A Bit of a Surprise

A pine marten. Image taken in south-west London!

Dear Readers, of all the creatures that you might expect to catch on a camera trap in your garden, one of the most unlikely is a pine marten, and yet that’s exactly what you can see in the image above. The photo was taken as part the Zoological Society of London’s Hogwatch scheme, which is monitoring hedgehogs and sometimes spots other animals such as foxes and badgers (and domestic cats of course). However, pine martens are critically endangered, and the nearest wild population to south west London, where the photo was taken, is in the New Forest seventy miles away. This is the first time that a pine marten has been recorded in London for over a century.

So, how did he or she get to the capital? There are populations of urban pine martens in other cities, and I remember one eating biscuit crumbs from my hotel window box in Obergurgl, Austria about twenty years ago, but this individual may well have escaped from a collection, or have been part of an unofficial rewilding scheme. Let’s hope not as far as the latter goes – releasing an animal in the London suburbs is surely not the best way to assure its survival. But the folk at ZSL will be monitoring their cameras to see if there’s more than one pine marten. This animal seems to be in excellent health, and to be behaving normally, which is good news.

There has been some talk about releasing pine martens as a biological control for grey squirrels – in Scotland, where the bulk of the pine martens live, they seem to find it difficult to catch the faster, lighter red squirrels, but may have a field day with the bigger, slower grey squirrels. Alas, we all know how these stories end – pine martens are also very fond of eggs and young birds, which I suspect are a bit easier to catch. Nonetheless, if they turn up naturally these rare and beautiful mammals would be a splendid addition to the Capital’s fauna.

Pine marten (Photo by Alastair Rae from London, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The Capital Ring – Woolwich to Shooters Hill Part Two

The view back to ‘Charlton Riverside’ from the Thames Barrier Gardens

Dear Readers, after leaving the Thames Barrier we are now walking south from the river, through a variety of parks and open spaces. First up is Thames Barrier Gardens, where we encounter this cheeky chap. Honestly, grey squirrels sometimes remind me so much of glove puppets that it’s difficult not to laugh. Of course life is deadly serious for these animals at this time of year – grey squirrels don’t hibernate ‘properly’ and so they need to have enough nuts hidden away to last them every time they wake up in the winter. This squirrel seems to have one very perky ear, and one that is non-existent.

We pass a ramshackle building which sports this sign.

We walked round and round but there was no sign of any sculpture, let alone one that would be maliciously damaged. However, in trying to find out about it, I did find this project by Patrick McEvoy, which was commissioned during the pandemic. McEvoy tried to find some inventive ways of emphasising the social distancing rules, and these would certainly have made me chuckle. No sign of them now, sadly. McEvoy used themes that reflected the area’s maritime history, and I love the idea of the measurements being in carp or barrels rather than the drab ‘2 metres’. You can read the whole article here.

And then light dawns. I think that the sculpture must have been this one: Ash and Silk Wall, by Vong Phaophanit. It was apparently installed in 1993, and very beautiful it must have looked too. Sadly, in this semi-derelict area, far from any residential communities who could have felt ownership of it, the installation was apparently repeatedly vandalised, and even the illuminated bollards that lit the way to it were smashed. Having worked in community gardens and woodland over the past twenty years I’ve come to realise that it’s essential for the preservation of these amenities that local people are involved in any decisions about what goes on in them. Clearly, this didn’t happen here, and there was no one to speak out and protect it.

Ash and Silk Wall by Vong Phaophanit – Photo by Colleen Chantier ART on File from https://londongardenstrust.org/features/art1808.htm

Onwards! We head to a main road and cross into Maryon Park, closely followed by Maryon Wilson Park. These parks were named for the Maryon Wilson family who lived in nearby Charlton House, but they were originally part of Hanging Wood, which included a number of sandpits (before carpets became affordable for ordinary people, sand was a popular floor covering). Hanging Wood was also a hideout for highwaymen who frequented Blackheath and Shooters Hill. However, it most likely wasn’t named after what would happen to the Highwaymen, but because of the steepness of its slopes, so that the trees appeared to be ‘hanging’. The park was featured in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film ‘Blow-up’ which featured David Hemmings as a photographer who accidentally photographs a murder scene. Although the film features a fine roster of British actors of the time (Sarah Miles, Jane Birkin, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter Bowles and Janet Street-Porter as an uncredited dancing girl), the scene where Hemmings photographs a writhing Verushchka is maybe the film’s most famous scene, and the source of a hundred parodies.

This is a very quiet park, with some fine mature trees. When we were there, the only sound was the thwack of tennis balls from the nearby courts, and the squawking of the inevitable ring-necked parakeets in the trees opposite.

