A visit to The Library of the Birds of London

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The complete joy of hearing birdsong again is making up for a stop-start spring this year. And thinking about birds, I had a joyful visit to the Whitechapel Gallery in London last week, mostly to visit the giant aviary created by American artist, Mark Dion.

Only four visitors at a time are allowed in the aviary – well, four people and the twenty zebra finches who are temporarily living there. So you stand surrounded by birds completely ignoring you, going around their own business, pooing on books and making nests from the linings of hats…

And there’s something about how they absolutely don’t care they are an ‘art work’ that made me take time, to go slowly, to look again at all the artifacts around the aviary so very deliberately placed there. The books on cats, the bird books from all round the world, the photos of David Attenborough, all the exploring equipment, the amount of knowledge we  humans feel we need for such a simple thing as looking at birds…

I loved it, and thoroughly recommend a visit. It’s on until 13th May. It’s part of Mark Dion’s ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and culture, and includes a reading room with hand-made wallpaper featuring extinct animals (I heard a granny explaining that loudly to her grandson), findings from mudlarks, and so much more.

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My favourite was finding out about the The Ladies’ Field Club of York. This was a previous exhibition for  the National Railway Museum in York, in which imaginary female amateur naturalists from the turn of the century set out on a field trip together.

Joy indeed. Here’s the artist talking about it…

On the anniversary of Lancelot Brown’s death

Lancelot – Capability – Brown is best known as the creator of our current vision of the English landscape, so would it surprise you to know this is where he died?

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It happened on the 6th February 1783, 235 years ago today.  Apparently the night before he’d collapsed on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget Holland’s house in Hertford Street, London while returning after a night out at Lord Coventry’s.

Researching on the Historic England site, Henry and Bridget Holland lived at no 17, although there’s no plaque or general excitement. In fact, it’s now serviced flats, I got some odd looks when I was taking photographs of the doorstep – I think people thought I must have been a private detective! And slap next to a Prezzo.  I like to think of Lancelot Brown nipping there for a meal – it’s obviously a favourite for some locals! 

Jane Brown writes this in her wonderful biography, The Omnipotent Magician:

At the beginning of February he was spending time in town, staying with his daughter Bridget Holland and her family at their house in Hertford Street in Mayfair. It was an ordinary business trip, which enabled him to visit his clients at their London houses; on the Wednesday evening, 5th February, he was dining with Lord Coventry at his house in Piccadilly, and while he was walking the short distance home he collapsed from ‘an apoplexy’ and the next day he died.

His place of death couldn’t have been more different from his birthplace in rural Northumberland, right in the middle of the city, and I think even then full of secret private clubs such as the one now at No 5. And maybe even it was the footmen from General John Burgoyne’s nearby house who helped him home.

At least, he’d have had a view of Hyde Park running across the bottom of Hertford Street, I like to think of him not being too far away from green. His death, not surprisingly, caused a stir, with Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: “Your Dryads must go into black gloves, Madam. Their father-in-law Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead! Mr Brown dropped down at his own door yesterday.”

(Wouldn’t Horace Walpole been the best tweeter? Complete with exclamation marks!)

Lancelot Brown’s body was taken quietly to Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire to be buried, where he’d been Lord of the Manor. As his will stated, ‘my body I commit to the Earth to be decently buried.’

So here’s a poem to remember him today, based on something his contemporary Richard Owen Cambridge apparently said, which was that he longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had ‘improved’ it. It’s a ‘mirror’ poem.

Views Reflected
Sarah Salway

By the time it was heaven’s turn,
the formal landscape of England
had changed forever:
a gardener and a duke
working harmoniously together.
Scattered trees,
a serpentine lake,
the ‘gardenless’ garden
painted a new picture –
Brown, nature’s second husband,
moving mountains from his path.

Moving mountains from his path,
Brown, nature’s second husband,
painted a new picture –
the ‘gardenless’ garden,
a serpentine lake,
scattered trees
working harmoniously together.
A gardener and a duke
had changed forever
the formal landscape of England
by the time it was heaven’s turn.

