Tag Archives: naturalhistory

The Swifts are back!

Loads of them hawking around the trees on the other side of the road while I was waiting for the us to the station this morning. I heard a familiar sound, looked up, and there they were.

Right on time. The latest I’ve ever seen them is the 14th of May, in about thirty years. Usually 10th or 11th, never earlier than the begining of them month.

So I suppose it’s summer 🙂 Whatever the weather.

Erith, land of sheds

The centre of Erith is marked by a giant brightly-coloured ceramic sculpture of three-in-a-bed oral fish sex right by the great big roundabout in front of the Town Hall. The photos is work-friendly, unless your boss is a moralising, monagamist herring.


Why Erith? I’m still trying to redirect Stuff and Thingy towards south-east London (if only because of the looming East
Greenwich) so I dreamed up the idea of trying out the bus routes but an 89 came before the 108 so I got on it instead to see where it went and it went to almost to Slade Green. Almost because the passengers – myself, one small drunk old lady, and about two dozen 14 or 15 year-old white boys from Bexleyheath with short hair and crutches whose idea of fun was talking very loudly about how well they had handled themselves at some mythical fight outside a nightclub, saying not-at-all work-friendly things about young women and the size of their genitals, planning to defraud the railway company, and running up and down the stairs screaming – all got kicked off outside a pub about two stops short of Slade Green station at a council estate with and a view of the Dartford Bridge, and some real ships. Big ones.


So I walked back towards London and found myself walking up a long gently curving dual carriageway with giant sheds on either side. Not garden sheds but the sort of huge aluminium clad box that could contain a shop or a factory or a warehouse, and mostly did, this being the nearest London has to a genuine industrial area.

belvedere_4283 erith_4272
erith_4267 erith_4261

That, as far as Lesnes Abbey (which there is more of left than I thought – you can clearly see the ground-plan where the church used to be) and I got bored of dual carriageways and sheds and so into the woods. Lesnes Abbey Wood to start with (hence “Abbey Wood” station) and over to Plumstead to meet up with the place the walk of a fortnight ago ended.

Lesnes abbey looking north-east Mulberry by Lesnes Abbey
lesnesabbeywood_4317 lesnesabbeywood_cacorns

Once upon a time British botanists indulged themselves in a futile Quest for a Genuine Wild Wood (our version of the almost as futile Quest for the Historical Jesus) with various naturalists putting forward the argument for this that or the other stand of trees never having been felled for agriculture or for some reason resembling a real natural woodland. Whatever that is, as in these islands humans are older than the woods, we’ve been here longer. We have lots of so-called “ancient woods” that have been around since before about 1600, but there are probably no woods that were never managed by humans, at least for a few centuries (and some of them for many centuries continually).

And it is not clear whether or not a “natural” Natural British Woodland would be one that resembles the woods that existed before the introduction of agriculture, or one that resembles the woods that might have existed had agriculture never been introduced,or one that had never been subjected to agriculture, or one that contains only native British species (that is plants that got here between the ice going away and the North Sea coming back), or one that resembles the woodlands that might have been here at this stage in previous ice ages, or one that was simply left alone to look after itself for a few centuries – and all of those are different.

bostall_4331 bostall_4330

Whatever, there are a dozen or so bits of woodland in England that someone or other claims to be the last, or the only, or the best, or the biggest piece of wildwood in the country. And apart from a two or three really weird stunted oakwoods in the north or west (and ignoring the claims of the some of the obviously artificial old deer parks such as Hatfield or Hainault or Petworth or Epping or the New Forest which preserve an artificially high density of large grazing animals which makes them in some ways more “natural” than any other woods since our ancestors killed off the mammoths and bison and wild cattle) just about all tof them are in historical Kent and Sussex, and some of the best ones now in the more industrialised suburbs of South East London, including Abbey Wood and Oxleas wood only a short busride away, which preserve more of the look and feel of the ancient countryside of England than just about anywhere else in the country, in bits of dogwalking rough land on the hills between some of London’s grottier council estates. Someone noticed a few years ago and invented the Green Chain Walk which (if unlike me, you don’t like walking through the council estates and industrial areas and concretey bits) will take your from Crystal Palace to the Thames at Erith through as many (more?) diverse little woodlands as any other walk in England.

