The Lich

He couldn’t remember what had drawn him there. He couldn’t remember much of anything anymore, but base instinct told him that he was close. The woods were uncannily quiet, devoid of birdsong and the faint rustle of wind through the leaves. The sharp pistol crack of twigs snapping beneath trudging feet immediately deadened to silence as he walked slowly through the unrelenting night.

His eyes were near useless in the murk, but ahead amid the trees he could make out the faint outline of a person. A girl, or so it seemed. He followed the figure helplessly, effulgent moonlight silhouetting a shape flickering between humanoid and something altogether stranger, but always distant.

The sound should have startled him, but in his trance it barely registered. It began as faint laughter, phasing slowly around him from left to right. A child’s laughter. Slowly it increased in pitch and volume, orbiting him like a sickening pulsar until the source of the evil sound was at once above, beneath and within him. The nearly-girl had stopped, turning slowly to face him. His ragged breath caught in his chest. He was there.

He was in a wide clearing, the edges marked by deformed oak and ash trees casting eerie, warped moonshadows on the damp ground beneath. The air seemed thick, laden with the half remembered scent of camphor and charred wormwood. The bones of birds and small mammals scattered the woodland floor, a scene of intense, breathtaking horror. The figure of the half-girl was grisly and cruel, sunken cheeks hollow beneath an eyeless stare, but he was impossibly drawn to her. She moved towards him at a glacial pace, although he heard no footsteps, no crunch of tiny bones. Her sightless eyes bore through him, head tilted as if curious. She spoke.

The sound that emitted from her decaying maw was like nothing ever conceived by the living. Thin and dry, an inhuman rasp like the creak of a rusted sepulchre gate. The smell of a charnel house, putrescent and rank, filled his nostrils, but didn’t break through the glamour. “The old gods must feed”. He died slowly, oblivious to his fate.

A villager would later report seeing a flash of magnesium light from the wooded hollow that night, and the farm dogs were spooked into madness by a sound inaudible to human ears. The stranger was never found, and was never missed. Folklore meant that few humans entered Lich Wood any more, especially not at full moon, but those that did would have seen the major oak more contorted and grotesque than before. The gods were satiated, for now.

My First Wild Place

My grandparents’ old house was put up for sale recently, which gave me a chance to have a look at what the owners had done to the place. The house itself had been completely reconfigured internally, to the point that it was almost unrecognisable, but that was inevitable as it had been in need of serious modernisation for many years. It looked good, and I didn’t begrudge any of the changes. What startled me, however, was the change that had been made to the garden, my childhood playground. When I was growing up the garden was huge and diverse and exciting, but it has since been stripped and paved, denuded of vegetation and the potential for adventure. It made me nostalgic about the time I spent there in my formative years.

I was always close to my grandparents, and through a combination of luck and proximity I attained an unrequested but not unwelcome ‘golden grandchild’ status. I spent many long days with them as a youngster, often helping grandad with a madcap scheme in the garage or baking an array of rustic but tasty foodstuffs with grandma. The two of them were without doubt the catalysts for my lifelong love of natural history, and our trips out into the countryside were fulfilling and frequent. The dynamic changed slightly when grandad passed away after a period of illness in 1997, and my role changed from co-adventurer to weekly visitor and occasional lawn mower. Grandma hung on for over 10 more years before a stroke took her independence away, but I still remember those latter years fondly.

As a youngster the garden was my kingdom, and I the explorer in chief. The rear of the house directly overlooked a small linear lawn area, and the job of cutting the grass was frequently my price for the reward of lunch. I didn’t mind though, because once mown the lawn became my archery arena. My equipment was basic, a rudimentary bow made from a sturdy stick of willow and garden twine, my arrows crudely butchered bamboo canes, but it didn’t matter. I was Robin Hood and William Tell rolled into one.

Between the lawn and the house was a small plum tree and rose bed, which is where I first became fascinated with creepy-crawlies, particularly the aphids that clustered around the rosebuds. On the opposite side of the lawn was an area of garden shrubs that held little intrinsic interest for me, although it did attract a good selection of bees and butterflies. I was always more interested in the fruits and vegetables than the flowers, although the rudbeckia blooms hold a special place in my memory.

