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.



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

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.






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?

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.



Dear London Pigeon,

Snow is here! So exciting I can’t stop telling everyone, as if no one has windows or news or facebook. It started at five o’ clock yesterday in sleety drips down the back of my neck and then suddenly it turned into soft magical floating flakes and in no time the world was white and shining, just like the kind of English Christmas that has never actually existed. We walked on it, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, we fell over into it, BUMP, BUMP, BUMP and we picked up hard little fistfuls of it and tried to sneakily aim it down coats and trousers.

This morning it was still there and I sledged the boys to school but I can hear the gutters dripping and I know it won’t last. In the meantime, I’m enjoying watching the birds feasting around their feeder – blue tits, robins, great tits and a fat, hopeful pigeon. Best of all, I just saw a fox, in the far field across the valley, gambolling and pouncing as if the snow were living and he was a cub again. It makes happy fools of us all.

How is London? Any snow to report?

Love, Wood Warbler


Missing: possessed blackbird


Dear London Pigeon,

Thank you for your reply! Interesting that London squirrels aren’t in a similar state of gluttonous torpor. Maybe they don’t fatten up so much as country ones, knowing there’ll be a plentiful supply of food all winter, stolen from bins, or from people who leave out large quantities of bird seed?

Your idea of a squirrel soulmate reminded me of my blackbird ‘friend’ last year. Like your squirrel, he would sit outside my window as I worked, sometimes pecking at the glass as if he wanted to be let in. When I looked up, he’d fix his beady eye on me and not look away. But there was something very offputting about the way he did it. Maybe it was his orange-rimmed eye, which he couldn’t help, but it was also the way he kept on and on staring. I began to wonder if he was somehow possessed, or a reincarnated soul. He clearly had an important message to impart, if only I could understand it.

I stopped feeling remotely romantic about him around the same time he took to perching on my wing mirror, every morning, and shitting down the side of my car. I don’t know if it was revenge for my inability to understand him, or my refusal to let him into the house; or maybe he was someone I had offended in a past life. It’s probably quite hard to wreak serious revenge if you come back as a blackbird.

After that, I began to notice other things about him. Like his claws. Have you ever really looked at a blackbird’s feet? They’re massive! I mean, disproportionately massive, with lethal, hooked claws, especially on the fourth toe. All that deceiving jet-black sleek fluffiness and then you look down and there are monster dino-claws. His lack of fear began to unnerve me. I could put my face right up to his on the other side of the glass and still he wouldn’t move. I know blackbirds can be territorial, but it’s not like I look like a rival blackbird. I think.

I began mentioning him to other mothers in the school playground at drop off time, but then I realised I didn’t sound entirely normal, talking about a psychotic blackbird, so I kept him to myself, like a disturbing secret.

He stayed with me all summer, this blackbird, but by October he was gone and a pair of new blackbirds have recently arrived. They scamper along the decking, taking off as soon as I move. They’re a pair of flibbertigibbets. Both are looking a little sorry for themselves in all this wet, although I noticed one has a shiny orange bill that exactly matches our Halloween pumpkins, which I’ve yet to throw out. They never give me that same direct, unnerving stare, these two, and I’m not sure we’re going to build up much of a relationship. But then again, nor have they taken to crapping on my car.

Love, Wood Warbler

ps Yes it’s true I occasionally write poems. I hear you also illustrate? Perhaps I can post a poem when you’ve posted some of your illustrations

Fat Squirrels


Dear London Pigeon,

Have you noticed something strange happening to the squirrels? I keep seeing them everywhere – sitting on fence posts, hanging out by the side of roads, looking fat and bushy and quite pleased with themselves, a nut grasped between their paws. When I approach, they no longer scamper away, flinging themselves between branches like a high-octane circus act. Instead they just sit there, nibbling and gnawing, occasionally glancing up at me to say, ‘What are you looking at?’ 

I can’t work out if this lack of fear and scurry is because they’ve grown fat and dazed on acorns and have entered a state of gluttonous torpor; or if their little animal bodies have felt the chill creep of winter and all they can think about now is eating nuts, nuts, nuts, as many as they can, before the cold comes and this crunchy carpet of food is gone.

Love, Wood Warbler