But the most notable wood today wasn’t one of the ancient ones at all. I’ve never been to Bostall Wood before. Its lovely. Or at least the part of it I wandered through is. A very strange wood, hard to read. The trees on the flat past of the wood that I walked through are are mostly beech and birch. No ash or oak, not even a sycamore, but there is the occasional pine. Very little undergrowth, easy to walk through (which might be because so many people and dogs walk through it) and apparently very few characteristic woodland herbaceaous plants (though maybe thats because this is October, I should go back in April or May) The nearest to an understory is holly, with some brambles around, there seems to be or very little if any hazel or elder or small oak (though the steep edges of the wood are full of oak). Just over the road in Lesnes Abbey Woods I’d seen oak and ash and elder and hornbeam and holly and some cherries or other Prunus and Viburnum andClematis and ivy and dozens of other plants.

bostall_4327 Path from Abbey Wood to Bostall Wood bostall_4328

Here its quite different. Nearly all the tree trunks are quite thin – is that because they are close together or just because they are still quite young? Its obviously quite a new wood.

Most of the trees are perhaps not much older than I am. But is it self-seeded or planted? And who plants dense beech woods, or birch at all? And if self-seeded why no ash or sycamore? They get anywhere. Or oak? There is abundant oak, piles of acorns, just hundreds or even tens of metres away. And where did those pines come from? Did this use to be a golf course or some kind of public park?

Whatever the reason for it (whcih I might be able to disover by looking at my bookshelf but I haven’t yet because its more fun speculating) It’s beautiful. The ground is covered with golden-bronze beech-leaves and crunchy beech-mast. There are park benches to sit on, from the Green Chain Walk people. The sunset filters through the trees wonderfully. It smells nice.

Bostall Woods Bostall Heath Lodge

Its cold up North

Extracts from the Diary of Ken Brown, aged fifty and a half. Some jotted in my notebook in the normal way, others recorded on our new Olympus voice recorder. Which is actually meant for work, but I need to learn how to use it and thought it could do with a bit of a test under field conditions.

The field in this case being the pitch of the Tynedale Rugby Club at Corbridge in Northumberland, where we’ve been camped since Thursday. Well, not any more because this is Sunday evening and I’m writing it now because I didn’t have my computer up there. Computers and holidays don’t mix.

10:40 Friday morning

Friday dawned late and I am hungover in my little tent with the broken pole and one side too high and the other too low and everybody else has left to find breakfast and the pub. But its a little early for that for me.

So does this recorder become the blogging weapon of choice then?

They said it wasn’t cold up north. But it is! They lied!

Euuugh…. its raining, I’m by the waters of Tyne, there are Roman Ruins two miles away – but there is a railway station half a mile away
And the railway station will at least be dry and there will be trains to Newcastle. But its very tempting to go the stations to see what times the trains are.

Gosh, it gets more tempting the more I think about it.



Well its June. Its the week before Midsummer, I came up north to go to a beer festival, and so far I’ve spent more on waterproof clothing than beer. And now I’m in Sunderland and I’m about to look for a pub and try to change that.

I quite like Sunderland. Its about the right size for a town or a small city. Big enough to have one of everything but not so big you can’t take it all in. It was so wet I had to buy a waterproof top and wear it. On top of a jumper. In June. I wasn’t doing that in London in March.


There are gulls in the air, herring gulls, the sky is full of their cries. Sunderland is by the sea. I had almost forgotten that. Well, not so much forgotten it as not bothered to think about it. It smells of the sea. There is heavy rain and a strong east wind and its windier on the east coast than inland. If it was wet in Corbridge this is almost a storm. Gulls are rare nowhere in Britain – the herring gull is one of only about two or three birds you can see anywhere from mountaintop to saltmarsh , town centre to forest – though if you were in a wood they would be flying overheard (the others are crows, swifts (though overhead again) Oh and wrens, Bill Oddie has just reminded me.) But they are more abundant in towns by the sea than they are in other places and coming from Brighton I’m used to them as an almost constant backdrop to everything, which I only now realise I miss when it comes back again. It smalls right. Why did I ever leave the seaside? Will I ever go back again? I’m probably too old to do anything else but stay where I am or go home to Brighton now. The Downs and the sea are always in my mind if only as a contrast to to other places. They inevitably define for me what is “normal”, the defaults from which other landscapes differ.

And I never did get to a pub in Sunderland, but had a bacon roll and mug of tea in the “Golden Chef” visible at the bottom of this picture:

Of course its a poor town – it looks poor even compared with Newcastle, poor and run down. The shops are mostly pretty downmarket, ort at any rate cheap. Though I don’t think any part of it figures among the very most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain (they tend to be in Liverpool and Glasgow and London IIRC) and it doesn’t have the pockets of extremely deprived areas that still exist in South Tyneside or round Hartlepool. And there are posh-looking early 19th-century terraces with cobbled streets and BMWs only a few blocks from the station.

