What we talk about when we talk about pigeons

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Richmond Park, mid September. The wood pigeons scuffle through the crisp detritus under the beech trees looking for beech nuts.  Their smoky blue bodies are plump and perfect. So many of them. I have played a small part in shoring up this overblown population. By one. One extra pigeon in 2017. I’m not ashamed. In fact I’m pleased as anything.

This is how it happened. I was working at the table by the window. Risky, with all that outside business going on – insect, plant, bird, light etc. But we were past the spring frenzy and coasting into early summer, so it was cool and placid and I figured I’d get stuff done.

An odd movement kept catching my eye though. I’d look up but I couldn’t place it. And then I saw the neighbour’s cat, hunkered down, tail twitching. Sodding cats. I opened the door and it scarpered – our relationship is one of mutual loathing – and I went out to see what it had been up to.

Under the holly tree I found the source of movement. Caught in the thorns of the berberis, such an unearthly thing, at first I couldn’t make sense of it. A still lump of yellowing goose-bumped flesh the size of my palm. And then it spasmed.

It was a bird, not old enough to have feathers. A chick then, but big. I lifted the limp body off the thorns. Its skin was cold and clammy but the puncture wounds on its back were slight. Minimal blood. I stuck it in my armpit to try to warm it up.

I couldn’t type with the chick under my arm so I put it in a nest of tissue paper in a plastic lunchbox, on top of a hot water bottle and waited for it to keel over. Its ridiculous dinosaur head with its big knobbly beak and holes for ears and the sparse proto feathers on its crown like too much brylcream. Wood pigeon. One ugly bird. Doomed.

After half an hour, it opened its eyes. Not dead then.  I gave it some water, pinching its soft beak so that it opened. And then some watery yoghurt. Actually quite perky.  Come on little fella. You can make it.

But hell, now what? All that feeding. All that fledging.  Do I never learn? Thinking of all the times I’ve done this, all the hopeless times I’ve picked up young birds and tried to keep them alive. The rook, the redwing, the house martin, the pheasants. And so on. All the wasps I ‘rescued’ from jam traps. The bee I ‘saved’ from Lake Achensee, swimming with one hand out of the water to the shore while it sorted itself out. Pity, then empathy. Impulse, then bonding. Hope, then loss. Fool.

This unviable creature had caught me up.  But it was still doomed. Maybe I’d just put it in the bin and forget about it. But then again, maybe I’d give it a name. Pidge. And a gender. Her.

A mature wood pigeon sat in in the big tree of heaven a couple of doors down. Was it the mother bird, waiting for the all clear to go back to the nest? Would it know that one of its babies had gone? How would it feel?

Pull yourself together. It’s a pigeon. It doesn’t have a stream of consciousness. Those elephants, they don’t know they’re the last. Those pandas, they’re not popping corks because they’ve moved from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ in the red list. Those polar bears, they’re not weeping about their grandchildren’s future as the ice melts under their feet. Conservation shouldn’t be driven by the pathetic fallacy. We shouldn’t have to blooming well adopt lion cubs or orangutans to make the connections. But maybe that’s the only hope.

The cat was back. It had crept off the fence into the lower branches of the holly tree. I chased it away again and looked up.  Wood pigeon nest six foot above. About the most casual nest construction there is. These birds are real slackers when it comes to nests. A bunch of twigs like spillikins caught between two branches. But it was occupied. There was another chick there, stock still. No wonder the cat was so intent. 

Still, I had an idea. Maybe I could put Pidge back in the nest with its sibling. Then I’d have tried my best. If the mother bird never comes back, if both of them die, if the cat gets them? Just nature taking its course.

I borrowed a ladder. I gave Pidge a final dribble of watery yoghurt, stuck her in my pocket and climbed up into the holly. The other chick sat rigid on the flimsy stack even as Pidge tipped in. Somehow the platform held. Two ugly birds. Doomed.

The cat was watching. It would be after them as soon as I was out of the way. I borrowed a saw and took out the lower branches of the holly. If this didn’t shake the babies from their nest, if this didn’t stop the mother bird returning, nothing would.

I took the ladder and the saw and went inside. Dispassionate intellectual, that’s me.

Minutes passed. The cat did a couple of reccies along the fence and gave up. The holly had resumed its glossy spiky deep green inscrutability. I looked away, on the basis that a watched pot never boils.

Hours passed and guess what? The next time I went out and looked up into the tree, the mother was back. She did that rigid deadpan ‘I’m not here so I don’t know what you’re looking at’ thing. God, I loved her.

The days passed and no bloody corpses appeared under the holly. The parent pigeons came and went, clumsy and noisy.  I opened a few conversations with them, standing under the holly tree. They were a bit one way.  Soon the chicks were so big you could see their silly heads from the ground, doing the ‘I’m not here so I don’t know who you think you’re talking to’ thing, just like their mother. And one day they were gone.

Pigeons waddling under the bird feeder. Pigeon eyes popping as they scoff the big cherries on the tree. Pigeons flapping away like paper bags when the cat comes back. Of course, I recognise the one I rescued. Of course she recognises me.

‘Alright Pidge? How’s it going?’

Diagnosis? Chronic anthropomorphism. Treatment? None.

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The causeway and the wedding: ritual and hope on midsummer’s eve

First published in Earthlines magazine. Buy a subscription to support their wonderful work! 

