Lovely Richmond

I said in my last Thames Path post that, if you wanted to go a for a walk in that part of west London, you’d be better off going to Kew Gardens. Well, I can now add: you’d be better off going to Richmond Park, as well. I can’t quite believe I’ve never been there before.

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Not only is it green enough to feel like a bit of a break from the city, it actually feels significantly wilder than most of the actual countryside in the south-east of England. Having been enclosed as a royal deer park in the mid 17th century, it has just been grazed by deer for 350 years and has the distinctive feel of a really well-established ecosystem that hasn’t been messed around with too much. There are loads of mature trees — apparently including 1200 ancient trees, mainly gnarly pollard oaks — and some fenced-off areas to allow patches of woodland with more undergrowth, ponds, bits of gorse. On a sunny day it was absolutely lovely. And in the Isabella Plantation, which is an area of ornamental garden, the rhododendrons and azaleas were looking amazing, and the bluebells were just opening — they’re going to look spectacular in about a week — and it was a pleasure to be there.

azaleas

Plus whitethroat, blackcap, willow warbler, chiffchaff, skylark, stock dove, jackdaw, kestrel and so on. And two Egyptian geese with goslings, so that’s another exotic species to go with the parakeets that are all over the place. Apparently they have reed buntings, which I didn’t see, and lesser-spotted woodpecker, which I haven’t seen for years, so that’s two more reasons to go back some time.

view

Oh, and slightly outside the park, the view from the top of Richmond Hill across the Thames is fabulous.

The Thames path, Putney to Kew

And two months later, I get back on the Thames Path again. One exciting addition to the routine: sunscreen. Yup, proper sunny weather; spring turning into summer. And it made for a very pleasant walk; this section of the path feels almost rural. Admittedly, for much of the walk the rurality consists of little more than a few trees and about five feet of weedy verge, but in the full greenness of May, that was pretty good. In November, the impression of being in the countryside would no doubt be a bit weaker.

And if I list some of the plants that were in flower, it certainly sounds rural. Cow parsley, white deadnettle, wild garlic, lady’s smock (cuckooflower), hawthorn, elderflower, forget-me-not; I just love the names. And at this time of the year, everything is so green and full of life: even the sycamores, a tree I basically think of as an exceptionally big ugly weed, looked pretty good.

path somewhere towards the Kew end

There were some non-floral points of interest, though. Soon after Putney Bridge, you start walking past the boat houses owned by various schools and rowing clubs, and people rowing on the river. In fact my walk was pretty much the route of the Boat Race. Over the river you can see Craven Cottage, the stadium of Fulham FC, the football club owned by Mohamed “Prince Philip is a Nazi Frankenstein” Al-Fayed. For non-Londoners, Fulham (both the area and the football club) are best defined by the fact that, as much as they’d like to be, they just aren’t Chelsea.

Alexanders and Craven Cottage

The path here was originally a towpath, I believe. In fact, I think most of the Thames path from here on up to the source of the Thames follows the old towpath: that it, the path used by horses towing the canal boats along the river. I can’t quite imagine the logistics of it: what happened if someone needed to overtake? Or two boats approached from opposite directions? Was the whole river a big cat’s cradle of towropes?

It’s odd to think that, especially before the railways, the canals were the industrial arteries of Britain. They had advantages though: apparently one reason Josiah Wedgwood was a keen investor in canal-building was that, sending his porcelain from Staffordshire to London by road, 30% of it would break on the journey.

The path goes past a couple of nature reserves. One of them, the London Wetland Centre, describes itself as ‘the best urban site in Europe to watch wildlife’. I don’t know enough about the urban sites in Europe to judge that claim, but they’ve certainly done a really impressive job there. It was built on the site of a water treatment facility, I think, and they’ve created an impressive wetland area. Their headline success, I suppose, has been to attract bitterns in winter, but they also get a variety of waders and ducks, nesting terns, and a colony of sand martins (US: bank swallows). None of which is apparent from the Thames path, it has to be said, except for the sand martins which I watched for a while hunting for insects overhead. These are not sand martins; it’s a crow mobbing a heron.

While I’m writing about birds: it was mostly the usual stuff. Great views of a wren, singing beautifully with its little tail cocked up behind it; good views of a couple of blackcaps, singing even more beautifully and with impressive volume. A couple of exotics: the more unexpected was Egyptian Goose, a bird which is fairly well-established in England but I don’t see that often. No surprise at all to see Ring-necked Parakeets nesting in a tree by the path. They’ve been spreading out from further up the Thames valley for decades now, but in the last four or five years, numbers seem to have exploded: you hear them screeching in any bit of green space in London.