And I have a Metro ticket in my pocket now and they are still shiny and yellow, so I think I’ll go and play with the best urban railway system in Britain – time to set off for Jarrow.

Norwood: Hilly and Proud!

Grange Hill to Elmer’s End (or more prosaically, Upper Norwood to Lower Norwood)

Bank Holiday Monday, what we would have called Whitsun once upon a time. The wettest day of the year so far. Just the day to go for an evening stroll through leafy Norwood. I left home about 6.30 (Abi left not much later to go to see Cabaret at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue. I’m told its wonderful) got a bus to Brockley Rise…


Brockley Rise in the Rain, May 2007


…then 122 down to Crystal Palace, then I got on the first bus that came along and round the houses down past Gypsy Hill and Beulah Hill (less Biblio-romantically called “Bewley’s Farm” on old maps) to Spa Hill by the David Livingstone Primary School. Yes, Norwood is hilly and proud of it.

I don’t know it well, but I think I like Upper Norwood. For reasons I don’t understand it is nice. There are places you come across (if you wander round London) that are for some reason or other more pleasant than you expected. That make you smile to find them. Not the coolest or the richest or the most trendy or the most fun places. Maybe its partly low expectations. No-one demands much from a visit to Osidge, or to Cricklewood and Willesden Green, or to the denser parts of Penge, so when you find them to be slightly less boring than you feared, your easily-pleasedness is stroked.

Norwood is one of those nice places, or at least the streets between Upper Norwood and Thornton Heath are. Maybe its the combination of high density and greenness and a feeling of openness. Maybe its the way Croydon council have preserved and labeled loads of pathways and twittens between streets, so everything is penetrable. Maybe its the way social and ethnic diversity has been added to what was mostly a lower-middle-class/respectable-working-class Victorian suburb without quite overwhelming it. Maybe its the hills providing views over or out of London. Maybe it just reminds me of home. Maybe there are waves of evangelical niceness pulsing down over the landscape from Spurgeon’s College. Or else its the unpretentious radio waves from the transmitter at the top of the hill – the original ITV TV mast, but now used for Channel 5 TV and local commercial radio stations on MW and DAB, with the UHF being just the hot backup for the 70m taller and much flashier Crystal Palace transmitter. There must be some beneficial effect from living in the shadow of Kiss FM.

If this was America perhaps the Baptists would make a bid to take over the transmitter and broadcast Christian TV. There can’t be many many unused TV transmitters with thirteen and a half million people in the footprint. But as it is, Norwood is a nice place.

My PC seems to have lost my photos of Spurgeon’s College (amongst other things). Try again tomorrow.

I decided that if it was past 8.20pm when I got to the Goat House bridge (where there is no Goat House Tavern any more) I’d look for a pub for a quick drink then get the bus back, but if not I’d extend the walk a little. It was 8.18. So off over the railway and past some flats…


…and into South Norwood Country Park, Which was beautiful quite unexpected, and very wet. Flatter than I expected, with a lot of drainage ditches lined with thorn and elder running between small open areas of grass, nettles, and brambles with tall herbs like cow parsley and hogweed and and some larger trees. Quite a bit of ash and some oak. Almost heathland, but chalk underfoot. I have no idea how it came to be there. By the amount of concrete and brick rubble lying around I guess it might have been built on once. Its hard to be sure in the near-dark but I don’t think I saw many mature trees.

Remarkably empty for a park probably not as much as a quarter of a square mile in extent. Just me in the middle and a couple of dogwalkers working round the edge. Maybe Croydonians don’t like walking in woods in the pouring rain in the evening. Birdsong everywhere. I wish I could identify birds by their song but I usually can’t and I only got a good look at one largish bird perching on a lookout branch in the gloaming and much as I tried to make it a short-eared own it was a crow. It looks like a place for warblers. I could fantasise that there were nightjars there, but I expect that the place is much too small.

