Tree pilgrimage & dinosaur leaves

Dear Pigeon,

I went to London. Home of the pigeons! And while I was there, I decided to make a pilgrimage to a tree I’d been reading about… one of the oldest black mulberries in London, in a private garden behind Canonbury Tower.

The story goes that King James I wanted to bring silk-making, or sericulture, to Britain, so he asked his Lord Lieutenants and various other nobles to start planting mulberry trees. Mulberry trees, he knew, were the food of silkworms. And once silkworms have munched on mulberry leaves to their hearts’ content, they make little cocoons for themselves. It’s the fibres of those cocoons that can be spun together to make silk thread. (I’m telling you all this as I didn’t really know about it until I read it).

James’ Lord Lieutenants and nobles were very obliging. They planted four acres of black mulberries in what is now Green Park and the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Robert Cecil (son of William Cecil – Chief Advisor and then Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I) even sent his gardener abroad to bring back mulberry saplings, and then planted 500 of them at Hatfield House, though only one now survives. Robert Cecil’s cousin, Francis Bacon, was living at Canonbury Tower at the time. Perhaps he asked for one of his cousin’s sapling and planted it in his garden. If true, that would make the tree over 400 years old.

James I’s silk-making industry never really took off. Silkworms, apparently, will eat the leaves of black mulberries, but much prefer the leaves of the white mulberry, which aren’t suited to our climate. But the King’s wishful, pie-in-the-sky project left behind a legacy of ancient mulberries, dotted all over London.

When I reached Canonbury Tower, the only way to see the tree was over the garden wall. I climbed up and looked over – the closest I could get. The tree is so old, its trunk has cracked and split, and lies horizontal along the ground, its branches heading skywards. Its trunk looks gnarled and reddy-brown. Being winter, it was all very leafless and bare. I wanted to go over and see it more closely, touch it even, but there was a certain magic in having to hold back and admire it from a distance. A change, from all that busy Amazon-clicking, next-day-delivery, instant-gratification. And I thought of my trip as a little pilgrimage. A way of saying hello to something very ancient, in a quiet walled garden in London, that has seen a city grow up around it.

On my way back though, I did have a moment of instant gratification. The pavement was dotted with gingko leaves, miniature yellow fans pressed into the dark concrete, gleaming up at me. Gingko trees have been around since the Early Jurassic period. They are living fossils. Dinosaurs munched on their leaves… and now here they are, being trampled underfoot, buses hurtling past, littering the ground in amongst discarded masks and crisp packets. I felt an instant hit. No pilgrimage necessary. A present on a grey day.



This morning it felt like spring. I heard the ‘Beast from the East’ might be coming soon, so I left my work and went for a long walk through the woods with a friend. It’s ‘her’ walk rather than mine, meaning that when I try to recreate it on my own, I get lost. Every time.

There are two silver birch trees that signal a crucial left turn, so I took a photograph of them, in the hope that it might help. As we walked, we scooshed our feet through the thick leaves and watched the dogs weave in and out of the browny clumps of bracken.

It was one of those walks that lifts your soul. There was sunlight and warmth and birds singing; great tits, blue tits and dunnocks, all marking down their territory for when breeding starts again. Nature was stirring. You could feel it in your bones.

When I got home, I pulled out my laptop and sat in the conservatory, even though it’s freezing, so I could enjoy the light. It’s fading fast now. The trees are making their lacework patterns against the sky and I can see smoke, pluming from next door’s chimney. Sooty black rooks are flapping from tree to tree, telling me there’s not much daylight left.  I hope I’ve bottled it somewhere inside me. At least I took it while I could.



Stoic and heroic

Levington Creek

Dear Wood Warbler,

My turn to apologise. Sorry I haven’t written to you in so long. I could say that it’s because I’ve been inside watching Blue Planet and not going out to see any actual real life nature, but that wouldn’t quite be true. I actually love going out and seeing wildlife in the chilly depths of winter. Everything seems stoic and heroic just by being alive – the ducks on the shivering creek by my mum’s house, braving the sleet, the puffed up birds, huddling in the trees, the bright red roses on my Dad’s grave, blossoming in the middle of a snowstorm.

Anyway, since it’s the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about my best wildlife moments of 2017. There was the pair of marsh harriers playing in the wind over a lake at Minsmere, getting mobbed by crows and then tearing away from them. There was the tiny, sweet dormouse nestled in the grass a few yards away from the harriers (quite likely to become a snack for one of them, I had a bit of a conflict of sympathies there)…

Minsmere Dormouse

There were the evening nightjars, flitting about in the dusk, and the murmuration of a thousand starlings over a Suffolk beach, making their hypnotic, pulsing shapes in the sky.