This ash tree did look on the verge of toppling though and so we passed under it with some alacrity.

There are some really magnificent specimen trees, including this Spanish chestnut. Maybe the parakeets were keeping an eye on it and waiting for ripeness.

Normally we would stride energetically up a flight of 101 steps at this point, but sadly they’re under repair, so instead we had to make a gentle meander up a gradual slope. We cross the road and are now out of Maryon Park and into Maryon Wilson Park, which has a small childrens’ zoo, featuring some Kune Kune pigs, sheep and a wide variety of waterfowl, all impossible to photograph through the fine mesh fence.

And now we turn into Charlton Park, site of Charlton House, one of the finest examples of Jacobean architecture in the country. This is one of those places that I’m sure we’ll be back to visit properly. The house was completed in 1612 and used to be the site of the annual Horn Fair. Sadly, this became such a scene of drunkenness and general buffonery that it was banned in 1812, though it has made a more genteel come back in recent years.

We walk along a grassy path between the trees and the young footballers taking their exercise.

When we leave the park, this modest road is named for the garden designer who worked on the grounds of Charlton House, Inigo Jones.

The next little park (called Horn Fair Park) has a very nice BMX track, but is otherwise quite non-descript although, if you look back, you can see Canary Wharf peeking through the houses.

We cross another road and we’re on Woolwich Common. For some reason I was rather taken by these bollards – they remind me of corten steel, the pre-rusted steel cladding that is so popular amongst architects these days.

Woolwich Common has a long involvement with the military – this is where the soldiers used to group before picking up their munitions from Woolwich Arsenal and boarding their ships in the docks. It has an open and airy feeling, and for a few minutes there I thought I was in Dorset rather than Zone 4.

And look, molehills! How exciting. I have seen many a molehill, but never one of the ‘velvet gentlemen’.

There’s a largish flock of crows picking over the molehills – I imagine that quite a lot of small insects are disturbed by the activity of the mole, and I sense that these intelligent birds are taking advantage.

I get very excited about this bird – is it an immature stonechat? On second look, I’m fairly certain that it’s a dunnock, behaving like a stonechat. They can be dastardly like that.

There was clearly some bother here during the summer, though –  there is quite an extensive burnt area. Fortunately it looks as if it’s regenerating.

And then we’re at Shooter’s Hill, and heading off to catch the bus, having run out of time for this particular bit of the walk. There’s always so much to see, and of course so much coffee to drink and cake to appreciate. When we get the bus we head off not towards Woolwich (which would be sensible) but towards North Greenwich, so we get a fine tour not only of IKEA and TK Maxx but also Primark in the ‘Millenium Village’ Complex. Still, it’s been a lovely walk, and to end with here’s a photo of the haws on the hawthorn on Woolwich Common. They should keep the birds happy for quite some time.

The Capital Ring – Woolwich to Shooter’s Hill Part One

Dear Readers, we started this week’s walk from Woolwich Elizabeth Line station, the scene of our transport debacle last week. Where are all the people, though? At one point we were the only people walking from the Northern Line to the Elizabeth Line at Liverpool Street Station, and very eerie it was too. Maybe half the population of London is in a certain queue starting in Southwark and wending its weary way for twenty-four hours to the Palace of Westminster.

We walk through the Woolwich Arsenal, where there is a fine array of cannons (including the 18th-Century cannon with wings shown above – it comes originally from Saxony and was no doubt captured in some battle or other). This is not surprising as the site was a munitions factory and shipyard from Tudor times, and until very recently had an interesting museum called Firepower explaining the past of the historic buildings. Alas this is now permanently closed, with a new site planned for Salisbury Plain.

Still, there are a variety of weapons of war dotted about (though clearly you aren’t allowed to interfere with them, so I was unable to have a Cher moment). Probably just as well.

And if all the cannon weren’t enough, they’ve even found a use for some of the cannonballs.

Well, we’ve been walking for at least ten minutes so it’s clearly time for a coffee. We found a very nice place next to these statues, which have a very Anthony Gormley-esque feel to them. Actually, the piece is called ‘Assembly’ and it’s by sculptor Peter Burke.

Just around the corner is a collection of concrete slabs which turn out to be engine blocks, probably from some piece of long-disappeared industrial machinery.  What caught my eye was the warning sign on them. A Focal Historic Artifact!!! Lord have mercy.

And then we head back along the Thames. Look at this view. There’s Canary Wharf in the background, and the Thames Flood Barrier in front. I’m sure that if a Tudor shipbuilder was dropped here, he wouldn’t believe his eyes.

As per usual there’s some new building going on (Luxury Flats!) so we have to detour from the river, but for once we don’t get either lost or nearly mown down by a passing cyclist. We pass some people angling in what were once the dry docks for the Royal Naval Dockyard (again from the 18th-Century), but which have now been stocked with fish.