Even if there were any it was a little wet for them to be about. This years weather can’t have helped insect-eating birds. An unusually hot and dry early spring, followed by a sodden May. At the end of March and beginning of April London was not only hotter than New York (not unusual at that date) but hotter than LA and Houston – and Melbourne. Almost as hot as Sydney and Cairo. By the end of April the temperature was hotter than our summer average. This last week of May has been cooler than the last week of March was. And its been raining for days. That’s great for plants which got an early start with spring sunshine and no frosts, and are being watered during the long days of cool light, which is more important to them than intense sunshine (most native plants can’t make much use of direct bright sunshine anyway, much of the benefit is lost by photorespiration and increased metabolic rate). But many insects like it the other way round. Damp winters and springs to get the grubs going, then hot dry smelly weather for them to fly around and bother people. And what insects like swifts and nightjars like. I fear they are having a bad year.


And I lost my way and turned too far south on Footpath 666 and ended up at Arena tram stop and had to yomp up the dual carriageway to the uninterpretable junction at Elmer’s End for two pints of Spitfire in the William IV and a bus home.

William IV, Elmer's End

No photos of the Park yet, as it was getting dark and however lovely the light seems when you are in it, trees don’t photograph well after sunset in the rain. Maybe later.

I’ll be back.

Queue for Kew

To Kew Gardens, to meet some people who use the Ship of Fools forums. Kew as always wonderful. A little late for the lilacs, too early for the lilies. The Temperate House is a bit orderly these days but the Palm House delightful. Not much to say about it that fits here really, except that everybody should go.



They seem to like queues though. A queue to pay to get in, a queue to get a cup or tea, a queue to get into the Waterlily House (with a great exhibition of chilis and some Very Important Sub-Tropical Wetland Plants in the corners), a queue to pay for the book I bought. (Garden Natural History by Stefan Buczacki, one of the latest in the Collins New Naturalist series which must be one of the great cultural products of Britain – and one or two of which are among the best natural history books we have – I think everyone should have read Mountains and Moorlands by WH Pearsall)


A lot of queuing to spend an afternoon in one of London’s best parks, which is also one of the country’s best displays of the variety of living things (its more a zoo for plants than an example of a garden types, though it has plenty of those as well), and most of all perhaps one of the top three or four centres for research into taxonony and systematics and evolution in the whole world. Trust me, I’m a botanist.

Welwitschia at Kew

And I still can’t remember what pollinates horse chestnuts.


Then to the Dove at Hammersmith, one of the iconic riverside pubs and scene of quite a few meets. And they do keep their London Pride well. Fun, though it was crowded and too wet to sit outside.

Threw myself on the mercy of the London bus system to get back home and worked my way from Hammersmith to Wandsworth, then a 37 to Peckham, and a 21 home. With a pint or two on the way.

Overheard on train leaving London Bridge towards Waterloo:

“We’re passing the old Market Tavern. I used to drink in the other one, the Globe. That Richard Harris, you know, the film star, used to come in in the morning. You know, it was open in the morning ‘cos of the market porters. Open from six to eight. Hw used to come in two or three times a month. Drunk as a fish.”


A factory blew up last night.

Spring is sprung, and the canopy closed, again. The planes, last of the common trees to get their leaves, are more than halfway there, as are the limes. Most of the sycamores are in leaf as well – though not all (sycamores are much more variable than the others) and the horse chestnuts are in flower, candles everywhere. Lilacs bloomed last weekend and walking around South London you get whiffs of their beautiful smell from all sorts of gardens and alleyways.

But rewind briefly. Before that I’d popped into a pub and seen John the Buddhist at the bar talking to a tall white-haired bloke in a blue shirt. I half joined-in and eavesdropped, as you do. I couldn’t suss out his accent at first – very posh Irish? A rather unplaceable sort of northern English? I’d almost settled in my mind on a soft Anglo-South-African when I’d picked up enough conversation to work out that he was Australian but had been living here for twenty years. And he was a very angry man. Bitter and very drunk, an Australian ex-soldier on what I did not at that time realise was ANZAC day, which must have been an emotionally intense anniversary for him, alone amongst others who didn’t understand.

He is in his 60s and said he had been an NCO the Australian army for fifteen years, and then in the British Army. He said the had fought in Vietnam and had very unflattering views of the American army there. Apparently they were ruined for combat by all the niggers – his word – who were into nothing but drugs and Black Power. He made some offensive gestures and parody salutes. Apparently the US NCOs used to drink in the Australian mess, avoiding their own men, who were a greater danger to them than the enemy. According to him the sensible US officers deliberately got their platoons ambushed so that the VC would kill the “niggers”, which would increase the white soldiers chance of survival. And the Australian units were more effective because they were all white, as the Abos weren’t intelligent enough to operate weapons so they didn’t allow them to join up. And how black soldiers were useless and always beaten by whites and the the Rhodesians had the right idea with UDI with patrols of volunteers to keep them down.

