Category Archives: architecture

 In search of the source. Not quite the Nile.

The City of London Cemetery is enormous.

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At 200 acres, it is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe and has a network of roads making it seem like a town of death. I understand that around one million people have been buried here and there are about 150,000 graves. If the maths of those two figures doesn’t add up to you, that is because the bodies are, literally, buried on top of one another.

The cemetery is not as interesting historically as some of the other London burial sites like Highgate, but it is of interest to me as it is a huge green space almost surrounded by my local patch – with the Eastern end of the Flats on one side and the Roding, Old Sewage Works, and Wanstead Park on the other.

It is full of manicured lawns, gardens, tree-lined avenues, and grave stones by the many thousand ranging from little wooden crosses to enormous, and often very gaudy, monolithic mausolea. But there is also a small corner that is not tended neatly by the groundsmen – a grove of trees clustered by the boundary fence near the Roding – known as the Birches nature reserve:

CoLC

X marks the spot of the wild area. Thanks to Google for the map

This small section of woodland is wonderfully wild. I presume that very few people indeed ever visit – partly because those of us likely to be interested in it would have to walk very far out of our way to get there as there is only one entrance to the cemetery and the fence is  high. In fact, it is so poorly known that I can only find one one reference to the fact that it is a nature reserve at all. 

Everything was wet. The leaf litter is so thick that walking around on the mulch is like walking on pillows. With all the mosses, fungi and ferns, it felt like I was experiencing the original Atlantic Oakwood temperate rainforest, not some small sub-urban plot re-wilded a decade ago (although this is wonderful evidence of how quickly nature can take back over if given the chance to thrive without being overly ‘managed’).

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Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

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The edible Jelly Ear Fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Indeed there was a lot of water in this grove, but I knew that from often peering through the fence just visible to the right in the photo below:

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That water collects as a pond and is the beginning of the poorly known Alders Brook. I had come in search of its source, and with limited thrashing about, I found it… sort of:

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Culverted source of Alders Brook

The concrete culvert pipe runs through the ditch that I understand was once part of the ‘Great Canal’ dug for the Manor of Aldersbrook. This is the first opportunity to see the Alders Brook. It presumably trickles down from the higher land off the Wanstead Flats (maybe including any overflow from Alexandra pond) and through, or hopefully beneath, the catacombs and graves of the cemetery.

The Alders Brook then flows under the fence and splits North and South. The Northern stream is a dead-end and so the water is stagnant, but South it flows into the Roding.

The Birches reserve is a known site for Woodcock and Snipe – the resident Woodcock seemingly roosts in this area and then flies out in the evening to feed on the Ilford Golf Course at night. I didn’t see any Woodcock and, actually, never have on the patch, but I intend to make an effort this year to tick it off.

I am indebted to Paul Ferris’ excellent Wanstead Wildlife website for much of the background information and history presented in this post.

All photos were taken on my iPhone and for some reason are lower resolution than usual – apologies.

My blogging century

This is my 100th blog post as iago80. It has been fun…

100 photos: one from each blog post

100 photos: one from each blog post

I have shared my travels, including to some exotic places:

Volcano, Costa Rica

Volcano, Costa Rica

… where I have seen exotic wildlife…

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

… and been privileged to photograph some extremely rare animals in the wild…

Costa Rican Red-eyed Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla uranochroa)

Costa Rican Red-eyed Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla uranochroa)

Closer to home, I have explored history…

Nottingham

… and shared landscapes that I have found interesting and beautiful…

Trent

Many of you have also shared my journey to photograph birds in the wild…

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Thank you for reading. I look forward to sharing my next 100 photo-stories with you.

New York City: the birds of Central Park

One does not necessarily associate New York City with wildlife. There is so much to see and do in this amazing city that birding is probably quite far down most people’s NYC bucket list. However, for an “Englishman in New York” (to borrow Sting’s lyrics), spending a few hours with the wildlife of Central Park was deeply rewarding in my recent week in the Big Apple.

