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The Capital Ring – East Finchley to Finsbury Park – Part Two

Dear Readers, the second part of the walk takes us along the Parkland Walk. This is the longest linear park in London, and it started life as the Edgware, Highgate and London line in 1867, taking passengers from Edgware to Finsbury Park.  Alas, it was never very successful, and in the 1930s there were plans to electrify it and make it part of the Northern Line, but then WW2 came along and the plans were abandoned. In 1954 the line was closed to passenger traffic, and in the 1970s it was closed altogether. There were plans to plonk a motorway here, but the land was acquired by the London Borough of Haringey, and in 1984 the Parkland Walk was born, later becoming a nature reserve.

It really is a fine, shady walk, at least along the section that we walked along – there was outrage last year when over 80 trees were felled on the Muswell Hill end of the walk as part of works to preserve some of the old railway bridges. But here, all is relatively serene, though the path is shared with runners, joggers, dogwalkers, cyclists and people with prams. Fortunately the path is wide enough for people to get out of one another’s way, and pedestrians are given priority so the chance of being mown down by a speeding cyclist is relatively low.

There are the usual speckled wood butterflies, many of them looking a little worn after a summer of guarding their territories.

Speckled wood butterfly

And I liked the way that this tree was growing over the remains of a wall.

Many of the old foot and road bridges over the Parkland Walk have been decorated by graffiti artists. Some of the designs are really striking. There is, I imagine, a lot of competition between the different artists – often a design has been tagged, or even painted over, and then reinstated. There was a chap under one of the arches working on a painting, his cans of different colours stowed in a backpack on the ground, music blaring. The smell of the paint was enough to get anyone high, and I worry a bit about the long-term impact of the fumes in such a relatively enclosed space.

We soon came upon the old platforms for Crouch End station. What a different place this suburb might have been if it had remained! As it is, places like Crouch End and Muswell Hill have retained a village-y feel largely because they are relatively difficult to get to (though after the pandemic, with so many people working from home, I imagine this is no longer the concern that it used to be).

The old platforms of Crouch End station

The old station footbridge leading between the platforms

As we walked between the old platforms, now full of hogweed and comfrey, the most massive chubby rat leapt across the path in front of us. He looked very well fed, and gazed up at us from amongst the weeds before disappearing. Rats seem to be having a very good year in many of our green spaces, I suspect because there is a lot of waste food around from picnics and barbecues that people can’t be bothered to take home, and which are easy pickings if left in the bins.

The path opens up to give splendid views over London. You can see the Shard (to the right) and the Walkie Talkie (to the left) below. I imagine the Gherkin is lurkin’ in there somewhere as well (don’t say I have no poetry in my soul).

And look, here’s the Post Office Tower, plus a plethora of cranes, just to prove that the building boom is not over yet.

There is some traveller’s joy/old man’s beard growing in the hedgerow here, a relative rarity in these parts.

And then, suddenly, the path ends, leading up into Finsbury Park, one of the largest parks in North London, and given to the people of the area in 1862 after the closure of the Finsbury Pleasure Gardens in 1862. It features tennis courts, a skate park, a lake and a cafe, along with some fine trees and this birch grove.

We plonked down in the shade and drank some water. Somewhere, someone was beating on a drum, badly. This is pretty much characteristic of London parks during the summer months – someone takes out a very large drum and starts beating out a rhythm that is, well, not very rhythmic. I sometimes wonder if it’s the same chap doing a tour of green spaces – maybe there’s a Tiktok bad-drumming challenge that I haven’t come across. It will be interesting to see if it follows us around as we embark on future legs of the Capital Ring. But for now, we’re off to find our bus stop, and to head home. We’ve had quite enough excitement for one day.

Bridge over the Parkland Walk

What Do You Think?

Dear Readers, this is not actually the  megalith from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’, though I can definitely see the resemblance. No, this is one of two huge containers that I’ve bought for my south-facing front garden, in an attempt to plant something that will extend my flowering season (well, not my personal flowering season but you get what I mean). They are made out of recycled tyres, which is rather cool, and they are heavy, so once they’re in position that is (hopefully) where they’ll stay. However, I have a dilemma, and so I am appealing to your collective brilliance.

The containers are designed to be used indoors or out, so they have an optional internal water reservoir.

After all, if you had put them in your office lobby you wouldn’t want them to drain all over your marble flooring, as this little diagram so clearly illlustrates.

My question is, do you think that the benefits of having a water reservoir in the summer would outweigh the danger of rot during the winter? Once the decision is made to put the plug in, or take it out, I fear that the only way to change it would be to completely empty the container and start again.