Steventon, Oxfordshire, June 2015. We would have been straight through and out the other side, were it not for the wedding we were going to in the next village.

‘Steventon? Which one was that again?’

Just a conduit, a linear development along the road to Oxford, ten miles north. A clutter of pubs, street lights, a shop, red brick Victorian houses under slate roofs, front gardens scrubbed out for parking, blank picture windows of 1970s bungalows, squat community hall on the corner of the green. Nothing special.

But hiding in plain sight is a twelfth century earthwork that is marvellous for being there at all.

We might have missed it entirely. The bypass is the A34, the post Roman trunk road between the great port of Southampton and Manchester, via Oxford and the Potteries. Until 1998, it passed through Steventon (it was turnpiked in 1755). Its relocation, splicing the water meadows between Steventon and Milton, was less contested than further south at Newbury, where construction of the bypass  twenty years ago spawned a new kind of protestor, who took to the trees and tunnelled under ground in a bid to protect ancient woodland. On this mizzly day in the village you could barely hear the dual carriageway. The main road through Steventon has been reclassified – or detrunked – as the B4017, obscuring the passing past.

Great Western Railway with Didcot chimney in the distance

Great Western Railway with Didcot chimney in the distance

We could have skimmed the village’s straggling southern edge at even higher speed. The Great Western Railway reached the village in 1840 and this stretch is dead straight, an iron causeway through the Vale, at right angles to the A34. How satisfying it must have been for those new Victorians to impress their technology so emphatically on the landscape. On this low land they could raise their eyes to the horizon and pinpoint their destination. ‘There!’ As the crow flies. Simple, efficient, fast. No regard to the old lanes, the watercourses, the minor inclines, the manor boundaries.

Travelling at speed, vistas open on hills and valleys in quick succession. As we left the bypass and drove down Steventon Hill in fine midsummer rain, the cooling towers of Didcot’s power station loomed out of the flood plain, their grey bulk flattened and smudged by low cloud. Around them the vale banked in tiers of hedge, field, copse as far as the eye could see.

In getting the overview we lose the detail. Steventon lies in the Vale of the White Horse, just north of a line of chalk downs that keeps the Thames running eastwards. At speed, the eye doesn’t see the prehistoric ridgeway, the Roman road, the medieval drovers’ track to the south. It doesn’t see the ruins of Wilts and Berkshire canal that scythes through the parish between the Thames at Abingdon and its junction with the Kennet and Avon at Melksham sixty miles away.

The Bronze age traveller would have looked out from the ridgeway across a dense patchwork of forest and marsh, would have found something sacred in the complex of brooks and rivers fed by the clear streams springing from the chalk. The village evolved to the standard Anglo Saxon formula and even now its rural past echoes in Stocks Lane, Mill Street, Sheepwash Lane, Kennel Lane.

But what’s this? The Causeway.

The Causeway

The Causeway, flanked by more recent paths

It’s a raised path born of a lost landscape. It runs for a mile across meadows that would have been flooded often. It starts out from the higher ground that bears the church of St Michael and All Angels, built in the 14th century. This elevated site must have been significant for far longer – a church at Steventon was recorded in the Domesday Book and by then the yew tree was already more than two hundred years old. After another nine hundred years, its torso is a mass of ruddy cylinders, like a vast rustic pipe organ, tinder dry under its dense canopy.

Ancient yew at St Michael's

Ancient yew at St Michael’s

The Causeway runs north east from the church, tracking the Ginge brook as it curves towards the common, dark fists at the heart of the shimmering willows recalling decades of pollarding. The Causeway is twelve foot wide and raises the traveller three feet above the surrounding land. In places it is cobbled with small, dark setts, but long stretches are paved with irregular slabs of stone. On top of its steep grassy banks are hornbeam and cherry, horse chestnut and hawthorn, though it was probably an avenue of elms at the time of enclosure. It runs through the heart of the village, past the pub on the corner, past the playground and the tidy allotments, ending at the far eastern reach of the green, where a paved path at ground level continues across fields of ripening corn to Milton, the next village.

Today the Causeway is interrupted many times: by the level crossing and the grey hogging embankment of the Great Western Railway, by the tarmac of Stocks Lane, by the High Street (the detrunked A34), by the unnamed road that cuts through the allotments. Swallows slip from the gables of the many mellow timber-framed buildings that look out over it. They were constructed on lower ground and must have been built sometime after it, when the land became less prone to floods either through drainage or climate change.

Timber-framed houses below the Causeway

Timber-framed houses below the Causeway

So if it was obsolete within a few generations, how has it held sway over the residents of Steventon, who have maintained it – for better, for worse – for more than eight hundred years?

A tablet in the church from around 1620 says that ‘Two sisters by ancient report gave a yard of land, one acre of Meadow, four Swathes, one Taylors yeard, one close, and a Coops to ye Maintenance of ye Cawseway of Steventon.’ Even now a group of parishioners is appointed as ‘Causewaymen’ to ensure that the path is kept up. Why?

