Category Archives: Animals

Wappingness

This is an edited version of a piece about Wapping  written in 2011.

‘Explore Wapping,’ exhorted Samuel Johnson to Boswell, ‘to see the wonderful extent and variety of London.’ It is fine advice still. Johnson was speaking in the 1790s, when Wapping was London’s principle settlement for sailors, a hive of cobbled streets and damp, narrow alleys that led to the numerous wharves and jetties of riverside London, but his instruction rings true today. Explore Wapping and see how London can demonstrate a seemingly infinite capacity to reinvent itself, how it will welcome newcomers and how it celebrates its past while never neglecting to engage with the future. Few cities have such a knack at looking simultaneously backwards as well as forwards, and few places in London do this better then Wapping. Here, Morrissey explores Wapping landmarks in his 1992 video, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, just as the area was undergoing heavy gentrification.

To understand Wapping try approaching it from St Katherine’s Dock, the pretty riverside development that lies adjacent to the Tower of London. Leave St Katharine Dock at the point where it almost touches the Thames and you will arrive in Wapping at the very western end of Wapping High Street, the charismatic street that runs parallel to the river for the length of the district. Here, on the corner with Kennet Street, is a large stone wall, decorated with icicle-like drips of cement. Inside the wall is a large red brick building, which still proudly wears the emblem of the Port Of London Authority, although this has over time turned the sort of misty green colour you associate with cannons dredged from the ocean floor.

This is the old dock house, a remnant of when Wapping was home to London Docks, and it stands next to Hermitage Basin, one of the few parts of the dock complex not to have been filled with concrete and covered with roads and houses in the 1970s. Hermitage Basin once offered a way for ships from around the world to get from the mammoth London Dock to the Thames, but now it is a sweet little ornamental lake surrounded by houses, and a home itself to a sedate family of regal swans and the odd mallard.

Hermitage Basin is a fine example of what you could call Wappingness: the way Wapping has come to terms with its past, making sensible accommodation with what has been before. This has not been an easy task. Wapping has been battered by change over the centuries, first when the docks were built in 1805, carving great watery holes throughout the neighbourhood and reducing the population of 6,000 by two thirds, and then when they were filled in again in the 1970s, eradicating what had been Wapping’s identity for more than 150 years. The warehouses and docks of Wapping were also heavily targeted by German bombers during the Second World War. But still it prospers.

Signs of Wapping’s maritime heritage are everywhere. Before the docks arrived, it was a place of wharves, jetties, warehouses, boatbuilders, sailmakers, brothels and pubs, having been originally settled by the Saxons and used by London’s sailors for centuries. The building of the docks over reclaimed marshland helped cement these long links with the sea, even if they replaced the bustling village atmosphere with vast warehouses and a more transient population. The London Docks were the closest docks to the City of London, which gave them a significant advantage over those docks that had recently been built on the Isle of Dogs.

In these Wapping warehouses, dockers would unload treasures from right across the British Empire, including tobacco, rum, whalebone, spices, cocoa, coffee, rubber, coconuts, marble and wool. Settlers from overseas lived in Wapping – nearby Limehouse was home to London’s first Chinatown and is now home to a thriving Bangladeshi community – and artists, writers and poets would come to Wapping to glimpse exotica in the form of both the goods brought from overseas and in the working-class men and women who lived and worked in the area. They would then disperse around London and the East End, taking some of the essence of Wapping with them across the Highway into Whitechapel, Spitalfields and beyond. Later still, artists set up studios in the derelict warehouses of Wapping in the 1970s, heralding a trend that soon spread throughout east London.

The chief attraction, of course, was the river, although the Thames itself can only intermittently be glimpsed between the tall warehouses that act almost like a river wall. But stroll round Wapping and you’ll see signs of its maritime history everywhere in the shape of weathered dock walls, converted warehouses and industrial walkways that allow passageway high above the cobbled streets. Here are restaurants and pubs that pay homage to the past, plus a pretty canal that stretches in a narrow strip from Hermitage Basin in the west to Shadwell Basin in the east, offering a slender shadow of the bustling docks that once stood here. Between buildings on Wapping High Street you can see numerous ancient stone stairs, green with age, that lead directly down to the river.