 

Papermaking in the garden

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Back in the summer (remember that far back, when the sun shone and everything?), I went on a day papermaking course at Morley College in London. I was drawn to it by the fact we were going to be using natural plant materials, but what I hadn’t expected was that I would fall in love with the little college garden off Waterloo, and especially the plants grown for colour.

It was a taster session rather than a real course, but led by a real expert, Lucy Baxendale. There’s a course starting in June though, you can sign up here – I’m tempted. It was such a joy to go round looking for seeds, plants and textures to use, to feel the gooey mixture (like Blue Peter, prepared earlier for us) give as it turned from plants into paper. Yes, that real pleasure in getting your hands dirty and actually making something.

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Here are the scraps I took away with me:

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And I had just the poem I knew I wanted to write on the one I made using honesty. Here it is:

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My father takes Rupert Brooke’s poems to France, 1945

This knot of honesty I picked today
must have fallen out of my pocket
so you’ll have to believe me when I say

each leaf was thinner than a page
in the book of poems my father
took to war. I like to think

it was the weight behind each word
that kept pushing him to a future
he can’t have dared write himself:

to love and be so loved. Though once
reading nonsense rhymes at bedtime,
he leant so far into that night’s book

I started crying, sensing how
he wanted to topple into it,
just as he must have done once

smelling Brooke’s sweet honeyed tea
above the stench of mud and blood,
this other world he could slip into.

Not just a tree – John Evelyn’s Mulberry in Deptford

We spent the day in Deptford recently, taking photographs of various street names for a family project, but I also wanted to explore a little of John Evelyn’s history, and his lost garden, Sayes Court. We didn’t find the garden exactly but…

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I love street names for the quirky glimpses of history they give into a place. Here’s Czar’s Street, named to commemorate a famous visit by Peter the Great to Deptford in 1698 to learn about shipbuilding. (Ps, don’t I have lovely models?!)

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By all accounts it was a memorable visit. Peter the Great joined in Deptford living with verve – not least carrying out important ‘research’ into ALL the pubs. One report I read even suggested that St Petersburg was based on the layout of Deptford. Wonderful.  I didn’t investigate that much further because I so don’t want it to be wrong. And then there’s this tree we stumbled on…

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This is known as John Evelyn’s Mulberry because it stands on the original plot of Sayes Court and it is known that John Evelyn had mulberry trees – both black and white.  So it’s not just an ordinary tree. It is also under consideration for the title of Tree of the Year. There are many rumours surrounding this tree – and some tremendous research carried out here  as part of Morus Londinium (Mulberries in London).

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if this particular rumour that Peter the Great planted it for John Evelyn to make up for the damage he caused to the Sayes Court garden one night after a drunken rampage in a wheelbarrow was true?

After all, here’s a contemporary account of Peter’s stay at Sayes Court (taken from Sarah J Young’s facinating website on Russians in London) :

No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered with grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts, and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride was ruined. (Grey, p. 229)

In some ways though, it doesn’t matter how it got there because this tree is one of the most beautiful reminders I’ve seen of what London would have been like when all its glorious parks and gardens were blooming. There’s something poignant about this tree still (almost) standing proud in the middle of Deptford’s industrial and housing estates. It feels so friendly and it’s clear that it’s rightly very much loved by locals.

John Evelyn’s tree is shortlisted for the award organised by the Woodlands Trust – you can read about the other notable trees here.

 

Searching for silence in The Phoenix Garden

I’ve found a new favourite spot to read and think.

Beautiful, eh? A haven of peace, probably miles away from anywhere noisy or busy? Well, no. The Phoenix Garden is a minute off London’s Charing Cross Road and just two minutes away from Tottenham Court Road. Best of all, it’s right opposite Foyle’s Bookshop, so a perfect place to take a newly discovered book too, and just read. Even the benches feel like poetry.

If you look closely, you can see the buildings surrounding it on all sides. But they feel more like walls than intrusions.

