I’m standing in the middle of the road which runs alongside Sydenham Hill wood. To be fair this is a pretty quiet road looping off the main road along Sydenham Hill ridge, so it isn’t quite as daring as it might sound. In front of me is a curving triangular verge of about ten square metres, filling the space between a low wall and a pavement corner. Beyond the wall is a protected meadow next to a block of flats. It’s protected because rare corky-fruited water-dropwort grows here, in one of only a few sites in London.
The verge itself is not particularly unique. It has a four-metre-high ornamental cherry tree in the centre, a stone waymarker, and a metal post marking the boundary of the old Camberwell parish. Oh, and there’s one of those lovely green plastic road-gritting bins too.
The reason I’m standing in the middle of the road is to take a photo of this verge – a mini-meadow which has come to symbolise a tiny triumph for me. In general, I experience autumn as a time of mixed emotions. On one hand, I love the leaves and fungi, crisp blue days and low sun. On the other, dark mornings and those dripping grey days, when it feels like the sun hasn’t actually risen, trigger a mild bout of seasonal affective disorder or SAD. The tiny triumph symbolised by the verge in front of me is already helping me fend off a bout of SAD.
The summer before last, the one during lockdown, it seemed like everyone was talking about road verges. Lots of pictures appeared on social media of verges in suburbia and more rural areas which had been sown with “wildflower” seeds by the local council. The resulting colourful verges seemed to be providing joy for the locals, but incensed a number of very vocal botanists I follow. The main botanical concern raised was that, instead of encouraging the existing seed bank of plants to flower, most of the sown seeds were for cornfield annuals, like cornflowers and poppies. These were only likely to persist if the verge was managed like a cornfield. Unless the councils had also invested in tractors and ploughs then that wasn’t likely to happen, and so they’d have to keep resowing and resowing. And then on top of that, some of the seeds were for introduced plants, like orange daisy-like fox-and-cubs, rather than native wildflowers.
I found myself sitting on the fence in this discussion. Even if the councils hadn’t planned it this way, was it possible that once communities had become used to longer grass and flowers on their verges, over time they might be more ready to accept a transition to the less showy flowers from some of our native grassland species? Optimistically, I chose to see these sowing exercises as the first step towards real wildflower verges, and the increased biodiversity which would come with them. If we just laid into our councils when they were doing what they sincerely believe were the right things for biodiversity, then we were in danger of cutting off channels for constructive communication. Perhaps offering at least some botanical or other nature expertise for free, was one way we could try and influence what our local environment looked like.
Back in my neighbourhood, I walked past this particular patch of verge one August day and saw that, rather than being sown with anything, it had been mown to about a centimetre high. Only bare earth and dead grass was left, with flower seedheads removed and nothing to support overwintering insects. Clearly there are some verges which if left to grow long could reduce visibility. This particular road layout means there is no justification for cutting this verge short for road safety, but that hadn’t stopped the highways team.
I posted a photo of the brown verge on social media, tagging the council, and asked, tongue in cheek, whether I could adopt this patch, promising to look after it in line with best practice for biodiversity. There was no reply. Of course.
I then emailed my ward councillor, who also happens to be the cabinet member for the environment, and asked her to support my request to adopt this patch. I pointed out that this would save money, albeit a teeny bit, but more importantly would demonstrate the progressive approach the council takes to working in partnership with communities. No reply. Less acceptable.
So as a last resort, I registered a complaint – albeit a mildly worded one – on the council’s website, suggesting that the management regime for the verge demonstrated that the current managers or contractors didn’t have the expertise to manage it responsibly for wildlife. I offered to work with them for free to improve the situation. Two months on from my original request and a week after my formal complaint had been lodged, I finally received a very polite response. A manager from the ‘waste and cleaning team’ told me that he’d asked one of his staff to visit the verge that morning and had heard that it had grown back. He confirmed it wouldn’t be cut again that autumn. He expressed regret that he couldn’t hand over responsibility for ground maintenance to individuals, but did say he’d ask whether that patch could be allowed to “run wild”. He also thanked me for offering to help when botanical surveys were needed and said he’d bear that in mind in future..