I am planning to plant autumn flowering plants such as sedum, aster, perennial wallflower and a bit of catmint in the first instance, followed by some grape hyacinth and possibly crocus for spring (if the squirrels can restrain themselves from digging up every single one of course).

I am in a bit of a quandary. Let me know what you think, lovelies. I won’t hold anyone responsible (except myself, clearly) if it all goes pear-shaped.

Christmas Comes Early to Camden Passage

Christmas Lights in Camden Passage

Dear Readers, I was walking through Camden Passage in Islington today en route to my pilates class and was somewhat surprised to see that, for a short stretch of the road, the petunia-filled hanging baskets had been replaced with Christmas lights, which looked very incongruous in the summer sunshine. And this wasn’t the only unexpected sight…

The area outside The Breakfast Club is set up for mulled wine, definitely not required today when it’s nearly 28 degrees Celsius….

And there are all manner of Christmas wreaths hanging on the wall of the Pierrepoint Arcade, along with some decidedly homemade Christmas Fayre signs (definitely not the done thing in Islington).

It felt a bit as if I’d stepped into a parallel universe. But then, of course, all was revealed….

Ha! Well, they had me worried there for a minute. What I don’t know is what was being filled, and how far the illusion was going to go. Is Camden Passage about to be filled with fake snow at any minute? Are sweltering actors going to be meandering about in their winter coats and woolly hats? Alas, I was heading home, so I will never know, but any Islingtonians might want to keep an eye on the goings on, and if I find out anything subsequently I will let you know.

Camden Passage is, confusingly, not in Camden at all, but in Islington. I lived in Islington from about 2000 to 2010, and in that time it has changed from a historic antiques market, with dozens of small specialist shops selling everything from militaria to glass to medals to jewellery, to a place full of cafes, with a few artisan food shops, a barbers and some upscale clothes shops. Honestly I think it’s a shame – while there are some great shops (Loop the wool shop and Pistachio and Pickle the cheesemongers spring immediately to mind), Camden Passage was unique. Unfortunately the rise in rates and a devastating flood, when a water main burst and many of the shops lost their stock due to the flood water, finished off many of the little places, and then the pandemic was the final straw. Still, the place is bustling, and it’s traffic free, which makes it a much more pleasant place to idle away a few hours than many spots in the Capital.

Ooh, I nearly forgot Paul A.  Young the chocolatier when I was mentioning places to visit. I notice that at the moment they are offering a mango, coriander, chilli, coconut and lime truffle and a bergamot bellini truffle, amongst other flavours, and that they do vegan and gluten-free as well. Worth skipping a few Snickers for, for sure.

This was not the most extraordinary change I’ve ever seen to a building to facilitate filming though. Where would you think this is?

Photo by Gary Hassan via Twitter

No, it’s not the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, it’s Caird Hall in Dundee, from 1983. The snow was all artificial, and, in this very bolshie town it caused quite a lot of excitement, not least amongst my colleagues and I who worked at the local night shelter and were all too eager for the revolution. The Caird Hall was being used for the TV production ‘An Englishman Abroad’, which told the story of Guy Burgess, who spied for the Russians while he was an officer at M16, and his meeting with actress Coral Browne, who was appearing as Gertrude in a production of ‘Hamlet’ in Moscow. The unlikely true tale was turned into TV by Alan Bennett, and was directed by John Schlesinger. I seem to remember it being rather fine. Burgess was played by Alan Bates, and Coral Browne played herself, which must have been a very strange experience.

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Alan Bates as Guy Burgess and Coral Browne as herself (Photo One)

And so this is a reminder that television and film really are a box of tricks, changing summer into winter, Dundee into Moscow and Alan Bates into Guy Burgess. But how magical it is! If the story is good enough, we are drawn in and spend a few hours in a place that exists only in the imagination. Let’s remember that such trickery, while innocent enough in these cases, can also be used to persuade us that things are different from how they actually are.

Photo Credit

Photo One from


A Dry Walk at Walthamstow Wetlands

Goodness Readers, you would think that autumn had started at the Wetlands judging by the berries. Everything seems to have come out at once. There are blackberries which are looking surprisingly juicy considering the drought, though this particular bush was right next to a stream so maybe it’s doing better than most.

And look at these lovely sloes. We made sloe gin once, which involved pricking holes in about 300 sloes and then submerging them in gin (Gordons of course, as that was my Dad’s employer for 30 years). It was definitely better than the bottled stuff, but not so much better that it was worth all that effort. Let me know if your experience of homemade beverages has been better!