No-one understands him, according to his own estimation, and no-one knows what it was like to have been in the Airborne (shouted, with a quick salute) He also thinks the modern world has gone to the dogs and made the usual moans about governments and taxes and various moral laxities. The one thing he wants from government is to cut Council Tax, which takes twenty quid a week off him to subsidise wasters and immigrants.

Meanwhile, just behind us, there were two younger blokes giving it large about being black Millwall supporters. “You think you’ve had it hard – try running away from three thousand white men at South Bermondsey Station – looking over the fence and yelling ‘Nigger Nigger’!” “Born and brought up in Greenwich, I’m more Millwall than you!” “Don’t diss the ‘Wall man!” Loud comments, aimed into the pub as a whole (and successfully irritating the landlady), about their troubles and successes at work, and how one of them got made redundant with six thousand quid to go. “Who’d have thought a black man could get hold of that much money in this white man’s country without stealing it?” And then hassling the barmaid: “You look like you need some vitamins in the morning. Try me, vitamins supplied and installed, free of charge.” It sounded a lot ruder the way he said it. Actually it sounded very rude the way he said it. He was marginally less offensive than the Australian, but a lot cleverer with words, and a lot funnier.

There was a white woman with them, and Australian says, quietly, “call me a racist if you like but I still can’t stand seeing a nigger with a white girl”. Like something from an old film. I’m praying that a fight doesn’t break out. All I managed to think of saying was something along the lines of “I’ve got no objection at all” to which the reply was “You may be a liberal but…” so I could do nothing but make the old crack “I’m not a liberal, I’m a socialist” and move further down the bar to try to talk to someone else. John, peaceable as always, talked about a neighbour of his years ago who married an Asian woman who was then rejected by her family, with threats of death, but they’ve been together for nearly thirty years and brought up a family of their own. But the answer to that was that Muslims are the Enemy Within and we should never have let them in in the first place.

I don’t know how I’d have reacted to the Australian ex-soldier (whose name I never found out) if the circumstances had been less public. Knowing my own distaste for confrontation (other than intellectual) and my love of arguing I suspect I might have wimped out of moral objections and tried to go military-historical on him, and mentioned conflicts in which black soldiers had fought effectively or beaten white soldiers – the Haitian Revolution, or the Zulus, or French African troops in the Great War, or Hissein Habre, or even pointed out that the Africans beat the white Rhodesians that he respects so much (though he’d have then been quite entitled to point out that it hasn’t turned out so well) or the US Army right now. But it would have been pointless I suspect, because he obviously wasn’t putting forward a theory about military history, he was just having a bitch.

I was glad when the Australian left. But not, for some reason, really cross with him. He seemed lonely, misunderstood, and angry. Would I have reacted to him differently had I known it was ANZAC day? (He never mentioned it) Would he have reacted to me differently had I known? (Should one memorise the national days of all countries before going to the pub?). Would I have wibbled on about Gallipoli as if I knew anything to compare to his twenty-one operational jumps? Would I have done what I do so often and trawled my experience and memory to find something that connects with the person I’m talking to?

And there wasn’t a fight. There probably was never going to be one, but most of the pub were glad when they all left. “Nigger” is not a word in common currency round here. I think I’ve heard it used more often in discussions about racism than in actual performance. I think I heard it more times last night than in the last twenty years. But the other black bloke had been three years in the army – he seemed to young to me, hardly more than a kid, but I suppose that’s actually normal – and that got some respect from the Ozzy, who was reserving his nastiest comments for us middle aged white men, keeping himself to ourselves. I did not feel good about that, but I felt less bad about it than I would have if there had been a blazing row.

And then a quiet pint and back home and standing in the garden with Abigail who was smoking a cigarette – it was a very warm night and I prefer her smoking outdoors rather than in the flat – talking about James Blish and John Clute and Diana Wynne Jones (I got mentioned in Language Log!) when a very Loud Noise echoed through the sky.

“What the fuck was that?”

“Thunder I guess. It looks like its going to rain heavily. I don’t really know of course, but last time I heard a big noise like that I said it wasn’t a bomb and it turned out to be a bomb after all. So I have no idea!”

