The Thames path, Crayford Marshes to Charlton

Crayford Marshes is a patch of grazing marsh on the south bank of the Thames east of London — Dartford, roughly. I heard about it as a birding spot, and a few weeks ago I went to check it out.

But it’s quite a small site and quite a long way away, so I decided to combine it with walking a section of the Thames Path. When I was walking the Thames path a few years ago I walked east to west, starting at the Thames Barrier at Charlton and eventually getting as far as Teddington; this time I added a section to the beginning of that walk.

Crayford Marshes itself was nice enough: it’s basically a fragment of the landscape which would once have been typical of the whole area, and which, thanks to some strict environmental protections, is still found all along much of the north Kent coast. It’s not actually a natural landscape — it’s managed for livestock and there’s a whole system of drainage ditches and embankments to keep the sea out — but it certainly feels wilder than most of the space around London, and it’s important for wildlife.

Crayford Marshes is less impressive than some of the larger areas of marshland out in Kent, but has the advantage, for birders who like to keep lists, of being in London: i.e. anything you see there can be added to your London list. It’s within the modern boundaries of Greater London, as well as the more generous London Recording Area as defined by the London Natural History Society, which is within 20 miles of St Paul’s cathedral — a somewhat arbitrary area which thankfully includes several of my favourite birding spots which would not be included in a more sensible definition of London.

I didn’t get any very spectacular birds, but I did see my first swallow and whitethroat of the year, and lots of linnets, and green sandpiper, and the lapwings were calling, which is my favourite noise in the world. And I saw little egret, which is sort of my first for London.*

Just in the middle of the marshes there’s some light industry — a scrap metal yard and some yards that looked more like distribution centres than actual manufacturing. I was just taking pictures of rusty metal textures and a man from the Environment Agency come over to say “I’m not being funny, but you want to be careful taking pictures here” and explained that the owners of the scrap metal place had been quite aggressive and accused them of taking pictures when they hadn’t even been doing it, and that they seemed to be “a bit funny about photography”.

And of course, it’s not difficult to imagine why scrap metal dealers might not want people taking pictures of their premises; particularly people from government agencies. Perhaps I’m being unfair; perhaps they were paranoid nutters rather than criminals. Either way, I took the advice and was discreet with the camera for a bit.

Once you leave the marshes and go past Erith Yacht Club, it’s a mixture of industrial stuff and housing pretty much the whole way. Among the identifiable things are the familiar piles of gravel and sand waiting, presumably, to be turned into concrete somewhere; a big sewage treatment plant, and a site generating electricity from waste incineration.

The most striking thing, for me, was that when I walked west from Charlton originally, I was walking past a similar mix of housing and industry, and I had a sense of being out on the fringes of London. This walk reminded me that I was nowhere near the edge of London that time; there is miles and miles more of that stuff stretching out along the river.

The sewage treatment plant at Crossness is on the site of one of the Victorian pumping engines installed as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s great scheme to build sewers for London. There was one pumping station on each side of the river, and Crossness was responsible for pumping all the sewage of south London into the Thames. Apparently they didn’t actually treat the sewage in those days, they just timed the release into the river to coincide with the tide going out and let the tide sweep it out to sea. Which sounds pretty horrifying by modern standards, but was a huge step up from not having a citywide sewer system at all.

It’s fitting that the Thames Path goes past the old pumping station, because in central London, a lot of the route is directly above Bazalgette’s main sewer, which runs along under the Embankment.

Also at Crossness there is a little nature reserve that gets a few decent birds, but much of it is closed to non-members. I had a quick look but didn’t see much.

Most of the way, though, what you’re walking past is miles of big, modern, self-contained housing developments. These are generally pretty ugly, which is not really a surprise if you’ve spent any time in English suburbia. There is very little evidence, looking around Britain, of the building trade putting any emphasis on beauty when building mass-market residential property. And they are probably right about the commercial logic; compared to location, facilities and price, the physical beauty of the exterior of the property must come a long way down most buyers’ priorities. But the cumulative effect is pretty deadening.

There are a couple of bits of variety: the old Woolwich Arsenal has been converted into a rather more upmarket area of housing and offices, and at Woolwich itself, you at least go near a real town centre. It’s a pretty dismal town centre, but at least there’s some sign of the variety of human life, instead of the endless ranks of apartment blocks.

Incidentally, although the Thames Path represents an admirable modern effort to create a shared public space, it doesn’t aways feel very welcoming and communitarian. You spend a lot of your time walking along next to coils of razor wire, or outside eight foot concrete walls topped with downward-pointing spikes. It seems appropriate when you’re passing commercial properties, but it does feel hostile when you’re going past residential estates — although I appreciate that families don’t want their stuff nicked either.

