Magnolia

kenwood and fitter magnolias_blogpost (1 of 1)

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.

swan vestas

Pergola: The Hill Park, Golders Green

Image

 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…

Start of the day

Start of the day

Gardening tools at the start of a day in Golders Hill Park

I was out for a walk in the fog this morning, photographing the usual suspects: trees against a background of mist. Yet, with all the obvious beauty of the familiar cloaked in unusual robes, I was drawn to this half-hidden collection of gardening tools, laid out for park gardeners at the start of the day. Would each person have a separate task – raking leaves, digging, hoeing? Or would everyone get a go on everything?

For a few moments I felt a pang of envy.  I wanted to do one of those jobs. It reminded me of meditation retreats I’d been on, where some of the most enjoyable hours were those spent doing manual work outdoors, like raking leaves, or digging damp soil, listening to the birds and finding meaning in small things.

Sixth Greenwich Annuale

Percheron dray horses with a girl from the Perche region of France (i.e. a Percheronne)
Percheronne with Percherons

The London Independent Photography (LIP) Greenwich group is holding its Sixth Annuale exhibition from 8 – 22 August at The Greenwich Gallery , Linear House, Peyton Place, London SE10 8RS. The private view is tonight from 6.20 pm – 8.30 pm and is open to all. I will be exhibiting my photo ‘Percheronne’.  It was taken in the Perche region of France (Basse Normandie, or Lower Normandy) where I spent a year in a cottage in Eperrais, a tiny village between Mortagne and Belleme.

Le Perche

Percherons are magnificent dray or cart horses and were once used as war horses. A Percheronne would be a female Percheron, but also a girl or woman from the Perche region.

The Perche region is famous for its mushrooms and also its salami sausages (saucisse sèche). There’s wonderful cider and organic cider vinegar to be had, too. The forests have wild deer and mostly maiden (i.e. straight, not coppiced or pollarded) trees (oak and beech). One oak, the Chêne de l’Ecole, is 42 metres high and is nearly 350 years old.  Most oaks of this age in Britain are pollards, with their gnarled fat trunks, so it was a surprise to me to see a very old but slim tree.

Chêne de l'Ecole, 350 year-old maiden oak
Chêne de l’Ecole, 350 year-old maiden oak

The forests and woodland in this part of France are managed very much as they used to be in Britain 200 or more years ago.  The forests are used for hunting game,  for mushrooms and for long, straight timber.  Elsewhere there are private coppice woods used to produce small lengths of wood for fencing, broom handles, firewood, etc.

Pinhole photograph of coppice wood with standard trees at Clinchamps in the Perche
Pinhole photograph of coppice wood with standard trees at Clinchamps in the Perche

In most coppice woods in Britain, like parts of Epping Forest, the trees haven’t been cut back (coppiced) for over a hundred years, so the ‘poles’, which would have been harvested every 15 years or so have grown into mature trees, sometimes in a circle around what used to be the stump of the original tree (see post on the Hornbeam in Highgate Wood).

When I came across the coppice wood in a little village called Clinchamps, with coppice stools mixed with maiden trees, I felt I was seeing a textbook version of the traditional coppice woodland described by Oliver Rackham in his book, Woodlands, but mostly disappeared from Britain.

Hibiscus

HIbiscus siriacus
HIbiscus syriacus

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

Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood
Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood – this is one tree, the ‘trunks’ growing from a now buried stump

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.

20130805-_1040383_hornbeam_small

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.

9911-2-06

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.

0504cercledenergie

Don McCullin

In a documentary on BBC2, celebrated war photographer, Don McCullin, discusses some of the harrowing images of war and man’s inhumanity to man that still haunt him. He has turned to landscape photography as a way of forgetting.

I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to eradicate [these harrowing memories]. I’m just going to photograph landscape. The English landscape is my heaven. But the one thing that upsets me about it is that there’s always a threat surrounding the things you love. When I hear a chainsaw in the distance, I think a tree is dying. When there’s pheasant shooting I think there’s going to be some blood somewhere. The gunfire immediately switches on another part of my nervous system. I feel that as much as you try to run away from these things, someone always presses a button and says ‘here’s a reminder of what you used to do.’

Towards an Iron Age hill fort, Somerset, 1991. Don McCullin
Towards an Iron Age hill fort, Somerset, 1991. Don McCullin

 

 

sights and sounds

ImageOn a  walk around Kenwood this morning, the repeated notes of a song thrush were, for once, the first I heard, rather than the squawking of ring-necked parakeets that has started to dominate the birdsong in the woods around here.  The ribald laughter of a green woodpecker interrupted  the caws of carrion crows and  descending song of a chaffinch. Familiar sounds that seem  at home here among the old oaks and beech trees. But there are human parakeets today, dressed in fluorescent lycra, sweating as they jog or wade like space-age shepherdesses among flocks of spaniels, poodles and grinning labradors.

Far off sounds of an aeroplane, an ambulance siren.  By a pond, what I think is a fisherman under a large green umbrella turns out to be a homeless person lying on a sun-lounge, his bald head emerging from a sleeping bag. And in a car park in the Vale of Health, fairground people live in caravans called Monza and Barracuda, next to a jolly painted cart advertising Happy Falafels, in the shadow of bankers’ houses.