Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Reflections on access to nature: The annual Blackheath to the Dog and Bell walk 2011

A walk to the shops can be an uneventful journey possibly punctuated by moving cars and dog crap. Walk to the shops with an ornothologist or a botanist and you suddenly realise that life is full of little surprises, a sudden alarm call from a bird in the trees or a rare dead-nettle growing between the pavement slabs. Such is the annual Christmas walk between Blackheath train station and the Dog and Bell pub in Deptford, which took place on Sunday. Blackheath was abuzz with shoppers and drivers as we snaked our way through and up the hill toward the Clarendon where our walk leader Nick Bertrand, of the Creekside Centre, spotted a red dead-nettle in the brickwork at the front of one of the Georgian terraced houses. The dead-nettle was in full flower and the conversation moved toward other species that were flowering again in this extremely mild winter, on the way to the meet I found a lavander bush in full flower on Belmont Hill, quite bizarre.
Nick with a tiny red dead-nettle
We passed the Clarenden to a stop just passed the Princess of Wales and by the pond where we reflected for a moment on the variety of species of goose and duck, there were migrating greylag geese and strange greylag/Canada goose hybrids. There were also armies or black-headed gulls and mallards gliding around the pond toward any unsuspecting passer-by, like some strange ameoba, in the hope that their bag may contain food.
From here we took a north easterly direction and after 100yds we stopped to look at some sheep sorrel, which in the summer grows to six inches and turns dark red. This sorrel has extensive cover over the heath, often seeing large swathes of land change colour dramatically as the season progresses, it may also have had something to do with the naming of Blackheath, once the Black Death burial pit myth has been put to bed. A brisk and keen so'westerly picked up, prompting us to move on and cross the busy A2 into Vanbrugh Pits, at the top of Vanbrugh Hill and on the way to the Standard. Here we found areas of recent burning, where the gorse had been set alight. The council, in their non-wisdom of flora matters, completely smothered the burnt area in replanted gorse-lings and birch trees. Of course, if they had left things as they were the gorse would have some back as we see so often in places like Ashdown Forest for example. Some council environmental decision makers seem to learn their trade on some business management course and not in the field. Here also is a video of....
Nick Bertrand discusses oak trees 
The differences in acorn growth and stem structure. As we moved toward Greenwich Park from here we saw a Green Woodpecker disturbed from the undergrowth and swoop up into a tree where it remained as we walked past. Many people use this shortcut to get to the park and the wildlife think nothing of it. Into the park and the newly and ridiculously over-planted avenues of chesnut in the south-east corner. I wonder if the Parks strategists realise that when fully grown these trees will not only block out the famous view but will produce enough shade to kill off all the grass, grass that has fed herds of deer for centuries.
Fishing platform opp. Canary Wharf
Down through the park and walking parallel to the Maritime Museum we move into the built environment, stopping briefly to admire the third mast lifted up that morning on the Cutty Sark restoration, through the labryinthine conctruction fencing on to the Thames walkway opposite the rowing club. Cormorants and gulls again populate the floating pontoon and buddleja growing out of the brickwork. We also note here the piles of worn down washed up roofing tiles and brick from construction sites up and down the Thames. Past the AHOY sailing centre and past the oldest refrigeration site for shipping in London and on into Watergate Stree and to the Dog and Bell, where a welcome pint of Cornish! beer was waiting, or in Nick's case 'any cheap and nasty lager there is'. Thanks to Nick and to Chris McGaw of Lewisham's Rivers and People project for being the birbman on the walk.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