I don’t know whether that nice manager’s ‘letting it run wild’ request was ever made but, at the start of May and the annual No Mow May campaign seven months later, the verge hadn’t been mown and was full of colour. There were creamy-white sprays of corky-fruited water-dropwort, red deadnettle, yellow smooth sow-thistle, pink dove’s-foot crane’s-bill and blue wall speedwell. I made a list of all the flowers I could see and added this list to a board I attached to the tree support, with a message of congratulations to the council for doing a good job. While I was attaching it, a neighbour and friend walked past and asked what I was doing. I explained. “But where are the flowers?” he said, and I pointed out that, as they were wildflowers, many were quite small and subtle. He looked a little sceptical and I realised he was possibly one of the people who might have been won over more easily by a more obviously flowery mini-meadow.
Given it was along a fairly well-walked suburban pavement, near bus stops and school routes, I wasn’t terribly optimistic about how long my perky notice board would last. But I was delighted to be proved completely wrong. Six months on and the sign is still there and even appears now on the street-level photo in Google maps. More flowering plants have appeared over that time too, like yellow cat’s-ear and wall barley. It makes me smile every time I walk past and hopefully has had that effect on some other people as well.
This bright autumn day feels like the perfect time to do a little verge upkeep. Using some garden shears – it’s only small after all – I trim off a strip on the very edge of the verge to about ten centimetres high. I then cut a further strip to around twenty centimetres. I leave the final strip along the wall – mostly flowerheads of the rare corky-fruited water-dropwort which has spread from the protected meadow behind the wall – untrimmed. There’s plenty of long vegetation for overwintering insects and other invertebrates, and I’m hopeful that as it looks like it’s been managed rather than forgotten, and has a sign, there won’t be too many complaints. Now for a quick photograph to add to my records.
Will this new-look verge last? I don’t know, but the huge advantage of suburbs like this is that there are lots of people to watch over and care for every tiny green patch, if we share them out. It does also suggest that we need to keep on asking, asking and asking again, until someone listens. And every triumph we achieve for nature, however small, is one less depressing mistake and a reminder we can all be agents for change even in the face of what seem impossibly big challenges. This particular little triumph has cheered me this autumn day.
A few days later is the day that The Wood that Built London – Chris Schuler’s book about the Great North Wood – is published. In the evening I join the online book launch to hear Chris and his publisher discussing it. I know Chris because we both volunteer in Sydenham Hill Wood which is one of the largest remnants of this historic wood.
It seems only the other day that I was chatting to Chris about how he researched the wood’s history. I asked him then how you begin researching the history of a landscape. “The National Archives online catalogue is the place to start”, he told me, “because they can share information held in local archives too.” He told me that once you’ve exhausted what’s held at a national level, then it is worth going to your local archives and museums, and thinking laterally if you come to a dead end. I’m getting only a glimpse of the amount of work Chris has put into researching this book and it’s awe-inspiring.
I hope Chris will forgive me for saying that he clearly has an obsession with maps and what they can tell us. Historic maps aren’t always where you’d expect to find them. “The National Library of Scotland has a great collection of maps from across the UK”, he said. And finding the maps is just part of the challenge. It isn’t easy reconciling them over time, as the early maps – particularly those before 1800 – were fairly inaccurate. “John Roque’s map of London from 1746 is fantastic with an awful lot of detail”, Chris says, “but outside of the central London area, the further you get from the centre, the more distorted it becomes”.
Once optical tools had improved allowing better triangulation, maps of this area in south London became much more accurate. “And before the Ordnance Survey started in 1791, pretty much every map had the A23 [which goes from London to Brighton bisecting the south London suburbs] quarter of a mile too far east”, Chris tells me. On the other hand, Thomas Milne’s Land Use map of 1800 – a contemporary of the early OS maps – is accurate enough that it can be superimposed onto a modern map.
As well as maps, Chris looked at records of perambulations, or ‘beating the bounds’ when key landmarks like trees were recorded and boundary markers positioning literally beaten into the young men of the parish. These have the advantages of offering further information on what was growing in the area too.
I’ve become a bit obsessed myself. I want to know why the corky-fruited water-dropwort is growing just here. My wildflower identification book says it’s usually found in old pastures, hay meadows and roadside grassland. Could it be here as a relic of a historic pasture or did it arrive more recently?
Inspired by Chris, I start investigating what might have been the history of what I confess I’ve started thinking of as my verge, and the meadow which it edges. Looking at Roque’s map, I can immediately see what Chris means about the lack of accuracy. My best guess is that where the verge is now, was once pasture land just on the edge of the Great North Wood. A later map from 1816 clearly shows the parish boundary marker which is still on the verge and some kind of building where the meadow is. Later again, a map which post-dates the Crystal Palace being moved south doesn’t show any buildings but this area is marked “Woodlands”. An 1867 address directory records that Mrs Walter Morgan lived in Woodlands and then by 1892 Mr Edward Catchpole was living there. Fifty years on, a WW2 bombsite map shows Woodlands as an L-shaped house with lots of space round it. Perhaps some of the original pasture remained in the gardens.
