All posts by Chris Gibson

A New Year springs in the Beth Chatto Garden

Just two months since our last visit to The Beth Chatto Garden (see blog here), and it is as though the winter shutdown never happened…indeed, thus far it really hasn’t, with barely a handful of frosts interspersed with unseasonable warmth. So it was no surprise to see those traditional harbingers of Spring, Snowdrops and Winter Aconites, in profuse bloom.

Being an insect-pollinated plant at this time of year is a rather dodgy strategy, given that insect flight is severely impaired by cold temperatures, but the flowers are still appearing, in the hope of attracting a passing early bumblebee into the illuminated lanterns of Spring Snowflake or the rich nectar-pits of Hellebores.

Some flowers advertise their wares visually, others by scent. And on a still winter’s day, the pool of fragrance surrounding the most extravagantly scented can and does stop us in our tracks. I challenge anyone to walk past a flowering Sweet Box without being uplifted by the olfactory promise of warmer days.

One of my favourite early spring flowers though is notable not for showing off, but for its demure flowering, requiring a search through severe spines, such that every one you find feels like a prize. Butcher’s-broom is showy enough in fruit, large red globes from a year previously, but its subtle flowers are each a gem. Three-parted, signifying its liliaceous ancestry, they are placed in the centre of the ‘leaves’; we may call them leaves but a developmental botanist would call them cladodes, in essence flattened stems, hence the oddly-positioned flowers.

While the new season flowers stole the crystal January limelight, and the previous two frosty nights no doubt kept insect life at bay, a few winter gnats danced in the still air, and a single, nymphal bark-louse demonstrated that Jude’s close-up vision has not suffered from lack of use since the autumn! Add to that a sprinkling of perennial fungi such as Diatrypella quercina, and it is reassuring that, irrespective of the turbulence of political life at the moment, the wonders of nature will keep on giving.

 

Three days of World Heritage in the north….

 

UNESCO World Heritage Sites, those places of recognised cultural or natural importance to the whole world, come in many shapes and sizes. And all too often we run off to find those in far-flung corners of the world – take the Taj Mahal or the Great Barrier Reef, for example – but lose sight of those places and their fascinating stories almost on our doorstep.

So it was that we headed out for a few of days by rail last week (incredible value at less than £70 in total, with railcard and Advance tickets) to two of the British sites that neither of us had visited before, Saltaire and Durham, both cultural sites but from very different eras.

Evening in Saltaire was foggy and intensely atmospheric, the diffuse lights in an industrial landscape seemingly transporting us into the art of Atkinson Grimshaw, and perfect for displaying the street art of their Living Advent Calendar.

  

Next morning, still grey skies but the fog had lifted, to reveal the Victorian ‘model village’ industrial architecture for which this site is inscribed on the UNESCO list. The eponymous Sir Titus Salt consolidated his textile empire and all its processes under one roof, on a greenfield site away from the worst of the pollution from West Yorkshire’s ‘dark, satanic mills’, and then set about consolidating his workforce there too, with purpose-built housing, social and civic facilities, astride the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, a vital artery for trade. While it undoubtedly benefitted his bottom-line, Salt’s philanthropy is remarkable by today’s standards. And the workers must have relished the opportunity to escape from some of the worst Victorian slums in Bradford.

   

Salts Mill itself has had a chequered history, almost falling to the demolishers until taken over in the 1980s by a latter-day philanthropist Jonathan Silver, who recognised its potential for post-industrial uses, including as an art space. Recognised AND realised to a considerable extent, though the site is huge and much still awaits transformation. Good reason to pay a return visit? Certainly if the art on display remains as exciting. David Hockney is a great supporter of the Mill, and we had chance to see a range of his work, including some of his most innovative pieces, including his fax-art from the 80s and the more recent i-pad art. His sequence ‘The Arrival of Spring’ particularly spoke to me, based as it is on Woldgate, near Bridlington, one of my childhood stamping-grounds as a budding naturalist.

Thence to Durham, much more classically historical and ‘chocolate-box’ beautiful, nestling within a tortuous loop of the River Wear. The view of the Cathedral and Castle, familiar to anyone who has travelled the East Coast Mainline, was the original inspiration for this trip when travelling down from Edinburgh in the summer, and as we arrived in the dark, it was suitably, dramatically lit, inviting our exploration.

And then again by day, the Cathedral especially magnificent both outside and especially in. Such a pity that, with the angles and light, ornamentation, stained glass and wall art, all inspirational subjects, no photography is allowed inside…but it was still worth the visit. Then there was so much more, the lanes and street layouts, churches and even more modern, though still classic, architecture like the 1960s concrete bridge of Ove Arup. Another familiar from my past, as an alumnus of UEA, where brutalist concrete set the backdrop for my early twenties.

But perhaps best of all, no doubt in part due to the welcome emergence of the sun, was the setting of the city – castle and cathedral as ever-present sentinels above the riverside walks. And there we could indulge in a little pre-Christmas wildlife watching (so much less stressful than shopping!), with Goosanders on the river and fungi fruiting among the trees, including Judas’ Ear, surprisingly on a Sycamore stump, its usual host being Elder.

 

 

Epping Forest: Autumn Glory

Some years, Autumn exceeds all expectations. And 2018 has been one of those. It all started with that long, hot, dry period from late spring: it is widely recognised that those stressful conditions are a significant contributor to future autumn colours. Then early Autumn: few windy periods, which in some years strip the trees before they have chance to change. And finally the occasional sharp frost in later Autumn, to actually trigger the colour changes.

