Tag Archives: rspb

In the bleak midwinter (December 2010)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Very appropriate except it probably should say ‘just a while ago’ and they’re not kidding with the ‘snow on snow, snow on snow’ bit are they? On Saturday 18th trusting to the weather reports I popped out to the shops for the paper and a spot of panic buying early in the morning. The Met Office forecast snow at around noon. Almost as I shut my front door the few flakes fluttering lazily down from leaden skies turned into a howling blizzard. By the time I reached the main road the snow was crunching noisily under my boots and collecting on my eyelashes. The journey down by the river truly was magical.

The snow abated early afternoon leaving a crisp white even covering of about 6 cms. The birds seeing their chance descended on the feeding pole in our front garden with some relish. It’s a pretty grim time for garden birds; smaller birds like wrens lose the heat from their bodies pretty quickly, so they need to be eating all the time to survive. Trouble is they really need us to be putting food out for them because the berries on trees, the insects and fish in frozen ponds and rivers, small mammals, or the worms and insects in the frozen ground are all inaccessible. But they love grated cheese, porridge oats, fruit, cooked pasta and rice (before sauce), cooked potatoes, and unsalted bacon, cooked or raw. Festive things like pastry and cake crumbs are also welcome.

Sport was another big casualty of the weekend. I’d been looking forward to watching the mighty Chelsea get back on form by beating Manchester U but that game was called off a day early. Post has been severely interrupted as well – not great at this time of year. (Hope of everybody who Amazon’d their presents got their stuff delivered on time – aah the worries of modern life.) But talking about post my favourite Christmas card is without doubt the one that has an Edwyn Collins illustration of a robin on the front.

With the snow largely melted from London on Tuesday evening (winter solstice day) with images of Odin slaying the frost giant Ymir playing in my head I set off to lead a Metropolitan Walkers walk based around Dickens in London. I’m a big Dickens fan me – and Wilkins Micawber always seems appropriate but even more so these days: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short, you are for ever floored.” They don’t write ‘em like that anymore – well sadly not George Osborne’s speechwriters anyway. (You young readers might want to find an old person to explain the vagaries of pre-decimalized currency to you. And anybody who can explain to me whether ‘Oik’ Osborne has any economic theory, however misguided, underpinning his cost cutting programme would be more than welcome.)

After a very enjoyable walk I had a couple of beers in The Dickens Inn at St Katherine’s Dock. I couldn’t find any connection to Dickens himself but thinking it was just a ruse to drag in the tourists I was told that one of his great great grandchildren opened the pub here years ago when the re-development of Docklands began. The journey home was definitely messy. Held up for over 45 minutes at Earls Court while police attempted to clear revellers off the rails near West Kensington I was forced to re-route to Heathrow on the Piccadilly line and catch a 24 hour bus back home. Got in just before 2 am. Ah the problems of winter travel in the UK. So with the modern version of the Nativity apparently being no room at the airport terminal I hope you all had a great holiday break.

Listen to:

Annie Lennox – In The Bleak Midwinter

Edwyn Collins – Girl Like You

Dolly Parton – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern – Winter Makes You Want Me More

Charles Dickens – Christmas Ghosts

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Reasons to be Cheerful

I’m lucky enough to have Richmond Park on my doorstep. (Well obviously not literally on my doorstep or else I wouldn’t need to work for a living but it is about 10 minutes away.) This means with relatively little effort I can enjoy its pleasures at dawn and dusk – times when despite the 4 million+ visitors every year, I seem to have the 1000 hectares to myself to enjoy the abundant flora and fauna. In 1625 Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace to escape the plague in London and turned it into a park for red and fallow deer. His decision, in 1637, to enclose the land was not popular with the local residents, but he did allow pedestrians the right of way. To this day the rights of way along with walls remain, although the latter have been partially rebuilt and reinforced. Perhaps because of decisions like this Richmond Park has changed little over the centuries and although it is surrounded by human habitation, the varied landscape of hills, woodland gardens and grasslands set among ancient trees abound in wild life.