Some people were also angling in the Thames itself. Bearing in mind the endless discharges of sewage into rivers up and down the country I’m not sure I’d be keen on eating anything that came out of the Thames at the moment, although the river has been getting cleaner for years. Also, I was taught to be quiet when tiptoeing past anglers, but this lot had brought their own sound system. Clearly, Thames fish are hard of hearing.

Further up, we passed this rather sad little mosaic which has clearly seen better days. Elfrida Rathbone (1871 – 1940) was a kindergarten teacher who taught children who were considered ‘incapable of learning’. Along with her cousin, Linda Gregg, she demonstrated that given the right education, many children could thrive and could learn to read and write. The charity that she founded still exists to help children and young people with learning difficulties.

Further up, there are a few more cannon to entertain my husband….

And some weeds to entertain me. Ragwort and Canadian Fleabane, anybody?

And honestly, where would we be without buddleia? It’s everywhere, in every shade of purple, lilac and white.

Then we have to skip up this rather fancy staircase (with husband in the photo Yet Again)….

…to get a slightly closer view of the Thames Barrier….

There it is!

…before we are diverted via ‘Charlton Riverside’. This is a seriously atmospheric spot – the old factories are still standing, including the old Siemens factory where transatlantic telephone cables were built in the 1880s. Siemens also contributed to the PLUTO project in World War II, where an oil pipeline was constructed under the English Channel to bring much needed supplies to the UK. The factory closed in 1968, but you can get a sense of how big an operation this, and the other factories here, would have been, and how many people they would have employed.

Some 7000 homes are going to be built here. I’m not clear how many will be conversions of the old factory buildings, and how many will be new builds.

I rather love that this factory is now home to a first-floor martial arts centre.

And then, we are meant to turn inland, but we are much too close to the Thames Barrier not to have a close look. This engineering marvel protects central London against a storm surge, and the barrier is raised if a combination of high tides in the North Sea and river levels at Teddington indicate that water levels would exceed 16 feet in the centre of the capital. It took ten years to build, and cost the equivalent of £1.23 billion. It may well need to be modified due to the increased risk of catastrophic weather events due to climate change. I have never seen it actually raised, and frustratingly that’s going to happen next week when I will be off on an adventure (of which more soon).

The Thames Barrier Park has all sorts of bits of engineering equipment from the building of the Barrier.

And then, we climb a flight of stairs, and there it is, glinting in the sunshine.

You can get a better idea of it from this photograph of the barrier raised. It’s 520 metres wide, and manages to hold back all that water. Let’s hope that it continues to perform its function for many years to come. I do wonder, though, what happens to all the water that doesn’t end up flooding central London. I’m not sure that I’d want to be living in Thamesmead, or indeed in the new Charlton development.

The Thames Barrier (raised) – Photo from the Environment Agency

And so, from here we track inland. But more of that tomorrow…..

The Elephant in the Room

Dear Readers, I remember that when I was five years old, I was watching the state funeral of Winston Churchill on our tiny black-and-white television set, entranced by all the pomp and ceremony. My beloved Great Grandmother had recently died, and I didn’t know quite what to make of it. She had had polio, and so had callipers on her leg, and used crutches for her whole life, but she was a formidable woman. Once, she picked up a youth who had been bullying my gran, upended him into a dustbin and sat on it until he begged for mercy.

“Will great-gran’s funeral be on the telly too?” I asked. I wasn’t sure why my Dad guffawed.

It took me a while to realise that not all deaths are equal. Some get international television coverage, and some take place in the shady corner of an urban graveyard, and some take place in a crematorium with a couple of mourners, as was the case with some of the homeless people that I worked with.

I am grieving this week, but not particularly for Queen Elizabeth. I’m sure that she was another formidable woman, and she has done a great job and all. I feel as if it’s the end of an era for sure – after all, she’s been Queen since before I was born. But on Wednesday last week, my beloved Aunt Rosemary died of liver cancer, which claimed her life less than a fortnight after diagnosis.

Rosemary lived in Collingwood, which, as regular readers know, I visited many times, lastly in April this year. Although she was in her eighties she still walked faster than me, leaning into the future like the prow of a ship. She did yoga several times a week, and when she took her beloved wheaten schnoodle dog Charlie out for a walk he got a proper workout.

But what was so special about Rosemary was her interest in people. Whoever crossed her path was a potential friend, and people confided in her almost instantly. She was fascinated by people’s stories, their histories and the things that they’d done. She remembered all the details too. She was still going for hikes in the mountains around Collingwood in the spring of this year, and was regularly hosting lunches for various community groups.

