27th July, 2016
Second day in London
Today, our second day in London, our daughter had planned a visit to the London Wetlands in Barnes. What better way to adjust to a sprawling, hectic metropolis in the midst of the full-blown symptoms of jet lag than to start with a full immersion in Nature. I’m sure the human brain was not designed to accommodate such an abrupt shift from one hemisphere to another, from the shortest day in winter to the longest day in summer, or thereabouts, in the space of 24 hours. The effect is of being turned upside down.
The London Wetlands were the conception of Dr Peter Scott, son of Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Scott and sculptor Kathleen Bruce Scott whose magnificent, skilful, larger than life-size statue of her husband stood in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens until the earthquake on February 22nd 2010 catapulted it from its pedestal onto the ground. Their son, Dr Peter Scott was a psychiatrist, a conservationist, an author, an acclaimed wildlife painter and the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. This project, the London Wetlands was his dream. He wanted to reach a mass audience and show them the value and importance of creating a sanctuaries for wildlife and the best place to reach people was in the heart of a city. Remarkably he painted a prophetic scene, in 1989 with black swans floating on a wide waterway while overhead flocks of birds soared in formation, eleven years before the project became a reality. His painting is so close to what you see today, from the observatory at the top of the Peacock Tower.
The major conservation project began in 1995 using four redundant reservoirs and water treatment ponds in Barnes. From the air they looked like four segments of a square while now the shape is more like a map of Africa with a patterning of green islands spread through. It was a major undertaking. First the water had to be trained and the land reshaped. All the spoil was used to build paths, a fish reef and a car park. The planting followed, 27,000 trees and 300,000 water plants. Then they had to wait while their new sanctuary began attracting the wildlife. There are forty species of wildfowl in residence, flocks of ducks fly in from Europe, eider geese, wader birds come too, the gulls cry, there are water voles. Apparently reptiles — frogs, lizards, newts were rescued from sites in Kent that were zoned for development and relocated to the new habitat. In just 21 years this Nature oasis, crafted by human hand, has become one of the 21st century’s greatest urban conservation projects.
One of the best aspects of this trip, for us, is that our daughter is here to guide and help us. So we don’t have to scrutinise underground maps or bus maps and make sure we are going in the right direction. She had even organised our passes. We just followed gratefully, onto the train, off the train, down the street and onto the bus, off the bus and across the road to the Wetlands.
The approach is down an avenue of Beech trees, through dappled light passing meadows high with summer growth, up to our shoulders, streams and ponds some of them covered with bright green weed. The feeling of fecundity and growth reminded me of the poem ‘Fern Hill’ by Dylan Thomas.
All the sun long it was running it was lovely, the hay
Fields as high as the house the runes from the chimneys it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
There is a statue of Dr Peter Scott, on a small island, in the first large pond. He’s smiling down on two cygnets, wings wide open, necks outstretched, beaks up looking back. While we were on the arched bridge an elderly woman appeared at my side and said ‘Dr Scott was my teacher.’ What kind of teacher I wondered. ‘He was a psychiatrist and I was a medical doctor in training. He taught me psychiatry.’ She rested her arms on the bridge and looking at the statue said, “He was a lovely, lovely man. I can remember him saying to me, “Marjorie don’t worry. You will be fine.”’
There were signs asking people to ‘talk quietly. Birds have ears,’ but the advice was unnecessary. Everywhere people were talking in low voices, entranced by the hypnotic beauty of Nature and its wild creatures. Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, friends, little ones in pushchairs seemed to be lulled by the mystery and sheer stupefying beauty of the waterscapes and plantings. They smiled. They beamed. They helped you notice something special. That would never happen on the underground where people studiously avoid your eye. We came upon one small group staring intently at a planting of water reeds. What was it? ‘Look there, on the top of that reed, above the water, it is a damselfly. See the brilliant blue of its wings, it’s attracting that female on the nearby reed.’ The blue of the male was an exploding peacock blue, and the female she was turquoise. Spellbound we watched the male open his wings and send them spinning, feathery frills of deep peacock velvet vibrating at the speed of light and then he shut them again. Wait. Wait a little more. There. There it is, the velvet wings shimmering again. The feeling was one of awe.
The gardens are planted with meadow flowers, grasses, water reeds and perennials, in breathtaking combinations — clusters of deep pink Meadowstrife against soft green reeds that bent and rattled in the breeze, wood geraniums, purple and pink, scrambling over ground, a profusion of pale yellow evening primrose, the purple stars of verbena bonariensis, masses of pale gold helenium, deep orange-red ‘lucifer crocosmia’ alongside blue agapanthus, foaming meadowsweet, willow hedges, wild blackberries, we ate one, redcurrents and the berries of the guilder rose for the birds to feed on.
Before we left we went to the top of the Peacock Tower where, seated on rough hewn benches, at narrow, rectangular windows, cut into the wooden walls, we swivelled the latches, dropped the windows and felt the wind rushing in, cooling our hot faces. Looked over the ethereal scene we viewed a series of paintings, sheets of silver water reflecting the sky and the birds, birds and more birds soaring in arcs, huge herons, on islands, their necks and beaks tucked under, like large ceramic urns on islands just so beautiful. I closed my eyes and heard the sound of gulls and terns crying, ducks honking and hooting. Then opening my eyes I looked again at the Turner paintings of water and light and thought one of the things I most love about the Northern Hemisphere is the quality of the light, its mellow softness…