My first sight and taste of sweet chestnuts was in a hot bag handed over by a street seller in London. I was with my parents, probably visiting my Auntie Jess in Clapham Common. The skin, slightly split by the heat, needed to be opened to extract the pale white-yellow hot nut. Sucking in air as it burned the sides of my mouth, hoping that would cool it. I don’t remember seeing a sweet chestnut tree, though, until I left England to live in France. There, in Ardèche, their twisted trunks are common. Just as common as autumn forays to collect the fallen fruit and separate them from their spiky shells and bring them home to roast in the oven or on an open fire.
Sweet chestnuts were brought to the British Isles by the Romans and cultivated, mostly in the south. There’s a stunning ancient wood of coppiced chestnuts in Eltham, on the Dover Road in South East London – Oxleas Wood. They’re rare north of the Thames.
Today’s tiny, pinched, specimen, lay in the rain next to its thorny womb, on the tarmac path in Golders Green Park. It’s one of the punier fruit of a magnificent ancient chestnut tree, at least 200 years old, that forms part of the parish boundary. Most of its mates are veteran oaks, stretching down the hill, past the bandstand, the deer enclosure and the menagerie .
First day of teaching /tutorial work for me on this year’s International Photography Summer School. Thoroughly enjoying the students and colleagues again.
Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica)
This magnificent chap hitched a ride, as a seed, in a tub of bluebells kindly given to me by friends Martin and Katy, from their garden in Oxford. A few weeks after the last bluebells had shrivelled to straw, I saw some nettle-like, hairy leaves and a handsome weed growing taller and taller. Finally its bottle-brush tip of purple flowers, with a pink and white whorl on the lower petal emerged. Two bright yellow stamens stand up like matchsticks. Apparently it is called Woundwort because it has antiseptic properties and was used to make poultices to treat cuts and other wounds. Although fairly common on roadside verges, I’ve never seen this plant around here in London. On Sunday, at a barbecue at Katy and Martin’s, I was able to meet the plant’s cousins and see exactly where it had come from, hiding in the soil around the bluebells. A double gift.
Four swifts screeching and scything through the blue sky over the back gardens of West Hampstead. They’ve come back exactly to the day (see post last year (https://petecoles.me/2013/06/04/theyre-back/). And it was on a 15 May that Ted Hughes published his poem “Swifts”. Curious precision. And at least there are still four of them, as numbers had been decreasing each year.
Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is flowering now in the cracks between paving stones and alongside garden walls in my suburbia. It’s the little seed pods though, not the flowers, that have endeared them to me since childhood in more rural Buckinghamshire. A little plant with dozens of hearts on stalks. But the plant gets its Latin and common English name from the resemblance of these seed pods to the purses that hung from the belts of peasants in the Middle Ages. The French name is Bourse-à-pasteur, which also means a shepherd’s purse. And when the pod is ripe, it splits open and little seeds spill out, like coins. The Dutch painter, Pieter Breugel, included one in his The Peasant Dance, painted around 1567.
In his inspiring book, Weeds, Richard Mabey points out that the seeds are covered with a kind of gum, which, when moist, helps them to stick to the feet of birds, increasing their chances of dispersal. Also, according to Mabey, the resemblance of the seed pods to bladders meant that they were once thought to be an effective cure for urinary disorders – following the theory of plant ‘signatures’ put forward by the 17th-century Oxford botanist, William Coles.
In Flitting, written in 1832, the poet John Clare declares his love for the “poor persecuted weeds” which, he points out, will still remain “where old marble cities stood.” He composed the poem shortly after he, his wife and seven children moved to the village of Northborough (“this strange spot”). Although not far from his birthplace in the village of Helpston (“that old hut now left), he felt increasingly alienated, with bouts of severe depression. In the poem, simple weeds around his new home remind him of his beloved Helpston.
A farm worker himself, he wrote of shepherd’s purse:
E’en here my simple feelings nurse
A love for every simple weed
And e’en this little shepherd’s purse
Grieves me to cut it up – Indeed
I feel at times a love and joy
For every weed and every thing
A feeling kindred from a boy
A feeling brought with every spring.
And why – this ‘shepherd’s purse’ that grows
In this strange spot in days gone bye
Grew in the little garden rows
Of that old hut now left – and I
Feel what I never felt before
This weed an ancient neighbour here
And though I own the spot no more
Its every trifle makes it dear.
Pâquerettes, French for daisies (Bellis perennis), probably from Pâques (Easter), which is when they first flower – i.e. now. The monotony of local lawns shattered by these little stars, while the woodland upstart bluebells vie for attention in posher gardens, giving off a whiff of hyacinth and nodding smugly. “They’re beautiful when they first come out” said one neighbour (about bluebells), “but they look so ragged when they fade. And they stay like that for ages.” Not the pâquerette, which remains jolly, winking back at you, resisting the trampling of children and staying bright even when picked, bobbing in a glass, on the kitchen table.
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.
This is supposed to be the longest pergola in London. But who can say whether that’s true or not? Has someone measured all the pergolas? Does someone know how long this one is? It IS long, and winds round corners. Probably a good few hundred metres. If this is the longest, which is the second longest? Or is this all apocryphal speculation? Why not leave the burden of proof to someone else and make the claim anyway? Not really my nature to do that…