An Urban Ramble

I went for a short walk on Saturday, as I often do on weekend days when the sun is shining. I live in the suburbs, and I’m very fortunate to have access to several different areas of green space within walking distance from my front door. On Saturday I walked my favourite route, which took me along part of the River Cole and around the old mill pond, before heading back home. It’s not a very long walk, but it’s often richly rewarding.

The River Cole is one of the city’s best kept secrets, a green motorway connecting the suburban fringe to the heart of the metropolis. The entire route is accessible to the public, however most visitors are drawn to a few hotspots, leaving a few secret locations that are seldom visited. I walked the whole route once, although admittedly I then twisted my ankle and had to get the bus home. Not very dignified…

The river is typical of many watercourses in urban settings, in that it is a strange mishmash of the natural and manmade. My favourite section is an area where the channel is divided into two, separated by an area of interesting swamp vegetation that simply teems with dragonflies during the summer. There are several clues that this divergence in the channel is not a natural phenomenon, not least the presence of metal sluice gates that can be opened and closed in response to periods of heavy rainfall to stop the nearby roads and houses from flooding. I’ve never seen the sluice gates closed, but the the cogs and handle that sit atop the graffitied brick plinth are always well greased and ready for action. I like the thought that greasing the sluice gate cogs is someone’s job. I also like the idea that someone is the custodian of the special metal crank, designed to mesh perfectly with the fixed metal workings that bring the simple mechanism to life.

The flora and fauna that inhabit the riparian corridor is rich and interesting. Strong lines of mature alder, willow, poplar and ash sit astride a central mosaic of rush, sedge and reedmace. Small pockets of beautiful things can be found in every direction: yellow flag, meadowsweet, marsh marigold and many more. The riverbank itself is somewhat less diverse, and is under the dominion of an unwelcome guest from distant lands. Himalayan balsam is ubiquitous along many urban waterways, and it’s sweet, sickly aroma thickens the air during the summer months. First introduced into the United Kingdom in the early Victorian era, this impressive annual was soon to ride roughshod throughout the country, it’s clusters of pink and white flowers becoming an increasingly common sight along riverbanks and areas of waste ground. The River Cole is thick with the stuff.

The diversity of bird life along the river corridor is impressive, with a wide array of common garden species supplemented by a few wetland specialists. Notable breeders include song thrush, bullfinch, whitethroat and reed bunting. Kingfisher also breeds along the Cole, and keen eyed observers are often rewarded with a brilliant flash of azure and amber. The habitat is the kind of place that you would hope to find a lesser spotted woodpecker, however there don’t seem to be many of these beautiful birds anywhere anymore.

Over the past few years numerous grey herons that frequent the area have been joined by their continental cousin, the little egret. Last winter over 20 of these compact and brilliant white herons could be found along the Cole valley, and even now in midsummer a couple of stragglers are still hanging around. It’s a striking example of how our avifauna is changing – a similar number of little egrets just 20 years ago would have had the national press descending on my little patch of wilderness. The thought that these birds might choose to breed locally is very exciting, although I haven’t found any evidence yet.

The River is eventually culverted beneath a small road, where it enters a heavily engineered section with yet more sluices and a couple of weirs thrown in for good measure. This short section, which is very shallow and frequently filled with paddling children, is the gateway to a strange and wondrous land, the mill pond. The term ‘mill pond’ conjures the image of a small, serene pool, perhaps with a lily-pad or two, but this pond is anything but. To refer to it as a pond is generous, for this is a vast concrete-lined monstrosity filled with a murky green soup that is more bread than water. This glorious piece of deformity is the very archetype of an ‘urban pond’, and a circuit of the surrounding footpath never fails to be of interest. Come with me as we take a tour. Anti-clockwise I think…

We’ll start at the southern end of the pool, where the banks are thick with cherry laurel. The path takes us in a northerly direction along the eastern bank, with the river corridor beyond the path to the east. This part of the river corridor is especially interesting in spring, when thick beds of wild garlic add their rich aroma to the ever present hum of stagnant water and dog mess. For the rest of the year the nettles and balsam win out, but in spring the garlic reigns supreme.

At the southern end of the pool is an island covered with trees and shrubs, which is the favoured hangout of the numerous ‘clown ducks’ that are permanent residents of the pond. These strange beasts are a diverse menagerie of ducks of suspicious origin, cross bred so many times that it’s hard to recognise the species that they originate from. The ‘clown ducks’ don’t seem to be able to fly, and the pure breed ducks keep far away from them, but they seem happy enough with their lot.