This reminds me that my Uncle Roy used to make homemade wine. His parsnip wine was notorious – it didn’t taste too bad, though it was a bit on the cloudy side, and the headaches after a few glasses were legendary. Making your own wine and beer seems to have rather fallen out of favour lately, it will be interesting to see if it comes back as the financial constraints of the winter start to bite.

At home my hawthorn tree is absolutely covered in berries already, and the tree here is the same. These are dry, sour little things, and yet the birds seem to love them. And are they not a little early too?

Some of the paths at the Wetlands are closed at the moment – up to 3,000 tufted ducks moult at this time of year, and so can’t fly. Closing the paths means that they aren’t disturbed, and can get on with growing their new feathers without having to waste energy avoiding people. There are still a few surprises though, like this female Tufted duck with two tiny ducklings (one of them out of sight in the photo).

And so this was a brief visit, but what strikes me is how dry and crisp the shrubs look, and how everything seems to be holding its breath, waiting for rain. The weather forecast shows none for the next few weeks, and I am wondering why there is still no hosepipe ban in London. What are we waiting for, I wonder?

So, Who Was Greyfriars Bobby?

The Statue of Greyfriars Bobby (Public Domain)

Dear Readers, Greyfriars Bobby(1855 – 1872) was a little dog who, according to legend, belonged to an Edinburgh nightwatchman called John Gray. When Gray died, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirk (Church) yard, and Bobby is said to have spent the rest of his life sitting on his master’s grave. When the dog died, he was buried not far from his master (actually within the Kirkyard), and the English Philanthropist Lady Burdett-Coutts had this rather fine drinking fountain erected opposite the entrance to the churchyard.

Now, two questions remain. One relates to the truth of the story. Tired old cynics might raise an eyebrow at this tale, which fits in so beautifully with the Victorian sentimentality about animals that was so prevalent at the time  – take a look at this classic by Edwin Landseer. However, the loyalty, bravery and sensitivity of dogs is unquestioned (certainly by me).

The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (Edwin Landseer, 1837) (Public Domain)

On the other hand, dogs are also extremely intelligent animals, and one theory is that stray dogs used to live in the graveyards. Visitors believed that the dogs were staying because they missed their owners, and would feed the dogs. I imagine that an appealing little dog, looking up with that head tilt that requires a treat on any occasion, would quickly become something of a draw too, and apparently a whole industry grew up around Greyfriars Bobby, with people selling food to give to the dogs and telling his story to a crowd of weeping visitors for a few pence.

There is even a tale (whisper it) that the original Greyfriars Bobby died in 1867 and was replaced by a younger dog (much as my poor old Mum tried to fool us with a new goldfish when ours died when I was six).

And so, I imagine we will never know whether Greyfriars Bobby was a loyal little dog, a mischievous scrounger or an endearing mixture of the two. But the second debate that rages on is, ‘what breed of terrier was Greyfriars Bobby?’. Here is a photo that is believed to be of the dog himself.

The National Galleries of Scotland (Public Domain)

What a sweetie! Now, Bobby’s Wikipedia page describes him as a Skye terrier. Here is a modern day Skye terrier (these days a vanishingly rare breed – maybe it’s all that hair that puts people off). A Skye terrier is also said to have hidden under the skirts of Mary, Queen of Scots when she was executed, and to have refused to leave her body after the deed was done, so the breed certainly has ‘legendary loyalty’ points in its favour.

Photo One by By Pleple2000 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Skye Terrier (Photo One)

What strikes me is the ears which look very similar between the two photos. But wait! Only this week an alternative case has been put for another extremely rare terrier breed, the Dandie Dinmont terrier, by Mike MacBeth who is the president of the Dandie Dinmont Terrier Association of Canada. He points out that Skye terriers were found mainly on Skye, whereas there were 60 Dandie Dinmont breeders in Edinburgh alone. The dog was named after a character from Sir Walter Scott’s book ‘Guy Mannering’. Scott was pretty much responsible for the creation of the romantic image of Scotland,

Photo Two by By en:User:Sannse -, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Dandie Dinmont Terrier (Photo Two)

Now, forgive me but this dog doesn’t look much like the photo. On the other hand, is the photo actually Greyfriars Bobby? I admire Mr MacBeth’s attempts to boost his breed, but I remain to be convinced.

The mud is further thickened by the various filmic representations of Greyfriars Bobby. I mean, what the hecky-decky is the dog in this photo of the Disney film from 1965? It looks like a very hairy Border Terrier to me.