Rosemary was an extraordinary cook. She could make something out of nothing, and then make it reappear in such a delicious and different guise that you wouldn’t know that it was yesterday’s leftovers. She was ahead of her time in not wasting anything, be it food or scraps of material that she often turned into wonderful quilts and wall hangings. And she was so generous – she shared her skills and her good fortune with everyone who crossed her path, be it the birds in the garden, people in need, or her hungry visitors. I always said that I ate better in Collingwood, with Rosemary’s home cooking, than anywhere else in Canada, including all those fancy restaurants in Toronto. Rosemary put her big, kind heart into everything that she did.

Some examples of Rosemary’s quilting, she designed both of them.

At my wedding back in 2001, my mother was admiring a brooch that Rosemary was wearing. In spite of my Mum’s protestations, Rosemary took it off and gave it to my mother on the spot. Forever after, when I’d been to Canada Mum would ask after ‘that lovely lady who gave me the brooch’. Rosemary perfected random acts of kindness before they were fashionable.

I love the photo below – it’s the exact moment that my Mum (on the left) was admiring the brooch (Rosemary on the right, with her lifelong companion Linda watching on)

And, like me, Rosemary loved the natural world. She worried about the plants in her garden, she fretted about her orchids getting whitefly, She noticed what people were planting, and she watched the birds on her feeders with a kindly eye. She was interested in everything, and it kept her much younger in spirit than her years. There was nothing cynical about Rosemary, nothing world-weary. To be truthful, I am still reeling, and I know that the other people who loved her feel the same.

We live in such strange times that it’s hard to get our bearings. For some people, I’m sure that the sorrow that they’re feeling about the Queen’s death has been sparked by the memories of other, more personal losses. The event feels like so many things: a lightning rod for supressed emotions, a chance to show respect, an unexpected day off. Nobody quite knows what they’re supposed to be feeling, and it doesn’t help that we’re being told how to behave and what our emotions should be twenty-four hours a day. Today I learned that people were being prevented from visiting the Covid Memorial Wall opposite the Houses of Parliament if they weren’t part of the queue for the lying-in state. As I said earlier, not all deaths are equal.

The loss of my Aunt Rosemary has left a bigger hole in my life than the loss of Queen Elizabeth ever will. Every death is a tear in the fabric of the universe, the end of a story. It’s true that Rosemary will live on in my memories, and in those of the people who loved her so dearly. But I will never eat her pancakes again, try to keep up with her on a dog walk, or sit in her living room watching the grackles taking more than their fair share of the bird food. My life is diminished by her passing, but maybe that’s the measure of how much of an impact she had on me, and all those around her. May she rest peacefully in the knowledge of how deeply she was loved.

 

Open University Update

Dear Readers, you might remember that I’m doing an Open Degree with the Open University, which is mainly focussed on environmental science and biology (though goodness knows there are lots of other exciting courses as well – Death and Dying, anyone? Or Art History? Or Sustainable Development? Anyway, this year I am doing two 30 credit courses – Cell Biology and ‘The Biology of Survival’ which is largely ecology. So, I’ll be looking at the teeny tiny things that make up the bodies of all living things, and the much wider picture of how organisms fit together.

For my cell biology course I actually have course books! I do love a good course book, there’s something about underlining passages and writing notes that helps consolidate things in a way that doing stuff on a screen just doesn’t seem to do.

It’s going to be hard work, as usual, but it does help to keep the brain active, and I love to learn things. I am a thwarted mad scientist, so this course is pretty much idea. And I particularly love the idea of challenging cells in part three of the curriculum. Does this mean that they are belligerent little devils, ready to slap the unexpecting biologist upside the head? Alas, I fear that it just means that they are structurally and operationally difficult to understand. Still, I am up for the challenge! Wish me luck….

 

A Tale of Two Street Trees

An Amelanchior just down the road from me.

Dear Readers, there have definitely been winners and losers amongst the street trees on East Finchley’s County Roads. This Amelanchior is leaning at a most precarious angle, and is losing its leaves early in spite of some neighbourly people watering it whenever they got a chance. I know there are different schools of thought about whether or not to stake trees, but this tree and, strangely enough, its older cousin across the road (another Amelanchior) are both on the slant.  I wonder if this is to do with the species, or the soil conditions, or bad planting, or something I haven’t thought of? Give me a shout in the comments if you’ve any ideas.

One thing that it isn’t is the direction of the sun, as the houses in the photo face due south, and so I’d have expected the tree to lean in that direction if it was going to go anywhere.

But some trees have clearly had a lovely year. Look at this crab apple!