Central Park is like a great slab of green in the heart of Manhattan (or brown when we were there last week, as New York was just emerging from Winter, slightly behind the UK) – seen below from the top of the Empire State building partially obscured by skyscrapers…

Central Park from Empire State

Central Park from Empire State

Despite its uber-urban location, an astonishing 230 species of bird (about a quarter of all birds known to exist in the US) have been spotted in Central Park. Whilst I obviously didn’t get close to that number in just a couple of hours in early April, I was pleased with my visit.

I started at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (the largest body of water in the park):

Reservoir views

Reservoir walkway

There were some familiar waterbirds, such as:

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

… and…

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

… But also less familiar for a European, such as:

Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

… and what I later discovered was a relatively rare sight for New York City…

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Although not as numerous as in the nearby Turtle Pond, the Reservoir is also home to introduced (probably released pets) Terrapins (I am uncertain of the species below, but it is probably the common, Red-eared Slider):

Terrapin

Near the Reservoir, I was alerted by the call of a raptor circling over the trees in what seemed like a victory dance as it carried the carcass of its prey (an unidentified bird) in its talons:

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Elsewhere around the park, I saw a couple of further familiar species, such as:

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

… and…

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

… and the almost globally ubiquitous…

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

But I was there to see North American species. Central Park did not disappoint:

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

I was thrilled to see a North American favourite, the aptly named Cardinal…

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Three obscured shots below of, what I believe (thanks to some help from the online birding community – how cool am I?) is an Eastern Phoebe – one of the first migratory birds to return heralding the start of Spring:

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Visiting other countries is great for a birder, because you get to be all excited by common birds that a local birder wouldn’t look twice at, such as:

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

…and the highly common but confusingly named (it is called a robin because of its red breast, but is actually a Thrush)…

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American robin (Turdus migratorius)

Another Thrush that I snapped was the Hermit Thrush:

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)

There are a number of other lakes in the park beyond the Reservoir:

Central Park lake

It was on these lakes that I saw the New World relative of our Great Cormorant:

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) next to Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) next to Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and numerous terrapins

As well as getting a very distant shot of the wonderfully named, Bufflehead:

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)

And seeing lots more terrapins/turtles basking…

At least two species, but mainly the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

At least two species, but mainly the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

The highlight of my birding afternoon in Central Park was probably the fact that I spotted three species of woodpecker:

Including these two merged perspectives…

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

…and the smallest woodpecker in the US…

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

… and finally a blurry and obscured shot of…

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Outside of Central Park, I got a bit excited seeing a brown squirrel, until I realised it was a melanistic sub-group of the familiar Grey Squirrel and not a new species:

Eastern Grey/Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Eastern Grey/Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

I also photographed a couple of gulls outside of Central Park: one which appeared to be familiar and one not…

The familiar bird is a Herring Gull, but is recognised now by most authorities as a separate species from the European Herring Gull, photographed from the Staten Island ferry…

American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus)

American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus)

The less familiar gull was photographed (twice – two shots merged below) near Brooklyn Bridge:

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

This gull took my total number of species photographed during a week in New York City (an only about 2 hours of birding) to 24, 17 of which were new birds for my photographic list.

A Big British Birding Year: Part VIII (61st or 1st?)

Almost a year ago, I visited Staines reservoirs and blogged about my frustration at not seeing anything ‘special’.

Being a glutton for punishment, I went back there this weekend. Despite being less than 20 miles from where I live (as the crow flies), and still inside the M25 (just!), it is a pain in the backside to get there by public transport – in brief: a 15 minute walk; then a 20 minute Tube journey; then a 40 minute train journey; then a change and a 5 minute train journey back in the direction I just came from; and then, a 20 minute walk through suburban dreariness (apologies if you live there, but I was feeling a bit jaded after all the travelling).

But, the sun was shining – it really was a beautiful day, and I was ready to add some rare birds to my year’s list…

Staines resevoirs

According to bird alerts on Twitter (yes, I really am at High Wizard levels of geekiness) the birds seen at Staines reservoirs on Sunday included rarities such as Great Northern Diver, Scaup, Mediterranean Gull, Slavonian Grebe, and Black-necked Grebe. I think they must have been on their tea break while I was there as I didn’t see anything even vaguely close to being that unusual. I walked along the narrow causeway in between the iron fencing and took a few snaps of incredibly common, but beautiful, birds such as:

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

Despite peering through magnified lenses into the distance and being trigger happy with every gull that flew past, I saw nothing that I haven’t already seen so far this year. My second visit to Staines, and my second ‘dip’.

