I was born in Epsom, one of those places on the fringe of London that mark the very boundary of the city, the point at which tarmac gives way to soil. As the picture below shows, just a few hundred yards from my road, Hookfield, the country begins in all its greenness.
This never much interested me in my youth. I was always more attracted by town than country. Nature passed me by. When I moved into the city proper, I took little notice in the pike or herons I saw from my boat on Regent’s Canal, or the ring-necked parakeets and woodpeckers I later found in Brockwell Park. If somebody told me they saw a badger in Regent’s Park or a cormorant on the Thames, I cared not a jot. And who needed peace and still when you had Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park nearby, even if I rarely actually bothered to go there.
A month in the Scottish Highlands changed that. For the first time I was able to observe hedgehogs, adders, shrews, woodmice, weasels, deer and eagles in the wild, and see traces of badgers, pine martens and wildcats. The sheer scale of the country was extraordinary, from the peaks of the Munros, to the endlessly unfolding glens. It was eye-opening and life-affirming.
Returning to London was difficult. I had previously viewed the city’s numerous parks as pastoral paradises. Now they seemed liked scratty scraps of green, a sad imitation of the real thing. The battering noise, smell and greyness of London was overwhelming.
But nature is still here, if we look for it. It’s there in the foxhole that occasionally appears at the bottom of my garden. It’s there in the resilient, remarkable weeds and visiting birds, as lovingly chronicled in Richard Mabey’s essential London wildlife book ‘The Unofficial Countryside‘. It’s there in Tales Of The City, the blog of Mel Harrison, in which she charts encounters with owls, snowflakes and brambles. It’s there in Herb Lester’s Untamed London map, which records those places ‘where nature still runs wild in the big city.
As I walked home from taking my daughter to nursery this week, along the horrible, traffic-clogged hill that takes cars from Herne Hill to Camberwell, I heard a faint, familiar sound as I passed a bus stop. It was the chirruping of a grasshopper. I stopped and looked and found it on a hedge. It looked at me, quite unmoved, before continuing to sing (or stridulate) defiantly. We gazed at each other for a minute, while commuters bustled past on foot and in car, and then quietly, and more contentedly, I went about my way.
Lovely stuff, Peter. And you’re right, in many ways green places in cities are pale imitations of nature in its wildest form (“unfenced existence / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach” as Larkin put it), but for me it’s a question of scale, and you demonstrate this perfectly in this blog post. Instead of looking out and up, at dramatic peaks and vast forests, and at the ‘trophy animals’ like eagles and wildcats, nature in cities repays a closer focus and a more parochial view: the wall barley turning golden at the edge of the pavement, the bramble bush whose blackberries always ripen first each year, and yes, a grasshopper, tiny and mysterious, stridulating away by the bus stop. These humble things can make life in a noisy, grimy city beautiful: you just have to know how to look.
Like you, I was born in Epsom and now live in Herne Hill. I can’t agree that our parks are scraps of green. We have lots of parks around us, Brockwell, Dulwich, Ruskin and Sunray Gardens which bring so much pleasure. We also have a small garden and I love watching each individual flower shoot, bloom and then fade with the seasons. We do get the opportunity to visit family in Suffolk and Yorkshire and so I do get my fix of open countryside which is wonderful but then I’m very happy to come back to this friendly and in my view, beautiful part of London.