Such is the all-pervasive water-soaked atmosphere that Wapping itself can even feel like something of an island, bordered on three side by the liquid barriers of the Thames, St Katherine’s Dock and Shadwell Basin and with a busy main road, the Highway, to the north, cutting it off from the rest of London. And within this island, there is just as much to explore as there was in Johnson’s time. You can find London’s oldest riverside inn, the grisly site of pirate executions, an abandoned shopping centre, a gorgeous listed church, a power station turned art gallery, a historic foot tunnel, London’s only memorial to the Blitz, a beach that the Beatles posed on, mudlarks searching for Tudor bric-a-brac, Wapping Wood and an escaped tiger. So follow Johnson, explore Wapping, embrace Wappingness.

Secret London: eight London shrines

I wrote this for the wonderful Curiocity, London’s finest pocket-sized trivia-and-map-packing magazine. Issue E, with a pilgrimage theme, is available at all good London bookshops. 

Tyburn martyrs
On Bayswater Road at Marble Arch is a small convent, unlikely home to a ‘cloistered community of benedictine contemplatives’, aka nuns. In the basement chapel, the walls are covered with ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged on the three-sided Tyburn Tree during the Tudor wars of religion. Behind the altar of this ghoulish Martyr’s Shrine is a replica of the Tyburn gallows itself.

Giro, The Nazi Dog
One of London’s best known ‘secret’ sites, this little stone on Carlton House Terrace marks the grave of Giro, beloved pooch of (Hitler-opposing) German ambassador Leopold von Hoesch. Giro died while the German Embassy was at No 8-9 (now the Royal Society) during the pre-war Nazi era. He wasn’t really a Nazi, incidentally, as dogs rarely express a political preference (although I did once know one that would bark like a maniac if you said ‘Labour party’).

Bolan’s Tree
A sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes has been a shrine to Marc Bolan since 1977 when Bolan’s Mini crashed into it, killing the singer instantly. A bronze bust of Bolan stands nearby.

Spoons

Holborn’s junkie spoons
Underneath a dank stairwell in Farringdon close to Mount Pleasant sorting office you might stumble across a wall stuck with a dozen mysterious spoons. Urban legend says these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead peers, each spoon marking a new death.

Cross Bones graveyard
This parcel of disused land in Borough has been claimed by locals as a shrine to prostitutes said to have been buried on unconsecrated land since the 1500s, and they come here to lay flowers for the forgotten dead. In truth, Borough had many such graveyards and Cross Bones was used to bury the poor of both sexes.

Regent’s Canal coconuts
The further west you head along Regent’s Canal towards Southall the more likely it is you will come across a coconut floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles. These are placed there by London Hindus in religious ceremonies that sees the tiny canal replace the mighty Ganges.

Skateboard graveyard
Look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge and you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of the concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have experienced one olley too many and, beyond repair, been dropped to join their kin by South Bank skateboarders.

Postman’s Park
A shrine to everyday heroes, this park features a number of ceramic tiles dedicated to Londoners who died while saving the lives of others. A remarkable, very touching little spot created by the Victorian artist GF Watts.

Opium pipes in London

brochure; pamphlet - Opium Smoking Parlour

In 1899, Earl’s Court offered interested Londoners the chance to pay 6d to see a Hong Kong ‘opium smoking parlour’, filled with ‘living Chinaman’ and ‘true to every detail’. This reflected an ongoing fascination for the Chinese habit of smoking opium – a habit that had been partly encouraged by the British East India Company and then condemned by British missionaries – and merrily ignored the fact the British themselves had been consuming opium for decades.

The Chinese tradition of smoking looked and felt very different though, and that’s partly because it was so deeply ingrained into society, a ritual to be enjoyed alongside tea and nicotine with a rich material culture, lavish paraphernalia and its own customs, traditions and symbolic meaning. This is explored in an extraordinary exhibition of Chinese opium pipes at Maggs Bros bookshop in Berkeley Square, which I have written about for the Independent on Sunday.

