placed with as much love as a bowerbird expends when he builds his bower. I would love to meet the gardener, I suspect that we would be kindred spirits. It was well worth crossing the road for. And as I walked on, I passed a magnificent squirrel who watched me with no concern at all. I half-expected him to ask me a riddle as I passed.

img_9476And then the river reappeared, and it seemed to have a touch of joie de vivre about it. Maybe it was glad to have some land between it and the road again, for it travels inland here.

img_9477 img_9480And who is that standing on a rock in the middle of the stream but a grey wagtail, husbanding his stretch of the waterway. I had briefly spotted one in the earlier part of the walk, but this one stayed around long enough for me to get a couple of (inadequate) photographs. I love the sulphur-yellow undersides of these winter visitors to our brooks and rivulets.

img_9485It is still very cold. There are places (rather like my back garden) that the sun never touches, and which still crunch underfoot in the afternoon. You can see exactly where the warm spots are just by looking at where the frost still sits.

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img_9504I follow the stream on until it gets to Henlys Corner, a major crossroads with turnings towards Temple Fortune and Golders Green, and to Finchley Central. I have to leave the river, cross four lanes of traffic and then descend again, for the last stretch of the walk.

Over the bridge....

Over the bridge….

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….and back to the Mutton Brook

According to my map, another underground stream joins the Mutton Brook here. I look up the hill, and sure enough, there’s another manhole cover, of a most interesting shape.

img_9499 img_9498And on I go, still accompanied by robins and the sound of running water.

And it appears that I am not the first person to have passed by recently either.

img_9507And soon, I walk under another tunnel, where the sound of water drops and the play of sunshine on the tiled roof makes it feel almost like the courtyard at the centre of a riad (or at least, it might feel like that if it wasn’t a few degrees below zero).

img_9508When the end comes, it’s  almost an anti-climax, except that yet another robin is trilling his watery song in the sunshine.

img_9509The Mutton Brook joins the Dollis Brook, and the two together become the River Brent, which eventually becomes part of the Thames.

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The Mutton Brook (foreground) joins the Dollis Brook coming in from the right to become the River Brent.

And so, I’ve walked the Mutton Brook from end to end, from its ambiguous beginning to its final merging. I can heartily recommend a river-led adventure as a source of unexpected delights, and as  a way to really learn the character of a body of water, and how it changes along its length. I had always taken water for granted, and yet it is mysterious, emerging where it will and, as much as we like to try to control it, volatile in its moods. There is much to contemplate when walking by a river, however humble.

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

 

 

 

 

East Finchley’s River – The Mutton Brook Part One

Cherry Tree Wood, 18th January 2017

Cherry Tree Wood, 18th January 2017

A few weeks ago it occurred to me that, at the grand old age of nearly 57, I have never walked along a river from its source to its end. I have always wanted to do this with one of the great rivers of the world: the Nile, say, or the Orinoco, or the Amazon. Or, failing that (and I’m sure there are logistical reasons why you can’t actually walk the length of any of the rivers mentioned), I would like to walk the Thames. Well, not much chance of that at the moment either. So, how about a much more local stream?

The Mutton Brook is East Finchley’s own river. It is said to ‘arise in Cherry Tree Wood’, though previous visits had left me a little puzzled about that. Then, it flows through Hampstead Garden Suburb and skirts the edge of Temple Fortune before meeting up with the Dollis Brook and becoming the River Brent, which empties into the Thames. Today being a bright, cold day, I decided to follow the river as far as the Dollis Brook, and just see what I could see. I left behind my pith helmet and took my camera and a copy of an old map of the Suburb to help with navigation.

Well, the first challenge is finding where exactly the Mutton Brook arises. Cherry Tree Wood is notoriously prone to dampness and becomes a bog with little encouragement: the Summer Festival of a few years back had to be cancelled because of the quagmire, and watercress used to be grown in the stream. The theory is that it was called the Mutton Brook because drovers bringing their animals to slaughter at Smithfield would water their sheep here. But where is it within the wood? There is no obvious brook anywhere. My guess is that the river starts somewhere behind the tennis courts.