 

But despite the numbers of other people here, it still felt as if I got a corner all to myself. Perhaps that’s because of the number of people reading, writing and even meditating – a full crossed legged closed eyes pose that I didn’t want to spoil by taking a picture of. Shh… you can picture it though, can’t you?

And like so often happens, I found myself reading the perfect paragraph. I’d shut my book – Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal – to see if I could really hear birds this close to central London. Yes, I could. When I went back to my book, I found this description – how grown men remembered their childhoods when they heard the birds sing. I loved how I got the shadow of the trees over the page too.

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If you’re in London this weekend, you can even go to their 8th Agricultural Show, with a WI cake stand, London Pride Morris dancers, beekeepers and a brass band. Maybe it won’t be quite so peaceful. IMG_6855

The Phoenix Garden is Covent Garden’s last remaining community garden. It was created and is still maintained by volunteers. It’s an extraordinary project. f you want to donate to help keep it up, you can find out more or become a friend for only £12 a year here.

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Fancy a London garden mooch?

There are some beautiful, interesting, inspiring, almost secret gardens in London. I did a virtual tour of them a couple of years ago for the Chelsea Fringe, and although some may be out of date now,  you can find the full list here

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Five I would particularly recommend, and which are a little bit different, though are:

Hidden in central London, a garden for peace and reconciliation

Although I was looking out for the St Ethelburga’s Garden for Peace and Reconcialition, even so, walking down busy Bishopsgate, I missed this tiny passageway to the garden first time round… Doesn’t look very promising, does it?!

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But luckily I retraced my steps, and entered into a beautiful little corner that let me time travel

… or mind travel, anyway!

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It was so quiet that I could even hear the birds singing, so I kept having to look up to see where I was. These noisy neighbours quickly reminded me!

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The garden belongs to one of the oldest medieval churches in London. St Ethelburga’s Church managed to survive both the Great Fire of London AND the Blitz. However, it was destroyed almost completely by an IRA bomb in Bishopsgate in 1993. For some time it was thought to be beyond repair, but then a charitable trust was formed, and it was decided to rebuild the church as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Amongst its roles, is research into how faith communities can work in the resolution of conflict. That it looks outwards to all parts of the world is reflected in the peace garden.

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IMG_9472IMG_9464The garden was first designed by Sylvia Crawford, and recently redesigned by Jeremy Rye. Amongst its gems is the St Ethelburga’s Rose, specially created by Peter Beales Roses. In the centre is a large Bedouin tent (made from woven goats hair, several herds-worth I imagine) in which meetings and seminars on conflict, peace and reconciliation are held. And also visitors are invited to come in and enjoy the peace. And if it feels particularly peaceful, that’s because it has been carefully designed to be so. As the booklet says:

The Tent was designed by Professor Keith Critchlow, an expert in “sacred geometry”, who was charged to create a safe and dignified space without using the symbols of any specific religion.  He has used the universal languages of geometry, algebra, astronomy and harmony to create a perfectly proportioned space in a tranquil peace garden with a Lebanese fountain and an olive tree.  The windows carry the word peace in 7 languages.

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But it was too tempting to sit outside, admire the points of interest and just wish I could be there at night when the lanterns were lit. Sir Thomas Wyatt seems to have been following me around recently (although luckily only in print) and may even have visited the church at any point – it had been standing for perhaps a hundred years by the time he was born –  so it seems appropriate to put up one of his poems as a celebration for this lovely garden. Maybe the poem is more about the difficulties of peace, but conflict and the need for reconciliation is actually at the heart of this garden. It feels like an oasis, but one that understands completely why it is needed rather than forgetting the outside world.

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I Find no Peace

I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not—yet can I scape no wise—
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eyen I see, and without tongue I plain.
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,
And my delight is causer of this strife.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
And hard really to leave. Particularly to hit the rush of the crowds outside rushing backwards and forwards – and not expecting to be joined by a peaceful writer coming in to them at such a different angle. I was pleased that some of them looked up to where I was coming from, as if I had appeared from Narnia’s wardrobe. Which in some ways I had!
More information about the garden can be found here, and there’s a particularly beautiful poem about poetry and peace by Denise Levertov here.