Countisbury House now stands more or less where that L-shaped house was. This block of council flats – a seven storey tower block with a y-shaped footprint – was built in the 1950s as part of the Sydenham Hill Estate. The rest of the estate is over the road in Lewisham, while this block is in Southwark. Online botanical records have the corky-fruited water-dropwort next to Countisbury House in 1987 but it may well have been here – unidentified – before then. The botanical records atlas shows it was also found in the area to the south west around Crystal Palace park between 1990-2000 and in the same decade to the north east near One Tree Hill in Honour Oak.
It’s nice when there’s a tidy conclusion from a bit of botanical detective work. In this case, I can only conclude that the water-dropwort could have been present in this patch for centuries or, equally, could have travelled here from one of the two neighbouring populations perhaps on a botanist’s boots.
I’m surprised to discover that turning scythes, billhooks and machetes into lethal weapons is actually very therapeutic, particularly when you’re doing it sitting in an autumn-sun-dappled patch of woodland. You’ll be pleased to hear, I hope, that I’m not part of some secret suburban militia; today I’m volunteering with the London Wildlife Trust (LWT) in Sydenham Hill Wood and there are lots of woodland management tools which need sharpening.
Sam, the LWT project officer, has divided us into two groups. Three of us agreed to spend the morning sharpening tools while the other five would be building dead hedges. Jo, Dan, and I have an entertaining and wide-ranging chat as we rhythmically rub the tool blades with whetstones. Topics range from which nature writers we like and don’t and mask-wearing politics to fungi. Jo’s a professional tattoo artist with a side hustle of decorating leather and a particular interest in mushrooms. Dan’s a nature writer and naturalist. The morning disappears fast and, thankfully, Sam expresses approval of our efforts on his return.
The dead-hedge-builders are back for lunch and we sit in a circle eating and watching Sam fire up the kelly kettle to make tea. Before we get back to work, some of us have a look at a patch of earthstars, rather fun fungi which puff out black spores if you squeeze them.
After lunch we put our newly-sharpened tools to the test on the vegetation round a small pond. It’s official, they’re sharp. Ernie, a long-time London Wildlife Trust volunteer joins us, and he tackles some of the woodier plants with gusto. It’s all hard physical work for a weedy writer like me, but cutting the ivy and tough grass is rewarding too. The pond’s bank is quite steep so carrying piles of cuttings out of the pond area on a pitchfork can be quite entertaining.
It’s perfectly acceptable to do some work and also a bit of nature watching too. While we’re having a breather, we look at the different shapes of tiny warts on the flowers of dock plants – broad-leaved and wood docks have quite different ones. There’s also a discussion about how to tell the difference between bracken and male fern; in this case by whether the spore patches are arranged on the edges or middle of leaves respectively. And while were looking at plants, Ernie draws our attention to a kestrel calling overhead. This is only minutes from our house, but I don’t yet have kestrel on my garden bird-list.
Later I’m working in the spare bedroom. There are three ring-necked parakeets eating the crab apples in our garden. Peck, spit, peck, spit, peck, spit. Maybe this bit will be nicer? Or even this bit? Or perhaps this one? Or the one over there? Now look you lot. They’re sour dammit. They’re always going to be sour. GIVE. IT. UP. But they don’t and after a few weeks, all the crab apples are half eaten on the paving stones beneath.
As a nature-lover, you could – if you wanted to – choose to focus on what the suburbs are not. Of course they can’t compete with the breath-taking views of the wilder parts of the British Isles. Not only full of people, they’re heaving with cheeky imposters, like these parakeets in my garden, or rather thuggish grey squirrels, and our suburban foxes certainly have attitude.
It’s the sheer density of people in the suburbs which has the potential to make them increasingly special places for nature. Enough people to notice, care about and defend every tree, every little green patch and every verge. Enough people to care for parks, nature reserves and record plants, animals and fungi. And enough people to lobby their councils about the natural environment.
While only six miles from Southwark Bridge – St Paul’s is visible on a clear day – this suburban wood and nearby meadow and verge are a world away from the city. And these places have inspired me to rethink how I experience the suburbs. Not as places with a nature deficit, but for all they have to offer between the city and often nature-depleted farmland, and for, and because of, the nature-loving people who live here.