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Home Again

Dear Readers, two weeks isn’t very long, but how things can change! As I stagger off the train after my fortnight in Austria, laden down with sweaty laundry and in need of a cup of tea and a cuddle with the cat, my mood is much brightened by how splendid East Finchley station is looking.  I suspect that those good folk at the N2 Community Garden have been hard at work. A range of containers in pastel colours are chock-full of plants and buzzing with bees.

And there is even more fun to be had once you’re through the ticket barriers.

The banner is made of buttons, and I love the upcycling of the boots and the globe. It goes to show that, with a bit of imagination, many things can be transformed from useless to useful.

Well, once the laundry was on and the tea was drunk and the cat was cuddled, I headed off to see what else was going on. The little garden beside the station was looking particularly splendid.

I adore the seedheads on the alliums, they remind me of a firework display, but without all those annoying bangs.

My old friends the opium poppy seedheads are growing fat.

The Florence fennel is a huge draw for bees and hoverflies.

The marjoram is proving popular too.

Furthermore, some of the plants are making a bid for freedom and are advancing along the gutter towards the coffee stand. And who can blame them?

Buddleia and fennel making a bid for freedom

Across the road, outside the children’s nursery, the lavender is in full bloom, while the fine Victorian building that used to house the GLH taxi company now stands forlorn behind a plywood barricade, waiting for its imminent demolition.

I wrote in the Wednesday Weed this week about my discovery of a patch of lucerne on Park Hall Road, but I am still amazed today. Where on earth did it come from? It certainly gave me lots to think about.

But then, as I walk home, I look up and am for a moment extremely excited. What on earth is this?

Well, I once saw a red kite drifting over Durham Road, but I have never seen a condor in East Finchley, and obviously I haven’t seen one this time either. I am a little puzzled though.

My guess is that the kite is to deter pigeons, although I would have thought that the four-inch pins around the edge of the roof would have been deterrent enough. Still, this is an imaginative and humane solution, and it seems to be working, as the pigeons are all still hanging out on the roof of the Bald-Faced Stag. I’m not sure whether this fine bird would provide a lightning rod in the event of a thunderstorm, so perhaps if there are any physicists out there someone could tell me. In the meantime, the bird soars on, perhaps dreaming of the Andes and surveying the streets for a defunct llama to eat. I would hate to be the one to tell him that the best he can hope for around here is some Kentucky Fried Chicken.









My Manners are Tearing Off Heads (Ted Hughes)

Dear Readers, sometimes death visits the garden. It’s inevitable, I suppose – the number of birds feeding there is a magnet for a predator. Usually I just find the evidence – the sad body of a blackbird with his head removed, a sea-foam of feathers under the hedge, and once two tiny limp dove’s feet. But on Sunday last week death came for a longer visit, in the form of a female sparrowhawk, who killed a collared dove with icy efficiency and then dismembered it on the garden path.

She stood on the corpse, plucking great mouthfuls of feathers and throwing them away with a jerk of the head. Occasionally, she’d lift her foot and scratch her beak to get rid of the fluff. Every few seconds, she’d look up and around with those manic yellow eyes, before getting back to work. Her talons, like black steel hooks, were deeply embedded in the breast of her prey, and the bare legs kept her a little above the gore.

After a few minutes she started to feed, ripping at the meat, all the time looking around. I really wanted her to turn, and eventually she did, so I could get a look at her chest feathers, barred in white and chocolate brown. Her tail feathers looked a little sad and ragged, but she was generally in good condition. And she was bold, too. At one point she heard the lady next door come outside to hang her washing up, and the bird looked around and froze. But after thirty seconds she went back to her meal.

As the sparrowhawk fed, the garden fell silent, except for the blue tits who are nesting next door. They were frantic, and their whirrs and peeps of alarm sounded like a soundtrack to the sparrowhawk’s tearing and rending. The great predators of the world are attended by an envelope of sound, that travels with them as they move about, like the trumpets of courtiers.