Poster of the 1961 film ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ by the Walt Disney Company

Even worse, in the 2006 version of the film they seem to have cast a West Highland White terrier – these dogs are extremely cute, but I think it’s clear that Greyfriars Bobby was not one of them.

Poster for ‘The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby’ from 2006

Now, as you might expect, I have a theory of my own. I suspect strongly that in Victorian times, breeding purebred dogs was pretty much a hobby for the rich – for everyone else, dogs were bred for their characteristics without much regard for how they looked. If John Gray was indeed a nightwatchman, he would have wanted an alert, feisty little terrier to accompany him, and he would have got one from a local person who was breeding from a dog that seemed to fit the bill. I am going to stick my neck out and say that Greyfriars Bobby was probably a mixture of various breeds and of dogs with no breed, and he would have been no less loyal, intelligent or handsome because of it. Our obsession with how animals look has led us to some very dark places, so I have always championed mongrels, those mixed-up, unique animals without a pedigree registered at the Kennel Club. I would love to think that Greyfriars Bobby wasn’t a Skye terrier, or a Dandie Dinmont, or a hairy Border terrier, but a terrier type all of his own, like the Polish mongrel terrier in the photo below. Whatever the truth about him is, he was clearly a very special little dog.

Photo Three by Shalom, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By en:User:Sannse, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by Shalom, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


A New Hoverfly and A Reluctant Frog

The ‘Batman’ Hoverfly (Myathropa florea)

Dear Readers, after my adventures with the hornet-mimic hoverfly last week, I was keeping an eye open for other new-to-me species today, and spotted this hoverfly sitting on my sedum (some of which is already in flower rather earlier than usual). This species is sometimes known as the ‘Batman hoverfly’ because if you squint, the pattern on the thorax looks rather like the ‘Batman’ symbol that lights up the sky above Gotham City when something particularly nefarious is going on.

I can tell that this fly is a female because there is a tiny gap between the eyes  – in the males of many genuses (genii???) of hoverflies the eyes meet at the top of the head with no gap whatsoever.

Female Batman hoverfly

Photo One by By Anevrisme - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

A male Batman hoverfly – note how the eyes meet at the top of the head (Photo One)

Batman hoverflies will breed in anything that holds water, and since I have a pond, a bird bath and several dishes for ground-feeding animals they have plenty of choice. The ‘rat-tailed’ larvae (the ‘tail’ is actually a breathing tube) will lurk amongst decaying leaves and twigs, and their number one preferred habitat is a ‘rot hole’ – a cavity in a tree that holds water and detritus. As the detritus rots down, the habitat in the rot hole holds less and less oxygen, and so the larvae need their long ‘tails’ in order to breathe.

Interestingly, it’s been found that the larvae actually have control over their buoyancy – being naturally quite fat, they sometimes naturally float to the surface of the water, whereupon they expel air and dive back down, rather like miniature long-tailed whales. They can also control the length of the breeding tube depending on the depth of the water that they’re in, as described in this ‘Country Diary’ piece in The Guardian by Phil Gates.

A larval Batman hoverfly (Photo by Phil Gates)

The adult hoverflies have a long flight season, from April to November, and can often be seen happily basking in the sun on some convenient flowers. The hoverfly in my photos sat around quite happily for half an hour while I clicked away. How I wish that all insects were so cooperative!


I am becoming more and more interested in hoverflies, and one suggestion to encourage more species that nest in rot holes, such as the Batman hoverfly, is to create an artificial hoverfly ‘nest’. You can do this by taping a two-litre plastic drinking bottle low down on the sheltered side of a tree. You then cut a hole in it, and partially fill it with sawdust, twigs and water, making sure that you keep it topped up during dry spells. What an interesting idea! It’s easy to forget that hoverflies are excellent pollinators and that they also need a helping hand. Maybe I’ll have a go at this. I’ll let you know how I get on.

And in other news, the frogs are very reluctant to leave the pond this year, and who can blame them? Everywhere outside the garden is absolutely parched. If I was a frog, I would definitely hang around until the rain returns, though with a hose pipe ban in the offing and no rain forecast for the next fortnight, the amphibians could have a long wait.

The Red Dress Project

Photo One from

The Red Dress worn by Sharmin Faeq Sadiz from Kurdistan, supported by the Swansea Asylum and Refugee Support Group (Photo One)

Dear Readers, yesterday I was at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London, to visit the 150 Years of the Royal School of Needlework – Crown to Catwalk exhibition. There were lots of very beautiful embroidered objects, but this dress stopped me in my tracks.