The Thames Path was sent on a temporary detour at the end, so I didn’t actually get to walk along the river to the Thames Barrier where I started the first time. Which was a pity.

Anyway, you can see more photos from my day on Flickr, and pictures from the rest of the route as well. The other blog posts about the Thames Path are here.

* ‘sort of’ because, from memory, it’s my first in Greater London but not my first in the London Recording Area.

Happy spring, everybody.

There has been plenty of evidence of spring for a few weeks now — crocuses, bumblebees, birdsong, hay fever — but yesterday was the vernal equinox, which is the cue for lots of people to say that it’s ‘officially’ the first day of spring. I don’t really see why astronomy should get to trump biology; the self-importance of the mathematical sciences, probably.

Though actually, if you must fit messy old nature into tidy human boxes, it’s not a bad approximation for when spring gets properly underway. The first spring migrants have just started arriving in the past few days: yay wheatears.

Meanwhile the pond has been full of toads gettin’ jiggy with it. Except that suggests something lively and maybe even fun, whereas toad sex appears to be a grim, attritional feat of endurance. The males clamp onto the females for days at a time; often you find two or three attached to the same female. And sometimes the females drown under the weight, so you find several males clasped implacably to a corpse. Romantic!

In other garden wildlife news, we have this exciting bundle of feathers:

Exciting because it used to be a woodcock, which is a really unexpected addition to the garden list… except that it can’t actually go on the list because it’s just some feathers. Still, a nice meal for one of the local foxes. Or possibly a cat? Not one of our cats, partly because they’re shut in at night but mainly because they definitely would have brought it into the house. Which is what Oscar did with this (you can see the shadow of his ears at the top):

It’s a big beetle grub; I’m pretty sure it’s a stag beetle, although they normally live underground so I don’t know where he found it.

I went along to the north Kent marshes a couple of days ago. More signs of spring: a comma (the butterfly, not the punctuation) and a lizard, plus I saw a few wheatears, which would be one of my favourite birds even if it wasn’t the first spring migrant every year.

Plenty of the winter visitors were still there, though; brent geese, godwits, plovers, and most pleasingly a short-eared owl. I also saw peregrine, marsh harrier, buzzard, and had great views of a group of four bearded tits, which was bird of the day. But I don’t have photos of any of those, so I’ll leave you with this highland cow which was more willing to pose for pictures.

Mooooo.

Wild geese

I went along to the Swale yesterday — on the Kent side of the Thames estuary — on what turned out to be a startlingly warm day, for February. Bare arm weather! And very nice it was too, to have several hours of uninterrupted warm sunshine.

Spring was breaking out all over: loads of skylarks all over the place singing their hearts out, my first singing chiffchaff of the spring, my first butterfly of the year (a peacock), a great big bumblebee, and less appealingly, clouds of black midges.

But the overwintering seabirds were still there; big flocks of lapwing, curlew, golden plover, avocet, and most spectacularly, brent geese:

This is the kind of place that George Osborne was referring to in his Autumn Statement when he said “we will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”.

I can only assume the Treasury has a rule of thumb that, if conservation is actually working, it must mean we’re trying too hard.

It’s not just the wildlife itself which I think has value: it’s the fact that there is a place so near to London which actually feels a bit wild, a place where a person can feel small in Nature.

That wildness is a bit of an illusion; it’s a landscape gridded with seawalls, groynes and drainage ditches, all there to keep the sea and land decorously separate.

It must have been an amazing place in its truly natural state: a shifting, complex landscape of mudflats, saltmarsh, reedbeds, lakes, wet woodland, changing with the seasons and the tides. A wetland to compare with any in the world.

That landscape is lost forever. But at least we can try to hang on to what we have left. Not just as a refuge for the geese, so they can take a break from the Siberia tundra, but as a place where people like me can take a break from London.

Folk wisdom empirically confirmed

I made plans to go birding yesterday in the expectation it would be sunny again; in the event it was grey, overcast and drizzly.

But I did see one swallow.

Sumer is icumen in

Well, not actual summer, obviously. But it has been a week of glorious spring sunshine here, and I’ve been out and about enjoying it and doing some birding.

On Monday I  failed yet again to see Lesser-spotted Woodpecker in Richmond Park *shakes fist in general direction of south-west London*, but that was more than made up for by two birds. One was a woodcock — a sign that winter hasn’t quite left us yet, because they certainly don’t breed in Richmond. It was the classic brief view of it appearing from the leaf litter, flying a short distance and disappearing again, but it was a lifer for me so yay.

