walking

Wild Walk

Once, on the way to the allotment, I saw a heron stalking, spearing and then swallowing a fish. Its snakey neck bulged in and out: you could almost think the fish was still swimming as it travelled down the heron’s gullet. I think I held my breath the whole time.

These close encounters with wild creatures have an almost transcendent quality. When I was a child my family spent several summer holidays visiting RSPB nature reserves. I will never forget the thrill of a marsh harrier gliding above our heads; it was one of only two in the entire country at that time. I was eleven years old and felt as though something inside me had changed for ever.

It would be easy to live for these moments, to think they were the goal and end point of all our experience of wildlife. I know they can keep me going for days, and that’s as it should be … except. Except that we are missing something if we only think about the rare and spectacular in nature.

I’ve been reading Mark Cocker’s book Claxton, a collection of short pieces mostly about his walks near the small Norfolk village of the same name. There are charismatic encounters aplenty: otters, peregrines and on one occasion no fewer than twelve owls in a single field. Yet he repeatedly warns of the danger of privileging the showy and the spectacular.

‘What truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates,’ he writes. ‘A reedbed doesn’t amount to very much without its multiple millions of phragmites’ stems.’

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

In the same way, those parts of the natural world that we tend to overlook – ‘the leafless trees, the dank grasses and flowerless plants, the expiring fungi and voiceless birds’ – are all essential to what he calls ‘the great gift of a walk in wild space’.

I like this calling of attention to what appears to be common. As Cocker says elsewhere, if we knew how to notice and value the everyday, we wouldn’t have got to the position where the house sparrow is one of our most threatened birds.

To help me learn more about my ‘living neighbours’, the plants and animals that live in our valley, I’ve signed up to do a ‘Wild Walk’. Wild Walks are a new project from the Willdlife Trusts and the British Trust for Ornithology in which ordinary members of the public commit to doing a walk regularly, recording what they see and then uploading their findings for the trusts to use to inform their conservation work.

My walk is easy. It starts just near our home, runs along the valley and ends at the allotment. In good weather I do it several times a week.

The starting point for my 'Wild Walk'

The starting point for my ‘Wild Walk’

What is much, much harder for me is identification. Every time I step into the wood I’m aware of being surrounded by millions of different living organisms and yet I can only identify a handful of them, mostly birds. Fungi, lichen, insects, moths and mosses: my ignorance of all these and more is shameful. Which is a bit of a problem for a wannabe citizen scientist.

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border the paths

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border my Wild Walk

Not knowing also seems like a kind of ingratitude. Imagine somebody fabulously wealthy living in a stately home full of stunning antiques and paintings. Then imagine that person saying they don’t know anything about them and they never bother to look at them anyway.

Stepping stones mark the halfway point of my Wild Walk

Stepping stones mark the halfway point

We would rightly scorn a person like that, and yet so many of us tolerate a similar lack of appreciation of the extraordinary things that are all around us as soon as we walk out of our front doors. At the back of Claxton Cocker lists the species he has seen in the parish. It runs to more than thirty pages.

Making a dent in my ignorance seems daunting but on the basis that you just have to start somewhere, I’ve made a resolution to learn one new identification fact every week. This week it was the coal tit song. It caught my attention because it really sounds like ‘tweet, tweet’, like a parent teaching their child what birds say. The RSPB has a recording here.

It’s a common enough bird with an ordinary-sounding song but it’s beautiful and it matters and my life is the richer for knowing more about it.

coal tit

Coal tit picture credit

autumn sabbath

When the news is unrelentingly horrible, when a friend has suffered a heart-shattering blow, when scary deadlines loom, then sometimes the only way to stay sane is to get outside.

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Sheffield must be one of the most gloriously situated cities in the world.

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All this scenery is just a few miles from the centre.

 

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We walked and walked today. Most of these views are familiar, they are home, and yet they are always new.

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When we got back my legs ached, my eyelids were drooping and none of the hard stuff had gone away but the vastness of the sky, the light on autumn leaves and the rush of swollen streams had cut all the problems back down to size.

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a world on your doorstep

Last week I met a young man who is an expert in South American tree frogs. He used to take tourists around a remote part of the Ecuadorean rainforest, identifying all kinds of wildlife for them, but especially his beloved frogs.

I was a bit in awe of this guy, of his knowledge and of his experience of the world. He lived for six months in that isolated spot in Ecuador, an hour’s plane ride away from what you might call civilisation. He worked with tribal elders, helping them to work out how to make a living without damaging the forest.

But then he said something that changed everything for me. ‘I used to think that nature was far away and out there,’ he said. ‘I thought you had to travel for miles and get away from everything to find it. But then I realised it is on your doorstep.’

