Cast your clouts!

Cow parsley on the Parkland Walk

A quick post today as I’m stuck at home.

I was out in my favourite place, the Parkland Walk, a few days ago. This time a couple of us were identifying the flowers that were out in May. The most profuse was the cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris). There it was frothing away at the sides of the path leading up to the walkway beside the bridge at Stapleton Hall Road. I don’t know why it’s called cow parsley – as far as I know the cows don’t eat it. It’s variously known as Queen’s Anne lace, wild chervil or (in Yorkshire) keks. But one of the most evocative names is mother’s dead or mother’s die, or even the less sexist deadman’s flourish, based on its similarity with hemlock, which is poisonous.

On the Stroud Green meadowland, a steep bank sloping towards Florence Road, we identified a number of ‘damned yellow composites’ (the equivalent of the ‘little brown job’ in birding terms!), those dandelion-like composite flowers of the Asteraceae family. Aside from dandelions there was a coltsfoot (Tussilaga farfara) and a cat’s ear (Hypercaeris radicata)- the latter is similar to the dandelion but has hairy basal leaves with the shape and feel of a cats’ ears. Just as we were ready to leave the meadow we came across a single yellow goat’s beard (Tragopogon pratensis), also known as meadow salsify or more intriguingly Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon on account of its tendency to open its flowers in the morning sunshine. It has rather spectacular bracts which encase the petals.

We looked at bushes and shrubs too just to see what species were emerging in the meadow. At the bottom of the slope towards the Florence Road gardens are more substantial trees and shrubs, including a mature hawthorn tree, or may, which was fully out. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the phrase, ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’. There seems to be a dispute about whether this means not taking off your jacket until the may blossom is out, or until the month of May is out. Which one I do not know, but it was a rather nice day so we did consider casting our clouts.

Cow parsley
Dandelion
Coltsfoot
A photo of an original antique illustration by John Sowerby published in 1860s in The English Botany.
Goats beard or Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon
Ne’er cast a clout till May be out

Graffiti Art on the Parkland Walk

Anyone familiar with the Parkland Walk will know about the brick railway arches that make ideal canvasses for graffiti artists. I used to think that spray cans were wielded by local young people who use the Cape Play and Youth Project, but I now realise the arches attract graffiti artists from across London who want to make their mark one way or another.

Walking underneath the arches last week I met Nil, from Marseille, who moved to London a year ago to work in advertising. I talked to him about his art: “I’ve been interesting in painting all my life and became obsessed by graffiti when a friend introduced me to it when I was 18.”

Nil was taking some paintings to a friend who works as a framer in Crouch End when she told him about the graffiti wall.

Talking to Nil about his art: Photo credit – Michele Monticello
Underneath the arches: Photo credit – Michele Monticello

I asked him what the graffiti meant and he said that he always paints in light blue and pink: “I love these colours and last year I chose them to mark my work. It should be more recognisable now.” Who is Ben, I wanted to know. “He’s a friend of mine. I’ve also signed this with my own name and the date,” he said, indicating his signature.

Nil painting underneath the arches: Photo credit – Michele Monticello
Nil’s graffiti

“This is a new place for me. I usually paint at the wall surrounding the Trellick Tower in North West London near my home.” The Trellick Tower wall is one of the three legal graffiti sites in London, the other two being Stockwell Hall of Fame and the Leake Street tunnel at Waterloo.

Trellick Tower Graffiti Wall

Further along I examined a menacing masked figure clad in black and red armour with the hashtag #do1cancer. I’m intrigued so when I’m back home I do a bit of searching to enlighten me, finding that do1cancer is a group of graffiti artists who organise events to raise money for cancer charities.

#do1cancer

Concern about graffiti along the Parkland Walk has been raised by users. However, most complaints are about the ‘tagging’ or non-artistic variety rather than the artistic graffiti underneath the bridges. So it’s a controversial issue, but the graffiti is tolerated because probably most people would agree that the wall paintings brighten up the dark arches.

Thanks to michele@michaelmorris.co.uk who shared his photos with me.

Forest Bathing

Shinrin-yoku(forest bathing) – a short trip to a forest where you walk and relax while breathing in essential oils released by the trees – has long been practiced by the Japanese. Recent studies of the physiological and psychological effects of shirin-yoku have revealed that it can lower blood pressure, pulse rate and concentrations of stress hormones. There’s even a claim that it can reduce cancer tumours by raising Natural Killer cell activity, although that rings hollow in my ears as I already have incurable cancer.

Long before these studies I indulged in this practice, roaming through the woods at the bottom of my grand-dad’s garden, pretending to be a fox with purple-coloured gloves. I never did get poisoned by the foxgloves but I’ve always known a walk in the woods calms me.

As I’m too weak to go to the gym now I’ve taken to walking most days. I’m lucky enough to live a few doors down from the Parkland Walk, a disused railway running between Finsbury Park and Highgate, lording it over the rooftops and back gardens of Islington and Haringey. It’s the London equivalent of New York City’s Highline. Once you’ve negotiated recalcitrant dogs, buggies, runners and cyclists, and been terrified by the mischievous woodland-dwelling spriggan peeking out from one of the old railway arches, you emerge at Highgate Station. A five-minute walk will get you into Queen’s Wood, one of Haringey’s four ancient woodlands.

I’m not deterred by the rumours of the existence of a plague pit full of bones from victims of the 1665 Great Plague. Instead I’m rather intrigued by the Witches Coven, a ring of thirteen oaks circling a clearing, which is still used by modern-day witches. The wood has not been intensively managed, unlike its neighbour Highgate Wood, and supports a surprising diversity of flora such as Goldilocks buttercup, wood anemones, wood sorrel, yellow pimpernel and square-stemmed St John’s wort, as well as a rare colony of lady fern. The bird life is fairly diverse too. Some are quite shy birds like tree creepers; others, like the thrush and blackbird, shout loudly from the treetops. Through the summer you can hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker.

The paths are soft with oak leaves, one of the dominant species of the woodland along with hornbeam. There’s also hawthorn, hazel, rowan, holly field maple and cherry, as well as the rare wild service tree. The wood is most peaceful on a weekday when there are relatively few people; some days I encounter just one solitary dog walker. Aside from the trees I like the steepness of the walks in Queen’s Wood. It’s deeply cut by gullies from the meltwater of the Anglian ice sheet and gives me a proper work out which compensates me from the loss of my gym membership.

Whether shinrin-yoku lives up to its claims, it certainly works for me – whether it’s the peace, exercise or inhaling woody scents.

Spriggan – mischievous creature – sculpture by Marilyn Collins
Celandines on the Parkland Walk
Soft oak leaf carpet in Queen’s Wood
Wood anemones in Queen’s Wood
Great spotted woodpecker