It is absolutely laden down with those hard, sour little fruits. I must keep an eye open for parakeets, they don’t seem to mind the mouth-puckering astringency of those fruity bullets.

I have honestly never seen so many, and I half hope that the parakeets get the lot, as otherwise they’ll be slippery mush all over the pavement in a couple of weeks. It’s been a good year for fruits of all kinds in this neck of the woods, I wonder how the berries and nuts are doing where you are?

And so my busy week is nearly at an end, I have thrashed numerous project reports into submission and I can definitely see the end of it. Thank goodness for this blog, at least I have to tear myself away from my laptop once per day.

Wednesday Weed – Hoary Cress Revisited

Dear Readers, it is my ‘in tearing haste’ week, with reports to do, corrections to make, costs to move from one project to another (in the full knowledge that next month they might need to go back again) and Questions to be Answered on every conceivable front. But I have decided to stop for five minutes to share with you a picture of a roundabout in Beckton. Every so often a Docklands Light Railway train clatters over head, but if you look closely at the roundabout, you’ll see something that looks like snow. This is hoary cress, a most unusual ‘weed’ that is popping up all around the playing fields in East Finchley at the moment, but that I don’t remember seeing at all in my youth. I find it a most attractive plant, especially considering that it’s a humble cabbage – you might almost think it was a sedum or a saxifrage or something else exotic. And so, for more on this plant and its interesting history, read on, while I get back to my journals. Roll on the weekend!

Hoary cress (Lepidium draba)

Dear Readers, Muswell Hill Playing Fields has been a most unexpected source of interesting Wednesday Weeds over the past few weeks, but I was stumped when I first saw this plant. It reminded me somewhat of a white sedum, with its mass of snowy-white flowers and rather waxy green-grey stem, but a quick glance at my Harrap’s Wildflower Guide showed me that I had found another brassica; Hoary Cress. Apparently it is also known as ‘whitetop’, for obvious reasons.

This is a plant that is a long way from home, though: native to south-west Asia and southeastern Europe, it is treated as an invasive weed in both the USA and Australia, where it probably arrived in contaminated seed. In the UK it arrived in the early nineteenth century: in Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley suspect that it probably arrived in ship’s ballast. And therein hangs an interesting tale.

Ship’s ballast was comprised of gravel, sand, stones etc that were placed into the hold of a ship to give it stability and stop it capsizing. It’s easy to see how collecting this material in one port, and then emptying it out when the ship was at the end of its journey, could easily transport plant matter from one place to another. The first recorded case of it, according to Stace, was in 1627, when Francis Bacon reported that:

‘Earth that was brought out of the Indies and other remote countries for ballast for ships, cast upon some grounds in Italy, did put forth foreign herbs, to us in Europe not known’.

Ballast was sometimes dumped at sea, but this ran foul of harbour regulations and incurred a high cost when dredging was required to re-establish safe passage. As a result, it was increasingly left on the land, forming ‘ballast hills’ which must have been a botanist’s delight as alien species germinated. Some ports were more important for this than others: Newcastle, a port where ships went out carrying coal, and came back empty except for ballast, was a prime site for ballast-dumping, whereas London, which was largely an importing port, wasn’t the recipient of a lot of ballast (though alien plants often arrived with the cargoes themselves). The initial entrance site for the plant is established to be Swansea (another coal exporting port) in 1802, but this hasn’t stopped a whole array of stories about the plant’s supposed initial arrival (see later).

Ballast more or less disappeared as a source of alien plants as soon as iron hulls replaced wooden ones, but a number of plants were established by then. The most famous is probably pineappleweed, but in Cornwall prostrate toadflax (Linaria supina) probably arrived in this way.

There is little doubt that hoary cress was also imported with straw brought in for fodder, so it had at least two ways of arriving in the UK. Which ever route was the most important, it has earned the epithet ‘curse of Kent’ and is also associated with the area in yet another name, ‘Thanet Cress’, though it is now found in most parts of the UK. Stace describes it as an ‘aggressive rhizomatous species’. I find it interesting that it has turned up alongside the Playing Fields, much as I was puzzled about the oil-seed rape that is all over the place. I find myself wondering if these have emerged from an agricultural seedbank, dating from when the area was ‘proper’ fields rather than playing fields. I shall have to dig out some maps of the area and have a look.

Stace notes that hoary cress is also often a component of the cheap ‘cornfield seed mixes’ that are sold in order to generate an ‘instant meadow’. I think that this is quite an attractive plant, but that, if the playing fields are anything to go by, it’s also something of a thug – I suspect that the poor old cornflowers and poppies would soon be inundated by a sea of white. There is much to be said for buying such seeds from reputable sources if you want to end up with native species: there are many ‘lookalikes’ which are not the same as the ones that actually evolved here. Still, there is no way that the flora around East Finchley is ever going to be made up of exclusively native plants, and the species from other places make for a most interesting mix.