The other was the duck I used to illustrate my last post. I took the picture because it was an obviously odd-looking Tufted Duck, presumably a hybrid but I wasn’t sure quite what; turns out to be Tufted Duck × Ring-necked Duck. Which is cool, because Ring-necked Duck is an American species and a bit of a rarity in Europe, while Tufted is a European species and occasional visitor to North America… but like an anatine Romeo and Juliet, one pair obviously overcame the obstacles. If, that is, the parents were wild birds. I saw a black swan yesterday, and I’m quite certain that it didn’t fly here all the way from Australia. Not to mention the Mandarin Ducks, Egyptian Geese and Ring-necked Parakeets that breed in Richmond Park.

Still, it was an interesting bird. And the first time in a while, incidentally, that I regretted not having a paper field guide with me as well as the iPhone one, but fortunately the photos I took were good enough to let me work it out later.

And yesterday I had a good day up in the Lee Valley. I kind of hoped I might see a migrating Osprey, which didn’t work out. But I saw about eight species of duck, including Goldeneye, had a good view of a Water Rail, and the Chiffchaffs and Cetti’s Warblers were singing. And I saw my first Sand Martin of the year (that’s Bank Swallow if you’re American), and the best bird was a Pink-footed Goose in among the greylags.

And lastly, on Wednesday I went for a walk with a friend on the South Downs, and the skylarks and meadow pipits were singing, which was nice, but the most surprising thing was to suddenly hear a distinctive groonk groonk — raven!

I still think of ravens as birds of the really wild places; Welsh mountain tops, Scottish moors. Which they were, when I started birding twenty years ago. But actually they’re one of the most adaptable species in the world, living everywhere from deserts to the high Arctic. The fact that, when I was a child, you didn’t see them circling high over rolling farmland in southern England: that was a historical accident. It was the result of them being wiped out by gamekeepers and farmers. And now they are protected, they are coming back; like the buzzards, the peregrines, the sparrowhawks. And they are a joy to see.

The Thames path, London Bridge to Westminster

A fairly short chunk of the path; I was intending to go a bit further, but the sun went in and I wasn’t really enjoying it much so I hopped on the tube at Westminster. Still, if you use one of the traditional definitions of a city—a town with a cathedral—this section includes the three medieval cities at the centre of London; it starts by Southwark Cathedral, goes past St Paul’s and ends at Westminster Abbey.

Just to explain that, because I guess not everyone knows the history of London: the royal court and the government was based at Westminster, separated by about a kilometere of fields from London, the mercantile and legal centre where all the law courts and guilds were based. The dynamic between the two is quite interesting, I think: London had a lot of legal autonomy (and indeed money) so even in the days of apparently absolute monarchs the balance of power was less clear cut than you might think. To this day when the Queen goes to St Paul’s for some kind of ceremonial function, her coach stops at the boundaries of the City of London and she asks permission to enter. As a South Londoner it pains me to say it, but Southwark wasn’t really much more than the overflow from London over London Bridge, although because of some kind of legal quirk that meant it wasn’t under the jurisdiction of London it became the centre for bear pits, whorehouses, theatres and similarly disreputable trades. Which is why The Globe was there.

bridges

That distinction between the mercantile City of London and Westminster as the seat of government has persisted, of course: we even still refer to ‘The City’ as shorthand for the banking and financial services sector and ‘Westminster’ as shorthand for parliament and government. I find these echoes of the longer history of London interesting because so little physically remains. The Great Fire of 1666 really did burn down nearly the entirety of medieval London. Much of it would no doubt have been knocked down anyway, whether by the Luftwaffe, town planners or commercial developers; but even things like the churches, which might normally offer that kind of continuity, were lost. And most of the Palace of Westminster burnt down in the C19th as well, so that was another major medieval building lost. There are still a few left: Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral, the Tower of London, the Guildhall. But there’s no part of London you can visit and feel you’re in contact with what the city was like. The oldest part of the city is a business district, so it’s all office buildings. All that’s left is the street names: Old Jewry, Cripplegate, Milk Street, London Wall, Blackfriars, Hosier Lane, Carmelite Street.

What’s amazing is that London and Westminster remained separate up until about the mid C18th. So it took about 700 years for London to spread the one kilometre westwards to reach Westminster; but in the next 150 years it spread something like 10 km in all directions.

St Paul's from the path

Anyway, you may be wondering why I’m wittering on about the history of London instead of talking about the actual walk. It’s because I didn’t find it very interesting. I decided to walk the north bank because I more often go along the southern side, because of Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre and so on. There quite a few theoretically interesting things to look at: war memorials, the Millennium Bridge, Cleopatra’s Needle, a glimpse of St Paul’s and a couple of the Christopher Wren city churches, as well as views of Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the South Bank Centre, the London Eye, the Oxo tower. And just at the end, Big Ben and Portcullis House. But it’s all very familiar; and the path goes past the City and the West End without actually having much contact with them.