It features a unique collection of 19th-century Chinese pipes and related material that demonstrate the full complexity of the Chinese relationship with opium, as can be seen in some of the following images – and these barely scratch the surface of the incredible collection that can be seen at Berkeley Square from June 5 to the end of July.

Field of opium poppies

Field of opium poppies

Jar for storing opium

Jar for storing opium

Chinese opium smoker

Chinese opium smoker

Postcard of opium smoker from Vietnam

Postcard of opium smoker from Vietnam

Bowl for smoking opium

Bowl for smoking opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Smoker with pipe and tools Smoker with pipe and tools

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

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Pipes being burnt by anti-opium reformers

Bowl for opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

Lamp used for preparing and smoking opium

Lamp used for preparing and smoking opium

Tray for carrying opium tools

Tray for carrying opium tools

Pink pills for pale people - opium cure

Pink pills for pale people – opium cure

Box for storing opium with erotic carving - opium was seen as an aphrodisiac and was originally smoked in brothels

Box for storing opium with erotic carving – opium was seen as an aphrodisiac and was originally smoked in brothels

Bowl for smoking opium

Bowl for smoking opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Preparing a pipe

Preparing a pipe

Tools for preparing opium

Tools for preparing opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

 

Opium smoker with cat - pets often became addicted to the opium fumes

Opium smoker with cat – pets often became addicted to the opium fumes

The nature of London: Clay by Melissa Harrison

‘It wasn’t much of a park, really, more a strip of land between the noisy high road and the flats… Despite its size and situation the strip of grass was beautiful – if you had the eyes to see. The Victorians had bequeathed it an imaginative collection of trees; not just the ubiquitous planes and sycamores, and not the easy-care lollipops of cherries either, but hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn caps like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate, and begin another perilous generation among the logs that were left to decay here and there by government decree.’

‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Next to my computer is a small round stone my daughter brought to me from the garden. If I was to pick it up and throw it at the bookshelf, I could hit any of a dozen novels set in London,  all of which carefully detail the grimy, grey, green-free streets of the post-industrial capital. They could be set in Soho (‘Adrift in Soho’ by Colin Wilson) or Kennington (‘London Belongs To Me’ by Norman Collins), Bloomsbury (‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton) or Bethnal Geen (‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron). I love some of these books dearly (all of the above) while others I find unforgivably bad (er, ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan) but they all inhabit essentially the same milieu – a London of narrow streets and Victorian houses that block out the sky, paved streets, traffic, pubs, smoke and people. This is the written London, or at least the London most experienced by writers in London which they then transfer to the page at the exclusion of almost anything else.

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None of them, then, do what Melissa Harrison has done with ‘Clay’, which is write a novel about nature in London. The plot, a slight but melancholic meditation on freedom, is really just a MacGuffin for this, Harrison’s real heroine. There are a number of non-fiction books enthusing at the way trees, weeds, flowers, foxes and immigrant parakeets coexist alongside largely uninterested Londoners – try ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ by Richard Mabey or ‘Scrap’ by Nick Papadimitriou – but by placing nature so firmly in the foreground of her novel – and the book is rich with descriptions on each page of everything from pine cones and owl pellets poo  [Harrison tells me that owl pellets aren’t poo] to rain clouds and long grass –  Harrison has managed to achieve what every London fiction writer surely dreams of: she makes you look at the city around you with freshly opened eyes.

I am perhaps a little biased – and not just because I know Harrison through Twitter (where she introduced herself to me by announcing she’d varnished a duck). The book is set in a part of London that I know already, a park based on Rush  Common, a strange, thin, scraggy strip of parkland that follows Brixton Hill from St Matthew’s church down towards the prison. I’ve always thought it a scrawny, rather pointless piece of grass but through her characters – a small boy called TC, a Polish farmer called Jozef and a grandmother Sophia – Harrison shows how much life can be concealed a short walk from a traffic-clogged A road. It gives an unexpectedly life-affirming twist to an otherwise sad but beautiful book, that resonates far louder than its slim size would suggest. Is it a new London genre? It’s certainly a welcome change from the norm, though I doubt whether many other writers would have the knowledge, passion and skill to recreate it so impressively.