Was it commerce? Steventon Priory lay near the church and it’s thought the Causeway was constructed for the Prior. It would have brought passing merchants straight to his door. Was it industry? One theory is that it carried an aqueduct delivering water to the cloth makers. Was it ritual? As a raised path to the church, it might have played a leading role in the marking of birth, marriage and death. Was it about Michaelmass? Feast day of the patron saint of the church, festival of harvest time, pivot of the husbandman’s year. Could it have been superstition? In times of pestilence, at the heart of rites that sought to protect the people from the horror.

We walked to the wedding. The rain had stopped and we walked east on the Causeway in sun and dappled shade and sun again. Then at the end of the green we took the paved path along the meandering Ginge, lit with yellow flags in full flower and sun on water. We walked in the heat of midsummer’s eve, crossed the thundering A34 on a metal footbridge, and the path led us to the church of St Blaise, patron saint of wool combers, another 14th century church on a Saxon site.

How many people have walked this way? Was it flight or dalliance or plain old commerce that drove them? How many weddings did they walk to? And christenings and funerals and harvest festivals and blessings of the sick. Our walk became part of the ritual, tied in to the landscape, as its people were tied until very recently.

Two strange survivors. The Causeway and the wedding. Proof of the power we invest in landscape and ceremony. We cling to the idea of permanence, kicking against change, but in spite of the delusion this is about hope. The Causeway is something that the people of Steventon have held on to. Something that for whatever long forgotten reason they have not ceased to value down the generations. There are plenty of obsolete and ancient customs that should be done away with, but the Causeway shows we can preserve things if we want to, can collectively nurture and care for and hand on.

How do we tell stories about our countryside that resonate with enough people to give us reason to preserve it?  Just as the people of Steventon have preserved the Causeway. Stories that show how intertwined our lives are with countryside and nature, what’s left of it, even now that Michaelmass is meaningless to most of us.

Oak leaf carving on stone capital in St Michael's

Oak leaf carving on stone capital in St Michael’s

 

 

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The bee and the damson tree: everything is connected

Published on the excellent Caught by the River.

It’ll be hard to say when spring is really here this year. So many signs, those precious iterations, and so topsy turvy these last few weeks. By contrast there’s a place I know where spring arrives definitively on one particular day. One day it’s winter. The next it’s spring.

This place is a second storey balcony in the German city of Munich. A white rendered apartment block from the 1920s in a grid of similar blocks where street trees are rare. The balcony on the western elevation is a bare exposed platform two metres square, ten metres above the street, entirely isolated from the rest of the world. But what happens when spring arrives on the balcony is a bewitching reminder of interconnectedness of things.

Landlocked Munich – about as far from the temperate influence of the sea as you can be in Western Europe – hangs on to winter until the last minute. There are still signs, a kind of easing. The acid yellow furze of cornelian cherry flowers. The pounding turquoise waters of the River Isar, milky with sediment from the snow melting through the alpine screes sixty miles to the south. Lords and ladies foliage shiny and dark as spinach unfurling in the leaf litter under the trees of the Englischer Garten. And above all, the song and argie-bargie of the birds. Humans feel the changes too. We are part of the natural world, however much we try to shake it off. On the first mild day of the year the base of the southern wall of the Residenz – the palace in the centre of the city – and the ranks of south facing chairs outside the chic cafes are rammed with people wearing shades, basking like seals, lifting their faces towards the sun.

On the balcony though, it’s still winter. In a matter of weeks, when summer comes with its sledgehammer heat and electric storms, the grapefruit tree, the agave, the hibiscus will be moved outside in their heavy terracotta pots. The spiky velvet-coated tillandsias go out too, hung from the white painted metal railings to catch the sun and the rain and the air. The houseleeks will swell and flush green, the little irises from the near east will put up their complex purple flowers on stubby stems. The swifts will scream as they wheel like cut throat razors along the ersatz gorge of the street in the sultry evenings. There’s just enough room for a table and two chairs and on sweltering nights the balcony becomes a cool crows’ nest for watching the stars, constellations sliding across the long rectangle of sky between the buildings.

But for now, it’s winter on the balcony. Not even moss or algae find purchase on the surfaces that are swept clean by the bitter desiccating winds. There’s a stack of plastic flower pots on one side of the French Windows and on the other, several bundles of foot long elder twigs tied together with string and laid horizontally in a pile.

Ten metres below, the land between the apartment blocks lies sealed and thwarted under paving and tarmac, all but a strip of vegetation at the base of the building, a gritty patch of moss, chickweed, grasses, daisy and hawkweed rosettes, bound by a dark barberry hedge to waist height. About twenty metres from the balcony, growing on the scruffy grass in a container made of ugly composite slabs of grey pebbles, is a small damson tree.

In the time I’ve known this tree – eight years now – its blooming time has fluctuated with the harshness of the season. Sometimes the end of February, sometimes weeks later. It never fails to flower, though, and it does it magnificently. Billowing drifts of white blossom coat its angled limbs and shade the rings on its pewter trunk. Even against the gloopy white render of the wall behind it, in the banal monotony of the car lined street, it is spectacular.

Horned mason bees

Osmia cornuta shortly after emerging from their cells in a bundle of elder twigs. Photo: Andreas Groeger

But here’s the thing. The very day the flowers open on the damson tree below, something changes on the balcony. Suddenly there is life, movement, sound, a whole different texture to the atmosphere. The bees have broken out of their cells.

