Tales of the suburban wild – from urbs to burbs

I’m standing in the middle of Southwark Bridge. It’s just after ten in the morning on a chilly but bright autumn day.  Facing west I can see a train pulling into Blackfriars station. To the north is the City of London, not quite a square mile, where neoclassical pillars jostle and jar with stripped down functionalism. To the east it’s all bridges, with Cannon Street rail, London Bridge and the distant turrets of Tower Bridge. Today I’m planning to walk six miles south from the north boundary of Southwark to its southern tip as an antidote to early twinges of seasonal affective disorder.. An architecture walk would be interesting but there’s something I think will work better today. Why don’t you join me and we’ll look for nature?

Southwark is the oldest part of south London, a stretched triangle from the widest part along from the south bank of the Thames to a sharp point in Upper Norwood.  The name means southern defence, reflecting its strategic position on the south of the Thames.  LIke a number of inner London boroughs, the contrast between one end of the borough and the other is extreme. North Southwark where we’re starting is properly urban. South Southwark is… well, perhaps we should wait until we get there.

Shall we look at the bridge first?  Despite the best efforts of the council’s highway team, nature keeps fighting back in the tiniest of places. Here on the bridge, we can find tiny patches of pearlwort growing between pavement slabs. The bridge walls are sterile and it’s high tide so there isn’t any mud to be picked over below. Above us a great black-backed gull – from its size and colouring – flaps leisurely north across the river towards St Paul’s.

Southwark Bridge Road stretches as far as the newly developed Elephant and Castle and in the distance is the well-known landmark, Strata SE1, with three fans set in a cut-out section at the top of a tower block. At the bridge end of the road are some Georgian townhouses but mostly office blocks, hotels and cafes along a sterile pavement. There are only a couple of street trees, both look like hornbeams, and at first sight very few plants are growing wild until we look more closely. Within metres of the bridge are a suite of the great London pavement opportunists: buddleia, smooth sow-thistle, herb-Robert, Mexican fleabane, common chickweed, Oxford ragwort, Guernsey fleabane, common groundsel, wavy bittercress, petty spurge and annual meadow-grass.

Past the original site of the Globe Theatre on the left and a sign welcomes us to Borough and Bankside before we cross the junction with Southwark Street. Under the railway bridge is disappointingly green-free except for more buddleia, but in the gutter on the other side there’s some shepherd’s-purse, a sycamore seedling and what looks like an apple seedling. Edging a petrol station is lots of lush pellitory-of-the-wall and some trailing bellflower. I’m delighted to find some Jersey cudweed in flower by the junction with Marshalsea road but I’m going to check it with Mark Spencer, the London plant determiner.

The route so far has been busy with traffic and noisy with construction. It’s not pretty. I’ve been able to block out the negative by concentrating on flowers. Mint Street Park’s a breathing space and I find some green alkanet and white deadnettle while an energetic team of street-cleaners clear leaf litter from under the London planes.  Past the park there’s a line of Norway maples and small-leaved limes and what I think is an Italian alder. I take a leaf of that too, to add to my sprig of Jersey cudweed, but a bit more surreptitiously this time as I think someone’s more likely to tell me off for nicking a tree leaf.

At the junction with Great Suffolk street is the first street planter, with a stray tomato plant hiding between the shrubs. Past the junction are the first townhouses with small front gardens.  Peeking down the side roads here, I can see a low-rise seventies housing estates, surrounded by parking space rather than grass. There’s some hart’s-tongue fern growing on the wall of a rail arch alongside lots of baby buddleia plants just before the junction with Borough Road.Here tarmac has been laid right up to the London plane tree trunks. These trees have a reputation for breaking into sewer pipes – but in this case, they haven’t really been given a choice have they? 

Elephant and Castle is officially on the up after decades of being overlooked. I squeeze through the railings in front of an office block to photograph the pretty daisy-like flowers of gallant-soldier, a plant from South America. Nearby a flock of feral pigeons dust-bathe on a gritty pavement edge while others doze in the sun. The tree above them is a burbling roost, and as I look up, white feathers fall down on me like snow-flakes. 