Beneath the kitchen window a concrete slabbed pathway ran adjacent to the outdoor toilet (unbelievably cold!) and coal place on the left hand side, before sloping up slightly to the level of the rest of the garden. Several points of interest were accessible from the top of this slope, including a quince tree to the left, a home-made cold-frame (built from old windows) and rhubarb patch to the right, and a small spindle tree directly ahead. There is an old photograph somewhere of me standing in this area at the age of four, wearing grandad’s hat, coat and gardening gloves. I haven’t seen it for years.

Progress along the central pathway, beyond the small patch of lemon balm on the left, led to a small apple orchard. This area was grandad’s pet project and contained a broad selection of rare apple types, including several specimens where he had grafted multiple different apple varieties onto the same tree. From the right hand side of the orchard it was possible to access a narrow avenue of fruit bushes, with gooseberries to the left and blackcurrants to the right. I used to gorge on gooseberries until my stomach hurt. I can’t stand them now!

Next to the fruit bushes was a small plot where grandad and I used to plant runner beans in early summer. This was a particularly fun job, involving the construction of a line of bamboo wigwams held together by offcuts of wire foraged from the garage. I can remember the structure and form of the runner bean plants vividly.

A short walk back to the central path gave access to a further large planting area to the left, but this was the domain of more flowers and shrubs that never gripped me. There was, however, a small patch of chives that we frequently used to plunder to enliven our breakfast scrambled eggs. Beyond the tedious shrub bed was a further area of apple orchard, including a tree where grandad and I installed a small wooden bench (a bit of old door if I remember correctly). On at least one occasion bumblebees nested within the mossy grass at the foot on this tree, which was yet another milestone in my ecological awakening.

The garden backed onto my old infant school, and the boundary between the two was a hawthorn hedgerow containing a large mirabelle plum tree that annually showered the garden with beautiful white blossom. After the blossom came a sea of tiny but delicious orange plums, which grandma used to collect and turn into unfathomably sweet jam. I often helped with the jam making process, trying frantically to lick the spoon whilst avoiding scalding myself on the sugary lava.

The far corner of the garden was the most exciting and mysterious part. Concealed behind a cherry laurel bush and in the shadow of a eucalyptus tree, this is where the fun things happened. The first fun thing was the twin compost heap, built by grandad out of wood offcuts and chainlink wire. These composts were used on rotation, so as one became full it was left to decompose whilst the other was filled. My main role in those days was to climb inside and stamp the leaves down, but this also gave me the opportunity to interact with the numerous worms, slugs, snails and bugs that made their home in the compost.

Next to the compost was an even more exciting attraction, the incinerator. From memory this was made from an old cast iron water tank, and grandad and I frequently used to build bonfires to dispose of waste paper and piles of woody garden rubbish. Occasionally the fire would require a splash of paraffin to bring it to life, and the sound and smell is impossible to forget. The bonfires generally occurred in the evening, and i’d spend an age watching the flames dance before arriving home smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, but blissfully happy. I don’t feel sad, but I do miss those times.

This particular corner of the garden was the scene of the most exciting wildlife encounter of my young life, when I happened upon a sparrowhawk in the eucalyptus tree in the process of tearing open an unfortunate woodpigeon. The sparrowhawk was startled and flew away, and I was startled and flew away too. I ran to the house, crying out with excitement until grandad came to investigate. We found the abandoned pigeon, torn and visceral, and we were both fascinated. It seems gruesome in hindsight, but I made grandad put the pigeon in a large jar for me so that I could take it home. It lived at the bottom of my parents garden for several weeks in gradually more advanced states of decomposition before dad eventually disposed of it. It’s hard to imagine that any wildlife encounter in my life will ever affect me like that again, the adrenaline coursing through my veins was extraordinary.

When I started writing this piece I have no idea just how vividly I remembered the sights and smells of the place, and how much my time spent there shaped my subsequent life. A lot has changed since then, and those places of my childhood don’t exist anymore, but I won’t forget them. It was my first wild place.

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.┬áThis 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!

 

Fantastic Fungi

I’ve been obsessed with fungi ever since I heard the mushroom joke as a small boy. I was exploring my dad’s record collection, and through the hiss and crackle of a warped 78 I distinctly remember Lonnie Donegan singing about toadstools and dustbins. I was immediately hooked.