So it was that today, on what may well be one of the last ‘summery’ days of the year, in the Snaresbrook section of Epping Forest, that jewel in the crown of British historic woodland and plains, straddling the Essex-London border.

And at long last the hoped-for autumnal flush of fungi is under way, another phenomenon which depends on a complex series of environmental triggers, including the sufficiency of autumn moisture before the winter frosts bring the season to a halt.

The smells, sights and sounds of autumn!

Autumn at its best in The Beth Chatto Garden

The burnished fires of Autumn were rampant under crystalline skies as we strolled round Beth Chatto’s today:

 

Foliage and fruit – a colourful feast for the eyes as well as the hordes of berry-eating thrushes:

  

Usually a feature of the autumn, in common with most of the droughted south-east it seems, fungi were few and far-between:

And the remaining flowers: some expected, others more surprising hangers-on from the summer, but all valuable sources of nectar or pollen for late-season insects:

 

But amazing to see the number of insects on the wing, a nod to the wonderful summer past and a promise that the days will again be getting longer in just six weeks’ time. Hornets, Red Admirals and Common Darters are perhaps to be expected, at least until the first hard frosts, but Caddis Flies and Willow Emerald Damselflies? Strange times are afoot as the seasons disintegrate…:

 

Book Review: The Orphaned Spaces

For me it all began in the mid-1970s with the publication of Richard Mabey’s ‘The Unofficial Countryside’. As a naturalist and proto-conservationist, I had grown up fascinated by wildlife in close proximity to humans, in those places without a name apart from ‘wasteland’; at last there was a suitable, non-pejorative name for the places I inhabited as a child, chasing butterflies, building dens, and generally finding my own space.

My fascination with the unofficial countryside has remained unabated. As a professional conservationist one of my proudest achievements was the safeguarding of Canvey Wick (see blog), and the acceptance of what had now become called brownfield or post-industrial land, as having a legitimate part to play in ’proper’ nature conservation.

Forty years on, and there is a new book, introducing a new name – The Orphaned Spaces – written by MW Bewick and illustrated by Ella Johnston. And a new approach, going behind the science and the evident conservation values, into the personal reflections on how such places help mark the passage of time and of our lives. The poetic prose transports me to every orphaned space I have ever been and conjures up the unpredictable magic of the interface between human decay and natural bounty.

Written in diary format, mostly during the winter months, it also succeeds for me in highlighting the role of such places in guiding us through the low season. I am one of those who lives in the shadow of the winter gloom, from autumn equinox until the advancing daylength of January; the improbable pinpricks of nature which adorn our orphaned spaces are essential signposts to a brighter future. This book thus neatly bridges one Mabey theme – Unofficial Countryside – to another – Nature Cure.

The text may seem sparse, but sometimes just a few words can convey meaning which punches above their weight. Take the entry for 24 July:

Travelling thugs on the banks of the river by the derelict furniture warehouse. Giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam are rough brutes. The sewerage pipe trickles into the murk of almost stagnant water and the banks are littered with human detritus. A muddy trainer. Plastic bottles and old tin cans. A jumper. A half-submerged supermarket trolley. Just who is the invasive species?

…thus taking this book into the sphere of natural philosophy, giving voice to some of the questions which need repeating over and over in the modern world of spurious civilisation.

Of course as a scientist and therefore a nit-picker, I have my quibbles. The failure to observe standard typographic representation of scientific names for example. And the assertion of 1 May that ‘There is unique quality to overlooked spaces. More bio-diverse than an arable field.’ – damning with faint praise, to anyone with an ecological background. But such quibbles miss the point of the book…and the fact that I happily read it in one sitting should speak volumes.

And then there’s the subtitle. ‘The Orphaned Spaces: Waste ground explored’. Yes, maybe we called it wasteground as kids, but the adjectival use of ‘waste’, without even ironic quotation marks, upsets me greatly. And I think to anyone who approaches this book with an enquiring mind, you will find its thoughtful contents give the lie to the subtitle.

The Orphaned Spaces‘ by MW Bewick & Ella Johnston, publisher Dunlin Press, 2018.

Price £9.99 from Dunlin Press Online Shop.

Also available is a made-to-order boxed set, which should be a thing of beauty as well as a stimulating read.

For more on the wonders of our unofficial countryside, see my blogs on Canvey Wick and Gunnersbury Triangle, and for the delights of post-industrial ‘dereliction’ Orfordness and Wapping Hydraulic Power Station

A few days in London…

A largely photographic record of three wonderful autumnal days, albeit feeling more like high summer, exploring the capital, tasting the architectural, artistic and natural riches it has to offer.

Canyons of glass and steel, capturing but not quite taming the sky:

 

Surprising juxtapositions  of old with new, like a choral discord unsettling but thrilling. Churches everywhere, the legacy edifices of Wren and Hawksmoor, each subtly different, both inside and out: some uplifting, others deflating:

     

 

From spiritual to secular, a cathedral to power: Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Victorian engineering predating the practicality of electricity transmission. Now hosting an art gallery, but in reality the rusting fabric is art in itself:

 

Always the River, lifeblood of London and its maritime and mercantile history. Once we oversaw its death, but the Thames is now reborn: we even saw a Seal swimming through Tower Bridge!

  

And for our green needs, not a Royal Park or the wilder stretches of the Thames Path, but this time – and for our first time – the London Wetland Centre. And mightily impressed we were too! Birds from all over the globe, some brought in, others attracted there by its abundant resources: a metaphor for the melting-pot that is London.