It doesn’t help that if you’re walking the north bank in winter, the light is coming from over the river all the time. So everything on the other side of the river was backlit and dificult to photograph; and I really need a wider-angle lens to take pictures of buildings near me.

» Once again I’ve added the pictures to my Thames Path set on Flickr; these ones are tagged with thamespath3.

Hay fever and climate change

Last year on 28th February I wrote this:

Last year it wasn’t until March 12th that I complained about hay fever. Nearly two weeks earlier, this year.

Well, it’s only the 9th, and my eyes have been painfully sore for days. Because of these little buggers I took a picture of yesterday:

catkins

It’s not really fair to make year-on-year comparisons, because I haven’t consistently blogged at the first sign of any symptoms. But I’ve been getting hayfever for about 15 years now, and this is ludicrously early. I think of it as starting in March; this year the first itchiness at the back of my throat was at the end of January.

So I was interested to see this article. Basically the guys at Kew Gardens are making the same observation. They link it to climate change, and it certainly feels like yet another warning, along with the ibises and egrets and spoonbills, that climate change is happening right now and it’s not only affecting glaciers in Greenland.

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Epistem [ornith] ology

I went for a walk in the local woods a couple of days ago, and forgot to take my binoculars because in my head I wasn’t birding, I was just going out to enjoy the spring sunshine. That’s silly, of course; its not something you can turn off. Even if I’m in central London, there’s a little bit of my brain ticking over in the background in readiness, just in case something more interesting than a pigeon should fly past. And walking through the woods on a sunny day in late March, with all the birds gearing up for the breeding season and not too many pesky leaves on the trees, it inevitably became a birdwatching walk.

I saw Woodpigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Wren, Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, and Starling. Nothing very surprising, but reasonable enough for London. And actually I quite enjoyed doing some naked-eye birding; just watching the birds, unmediated by binoculars.

But I was thinking how frustrating I would have found the same walk if I wasn’t familiar with the local birds. By the nature of the thing, most of the birds were some distance away, or partially obscured, or in shadow, and the only reason I could generally identify them quickly and easily was that I knew them well. The same sightings of unfamiliar species would have seemed like glimpses.

It’s an odd experience when you see new species for the first time. It’s almost like you don’t actually see a bird, you see an unstable collection of impressions. Everything can be misleading, depending on the lighting and angle; even the most basic things like size and colour are elusive and untrustworthy. You can catch a flash of white on the head and not know whether it’s the throat or an eyestripe, or see some pale colour on the wings and not know whether it’s white or grey or yellow. You can lose sight of it for a moment and find it again and not be completely sure whether it’s the same bird.

And then there’s a moment, when you’ve seen it enough times, when it abruptly switches from being a inchoate mess of birdiness to a type, a species. And the next time you see one you just recognise it. Since this moment of coalescence is often associated with finding it in a field guide, it sometimes feels as though by naming it, you have given it form.

And if you tick off a new bird without having internalised it in that way, no matter how sure you are of the identification, it’s never quite as satisfying.

pelted with cast off shoon

What wrong with this picture?

snow in March

Answer: the time of year it was taken. Snow is all very well in its way, but I’m about ready for Spring now, thank you.

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That time of year again

Last year it wasn’t until March 12th that I complained about hay fever. Nearly two weeks earlier, this year. Could be global warming; more likely just me being more irritable.

Amusing bonus bit of web 2.0 gimmickry: you can see the culprits here.

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Spring is sprung

I can tell that spring is here because my eyes have started itching like crazy. These are the culprits, hazel catkins:

picture from Flickr, © ‘Nunns’

It always seems unfair when my hay-fever gets going and the weather is still cold and miserable. Spring is definitely coming, though. It may still be cold and grey, but there are little bits of green appearing on the trees, the birds are singing, and there’s frogspawn in the pond. Today’s treat was a goldfinch displaying in the garden. This is a goldfinch (if it looks unfamiliar, you may be thinking of the American species):

picture from Flickr, © HOPires

The sexes look the same, but presumably it was a male displaying to a female. He was perched near her on the feeder pole, chirping and doing a little dance. He was standing on one spot and turning his body left and right in little abrupt movements – rather Chubby Checkerish – all the time with his wings slightly spread to show off the wingbars. She seemed more interested in the niger seed, but perhaps she was just playing hard to get. When they flew off, I noticed another goldfinch joined them and also started displaying.

I didn’t know they did that, so I was pleased to see it.

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