We didn’t find out till this morning. It did rain, but it wasn’t thunder and it wasn’t a bomb, it was a factory or warehouse or goods yard. And it was right by the main line and there were no trains to London Bridge station this morning. That does odd things to Lewisham. If a couple of thousand people wandering around talking to their mobiles at 10am counts as “odd”. I got a 136 bus to New Cross, a 172 to Aldwych and A 188 up to college. Took about an hour and a half. For once my boss wasn’t cross with me for being late. Came back from Southwark Cathedral on the 21 and met four people I know from church on the bus or waiting for it. That never happens in central London, does it?

Thousand-factor growth!

I just listened to the BBC r4 Today programme. Interview with a bloke representing Amazon, asking why they made “only” 100 million dollars profit on sales the size of a planet. (It sounds like precision pricing to me – a cause for congratulation or admiration, not criticism)

I was only half asleep, but I think I heard him say they were experiencing “thousand-factor growth” WTF is that? Does it really mean something? Or have we discovered an entire new strain of managementspeak bollocks? Or did I make it up?

Its not anywhere in Google – well it is now 😉

That half woke me up, and I really did hear him say that Amazon is competing with the “entire retail waterfront”.

That’s kind of wonderful and makes me want to rant on about the way the growth and development of retail businesses parallels the evolution of prokaryotes into eukaryotes (its them Golgi bodies that count), single-celled organisms protists into metazoa, plants, fungi (etc etc), hypothetical ancestral simple blobby or tubelike animals into diploblasts and triploblasts, villages into towns into cities into megacities, and riverside wharfs into docks – which are exact analogies of Golgi bodies. Its all about increasing the surface area across which transactions can take place. But if I kick of on that one I’ll never get to work this morning.

Hey, I could go off on a riff about bacterial and metabolism and ecology and how some of it is exactly analogous to competitive advantage in economics – which (unlike most of economics) is almost certainly generally true. (I think I might be able to show that, but the margin of this website is not large enough to hold the proof) Any economic theory that works for bacteria (indeed, naked enzymes) probably has something going for it. Maybe I did ought to do that PhD. If I could only work out what the question is.

Anyway, maybe these odd phrases are current in Amazon culture. Or maybe Amazon Bloke – whose name I didn’t catch and can’t find on the BBC R4 website and I’ve got better things to do than be downloading old interviews in audio format (We Love Transcripts) – is “r-selected for contributions to the lexicon” (I didn’t make that up – a lecturer at Birkbeck said it about the brilliant but vile Haeckel), someone who blurts out new things to say, some of which stick, some of which don’t.

Either way, its fun. More fun than Yet Another Blair Interview (YABI, YABI, YABI) which is on the radio now. The Prime Minister should go. He should have gone last year.

A posy for mother Mary

Its no surprise when roses bloom on in suburban gardens in north-east London on Christmas Eve. Everyone knows roses flower all through winter, at least some varieties do. Rosemary is another plant that famously flowers in winter.

Dandelions are just being ruderal and opportunistic, like the ubiquitous (in London) annual mercury no-one (except me) seems to notice, or the little patch of chickweed I just saw, trying to get a breeding cycle into even a few frost-free days. And so far we have had no frost at all this winter so they are in luck. The very struggling Michaelmas daisies might just be late, continuing in flower till winter really starts. (if it ever does)

Those primroses look planted. Maybe they are some weird variety. The Pelargonium do look like some florists variety, and they aren’t native, so might not have the cues they need to flower at the right time in our environment. The violets by the gatepost are just about believable – after all there are winter-flowering pansies – though they look as if they might be a florists variety as well.

But hollyhocks? Hollyhocks???? At Christmas? That is absurd.

Almost as absurd as walking home from church on Christmas Eve in North London and seeing over ten species of plants in flower in gardens. Maybe its global warming. Maybe its so the shepherd’s can pick a bouquet for Mary. But whatever it is, its strange.

Can spring be far behind?

Autumn drags on longer than almost ever before. No cold weather yet, though we’ve had a little wind and rain.

Leaves have started falling at last. In the third week of November.

We’ve had a little autumn colour for a few weeks now. Not much – the London planes tend to just go dull and wizened, and the limes haven’t turned yet. Birches mostly went yellow by the 12th November, and some ashes and sycamores Many horse chestnuts have been bronzed since summer but that’s supposed to be disease.

Although there was some leaf litter around on the street this morning but there still seemed to be pretty much a full canopy of leaves wherever a few trees are gathered together.