I felt bad about the dove. They come to the garden because I feed them, and this should be a safe place for them. But the sparrowhawk might be incubating eggs, or have nestlings, and needs to live too. Plus, although it matters not to the poor dead prey, this is a wild bird, not some domesticated cat entertaining itself. Sparrowhawks have been killing other birds for millenia. Maybe this is the kind of death that an animal can understand, unlike the many endings that we visit upon them, with our guns and poison and traps and laboratories, our slaughterhouses and factory farms and many forms of ‘entertainment’. It was at least an honest death, one animal to another, for simple reasons.

I went upstairs to change my camera battery, and when I came back the hawk was gone, and so was the dove: the sparrowhawk must have carried off its carcass to enjoy in a more peaceful spot. The feathers were still drifting and settling in the breeze of her departure. And in her place there was a hawk-shaped absence, a delay in the return to normality, as if the bird had carved a space in the universe, and the atoms were reluctant to rush back in. Not a single dove or pigeon came to the whitebeam tree for the rest of the day, but today they are on the seed feeder again, pragmatic as all wild animals are. If the hawk fed yesterday, maybe she won’t need to feed today.

Look Who’s Been Interviewed on Cabbieblog This Week

I was asked to take part in ‘The London Grill’ on Cabbieblog, and I was delighted to contribute. This is a blog by a real London cabbie, and what he doesn’t know about London isn’t worth knowing. The blog is full of fascinating tales, intriguing facts and London trivia of the highest quality. Pop over and have a look….

Just Before Christmas

img_9116Dear Readers, it’s a grey, blustery day outside, but inside the house Mum and Dad  have just finished tucking into their  mince pies. I’ve been in the kitchen making an orange trifle (the trick is the Cointreau poured generously over torn up madeleines with navel orange segments, orange jelly, amaretto flavoured custard and whipped cream). The starlings are gathering in the whitebeam tree, but they’re nervous – they can see that the bird table is full of suet and worms, but they can also see that someone else is on the ground, eating the suet in the ground feeder.

img_9141This tabby has developed a taste for Buggy Nibbles, and appears as if from nowhere whenever I put them down.

Once the cat has moved on, another regular visitor appears.

img_9123This little chap has been at work collecting every single peanut and then burying them somewhere in the garden.

img_9122img_9132img_9131I have no idea if peanuts can germinate in UK temperatures, but if they can I will have a peanut forest when spring comes. And, although it’s out of focus, I rather like this picture. It turns the squirrel into a kind of grey furry snake.

img_9127A little flock of chaffinches are also clinging on to the branches of the cherry tree next door.

img_9148The patience of wild animals always moves me. So much is at stake every time they risk coming down to feed, and so they wait, bright-eyed, until the odds are in their favour. Some of these chaffinches are this year’s fledglings, so I imagine that they are watching and learning. If a small bird survives its first year, there is a good chance that it will survive to breed. Who would not wish these little ones luck?

img_9152 img_9158Dear Readers, this time last year things were very different. As my regular readers will remember, Mum became very sick with sepsis while she and Dad were staying with me last Christmas, and although none of us realised it at the time, we came close to losing her. But today, as I write, Mum and Dad are dozing in their respective armchairs downstairs, safe from the elements, well-fed and warm. I cannot protect them from everything that may do them harm, just as they couldn’t always protect me when I was a child. But today, with the lights glowing on the Christmas  tree and the wind singing in the chimney, I am, just for a second, lit up myself with how lucky I am to still have them both with me, and to have the chance to care for them. It will not always be so, but, today, I am surrounded by those that I love.

img_9112Wishing a peaceful and happy festive season to all my readers, and hoping for a joyful, healthy and inspired 2017 for you all x

The Constant Moon

img_9043Dear Readers, my subject this week is not within my half-mile ‘territory’, but out in the darkness of space. However, it always moves me to think that when the moon is full here in East Finchley, it will also be full in Australia and Canada, in Russia and Japan. And this week, it has been a tiny bit closer to us all  than usual, turning it into a ‘supermoon’.

