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AUGUST berries, birds, adventures

August 26, 2010

Let’s begin with blackberries.  A couple of weekends ago we scootered from north London way out west to Wimbledon Common and picked berries in the hot late afternoon sun.  Later we stewed them with some bramley apples and brown sugar into a violent purple broth that was tangy on the tongue and stained our lips a faint, inky blue.

It was my first time but I discovered that Wimbledon Common is one of those special London wildernesses that you can lose yourself in.  The grass is bleached and long, wildflowers dance with insects, brambles tangle and there’s heather, fields of it, something I’ve never seen in London before, only on mountainsides in remote places.  There’s also a windmill with long blades where birds like to sit.  It’s a perfect place to take a blanket and the Sunday papers and just disappear for a while.

I think that was perhaps the last time it was sunny enough to bask, everything feels a little nippy and wet round the edges at the moment.  I’m thoroughly sick of the rain but the rooftop crops are enjoying it at least.  The beans are doing well – I ate some for lunch yesterday and they were delicious – and the tomatoes are just starting to warm from green to red.  There are herbs and leaves aplenty.  The most exciting news produce wise is that I finally harvested the potatoes I’d been growing in a hessian sack over the last few months.  I had feared the worse but in fact dug up a handsome haul, including one spud that was romantically heart shaped.

The best roof news by far though is the return of the dishevelled blackbird.  He’s back and looking worse than ever.  It’s a pleasure to have his company once more.  Sadly my resident squirrel continues to visit and to cause chaos – he’s taken to picking tomatoes and condemning them to a pulpy death by throwing them off the roof.  He’s also been spending much time mud bathing in my radish pot.  When he finally dared to eat one of the peppery pink roots it brought on a set of extraordinary back flips.

As well as finding the wilderness that is Wimbledon Common this month, I’ve also discovered a small but gorgeous kitchen garden that’s popped up in Regent’s Park.  Not perhaps the first place you’d expect to see vegetables growing, with its rather formal layout, ponds stocked with exotic ducks, ornamental planting and various statues and fountains.  But somehow the allotment fits in perfectly and is provoking a very enthusiastic response from all who stumble upon it.  It’s been designed as a training space, with a programme of workshops and various volunteering opportunities, all of which are proving popular.

The last time the Royal Parks grew vegetables in earnest was during World War Two, when everyone was digging for victory and every bit of land was a potential veg plot, including public parks and land freshly cleared by the bombs of the Blitz.  The Ministry of Food exhibition at the Imperial War Museum explains just how productive Britain had to be during that period of severe rationing.

Back then everyone had to do their bit, and a slight whiff of that spirit has returned to the clipped environs of Regent’s Park.  Lucky me was offered some of the produce to try (being a writer sometimes has amazing rewards).  My bounty included stacks of fresh basil that I transformed into a delicious pesto sauce and some bright yellow courgettes that tasted wonderful lightly grilled and tossed in olive oil and lemon juice.

It’s definitely harvest time.  I went to visit a couple of gardens in Wandsworth yesterday and came away laden with jam and beans.  I was there to find out more about Garden Partners – an ingenious scheme in south west London that’s matchmaking frustrated urban growers with neglected private gardens.

It’s a project run by Age Concern Wandsworth with funding from the local NHS, introducing older Londoners with gardens to younger Londoners who are itching for some growing space.  The two sets of garden partners I met were really inspiring people, and rewarded my visit with home grown gifts.  For both the main concern at the moment is how to eat the vast quantities fruit and veg they’re producing.

A last August adventure to share has nothing to do with veg but everything to do with urban nature.  I recently spent a morning with a peregrine falcon obsessive, hunting for sights of these birds of prey in some of the most iconic parts of London.  Our journey began at 4.45am outside the Houses of Parliament, where a pair of peregrines and their three offspring are currently living.

We watched them swooping through the just lightening dawn sky and witnessed a female plucking a feral pigeon as she perched on the palace’s north tower.  It was a memorable morning and one I wrote lots about for The Ecologist.  You can read more about it here.

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