It’s hard to choose the best thing I saw, although the luckiest was the definitely the Portuguese Man of War that washed up on the beach at Lyme Regis. Lucky because it didn’t kill me or put me in hospital, despite my repeated attempts to poison myself by prodding it to work out what it was.

The most exotic thing I saw was a Mystery Mammal that I spotted in Catalonia this September. It was a hot, sleepy day and I’d jumped into a river, and was enjoying having my sweaty feet nibbled by some brave and tiny fish, when I looked up and saw it – beautiful, brown, glossy and elegant, slipping noiselessly along the bank and then disappearing into the undergrowth.

Was it a polecat? Or maybe a mink? If it was a European Mink, it was endangered and incredibly rare – there are less than 500 of them in Spain. Google told me it was more likely to be an American mink (there are bucketloads of them in Spain – they’ve done pretty well since breaking out of mink farms in the 70s and 80s). Or it might have been a European Polecat (again, not very rare).

Obviously my fellow spotter and I decided that it was DEFINITELY a European Mink, even though there are so few of them, and most of them live along a specific river, hundreds of miles away. Rarity just does make something more exciting.

But lately I’ve noticed how the common, everyday sights just be just as great as rare, sexy, unusual species. There’s hardly anything that’s more delightful than the little long tailed tits that flit about the trees on the New River Walk. I see them loads – but they never get any less beautiful.

And my favourite place to watch wildlife isn’t exactly exotic – it’s Levington Creek, in Suffolk. Sometimes you can see the resident kingfisher hanging out by the outflow pipe (he was there on Boxing Day, and so bright in the sunshine, he looked like he belonged on a coral reef). But the point is, you never know what you’re going to see. It could be an egret and a couple of oystercatchers. It could be an empty stretch of grey brown mud, with nothing on it at all. Or it could be fifty lapwings, wheeling in the sky, or hundreds of little grey and yellow waders all huddled together, looking out to sea (I really should work out what they are).

What I love about it is how much it changes. Some days it can be incredibly bleak and empty, and I love the bleakness. You can go for a walk and be unable to stop yourself wondering how many dead bodies there are bound to be, preserved in the mud.

But on other days it’s bright. Some days it’s noisy with hundreds of squawking birds. Or you look up across the field and see fifty deer. On other days the fog comes in and you can’t see past your own cold & snotty nose. There’s something I love about the habit, always treading the same path, and slowly getting to know how much there is to find in one small, ordinary corner of the world.

So here are my wildlife new year’s resolutions: to keep getting to know Levington Creek, and to appreciate the everyday bits and bobs of nature, as well as the shiny rare sightings. To work to out what those yellow/grey waders actually are, and to remember to sometimes write some of it down and tell you about it.


London Pigeon

Crows on the wind

Dear Pigeon,

So much time has passed and I haven’t written to you. We’ve watched tadpoles spawning into frogs and newtlets hunting in our old aquarium, hiding in the water weed before darting out to feast on bloodworms and daphnia. There were nightjars scything through the summer dusk and baby toads (toadlets?)…IMG_2577…already so warty, hopping through a damp field. And now it’s autumn and I thought of you as a sudden gust of wind blustered its way over the hill and I saw all the crows take to the sky, cawing loudly as they plunged this way and that, as if nothing could be more fun.

In other news, I have a resident buzzard that does a fly past my window each day, and red kites can now be seen, fanning their forked tails, up the hill behind the house.

With much love,

Wood Warbler

Nature is coming


Dear Wood Warbler,

I’ve been extremely slack in my nature watching lately. But whenever I’m too lazy to go out and find nature, nature just says: ‘Don’t worry! I’ll come to you!’ It keeps turning up in unexpected places. There was the barn owl hunting in my mum’s back garden on a sunny afternoon. The avocets wading through the marsh near her house. The terrapin who has just taken up residence on the New River Walk. The young foxes playing in my road at night. The delightful cockchafers, with their Michael Heseltine eyebrows, landing on my laptop…

Fats Bassoon

And the wood ear mushrooms, growing on trees, that demanded to be eaten. (See pic above. They were delicious).

And then there were the newts.

Spotty ones, smooth ones, nearly transparent ones, and lovely Great Crested ones who have turned my in-laws’ swimming pool into Newt City.

great crested newts

Is there anything more relaxing in the world than looking at newts? It’s something about the way they sleep, drifting through the water, arms and legs outstretched, totally unconcerned about the world.

On the evening after I’d seen the newts, I sat on the steps of the house, and looked up at the stars, enjoying the peace of the spring evening. A peace which was disturbed pretty thoroughly when a RAT scurried out from under my feet, and zoomed off across the grass. I say rat – it was really the size of a small horse.