The Red Dress project was conceived by artist Kirstie MacLeod. Between 2009 and 2022, 84 panels of burgundy silk dupion travelled the world, being embroidered by 343 embroiderers from 46 countries. The idea was that this was a way for women around the world, especially the marginalised and those who live in poverty, to tell their stories through stitch and colour.  All the commissioned artisans were paid for their work, and receive an ongoing proportion of the fees from the events where the dress is exhibited. In addition, some volunteers, such as students from the Royal School of Needlework, also added symbols that were important to them.

The range of artisans  is astounding. From The Red Dress website:

“Embroiderers include female refugees from Palestine and Syria, women seeking asylum in the UK from Iraq, China, Nigeria and Namibia, victims of war in Kosovo, Rwanda, and DR Congo; impoverished women in South Africa, Mexico, and Egypt; individuals in Kenya, Japan, Turkey, Sweden, Peru, Czech Republic, Dubai, Afghanistan, Australia, Argentina, Switzerland, Canada, Tobago, Vietnam, Estonia, USA, Russia, Pakistan, Wales, Colombia and England, students from Montenegro, Brazil, Malta, Singapore, Eritrea, Norway, Poland, Finland, Ireland, Romania and Hong Kong as well as upmarket embroidery studios in India and Saudi Arabia.”

The final work is astounding. I could spend hours looking at it, and still not see everything.

The back of the Red Dress (Photo Two)

Some of the women chose to embroider the dress in styles that were distinctively representative of their region. Others told powerful personal stories. Some women were rebuilding their lives by learning embroidery skills so that they could earn a consistent income. The finished dress weighs 6.2 kgs, and is covered in literally millions of stitches. It feels like a remarkable coming together of different voices to create one beautiful object.

Photo Three by Dave Watts, taken from Selvedge Magazine

Detail of the Red Dress (Photo Three)

You can see a map of where the different artisans came from here, You can read the individual stories of the artisans here, but here is a brief selection.

Rabia Naza-Rhainie created two of the front panels of the dress, filling them with a geometric design, and with a Farsi  inscription which reads ‘ “ I have hope… even when I’m alone and in darkness”

Photo Four from

The panels embroidered by Rabia Naza-Rhainie (Photo Four)

The panel below was embroidered by 10 women from the Kisany Collective in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nicole Esselan, the founder of Kisany, writes this about the commission:

“This commission by a group of 10 Congelese women, shows the best of themselves, a joyful side, bright in colour which bring s a smile to my face! The words they chose to embroider have a strong meaning for them: solidarity, love, friendship, pride, trust, liberty, peace. This is what training and work has helped them to achieve and feel more empowered. Next door to Rwanda, Congo has been war-torn for the last 3 decades; there is not one day that doesn’t come with its toll. These women have been abandoned by the society because they had nothing to offer: they were widows, single mothers, abandoned wives, orphans. They told me one day that they had become invisible! None of their relatives were able to support them or even wishing to do so. From time to time, they would be invited to a family gathering and even though they were free seats, they could not sit!

In 2002, they started from scratch when they decided to embark on this new adventure; they had nothing to lose anyway! Today, most of them have managed to buy a plot of land, built a small house; they can all send their kids to school and look after them properly; they can play their role in their community.”

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Embroidery by the Kisany Collective (Photo Five)

The panel below was embroidered by Feride and Fatime Hallili, two artisans from Sister Stitch, an organisation of women who had to flee for their lives from Kosovo during the armed conflict of 1998-99. Now returned to their home town of Podujevë, these women are seeking to remake their lives through their embroidery skills. Sister Stitch is supported by Manchester Aid to Kosovo (MaK) which does amazing work in the Balkans, working for recovery through education, justice, human rights, art, music, drama, sport and medical aid.

The panel shows birds that symbolise migration. All the women lost friends and loved ones during the war, but thankfully now most of them are feeling much more optimistic about their futures.

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Embroidery by Feride and Fatime Hallili of Sister Stitch (Photo Six)

Photo Seven from

Detail from Sister Stitch embroidery (Photo Seven)

And finally, the panels below were made by two artisans from Chiapas in Mexico. They were suggested for the commission by Kitzen, a foundation that works with people in poverty to help them use their talents to support themselves.  They embroidered the two triangular godays on either side of the central panel.

