naturalists of the sidewalk

I have only just discovered the phrase ‘botanist of the sidewalk’. Apparently it was coined by the French poet Charles Baudelaire as part of his definition of the flaneur, the one who strolls the city streets observing modern life.

Baudelaire mainly envisaged his ‘botanists’ watching people but I like to think there is also a role for the flaneur who seeks places where the natural environment encroaches on the city. Flowers, yes, but other plants and wildlife too.

We had a day of ‘flaneuring’ when we travelled down to London to catch the end of the Miro exhibition at Tate Modern. We walked from St Pancras, keeping in the general direction of the Tate but stopping to explore the secrets that you can always discover if you tackle London this way: a quirky sign, a historic building, an unusual street name.

Our best discoveries this time, though, were all to do with the natural world. The first was a garden, tucked away off Clerkenwell Road in a courtyard forming part of the Museum of the Order of St John. The order gave birth to the St John Ambulance Brigade and has been connected with this site since 1140.

It is always a thrill to discover a new, quiet place in the city but I found the garden less than successful. The layout is geometrical and suggests formality, but apart from a couple of box hedges, the planting, with its sprawling herbs and unruly hardy geraniums, was more suited to a cottage garden.

Our second find was another garden, this time at Christchurch Greyfriars. Unlike the first, it is stunning in both concept and design, an incongruous explosion of greenery amid the sterile concrete and glass of the City of London.

The site of the garden has a truly turbulent history. In 1225 a group of Franciscan monks from Italy set up a monastery there. After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII it was converted to a parish church, but in 1666 that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Christopher Wren rebuilt it, but everything except the west tower was bombed to destruction in the second world war.

This wonderful garden has been laid out to match the floor plan of Wren’s church and blends magically with the stone ruins. The central paved aisle is in the place of the nave and the box-hedged beds on either side are in the original position of the pews. The master stroke is a series of open wooden towers wreathed with climbing roses and clematis and representing the pillars that supported the church roof.

Our final surprise came just as we arrived at Tate Modern. We’d been passing numerous artists painting on their easels and attracting a few scattered onlookers but suddenly we found a crowd around a set of telescopes. A hugely enthusiastic RSPB volunteer accosted us and asked if we’d like to take a look at the peregrine falcons.

Yes, peregrine falcons! There are less than 1500 breeding pairs of these magnificent birds of prey in the UK and I had never seen one before, not even in the wild and remote places we like to spend our holidays. However, two of them have chosen to hang out on the chimney of the Tate. The RSPB had trained their extremely powerful telescopes on exactly the right spot and the view was breathtaking.

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7 comments

  1. I love walking in London, especially slightly unplanned ones. I’ve never seen the Museum of the Order of St John and will look out for it.
    I have happened upon Christchurch Greyfriars, and agree with you that it is quite wonderful.
    The RSPB seem to have excelled all previous efforts this year. I have found volunteers at two unexpected locations, and with the help of an enthusiastic volunteer have seen birds I would never have spotted myself.
    This is a great post!

  2. I miss those falcons. My office was on Southwark Bridge, on the 9th floor, and the falcons used to soar by our window on their way out, or home. And yes, the RSPB are marvellous, aren’t they.

  3. Thank you for all your lovely comments. I’ve been slow responding because I was away. Colleen – how wonderful to see the falcons from your desk! And Sue, I have actually visited the Chelsea Physic Garden – it deserves to be much better known, doesn’t it?

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