Saturday, 20 June 2015

The spaces inbetween

Time has been short lately. It's only a month until we move to Edinburgh and there's much to sort out, and loose ends to be tied up at work. Little time for getting out of London for walks, but with a run of lovely weather it's hard to miss the swelling heart of summer even in the concrete jungle. A little innovation was needed to reconnect with the wider world, so for the past week I've been out and about when I can with the camera to local green spaces and waste ground to see what I can find, and, armed with a couple of pocket guides, to build up my ID skills.

Even in the workaday streets around where I live the diversity has amazed me. Crouch and watch a little piece of weed-covered waste ground for a while and it's akin to your eyes adjusting to the dark. More and more details loom out - another species of wildflower, and another, and another. How many different types of bumble bee is that now? And how many hoverflies? And what's that little creature on the cow parsley - a bizarre insect, or the larva of another insect?

Here's a selection of what I saw (or what I think I saw - please let me know if there are any howlers here!):

Greater celandine, showing seed pods as well as buds and flowers, by a vacant office block in London SE1

Ox-eye daisies with common knapweed and yarrow, Bricklayer's Arms

Back in the 1960s and 70s, highway engineers drunk on modernism built huge roundabouts, often with motorway-style flyovers, right in the middle of residential areas. The car was king, and the car driver's journey was implicitly deemed more important than those of the bus passenger, cyclist or pedestrian. Parts of London are blighted by these types of roundabout. They channel and speed up vast amounts of traffic and create menacing barriers between different neighbourhoods. Sometimes the pedestrian has to negotiate them by a confusing network of subways. They also create large void spaces where they go against the grain of existing streets, leaving little offcuts, patches of waste ground in the angles, soon colonised by vegetation.

Common ragwort, Bricklayer's Arms
The subway system under the Bricklayer's Arms roundabout and flyover in south London was recently filled in. This has created even more patches of bare earth where the subway entrances used to be. The pioneering weeds have moved in quickly.

White campion, Bricklayer's Arms

Yarrow on the site of an old subway entrance, Bricklayer's Arms
Where the wild flowers go, the creepy crawlies aren't far behind. Come autumn, you can't open the windows in our flat without several harlequin ladybirds tumbling onto the windowsill. So where are they coming from...?

Harlequin ladybird larva on cow parsley, Bricklayer's Arms
Moving further east along Old Kent Road to the turn-off to the Royal Mail depot on Mandela Way, there's a relatively big void space at the end of a row of old terraced cottages. An old Soviet tank lives here. Hang on, this is prime central London - why a tank and not, say, several storeys of unaffordable luxury one bedroom flats? The story of Stompie the T34 is here.

This patch of land has been guerilla gardened in the past, but lately it's been left to its own devices.

Bombus terrestris on red dead-nettle, Mandela Way
Common mallow grows by Stompie's wheel
Dog rose, Mandela Way

Hedge bindweed, Mandela Way
Maybe my favourite space for a micro-adventure is back home in the back yard shared with the other flats in the block. No-one uses it, no-one looks after it. The landlord in their wisdom at some point laid a membrane and layer of gravel over the whole space. The earth underneath is black and rich and full of life. Nettles are abundant, a sign of good soil. Their root systems have breached the membrane everywhere and many other plants are taking advantage and colonising the space.

Meadow buttercups
In the afternoon, when  the sun swings round to the south, it becomes a sun trap, the heat reflecting back off the pale tenement walls. As you step out of the back door you might hear a sudden rustle and glimpse a fox slinking through a gap in the fence. Magpies have a nest high in a locust tree next door that they return to year after year; this tree with delicate pale green leaves is overshadowed by a huge plane tree beyond. You might see a jay, or a troop of long tailed tits, or if you're really lucky, as I have been once, a sparrowhawk might flash past pursued by the angry shrieks of the magpies.

Herb Robert
But in the summer it's the bees and hoverflies that bring this place to life. Crouch down with a camera and try to pursue them, and time can pass very quickly.

Bombus terrestris on green alkanet
Stay long enough and maybe you begin to see it their way, become engrossed and lost in the detail, the vegetation, the flowers, a jungle in miniature, like one of the vulnerable little latter-day humans in the monstrous overgrown garden of Brian Aldiss's 'Hothouse'.