Wellcome to London: how Henry Wellcome ‘hoovered up the world’ and left it on the Euston Road

Wisconsin, 1858. A five-year-old boy is playing near his frontier home when a strange stone catches his eye. He takes it to his father, who examines the flint carefully before deciding that it was a prehistoric tool made thousands of years before to cut meat. It probably meant as much to its creator as the railway did to modern humans. ‘That excited my imagination and never was forgotten,’ wrote Henry Wellcome years later, after he had grown up, moved to London and accumulated one of the largest collections of scientific paraphernalia that has ever been gathered by a single individual.

Henry Wellcome

Wellcome established his pharmaceutical company, Wellcome-Burroughs, in 1880, making a mint selling pills to an English public that had previously taken medicine in the form of powder or syrup. This fortune sits in the Wellcome Trust, which was established 76 years ago and is now worth £14 billion, making it one of the world’s largest charitable foundations. Next door to the Wellcome Trust HQ on Euston Road, a short walk from St Pancras, sits the Wellcome Collection, a museum that houses some of the million or so objects collected by Wellcome in his lifetime. Here is Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush, ancient sex aids, Chinese torture chairs lined with blades, boxes of false eyes, human skeletons and paintings by Van Gogh. It is one of the most extraordinary collections in the world, a throwback to a time when wealthy individuals would hoover up the weird and wonderful of the world for their personal collections, but executed on a scale few could compete with.

Ken Arnold is the Wellcome’s Head of Public Programmes. ‘This is the last great non-connoisseurs collection,’ he says. ‘Our usual concept of a collector is somebody who carefully decides whether something is authentic and then forks out a huge amount of money for it. Wellcome had an “other-end-of-the-telescope” approach. He saw everything through medical-tinted spectacles and wanted to own anything that would illuminate that fascination.’

Wellcome collected everything: paintings, engravings, photographs, models, sculptures, manuscripts, books, periodicals, pamphlets, letters, prescriptions, diplomas, medical instruments, archaeological finds, skeletons, skin, hospital equipment, advertisements, drugs, remedies, food, plants, microscope slides, charms, amulets, ceremonial paraphernalia, costumes, medals, coins and furniture. He bought entire shops, contents, fixtures and fittings, acquiring enough to recreate an entire street. He bought others collections, picked up human skulls from African battlefields and returned from one typical trip abroad with 44 packing cases of material. If something wasn’t available, he had an artist make a reproduction. Teams of buyers were finding him items right up until his death in 1936. His reach was broad and their brief was wide.

‘Wellcome had deep pockets and no bureaucrats telling him what he could bring home so he had none of our moral, financial or logistical concerns,’ says Arnold. ‘He hoovered up the world, and left us with this extraordinarily unwieldy and undisciplined collection.’ Although Wellcome amassed an immense collection, he was frugal with his money. ‘He was very wealthy, but he would send employees to auctions dressed down so they didn’t look too rich, and would set up fake companies so people wouldn’t know it was his money,’ says Ross MacFarlane, research officer at the Wellcome Library.

A chippy self-made American, Wellcome could never become part of the British establishment – although he was awarded both a knighthood and the French Legion d’honneur – and a desire to be taken seriously may have prompted his determination to create a museum of ‘the art and science and healing’. This opened in 1913 in South Kensington, before it moved to Wigmore Street and closing in 1932. When Wellcome died, the collection was put into storage or dispersed.

‘The British Museum has 40,000 objects, the Science Museum has more than 100,000, the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford has 30,000 items and there are bits in almost every museum in the UK,’ says Arnold. The Wellcome Trust has since taken a similarly philanthropic approach, funding wings in numerous UK museums, galleries and academic institutions.

In 2007, the Wellcome Collection opened. It is a modern, classy space, with a cafe and bookshop, as well as a gallery that hosts thought-provoking exhibitions that use art and science to explore topics such as Skin, Sleep and Brains. Their next exhibition, Death, promises to be particularly fascinating and challenging.

