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.

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