img_9042The moon is in an elliptical orbit around the earth, and its actual distance from us varies from 222,000 to 252,000 miles. When it is closest to us, and  combined with a full moon, the moon is up to 14% larger and 30% brighter than when it is furthest away. This latter condition is known as a ‘micromoon’, but you don’t hear much in the newspapers about that! If you have clear conditions, pop out to have a look at the moon while it’s still almost full, as the next full supermoon won’t be until 3rd December next year, and the moon won’t be as close to us as it currently is until 2034. For anyone who would like to track what’s ‘going on’ with the moon, I recommend the ‘moon phases’ page here. You can enter your city to get local information, although, as I said earlier, the moon is remarkably constant, showing the same face to us all.

img_9054When the moon first rose above the County Roads here in East Finchley it was a stately orange globe, caught in the branches of the rowan trees. However, it soon freed itself and sailed serenely on.

img_9058As is my wont, I grabbed an elderly lady passing with her shopping trolley.

‘Look at the moon!’ I yelled, pointing with a trembling finger.

The lady, to her credit, didn’t bat me off with a rolled newspaper.

‘Ah, that explains it’, she said. ‘I’ve been feeling as batty as a fruitcake all day’.

And indeed, many people believe that the moon affects their moods and their sleep patterns (the word ‘lunatic’ comes from this theory). As the pull of the moon’s tidal effect can be found in a simple puddle, it’s no wonder to me that human beings, who are mostly water after all, are also dragged and released as the moon orbits around our planet. Most scientific studies of the ‘lunar effect’ have shown no correlation between the phases of the moon and human behaviour per se, but there are studies that show that sleep quality is affected adversely by the full moon whether or not the participants can see it, or know about it. So, there are still mysteries here to be investigated.

img_9049As the moon rises, it loses its orange colour and turns white. This is because when the moon is close to the horizon, the sun’s light, which is reflected from the moon, has to pass through a lot of the earth’s atmosphere. As we know, light, although it appears white, is made up of red, blue and green light, and each colour has different wavelengths. The atmosphere ‘scatters’ the blue and green rays, making the moon appear red or orange (a similar effect occurs as the sun sinks below the horizon during a sunset). As the moon rises, its light doesn’t have to pass through such a thick ‘slice’ of the atmosphere, and so it appears silver or white.

The reflected light was so strong that it took quite a lot of fiddling around to get my camera set. At one point I was braced against the window sill in our loft and wondering how long an exposure I could risk.

img_9047What a strange and beautiful thing the moon is. It bears the scars of its volcanic past, and of the many, many meteorites that have hit it, and yet it seems serene as it sails on overhead. For anyone who would like to know where the Sea of Tranquillity, or (maybe more appropriately for 2016) the Sea of Crises is, I would like to share the graphic below, courtesy of Peter Freeman, with the photo of the moon by Glen Rivera. Full credit is at the end of this piece.

By Peter FreimanCmgleeBackground photograph by Gregory H. Revera - Remake of File:FullMoon2010.jpgBitmap from File:FullMoon2010.jpgOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, various ‘seas’, or ‘mare’, were once thought to be full of water. In fact, they were formed by ancient lava streaming from the volcanoes that were active 3.5 billion years ago. The paler patches are known as the ‘highlands’. Then there are the impact craters, many of them named after astronomers. It is estimated that there were over 300,000 asteroid impacts resulting in craters more than 1km wide on the near side of the moon alone. Most of these occurred during the Late Heavy Bombardment period, about 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, a time when the planets of the inner solar system had formed but when there was still plenty of debris flying about. What a terrifying time this would have been, had there been anything sentient around to see it.

What, though, is on the other side of the moon, the secret face that we never see?

By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University - (see also, Public Domain,

The dark side of the moon (Photo Two – credit below)

What an unfamiliar view this is. There are no seas of volcanic lava, no highlands, just a pockmarked jumble of craters. It’s thought that the nearside of the moon was the most volcanically active because of a concentration of heat-producing elements on this side. Although we never see this side of the moon, it isn’t actually ‘dark’ – it is illuminated by the sun once a day. For some unfathomable reason, this rather cheers me up. But there is one place on the moon that never receives sunlight.

