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Thursday, 30 November 2017

Animal magic and winter lights at Waddesdon Manor

Christmas is always a magical time to visit Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. The theme for this year's decorations, Enchanted Menagerie, celebrates the weird and wonderful animals that can be seen throughout Waddesdon's collections, from zebras to colourful birds and mythical beasts. There's even an elephant parade inspired by a 18th c musical automaton (below).
This dramatic dragon is one of many light art installations by American artist Lauren Booth which line the winding path from the Aviary to the Stables.
If you're wondering how to dress the festive table, there's inspiration in the manor's dining room, where exotic birds can be found stalking among the china and the candles.
From dusk, a new light and sound show, Waddesdeon Imaginarium, created by video design students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, is projected onto the Manor's ornate facade.
Visitors will be delighted to find that Waddesdon's Christmas Fair has returned, with 80 decorated chalets set against the floodlit facade of the North Front (top). There are unusual gifts, decorations, crafts and delicious food, much from local producers. The Wigwam Cafe is also back, with street food, homemade cakes, hot chocolate and mulled wine.
Enchanted Menagerie runs until January 2; the Christmas Fair until December 10.
Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP18 OJH

Monday, 11 September 2017

The reedbeds that are saving the Lea Navigation

After walking the length of the Lea Valley, it was fascinating to learn more about the river from water level, thanks to a Thames21 tour of reedbeds to the north of Bromley-by-Bow. It turns out these reedbeds are a valuable weapon in the ongoing effort to clean up a once highly polluted waterway. I’d seen traditional ones (above), but hadn’t realised what an amazing job they do of reducing pollution: the Lea Navigation is full of toxic ammonia. Reedbeds convert this into nitrate, which is safer – a great way of improving water quality.
The reeds that Thames21 plant aren’t in the actual river bed, but grow in coir matting that floats on the surface, inside a bumper (above). The roots hang down into the water, adding to the surface area. They are easier to maintain than the traditional beds, which can expand to take up too much space. As well as reducing pollution, the reeds oxygenate the river, allowing fish to flourish, and attracting wildlife such as watervoles and birds, including kingfishers and swans.
One reedbed we passed had a massive indentation, where you could see the remains of a swan’s nest – the cygnets now well on the way to adulthood, and probably those we saw out on the water with their parents.
Thames21 is a charity that works with communities across Greater London to improve the rivers, canals, ponds and lakes (see link below). It's already brought 600 m of new reedbeds to Lea, and plans are in hand for more. (Local residents were asked to vote where they should go.) It welcomes volunteers for its many projects, and has a regular newsletter.
Our excursion, on the aptly-named Alfred le Roy (King Alfred defeated the Danes further up the river) took us through Old Ford Lock No 19 (above) before ending at Hackney Wick. The event was part of the annual Thames Festival, which runs for the whole of September. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Walking the Lea Valley 11 - From Ware to Hertford

The final leg of our rambles along the Lea Valley brought us gazebos, a historic school, a bed mentioned by Shakespeare, a floral bear and even a buzzard.
The gazebos were a surprise. They line the river, and were mostly built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by innkeepers whose establishments ran along the High Street, and who sought to provide quiet areas for leisure and refreshment away from the coaches and carts. (Ware was an important stop on the Old North Road, being less than a day from London.) In the 1850s there were 25 of them. After World War II, they fell into disrepair because of threatened demolition for a proposed service road between the High Street and the river. Luckily the threat was eventually lifted and restoration began.
Behind the High Street we found a yard with the figure of a Bluecoat pupil over it. This led to a charming public garden in front of the 14thc manor house that served as a Bluecoat charity school from 1685 to 1761.
An adjacent row of cottages provided accommodation for 150 boys and the nursemaids who looked after them. Today the manor house is cared for by the Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust.
More reminders of Ware’s past were all along the High Street – blue plaques marking the passageways that used to lead to the stables of the coaching inns. One commemorates the White Hart, now demolished. This was the home of the Great Bed of Ware, built in 1580 by a Hertfordshire carpenter, Jonas Fossbrooke. More than three metres wide and publicised as being able to sleep 12, it was said to draw travellers to break their journey there, just to spend a night in the bed. Its fame even led to a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Now a prize exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in 2012 it returned to Ware Museum for a year, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
Ware also has an ancient priory, founded by the Franciscans in 1338. It became a private residence with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII and is now a wedding and conference venue.
In the surrounding gardens was an enormous floral bear, part of the Ware in Bloom initiative.
The path took us back to the river, where mallards foraged for food around huge gunnera plants. A few of the trees that line the banks were just starting to show the first signs of autumn.
Houseboats, however, were still ablaze with summer flowers.
The surrounding meadows were full of Canada and Greylag geese.
One of our group identified a buzzard’s call (they sound like a mewing cat) and finally spotted it hovering over some the trees.
When we reached Hertford Lock we were intrigued by this metal plaque beside the towpath, and its letters, RLT. Our guesses as to what they represented were right – later investigation showed it was a boundary marker put up by the River Lee Trust in 1866, probably to mark the realignment of the Lee Navigation.
As we approached Hertford itself, allotments appeared and the waterway became crowded with boats.
We walked into Hertford, which we had visited early on in our exploration of the valley (see and returned to the historic Salisbury Arms Hotel for a very welcome pub lunch. Then it was back to Hertford East station, and the train home.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Is this London's oldest mulberry tree?