There are 2 separate herds of deer – about 300 Red deer along with 350 Fallow deer – who call the park home. The other evening, having entered using Sheen Gate I came across a huge herd almost immediately. They’re very used to gawping visitors but seem to take even less interest at dawn and dusk when they spend their time heads down relentlessly chewing the grass. Having finally settled down – it was more deluge and swollen river than ‘mist and mellow fruitfulness’ a couple of weeks ago – autumn is its normal dynamically changing self. (Isn’t it strange that many of the sayings that you used to scoff at when young turn out to be true – it really has been nice weather for ducks.) The trees here in the park are a glowingly rich tapestry of reds, yellows, browns and green. The ground is strewn with conkers, sweet chestnuts (these seem to be a bumper crop this year) and exotic funghi.

With the views of London sprawling out in the distance (St Paul’s cathedral is only 12 miles away) offering a constant reminder of the modern urban world I work my way towards Poets Corner. Here you can find the Ian Dury Bench. Take your iPod/mp3 headphones along, plug them into the sockets in the arms and you can listen to many of his most popular songs via the magic of solar power. Definitely a reason to be cheerful. The park is also one of the stars of this year’s BBC Autumnwatch – I wonder if they’ll find time amongst the birds, deer and badgers to visit the bench.


And right now everybody who loves the environment needs all the reasons to be cheerful we can find. Just before the Chancellor of the Excheqeur, delivered the coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England said: “The next decade will not be nice”. As we listened to George ‘Oik’ Osborne slash and burn his way through modern life we had many hints of just how ‘not nice’ the near future is likely to be. Amongst other things half a million public sector jobs to be lost, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see a 24.1% budget cut over the next four years and planning and development slimmed down to remove burdens from the developer. I can’t help thinking that this isn’t being built on any sound economic foundation but based more on wishful thinking like the lyrics from the Deadwood Stage:

There’s a hill of gold just a-waiting for a shovel to ring.
When I strike it rich, going to sit in a hammock and swing,
twiddling my thumbs and rockin’ away.
So, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!

The devil is going to be in the detail and this review has certainly signposted a lot of detail. Speaking at the Nagoya conference in Japan, Environment secretary Caroline Spelman announced a government commitment of £100m for international forestry projectswhich is greatat the same time as stories began to surface back home that thousands of hectares of UK government owned forest land is likely to be for sale through the Forestry Commission – which ain’t so good. With the Environment Agency and Natural England behaving like Victorian children, cowering in the corner and definitely to be seen and not heard, it has proved incredibly difficult to discover much detail about how the environment cuts will affect us all. All this is very appropriate for Halloween weekend but to quote a well known country & western song this looks like it’s definitely going to be a hard row to hoe –   now how do I get to that bench again? 

It’s not all doom and gloom in the Hero household though. Of course there’s the mighty Chelsea 5 points clear at the top of the Premiership and 4 wins out of 4 in the Champions League. There’s Hitsville USA – a history of Tamla Motown currently airing on Radio 6 and these days I’m working for the RSPB as their London Groups Officer.

Listen to:

Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3

Smashing Pumpkins – Raindrops + Sunshowers

Bombay Bicycle Club – Autumn

The Kinks – Autumn Almanac

Doris Day – The Deadwood Stage (Whip Crack-Away)

Tommy Webb – Hard Row To Hoe

The Miracles – Got A Job – Single Version

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Sound and Vision

8 August 2010

If you’ve never been to Dungeness nothing can really prepare you for the landscape. As far as I can work out the name derives from the Old Norse where ‘nes’ means nose, with, in this case, the nose attached to Denge Marsh. Others say it’s a derivation of the French for dangerous nose. Wherever the name comes from, Dungeness is a cuspate foreland – one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world – on the coast of Kent. This headland shelters the low lying land of Romney Marsh and is a haven for diverse wildlife and rare plants. Oh yeah and it’s got a nuclear power station as well.

