That time of Spring has come, when the bare Winter bones of twigs and branches in the woods are clothed in a thin green mist, as buds open into the most fragile and greenest-of-green new leaves. In a month the whole woodland will have changed and it will no longer be possible to see far.
It’s odd that the blossoming of a tree that is native to the Himalayan mountains should herald Spring in suburban London, but that is what the magnolia does. And this one on the slope on the south side of Kenwood House is particularly splendid. It is now in full flower, on 16 March. In 2009 it was at the same state of blossom on 24 March and last year, 2012, it did not bloom until after 2 April, according to the newsletter of the Friends of Kenwood.
The tree was probably planted in 1925, or shortly after, when the house was bought by Edward Cecil Guinness, First Earl of Iveagh. Arthur Oxford was appointed first head gardener that year. When Guinness died in 1927, he bequeathed the house to the nation.
In March 2009, shortly after the birth of my second son, I went up to the south terrace of Kenwood almost every day to photograph the tree in full bloom. For several days I went home without a picture because the flowers weren’t completely out yet.
In 1945 the famous bird photographer, Eric Hosking, had taken a photograph of the magnolia at almost exactly the same time of year, for R.S.R. Fitter’s endlessly interesting book, London: A Natural History, published in 1947. What’s interesting in Hosking’s photograph is the oak tree to the left of the magnolia, with a bench around it, on which sit visitors to the grounds. The tree is no longer there.
Hosking, who famously had an eye pecked out by an owl as he climbed into a hide to retrieve his camera, was the anonymous photographer of the swan that was used for the drawing n the Swan Vestas matchbox.
Hibiscus syriacus doesn’t originally come from Syria, but eastern Asia, probably China and Korea. It’s been in bloom in our garden and others around here in northwest London for the past few days. So popular with gardeners it might better be called Hibiscus suburbus. But I love it when our bush flowers as it goes from green leaves and pregnant buds to a mass of white and pink-tinged flowers almost overnight. And at last the bush is taking on a more natural form after the downstairs neighbour, in love with his power tools and a rectilinear decking aesthetic, took a chain saw to it two years ago and made it into a box of twigs on a stalk. LIke a square lollipop. Since they left, I’ve been able to prune it and shape it by hand using secateurs and an eye for shape rather than any real knowledge of what I am doing.
Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, also known as iron wood, or yoke elm because the wood is so hard it can’t be worked easily. It was mainly used for ox yokes, cogs and cartwheels. The grown-out coppice stools like this one in Highgate wood would also have been used for firewood or charcoal, as it burns slowly and brightly ‘like a candle’. It was used for the tall, dense hedges of the original maze in Hampton Court, although these have since been replaced.
The poet John Clare was fond of hornbeam, which is one of the principal trees in Epping Forest, where he spent four years in the High Beach asylum, from 1837-1841, suffering from severe depression. He was allowed considerable freedom to walk in the forest and, indeed, in July 1841 walked out of the asylum and followed the Great York Road until he reached his home in Northborough, 80 miles away, four days later. That year, while at High Beach, he wrote Child Harold, mentioning the hornbeam:
How beautiful this hill of fern swells on.
So beautiful the chapel peeps between
The hornbeams with its simple bell – alone
I wander here, hid in a palace green.
Seeing the hornbeams, I was reminded of a three-trunked hornbeam in the Bois de Vincennes, just east of Paris, in whose shade for seven years, every Saturday morning, I learned tai chi with my friend and teacher Li Gui Sheng and fellow student and friend Claude.
Every Saturday that is, until, in a few hours after midnight on 26 December 1999, a hurricane blew down the forest. Miraculously ‘our’ tree was spared, though it took us several hours to find it amid the tangled mess of fallen trunks. About a year later we cleared a space beneath the tree again, now sporting a mass of side shoots from its trunk in an all-out fight for survival. But it wasn’t the same. The squirrels had gone, replaced by pheasants, now the forest was more like heathland or scrub. And the dog walker who had shouted after “Whisky” and “Frisky”, as we fought invisible opponents in slow motion, had found another route.
“Look! They’re back! Look!” wrote Ted Hughes in his poem “Swifts”. It was a 15 May. While “walking the dog” over the past years, I’ve been noting when the swifts return from Africa to the streets around where I live, in northwest London. And how many there are. It was, with surprising synchrony, on 15 May that I first heard them screeching overhead this year. And, even three weeks later, there are still just four of them. There were nine last year. Seventeen the year before. Which end of their migration is to blame? Disappearing nesting sites, here? Insecticides in Africa?
And, the elms he mentions are long gone, too, apart from a few in Brighton and here and there. Maybe, one day, we’ll be able to say “Look! They’re back!” about them, too.
by Ted Hughes
Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep
Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening
For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come —
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters —
A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard-fletched
Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again. Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades
Sparkle out into blue —
Not ours any more.
Rats ransacked their nests so now they shun us.
Round luckier houses now
They crowd their evening dirt-track meetings,
Racing their discords, screaming as if speed-burned,
Head-height, clipping the doorway
With their leaden velocity and their butterfly lightness,
Their too much power, their arrow-thwack into the eaves.
Every year a first-fling, nearly flying
Misfit flopped in our yard,
Groggily somersaulting to get airborne.
He bat-crawled on his tiny useless feet, tangling his flails
Like a broken toy, and shrieking thinly
Till I tossed him up — then suddenly he flowed away under
His bowed shoulders of enormous swimming power,
Slid away along levels wobbling
On the fine wire they have reduced life to,
And crashed among the raspberries.
Then followed fiery hospital hours
In a kitchen. The moustached goblin savage
Nested in a scarf. The bright blank
Blind, like an angel, to my meat-crumbs and flies.
Then eyelids resting.
Wasted clingers curled.
The inevitable balsa death.
For the husk
Of my little Apollo —
The charred scream
Folded in its huge power.
Designed for photographers, artists and urbanists whose work addresses notions of urban space and culture the international Summer School provides a highly intensive two week practical and theoretical training in key aspects of urban visual practice. The course aims to offer participants a wide range of relevant skills resulting in the production of a photography portfolio drawn from London’s urban environments combined with a collective final exhibition.
The programme has been developed in collaboration with Urban Encounters and the Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR). The course will be taught by tutors from Goldsmith’s Sociology Department and the international MA in Photography and Urban Cultures. The programme draws on the advanced theoretical, research and practical image-making specialisms of key practitioners in the field. Summer School tutors include: Paul Halliday (MA in Photography and Urban Cultures Convener), Beatriz Véliz Argueta (Coordinator/Goldsmiths), Les Back (Goldsmiths), Caroline Knowles (CUCR Director), Mandy Lee Jandrell (Goldsmiths), Peter Coles (Oxford/ Goldsmiths), Alex Rhys-Taylor (Goldsmiths), Manuel Vazquez (Goldsmiths), Michael Wayne Plant (Goldsmiths), Laura Cuch (Goldsmiths) and Jasmine Cheng (Goldsmiths).
The programme will explore how the practice of urban image making informs the development of a reflexive and critical research perspective and will include assignments and guided fieldtrips focusing on (1) urban landscape, (2) street photography and (3) material objects.
Application deadline: June 3rd, 2011
For more information: www.gold.ac.uk/cucr/summer%20school/