I know it’s dull to talk about the weather but wow, it has been lovely of late. The roof has regained its official sun trap status and I’ve been finding every excuse possible to be out there. There are many rays to catch and much new growth to admire. My tiny rowan and hazel trees are covered in leaves, the honeysuckle and bay are in bud, the strawberry plants have flowers, the rosemary and rocket are also blooming and there are plenty of salad leaves to eat. My beans are getting tall, the toms are looking sturdy and I’ve now planted out my carrots and potatoes. The daffodils are still looking pretty and my favourite blackbird continues to visit regularly and often.
I’ve had a few brilliant outdoors experiences recently, made even better by the fact it is spring and London is looking especially lovely with it. It seems like the blossom this year is heavier than ever. Yesterday I was outside all day working on my new wildlife filming job, admiring handsome herons and magnificent jays in Regent’s Park, watching swallow acrobatics and swarms of swans on the Thames out west at Kingston and spying on a vixen and her tiny two week old cubs in a back garden in Wimbledon.
Last week, working on the same project, I found myself on the roof of Tower 42, the former NatWest Tower and the tallest building in the City square mile. I went up the skyscraper with a bunch of birdwatchers, now known as the Tower 42 Bird Study Group. We met in the morning, on ground level, outside a towering building that’s home to smart offices and an expensive restaurant. Glass revolving doors sweep smartly clad people in and out. We clustered out front then entered via the less glamorous back doors. We took a lift up 41 floors. My ears popped. We walked up a couple of flights of stone stairs. Then up some tightly twisting metal steps. Then through a room full of roaring machines and strange smells. Finally we clambered up two metal ladders and through two trap doors. The last trap door propelled us out onto the roof.
The vastness of London stretched away from us on all sides, densely packed with buildings of all sizes and styles. The snaking shape of the river was obvious where it’s usually hidden, tall buildings that on ground level seem so sturdy looked like fragile architects’ models. Iconic structures looked familiar yet totally different viewed from above.
The roof is not designed for people really, it’s all metal girders, pipes and huge, noisy fans. Quite a difficult environment to negotiate and definitely not an obvious place from which to watch birds. But actually it’s perfect. We’d been up there barely 10 minutes when we saw a peregrine falcon swooping in from the west, over St Paul’s Cathedral. A magnificent hunter that can achieve speeds close to 200mph in the right conditions, this particular one had decided upon a feral pigeon breakfast. It caught one of London’s many and took it to Tower Bridge – a rather picturesque place to dine and a choice that made us coo with delight. A telescope was fixed firmly upon its meal making and we all took turns to admire the breakfasting bird.
We saw a fair few falcons during the hour I was on the roof, heartening since this bird was on the brink of extinction only a few years ago. We watched one sitting quietly and contentedly on one of the imposing Barbican towers. Apparently peregrines love its cliff like qualities. We also saw a sparrowhawk winging past us to the west. My eyes were mostly drawn southwards, where the landmarks associated with the Thames sat looking strangely tiny, but it was also exciting to look north – to find Holloway and pretend I could see the roof winking knowingly at me through the cloudy haze.
The final experience to share, which has a more foody theme, can be called my adventure to Hawkwood. A couple of weeks back I cycled all the way to Chingford, which is practically Essex, along the River Lea, a neat band of water which flows through a landscape that’s a mixture of marshland and light industry. Curvy white swans glided elegantly through glassy water rimmed with tall reeds and rippling with the reflections of warehouses, pylons and waste processing plants. Cranes framed the river edges. Mallard ducklings bobbed alongside the odd rusting can and seething plastic bag. Butterflies danced, the sun shone, geese nibbled at the cycle path.
Our destination was a place called Hawkwood, a new food growing project set in beautiful grounds on the edges of London and the edges of the forest. It’s a place where the air echoes with the hammering of woodpeckers knocking on wood and amazingly no traffic noise. The site was once a tree and flower nursery, supplying local parks with plant life. It ran out of money and stood empty for years, before a group of keen organic gardeners took over the site and set up a food growing co-operative.
The project is young but full of energy and ambition. They sell their produce at a local market and run a veg box scheme. They have funding for three years but want to be self financing and able to run independently soon. A range of permaculture courses are planned to spread the gardening bug throughout the borough of Waltham Forest and beyond. It’s all very inspiring.
Hawkwood is attracting a lovely bunch of volunteers who want to spend their free time getting soily and sharing ideas. In the morning I was in the wonderfully warm glasshouse, preparing some raised beds for a crop of climbing cucumbers. After a long shared lunch, I was outside getting a bit more physical, hammering old scaffold planks into bed shapes and hauling compost and straw. The conversation was good and the weather sunny.
On the long ride home my legs ached from all the exertion, I barely made it up a steep hill near home, but I felt great. The water ran a muddy brown when I showered back at the flat. Post wash, I felt refreshed but also deliciously tired, in the way you only do when you’ve been out all day long, breathing fresh air and flexing muscles and limbs that are normally pretty sedentary.
Back to now and to the roof and today I’m going use it as an outdoors dining room. I’m making lunch and dinner for friends. We can sit out there and watch the bees dancing round flowers as we eat and then make the most of the full moon tonight. Perfect.