It’s just under 100 miles away from London and this makes its bleak and desolate landscape seem all the more bleak and desolate. (Trees are a distinct rarity down here.) But that’s OK ‘cos I quite like bleak and desolate landscapes and I’m very fond of Dungeness. As well as the shingle, rare plants, exotic wildlife and power station there’s a functioning 15 gauge railway line that runs from Hythe to Dungeness. Completed in 1928 the nearly 14 miles of track owed much to the vision of two men; Captain J. E. P. Howey — a sometimes racing driver, millionaire land owner, former Army Officer and miniature railway afficionado along with Count Louis Zborowski — a well-known racing driver of his day (famous for owning and racing the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Mercedes) and considerably richer, even, than Howey. I’m fairly indifferent to this sort of thing but the steam and transport buffs I know get very excited about it and consider it one of the railway wonders of the world.

The RSPB has a bird sanctuary nearby and every year thousands of bird watchers flock (see what I did there) to record sightings of the different birds that live here or who are stopping over while they migrate. In May this year a pair of purple herons nested in the UK for the first time ever at Dungeness and successfully reared two chicks. Purple herons are high up on the list of birds that the RSPB expect to see setting up home in southern Britain as the changing climate pushes them further north. I’m certainly not indifferent to this sort of thing at all and I think the reserve is a great place to spend a coupla hours even if you know nothing about birds.

Close by is sleepy little Lydd Airport from which about 4,000 people fly to and from annually. The owners have renamed the enterprise London Ashford airport. I don’t think even Ryanair fly into places 100 miles from the supposed destination. The grandiose scheme attached to this rename plans to increase the number of passengers to 500,000. This is just plane stupid. If you ask me the south east doesn’t really need any more airports. One here would destroy the natural tranquillity of Dungeness and could see its remarkable wildlife slowly disappear, poisoned by increased levels of pollution or simply driven out by the massive disturbance that such a large airport would cause.

In the later years of his life Derek Jarman had a cottage here, which is remembered for his famous shingle cottage-garden. The house was built in tarred timber and has a raised wooden text on the side of the cottage quoting the first stanza and the last five lines of the final stanza of John Donne‘s poem, The Sun Rising. The cottage’s beach garden was made using local materials and has been the subject of several books. But despite taking a look at all this what we are really here to do today is to take a guided tour of the Sound Mirrors at Lade

These other worldy concrete structures are the remains of part of an acoustic early warning system that was designed to detect engine sounds from approaching aircraft. ‘Staccato signals of constant information‘  as Paul Simon sings from another time. The ones here and just up the coast at Hythe were part of an intended chain defending the south east. The Romney Marsh Countryside Partnership along with the author of Echoes in the Sky, Dr Richard Scarth, have been leading free, non-booking, guided walks out to the Sound Mirrors for over 11 years now. And bloody good they are too. On the site, owned by CEMEX, there is a 20 foot mirror, a 30 foot mirror and a 200 foot wall. Despite being constructed between 1928 and 1930 all are on the Scheduled Ancient Monuments list.


The walk we were on was extremely popular – I stopped estimating at 150 – and extremely well led. (Our guide was featured on the BBC’s Secret Britain series when they covered the medicinal leeches of Dungeness. See I told you the wildlife was exotic). The advent of radar, in 1934, cast this experiment onto the quirky historical scrapheap fairly rapidly and as far as I can work out they were only used in the Air Defence of Great Britain Exercises in the 1930’s. They’re well worth preserving though and fit in very well with all the other outlandish sights to be seen at Dungeness.