These are mason bees – and on this particular balcony they are horned mason bees, Osmia cornuta, that aren’t seen in the UK, though other mason bee species are. Mason bees are solitary bees. They don’t do honey or beeswax. The first to hatch from their cocoons in the dry hollow core of the elder twigs are the males. They hang around the bundles until the females emerge, then they mate and die.

But for the females, this is just the start. They fly from the balcony straight into the clouds of blossom on the damson tree. They gather pollen and nectar to create food stores in the nests they make in the same hollow twigs that they emerged from for the first time in their lives just a few hours before. Collecting enough food to support a single offspring takes many trips to the damson tree. When the sticky ball of pollen and nectar is large enough, the bee backs into the hole and lays an egg on top of it. Then she builds a partition, creating a new cell. She repeats the process, flying back and forth, back and forth to the damson tree, until she has filled the hollow tube with a series of eggs, each with its own carefully weighed food supply, finally plugging the opening with a mud like seal.

The lifecycle of these mason bees is fascinating and amazing and there are plenty of people who know much more than me. And anyway, that’s not my story. I could tell you that they are far more efficient pollinators of fruit trees than honey bees, that the farmers are eyeing them up as future collaborators but that’s not my point.

There is something deeply touching about their utter disregard for the human dimension, these small creatures going about their lives as if a bleak extrusion high up on a concrete slab in a major city were the most natural place in the world.

But the thing most wonderful to me is the exquisite correlation of the bee and the damson tree.

One day it’s winter and the next it’s spring.

 

 

 

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Bare trees, soft light and a glimpse of the coming year

A version of this piece about winter was first published in English Garden magazine, when I worked as a horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 

You can almost feel the earth tilting towards the sun as we approach the end of winter.  This is the time to see the grand old dame of Kew without her theatrical summer makeup, when the weight and wisdom of age show through.

Grass garden, Kew

Grass garden, Kew, with statue of ‘The Sower’

Standing on the mound of the Temple of Aeolus, I’m surrounded by the Royal Botanic Garden’s two-acre woodland garden.  By January, the riot of autumn is over and the garden has shed almost all of its leaves.  The woodland garden collections lay emphasis on herbaceous perennials and now, without the flimflam of summer, with all but the most architectural of seedheads cut down, I can see the structure of the garden most clearly. The green turf offers striking contrast to the dun-coloured duvet of fallen leaves on the beds.

To the north of my vantage point, the order beds sleep under a rich layer of mulch, dark ribs to the rose pergola’s spinal column. To the west, the leafless trees allow a view of the palm house, built with the cutting-edge technology of the 1840s. Beyond its curving flanks is Syon Vista, manned by evergreen holm oak sentinels, Quercus ilex, and ending at the mysterious River Thames.

The tidal River Thames at Kew

The stretch of the River Thames that passes Kew is tidal

January is the month when Kew reveals its lengthy history most potently. Without the leaves, you can see clearly the contours of the landscape. This mound I’m standing on is made from the spoil of the Palm House pond. On the Thames’ floodplain, each dell and hill is man-made, monuments to the landscape-makers of the past 250 years – Bridgeman, Kent, Chambers, Nesfield, Thistleton-Dyer and one Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, whose wholesale remodelling of eighteenth century England will be celebrated this year, the 300th anniversary of his birth.

You can imagine the follies, menageries and tableaux of the old ‘pleasure grounds’ of the 1700s, overlaid by the more serious scientific purpose of the botanic garden, a powerhouse for industrial-scale production of commodities in the colonies of the Empire. In come the ranks of trees, planted by botanical family according to the classification of Bentham and Hooker. In January, they are extraordinary: by the Ice  House the grey sinuous curtains of the huge weeping beech Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendular’; the graceful wineglass Zelkova by the temperate house; the complex gnarl of the persian ironwood, Parrotia persica, in the Duke’s Garden; the freckled limbs of the lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana, near the waterlily house; the still hollow between the vast pillars of the Redwood Grove.

Temple of Aeolus, Kew

Temple of Aeolus, Kew

Retreating from the weather or returning from a couple of hours striding through Kew’s 320 acres, it’s thrilling to enter the steamy palm house or the still, quiet temperate house (currently undergoing major restoration), or wander through the exotic biomes of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, trying to spot the Chinese water dragons who stalk the undergrowth, keeping the pest population down.

Without the blowsy flowers and lush meadows and satiny tree canopies of summer, the statues, gates, temples, conservatories and magnificent glasshouse take centre stage. I can see the stark curve of the Davies alpine house, where minor miracles bloom, like the first of the tiny flamboyant Junos, like Iris nicolai, and the highly scented early daffodils. The spidery yellow flowers of the witch hazels, Hamamelis, send their sharp sweet scent on the air. To the north, the low sun picks out the bleached plumes and gold sprays of the stately grass garden, while the sweeping lawns, here and there flush lilac with the first Crocus.

Hamamelis x intermedia

Hamamelis x intermedia

As a gardener working at Kew, you are allowed to cycle through the gardens. At this time of year, cycling from the southern Lion Gate up to the Melon Yard via Victoria Gate, you pass under many tall mature tree specimens where thrushes sing from high up, establishing their territory, their song pooling around their perches. If sound had colour and you could view it from above, it would be like a series of overlapping circles, the colour concentrating towards the centre of each one.