Flowers too – big flushes of annual mercury coming into flower all over the place south of the river, just last week the railway embankments on the DLR near Poplar still had bindweed in flower, and yarrow, some kind of ragwort, a marigold that looked like a garden escape, maybe some Hierarcum, something that looked like ox-eye daisy, maybe some Galansoga

Daisy relatives are hard enough to identify with a lens. Its not easy doing it from a moving train.


Today I saw a wasp at the bus-stop by Waterloo Station. In London. Flying around free out of doors. In November. Level with the upper deck of a bus.

Not a sneakly little hard-to-identify near-microscopic wasp with a strange lifecycle buried inside the comforting tube of some dying flower, but a proper yellow-and-black social wasp of the sort everyone thinks of when you say “wasp”.

When I was little we used to get the first frost of winter in September. I looked forward to it. I woudl go out and breathe in the cold air. Nowadays it often holds off till February

Last week, on the 4th November, I saw this butterfly indoors:

Butterfly in Lewes
Butterfly in Lewes

Duck Soup

And wonderful soup it is. I just made it. I cooked a duck yesterday, A wild mallard I accidentally bought – I’d intended to buy a fish pie but there wasn’t one in the shop and I got carried away. I suppose it goes along with the pizza I accidentally made last weekend when I intended to bake some cheesy bread rolls for breakfast, but didn’t have any yeast (well I did really but I couldn’t find it because it was hiding behind some rice and beans) so I made some soda bread – sort of cheesy scones – but I ended up with far too much dough (even though I didn’t use the big mixing bowl) so I squashed the rest out flat and baked it in a pan in with tomatoes and more cheese on it so it was a sort of pizza and actually quite nice – but anyway, it was quite a small duck and I ate most of the obviously eatable bits (though I have a little plastic tub of slices for lunch) but I boiled the bones and left-over bits with some garlic and carrots and green beans to make a stock yesterday and I’m now eating a large mug of it with peas and a potato in it and it is lovely duck soup.

But anyway, it makes a nice end to a long day that’s not as relaxing as it should have been. I took the day off work and we went to the races at Plumpton. Lovely weather. The lack of autumn continues. Hot sunshine when we left this morning. It hazed over later and the weather was perfect for racing – neither warm nor cold, dry, but good going. The Downs were beautiful as always silhouetted against the sky with layers of blue-green scrub cumulating over the scarp, the sunset wonderful huge and bulbous, the rooks redolent of Not Being In London, the oak trees just turning colour, though the ashes and thorns are as green as in June – with golden keys and dark red overripe berries.

OK, we bet a little. Or rather gambled. No serious attempt to win. And no winnings at all (which is probably good, from the point of view of reducing the temptation to do it more than twice a year). Abigail wanted each-way bets on horses with interesting names or jockeys with pretty colours. I was into putting money on whatever the best-priced believable horse that wasn’t the favourite was. A bookies dream. They dine out in their holiday homes in northern Cyprus on the backs of punters like us. Though she did suggest backing a no-hope horse (no form, almost no races, amateur rider) in one handicap hurdle each-way at 22 to 1 and I put a tenner on to win (because each-way is a girly bet) and he came home second, so had it been each-way we’d have paid for the day, and I’ll never be allowed to forget it. So it goes.

And we missed the train back to London because we were admiring the horses back from the last race – astonishing amounts of sweat and steam and foaming at the mouth, *and* overhearing a stereotyped explanation from a certain mildly well-known jockey to a trainer as to why his mount came fourth – even though everyone else connected with it seemed to think it was a decent result – so we shouted over the railway track to ask the crowd on the other platform when the next train to Lewes was, and it was coming now, and it seemed better to dash over the footbridge and have a pint in the Lansdowne Arms than to wait another fifty minutes for the London train, but we missed the next train from Lewes so went back to the pub and had another drink, and didn’t get back to London till after 9, and popped into the local for another quick one but got into an argument about cheese sauce (to roux or not to roux?) and ended up back home after midnight.

But the duck soup was really nice.

And I’ve just finished it, so I’ll stop now.

Whatever happened to autumn?

T-shirt weather at 3am in the second week of October. I was sitting in the living room,nsweating, with the door open. We used to have frosts in September. The leaves are still turning though. The plane trees have been that crumpled dusty green for about two weeks now, and at least some of the sycamores have been bronzed at the edges.