On the roundabout island, I find black nightshade, mugwort and fat-hen growing in a planter. At the start of the Walworth Road, there’s a different but still shocking approach to tree pits – these ones look like they’ve been cemented over – and a patch of astroturf outside a bar. But there are some patches of wildflower planting too – with common toadflax, or butter and eggs, still in flower and seed heads of wild carrot and common knapweed. A sign says this is only a temporary meadow though, which is a shame. 

A woman, visibly strung out, stops me while I’m looking at plants. “Excuse me…” she says, and then, pausing, “…actually never mind”. Could she tell I wasn’t shopping? The two pavements of the Walworth road have alternating short runs of trees, most of which are honey locusts from North America.  There’s a biggish butterfly flying down a side road and, given the time of year and its size and shape, I’m pretty sure it’ll be a red admiral. These don’t actually hibernate like small tortoiseshells and peacocks do, but roost over autumn and winter, flying whenever the weather is warm.

By the time we pass East Street market, it feels like the Elephant’s gentrification has run out of steam. On my left, somewhere behind the pawn shops, bookies, charity and chicken shops, is the squatted flat I lived in when I moved to London in 1990.  Here on the main road, pleasantly messy front gardens have cleavers, ribwort plantain, red deadnettle and a forget-me-not as well as a stonecrop and common mallow growing on a pavement edge. At the base of a garden fence is some water-bent grass, with spikey flower heads like tiny Christmas trees. Buddleia and Guernsey fleabane are everywhere here, edging the off-street parking spaces in front of blocks of flats along with more Oxford ragwort and black horehound.

I hear the ring-necked parakeets squawking in Burgess Park before I see them. This seems like a good place to stop for lunch but wasn’t somewhere I’d have gone on my own back in the nineties. Since then Southwark have done a good job to create one of the best places in south London for birdwatching. At this end of the park birdsong is drowned out by traffic noise but I can just hear some goldfinches chittering. 

Along the last stretch of the Walworth Road to Camberwell, the townhouses are chopped into flats, with car spaces trumping gardens. There is still some feverfew growing here with annual mercury and rosebay willowherb. One unlucky householder has a big clump of foundation-destroying Japanese knotweed scarily close to their wall. At last there are some blocks of flats which have grass and trees around them, rather than just cars, and the tree pits are less sterile here with patches of knotgrass, chickweed and annual meadow-grass.

I moved here to Camberwell when the Walworth squat was just too chaotic and impermanent alongside coping with a new teaching job. On Camberwell Green, a pair of magpies are up to something and grey squirrels are hunting for food. Near King’s Hospital on Denmark Hill is a tree pit vibrant with the four-petalled yellow flowers of greater celandine. There’s another rogue tomato plant here too with a spread of pellitory-of-the-wall and some dried spikes of fern-grass. This grass used to be  thought of as a coastal specialist but now it’s spreading across London. There’s more water-bent grass here too, with Oxford ragwort and leaves of what are probably hedge bindweed.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this stretch between Camberwell Green and King’s Hospital is properly urban. Wouldn’t it be tidy if everything inside the North and South Circular roads in London was urban, and everything beyond was suburban? Tidy but unlikely. When are we going to reach the suburbs? And why would we want to go there anyway?

The word suburban is rarely used in a positive way. “Suburban sprawl” was never going to sound good. It’s neither the city, nor the countryside. The “sub” prefix in Latin can mean “under”, “beneath” or even “in the power of”, so perhaps “residential areas in the power of a city”. 

  Think of the word ‘suburbs’ and what do you visualise? Is it two- or three-story semi- or detached houses and generously-wide streets? Is it front gardens, road verges and street trees? Put the word into a search engine and the photos it finds look distinctly American –  think kids cycling down wide streets in Hollywood movies. Streets with verges, and those verges are key.

How would you work out where the urban ended and the suburban began? Is it about population density? Draw a line on a map which scoops up London’s most densely populated areas – where more than 30,000 people live per square kilometre –  and you have a donut with the hole over the city. In the west, the line passes through Acton. In the north it would trace south of Hampstead, past Finsbury Park and start turning south through Bow to cross the river just east of the Isle of Dogs. There’s less of the donut south of the river – the line goes past Stockwell and west towards Battersea before crossing the Thames again at Fulham.