In the subdued light, among the quiet bare trees, bright colours are amplified, the bumble bee sounds loudly, the shrubby honeysuckle fragrance is otherworldly, singing of the richness of the season ahead, urging us on.

There’s a danger I’ll get carried away with overambitious plans for the coming year; I can see how to extend the all-weather paths and open up the grassy glades, how to replant certain collections to reflect more natural associations. Like the Sower, I can already feel the weight of the season’s harvest in the cluster of seeds in my palm.

But stop!

Spring’s sluice gate will be opened before you know it and the season will rush on like a stream in spate. Don’t plan too hard. Savour the moment.

 

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2015: thrice the kingfisher

I saw kingfishers along the river Crane three times this year. Each time I thought I’d burst. It’s amazing they’re thriving, given that the river has suffered four big ‘pollution incidents’ in the last four years.*

The first glimpse of ice blue came on a crisp bright day early January, whirring over the reed beds on Crane Park island, up by the Shot Tower. Unbelievable brilliance, like some CGI effect from a sci-fi movie.

Reed bed on Crane Park island, January 2015

Reed bed on Crane Park island, January 2015

The second flash came on a dull September day, where the Duke of Northumberland’s River (which is fed by the Crane) runs under the railway en route to The Stoop. The bird doesn’t seem to need the sun for its iridescence.

Duke of Northumberland's River flows under the London-Reading railway line

Duke of Northumberland’s River flows under the London-Reading railway line

And lastly on Christmas day, not far from Meadway, we watched a kingfisher hunting from a slender branch of a sycamore, overhanging the shallow waters. Not just an electric flash this time, but a thrilling sequence of dives, returns and keen observation of the water.  A few yards away, a little grebe dipped its slick head and also dived repeatedly. There is food to be had in this strange unwintery winter.

Little grebe on the Mill Road section of the River Crane. Photo: Belinda Price

Little grebe on the Mill Road section of the River Crane. Photo: Belinda Price

Honda

Honda

The rough land along the Crane periodically disgorges some intriguing detritus, but you can also see some impressive work going on to improve the health of the river and to increase the biodiversity along its banks, thanks to the Crane Valley Partnership and FORCE . Early in the year, the trees along the banks were thinned to allow more light to reach the water. More recently, long sections of the wooden planks reinforcing the southern bank have been removed and in places the bank itself has been broken up to create marginal wetland habitats.

It will be fascinating to see how the unprotected banks disintegrate and to track their gradual colonisation by plants and animals. Another reason to be excited about the year ahead. George Monbiot has been making lucid arguments in favour of ‘rewilding’ rivers for the Guardian:

Rivers that have been dredged and canalised to protect farmland rush the water instead into the nearest town. Engineering works of this kind were removed a few years ago from the river Liza in Ennerdale. It was allowed to braid, meander and accumulate logs and stones.

When the last great storm hit Cumbria, in 2009, the Liza remained clear and fordable the following day, while other rivers roared into furious spate.

His arguments are pragmatic and anthropocentric, as they need to be if they are to gain traction amongst the policy makers. But for the rest of us the glimpse of a kingfisher makes an argument as powerful and eloquent as any words.

 

 

*The worst happened in October 2011, the discharge of raw sewage by Thames Water (due to a ‘mechanical fault’) wiped out all fish life ‘including barbel, bleak, bream, carp, chub, dace, eels, gudgeon, minnows, perch, pike, roach and sticklebacks.’ Two years later, the fracture of an underground pipe resulted in concentrated sewage sludge killing ‘much of the newly- established fish life … hundreds of chub, dace, gudgeon, minnows, roach and sticklebacks between 1-2 inches long.’ Read ‘a personal record of pollution on the Crane, compiled by a local fisherman from observations of the lower Crane near Meadway and the lower DNR (Dukes River) over 27 years between 1986 and 2013’.

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Time, tree planting and commuting with birds: hymn to suburbia

First published on Caught by the River as part of their Shadows and Reflections series.

This year I have lived a full half century. My children have grown up and left. For the first time in my life I’m living entirely on my own. It’s bloody lovely, this freedom, but I do find myself staring into space. A lot. Though I have rediscovered a teenager’s capacity to waste it, time has been on my mind. I’ve been banging on about it on CBTR and elsewhere this year (thank you for your patience) – not just the changing seasons but how many of them I might have left. And if I look back? Blimey, I’m thinking in decades, not in years.

The surviving goldenrain tree in the old cemetery in Holly Road, one of three from which I collected seed

The surviving goldenrain tree in the old cemetery in Holly Road, one of three from which I collected seed

There’s a deconsecrated cemetery in the middle of Twickenham, behind the de- Woolworthed Woollies and the de-mutualised mutuals. When I first moved here there were three gangly goldenrain trees (also called pride of India, though they come from China). They were producing dainty sprays of acid yellow flowers, and when the flowers turned to fruit – inflated papery capsules – I collected the seed and sowed it. A decade and a half on, the seedling I chose is itself a gangly tree. This summer it flowered for the first time, and the flowers gave way to a crop of little lanterns encasing big matt black seeds. Fifteen years from seed to flower. Makes you realise how much time is laid up in the trees around us. Tulip trees don’t flower until they are another decade older. And if I sow a tulip tree now? Yup, you get the picture.