By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University - (see also, Public Domain,

The moon’s South Pole (Photo Three – see credit below)

The dark areas to the right of the centre of the photograph form part of the South Pole/Aitken crater, the largest, oldest and deepest crater on the moon, and one of the biggest impacts so far recorded in the whole solar system. Areas of the crater are in perpetual darkness, and the temperature at the bottom has been measured at -397 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest temperature so far recorded by any probe, and colder even than poor old Pluto.

img_9049The science of the moon fascinates me, and yet there is something about it that appeals to a much more instinctive side of my nature. On a business trip to Rotterdam many years ago, I was woken up by what I thought was a floodlight outside my hotel window. I got up, flung back the curtains and came face to face with the biggest, brightest moon that I’ve ever seen, before or since. Maybe it was the surprise, or something deeper, but I found myself sinking to me knees on the carpet, overwhelmed. The moonlight poured through the window and I felt as if I was bathing in it. I looked at my hands and arms, and they were silver. And I stayed there, silent, until the moon passed below the buildings beyond and disappeared, and went back to bed, and when I woke in the morning it felt like a dream, except that the curtains were still pulled open. The moon has inspired awe and reverence for as long as there have been creatures to feel such things. It felt strange but right to be honouring such a tradition.


Photo Credits

Photo One (map of the moon) – By Peter FreimanCmgleeBackground photograph by Gregory H. Revera – Remake of File:FullMoon2010.jpgBitmap from File:FullMoon2010.jpgOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – Far side of the moon – By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University – (see also, Public Domain,

Photo Three (south pole of the moon) – By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University – (see also, Public Domain,

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




Bugwoman on Location – The Squares of Islington

Canonbury Square

Canonbury Square

Dear Readers, I lived in a maisonette in Islington for ten  years at the beginning of the ‘noughties’. There was much to love about the area, but the flat had no garden, just a tiny balcony, too small to stand on. Occasionally a woodpigeon or a butterfly would come to visit, but basically I was without access to all the things that keep me sane. A series of truly awful downstairs neighbours didn’t help, either. There was the air steward with permanent jet-lag and a part-time job as a DJ, who would get going on the decks at 3 a.m. There were the two young women who worked in the media and had a tiny, neglected ‘handbag’ dog who would whine and cry when they left him alone all day. And, finally, there was the alcoholic, drug-addicted ex-banker who would break up his flat in fits of rage in the middle of the night. And so, I took to spending time in the squares of the borough, just in order to retain any kind of equilibrium.

Islington has very little green space, but it does have its squares. In Kensington or Westminster, these would be accessible only by residents of the surrounding houses, but in Islington they are mostly open to the public. Each one has its own unique character.

Canonbury Square

This is the earliest of the Islington Squares, created in 1800. George Orwell once lived on this square, but it’s fair to say that it’s gone a bit upmarket since then.

img_8942 img_8937 img_8950The square itself is in two parts, intersected by a busy road. Like several Islington Squares, it has a stand of palms in the middle. One of these seems to have seeded itself into a crevice in a nearby tree.

img_8978 img_8977 img_8976There are many memorials here. Some are benches, some are even more poignant. Christmas is a very hard time for those who have recently lost their loved ones, and I know of some who would much rather hibernate through the whole festive season. Who can blame them? The relentless emphasis on family togetherness and harmony can be overwhelming.

img_8963 img_8968 img_8971 img_8972The trees in many Islington squares are magnificent. They are mostly august London plane trees, but they provide a fine viewpoint for more recent visitors, such as parakeets.

img_8955 img_8956I noticed one bench that, rather than being in remembrance of a loved one, was a celebration of wine, and a small advert for the beverages of the Loire. Apparently the Loire Valley Wine Company also helped plant the roses, lavender and a small vineyard in the centre of the square.

img_8960Gibson Square

img_8985Gibson Square is in Barnsbury, and is slightly less ‘upmarket’ than Canonbury Square (though when all these houses cost millions of pounds to buy these days, it’s a very fine distinction. But what of these two fluffy panthers?

img_8983 img_8981They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone. As did all the other critters in the square.

img_8993 img_8998 img_8992 img_8999And before long, a lady with a wheelie shopper arrived, and was converged upon by all.

img_8997Well, this was a mystery that I couldn’t resist, and so I walked over for a chat.