For Christmas the same year I begged my parents for a book about fungi, and I can vividly remember the excitement I felt as my small hands unwrapped it. It was the Observer’s Guide to Mushrooms, Toadstools and Other Common Fungi, a tiny tome packed with photographs, drawings and fungal facts. I can still remember every inch of the minuscule dust jacket, red text above a photograph of fly agaric. For the uninitiated, fly agaric is a fairly common woodland mushroom, but to a young boy in the urban waste of south Birmingham it was the stuff of legend. A shiny red cap flecked with patches of white sat above brilliant unblemished gills, the creation of a madman’s fevered dream. As a teenager I would learn that it is also one of the fabled ‘magic mushrooms’, which made it even more exciting.

It was the names of the mushrooms that drew me in. To the serious mycologist (a fungi expert to you and me) English names for mushrooms are a contentious subject. Just like the hardcore botanists out there, most are of the opinion that English names are an unnecessary dumbing down of perfectly good Latin and Greek binomials. They’re wrong though, because the English names are what make an otherwise impenetrable group accessible to the amateur enthusiast like me. Many English names for fungi were deliberately coined in order to pique the interest of the lay observer, and they range from the whimsical to the horrifying. A few personal highlights include the powdery piggyback, lemon disco, the pretender, dewdrop dapperling, hairy parachute, funeral bell, vampire’s bane, destroying angel (eek!) and the flirt. My favourite was, and still is, the amethyst deceiver. Not only is it an evocative name that makes me think of fantastical worlds, it’s also stunning. Seriously, just look at it.

I’m not a mycologist. I’m not even that good at identifying different types of fungi, but I adore them. That’s part of their beauty, you don’t need to be able to identify them to appreciate them. Another great thing is that you can find them anywhere, even in the winter when many other flora and fauna are engaged in senescence or sleep. There are over 15,000 species in the UK, although admittedly this number includes a large number of species of rust and yeast that don’t entirely tickle my fancy. Fly agaric though…

A final fascinating fact is that the things that most of us thing of as mushrooms are actually just the fruiting bodies, responsible for the production and delivery of countless tiny spores. The really clever stuff happens below the ground, or within whatever medium the fungi is growing within. This is where the mycelium live, incredibly complex networks of delicate microscopic threads that take in the nutrients that give the fungi life. Many of these mycelium are vast, covering a much larger area than the visible fruiting bodies. In this way fungi are very much the icebergs of the terrestrial ecosystems.

Incidentally, the mushroom joke is:

“My dustbin’s absolutely full of toadstools”
“How do you know it’s full?”
“Because there’s not mushroom inside”.

In hindsight it’s a terrible joke.

The Artist

The artist stood in the shade of the new wooden bridge, built last autumn when the old bridge succumbed to time and wuthering. The waterfall was one of her favourite spots, and she imagined angry water sprites barging impatiently over a flight of weathered sandstone steps. She was drawn to this place time and again, finding it changed and new at every visit. Today the dappled sunlight penetrated the shroud of birch, oak and larch, creating rainbows in the spray that filled the air. Her busy pencils etched beauty onto the thick paper of her sketchbook.

She’d lived here for almost ten years, at the edge of the national park in the shadow of the wooded crags. The scenery in this area was her muse, the Meurent to her Manet, inspiring her to capture its majesty with ink, charcoal and paint. The simple line drawings were her favourite, because they allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps. Her imagination was the only thing that came close to recreating the splendour of a landscape that made her heart burst.

The inspiration and the urge to create was almost overwhelming at times, and she found the diversity of perfect views disorientating. Within an hour’s walk she could find silent, secret lochs with untouched sandy shores. She knew the shallow braes, the forest glens and the rocky streams where the dippers frolicked. She felt a solemn sense of responsibility, as though the land had chosen her as its advocate. It was a pleasant burden to carry.

Hours passed. The sun wheeled slowly across the sky as she drew, lost in concentration. Vapour dampened her sketchbook, but her focus never wavered. The result was a sublime rendering of the vista that awed her, the waterfall seeming to tumble and shimmer on the page. She had talent, although she would never admit it.

The artist finally packed her pencils, sketchbook and flask into a sturdy satchel and began the slow walk down the valley side. Today’s efforts were already forgotten, her mind busy planning tomorrow’s adventure.