Stace also points out that in some ways, hoary cress is the ‘ideal’ alien: it doesn’t need any fungal support to spread, it can self-pollinate and spread via its rhizomes, and the seeds are wind-pollinated. In short, given a head start it could take over the world! And it might do this via motorway verges, where it is often found growing alongside oilseed rape. I can imagine those wind-dispersed seeds being blown along the road with each passing car, gradually travelling to every part of the UK.

The plant is also sometimes found in coastal areas, and seems to be highly salt-tolerant, which makes me wonder if the salting of motorways during icy periods has helped it to spread, much as Danish scurvy-grass has.

Now, during the lockdown I have found my thoughts often turning to food, and so naturally I wondered if this member of the cabbage family was edible. Results seem to be mixed: Wild Food Girl in the US uses the young plant in the same way that I would use tenderstem broccoli, and reports that tasting the flowers raw ‘nearly blew my head off’. The Hunger and Thirst website describes it as ‘delicious’. Nearly everyone is very specific that the plant should be eaten ‘young’, and some suggest that you could use the leaves raw, though they also mention that the plant contains hydrogen cyanide so you maybe shouldn’t be too overenthusiastic. As a great lover of broccoli I am almost tempted to have a bash myself. If the blogs suddenly stop arriving, you’ll know what’s happened.

Photo One from https://wildfoodgirl.com/2013/whitetop-a-wild-invasive-substitute-for-broccoli/

Hoary cress and oyster mushroom quiche by Wild Food Girl (Photo One)

Medicinally, the plant has been used to counteract scurvy (like all brassicas it is a good source of Vitamin C) and is said to also be good if you have contracted food poisoning by eating contaminated fish. This seems very specific: I almost wonder if its link with docks and the sea is coming into play here. However, in Plant Lives, Sue Eland mentions that rather than treating food poisoning, the seeds were used as a way of poisoning fish, so that they would float to the surface for easy harvesting – I’m guessing that the hydrogen cyanide was involved.

I went looking for folklore about the plant: often when a plant is a relatively new arrival, there isn’t much to say about it, at least in the UK. I found one ‘creation myth’, from an elderly lady who lived in Whitstable in Kent: she said that the hoary cress had arrived during the 1914-18 war, in the straw brought to feed the horses that were being shipped to the front. Sadly, we know that the plant actually arrived in Swansea a hundred years earlier, but of course plants do arrive in different areas at different times. The war link will not go away, either: in Vickery’s Folk Flora there is a story from the Westminster Gazette of 6th May 1915.

When our troops disembarked at Ramsgate after the disastrous Walcheren expedition of 1809. the straw and other litter on which they had slept aboard ship was thrown into a chalkpit, and afterwards carted into the fields for manure by a farmer called Thompson. A huge crop of the plant (Lepidium draba), thence named ‘Thompson’s Curse’, sprang up, spread right across England, and is now attacking the North Country. The roots of this terrible pest are many feet in length’.

And now a poem. This is actually about a different weed, spotted knapweed, but it could in essence be about any invasive plant, introduced accidentally or for a different purpose, but suddenly out of control. And, like all good poems, it is actually about much more than just a weed. See what you think.

Weeds by Dennis Held (from ‘Betting on the Night‘)

Blessed fiend, sultan of the sagebrush,

spotted knapweed of thee I sing,

bowed before thy spiked tenacity.

 

Cousin to other floral marauders

unholy cadre we honour with sacred

pagan names;dalmatian toad flax

 

dyer’s woad, purple loosestrife, leafy

spurge, hawkweed, cinquefoil,

hoary cress. Knapweed, you’re

 

a hired gun gone amok, imported

by beekeepers greedy for late

summer blooms, but soon

 

you outgrew the pasture

and blasted free, root-fed

toxins offing all around:

 

pedestrian bunch grass,

hyperbolic balsam root,

range-hardened sage,

 

croaked by your democratic

methods-all must die-

just doing what you have to,

 

doing what you can

and you have done it all:

invaded, took over,

 

wiped out the locals,

poisoned the ground,

wasted the water

 

moved west, ever west

and hell, that’s why we fight

so hard to purge you in futile

 

“War on Weeds” campaigns,

knowing we’ll fail, miraculous

centaurea maculosa, impure beast

 

half human, we love

and hate you best,

the honeyed weed within.

Photo Two By Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA - Centaurea maculosa, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14711862

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://wildfoodgirl.com/2013/whitetop-a-wild-invasive-substitute-for-broccoli/

Photo Two By Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA – Centaurea maculosa, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14711862

Garden Update

Me window box!