Insects are a sort of final frontier for naturalists; they admit there are thousands of species still to discover. The variety of species, the (often gruesome) niches they exploit, is dizzying. For most species of social bumble bee there is a corresponding species of solitary cuckoo bee that usually looks very similar and can invade its nest, kill the queen, lay its eggs and 'enslave' the workers to rear their young using powerful pheromones.

There are around 5,000 species of hoverfly.
I put the camera away, mentally zoom out again. An aircraft rumbles overhead on its way in to Gatwick; street sounds and traffic reassert themselves. The bees and the plants go on doing what they do, what they have done since time out of mind, and what they will be doing when there's no-one left to see it.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

End to end across the high Ochils

The thing about Scotland is that even the flat bits are hilly, and the populated bits relatively wild. The fun doesn't begin and end in the the Highlands, and most people even in the central belt have hill days on the doorstep offering solitude and wildness way beyond what can be found in the south east of England. Whether the days are short or the weather bad or the Highlands snowed in or you're worried about your carbon footprint and don't fancy a long drive north, there are always options close to home - sometimes very challenging options in the depths of winter.

A series of little ranges are placed like steps across the central belt. Hamish Brown once walked from Abernethy on the Firth of Tay through to the Erskine Bridge on the Clyde, dropping gradually south west over the Ochils, Fintry Hills, Campsie Fells and Kilpatrick Hills. This trip could be extended at both ends - over the Sidlaws from Forfar to Perth in the east, and the Renfrew Heights from Inverclyde to Largs in the west.

Hamish Brown grew up at the foot of the 'couthy humps' of the Ochils and developed his love of the hills here. They were also fairly local to me, certainly the nearest substantial range of hills, rearing an impressive rampart above the carses of the Forth estuary and looking their full height and more. In winter conditions they can offer tough days - blizzards, difficult route finding, and sometimes huge accumulations of snow. They're extensive enough, and some of the slopes flanking escape routes down the glens to the south are steep enough, to make getting lost in winter potentially serious. For me, living near the Ochils meant I could be fighting through a winter blizzard at 3.30pm and sitting in the front room with the fire on and a mug of tea by 5.

Last week we had a few days at short notice in Scotland sorting things out for the move north in July. I had a day to myself but no time or transport to go far into the Highlands, so it had to be the Ochils, and a walk I've had my eye on for a while - crossing the hills from Sheriffmuir in the west to Glendevon in the east and exploring the less frequented uplands west of Ben Cleuch, highest and mid point of the range. A good 16 mile leg-stretcher.

Dumyat first, under an hour from the Sheriffmuir road. What it lacks in height it makes up for in character - buttressed and craggy, a stark contrast to the rolling grasslands and bogs of the main massif.

It's a jacket on, jacket off sort of day - biting wind and hot sun. In the end I stick with a windshirt over a t-shirt. Dumyat seems a world apart, offering a lot of contrast for little effort.

Although most hill names here are corruptions of Scots Gaelic, Dumyat and the name of the range itself are much older, from the Old Welsh/Brittonic languages that predated Gaelic. Dumyat refers to the Miathi, a local tribe, with 'Dum' denoting a fort. Ochil is from uchel, meaning 'high'. The Ochils form the northern border of Clackmannanshire. This tiny county is a curiosity with its origins in the deep past. The Brittonic kingdom of Manau existed at least as far back as the Roman occupation and probably further. Alistair Moffat writes in The Faded Map: Lost Kingdoms of Scotland:

Perhaps the most amazing survival is the kingdom of Manau. Its heartland lasted until 1974 in the shape of Clackmannanshire, Scotland's smallest county. Ignored by all but antiquaries, its talisman stands next to the old county buildings in Clackmannan. Clach na Manau is the Gaelic version of the origin name for the Stone of Manau, the core of the ancient kingdom and the derivation of Clackmannan.
Clackmannanshire was restored in a subsequent local government re-organisation in 1996.

In no time I'm approaching the summit of Dumyat...

...and the fertile estuary flatlands and loops of the tidal Forth are laid out below, bright and fresh in the morning.