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This area is always damp, and there are often flag irises growing, along with other bog plants.

img_9361You can follow a path of muddy puddles right along the edge of the wood itself, past the football fields. This morning, some areas give an ominous creak when I stand on them, as if the ice will break and I will be plummeted into the mud below. A man slides backwards and forwards on one of the more extensive puddles, and so does a small, hairy dog.

img_9363But the clear evidence of the stream is hidden away. I have missed it numerous times when I’ve been in the wood, and it was only the sound of running water that alerted me to it today. Beside the tube line, surrounded by undergrowth and a green metal fence, a stream runs down a concrete culvert, and is directed sharp left under the embankment. It’s the last time it will appear above ground for over a mile.

img_9370

My first definite sight of the Mutton Brook, as it’s channelled under the tube line at East Finchley

img_9371I have an old map of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which clearly shows that the Mutton Brook reappears on a road called Vivian Way. I cut round behind the station, passing along Edmund Walk and emerging into an area of Tudor-themed suburb houses. There are some magnificent weeping willows in the middle of the green here, and I wonder if they are tapping into hidden water.

img_9374I always find interesting garden plants in the suburb, and today is no exception. There is a lovely frosted knot garden, and a very interesting legume – if anyone knows what it is, do tell me!

img_9377 img_9375When I get to Vivian Way, I can find no sign of the poor old Mutton Brook. The green, where it is supposed to run, comprises a lot of grass, three birch trees and a hungry blackbird.

img_9378There is, however, a huge manhole cover plonked down in the middle of the area, and it occurs to me that maybe the stream has been taken underground here, but can still be inspected via this access point. The manhole cover itself is a miniature garden, moss on one side, lichen on the other.

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One side of the manhole cover.....

One side of the manhole cover…..

....and the other side

….and the other side

I am always surprised by how quiet the Suburb is during the day, especially after the relative bustle of East Finchley. I’m sure that this calm was something that the architects of the scheme wanted to achieve, and I know that there is a thriving community here. However, there is something a little spooky about it too. In my entire walk I saw only a handful of people.

I cross the main road, and head up Norrice Lea. The synagogue and the Jewish school are here, and there are usually security guards, as there are outside the nursery school that I pass later. It distresses me that this should be necessary, but I understand the need. I try to look as inoffensive as a middle-aged woman carrying a camera can look, but just before I get there I notice the Mutton Brook has emerged from underground and is tumbling under my very feet.

img_9385To follow it, I have to head into Lyttleton Playing Fields, where a small Chinese man is doing his morning tai chi in spite of the cold. I find the stream behind the tennis courts (again). On the other bank there are some rather fine mansion blocks, but it’s a sad little river here: confined between beaten up pieces of wood and crumbling concrete walls, and smelling slightly of sewage.

img_9388 img_9392The banks are mainly bramble and cherry laurel, and there is rubbish bobbing along. At one of the bridges (and at several other points along the brook) there is clear evidence that it occasionally floods, and that the banks subside – I’m very careful not to get too close to the edge along this part of the stream, as there are several places where the soil has fallen in, and I don’t want to follow.

img_9394There are some magnificent oaks and hornbeams along this stretch, their branches stretching over the path like tentacles.

img_9403 img_9397Shortly, I come to Kingsley Way: the brook  leaves the playing fields and flows on into a little ornamental park. There is a measuring device here which I find very puzzling. It looks as if it measures the depth in metres, but it has ‘63’ in red letters at the top. This is about the same height as the bridge, which could well be 6.3 metres from the base. But how high does the river actually rise? I must pay attention and see how often, and how badly, the Mutton Brook misbehaves.

img_9404Once the brook emerges from under the road, it takes on a completely different character.  The stream meanders through a narrow channel, burbling to itself as it goes. There are some fine specimen trees here, and a robin seems to be singing from every one.

img_9411 img_9412The grass is still frozen, and crunches underfoot. A French Bulldog in a jumper goes careering past, dead leaves flying around him. And as I get to the end of the park, where the river goes under another bridge, I am stopped in my tracks by a delicious smell. There are two viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ shrubs, and the scent is divine, even on this freezing day. The pink flowers on the bare branches against the bright blue sky remind me of a Japanese print.

img_9419 img_9415By now, I am cold and in need of a loo. And so I cross Meadway, and stop for a coffee in Cafe Toulouse in Market Place. And very fine coffee it is too. This is a favourite stopping-off place for walkers and mums and friends, and I can see why. I love that it’s called ‘Toulouse’ not because of a fondness for France, but because it’s on the site of a former public toilet.

My walk takes me into another little park, where the Mutton Brook still wanders along in a decidedly civil manner. I sense, however, that it is getting more ambitious.

img_9431img_9432Once past the tennis courts it becomes wider and wilder. I watch the woodpigeons scuffling through the leaf litter, and observe a robin having a titanic battle with a very resistant earthworm.

img_9436 img_9442 img_9443Who knew that earthworms could put up so much of a fight?