Dear Readers, we might be getting into autumn, but the window boxes are still going well, and attracting all manner of tiny hoverflies. The marjoram has more or less gone over on this side…

…but is still doing well on this side. And also I got this new bright scarlet sedum, which is definitely cheering things up.

In my new recycled-tyre container, all is going well so far. The sedum is coming into flower

The asters will soon be busting out…

The purple toadflax is flowering too. I know it grows very vigorously all over the place but not in East Finchley. I love this delicate little plant, and so do the bees…

And this is a new plant for me: Caucasian germander (Teucrium hircanicum). Apparently the flower stems will eventually be 60cm tall, which will make for a very impressive (and crowded display). It’s a member of the Deadnettle family (Lamiaceae) as you can probably tell.

On a not so happy note, does anyone know what’s happened to my lavender? The foliage is going a most disconcerting yellow colour. Normally I’d think about water logging, but it’s in a very shallow, well-drained bed. All help much appreciated…

The lavender problem!

And finally, all these pollinator friendly plants are of course attracting predators, such as this nice fat spider, who has gotten quite chunky on all the hoverflies and the occasional honeybee. Such is nature, of course, and hopefully the number of insects who get a little help will more than compensate for those who are lost.

And finally I have moved and repotted this bottlebrush plant, which was languishing at the back of the garden. It was bought for me by my lovely Canadian aunties, one of whom passed away last week, and one of whom is now very unwell. Every time I look at it, it will remind me of them, and I hope that it will thrive in its new, sunnier home. I will write about both of them soon, but at the moment I just feel too sad. But I know that those bright red flowers will cheer me up when they come, and they’ll cheer the bees up too.

The Capital Ring – Beckton to Woolwich – Part Two

Bollards. 

Dear Readers, we finish our oatmilk coffee and vegan chocolate brownie (for, in a mark of the gentrification of the area the only open cafe is rammed with people and plant-based), and off we trot. We are supposed to cross two locks and then meander along the edge of Gallion’s Reach. This was the site, in 1878, of the worst ever disaster on a British waterway – the SS Princess Alice, en route from Gravesend to London, collided with the collier Bywell Castle and sank just four minutes, with the loss of six hundred souls. Today, all is quiet.

The locks are closed and bolted and clearly not available for us to cross. Oh dear. We head in completely the wrong direction. There is a lot of new building here, and a radar tower. The tower is operated by the Port of London Authority and presumably monitors ships and boats coming and going up and down the Thames.

Radar tower

The side of the road here is alive with flowers, mainly buddleia and what looks like rape. A painted lady butterfly rushes past but doesn’t stop to be photographed.

When we get to yet another DLR station we realise that we will have to reverse our steps, and cross the dock on the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge. And at this point my camera decides to misbehave and the viewfinder packs up, and so all the subsequent photographs are shot without me being able to see what I’m doing.

There is a grand view from the bridge, and at least the weather has lightened up a bit.

At the bottom of the bridge, we need to cross the road. But hang on a second…look who’s approaching the crossing!

The fox looks up and down the road and then sits down to wait….as you can see, the light has just gone red.

And then once the traffic has stopped the fox trots across the road…

Disappears behind a hoarding just a few metres away…

…and reappears further back along the bridge, before slipping into the undergrowth.

Well. We would never have seen that if the ‘correct’ path had been open. It just goes to show how serendipitous life can sometimes be.

And now we finally re-join the river and head down towards the Woolwich Foot Tunnel.

A family of Egyptian Geese seem perfectly at home on one of the slipways. They used to be rarely seen outside of private collections, but they seem to be expanding their range with great aplomb.

What handsome birds they are!

We see the exit to the foot tunnel taunting us on the other side of the river. It’s that red-brick circular building with the green top.

Some young mallards have settled down on another slipway.

We pass Royal Victoria Gardens, and I note that this Horse Chestnut is not doing quite as badly as some of the others I’ve seen. I wonder if some individual trees are gradually becoming more resistant to the onslaught of leaf miners and fungal problems. I do hope so – they are one of my favourite trees.

We see the car ferries idling on either side of the river, but they don’t go anywhere. This is not surprising as they don’t run at the weekend, so just as well we were planning to use the foot tunnel.

And then we finally get to the foot tunnel. Opened in 1912 it has 126 steps down, 101 steps up and is 495 metres long. At the top is a young man with a very large suitcase, who announces that the lift at this end isn’t working. He is considering his options.