If the Ochils were in England, or if the Highlands didn't exist, they would be a hugely popular and protected national park. Instead they are eaten away by forestry and wind farms. The more the Highlands are protected, the argument goes, the more vulnerable unsung places like the Ochils become, because that development still has to happen somewhere. However it's in places like the Ochils and Campsies and Renfrew Heights, empty hilly tracts hard up against the towns and cities, that you get an immediate sense of how much we need wild places, from the fresh water collected in the Glendevon reservoirs destined for the taps of Fife, to the fresh air and psychic space and little adventures in easy reach of so many.

For me, the main reason to preserve wild places is that non-human things deserve places to live as much as humans do. Maybe we're doomed to look out for our own first and foremost. But our system exacerbates this, creates and confuses needs and wants, and shuts the non-human world out of the moral equation when deciding what's acceptable and what isn't. The price of progress is hidden at every turn, cause and effect is masked, until it starts to erupt into everyday life: crashing bird populations, loss of topsoil, decline of bees, wind farms in places we thought industrialisation could never reach, oceans of plastic, deadly air pollution in the cities. Where is it all heading, and who really benefits? This version of progress starts to look like cannibalism on a global scale. Maybe protecting nature comes back to self-interest after all.

I was thinking these gloomy (and unoriginal) thoughts as I climbed onto the main spine of the Ochils and took in the view across Strathallan, from the hills newly gouged and planted mostly with commercial conifers, past the Beauly-Denny pylons to the Braes of Doune wind farm on the edge of the Highlands. Skylarks still sang above the wrecked hillside, maybe not for much longer. Squeezed out for office paper.

Beyond the scars of new forestry I was into unfrequented boggy moors. Beyond Blairdenon Hill was an extensive area of mixed heather, grass and peat hags, home to a small population of red grouse - a wild and unmanaged population; these aren't grouse moors. Everywhere the endless uplifting songs of skylarks, rising up until just a dot in the sky, slowly returning to earth, over and over.

Tramping through the bogs, a gear failure became apparent. My North Face Hedgehog Gore-tex trail shoes were clearly holed below the waterline.

Closer inspection revealed the outer fabric coming away from the outsoles in a couple of places on both shoes, with the damaged Gore-tex liner showing underneath. The shoes are now effectively useless after less than 100 miles. A lesson learned the hard way: don't mess with Gore-tex trail shoes. Luckily I've got a pair of the renowned Inov-8 Terroc 330s at home.

Ploughing on to Ben Cleuch for lunch...

...I meet a guy on the summit wearing a spanking new pair of Inov-8s and share my tale of trail shoe woe before hunkering down out of the wind for lunch, socks, shoes and insoles spread around me to dry a little in the wind and sun.

Ben Cleuch is the halfway point on the map, but on the ground it's quicker and easier going from now on - less boggy, mostly downhill, on very familiar terrain. Burnfoot wind farm flails on the left, Green Knowes is ahead, the turbines lining the ridge on the far side of Glen Devon. I cross Andrew Gannell Hill - a uniquely crazy anglicisation of the Gaelic an sruth gainmeail ('sandy stream') according to the SMT's Scottish Hill & Mountain Names book - and on to Tarmangie, torr na mainge, or 'hill of the fawn'.

From here I take the long ridge to Innerdownie which separates two lovely little glens which are being transformed by the Woodland Trust - Glen Sherup and Glen Quey. Curious wheatears troop along the tumbledown drystane dyke that tops the ridge.

Glenquey Reservoir

There's a spot at the lowest point of the ridge between Tarmangie and Innerdownie which I've often felt has an atmosphere. On the left is the upper treeline of the Forestry Commission conifer plantation that covers the east side of Glen Sherup. An isolated group of conifers conceals a vigorous spring that sends its waters down towards Glen Sherup. The wind is roaring through the trees like a waterfall as I pass by. Soon I'm on Innerdownie looking back the way I came.

It's been a joy of a walk, so much hill country travelled with ease, but it ends here. I wind down into the forest, past Glensherup reservoir...

...past shady verges full of red campion...

 ...and out to the valley floor and the car park by a burn fringed by marsh marigolds. My dad pulls in after five minutes. Half an hour later I'm back home, feet up with a beer, nursing sunburned legs, children climbing all over me.