Nesting ring-necked parakeet

There are two marvellous urban myths about the parakeets. 1) They are all descended from a few birds kept by Jimi Hendrix when he was living in London. 2) They are all descended from parakeets used on the set of The African Queen when it was being filmed at Shepperton Studios. But no special explanation is needed for feral populations of exotic cagebirds — there are loads of them around the world. A couple of years ago, I had to resort to parrot-fancier websites to work out what species I’d seen in a park in Seville.

Rather unusually, the other nature reserve was designed to protect an exotic species: the Two-Lipped Door Snail, which, according to the informative sign, “is thought to have been originally been introduced accidentally by the Romans from mainland Europe, where it is much more common.” I support any excuse for protecting patches of urban woodland, but an exotic species of snail which is common in its native country seems like a low priority. But it has been here for a couple of millennia, so I guess we can grant it honorary native status.

Tommy Cooper

The path also goes past St Paul’s School. When I was on the school bridge team we once played a fixture against the St Paul’s E team. I think it may have been one of the few matches we won, so they can’t have been very good, but the fact the school could field five bridge teams still seems slightly extraordinary. In case you’re interested, I also represented the school at chess and fives. I was pretty rubbish at those too. No killer instinct.

» All these photos and a load of others have been posted to my Flickr account. You can see the whole Thames Path set or just the set for Putney to Kew. I’ve geotagged them so you can see them on a map but to be honest the locations are rather approximate.

Napowrimo #5: The Wandering Pine

The Wandering Pine migration’s an unstoppable stampede
which makes up in tenacity for what it lacks in speed;
usually they’ve travelled about eighteen inches when
it’s time for them to turn around and head back north again.

Bird of the Year 2007: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

There’s lots of choice here; I’ll just give a hat-tip to the big trees of Kew Gardens and Greenwich Park which I got over excited about in the autumn.

But most of the possibilities were in Crete. Crete has more species of plant than the UK, and a bundle of them are endemics. In spring, it’s an amazing place for wildflowers. Among too many species to mention were little white cyclamens, two species of asphodel, and at least eight different orchids. For example, according to my own notes on Flickr which may or may not accurate, this is either Ophrys phryganae or Ophrys sicula:

Cretan orchid

Either way it’s a cute little thing. But marvellous though all these delicate little wildflowers were, my plant of the year was something bigger and more grotesque: Dracunculus vulgaris, the Dragon Arum. I was just blown away by this thing. I mean look at it! It’s about four foot tall and apparently gives off a smell of rotting flesh, though on balance I’m pleased to say I didn’t notice it.

Dragon Arum

Best Insect

A quick mention for the attractive/destructive rosemary beetles that have been eating my herbs. And I saw Scarce Swallowtail in Crete which is a nice butterfly. But the clear winner this year is the Jersey Tiger moth that appeared in the garden. In the UK the Jersey Tiger used to be confined, as the name suggests, to the Channel Islands and the south coast of Devon, but over the past couple of years a colony has mysteriously sprung up in south London. No-one knows how they got here but it’s very exciting. Particularly as I hadn’t heard the news when I saw one in the garden.

Best Invertebrate (other) and Best Fish

Considering that invertebrates make up such a large proportion of the world’s species, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit I can’t think of a winner. Not a single noteworthy crustacean, mollusc, cephalopod, arachnid, cnidarian or anything else. The fish thing is less surprising, as I didn’t spent any time in a boat or diving or snorkelling last year. Still, in 2008 I must do better.

Best Amphibian

A tree frog I saw in Crete.

European Tree Frog

Best Reptile

I was having some difficulty thinking of any contenders here, but in the end I came up with two, both lizards. One was a slow-worm, a species of legless lizard, which I saw on a country walk; the other was the Balkan Green Lizard, remarkable for being big, fat, and super-super-green. I think the BGL edges it.

Best Mammal

I could only think of one possibility here, but it’s quite a good one. It’s an unidentified bat species. I was in Chania, in Crete, and kept hearing distant bat-squeaks. But despite plenty of street-lighting, I couldn’t see any bats, so I was starting to wonder whether it was something else. But standing in the square in front of the church and gazing up one evening, I managed to see the bats flying around. I noticed than sometimes one bat would chase another one, and I could hear the squeaking get louder and faster. But what was really exciting was seeing a bat chase a moth, and hearing the bat’s calls, which were normally quite sporadic, accelerate up to a crescendo as it approached the moth. I knew that bats did this: given that they ‘see’ with sonar, it’s their equivalent of shining a flashlight. It lets them see more accurately. But I didn’t really expect to observe it with the naked eye (and naked ear). So that was cool.