The first fruits of the goldenrain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, that I grew from seed

The first fruits of the goldenrain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, that I grew from seed

And then think about the germplasm – the genetic baton that is handed on in the seed from generation to generation. This year the council planted maidenhair trees (also from China) as part of a massive and less than convincing programme of ‘town centre improvements.’ Maidenhair, or Ginkgo biloba, is thought to be extinct in the wild, but the species has been around in its current form since the dinosaurs. A sacred tree that has for millennia graced the temples of East Asia with its brilliant autumn colour and its stinking fruits (whose kernels are a delicacy in South Korea). And here it is, this incredible relic, growing modestly on an undistinguished suburban street outside the police station. Around the slender trunk of the maidenhair tree is paving cut from sandstone. It was a beautiful sight when it first got laid (much like myself, I like to think). It soon became filthy and pockmarked (don’t go there) with chewing gum but when it rains you can still see the layers of sediment, the colours sharpened by the wet, laid down in those shallow, warm deltas over 300 million years ago.

Years, decades, millenia, megaannii, aeons. And yet the ephemeral things, though they signify that the year is passing and passing fast, are the things that give me a kick.

One is extra special. Every working day I cycle from my house to the station along Heath Road, a route that has been in use for a very long time. There’s been a settlement at Twickenham since at least 704 AD and Heath Road connects what was once a huge expanse of common land on Hounslow Heath to the old village, where it lies on a curve of the Thames. It’s not a handsome street, Edwardian three or four storey redbrick buildings with the usual mash of shops at street level. It’s dead flat and it curves towards the town centre. For a couple of weeks a year, in the Spring and in the Autumn, dawn is breaking as I cycle along this stretch. And for those extraordinary few days, my commute coincides with the corvids’. They fly over me in squadrons, travelling purposefully about twice my speed, tracking the curve of the street that echoes the prevailing southwesterlies. They are rooks and jackdaws, headed from their roost in the woods along the river Crane, but the jackdaws are quiet, as if they’re still sleepy, as if it’s too early for their banter. In fact I may not I hear anything at all, but it seems like a series of dark rushes or a dent in the soundscape, as if my ears have been covered and uncovered again. We stream along in the wind, the birds and me and the occasional car. As they reach the centre of town they break formation and rise above a parade of shops, briefly silhouetted against the peachy sky, before tilting over the roof to spend their days on the flood meadows of Petersham and the hummocky savanna of Richmond Park.

Rooks can live up to twenty years and jackdaws up to fourteen. This year it struck me that I could have been sharing my commute with some of the same birdy individuals for the last decade and a half. That possibility lies tenderly on my heart, like a bruise.

This year I thought: when the kids go, I could go too. Nothing particular to keep me here. I could go back to Norfolk, where I was born, or Dorset, where my grandmother farmed on the downs. But there is no such thing as going back. The places I knew don’t exist now. Novelty is all very well, but there’s a value to staying put. You see the patterns and feel the rhythms, as well as all the changes. The skyline along the river seen from the train into Waterloo is unrecognisable, but I’m tracking the bracken invading the disused platform at Queenstown Road. I watch out for the cormorant standing sentinel on a pole in the Thames by Waterloo Bridge and I listen for the kestrels keening on Lasdun’s brutalist buildings up from Russell Square. The day I write this has seen two firsts: two goldcrest flittered through the garden and a blackcap sang on the hawthorn. In June, a few days after the local environmental charity put in eel passes, the first elvers for centuries were recorded in the river Crane. I saw a kingfisher up by the shot tower on a crisp day in January, and another under an inky September sky. You have to stay put to know these things are special.

This year I thought, when the kids go, I could go too. But I have been ambushed by suburbia. I think I might stay.

Cormorant on post in the Thames

Cormorant on post in the Thames

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Clatter of corvids on a blustery day

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I walk my neighbours’ dog Harry when I can. He’s about four I think, not the sharpest tool in the box, but quite polite and incurious as dogs go, and good undemanding company. We always head for the river. It’s said that the ‘ham’ in ‘Twickenham’ might derive from the old word ‘hamm’, ‘land in a river bend or promontory, dry ground in a marsh, river meadow’ (see Twickenham Museum’s fascinating website). This makes sense, as Twickenham lies between two rivers, the ripping coils of the Thames serpent to the south, the flightier, younger Crane to the north. It’s the Crane we go to, a stretch of it that runs between extensive 1930s housing developments in a series of reed beds and under the A316, the arterial road that turns into the M3 a couple of miles to the south west.

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It’s noisy and there’s nothing distinguished about the landscape (I’ve written more about it here) but at this time of year the structure of the woods is suddenly laid bare – the flare of hornbeam, the stiff brush of poplar, the slender arching horsechestnuts – and the movement of the birds between them is thrilling.

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Today there are powerful winds (poor Cumbria is taking a hammering from Storm Desmond) and as we arrived by the river the rooks and jackdaws hurtled over in great numbers like flakes of burnt newspaper or shredded black hankies, nothing like the purposeful squadrons I’d seen in the morning, heading north east over the house, but chaotic and unsettled. After about twenty minutes’ walk along the river we caught up with them near the Shot Tower, a dense crowd high up in the ash trees. There was much business being done, judging by the noise, which almost drowned out the screeches of the ring-necked parakeets that had assembled nearby. And then suddenly they left, blown on in a great noisy gust towards their roost. I was trying to record the racket on my phone, and I was lucky enough to catch their departure.