The Wellcome dares to be different: while most museums take an unfamiliar topic and wring all the knowledge out of it like a damp dishcloth, the Wellcome looks at something familiar and turns it inside out, using contemporary art and scientific research to make visitors question what they think they already implicitly understand. Their ability to do this can be traced back to Henry Wellcome himself.

‘We feel free to interpret the material Wellcome collected,’ says MacFarlane. ‘Because although we know when something was bought and what it cost, we don’t always know how it got to the auction.’ Arnold expands on this: ‘He didn’t talk about his philosophy. There’s enough to get an idea of why he was collecting, but there’s not so much that we feel we have to conform to his beliefs. He once said ‘Never tell anybody what you are planning to do until you have done it.’ That sounds like a good idea to me…’

So the Wellcome eschews blockbuster shows – which Arnold describes as ‘a depressingly greedy way to conduct exhibitions’ – and takes pride in imaginative live events. ‘We never try to be definitive,’ says Arnold. ‘There’s always more to discover. And we don’t want to be po-faced. Science is either deadly serious or fun with pink fluffy letters – and between these two unpalatable positions is a yawning chasm that can be filled with smart and sophisticated entertainment.’

Of course, the Wellcome is helped by having a lot of money in its coffers. ‘We are much more privileged that most other organisations. We are wealthy and we don’t have to satisfy civil servants, corporate sponsors or shareholders. But that attitude comes from the Wellcome Trust itself: science is a risk-taking business and there is a sense we are allowed to be experimental.’

MacFarlane finishes that thought, ‘When we take the directors an idea, they’ll often want to give it a go, and that’s a bit like how Wellcome collected. It’s a great position to be in.’

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Admission free. The Wellcome’s next exhibition is Death, from November 15. 

Turing at the Science Museum

There’s a rather fine exhibition at the Science Museum at the moment about Alan Turing, the pioneering computer scientist and philosopher who was born 100 years ago. What particularly appeals is that while there is only a limited number of objects, all of them matter.

This is hefty stuff, invaluable weighty objects that demand attention – so it’s blockbuster, but not in the usual way of throwing everything at a room in an attempt to wow the audience into submission at the sheer scale of things. Instead, the museum has cherry picked a dozen important objects that most reflect Turing’s life – the life of one of the most important figures of the 20th century – and let them tell the story. As the curator David Rooney told me, ‘A lot of what Turing did was very abstract. We wanted to show it had a real impact on the world.’

Featured items include an Enigma machine on loan from the secret staff-only museum at GCHQ, the Pilot ACE (one of the world’s first computers), a cybernetic tortoise, a 1930s differential machine made out of Meccano, Turing’s pathology report (which shows he drank a large amount of cyanide, more than you could consume by accident or put in an apple) and a section of a crashed Comet jet, which the Pilot ACE was used to analyse to see why it exploded in mid-air.

Enigma machine

Crashed Comet G-ALYP, 1954.

Pilot ACE

Meccano differential analyser

Here’s a film of the tortoise in action.

My favourite thing in London

The other day, I saw this board outside the Big Red Bus tourist shop near the British Museum and decided straight away that it might be my favourite thing in London. It was so striking, with such a warped sense of perspective and bizarre mishmash of London stereotypes.

I wanted it.

I decided that I would go inside and ask how much it would cost to buy it, but first I stopped and looked at it awhile. Questions entered my head.

What is a Grenadier Guard doing outside Downing Street? If he’s not on duty, why is he wearing his uniform and if he is on duty, which he shouldn’t be, why is he holding the hand of a small foreign bear? What is Paddington Bear doing so far from his comfort zone of Paddington without Mr Brown or any of the Brown family? Why is Paddington Bear standing behind the Grenadier Guard in that curious position? Are Paddington Bear and a Grenadier Guard even particularly relevant symbols of London life in 2012? And is it just me, or does the whole ensemble look rather like a surreal take on something you might see on Crimewatch featuring a stranger caught on CCTV camera leading a small child away from a shopping centre?