Neither population density or the presence or absence of verges really tell you how areas feel. At pavement level I should have a better chance of experiencing the urban-suburban gradient and detecting the subtle nuances. Here we are, still about a mile inside the South Circular, and turning off Denmark Hill, it suddenly feels like we might be on the cusp of the urban-suburban boundary. Turning into a side street which is true-er continuation of the straight line from Walworth Road, three things stand out. First, almost all the houses have green front gardens with only a few completely paved over. Second, there are green verges lining the pavements and the tree pits are much more varied plant-wise, with lots of smooth sow-thistle, Guernsey fleabane and dandelions, as well as purple toadflax, wall barley and dove’s-foot cranesbill. Third, I can hear more than one robin singing and realise these are the first I’ve heard today.

Twee fingerpost signs announce that we’re almost in Dulwich Village now. Between the two organisations, the land-owning Dulwich Estate and the Dulwich Society are intent on preserving a certain look in this area. It’s an idealised version of a village with lots of green, as long as it’s of the tidy and fenced-in sort. The chain-draped low white posts surrounding the verges are bizarre but do at least seem to have protected some very large mushrooms from trampling. 

Pavement plants don’t give in that easily. There’s more greater celandine growing here and hart’s-tongue fern sprouting from a wall. Red deadnettle, ribwort plantain and a random clump of chives are growing on the verges. Patches of sunny yellow autumn hawkbit brighten the local graveyard, and on the pavement edge, pretty yellow corydalis is in flower.  Is that desire to control and prettify nature a feature of suburban areas? And what does it mean for wildlife other than these robust pavement plants I’m finding?  Has nature been tidied away?

I’m only just through Dulwich Park gate when I hear a familiar call. In a fir, there’s a goldcrest hunting for insects. The usual suspects, moorhens, coots, blackheaded gulls and mallards, are on the pond, but no Canada geese today. Crows, jackdaws and wood pigeons are feeding on the grass and a late speckled wood butterfly patrols the hedge. I find a patch annual nettle growing near the cafe, with spikier leaf teeth than its more common perennial relative. 

We’re approaching the area which would have been the Great North Wood centuries ago. From the park along the South Circular, there’s more water bent, circular leaves of garlic mustard and leaves of cow parsley, charlock and creeping cinquefoil. Turning into Cox’s Walk, lined by patches of black horehound and cock’s-foot grass, and there’s the church where the kestrel was nesting this summer. The path is strewn with what look at first like round seeds, but these are actually spangle galls detached from the underside of oak leaves. Formed by a tiny parasitic wasp, the galls provide a home for the larvae which will carry on developing over the winter.

Amethyst deceiver toadstools are looking tatty on the path edge but their colour is still vibrant purple as a green woodpecker yaffles overhead. In Sydenham HIll Wood, thin spears of light catch strands of spider silks rippling in the breeze, as I walk along a disused railbed. 

Superficially, this woodland – with its oak trees, hornbeams and hazel – could be anywhere in southern Britain.  Spend more time here and there quite a few pointers that combined suggest this wood isn’t in what’s usually referred to as ‘the countryside’. It’s the frequent reminders of people and visitors. It’s the overflowing bin for dog poo-bags.. It’s the graffiti on the boarding over the rail tunnel. It’s the very well-worn paths, the fencing everywhere you look and the traffic noise and police siren in the distance. It’s described as a suburban oasis but it’s a rare day when I can walk around these woods and not cross paths with someone. Getting away from it all – or them all – if I wanted to, would be a challenge.

Between the prettification of a suburban village and the grittiness and litter of suburban woodland, it would be too easy to define the suburban nature by what it isn’t. Not the history and intensity of natural history recording of urban spaces. Not the glamour of peregrine falcons nesting on city tower blocks, building-site colonising plants nor the novelty of a red admiral butterfly zipping down a winter street. Not the pastoral landscape, nor the wildness of coasts, marshes and mountains. Just lots of ‘nots’. 

But perhaps it’s time to look more closely at the suburban wild.

One comment

  1. […] Gallant-soldier I found growing on Southwark Bridge Road. You can read about my walk here Tales of the Suburban Wild – from urbs to […]

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