The river is nearly invisible behind the brambles now, and when I go to see if I can see it, I find a fine patch of cyclamen leaves.

img_9448I can hear the water, but it’s nearly drowned out by the roar of traffic from Falloden Way, a sound that will be my constant companion from now until pretty much the end of the walk. I steel myself to cross the main road, and see where the stream goes next. But for that, gentle readers, you will need to wait until next week.

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

 

 

After Christmas in the Cemetery

img_9246Dear Readers, I visited St Pancras and Islington Cemetery during the week after Christmas, there seemed to have been an irruption of artificial poinsettia. It was the first choice of the many people who had come to visit the graves of their loved ones during this most poignant season of the year. And now, as the wind shook the bare branches and the sun shone down indifferently, the red ‘flowers’ added a somewhat incongruously festive air to the place.

Some of the artificial plants are pretty convincing, others less so. But it is interesting how this plant, originally from Mexico, has a long association with Christmas. A Mexican legend tells how a small girl called Pepita was too poor to bring a gift to the statue of the baby Jesus in her church. An angel appeared, and told her to gather weeds and place them at the altar. Beautiful scarlet flowers grew from these humble plants and turned into poinsettias. The star-shaped leaf clusters are said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour is, of course, the blood of Christ.

img_9238img_9247img_9236img_9235The red part of the poinsettia is not, as we know, the flower – the flower is the rather insignificant mass of tiny buds in the centre of the plant, imitated rather well in the photograph above, I think. The red ‘bits’ are modified leaves, called bracts. These days we can see white, pink and variegated versions of the plant, but I think I prefer the red ones, largely because I love it when the green leaves start to go red and the veins stand out scarlet against the emerald.

But among all the plastic flowers, there was some real life going on. Although January is the middle of winter for us humans, the starting gun has already sounded for many birds. The trees and bushes were full of robins singing, blackbirds chucking and great tits making a right old racket.

img_9239img_9240The width of the band of black on the chest of a great tit is related to testosterone levels, as is the black bib under the chin of a male house sparrow. The wider the band (or the bigger the bib) the more aggressive and dominant the bird is. A Spanish study showed that, in Spain, great tits with a wide black band do better in the forest (the bird’s natural habitat) whereas birds with a narrower band (indicating a more cautious attitude) do better in the cities. But things are rarely so simple. In the Spanish birds, the narrower band also seemed to be linked to a more curious and thorough temperament, surely an advantage when there are lots of novel opportunities to be investigated. I shall leave you to decide on the possible nature of the little chap above.

img_9253In the UK at this time of year there seem to be big gangs of young magpies about. There was a group of four or five in the cemetery while I was having my walk, and they were a noisy, rambunctious lot, harassing a pair of crows and then turning their attentions to terrifying some jays. I once watched a group of twenty in an Islington square as they forced some crows to abandon their nest. Fortunately, the crows hadn’t yet laid any eggs, and the magpies soon departed to annoy someone else. I imagine that this is pre-breeding behaviour, which will cease once everyone is paired up and has their own eggs to worry about.

One of the cemetery kestrels watched on serenely.

img_9269I first spotted this bird on top of a hawthorn bush. It has endless patience, making the occasional reconnaissance flight across the gravestones and then returning to sit and watch. I know that there are lots of small rodents here( after all, I watched a young fox eat a dead one back in the autumn) and the fact that the cemetery supports a pair of kestrels presumably means that they are fairly good at finding them. I always get a thrill when I see a kestrel; they may be small but they have the enigmatic nature of all predators, a kind of self-assurance that I find very moving. Don’t they know how wicked we have been to them, historically and currently?

img_9268Kestrels also eat small birds, and so the superabundance of berries and rose hips this year, which will attract thrushes and other small avians, will help too.

A bush absolutely heaving with rose hips

A bush absolutely heaving with rose hips

img_9257But by now I was getting cold, and even I had seen enough poinsettias for one day.

img_9265And so I turned for home, stopping only to wish a very under-dressed man clutching a can of beer a Happy New Year. He was shivering with cold, but strolled off briskly into a wooded area to finish his drink. The cemetery is a magnet for lost souls of all kinds, and my heart went out to him. When I worked in a night shelter in Dundee, Christmas was always the hardest time of year: so many of the people there had lost contact with their families. It was often hard to work out whether the families had gone because of the drink, or the drink had started because of the families. But whichever it was, it was a time of great distress and soul-searching and, often, remorse. No one is born to end up in a cemetery in a tattered shirt, with drink the only available solace.

