Friday 22 May 2020

50 days of London spring

It's been much remarked upon how our one-a-day exercise since semi-quarantine has opened so many people's senses to the wonders of nature. I like to think I've always hymned the praises of London's parks and gardens, but never as much as now, when I make sure to see the seasonal changes on a daily basis. My last post on the subject ended with the closures of Kew Gardens and Fulham Palace; but there's been no shortage of discoveries since then. The grounds of Chiswick House remain for me the most magical, especially a path up to the glasshouses rich in birdlife and plants, with just the right degree of natural profusion; but I never quite appreciated Holland Park as much as I do now.

So the rule here is an already over-indulgent aim of posting a photo from each day, with the excuse of occasionally featuring two or three to make up for the dates when I don't have a pic. The splendid stag in a stream up top is the official starting-point - 25 March, and my longest bike-ride yet, up to Richmond Park via the Thames path and Sheen, where I wanted to kick over the traces of Thomas Cromwell and have a look at the church (closed, but with a pretty cemetery. I dimly remembered I needed to see a tomb in Sheen, but it turned out to be Richard Burton the explorer's Arabian tent, and that's in the Catholic Cemetery which I haven't discovered yet). The park roads had been closed to cars, so cycling was bliss (but subsequently they closed the park to bikes too). Willows leafing along a stream were the first glory, then the deer.

Kensington Gardens on 26 March was suitably blossomy. I met a friendly American couple around Albert's memorial - keeping our distance to chat, of course - who thought my daily phototask was an excellent idea.

For the next few days, I stayed close to home, and the river around Hammersmith. One of several cormorants was at its usual post mid-river

while in the back yard the blackbird couple were back, Mr B enjoying the ivy berries

and Mrs B here snapped before taking a dip.

Then on 30 March I extended the spin around Old Brompton Cemetery - cycling down the central lane, walking the side routes - to head down to Cheyne Walk and the Chelsea Physic Garden (closed too, of course, but at that stage the foliage was in its infancy, so you could see much through the Swan Walk gate and riverside railings. There was plenty of good blossom heading west, not least the trees in the forecourt of the house where George Eliot lived for a year.

31 March saw my second Kensington Gardens circuit on foot, here looking across the Serpentine to The Arch by Henry Moore, in his eighties when he created it.

My dear friend Sophie Sarin, in a phone call, said how much she was enjoying daily perambulations around Holland Park. 2 April marked my rediscovery of the place, not least the woods behind the formal gardens. On the first excursion, though, I sought out the ubiquitous peacocks, whose screaming punctuates the summer operas (not this year, alas). I thought the tail of this one went rather strikingly, if clashingly, with the first of the spring plantings.

3 April was a day of rare cloud build-up in a mostly blue-sky spring. It meant that Chiswick House looked rather striking at sunset with the moon already up, and here I allow myself a classical trilogy including sphinxes and a herm.

Next day (4 April) marked my first distance walk, with Sophie. We met at Queen Victoria's statue (sculpted by her fourth daughter, Louise) in Kensington Gardens - here is La Sarina is showing off how fit she is, with the Round Pond beyond -

and headed down to the Serpentine, where we had a distance sit on a bench by the Peter Pan statue. A Judas tree was flourishing in the statue's enclosure on a second visit (I allow myslf a jump forward here)

and a lone Egyptian goose (they have become numerous in recent years) sat on a post in the water, showing off its beautiful feathers.

Sunday 5 April was ripe for another bigger excursion - up to Regent's Park. Even before I took a step inside, there was splendour to be found in the blooming Pawlonia alongside

Just within, the usual heron, king of social distancing, was found at his usual place.

The magnolias I featured flourishing so gloriously in Kew on the last rus in urbe post were also doing fine in St John's Garden, moon beyond. I was surprised to find this not-so-secret space open (it isn't now because the distancing rules have apparently been broken there).

Back at Holland Park on 7 April, one of the peacocks was showing off, though not to any peahen; but the only-just-distancing group of people loved it, and it was so exciting for children who'd never seen a peacock before, let along one displaying.