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Light, camera, action

Last day of October and there was so much going on outside.

Though the nasturtium foliage has been shredded by the voracious cabbage white caterpillars, their flowers are still brilliant, bringing bees and hover flies to my door.
carder bee on Nasturtium yellow
Common carder bee on nasturtium flower

carder bee on Nasturtium red
Possibly a tree bee – new to the UK since the turn of the millennium

This brilliance extends through the garden and the shadows thrown by the low sun only seem to enhance it – bright yellow fig leaves, butter and pink coral bark maple, rust and vermillion and yellow grape, gold and orange nine bark.

fig leaves

fig leaves

Nine bark

Nine bark

Vine leaves

Vine leaves

Aralia leaves

Aralia leaves

Delicate pinks come from Nerine, Schizostylis and Cyclamen, Viburnum tinus and x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and an unknown hydrangea. Deeper pinks from Telephium ‘Autumn Joy’ and Schizostylis coccinea.

Telephium 'Autumn Joy'

Telephium ‘Autumn Joy’

schizostylis coccinea

hydrangea flower

Euphorbia mellifera and the webs of the garden spiders catch the dew.
Euphorbia mellifera

garden spider web with dew

The garden spider keeps on spinning – maybe she knows its hallowe’en.

Garden spider spinning

Garden spider spinning

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Into the woods: early autumn in the fifth element

In the Spring, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew asked me to contribute to their new Guide to Wakehurst Place, the 20th century garden first developed by Gerald Loder and managed by Kew for the last 50 years. In fact there are some fine gardens developed around the same time in the area and I’ll write about them some day. Wakehurst is in the ancient forested landscape called the High Weald and later in the year Eleanor, Eoin, Andreas and I took ourselves off on our bikes to do some exploring. I wrote a piece about it and those splendid people at Caught by the River put it on their blog, but you can also read it here. 

Beech and Yew on sandstone outcrop

Beech and Yew on sandstone outcrop

These last few nights I have been woken by the thump of the neighbour’s apples falling on the garden fence. I keep walking face first into the webs that fat nervous spiders have strung between the shrubs. The spiky teasels’ heads catapult their seed across the veg patch with the slightest twitch, the blackberries and elderberries have grown glossy and plump with the recent rain, the sloes are as blue as the afternoon sky, and the second crop of figs is swelling in spite of the nip in the morning air.

In recent days, starlings have displaced the pigeons on the Victorian cupolas of the primary school across the road. They are all bells and whistles, launching in mass forays, settling briefly, swapping places. Something’s up.

Autumn. But the year isn’t over, not by a long shot. There’s energy about the place, thrilling change after the languid decay of summer. If I were a hop-picker I would just be setting off to Kent with the hordes. If I were a shepherd, I’d be bringing the finished wether lambs off the hills and looking to sell. If I were a ring master, I’d be marking up Twickenham Green with white pegs and orange netting for the first stop on the circus’s autumn tour. And if I were a swineherd, I’d be going into the woods.

This seasonal movement of pigs is an ancient thing. In late summer the animals are driven into the forest to feed on its fruits – acorns beechmast, chestnuts, hazelnuts. So important was pannage to the local economy at certain points in history that it was used as a measure – the land’s value counted by the number of swine it could support.

If you turn your back on the big skies and flocks of lapwings over Romney Marsh and cycle north-west into the High Weald, you follow roads and pass through settlements that were shaped by this annual movement of people and stock. Rich land it may have been, but the dramatic topography defied wholesale clearance (and still keeps the cyclists away) and the Weald – from the old English ‘Wald’ or wood – is even now one of the most densely forested places in Europe.

Cycling in the High Weald

Cycling in the High Weald

The Wealden landform that straddles east Sussex and west Kent is the yolk to the white of the North and South Downs. In the age of dinosaurs, flood-plains and rivers laid down layers of iron-rich clays and sandstones. 110 million years ago, in the middle of the Cretaceous period, these sediments sunk beneath the sea. The carcasses of billions of sea creatures deposited a thick layer of chalk on the sea floor. When the African continent crashed into Europe, forming the Alps, ripples from the collision spread northwards and a huge chalk dome – the Wealden anticline – rose in what is now southeast England. Over millennia the chalk dome eroded and, like the top of the boiled egg being taken off, unearthed the sandstone and clay strata. In their turn, sandwiched between the Downs, the exposed clays eroded faster than the sandstone, creating cliffs and steep-sided valleys, known locally as ‘gills’. Like the yolk, the sandstone and clay is richer, sustaining magnificent broadleaved woods of oak and beech and ash.

The ravines and ridges mean that the High Weald was unsuitable for large-scale agriculture, so it was not settled in the same way as the surrounding land. Instead, the forest was managed to support the iron industry and swine. Pigs were driven up the ancient lanes to seasonal wood-pasture or ‘dens’ – the nucleii of present day villages, Tenterden, Rolvenden, Newenden, Benenden. Many of these lanes or ‘droves’ survive as the roads we use now. Iron ore was plentiful and easily accessible through open cast mines that were worked even in prehistoric times. The Romans had interests in the iron industry too and it saw a resurgence in medieval times. The woods are pockmarked with the remains of furnace or hammer ponds, dark and glassy at the end of summer when the newts and toads have quit their breeding waters. Iron was extracted by ‘smelting’, a process that needs high-quality charcoal to produce sufficient heat. Way before the Romans, people were coppicing hornbeam, chestnut and hazel to produce a harvest of wood to make charcoal. Coppicing maintained floral diversity, bringing light to the forest floor every few years, regenerating the primrose and violet colonies, providing home for the dormouse and glades for the pearl bordered fritillaries.