But, to end on a more cheerful note, I circled round to see my favourite non-living creature in the cemetery, the Egyptian Cat. I’ve written about him or her before  but I wanted to see how s/he was looking during the festive season. And I was not disappointed.

img_9272What a magnificent outfit! I am more in love than ever.

Now, some of you will, I’m sure, be wondering about the foxes. Truth is, I’ve not seen any for the past month or so: this is the season for young foxes to disperse, and for adults to turn their thoughts to sex. My friend B has been leaving out the medication, and all the food is being eaten, but the foxes can afford to wait until after dark to eat it, and we get booted out of the cemetery at four p.m. However, the days are getting longer, and I’ve no doubt that soon they’ll be putting in an appearance again. You will be the first to know, lovely readers!

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Another Year Over….

img_9191Dear Readers, in the midst of the Christmas celebrations I felt an urge to leave the mince pies and the chocolates and get some fresh air. There is something very constraining about the festive season, as if every moment spent without a cracker in one hand and a glass of fizz in the other is wasted, and as much as I love it all, it sometimes gets a bit too much. And so, my lovely husband dragged me off to Cherry Tree Wood, with me complaining bitterly that the potatoes weren’t peeled yet. And I’m very glad he did, because it soon became clear that although the solstice has just passed, all kinds of creatures are just revving up for the new breeding season.

img_9194There was a robin positioned on a twig every ten metres or so, and many were singing their hearts out already.

Now, at this juncture I’d like to ask if any of my UK readers have seen the Waitrose Christmas Advert, with its plucky robin hero? I hope that you will be able to see it wherever you are in the world, although you never know with these things….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtKYdG9r0Pk

Anyhow, this has caused a whole flurry of controversy over here in the UK. Do robins migrate, for example? Well, the answer for most UK robins is ‘no’, though females may head south to Spain and Portugal for a bit of warmth and recreation. However! Some Scandinavian and Russian birds do head south and may overwinter in the UK. These birds are, according to the RSPB, lighter in colour and more nervous than our UK garden birds, because in their native countries they live in woodland, rather than in gardens. So, I guess the tale in the Waitrose advert is of an intrepid northern bird coming to the UK as an immigrant. Who knew a supermarket chain could be so subversive?

img_9195

The next controversy is because the two birds at the end of the advert are sharing a mince pie and feeding one another. In the words of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Nigel Molesworth, ‘as any fule kno’ robins are intensely territorial and will beat one another up in a frenzy of testosterone-fuelled rage for the slightest incursion. However, it is true that sometimes male and female robins have parallel territories, which they merge in the breeding season, and defend against all comers. Once the youngsters are fledged, the barriers go back up and it’s all-out war again. However, again the RSPB points out that most robins will be paired up by mid-January, so maybe the two in the advert are just getting ahead of the game.

By the way, if you have not come across Nigel Molesworth in your literary investigations, I can heartily recommend ‘The Compleet Molesworth’. You’re welcome.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pillager/6629781249

Nigel Molesworth (created by Geoffrey Willans and drawn by Ronald Searle). A masterpiece! (Photo One – credit below)

At any rate, the robins of Cherry Tree Wood still look like a bunch of singletons. As male and female robins are identical, it’s a puzzle to me how they ever do become ‘friends’, but maybe, like a male and female Klingon, they need to dust one another up thoroughly to get the hormones working.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21231931

Some Klingons about to do what they love best (Photo Two – credit below)

However, for some birds in the wood it’s already time for romance. What are these two ring-necked parakeets up to?

img_9185First of all they investigated what looked to me like a very unsuitable nest hole, as, unless it went back into the branch at a very peculiar angle, all the eggs would have dropped out. Then, with much squawking and carry-on, they started to pluck a tiny twig from the surface of the tree.

img_9187They certainly seem very lovey-dovey, despite the low temperatures, and this is one of the secrets of their success in the UK. Ring-necked parakeets establish their breeding sites earlier than other hole-nesting birds, so by the time the woodpeckers and the stock doves and the nuthatches feel the call to reproduce, many of the suitable sites will already have cranky residents in situ. And while an angry woodpecker is probably a match for an irate parakeet, I imagine the others would head off, defeated. In spite of which, I rather admire their parroty pluck and belligerent attitude. I just hope there’s enough room for everybody.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

And so, another year draws to a close. I hope that all of you have a happy, healthy and inspired 2017, and that the year to come brings everything that you most need in your life. Thank you for reading, for commenting and for supporting my endeavours here. Bless every one of you.

Photo Credits

Photo One – the exquisite Nigel Molesworth – https://www.flickr.com/photos/pillager/6629781249

Photo Two – some delightful Klingons – By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21231931

All other blog content free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!