It was J who, walking more locally, alerted me to the wonders of Margravine Cemetery, our nearest open-air space. I've only ever walked along the central paths to get to Barons Court tube or Charing Cross Hospital, but the wonders are off-piste including 60 different species of tree and a rich birdlife.  I first began to explore on 6 April. Surprised on my second visit (8 April) to not only hear but see a Greater Spotted Woodpecker.

Cherry blossom - this is one of my favourite trees, with bluebells beneath -

and Good Friday signs were much in evidence just before Easter.

Even the road to the south cemetery gate has a surprise - the council estate here is surrounded by well-planned green, and along the verges were more of those snakeshead fritillaries I'd been over the moon to see in Kew Gardens.

9 April, and westwards to Chiswick House Gardens again. Took pleasure in an interlude of pleasant distance chat with strangers at Chiswick Mall, waiting for very high-tide Thames to recede from the road. A dog and more reckless cyclists than myself were enjoying it,

 and ducks were competing for a drake in one of the riverside gardens that belong to the houses on the other side of the road. Later the Thames Path route would be closed to bikes until 6pm.

On Easter Saturday (11 April) Sophie and I distance-convened again and took almost the same route as before, sharing our meeting place with a couple of mandarin ducks

and passing the noisy zone which is obviously listed in some tourist guide or other as a place to feed the parakeets who have spread here from the Thames near Richmond. Some people think of them as pests, but I never fail to find them exotic.

Blooms were coming on apace on Easter Sunday - the first decent planting by the estate gardeners I've ever seen in the front yielded these tulips beneath the London planes

but we can't boast a lilac as lovely as this one in the forecourt of otherwise undistinguished housing on the way to Barons Court tube.

Lilacs also fringe the west wall of the Margravine Cemetery, heavily scenting the way, and framing cherry trees within the grounds.

Laburnum also joined the spring parade alongside the lilac around this time. Here's one near the cascade at the north end of Chiswick House's lake,

On 14 April I decided to add another park to the list - Ravenscourt, just off the main road from Hammersmith. Not up to the standards of the others, though there was a grove of leafing trees of different species, and these virgin copper beech leaves were being lit up by the late afternoon sun.

Cycling on to Chiswick House Gardens righted the sense of disappointment, and the wisteria along the glasshouses where camellias thrive was in full bloom.

Holland Park put on its best show the following day (15 April) with lavish tulip plantings

and one of my favourite copper beeches in full spate (this ensemble is just beyond the Japanese garden, which is closed for now).

Time to zoom in on the back yard again, where the German tulip bulbs I planted were yielding good results

and the lady (or young?) blackbird rootled for insects among them

along with a number of great tits, this one consuming its catch on the weeping mulberry.

On 18 April, I returned to Chiswick Mall to take a closer look at some of the houses with lavish blooms. Gold medal goes to Swan House with its huge wisteria.

Back by Hammersmith Bridge, a cat was enjoying the warm if slightly murky evening, looking towards Chiswick.

Another early purple/mauve bloomer, the ceanothus, was at its best in Normand Park just down the road. This one fringes the Pear Tree pub, now reopening for the sale of beverages to take away and holding a Saturday market. I liked the owners but I'm now a little dubious since the Union Jack bunting is still out long after VE Day.

In the week of the 20th, I made several excursions up to Notting Hill to collect and return a vital document from my friend Edward Mendelsohn, careful to observe all the rules at the age of 94, and met Sophie for another distance walk around Kensington Gardens. This time I managed to catch the solitary Crested Grebe on the Serpentine who'd dived down every time I tried to take a snap on the previous occasion.

The 22nd marked a new departure - I thought I ought to try and explore the interior of Battersea Park, since I'd only ever cycled around the perimeter on my way to or from the centre of town. These silver birches by the lake could be a Scandinavian summer scene.

I was also happy to discover the English garden (closed) and the Sub Tropical Garden (busy). Folk all out in abundance but observing rules of distance.

Two novelties in the garden on 23 April. Hearing a melodious birdsong I didn't recognise, I poked my head out of the bedroom window and discovered what was soon identified as a dunnock.

It's still around, splashing in the water bath while I sit and read or eat lunch. And the patio quince flowered at last - not for long, but rather exquisitely.