Listen to:

David Bowie – Sound And Vision

The Albion Band – Bird-watching

Paul Simon – The Boy In The Bubble – Remastered Album Version

Sound Affairs Band – 32 Cryptograms For Derek Jarman

The Magnetic Fields – Smoke And Mirrors

Stavo Craft – The Sound Mirror (Reprise)

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Sweet Thames Flow Softly

Thursday 24 June 2010

A picturesque scene it made, too, with Wandsworth dairy farms visible on the far bank; cows roaming the yellowed fields between the cottages, and a church spire rising in the distance.’

This 1849 description of the Thames comes from Matthew Kneale’s novel Sweet Thames . It’s quite surprising to think of Wandsworth being so pastoral just 160 years ago. Surely Victorian London was all teeming slums, smelly sewers and the poor dying in their hundreds of cholera. I’m in Wandsworth to join some friends who are walking the Thames Path. This is the same lot who knocked off the London Loop last year. They’re either obsessive completists  or David Sharp fans (maybe both). I head down to the river from Wandsworth Town station through the pedestrian underpass where several scenes for A Clockwork Orange were filmed. It’s 7.30 in the evening, bright and sticky because the sun has still got plenty of needle in it and the landscape isn’t anywhere near as threatening as that portrayed in the film. The dairy farms, roaming cows and cottages are long gone, replaced by block upon block of luxury riverside apartments.

It’s a fairly short stroll tonight – about 6 km down to Vauxhall. And after starting off the path mostly hugs the river. We pass the London Heliport and are soon approaching St Mary’s Battersea. A striking Grade 1 Georgian building in a spectacular location on the banks of the river. William Blake was married here, Joseph Turner painted here and Benedict Arnold is buried here in the crypt. Then it’s through Battersea Park past the Peace Pagoda. The Duke of Wellington fought his famous duel with the Earl of Winchilsea over Catholic Emancipation in the park (or Battersea Fields as it was then) in 1829. It was reported at the time: ‘The Duke of Wellington and Lord Winchilsea met at the appointed place. The parties having taken their ground, Lord Winchilsea received the Duke of Wellington’s fire [apparently not aimed at him] and fired in the air. After some discussion the accompanying memorandum was accepted as a satisfactory reparation to the Duke of Wellington.’

Once we leave the park we reach a stretch of the path I must have travelled down over a thousand times. When I used to work at the Ramblers I used to jog most lunch times down to Battersea Park and back.  That’s almost 10 years of the Battersea Dogs Home, Battersea Power Station, Tideway Walk and crossing Vauxhall and Chelsea bridges. The major change in the last year is work on the new American Embassy. It is to be built on Nine Elms Lane on the site of the old (now demolished) HMSO offices. Returning to the riverside we see a cormorant perched on a buoy spreading its wings to catch the dying rays of the sun. They’ve been back on the Thames for the last 10 years or so – a daily sight swooping low over the water and catching eels. In fact these days the river is a twitcher’s paradise. It reminds me of the RSPB’s excellent Letter to the Future campaign currently running – please give it a look and then sign the letter.

We finish most appropriately at the Riverside pub in Vauxhall. We started by going through a St Georges Homes riverside development and we end in a pub in a St Georges Homes riverside development. The 3 pints of Youngs London Gold was very welcome and provided a link to our start point. From 1832 to 2006 Youngs had been brewing their famous London beers at the Ram Brewery just down the river in Wandsworth. All our walking was done on the south bank this evening – I’m sure my friends will only feel they have completed the Thames Path when they walk both sides of the river. Visitors to Tower Bridge will have the chance to travel the full 215 miles of the River Thames in just 200 feet when they visit the new photographic exhibition River Thames: Source to Sea this summer. 

More information:

The Thames Path by David Sharp

The London Loop by David Sharp

Walkers London & the South East in a Box





Listen to:


Cherish The Ladies – Sweet Thames Flow Softly

Peter Dawson – Old Father Thames Keeps Rolling Along

Big Audio Dynamite – Stone Thames – 12 inch Remix

Starsailor – The Thames (Acoustic)

Nigel Hess – Thames Journey

Beans On Toast – The Peaches Of Wandsworth



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