Inside a protective fence in the grounds of historic Charlton House in south-east London stands a mulberry tree. Gnarled and sprawling, it's said to have been one of the 100,000 mulberry saplings  planted as part of King James I's attempts to start a silk industry. His wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, herself established a mulberry plantation at Greenwich Palace. Charlton House (below, with its imposing Gateway Arch) was being built at the time for Sir Adam Newton, the tutor of their son, Prince Henry. However, there was one problem: the trees the King provided were black mulberries, and not the white ones that silkworms prefer. But over the years the Charlton House tree flourished, providing shade and an attractive feature for the garden.
Although a thriving silk industry did grow up some decades later, it centred on Spitalfields in east London and used mostly imported raw silk. Today, mulberry trees can be found across the capital, many planted in Victorian times. The fruit ripens in late July and August, but is seldom imported as it perishes soon after picking. The Charlton tree still bears a crop, and this features in the summer desserts served in the house's Mulberry Cafe.
Mulberries have been grown in London for centuries - they were first introduced by the Romans - and a  recent survey identified more than 135 sites with mulberry trees. While most date from more recent times, there's one in the Queen's Orchard in Greenwich Park that might have been planted by Queen Anne. But was the Charlton House tree put in first? We may never know.
Charlton House is free to visit.
Charlton Rd, London SE7 8RE  Ph 020 8856 3951

Dawn in Kensington Palace Gardens, August 31, 2017

Dawn brought magic to Kensington Gardens on the last day of August. As people marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana began coming to lay flowers at the gates of her former home there, first light saw the nearby Round Pond cloaked in a cloud of mist.
As the sun began to rise, the swans emerged. Then a skein of geese arrived, honking as they flew. It was hard to believe this tranquil scene was in the centre of London.
Within a few minutes the mist had lifted, the sky was blue, and the rest of city was waking up. But what a beautiful start to a very poignant day.

Friday, 18 August 2017

A tree walk in Gladstone Park

How many trees are there in London? Some estimates say 8 million - almost as many as there are people. A walk through Gladstone Park in Brent with Lawrence Usherwood, the council's principal tree officer, provided an insight into some of them. The park was created in 1901 and named after former Prime Minister William Gladstone, who'd been a frequent visitor to the area. Some of the trees are in fact much older, brought in from nearby Roundwood Park, which had been overplanted by farsighted Victorian arboriculturalists with an eye to other locations.
Our first stop was by a much-loved Black Poplar, recently felled because a fungus had been detected on the trunk and it was right by a railway line. Lawrence showed us the fungus (below), which weakens a tree by destroying its interior. The trunk exterior was healthy but there had been concerns the tree would become dangerous.
Lawrence, like many park visitors, regrets the loss. He's hoping the fallen trunk will remain where it lies to provide a useful habitat for the park's wildlife.
Not far away was a crab apple tree, laden with blossom in the spring and now bearing fruit. It's quite young, but could live for 50 or more years.
Lawrence also pointed out a Balsam Poplar, so-called because of the smell of the resin that coats the buds at the start of the year. But this being late summer, there was no whiff of it.
We passed a columnar Fastigiate Oak – so different in appearance from the more familiar English oak - and came to a Swamp Cypress, unusual in that although it is a conifer, it is deciduous.
In autumn its fine, feathery needles produce a spectacular seasonal display of red foliage, making the tree look as if it is on fire. Because it likes water, this specimen has thrived next to a boggy patch of the park. To ensure it gets enough oxygen, it grows roots above ground known as ‘knees’ that act as snorkels, carrying air to the submerged roots. Nearby a frog was crouching, waiting for us to pass.
As we came up on the park’s ridge, with a magnificent view of London in the distance, Lawrence told us about elm trees and the Dutch Elm disease that has wiped out 25 million of them.
It arrived in the UK in 1927, with a further, much more serious outbreak starting in 1967. It’s spread by bark beetles, and we were given a graphic description of the efforts made to contain this: cutting down and destroying trees, clearing the land and creating quarantine areas. Fortunately a new variety has been developed, New Horizon, that is resistant to the disease. It’s a cross between a Japanese and a Siberian elm, and is starting to be available in the UK.
Our final stop was by one of the park’s many London Plane trees, a favourite because of their ability to absorb pollution in the bark. This then falls away, leaving a distinctive camouflage pattern. They’re a cross between the Oriental Plane and the American Sycamore, and the hybrid was discovered by John Tradescant the Younger in the mid 17th c. in his Lambeth garden, where the two parent varieties, brought back from opposite sides of the world, were growing. The oldest ones in London are believed to be those planted in Berkeley Square in 1789. These ones in Gladstone Park, which form avenues along the winding paths, are not so ancient. They and the rest of the park's many trees should be providing shade, shelter and homes for wildlife for many years to come.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Transforming a Tube station

The plans for London’s Garden Bridge may have been jettisoned, but passengers on the northern section of the Jubilee line can enjoy some greenery on their commute - plant-loving volunteers have turned Willesden Green tube station into a mini-oasis.
The platforms are bedecked with flowering planters. Even a wheelbarrow has been pressed into service.
Willesden artist Kevin Vincenzo Keating has created a Wishbone sculpture for one of the flower beds, and against all odds, the espaliered apple tree seems to be thriving.
On Sunday, August 20, from 4pm to 5.30 pm, there will be free guided tours of the platforms by some of those involved in the transformation, plus a chance to buy home-made cakes and maybe some little gifts. All proceeds will go to the continued greening of the area.