‘What beautiful cats!’ I said, by way of making conversation. The lady sighed.

‘They’re mine’, she said, ‘But they won’t come indoors during the day, so I feed them over here’.

As usual, the felines had got their human perfectly trained.

We talked for a while about how much Islington had changed. The lady had lived here for her whole life, and wasn’t so chuffed about how things were going.

‘A little boy threw an apple at one of the cats, and when I told him off his parents told me off, and then we had a blazing row’, she said. ‘You can’t say anything to kids these days. I blame the parents. It’s not the kids’ fault’.

So, we nodded sagely about the way of the world, and parted on good terms, with the lady making a hasty getaway ‘in case one of the cats notices me going and follows me and then I’ll have to turn round and try to take her home’.

Lonsdale Square

In the heart of Barnsbury is Lonsdale Square. The houses here are rather different from in the two previous squares: they have a kind of Gothic Revival ‘thing’ going on, and were all built between 1838 and 1845. Simon Rattle apparently has a house here, and Salman Rushdie has a basement flat.

img_9008The square features some huge fir trees, and I spent some time listening in case they’d attracted an errant goldcrest, but no such luck.

img_9013Goldfinches visited the very tops of the plane trees, and a magpie surveyed the area from an aerial. This square always felt rather sinister to me, maybe because so few people visit it. The noise from building work on one of the townhouses eventually drove me away, to my last square. img_9018 img_9017Thornhill Road Garden

The last of my visits, however, was not to a grand square, but to a little scrap of rose beds and slightly neglected bushes called Thornhill Road Garden.

img_9023 img_9021It isn’t the prettiest of the squares, but it was the nearest to where I lived, and the one that I knew best. I found a long-tailed tit nest here, as stretchy as a green glove. I spotted my first ever brambling in one of the plane trees. My husband and I walked circles of this park when we had something important to discuss, like whether to have children. Sometimes, there were benches full of street drinkers enjoying some British Sherry. Often, there were dogs, sometimes dozens of them (this being one of the few squares in the borough where dogs are allowed). But always there was the sound of wind in the trees, and a few moments of peace. And that, above all, is what our green spaces, however small and urban, do for our souls. They reconnect us, and ground us. We need them more than we realise.

img_9002All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.


Bugwoman on Location – A Winter Walk in Milborne St Andrew

img_8804I knew that the night had been a cold one from the way that the heating boiler lurched intermittently into life, the radiators clicking and jolting as the hot water gurgled through their veins. But it wasn’t until next morning, when I couldn’t get the top off of the composting bin because it had frozen shut, that I realised exactly how cold.

Through the window, I could see that the rosehips were wearing halos of ice, and the slats in the dark blue fence were rimed with frost. A destroying angel had pointed her finger at the geraniums next door, and they had collapsed. She had touched the leaf edges of other, hardier plants with a delicate brush, painting traceries of white along the veins. The lawn crunched under my feet and, as I left the bungalow and headed out along the pavement, every indentation held a milky puddle.

img_8805I didn’t want to walk too far: the sun had risen but it was bitterly cold, and I was fighting a throat infection. So I stopped to take a picture of a rook silhouetted against the sky on one of the roof tops, and then pressed on. I was heading for a sad little farm gate just along the road, surrounded by weeds and discarded farming equipment. I had a feeling that it would be worth pausing there for a few minutes to let the calm seep back into my bones.

img_8790I was in Milborne St Andrew visiting my parents and, while there are no immediate crises, there is always the question of whether there will soon be one. Dad has a bad cough, Mum has a potential UTI. We’d been out and about, buying a new bed (Mum took a tumble out of the old one because of the inadequate mattress) and looking at carpet (because the old, cream bedroom carpet had taken a dropped cup of coffee too many). We’d been out to dinner at an inn where we had been the only customers, and the standard of the meal was evidence as to why. Add into that some computer support, a fair bit of cooking and general troubleshooting, and it was clear to me that I needed to recharge for half an hour. It’s been my experience that just being still and patient and keeping eyes and ears open is a fine cure if I’m overwrought or anxious.