The northern edge of the island is perhaps the most interesting part of the pond. Here a number of fallen trees lie in the water, forming semi-submerged stages that are used annually by coots and great created grebes for the construction of nesting platforms. Both species seem to breed successfully every year, and the humbug heads of the juvenile grebes never fail to amuse. Moorhens, mallards and a pair of mute swans also breed here every year, however the most interesting residents of the southern pond zone are rather more exotic. During the blazing summer months a pair of terrapins are regularly seen basking on an emergent log. I first saw them about five years ago, and can only assume that they are unwanted pets that were covertly released into the wild at some point in the past. They may even be relics of the terrapin boom of the late 1980 when, inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, many thousands of terrapins were purchased as pets and subsequently abandoned or flushed away. If this is the case then their resilience earns my grudging respect, even if they are nasty buggers who eat anything they can catch, ducklings included.

The terrapins are not the only alien inhabiting the grotesque bready soup. Beyond the island is an area where fishing is prohibited to protect the core area used by nesting birds, and naturally it is within this area that the majority of fishing takes place. I recently overheard a fisherman yelling frantically “I’ve caught a fucking crab!”. He hadn’t caught a fucking crab, of course, but what had latched onto his bait was an impressively large signal crayfish. These burly invaders from across the Atlantic have rapidly spread through the waterways of the United Kingdom to the severe detriment of our native white-clawed crayfish, and sadly the River Cole is no exception. They’re fascinating creatures, but they shouldn’t be here.

Beyond the island is an area of open water where most of the wildfowl hang out. During the summer months mallard is the most numerous duck species, and by mid July most of the males have shed their iridescent hoods and opted for their more demure eclipse plumage. During the winter months, however, the mallards are joined by a range of other duck species including the starkly contrasting tufted duck, the russet headed pochard and occasionally the beautiful goosander. All three are divers rather than dabblers, and the goosander is the most special of all. This large, streamlined duck is a member of a family known as the sawbills, and breeds in the northern and western parts of the UK. It is much more commonly seen during the winter where birds turn up on a wide range of waterbodies and watercourses throughout the UK. The males have a black and white body that is strongly contrasted against a head of British racing green, whilst the females (known as redheads) are a beautiful blend of grey and rich brown. Goosanders and other members of the sawbill family have a faintly prehistoric look, and they never fail to thrill me. They also nest in holes in trees, which is bizarre and wonderful.

At the far northern end of the pond, and along part of the northeastern edge, is where the geese tend to accumulate. I’ve counted upwards of a hundred Canada geese using the area at any one time, and their numbers are swelled annually by the arrival of numerous goslings. The Canada geese absolutely dominate this part of the park, and have grazed much of the surrounding grassland to nothing more than bare ground. They also have a tendency to wander into the adjacent road en masse and stop the traffic, which I’m almost certain is intentional. They’re generally a decent bunch, although as with all crowds a few arrogant bastards tend to give the rest a bad name. Their behaviour probably isn’t helped by the sheer amount of bread that the public pump into them. On more that one occasion I’ve witnessed a well-meaning pensioner empty entire loaves of Mother’s Pride into the water with a resounding plop, whipping the geese into a frenzy of avarice. Recently a small number of greylag geese have taken to joining their larger cousins, their striking orange bills easily visible amid a sea of back and white. Although few in number the greylags are capable of being equally as obnoxious as their Canadian relations. I’ve concluded that it’s just a goose thing.

After goose planet has been successfully navigated the path loops around and heads southwards along the western edge of the pond. This area is the most popular with dog walkers and is my least favourite part of the walk, although it’s not without it’s charms. Along this side cormorants are occasionally seen drying their wings, and the path takes you past a brick substation surrounded by sycamores where the mistle thrush breeds. Mistle thrushes are amongst the most aggressive and territorial of all the British bird species, and are most commonly encountered chasing off other birds whilst emitting a harsh alarm call like a demented football rattle. This edge of the pond is also the best place to watch gulls, if you’re into that sort of thing. Three species generally frequent the pond, although rarer visitors are occasionally reported.

The final point of interest along the western side of the pond is on old oak stump that functions as a rudimentary bird table. Robins and dunnocks are the most frequent visitors, feasting on the nuts and seeds that the public leave for them. It’s certainly an improvement over full loaves of the white stuff!

At this juncture we run out of pond, and the path leads us out onto the road and back into the real world. I continue to find this walk fascinating and enjoyable, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed it too. Urban biodiversity is often overlooked, but if you find the right place there are a vast array of habitats and species to enjoy. Some of them might not be rare, might not even be welcome, but if nothing else they’re incredibly interesting!


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