Back to Holland Park on 24 April, on the return from Edward's, and these bracket fungi look rather splendid against a woodland background with borage.

J and Sophie joined me there on the 26th; we sat at a good distance, tried to dodge some careless folk - on a previous expedition I told a guy who wanted to pick what he called 'a rose' (a tulip) for his wife not to - and did a good circuit. I'm going to slip this one in - until J asks me to remove it - of them demonstrating social distancing among the tulips.

29 April - one of two super-idyllic return to the glasshouses of Chiswick House Gardens. The wisteria was already fading, but the giant geraniums in front of them (Pelargonium maderense, from Madeira as the name suggests) had come on massively, and bees love 'em.

The mother moorhen who always builds her nest in the middle of the Long Water just below James Wyatt's beautiful bridge had chicks - two, but a girl and her mother nearby said that she'd produced six, and these were the only survivors.

Heavy rains might have washed away some of the nest, because dad was constantly returning with new material and it all looked a bit provisional.

For some reason I've nothing on the camera or in the diary for a few days, so time for another back yard interlude: lavishly flowering pelargonium in one of the window boxes - never died down in a mild winter -

'Joe' the viburnum, named in memory of Edward's partner who died aged 70,

and some of the wonders that grow up in the cracks of the ugly concrete paving when the gardener doesn't come round with herbicide (after several years' battle I got them to stop using Roundup, but they won't embrace steam like Hammersmith Council); a lone forget-me-not when none have popped up in the pots -

and a viola (likewise, none floweing in the pots).

This was also the time of first sighting of swifts skimming and diving outside the front of our block. Not the greatest picture, I know, but a record all the same.

Next excursion recorded: 4 May, when yet another heron - Chiswick Park's Henry, by the way, has long since disappeared (update - I saw a heron on the last visit who might be he), but we've got them on the Thames and the Serpentine - stood very ornamentally in the water basin of one of Holland Park's formal gardens, occasionally dipping to take a gulp.

Anothe enchanted evening along the river and at Chiswick revealed the first of the floral visitors I love the best, a tree peony (the rest have been elusive and will wait on another post),

and a full moon above Chiswick Eyot and the Putney side of the Thames nearby (barely discernible in the size of the photo below, but it's there).

On regular cycles/walks through Old Brompton Cemetery, the highlight for me is always the copper beech with the kneeling maiden beneath it, just off the main thoroughfare before the south gate. I call her 'patience on a monument', viz. Twelfth Night, though she's not exactly 'smiling at grief'. But from behind, with the light doing pointillist things through dappled leaves, you can't tell.

I distance-walked there the following day with J and friend Adrian Arena - only the second I've seen in person since lockdown -

before going down to the Chelsea Embankment again. Here I saw the fronds of a Dicksonia antarctica tree fern unfurling in the lovely and exotically planted Paultons Square (some compensation for missing the ones in Chelsea Physic Garden)

and my first foxgloves of the year in the garden around Chelsea Old Church.

There are also foxgloves alongside Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the zone subject to the most rapid seasonal change,

and the lake perspectives are now country-lush.

Ma and Pa Egyptian geese ma and pa carefully mind their chicks

while the solitary heron hangs about at two favourite spots on the Serpentine

and I caught an unabashed rabbit on the Hyde Park side.

Let's end with a few more back yard shots. The blackbirds are no more regular visitors, but I hear the male nearby and he sometimes comes to splash in the water bath

while the dunnock is still very much present, and has no problem bathing while I'm sitting out there. Here you get a shot of his (or her) spotted back.

The acquilegia flourished this year, after succumbing to a comon disease in 2019

and I only discovered by chance, on a windy day, two irises under the mulberry.

Meanwhile the pelargoniums in the window boxes flower ever more abundantly

and bumble bees love them.

I even think I caught one doing what the media latched on to yesterday - pinching a bloom to make it flower. So, onwards in a future post to the quest for the elusive peony. Summer's now here, no doubt, and with lockdown slackness many more cars, planes and people in picnic parties of up to 20. The honeymoon stage for those of us in a luckier position than many is over.