A couple of nights later, I was in my bedroom at my mum’s house, reading a book, when I noticed a large bug circling around the light. The windows were shut, so I was just wondering how it had got in, and whether it was a hornet, when it flew towards me and I realised that it was, in fact, a bat. A magical, beautiful bat. By the time I’d got the window open, it had flitted off on a tour of the house. After opening all the windows and doors I could find, (damn you, window locks!) I watched it in the hall, turning circles in perfect silence, until it finally disappeared into the night.

So. What’s next? At this rate, I’m expecting a badger under my pillow any day now. I’ll update you.


London Pigeon

PS Once Great Crested Newts have been discovered, it is illegal to disturb their habitat in any way. So if you hear of any evil property development going on, all you have to do is sneak into the site and ADD GREAT CRESTED NEWTS. And a pond. I feel like this would make a great plot for a children’s book/actual hobby.

PPS This doesn’t count as nature spotting, but the other day I went to a drawing class and met this lovely creature. He is called Chester. He is a five week old tawny owl. He eats between ten and twelve mice a day.


Springtime is for stealing


Dear London Pigeon,

Any sign of your missing frogspawn? Because exactly the same thing happened here. No sooner had spring sprung than the spawn sank. At least, I think that’s what happened as it ALL VANISHED. We were very distressed. We too suspected the fish. But a tense month or so later, hundreds of tadpoles appeared around the shallow edges of the pond. And then, naturally, I did what all sensible people do… I stole some.

Because spring, I’ve realised, is all about stealing.

In winter, living in the countryside is actually quite horrible. It is very cold and very wet and it’s not like the cold and wet stays outside, like it does in cities; this cold uncomfortable wetness INVADES YOUR HOUSE. My toes have been bitten by cold as I’ve slept. My floor disappears beneath a sea of muddy footprints. My nose turns red and stays that way from November to February and the log fire only pretends to give out heat whilst really warming its selfish self. So I see spring as PAYBACK TIME. Nature owes me.

It owes me in the form of tadpoles swimming about my kitchen in the old fish tank, tails jauntily waggling. It owes me in great bunches of bluebells snatched from the woods when no one is looking. It owes me in cow parsley snaffled from the roadside and bowls of floating yellow dandelion heads before they start telling the time. It owes me in forget-me-nots and primroses and unfurling ferns and anything else I can gather up from outside and squash into a jam jar so I can say, “yes, living in the countryside was a really good idea.”

I am a spring thief, just like your greedy carp.





The Aventure of the Missing Frogspawn


Dear Wood Warbler,

Spring is definitely here. Delightful spring things I have seen include:

-fat, dozy bumblebees

-cherry trees and magnolias everywhere, their confetti spraying all over the streets

-two lovely butterflies, a little white one, and a dusky reddish brown one, flitting about on the New River Walk. (Sadly I’m not R.L.E.Ford and couldn’t identify them more accurately than that).

A pair of delicate long tailed tits, hopping about, upside down on a cherry tree. (Not really that spring specific, just delightful).

Best of all, I’ve seen clouds and clouds of frogspawn, in the New River. There were so many clumps of it, if every egg was destined to turn into a frog, London would be facing an Old Testament Plague type situation.

At first, the frogspawn was guarded zealously by about fifty frogs. (I didn’t see this myself, but was told it by extremely reliable sources). Then all the frogs left (maybe they weren’t that bothered about their offspring after all). Then…

It disappeared.

All of it. Yards of it.


It’s possible that all the tadpoles have hatched. But if they have, where are they? The water is crystal clear. Unless they’re playing an extremely committed game of hide and seek, I’m a little concerned for them. Apparently tadpoles get eaten by all sorts of creatures.  Blackbirds, magpies, cats, even the innocent looking hedgehog quite likes the occasional mouthful. They’re the quick and easy snack food of the wildlife world. They’re tiny, canal-based Pringles.

Personally I have my suspicions about the extremely gloomy carp who I often see lurking in the vicinity. (See above). But could he have consumed that many frogspawn dinners?

I am baffled. But hopeful.

I’m going to keep watching out for them.


London Pigeon.






deformed frog


Dear Pigeon,

Today I want to write, quite predictably about SPRING! Ever since dark, dank, cold, boring, dementorish February I have been desperately seeking signs of SPRING! everywhere. Every year I am fooled by the snowdrops. They emerge out of the hard, frosty ground and I say, ‘Hooray! Spring is here!’ Only of course it’s not. There’s more biting cold to come. Then the crocuses pop-up, flourishing their fancy purple heads on their silly spindly stalks and I say ‘Hooray! Spring is here!’ all over again, only to gaze, dismayed, as they’re squashed flat by a shower of icy rain. But yesterday, I think quite officially, SPRING came. Here is what I saw:

  1. One bumblebee, flying fatly across the path in front of me
  2. Skylark, trilling high, in all its profuse strains of unpremeditated art (that last bit was Shelley, not me).
  3. Most exciting of all, FROGS, mating, in the pond. There’s a clutch of them, gripping each other with all four legs, the males croaking madly, bodies clenched, poor females pushed to the bottom. Already globby lumps of slimy spawn are bubbling over the surface. Last year, we had to pull out a couple of bloated drowned females, their bodies white and startling, filled to bursting with water. This year, there is also one deformed frog, hunchbacked, sadly croaking alone on the pond’s edge. I have included a Victorian freak-show style photograph of Humpy.
  4. One bright yellow Brimstone butterfly
  5. Sweet-smelling blackthorn in blossom

Hooray for SPRING!