I walked out from the other end of causeway for the ‘delightful’ (in this instance, inverted commas mean “sarcasm” in case you hadn’t picked that up) journey back beginning, this time, with a 20 minute walk on the verge of a dual carriageway.

As vehicles rushed past me, I tried to cheer myself up taking pictures of anything that had feathers and moved, including:

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

and…

Redwing (Turdus iliacus)

Redwing (Turdus iliacus)

But then, another winter thrush took off from a bush by the road, and this time, one that I had not photographed this year. Whilst I only just caught it in time, and the photo is not very clear, Staines did deliver my 61st bird species of the year:

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

Whilst not particularly unusual, the fieldfare holds a special place in my heart, because it could be said to be the bird that made me a birdwatcher… when I was about 17, I was looking out of my bedroom window and realised I had no idea what the strange bird gorging on berries was in my garden; it looked like a strange cross between a pigeon and a thrush. I dusted off an old bird book I had been given many years before and identified it as a Fieldfare, noting it down as the start of my first ever bird list for good measure … a birder was born.

On my way home from Staines, I stopped off at Richmond, spent a humiliatingly long time even getting into the park as I inexplicably got stuck in a cemetery (don’t ask!) before walking rather aimlessly around the enormous park dodging dog-walkers, runners, cyclists, and cars and failing again to see any new birds, although I was quite pleased to get close to…

Rose-ringed (or ring-necked) Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

Rose-ringed (or ring-necked) Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

…and…

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

You could tell the birding had not gone well when I even joined the tourists (I generally have an almost misanthropic repulsion to be even within screaming distance of another human when I am out birding) to queue and take photos of the clearing in the bushes made for a view of St Paul’s Cathedral from King Henry’s mound (Richmond is an astonishing 10 miles away from Wren’s masterpiece):

St Paul's

As I walked back down the hill (avoiding any cemeteries this time) to start the long tube journey back from west London, I reflected on what had been a frustrating, but not altogether unsuccessful, birding trip. As my wife later sagely reminded me, it is partly the frustrations, the obstacles, and the fruitless walks and waits which makes the successes in birding seem even more enjoyable and sought after.

Also, with views like these, as on the start of my journey home, I shouldn’t really be complaining:

Richmond

Murder at Corfe Castle

Steam train

The Locomotive above was built in 1955. It now transports tourists on the 6-mile stretch from Norden to Swanage in Dorset. In the background the eerie ruins of Corfe Castle can just be made out in the mist.

Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. However, the site had royal fortifications on it long before the Normans came to England. The Castle was one of the last remaining Royalist strongholds in the English Civil War until it eventually fell in 1645. It was demolished by order of Parliament and has been a stately ruin ever since, towering above the village below.

Corfe Castle

On 18 March 978 the young King of the English, Edward, rode his horse up the mound (above) to the hall that preceded the castle. He was apparently greeted by his step-mother, Ælfthryth, with a cup of mead. As he took the drink and dismounted, the Queen Dowager’s attendant stabbed the 16 year old Monarch in the back.

The Keep

Edward’s even younger half brother, Æthelred (Ælfthryth’s son) took the throne. The boy king struggled to unite a suspicious country (grieving the loss of Edward) against the threat from the Danes. He fled to Normandy when the Danes invaded and has been known as Æthelred the Unready ever since. His murdered brother was remembered far more kindly by history: he was sainted and is known as St Edward the Martyr.

Hall

Goldfinger: the man with the brutal touch

Ernő Goldfinger was a brilliant architect, but a difficult man, and many people hate(d) his buildings. When Ian Fleming heard stories about the man in the early ’60s, he named his most famous villain after Goldfinger in the James Bond novel (and film) of the same name.

He is the high priest of the modern architectural style of brutalism that remains reviled by many to this day. His most famous work is the Trellick Tower in West London, now a much sought after ‘des res’ and the set of the British sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.

