Tales from the suburban wild – feasts and jamming

I arrive at the community orchard with my guitar, and find the Apple Day activities well underway. Kids are making bird feeders by sticking seeds into apples, and there’s free apple juice made using the apples visitors were encouraged to bring along from their gardens. The promised cider hasn’t materialised but for me that’s probably a good thing as my rhythm playing gets a bit haphazard under the influence. 

Sam, Chantelle and Abi are here from the Wildlife Trust, and Sam tells me he’s just about to start his talk about the orchard’s trees. Most are heritage apple trees which were planted in 2019 by local landowner, Dulwich Estate. It’s a rather grey autumn day but the families here seem chirpy and several seem to be waiting for Sam’s talk.

The other band members of Larkin’ the Woods start turning up and we arrange folding chairs in a rough semi-circle in front of the gazebo provided for us, in case the weather turns. We kick off an hour-long set-list with a rousing pair of folk tunes – Bear Dance and Horse’s Brawl – which are Flemish and French respectively. 

One of my jobs today is to let the other players know when it’s time to change from the first to the second tune, which I do by saying “hup” just loud enough so they can hear, but hopefully without annoying the audience. We work our way through the set list of English, Irish and Scottish tunes taking it in turns to play what’s called a “lead-in”, a the last few bars of the tune so that, when the tune repeats, the other musicians all start playing in time. 

James, one of our bodhran drummers, has brought a collection of percussion instruments and lays them out on a bag so families can join in. A little boy of about three really gets into the music and his borrowed shaker, dancing along. There’s a moment of slight embarrassment when we realise that someone has dropped a coin in with the percussion, mistaking it for a collection bag. 

My botanist friend, Roy Vickery, wanders over to say hello. He’s just back from a walk looking for plant galls down the road at West Norwood Cemetery, with another botanist and gall expert, Tommy Root. Roy tells me there were fewer galls than last year which is a bit worrying. I don’t know much about plant galls beyond the spangle galls which were everywhere earlier in the autumn but I love that other botanists are keeping an eye on them.

The absence of cider doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone today and there’s a good festival vibe. I wasn’t feeling it this morning – it felt like dawn was a long time coming. Now I’m in a much cheerier mood.

I confess I absolutely love and need festivals, rituals and open days, particularly the autumn and winter ones. Without them, I worry that I’d just hibernate over autumn and winter.  Contemporary autumn festivals, like Halloween and Bonfire Night, have eclipsed what might be thought of as traditional autumn ones linked to nature and the seasons. 

The autumn equinox on or around September 23rd marks a natural event, the day when sunrise and sunset are twelve hours apart. Harvest Home or Ingathering, the festival of the autumn equinox, has a long tradition relating to giving thanks for, and committing to sharing, the fruits of the earth, and there’s a traditional hornpipe tune called Harvest Home which Larkin’ play. The Christian version of Harvest Home, Harvest Festival, is usually a week or so later, and so like many Christian festivals has become dislocated from natural event. 

Later in autumn, Samhain, the festival of darkness, has been overwritten by All Saints Eve and Halloween at the end of October. Modern day pagans see Samhain as the time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed, and a time to communicate with those who have left this world. 

I don’t have any desire to communicate with the dead but I can see the point in finding something positive in darkness and early sunsets. It may seem that the darkness gets in the way of enjoying nature but, as I drive into our road late afternoon, Rosa and I see a lone bat taking advantage of the mild temperature, flashing through the patch of light under a streetlamp. The tawny owls are very vocal in the woods at the moment too and I sneak the bedroom window wide open so I can listen to them as I’m falling asleep. 

Later sunrises aren’t so bad either. I often start work before dawn at this time of year as I find writing comes most easily then. My desk overlooks our back garden with its crab apple tree and bird feeders. The blue tits and coal tits start visiting the feeders surprisingly early and I can only just make them out in the hour before dawn. Like tiny ghosts, they flit from branch to branch.

It’s also the most reliable time of year to see goldcrests in the garden, poking around in the yew bush, probably on the hunt for white flies. This morning, one perches on a dog rose branch inches from the window, and for once sits quite still for a second or two, looking in at me.     

Apple Day, on the twenty-first of October, isn’t a traditional festival, but none the worse for that. It was started by the organisation, Common Ground, in October 1990 in London and has been celebrated across the UK ever since. On the website Common Ground says, “We have used the apple as a symbol of what is being lost in many aspects of our lives”.  Says it all.

“It seems a funny time of year to organise a pavement plant walk”, says a young woman with a baby strapped to her chest. I (gently I hope) tell her that I think it’s actually a really good time for looking at urban plants, particularly if you’re new to botany.  There will always be some plants in flower, but at this time of year – late November – not so many that it’s overwhelming.

I’m waiting for the group to gather with Sarah, from the South London Botanical Institute. We’re standing in front of St Luke’s Church in West Norwood next to a Christmas tree, thankfully with its lights not yet turned on. The couple with the baby are first, followed by Kim who organises Wild Norwood and her partner, a mum with two daughters of about five and eight, and then another woman joins us on route. 