Zenaida Aguilar is one of the most experienced embroiderers in the project, and, after surviving an abusive marriage which left her with nothing, has rebuilt her life using her extraordinary skills. She created the panel below, which shows the flora and fauna of the area, and is made entirely of a stitch called a French knot.

Zenaida Aguilar with her panel (Photo Eight)

The second artist was nineteen  year-old Hilaria Lopez Patishtan, who has been embroidering since she was seven years old. She chose to make her panel in the distinctive style of her local town, San Juan Chamula – it features geometric patterns in pink, yellow and green.

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Hilaria Lopez Patishtan with her panel (Photo Nine)

Close-ups of the two panels are below.

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Zenaida’s panel (Photo Ten)

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Hilaria’s Panel (Photo Eleven)

If you’re in London, do drop into the Fashion and Textile Museum to see the exhibition and to learn more about the Red Dress. There is also a wealth of additional information about the dress, and the remarkable people who made it, at the Red Dress Embroidery website here.

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two from

Photo Three by Dave Watts, taken from Selvedge Magazine

Photo Four from

Photo Five from

Photo Six from

Photo Seven from

Photo Eight from

Photo Nine from

Photo Ten from

Photo Eleven from

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

Dear Readers, when I saw this insect flying around the buddleia in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, I took one glance and cheerfully told my friend that we were looking at a hornet. Well, clearly I was having one of those days because when a second insect joined the first one, I started looking around a little anxiously in case we were standing close to a hornet nest (though these are actually remarkably serene animals, much less likely to sting you than your average wasp). And then, light dawned. This is, of course, a hornet mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria), about which I have written many times before.

How can I tell? So many, many ways, readers, all of them forgotten in the excitement of the moment. Firstly, flies only have two wings, hornets (and all wasps, bees and flying ants) have four. Secondly, look at those big compound eyes! Bees and wasps have much smaller eyes which are often almond-shaped. The antennae are different too, and the wings are carried differently. The hoverfly is a pretty good mimic, and I’m sure a hungry bird would give it a pass, but as a budding entomologist I should have been a little more circumspect.

Photo One by By Peter coxhead - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

European hornet (Vespa crabro) (Photo One)

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

The story of the hoverfly is a fascinating one. It was first spotted on the South Coast of the UK in the 1930s, having previously been only found on mainland Europe. However, from the 1940s to 1970s it set up home in the London area, where it attracted a lot of attention – this is the UK’s largest hoverfly, and it’s a bit hard to miss (though not to mistake for a totally unrelated insect, as we’ve seen). Since 1995, the hoverfly has expanded its range north and west as the climate warms and it makes itself at home. 

Incidentally, telling the sex of a hoverfly isn’t easy in all species, but it is in this one: if the eyes meet at the top of the head, the insect is a male. If they’re separated by a yellow band, as in this insect, it’s a female. To reproduce, she will walk cheerfully into a wasp or hornet nest and deposit her eggs – it maybe that her stripes help to fool the residents, or maybe they simply aren’t bothered as the larvae, when they hatch, perform a useful service – they live on the debris at the bottom of the nest, and may even eat the larvae of other insect pests that live there. When the nest starts to break down in the autumn the larvae leave the nest and pupate, normally in the tree cavity where the nest was positioned.

Hornet mimic hoverflies are migratory, with the population of locally-born flies being reinforced by insects from mainland Europe every year, and some flies making the return journey in the autumn. Insects often look so frail, and yet they are capable of extraordinary journeys. Furthermore, after bees hoverflies are our most important pollinators – although they don’t collect pollen deliberately, as they don’t rear their young, pollen grains nonetheless attach themselves to the fine hairs that cover their bodies, and are hence transferred from one flower to another. And honestly, what a magnificent looking insect this is! I have a great fondness for ‘real’ hornets, but this creature also has a place in my heart.

Everything We Know About Woodpeckers and Shock Absorption Is Wrong

Young Green Woodpecker

Dear Readers, I was taking a walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with my friend A on Monday when we spotted this juvenile green woodpecker, sitting very happily on top of a gravestone. What handsome birds they are, although this one doesn’t have the red cap of an adult. You can clearly see the stiff tail feathers that help the bird to stay upright when working their way up a tree trunk, although the favoured food of green woodpeckers is ants, lots of them.

As we watched, we noticed that the woodpecker and their parent seemed to be being followed by several nosy magpies. The adult woodpecker flew down and started hammering relentlessly into an area of raised, dry ground next to one of the graves, which probably held an ants’ nest. After a few minutes the magpie seemed to approach aggressively and the woodpecker flew off, leaving the magpie to appear to hoover up whatever the woodpecker had unearthed.