Much less well known is Trellick Tower’s slightly older twin in the East, the Balfron Tower…

Balfron1

Built in 1967,the trademark sky-bridges from the separated lift/service tower can be seen for miles (including from my office window). Unlike Trellick, Balfron remains largely unknown, although it is a Grade II listed building, and is regularly mis-credited as its trendier western twin when used in photo and film shoots. The majority of the flats are still council-owned, although every so often one of the few privately-owned flats comes on to the market. A top floor flat (can you call it penthouse?) recently sold for £200,000 which is incredibly cheap by London standards (for a listed building with incredible views!) – surely that will be a sound investment indeed when eventually, Balfron Tower receives the recognition it deserves?

I realise it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but set in the semi-industrial borough of Tower Hamlets – which still has some of the highest levels of poverty in the country (although also some of the highest average earnings distorted by the wealth coming from Canary Wharf) – it is not spoiling any picturesque scenery. Personally, I think the building is remarkable and second only to the Barbican project in terms of modernist architecture in London.

Balfron 2

Photographing the Parthenon

I am determined to spite my inclinations and avoid turning this post into an ancient history lesson – give me a slap if I fail and start lecturing.

The Acropolis must be one of the most photographed sites on the planet. It is ranked ‘No. 1’ on the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments.

Acropolis

The collection of 2,500 year old temples and monuments, many of which remain to this day (including the huge and famous Parthenon), are our most tangible link back to one of the greatest ancient civilisations the world ever saw: the Athenian city state. *There. History lesson over in one short(ish) sentence.

There were four obstacles to my chance of producing beautiful photographs of this wonderful place during my visit this weekend:

1) Weather: On my day of sightseeing, it was overcast with the constant threat of rain.

2) People: To be specific, tourists. I can be a grumpy misanthrope when I am out taking photographs (and probably most of the rest of the time as well). I know I was a tourist too, but I just wish everyone else would avoid the most beautiful parts of the world when I happen to be visiting them – I like nothing more than to be completely alone with just my camera and some interesting subject matter (e.g., wildlife, architecture, landscapes etc). But as we all know, ‘I want, doesn’t get’.

3) Scaffolding: I expected some work to be under-way, but oh boy! There is a lot of scaffolding!

4) No time for a night visit: Due to only having a couple of nights in Athens and having a friend’s wedding as my primary reason for being there, I wasn’t able to photograph the Acropolis by night – when most people agree it looks most beautiful all lit up.

Here is how I got on in overcoming those obstacles…

Weather

I nipped back for another quick visit on the sunny day I was flying home…

Acropolis sunny

…and, being overcast on the day of my visit gave me an opportunity to exploit my favourite photography conditions: dramatic sky…

Parthenon

People

The beauty of a wide-angled lens is that you can fit the whole of something in shot whilst still being right up close to cordons and avoiding the crowds…

Parthenon close-up

Scaffolding

The restoration work continuing at the site is significant. This is good if we want our grandchildren to see it in good condition, but less good if we don’t like unsightly scaffolding. But, hey! As with the weather, we can (to coin a Buddhist phrase my fiancée is fond of) ‘turn poison into medicine’ and make the scaffolding part of the picture (and the tourists too for that matter)…

Scaffolding and Parthenon

Night time shots

Although I was disappointed not to get join the throngs of tourists snapping the Acropolis at distance by night, at least I have a good reason to return to this beautiful and ancient city in the future.

Secret London: Part X – East-end bike ride

Yesterday, I joined two friends for a bike ride by the river in South East London. Unfortunately, I did not take my DSLR as there were some fabulous things to photograph, but I took a few snaps with the iPhone… [don’t ask what I am doing in a concrete tunnel/box/thing below, I just thought it looked cool]

Me on a bike

For those of you who know London, we cycled from Southwark through Deptford to Greenwich and then on to Charlton before coming back via Greenwich and then under the Blackwall Tunnel and up the Isle of Dogs to Limehouse and then finishing at Shadwell.

