Surprising greenery and wildlife in SE London

30th April

The journey south from North Wales was a long one, but interesting. The countryside was beautiful, fresh greenery everywhere and more hawthorn blossom than I think I have ever seen. There were fields full of bright yellow oilseed rape, pastures with frolicking lambs, tall trees with rookeries and flowery wayside verges. Magpies were far and away the most frequently sighted roadside birds, followed by Wood Pigeons, Collared Doves and quite a few Buzzards.

We were heading to London, where I was going to spend a few days with my younger daughter; to be more accurate, Mottingham, post-coded as south-east London, but actually located in the county of Kent, which so far I had only seen covered in snow last Christmas.

Horse Chestnut Trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) in full blossom

Although within a very reasonable commuting distance of the centre of London, this is a surprisingly green and open area and Mottingham is featured as one of the links in the SE London Green Chain network of walking routes (sections 9 & 10). The Royal Blackheath Golf Course is here, at Eltham and also the beautiful Eltham Palace, which is surrounded by fragments of old woodland and its own lovely gardens.

Very close by the house, a section of  a route takes you around a small park area, called The Tarn that was formerly part of the grounds of  Eltham Lodge, (now the clubhouse of the Royal Blackheath Golf Club). It is designated as a bird sanctuary and has a lake that is shaded by some lovely old trees and flowery areas where wild flowers grow amongst cultivated plants. An interesting monument to its past history as the garden of a large estate remains in the form of a well preserved ice well, which dates back to about 1760, long before the days of refrigeration.

Ice-wells were generally  a brick-lined pit in the ground with a domed roof to control the circulation of air, often sited under trees and some way from the house. There would be some form of drainage at the bottom and the ice packed between layers of straw. This would be cut from nearby ponds/lakes or could be bought. Ice for commercial purposes was imported from Norway (1820’s – 1921) and America (1840’s). The ice well worked in the same way as a vacuum flask by insulating in the cold and excluding the warmth. Ice would then be available throughout the year or maybe last for two years. Because they were tucked away and vegetation was encouraged to grow over them their presence isn’t always obvious. At least 2500 ice houses still exist in Britain. 

We took a walk around The Tarn this afternoon and encountered a surprising amount of wildlife in its small area.

The Grey Squirrels here are fearless and will come and take food from your hand

Two bulky Canada Geese sat gazing out over the lake

The birds here are also clearly used to the close presence of people; two large Canada Geese hardly batted an eyelid as we approached the edge of the lake and little Tufted Ducks swam forward eagerly, hoping for a meal -(of course we took bread!)

Tufted Duck (m)- Aythya fuligula

The female is dark brown

The Tufted Duck was a stranger to Britain before 1849, but is now our most common diving duck and can be found bobbing about on suitable stretches of water almost anywhere in Britain. It is very aptly named; the drake has a long tuft of feathers down the back of his head. In good light the head shows a purplish gloss. Further out there were ducklings, at least two of which looked as though they were probably Tufted Ducks, but I’m not sure about the third.

Ducklings

Moorhen - Gallinula chloropus

A very chilled-out Terrapin basking in the sunshine

The noisiest and most colourful visitors to the park were a number of the rowdier local residents – Ring-necked Parakeets, that were flying from tree to tree squawking loudly.

Ring-neck Parakeet - Psittacula krameri

1st May

From the back of the house are views over open green fields, large mature gardens and large old trees that help support what appears to be a diverse population of wild birds. There are plenty of pigeons of course, magpies, crows and collared doves, but I saw or heard smaller songbirds too, including blackbird, blue tit, great tit, chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, wren and robin. Spying over the neighbouring gardens I was thrilled to see a lovely Green Woodpecker that had flown down onto a lawn and was probing for ants. It must have found a good supply as it was there for some time.

Green Woodpecker-Picus viridis - this is a male with a red moustache, females have a black one

Green Woodpeckers occur in deciduous or mixed wood, around avenues of trees orr isolated clumps in cultivated country

It eats the larvae of wood-boring insects, beetles, moths and flies, foraging not only on trees, but also on the ground

The woodpecker specialises in plundering anthills as they are particularly partial to them and their grubs

Green woodpecker showing its yellow rump, the bird's most striking feature when in flight

We went for another stroll around the area this afternoon, taking the route past Eltham Palace, which is definitely on the list for a future visit, then along a lane between fields full of buttercups and peacefully grazing horses. From the hilltop in the middle of a mown meadow, there is a perfect view of the London city skyline on the far horizon, where features such as the ‘Gherkin’, the London Eye etc are all visible in miniature.

I’m flying back to Spain tomorrow, but I’ve really enjoyed the last three weeks spent catching up with family and having the opportunity to experience part of the springtime in areas that are new to me and in such contrast to one another. The weather too has been perfect for me, although now the worry of lack of rainfall is beginning to be voiced…..

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