From there to here: A chattering of abodes

I lived in a house called Montague. This was where my family lived when I was born, my actual place of birth was Lewisham Hospital some eight miles north. Montague was a detached house on an unmade road and all I can remember of this house was me letting the parrot out of the cage and my mother giving up smoking, others remember the gagging smell of boiled fish which was all I would eat at the age of three. We moved from there, over Heathfield Road, to Fieldhead House in Leafy Grove, the rural references could not hide the fact that this was just a couple of miles from Bromley.
Mum at home on Toy's Hill
There was a big field at the end of the garden, now of course there is a housing estate. This field was just west of the 'Conker Field' which in turn became less well known for conkers in our family than for letting herds of cattle out of. I am a 'Moo-derer' apparently, something I'm not proud of but you are only young and stupid once.
We stayed at Fieldhead for years, or at least until I was about 13 or so. My parents sold the house not to the principle violinist for the LSO, who came to look at it with his family half a dozen times, almost often enough to get on the Christmas card list, but it went to a strange bearded man who I knew wouldn't appreciate the hiding places, the climbable trees and the gap in the fence to the Conker Field. My dad had put a deposit down on a house on Toy's Hill but the owner wasn't ready to leave just yet because she had horses and donkeys in the garden so we had to move to Bromley. Rutland Gate, an architypal cul-de-sac of 60s new build, and we lived next door to the psychiatrist responsible for Broadmoor Prison, who also played the violin. Living in Bromley was not living in the country. There were absolutely no redeeming features to this 12-month stay, none, unless you count playing football in Norman Park or punching my middle brother in the face under duress, my sister (bless her) broke it up just as the punch was landed which was an enormous blessing.
To Toy's Hill eventually. Dogs, fields, woods, walks but no transport, except bikes and it was the disputed ‘highest point in Kent’ so lots of trudging. Also to a shitty boarding school, being the youngest of four my parents had probably had enough and who could blame them. Their memories of Toy's Hill were of the Tally Ho pub endless leafy walks and children that were seen and not heard. Toy’s Hill was also the launch pad for my independence so it was from there that I moved first to Buckingham, a week after the end of my school days, and a few years later after a small hiccup again from Toy’s Hill to a shared flat in Northdown Street, King’s Cross, I was 22. Highlight of this stay was the boyfriend of my wife-to-be throwing a television, my television, that was still on, through the window and onto the patio of our neighbours four floors down. From there to Viv’s (bless her also) flat in Sunray Avenue, Herne Hill. Viv moved to Orange County and we house-sat for a couple of years before moving to Blackheath and a bought flat in a purpose built block. My son was born here before we moved to Nunhead and a house before going our separate ways, I went to Peckham and they went to Stockwell.
I have since lived in Coplestone Road, Choumert Road, Lordship Lane, Crystal Palace (this will form part two) and now in Brockley. This is the trajectory, a passage full of clutter, of dust, and stuff. Useless stuff, photos, broken amps, old furniture in a garage and decanters I have no use for. There will be other people living in every property I have lived in, people I do not know and have no wish to get to know. I have only ever gone back to a previous abode once, to see the strange bearded man to ask if we could walk down to the end of the garden. It was a disappointment, firstly to discover the housing estate at the bottom and also to feel how small it had all become. If you close your eyes you can see these places, to mentally map their impact and rejoice in the present.

Coplestone Road was a basement flat prone to break-ins, damp and general disappointments. One  neighbour along the road used to earn money listening in on the police radio frequency and tipping off various roustabouts in the Peckham area, he went on to buy a cleaning franchise and now has a team cleaning offices in Canary Wharf. From here to a shared ownership house in Choumert Road, shared with Liz. Neighbours there were Dave, a Phd student at Imperial and Alannah of the BBC. This was a complete change, a house of 'creatives' with interesting/wierd people coming to dinner almost every night of the week. A house of cats and interestingly a house of fish. Old man Wheeler still had the fresh fish place in the market and I cooked a lot of it. In about 1992 I moved to a flat on Goose Green, the intention being to use this short-let as a springboard to living in France. The board broke as I was just warming up so I eventually became Hylda's lodger in Lordship Lane instead. This was a happy four-story late Victorian house full of people like, at various times, Anne, Serge, Sarah, Simon and his 'healthy' breakfasts, Saskia and of course Hylda. Eventually everyone drifted off and so did I, off to Crystal Palace, which felt like the end of the world. I lived with my son for a bit until he moved away, eventually landing in the north west. This was a 60s block of flats, great views out the back but a busy intersection out the front. A couple of years ago I moved out of this flat into our house in Brockley, a 1920s terraced house squirelled away behind the main arteries feeding Lewisham and Deptford. Strangely, this house feels like the large sprawling house the strange bearded man lives in and, despite being a quarter of the size, it feels like home.