The tunnel is a bit damp and I can’t help wondering if the River Thames is going to come bursting through, but all is well. In the middle of the tunnel you reach the lowest point of the Capital Ring, at 60 feet below sea level. Apologies for the joggly photo, but I’m sure you get the general idea. Although it says no cycling, we were passed by a chap on an electric bike, nonchalantly swooshing past. Further down the tunnel was a very large, athletic-looking dad running through the tunnel with a toddler in a push chair. I do wonder how both of them greeted the non-working lift at the other end, but both were moving too swiftly for me to warn them.

The whole thing looks rather Clockwork Orange-ish to me. It didn’t appear in that film, but it did appear in ’28 Weeks Later’, a 2007 film which is described as a ‘post-apocalyptic horror film’ starring Robert Carlyle and Rose Byrne. It doesn’t sound very cheerful, especially in the aftermath of Covid.

 

And then we’re in the air again, south of the river.

If we’d been doing the Capital Ring in the correct order this would have been the end of the walk, but because we started from home in East Finchley we’re only about a quarter of the way round, with some of the longer and hillier sections to come. I am really feeling the benefit of a weekly walk, though, and it’s so good to be rediscovering my city again. I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

The Foot Tunnel Terminus on the south side.

The Capital Ring – Beckton to Woolwich Part One

Dear Readers, this turned into a rather more exciting walk than we expected, due to unexpected route changes, broken down trains and all sorts of other shenanigans. However, we are not averse to an adventure, and sometimes things that seem like a nuisance can reveal sights that you would never have seen otherwise, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post. For today, though, we start where we finished last week, at Albert Dock Docklands Light Railway station. It always seems a bit space-age in these parts, what with the Blade-Runnerish elevated railway and the driverless trains. When we were young and the DLR had just opened in 1987, we used to ride it from one end to another just for the novelty value (rather as we ride the Elizabeth Line today, big kids that we are).

We head to Beckton District Park, which is rather green and lovely after all the rain.

This is described in the Capital Ring book as a ‘trotting track’, which to me implies horses, but I can find no mention of this either presently or historically. If anyone knows anything about it, let me know! My grandfather-in-law on my mother-in-law’s side (if you can get your head around that without a flowchart) used to own a champion trotting horse in Ontario.

And then we’re heading down to the Royal Albert Dock, part of the Royal Docks which were opened in 1880 and at the time were the largest in the world. They were closed to commercial shipping in 1982 but are now, as we will see, a massive watersports facility. First, though, I pass an absolutely massive fig tree, probably the largest that I’ve seen in a private garden outside of a stately home.

The plane trees seem to be suffering from the heat and drought again, with huge chunks of bark missing.

And how about this very handsome cat? He had his eye on a squirrel, and was rather disgusted when we got in the way.

Then we pass through Cyprus DLR station, named after the Cyprus estate, which was in turn named after the British capture of the island in 1881. My husband, who I love dearly, is always rushing on ahead if there is any uncertainty about the path (a characteristic that he shares with many in his family), and so he pops up a few times in the photos this week. That’ll teach him.

We are entering the campus of the University of East London. Last time we were here it was open and we were able to get a coffee and a sandwich, but of course the universities haven’t reopened yet, and so here we are, coffee-less, which is a disaster as regular readers will know. Nonetheless, we take the time to admire the student residences. Arsenic green seems to be all the rage this year.

Many people were out training on the river, including the folk in this dragon boat. Their cox was a very shouty person, but maybe that comes with the territory.

There were lots of smaller craft out and about too, and they were somewhat quieter.

And let’s not forget that just across the water is London City Airport. This is a Category C airport, which means that it needs specially trained pilots and crew due to its tight approach and the close proximity of buildings. I managed to get a video of a KLM plane taking off, and very pleased I was with myself too. I find this rather thrilling, though I understand why the local residents would be reluctant to support any expansion. Sound up for the full effect! And to hear me shushing my poor husband.

On the way to get coffee, we passed under the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge, formerly the Connaught Bridge. This was named after the Olympic rower, who won gold medals at five consecutive Olympic Games, and has close ties to Newham as well. Little did we know (bit of foreshadowing here) that we would soon be crossing it.

But for now we are meandering around the edge of the dock, admiring the water birds.

We pass the Galyons pub (which was a hotel) – you’ll see a lot of ‘Gallyons/Gallions’ around here and I thought they were probably named after galleons, those magnificent tall ships from the 16th Century. But no – a local family called Galyon lived around here in the 14th Century and many of the sights around here are named after them. The building used to be right on the railway, and was used as a hotel by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. One person who stayed overnight was Rudyard Kipling en route to India.

We wander towards the dock, and find, joy of joys, a cafe that is actually open, and an optimistic swan who seems to know that crumbs might be available.

It’s not as peaceful as all that, though…

And now begins a series of strange detours and minor misadventures, but be assured that there is a happy ending! More of this tomorrow….