Best Ecosystem

Up in the mountains above the Lasithi plateau, I found what I think was the closest I’ve ever encountered to a wild version of the classic Alpine garden: lots of big rocks, and growing between them were these delicate little dwarf flowers in endless varieties. It’s an ecosystem for obsessive-compulsives; walk slowly and keep your eyes at your feet. Or to be more accurate, climb up off the path and scramble over the rocks, keeping your eyes at your feet. I took lots of pictures of the flowers but none quite capture the general appearance of the mountainside as I remember it. This will do, though. It’s a picture I took of an orchid, possibly Orchis tridentata:

orchid among rocks

That flower spike is probably only five or six inches tall, and it was all like that: small flowers between the rocks. The casual walker might get an impression of plentiful floweriness, but to really appreciate the richness of the environment it needed careful, patient searching.

I’d always imagined Alpine plants being kept small by cold and wind; as having a short growing season when the snow melted. In this case the opposite was true; they have a brief, early flowering season before Crete becomes bakingly hot and dry. And above all the ecosystem is maintained by goats. Give it three hundred years without any goats or sheep, and Crete, like all the Greek islands, would apparently revert to forest. It’s an interesting angle on the richness of Crete’s flora; I don’t know how long the goats have been there, but it’s a thousands rather than millions of years. Were all those Cretan endemics existing in tiny fragmentary environments beforehand, but able to take advantage of the changes the goats created? Or have they evolved in those few thousand years?

cyclamens in Crete

Either way, if you get the chance to visit Crete in April, I recommend it.

The girthiest tree at Kew?

I thought I’d post the picture I took of what is perhaps the fattest tree in Kew Gardens. Or perhaps just the fattest relative to its height. Its fatness is so impressive that I wonder if there’s some kind of odd mutation or something going on above and beyond the effects of age and pollarding.

I didn’t get a picture that showed the overall shape—you’d probably need to wait for all the leaves to drop—but you can see by the size of the name label and the leaves that this is a big lump of tree.

Big trees at Kew

I went to Kew Gardens to see the Henry Moore sculptures. Which were OK, I guess. It’s not easy to display such a lot of very large sculptures—28 in all—but Kew is big enough that there’s plenty of room for them, so it’s quite a good match. I wandered around desultorily looking at them but they didn’t really grab me; not that I tried that hard to engage with them. I’d be curious to know whether I would have got more out of them if they were in a field; i.e. if there was less other interesting stuff around to distract me.

Moore sculpture

The particular thing that side-tracked me most was Big Trees; and specifically, some of the oaks and chestnuts. Now there has been a botanical collection at Kew for over 200 years, so there are some decent sized exotic trees. The conifer in the picture above is a pretty imposing example. But the trees I was looking at must surely be older still. There was one particular chestnut which must have been about eight foot in diameter. I didn’t get a picture that did that one justice, but here’s a smaller one:

sweet chestnut tree

I love the deeply grooved bark of mature chestnut trees. The sweet chestnut isn’t actually native to Britain; it was introduced in the Middle Ages. The oak, Quercus robur, is a native species. Of course it’s native to the whole of Europe, so the fact that in this country it’s often referred to as the English Oak is a wee bit parochial. Still, it’s a key feature of the English landscape. And this is an impressive example. Not a great picture, but hopefully the people standing in front of it give some sense of scale.

oak

I love these big trees; there’s something so satisfying about the sheer bulk of them. It makes you wonder what England looked like when it was a genuinely wild landscape; for many hundreds of years, the normal fate of a mature oak was to be cut down and used to make a timber-framed building or a ship. But once upon a time there must have been thousands of ancient trees all over the place. That landscape, of untouched primary forest, isn’t even a folk memory now; it was long gone by the time of Stonehenge. British woodland is artificial, a managed resource. Or now that wood is less in demand, an unmanaged resource; but I don’t think much of it is likely to be left alone for the few hundred years necessary to revert to wildwood.

Here’s another chestnut. I think the shape of it, with a fat trunk splitting into lots of branches a short way up, may be a sign that it was once pollarded. But I’m not sure.

sweet chestnut

Just think, that was probably already a mature tree when George III was confined to Kew Palace, strapped to his bed by the doctors and being bled, cupped, blistered and given emetics in a desperate and ignorant attempt to cure his madness.

» All pictures are hosted on my Flickr account, and you can see bigger versions there, if you want.

FSotW: Digital Dendrology

Sorry, I forgot yesterday, so Flickr set of the week is a day late, but worth waiting for. It’s the remarkable Digital Dendrology by phyredesign.

“I’m fascinated by how things are structured in nature. This year, I have begun taking samples from the branches I collect, and preparing slides for viewing under a microscope. After identifying the type of tree to which the branch belongs, I use a digital camera attachment on my microscope to photograph the samples. Piecing together over fifty photographs for each sample, each final image is a 100x magnification of a glimpse of life not seen by the human eye alone. They become abstract structures reminiscent of any number of things.”

White Mulberry:

Unidentified:

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