I am not in the least surprised that the magpie was intelligent enough to benefit from another bird’s hard work – the crow family has a history of this, with ravens in the Northern Woods of Scandinavia leading wolves and bears to carcasses that they can’t open up themselves. This was the first time I’d seen magpies and woodpeckers interacting though, so do let me know if you’ve ever seen anything similar. I suspect that the web of life is far more intricate and nuanced than we can ever imagine.

Now, how about that headline? For years I have been promulgating the long-held belief that the reason that woodpeckers don’t give themselves concussion with all that hammering is because they have shock absorbers in their heads. Much like the little unicorn horn on the back of Dürer’s rhinoceros (which doesn’t exist, but was replicated by everyone who ever painted or drew a rhino for years afterwards) we have all been blithely repeating the woodpecker story.

The Rhinoceros by Albrecht Durer (Public Domain)

It is true that woodpeckers have spongy bone between their beaks and their brains, but instead of absorbing the shock from the blows, scientist Sam van Wassenburgh at the University of Antwerp has found that that the spongy bone is only there to reduce weight, essential for a flying animal. Videos of three species of woodpecker hammering on wood showed that the spongy bone didn’t have any effect on cushioning the blows – slowing down the video showed that the birds’ heads and eyes stopped moving at the same time as their beaks did. Van Wassenburgh concluded that the bird’s brains are so small and light, and so cushioned by the naturally-occurring fluid in their skulls, that they would have to hammer twice as fast, or hit surfaces four times as hard, in order to suffer concussion.

And so, another idea bites the dust, but this is what science is all about – a scientific theory is the best model that we currently have for why something happens, until someone does the research and it’s replaced by a theory that fits what happens better. I love that we are always learning, and always moving the consensus on. I think two years of studying science has made me more eager to look for evidence, and to not take things at face value, especially in a time of so much deliberate misinformation. We live in exciting times, but we have to be careful about where we get our information from.

You can read the whole woodpecker article, and watch the woodpeckers getting stuck in with their hammering, here.

Wednesday Weed – Gooseberry

Dear Readers, it’s the short gooseberry season again, and yesterday I got  carried away and purchased not only some ordinary green  ones, but some of these rather fine red ones too. Personally I like the way that their lip-puckering sourness can be tempered with sugar and cream, and find it a perfect foil to something fatty like mackerel.  However, like liver, rhubarb and brussel sprouts it’s one of those foods that definitely splits the crowd.

Gooseberries are a member of the currant family, and have been in the UK since at least the 13th century, though they weren’t recorded in the wild until 1763. Their Latin name, Ribes uva-crispa, literally means ‘curved grape’, and they are very grape-like, apart from those prickly hairs. The name ‘goose berry’ is harder to fathom, though having seen geese munching on blackberries at Walthamstow Wetlands last week it wouldn’t surprise me if waterfowl sometimes found them a tasty snack. Some people believe that the ‘goose’ is a corruption of the word ‘groseille’ from the French word for currant, but the Oxford English Dictionary is firmly on the side of a goose being a goose. In some parts of the UK they’re known as ‘goosegogs’.

Now, how about the folkloric story that babies are found under a gooseberry bush? Charming as this is (and much easier than going through all that labour business as any mother will tell you), in the 19th century ‘gooseberry bush’ was apparently slang for pubic hair – I suspect that the hairiness of the berries probably contributed to the phrase.

I have looked in vain for the origin of the phrase ‘playing gooseberry’ (i.e accompanying a courting couple in the role of chaperone or general spoilsport). It’s first recorded in 1837, and the explanation given then is that the third party would have been ‘innocently’ involved in some other occupation (such as picking gooseberries) whilst the couple talked, while all the time taking note of everything that was said. Another interpretation is that the third party deliberately took themselves off so that the couple could be together. In all of this, the role of the poor gooseberry plant is rather obscure, but such is language – for some reason, phrases stick and their original meaning is lost in the fog. Suffice to say that when I was growing up, being a ‘gooseberry’ was considered to be being an unwanted hanger-on. Do let me know if you have or had an alternative meaning for the phrase! It all makes my head spin a little.

I also like the story from the Plant Lore website of a Dorset grandmother who used the phrase ‘may the skin of a gooseberry cover all of your enemies’. Indeed, and what a picture that conjures up! The same page describes how a cure for a stye (boil) on the eyelid was to prick it every day with the prickle from a gooseberry.  Apparently an alternative cure was to have a widow touch the stye with her gold wedding ring, which must have taken a bit of persuading.