What have you seen?

Anyway the wind blows


Dear Wood Warbler,

It’s Doris Day! I know that technically, this is bad (bridges shut, trains cancelled, trees crashing down on cars and people), but to be in it, walking to the park, the wind swooshing me all the way there, feels just wonderful.

The wind roars, leaves are scuttering along the pavement, alarms and sirens go off, bins fly across the street, but none of the wildlife looks particularly bothered. The deer in the park look only as nervous as usual, the blue tits and goldfinches flitter about as per, the coots are as deadpan and implacable as they always are, like members of a sinister security detail. The ruffian dogs have come into their own, racing along after the leaves. Only one dog, a tiny, froofy, Parisian looking creature looks bewildered – infact almost personally insulted – by the unusual weather.

How is Doris Day with you – and Fred?


London Pigeon

PS I loved reading about Larger Moths, and imagining the lovely, patient, careful life of the mysterious R.L.E.Ford. Recently my soothing book of choice has been My Family & Other Animals. There’s almost nothing better, when it’s dark and freezing outside, than being lulled by a description of a sunlit day wending through a reef on Gerald Durrell’s boat, the Bootle-Bumtrinket

As the boat’s turtle-shaped shadow edged across the seabed, the multi-coloured, ever moving tapestry of sea life was unfolded. In the patches of silver sand the clams were stuck upright in small clusters, their mouths gaping. Sometimes, perched between the shell’s horny lips, here would be a tiny, pale ivory sea crab… 

Larger moths

Dear London Pigeon,

I too have been seeking refuge from the news, though not in squirrel sex chases or violent great tit fights. Instead, I’ve been getting my consolation from larger moths, or to be even more specific, The Observer’s Book of Larger Moths.

The book is small and rectangular, clearly made to fit a capacious coat pocket and to be taken out into the field for purposes of identification. And it’s full of the most alluring names: Satin Lutestring, Ruby Tiger, Frosted Green, Pale Tussock, Peach-Blossom, Pebble Prominent and Chocolate-Tip.

These moths sound like a cross between rock star children and Farrow & Ball paint. My favourite, though, is Old Lady Moth, who looks just like Miss Havisham in her faded and decaying wedding robes,  speckeldy-grey with fraying at the edges.

But the book’s soothing powers really come from the voice of its author, the mysteriously initialled R.L.E. Ford. The best way to convey this is to quote him. Here he is on the Fox Moth:

“It is virtually impossible to collect fully grown larvae in the autumn and keep them yourself through the winter.”

Don’t you love the way he says this? As if anyone reading this book might be about to attempt it. He then goes on in more detail: “The larvae pupate on the ground; often the cocoon will be under a flat stone or piece of tin lying on the ground. Larvae kept during the winter die, probably from a fungus disease, but now and then a collector succeeds in bringing a number through.”

Who are these collectors? Do they still exist? Are there collectors out there now, struggling to bring Fox Moth larvae through the winter? I hope so.

I’ve also learnt that the Oak Eggar Moth is one of the best species to watch “to see the females attracting the males by means of their scent glands” and that blowing cigarette smoke down a tube into a tree is a good way to collect insects. But the best story of all brings us back to the Old Lady Moth:

“Once, during an air raid in the last war, I disturbed a fine variety of Old Lady Moth from under some tiles I was replacing after a bombing. Unfortunately, as I was astride a coal-shed roof at the time, I could not give chase. I tried sugaring in the garden around, but the moth did not return.”

Reading this book is like diving into a lost world, in which people watched these fluttering creatures of the dusk with sincere and avid interest, a lifetime of natural knowledge at their fingertips.

I feel greedy for it, that world. I want my head to be filled with bands of yellowish colour in the hind wings, houses spun from leaves and brown cocoons made with coarse silk fibres. Sometimes, if I’m having trouble sleeping, I take it out and read a short paragraph to myself, luxuriating in the minutiae of its prose. It’s the exact opposite of a post-truth Trump tweet or a white paper on Brexit. It confounds the idea you can ever have enough of experts.

And next time I see a moth go by, I’ll reach for my book and see if I can identify it – infuse myself with some of Ford’s love and learning. That is, of course, provided it’s one of the larger varieties.