We were talking at his home in west Yorkshire, an apparently ordinary house in a seemingly average street. But when you look more closely you see that Mike’s home is anything but run of the mill. Instead of a hedge in the front garden, there’s a rustic fence made of the trunks and branches from the Leylandii he chopped down when he moved in. The rest of his plot is being slowly developed as a forest garden, a way of growing edible plants that imitates the ecosystems found in woodland. There’s a ground covering of strawberries, then a layer of bushes – in this case currants and gooseberries – then a planting of nut trees. This is just the beginning: eventually the whole plot will be a low maintenance, sustainable source of food for Mike’s family.

I was struck by the whole concept of gardening in this way, but even more by the richness that Mike was discovering simply by being attentive to the nature on his doorstep. When I got back to Sheffield it made me look at our lovely valley in a new way. As luck would have it, when I took one of my regular walks up to the top of the stream, it was just after one of the heaviest rainfalls of this incredibly wet summer.

Often in summer the water just trickles through this valley but on this day it was in full spate, fiercer and stronger than I have ever seen it. It was surging down towards the parks at the bottom, pleating and plaiting as it dropped more than three hundred metres through a series of weirs and millponds, relics of the days when it drove more than 20 mills used in the manufacture of cutlery and hand tools.

After rainfall like last week the iron deposits that have shaped this valley’s history churn up to the surface, shading the water through ochre and dark ginger to a kind of luminous rust colour. From a distance you could think it was flowing over a succession of underwater lights. As I made my way along a path made sticky with mud and sodden leaves I was thinking of our daughter currently hundreds of miles away, planting trees in a remote corner of Madagascar. I’d been a little envious of this trip of a lifetime, but today the unfamiliar roar of a stream in spate and the memory of Mike’s fascination with his garden were giving me a new perspective.

Here I was, a few hundred metres from our front door, surrounded by ancient woodland, torrential water and a long, rich history that I knew disgracefully little about. I know even less of the wildlife that inhabits this wonderful spot. Thanks to my parents’ fascination with ornithology I’m not too bad at identifying the birds – I’ve seen nuthatches, woodpeckers, dippers and even a kingfisher on my walks but I know almost nothing of the mammals that live round here and still less about the insects and reptiles, not to mention the fungi, the trees, the plants and what you can do with them.

The truth of what Mike said about nature being on our doorstep came home to me on this walk. I realised too that I didn’t even need to come this short way to find it. It’s in my tiny garden, too, a whole ecosystem that I am barely aware of.

The pond in our garden at frog-mating time

Back in the eighties, when AIDS was first identified, there was a health campaign with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’. With the world now facing unprecedented food shortages, spiralling transport costs and weather patterns that are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, it seems our ignorance about the world in front of our noses may be at least as big a threat.

Mike is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to the natural world. He knows what weeds you can eat, what to plant to fix nitrogen in your soil, how to manage ponds so that they sustain the widest possible range of beneficial wildlife. It’s a knowledge acquired over years and it flourishes within a deep appreciation and respect for the world on the doorstep.

I think it’s time to do something about my ignorance.

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After one of the warmest and driest Novembers on record, December in Sheffield has been the kind of month that makes you wonder how come we haven’t evolved into a species that hibernates. But on Sunday the sun broke through and as I walked up my beloved Porter Valley I realised that the weeks of sleet and freezing rain had been worth it.

This waterfall, one of my favourite stopping places, has been a trickle since the spring

Similarly, higher up the valley the stream that feeds it has been almost dry. No more!

The sun shone, there was a sprinkling of snow and for a few glorious hours the gloom of winter seemed to have passed. As the shortest day approaches, it was a good reminder that though winter comes, spring is not far behind.

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When life has been grey for a while, you can forget that eventually the sun will come out. So it was this morning, a blessed relief from all the rain and hail we have been having. I took an impromptu walk to my son’s school, which is currently having so much building work done that you have to go in by a very roundabout way. It turns out the sunshine was not the only surprise.

First I found this allotment. You have to love a school that has an allotment.

And here’s a better view of that splendid scarecrow.

Opposite the allotment is an area that is labelled ‘The Potager’. Who knew a school could have a potager?

This daisy seems to be coping well with the harsh weather.

Although I am learning to like grey, for a couple of brief hours this morning I was very, very grateful for the contrasts of light and shadow …

… and even a glimpse of blue sky.

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I once described depression as like a view of mudflats on a cloudy day. All the colour and energy seem to drain out of the world. So I was really struck by something Colleen wrote in a recent post. She had been on a walk and said it was ‘one of those grey days that, if you are in the right frame of mind, can be soothing rather than miserable’.

This was a new idea for me. I have only ever thought of grey days as difficult. So today I took my camera for a walk with the aim of photographing anything that was grey and that I found attractive.

Here’s what I came up with.

The water in my beloved Porter Brook.

A stone wall

A horse’s muzzle

Bare branches against the sky

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Finally, I had to include this one because although it isn’t grey it does capture how a dull day can actually make colour look even more vibrant than usual.

Given more time I am sure I could have added to these pictures. So thank you, Colleen, for helping me to see grey days in a new way.

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.