I cross the road to the farm gate, and take a few minutes to tune in. This really is an unprepossessing spot: there’s a pile of logs, a fine stand of teasel, some of the ubiquitous farm sacks and pieces of orange twine, a copse of hazel and hawthorn. But there’s also a little stream that winds past the shrubs and the gate, and disappears into the estate of fine cottages next door.


img_8801I can see and hear that the branches of the hawthorn are full of little birds: there is the chirruping of sparrows, the wheezing of starlings, the tinkling of goldfinches and the occasional irruption of an angry blackbird. I lean over the fence and can see that the birds are waiting on twigs above the stream to bathe.

img_8815I am always surprised by the joy that birds take in bathing, even when the temperature is below zero. But there they are, bellyflopping into the water, ducking and flapping and shaking themselves. Perhaps the importance of keeping feathers in good condition is even more marked when the weather is cold, and insulation is vital. Or perhaps they just enjoy it. At any rate, whole flocks of birds are ‘utilising the facilities’, a noisy, enthusiastic rabble.

img_8817img_8813Closer to me, goldfinches are flitting down to a shallow ‘beach’ on the other side of the stream, taking a few mouthfuls of water and throwing their heads back to swallow before flying back to the safety of the shrub, and then off. Something tells me that these are migratory birds, just arrived from Scandinavia, and on their way to somewhere else, with no time to hang around. They seem to be in perpetual motion, anxious to be off, a bit like my Dad when he has a doctor’s appointment and the car to take him to the surgery hasn’t arrived yet.

img_8798The water at the sides of the stream is a little bubbly, as if there is some kind of mild pollution. Nitrate run-off and other water contamination is widespread in the countryside, pouring off of the fields where crops have been fertilised or sprayed with biocides, but hopefully this is neither of these things. I hop over a stile (no mean feat in my long coat) and walk along the shady, overgrown path for a few yards until I can see the stream more clearly. Here, where the sun hadn’t yet touched the water, there is a filigree of icy lace along the bank, a thousand individual shards that are melting back into water even as I watch. I wonder what has fashioned each pattern: some combination of the shape of the bank, the currents in the water, or a stray piece of weed or stalk of grass seems to have changed the structure of each shape.

img_8821 img_8819I turn to walk home, and pause to look at the stand of teasel between the gate and the road.

img_8808I love these seedheads with their myriad facets and their alien appearance, and so, it seems, do the travelling goldfinches. I notice that one of the seedheads is bobbing up and down, and realise that a goldfinch is grasping the stem with his claws, turning his head this way and that to pluck out the individual seeds. He weighs the plant down, and when he flutters to the next plant the teasel head bounces back up. The goldfinch is soon joined by another bird, and then another, the gold bands on their black wings fluttering between the plants until something spooks them, and they fly off into the bushes beyond. There is no time of year when it is more important to feed the birds: this year’s youngsters may not yet have worked out how to keep themselves alive when it gets cold enough to freeze the ground. And the way that birds of all kinds are attracted to the water reminds me to make sure that the ice on the garden pond and in the birdbath is broken so that they can get fresh water.

img_8842 img_8844So, I head for home, only mildly frozen myself. A collared dove preens a wing with a long stroke of his foot, while he stands on top of a roof that is golden with lichen. A starling whistles from a telephone line. The puddles outside the house are starting to thaw around the edges. The beauty of this time of year is ephemeral, and it’s been worth dragging myself out of bed, and out of the house, to see it.



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