I still wanted it though, maybe now more than ever.

While I was plucking up the courage to go inside an ask, two Italian tourists came strolling down the road. They saw the board, giggled, then handed me their camera and asked if I could take their picture. After arguing over who would be the bear and who would be the guard, they poked their heads through the holes. I took a photograph, they thanked my fulsomely and moved on, laughing and chatting, relishing this rare free moment of childish fun in the sterling-sapping city.

I realised then that the need of London’s tourists was greater than mine. I could always come back, but they would only ever have their photographs. I went home, contented.

Brixton Village hawk

I saw this harrier hawk in the unlikely surroundings of Brixton Village this week while I was quietly tucking into a galette washed down by hot ginger beer.

He is flown around the market twice a week to keep pigeons away and dis-encourage them from nesting in the rafters, where they would crap merrily on hip Londoners going about their hip business. Many of the local stallholders looked terrified.

Secret London: swastikas

One of the great London rumours is that somewhere inside the Royal Society’s building on Carlton House Terrace sits a giant swastika.  This is not because these esteemed scientists and thinkers are secretly Hitler-worshipping fascists, but because their home at Nos 6-9 was the location of the German Embassy (at Nos 8-9) during the pre-war Nazi era.

Carlton House Terrace was designed by John Nash between 1827-1832 to occupy a site previously taken by Carlton House. No 9 almost immediately became the seat of the Prussian Legation, which slowly evolved into the German Embassy. In the spirit of the time, it soon expanded to occupy the house next door at No 8.

In 1936, Joachim von Ribbentrop moved in, replacing the late Ambassador Leopold von Hoesch (whose dog’s gravestone can be seen under a tree near the Duke of York steps). Von Ribbentrop demanded a complete renovation of the property, and the Nazi’s top architect, Albert Speer, was called in to do the job. Exactly what he did remains something of a mystery, but the German Embassy website claims:

‘Only the fact that the Nash Terrace was a listed building saved the facades from being included in Ribbentrop’s plan to establish a model of the Third Reich architecture in the centre of the British capital. The renovation was exhaustive, money was no object.’

It is hard to discern exactly what alterations Speer made, but one diplomat wrote that the showy renovation of No 8 and 9 Carlton House Terrace had produced a style and furniture less suitable for an embassy and more comparable to that of German luxury liners of the time like the “Bremen”.  A contemporary set of photographs are lodged at the Library of Congress. The only one currently viewable is of the very modern-looking kitchen.

This decent phot0-set shows the building now, including Speer’s striking staircase, said to be constructed by marble supplied by Mussolini.

Albert Speer designed this

Among Speer’s embellishments was said to be the inclusion of a swastika mosaic on the floor of one of the public rooms. After the war, rather than remove the offending article, the swastika was said to have been simply covered with a carpet. (And this website claims there are still visible ‘border designs of swastikas on the floor of one public room’, which seems unlikely.)

Is it true?

Well, I’ve never seen a photo to substantiate the claim and people I know who have been inside the Royal Society are also none the wiser. However, I did once receive an email at Time Out from a builder who claimed to have renovated the building in the 1990s and seen a huge swastika under one carpet. Where, presumably, it still remains. Von Ribbentrop also had a house built for him in Pinner, which was said to have swastikas carved into the staircase.

If you do have a hankering to see a swastika in London, you should head for India House, where this plaque can be seen on the wall.

It represents the swastika when it was still an intriguing sign from the east, before it was appropriated by Hitler. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the swastika was a popular symbol in the west, often used as a good luck charm and adopted by groups as varied as the Boy Scouts and the Druids. My copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories still has a prominent swastika featured in one illustration and the British Museum is full of the things.

Indeed, so popular was the swastika, it was even used to liven up the decor at Hounslow Bus Garage. Click on that last link and zoom in and you’ll see the border of pretty little swastikas that featured in the staff canteen. These swiftly disappeared as the truth about Hitler became impossible to ignore.

 

Nature: an apology

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.