Cycling up the hill at Greenwich to see this view was tough but worth the effort…

Greenwich

From the fine buildings of Greenwich, including the marvellous pub on the Thames, the Trafalgar Tavern …

Trafalgar Tavern

… through some of the rare remaining industrial parts of London…

Conveyor belt

Ant and Nick

There are still reminders of how significant the shipping and heavy transport industries were in the tidal areas of the eastern Thames…

Ferry

boats

Train track

The docklands and East-end of London has changed beyond most recognition in the last couple of decades…

Canary Wharf building site

Thames barrier

Canada Water

O2

Canary Wharf

Next time, I will remember to take my proper camera.

Amazing Grace: down by the riverside

I have blogged about the river Great Ouse before. It is one of the two important rivers of my childhood (along with the Nene). These are rivers I have fished and walked along many, many times.

The Great Ouse flows through the small town where my family now live: Olney in Buckinghamshire…

Great Ouse

The town stretches up a hill which overlooks the flood plain of the river…

Valley

… which is effectively an island surrounded by the branches of the river…

bridge

It contains beautiful meadows…

Meadow

… and land used as pasture…

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Cow

But the riverside is also home to many wild animals:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) keeping a sharp eye out for fish or amphibians…

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Another creature that I found out hunting for amphibians is the Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)…

Grass snake

I also surprised a semi-feral Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) wandering in the grass..

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But deeper in the grasses, it was the insects that told me we were at the height of Spring. I found mating Crane Fly (species unidentified)…

Crane Fly

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)…

Banded Demoiselle

And most wonderful, for me, were the Mayfly: one of the many species of the aptly named genus, Ephemeroptera; the Mayfly is surely the embodiment of ephemeral nature. Mayfly will only live in their adult form for a few hours – maybe a day – to mate and lay their eggs before they die (often sending trout and other fish into a feeding frenzy)…

Mayfly

On the lakes of Emberton, I saw the common Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis)…

Canada Goose

and the much rarer feral breeding population (amongst only around 1000 in the UK) of Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)…

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Goose 2

The river runs right past the impressive church of St Peter and St Paul…

Olney Church

In this churchyard is the grave of John Newton (1725-1807)…

John Newton

John Newton started life as a sailor. He was involved in the slave trade and was even enslaved himself for a short period. On his grave stone it says he was originally “an infidel and a libertine”. He had a damascene conversion to Christianity whilst on a ship in a storm.

Eventually, he joined the clergy, renounced his former wicked ways and became a prominent campaigner against slavery. He was pastor of the church and wrote some famous poems and hymns whilst reflecting on his former life and looking out at the countryside of the Great Ouse. By far his most famous hymn is ‘Amazing Grace’ which is believed to be played/sung around 10 million times a year!

Story of a Buddha

Peace Pagoda

Battersea Park in London contains one of three Buddhist Peace Pagodas in the UK. It was built in 1985 in the same year as the 100th birthday and death of Nichidatsu Fuji, a Nichiren monk, who founded the movement, Nipponzan-Myōhōji, which built these monuments to peace around the world. He was a also a friend of Mahatma Gandhi.

The Pagoda contains three large golden images taken from the life story of Gautama Buddha, or simply, The Buddha. I’m sure everyone remembers at least fragments of the life of the Buddha, but in case not…

Siddhartha Gautama

Around 2,500 years ago, there was a young Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived a sheltered life. At the age of 29, he finally encountered the realities of ageing, sickness, and death outside of the confines of the palace.

This moved him profoundly, some say to depression and he initially searched for ways to overcome the suffering of life and death. He gave up his princely possessions and left his family to become an ascetic – basically a religious beggar.

He took the ascetic lifestyle so seriously that he nearly starved to death.

Shakyamuni 1

Eventually he sat beneath a Pipal tree, now known as the famous Bodhi tree, and vowed not to move until he had discovered the Truth about life and death.

He is said to have meditated for 49 days until he reached a state of enlightenment. From that moment, he became known as Gautama Buddha, or Shakyamuni Buddha (Shakya being the name of the district he was from).

Shakyamuni 2

Shakyamuni lived a long life and taught many hundreds of people who became his followers. His teachings were eventually written down as the Sutras and his followers became known as Buddhists.

The final image shows the point at which Shakyamuni died, aged 80, surrounded by his followers.

Shakyamuni 3

In three months time I shall marry a Buddhist in a Buddhist ceremony.