Gathering everyone together, I start by explaining what the plan is over the hum of traffic.  “We all have a choice about how we experience urban and suburban streets”, I tell them, trying not to sound too gushingly evangelical. “We can either focus on the concrete and the litter, or we can choose to focus on beautiful pavement plants, as we’re going to this morning”.  

I’ve reccied a route which takes in a street which climbs the hill east out of West Norwood. There have been a lot of pavement plants in flower here over the last few weeks. Before we get to the hill, we’ve already found herb-robert, ivy-leaved toadflax and annual mercury. The group seem very energised about hunting for flowers and I hear the two girls chanting the plant names I’ve shared with them.

I’m trying not to keep repeating names but rather leaving time for the group to retrieve them when we re-find a species. From experience I think they’re more likely to remember them this way. I do realise I’m still probably yakking on too much when I check my watch and see that we’re only halfway round the route and already fifty minutes into the hour. After enthusing about a lone stalk of jersey cudweed, I speed them back down the hill to find zingy yellow catsear by a school gate and the pretty daisy flowers of gallant-soldier in front of a shop. We have a last poke around in a little side street, where there are black horehound, nipplewort and Oxford ragwort, before returning to the start.

The group say nice things and seem to have caught the pavement plant bug. “Start off with working your way through the plants in your street”, I suggest to them before we part. “If you get stuck, post a few pictures of the whole plant and close-ups of the flowers and leaves on the Institute’s Facebook page and a kind botanist will help you with the id”, I say confidently, and Sarah nods. My experience is that online botanists love a challenge, even if they don’t necessarily agree with each other.

That afternoon I stride the two miles home in the autumn sun, buzzing with having led my first publicly advertised plant walk. We found thirty plants in flower which wasn’t bad for an hour. 

A couple of weeks later I’m drinking an outrageously-priced cup of tea in a cafe next to Deptford Station. I’m filling in time while I wait for another pavement plant walk to start. Nick, from the Creekside Discovery Centre, is leading this one, and it’s a tradition that he’s continued every year on the first day of December. 

We start off by climbing the stairs to the overhead platforms, where there’s a smallish patch of grass on the south side. I’m not bad at common plant names but Nick’s focusing on Latin names today, which is going to be very useful for me, as I still have lots to learn. In this small area we record twelve different plants in flower, including false oat-grass, narrow-leaved ragwort and hedgerow crane’s-bill which I haven’t found in my local patch.

Back at ground level we walk south weaving through narrow back streets and around housing estates. We’re a big group – of about twenty – and keeping everyone together is a challenge. It’s a friendly bunch. I chat with a mum and her twenty-something daughter about how Deptford has been gentrified since the eighties when used to hang out with a mate who lived here.

This group has quite a few experienced botanists, including Jane and Mario who I’ve botanised with before. We swarm along pavement edges and over green patches, all keen to find something not yet on the list. I mistake some thale cress for bittercress, and, feeling a bit silly, decide to be a bit more circumspect from then onwards.

There’s a couple of guys standing next to a van in a depot, definitely smirking. “Are you laughing at us?” I ask one of them with a smile. “Absolutely not!” he says, before telling me they are gardeners. I show them a plant growing on the pavement outside the depot’s gate. “Do you know what this is then?” I ask them. They don’t but they seem quite interested to hear that it’s pellitory-of-the-wall, my favourite pavement plant name.  Nick told me earlier that “pellitory” means wall too, so that makes it “wally-wall plant” I suppose.

Over a balanced lunch of coffee and chips outside a greasy spoon in Deptford High Street, Nick tells me he’s got more than thirty plants in flower on his list already.  Conscious that I’ve a lot of work waiting for me at home, I make my apologies.

That evening I start a pavement plant advent calendar on Twitter, planning to post a photo of a plant from my patch which is flowering in December. Later on I hear from Creekside that there were another thirty plants found in flower after I’d left.

Today our band, Larkin’ the Woods, are playing at London Wildlife Trust’s Centre for Wildlife Gardening on the edge of Peckham and East Dulwich. The garden is hosting an event for Tree (Dressing) Day, another Common Ground festival which started in 1990. 

It’s drizzling when I arrive but, despite that, there are still five or six families huddled around activity tables under the overhang of the visitors’ centre.  John, our other bodhran drummer, is inside already and he and I test the mulled apple and cranberry juice, just to check if it’s okay for the visitors. 

By the time the rest of the band arrives, there are as many musicians and Trust staff as visitors. It would be too easy to pack it in, but, having made the effort to get here, there’s a consensus in the band that we should play for our own enjoyment whether or not we have an audience.

I lead into the first two tunes, a couple of stomping morris dances, and in no time at all we have children and adults joining in with shaky eggs and tambourines and a few dancers. An hour and twenty tunes later I’m warm enough to take my bobble hat off.

 With the weather as it is, this could have been a wash-out, but there’s nothing like a bit of seasonal ritual and some cheery music to change how you feel about a grey day. The families who are here seem to be having a nice time, making bird seedballs and pond dipping. The musicians are smiling and the Trust staff seem very appreciative.

The following day I read about the history of Tree Dressing Day and I’m inspired to join in by tying a few fabric strips to the plum tree in our front garden. I think it’s time to reclaim some of our festivals for nature.

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