I’ve often thought of broadleaved woodland as the fifth element, somewhere between air and water. Early autumn reinforces this idea. Lay up your bike in summer’s debris by the road, in the crisp seed heads of yellow rattle and smashed stalks of cow parsley. Push through the meniscus of bramble, wood sage and willow herb, leaving behind the butterflies and bees that linger in the still hot sun. Pass the rheumatoid knuckles of coppiced hornbeam boles and give yourself up to sensory assault of the woodland cavity. Limpid air, cool and humid as a teenager’s breath, filtered light and mouldering leaves. By now the forest floor has been in shade for months and little remains of the herbs that exploded into flower before the leaf canopy closed. The only green comes from the bitter ferns with their rusty spores – hart’s tongue, polypody, buckler. Sound travels differently here and morphs to the rhythmic variations of coppice, plantation, shaw, old growth. Now and then the mew of a buzzard, great tits scolding their demanding fledglings, the thin high chatter of goldcrests in the yew and Scots pine, but in between a deep, round silence broken only by the crack of twigs underfoot and pop and gurgle of the runnels carving through mossy banks. Follow the flow and the oak gives way to alder, birch and willow on the wetter ground, where sedges and buckthorn colonise the bogs and pipistrelles fly at dusk. Go against the flow, up the steep side of the valley and you may encounter one of the Weald’s treasures, the sandstone outcrop.The combination of the dense tree canopy and the blocky sandrock that holds onto the rain creates a humid micro climate, more like the oceanic climate of the western extremes of Europe. Here grow mosses, liverworts and filmy ferns, the enigmatic plant life collectively known as cryptograms.

The Weald, early autumn. Pigs are no longer driven up here. Beneath the trees, it’s calm. Despite successive assaults from larvae and insects, the canopy has remained intact and the recent rain has not reached the forest floor, crummy and strewn with mast. The ground itself has yet to receive its annual mulch of fallen leaves that will slowly return to the soil, broken down by the writhing seam of micro fauna and flora at the surface of the centuries-old soils.

This is the quiet time, before the autumn storms start, before the fall of leaves begins – first ash, then beech and latest oak. It will be some months before the birds begin their territorial song. The brittle roots of wood anemone, the pale long bulbs of garlic and bluebell lie dormant in their arid beds, waiting for spring.

And in this quiet time you sense the latent power of the land, its hidden wealth. Rising out of the sandstone, countless small, fast flowing streams feed the rivers that splay out of the Weald. The Rother, Tillingham and Brede (formerly the Ee) flowing south east to Romney Marsh; below the main ridge, the Adur, Ouse, and Cuckmere flow due south to the Sussex coast; rising in the north, the headwaters of the Medway and its tributary, the Eden, while the Bewl and the Teise flow into the Medway further downstream. Their waters have carved valleys that give space to rich habitats where voles, otters and crayfish thrive and fish spawn. They feed the declining water meadows where snipe and lapwing breed and some migrant species spend their winters.

High up on a Wealden ridge, where the old yew clings to the sandstone outcrop with its sinuous roots, you are alone in the silent woods and yet utterly connected to the teeming wild around you, like the fat nervous spider at the centre of its web, exposed, alive to the smallest vibration at the edge of things.

Yew on sandstone outcrop

Yew on sandstone outcrop

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Me and Heston walk all night

“tensely constructed and authentically rendered”
Carly Holmes, Editor TLR Issue 12

One harsh winter I worked at night and weekends as a volunteer in cold weather shelters, set up by St James’ Piccadilly and St Martin-in-the-Fields to try to support the hundreds of people sleeping rough in Central London, in places like the notorious cardboard city on the South Bank. Most of the people I met were from the UK – mostly male ranging upwards in age from late teens. It was difficult to tell how old the older people were – living on the street and the things that go with it accelerate ageing processes and a recent study by Crisis showed that people who live on the streets die an average of 30 years before the general population.

TLR Issue 12

The Lampeter Review Issue 12 September 2015, editor Carly Holmes

The Lampeter Review has just published my short story, ‘Me and Heston walk all night,’ in Issue 12. It’s based on what I learnt back then. You can read Issue 12 here: Me and Heston walk all night

I’m looking forward to hosting Melissa Harrison and Rob Cowen at Kew’s first literary festival on 26 September (see Write on Kew). Both their books, At Hawthorn Time and Common Ground, feature men who have chosen to live on the road, though England makes it almost impossible. There is much to discuss.

Today the Solidarity with Refugees rally in central London was well attended. Hopefully the shift in public and media attitudes will help not only people who are seeking asylum but also people already here – the latest figures show that 57% of London’s rough sleepers are non-UK nationals.

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Read Emma Warren’s review of At Hawthorn Time on Caught by the River here.

Read Ben Myers’ review of Common Ground on Caught by the River here.

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