Tiny moths everywhere

Moths in the porridge oats. Moths in the pasta. Huge piles (well, huge in a meiofaunal scale – there must be whole tenths of a gram if you add them together) of their eggs or their excretions or whatever the little brownish things are. A bit of both I suppose. If my microscope wasn’t in a box completely buried under Abi’s stuff, and if it wasn’t nearly 1am, I’d try to i.d. them and draw little pictures.

Moths and eggs in a packet of Japanese crackers that has never been opened. Moths in a packet of split peas, ditto. So no home-made pea-soup this month. And its not within years of its sell-by date. How do they get in? Do they have sharp ovipositors? Do they bite their way in? Or is it just that the packets aren’t particularly airtight?

Oh well. I’ve chucked out the obvioulsy contaminated stuff and I guess we ought to eat the rest PDQ & wipe down the cupboard properly.

I had this Secret Plot to identify everything I found in my house or garden. I’v got big noteboosk of the stuff. So I suppose I ought to suss out these moths if I can.

And the critical path to that goes straight through Abi having to tidy her stuff…


Piles of conkers in the street today, shells broken up and shiny seeds all over. A week or two later than usual I think. They used to be something I associated with the first week back at school in September.

The idea of this blog was to write down various rambling nature notes and rants about building and design in and around London and link to my photos. I was going to follow the seasons through spring and summer, I never quite managed to do it. I took the photos alright – It took 2 CDs to make a copy of the ones I like best – but never really got into the habit of doing the log from college, which is where most of my computer dingoing goes on.

But now I have a shiny new laptop computer at home. Well, its not shiny at all, its a sort of matt white colour. Whith plasticky keys and a little glowing picture of an apple on it. And I have a cable modem and wireless whatsits. And I need to stop going to the pub so much in order to not spend the money I need to repay the loan I used to buy all these techy toys. So, as there is nothing good on telly any more…

The swifts are back!

They usually arrive in the 2nd week of May – I’ve never known them turn up later than the 14th of May. I might have seen a few flying round Senate House in Malet Street on the evening of the 12th. But too far away for me to see clearly.

Though there were some jackdaws I hadn’t previously noticed. In the bit of Bloomsbury I work in we get pigeons (of course) with crows and starlings not uncommon. Now and again magpies, woodpigeons, blackbirds, pied wagtails. I’ve seen mallards, herring gulls and blackheaded gulls in flight, but not landing. All very urban. But I’ve not seen a jackdaw there before.

But anyway. Walking to church on Sunday morning, 14th May, and there they were!. Bang on schedule. Flying in and out of rooves of houses, hawking low over the vicarage garden, flying round the spire. In the evening service I could hear them screaming past the windows.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but one swift does. Spring was late starting but now its back on schedule.

The three biological events I wait for at this time of year all happened on time – the mining bees in the churchyard were flying on Easter morning, the swifts were back in town for the 14th of May and the trees are just about fully back in leaf. The canopy has closed. The London planes (the main street tree in town) have got a full covering of soft hairy leaves, still not fully grown but enough to cast almost full shade, and the limes (most common street tree in South East London) are bursting with soft pale green leaves still sweet enough to eat. As always nearly all the sycamores have been in full leaf for some weeks now. The South London skyline is a soft green shade and once again Brockley and Forest Hill look like Tuscan hills. From a safe distance. When the sun is shining. If you’ve been drinking and are in a good mood.

Magnolias and cherries long out of flower, but the lilacs are still in bloom and the streets smell like spring. The horse chestnuts have come out, the hawthorns are in bloom, and the elders are about to move to fruiting. The willows catkins have gone and the oaks are coming out – and the huge evergreen oak in the churchyard has a full flush of yellowish-green new leaves and flower buds covering over last year’s dark leathery spiky foliage.

Summer’s come at last. A pity we have to put up with all that horrid hot weather and nasty sunshine if we want to enjoy it. But at least there will be some shade in the streets.

I like trees 🙂

Spring Sprang Sprung

Only two days after the previous post and spring is in Deptford already. Walking towards church this morning I noticed little clumps of flowers growing out the base of some council estate walls. Afterwards I saw at least a dozen species of flowers blooming on the old railway embankment at Brookmill Park – though I’m not going to risk naming them till I get home and look at my books! Well, not the various yellow groundsels and suchlike daisy relatives anyway… I think I can safely say that we have white dead nettle back 🙂

a flower? a flower? a flower? flowers
a flower? a flower? ladybird a flower?

And the flower buds of the magnolia outside the college door have now opened!

Magnolia bud, 26th March

(I hope those pictures work – I’m still trying to see what I can get away with here…)