The flowers of the gooseberry are rather unusual, purplish-brown in colour and, to my eye at least, rather alien-looking.

Photo One by By User:Ridinghag - photo made by myself, Public Domain,

Photo One

Originally, gooseberries come from the area to the east of France right the way through to the Himalayas and India. It’s unclear whether the Romans ever ate them, but they do seem to have had a reputation for medicinal value, with the juice being used to treat fever – one alternative English name is ‘Fea-berry’. In the wonderful ‘Modern Herbal’ by Mrs Grieves, she describes gooseberry juice as

sub-acid and is corrective of putrescent foods, such as mackerel or goose‘.

The leaves were thought to be a treatment for ‘gravel’ (presumably gallstones), and an infusion was thought to be useful to alleviate period pain.

The gooseberries found wild in the UK are probably the descendants of those grown for food or medicine, and are largely bird-sown, with thrushes not seeming to mind the sourness of the fruit. I wonder if birds, like cats, have no way of detecting sweetness? I shall have to investigate. Clearly they can distinguish colour, as they normally prefer ripe fruit, but I wonder if that’s because of its nutritional value rather than its taste?

Anyhow, birds are not the only creatures who like gooseberries: in North America, bears eat the berries (clearly they have a sweet tooth), and foxes, raccoons and coyotes browse the foliage. Amongst the smaller animals, in the UK the caterpillars of the magpie moth, comma butterfly and v-moth feed on the foliage.

Photo Two by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Magpie moth (Abraxas grossuliata) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The V-Moth (Macaria wauaria (Photo Three)

Photo Four by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) showing the ‘comma’ on its underwing (Photo Four)

Gooseberries are also greatly loved by the larvae of the gooseberry sawfly (Nematus ribesii), who are voracious little devils, and who are reputed to be able to strip a gooseberry bush of its foliage in a matter of days. Sawflies are not actually flies, but a member of the wasp, ant and bee family (Hymenoptera), and many adult sawflies are useful either as pollinators or as predators on other caterpillars in the garden. Sadly, this might be small comfort to someone whose gooseberry bush (not a euphemism) has been stripped by eager little sawfly larvae.

Photo Five by By I, Karon ind, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gooseberry sawfly larvae (Nematus ribesii) (Photo Five)

Now, if your gooseberries have survived, what do you do with them? The traditional uses are of course crumbles, jam, or a chutney-ish preserve to eat with cheese or the aforementioned mackerel (in French, gooseberries are groseille à maquereau or mackerel berries). I am spoilt for choice on recipes, but here is one for gooseberry, turmeric and frangipane tart that uses fresh turmeric (should you stumble across some), and here is a rather more accessible recipe for gooseberry crumble cake. And how about gooseberry and elderflower trifle? Very tasty.

And whoa, how about this for a poem! Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate of the UK, tells quite the story here. How many strange directions this takes! The commentary for the poet mentions that he is widely seen as the inheritor of Philip Larkin’s ‘Dark Wit’ . See what you think.

Gooseberry Season
Simon Armitage – 1963-

Which reminds me. He appeared
at noon, asking for water. He’d walked from town
after losing his job, leaving me a note for his wife and his brother
and locking his dog in the coal bunker.
We made him a bed

and he slept till Monday.
A week went by and he hung up his coat.
Then a month, and not a stroke of work, a word of thanks,
a farthing of rent or a sign of him leaving.
One evening he mentioned a recipe

for smooth, seedless gooseberry sorbet
but by then I was tired of him: taking pocket money
from my boy at cards, sucking up to my wife and on his last night
sizing up my daughter. He was smoking my pipe
as we stirred his supper.

Where does the hand become the wrist?
Where does the neck become the shoulder? The watershed
and then the weight, whatever turns up and tips us over that
razor’s edge
between something and nothing, between
one and the other.

I could have told him this
but didn’t bother. We ran him a bath
and held him under, dried him off and dressed him
and loaded him into the back of the pick-up.
Then we drove without headlights

to the county boundary,
dropped the tailgate, and after my boy
had been through his pockets we dragged him like a mattress
across the meadow and on the count of four
threw him over the border.

This is not general knowledge, except
in gooseberry season, which reminds me, and at the table
I have been known to raise an eyebrow, or scoop the sorbet
into five equal portions, for the hell of it.
I mention this for a good reason.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By User:Ridinghag – photo made by myself, Public Domain,

Photo Two by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by By I, Karon ind, CC BY-SA 3.0,