An ode to autumn and winter in the London wilderness

This article appears in the autumn/winter issue of Lost in London

It’s easy to mourn the end of summer, and allow yourself to get a little gloomy with thoughts of deep freezes and a lack of daylight.  No more alfresco dining, no more flip-flop strolls, no more lying in the long grass until deep into the evening.  But actually autumn and winter can be lovely, despite the chill and the dark.  Now is all about thick winter coats, beautiful woollens, ski socks, soup, old man pubs and open fires.  It’s about being outside in a different way.  No more lounging – ‘tis the season for brisk walks and rosy cheeks, for wearing long boots and kicking up clouds of leaves.

Take a walk along a Southbank that’s carpeted with slick yellow plane tree leaves, their bauble-like seed pods swinging festively overhead.  Cycle east from Angel along the Regent’s Canal, passing walls coated with Virginia creeper leaves that are burning to a deep red.  Or head north along the newly naked feeling Parkland Walk, from Finsbury Park up to Highgate Woods.  You’ll be joined by various birds picking off the last of the berries as you pass through hedgerow and woodland, following the leaf strewn path of a disused railway track.

You won’t actually be able to see the winged beasts, but the old tunnels you pass at Highgate Station will be busy with roosting pipistrelle bats, preparing to hibernate within the cave-like construction.  The woods themselves are full of fungi at this time of year, their odd growths bursting through leaf mould or hanging shelf-like off the side of huge old trees.  If you’re feeling energetic, walk on towards Hampstead Heath, which is gloriously empty now the fair weather crowds have retreated.  Whipped up leaves sail through damp air and smears of green lichen glow fluorescent on tree trunks.

In winter the world sounds weirdly different and the sky seems bigger somehow – clear, crisp and empty of bushy foliage.  From the top of a double-decker bus the sunsets can be amazing, with clouds stained the hottest of pinks and oranges, colours that belie the chilly conditions.  Bare of their summer finery, trees take on new skeletal forms, their silhouettes dramatic against brilliant winter skies.  Wildlife can be easier to spot without their camouflaging leaves.  Mornings and evenings are often coated in a dazzle of frost – grey concrete is regularly transformed from something drab into something that sparkles.  The epic spiders’ webs in my roof garden often swing heavy with balls of dew in autumn.

The urban garden, whether traditional in shape or more precarious like my own aerial one, is a great place to see winter wildlife.  Birds are the classic creatures to look out for and to feed.  The cold months are incredibly tough for species that choose to stay here – food and shelter are much needed but also much harder to come by.  The wildlife friendly Londoner can help by offering them some sustenance.  Stud old apples with sunflower seeds, thread with string and hang from trees; or heat up some fat, mix in some nuts and seeds, and set in a yoghurt pot or coconut half.  Your bird cake will bring untold joy.

Late blooming flowers are loved by brave insects that venture out on warmer days, while trees like holly and spindle have berries that will tempt in woodpigeons, thrushes and robins.  A winter hanging basket planted with lavender, heathers and trailing ivy will provide food and shelter.  Maligned in some circles, ivy is great for birds and invertebrates – caterpillars and holly blue butterflies feed on it, birds can eat its berries well into February and its flowers can provide insects with winter nectar.

Beyond your own snatch of green, London is full of places that are winter wildlife wonderlands.  One of the best things about the capital has to be the sweeping views you get from her high spots.  Head up one of London’s many hills – at Greenwich Park, Parliament Hill, Primrose Hill, One Tree Hill or Shooters Hill perhaps – to appreciate the city in her winter clothes. Any woody area will be magical at this time of year, as will a bracing walk across larger wildernesses like Wimbledon Common or Richmond Park.  Now is the time to see Richmond’s majestic deer blowing clouds of hot breath into icy air, and to witness their antlers knitted with golden bracken.

As well as grand parks and huge heaths, London is also full of tiny secret gardens and green spaces that are full of autumn and winter charm.  Personal favourites include Camley Street Natural Park in King’s Cross and Gillepsie Park in Arsenal.  A late October afternoon, low lit and all hung about with mist, in Abney Park Cemetery is truly spooky and rather brilliant.  It’s another place where birds abound and, on a quiet day, you should definitely glimpse a fox weaving through the crumbling gravestones.

Expanses of water tend to be great places to seek out birdlife.  Try nature reserves like the Wetland Centre at Barnes or Rainham Marshes for crowds of water birds, or visit less obvious places like Walthamstow Reservoirs or Beddington Farmlands.    Walthamstow Reservoirs are a sight to behold as winter ends and spring approaches.  The bare trees host London’s largest colony of breeding grey herons.  They build large platform-like nests in a landscape that looks almost prehistoric.  There are also many cormorants.  Most live on one particular island and their toilets habits have left it blackened and burnt.

The Thames is of course one of the best places to look for wildlife and in winter you might be lucky enough to see a seal.  Last January and February a female common seal was regularly seen basking on a platform at St Saviour’s Dock, close to Tower Bridge.  Seals are surprisingly frequent visitors to the River and its estuary.  The common seal is the most widespread of all the pinnipeds (fin-footed mammals). They’re opportunistic when it comes to food, hunting fish, molluscs and crustaceans.  They like hanging out on rocky shores, mud flats and sandy beaches. And in capital cities.

Seeing a seal is a treat, but one of my most exciting wildlife moments came at the very end of last winter.  I found myself peering through binoculars at four just hatched tawny owlets that were perched in some ancient oaks in Kensington Gardens.  The baby birds were chubby balls of grey fluff, with dark eyes, tiny beaks and long talons.   Although still very young and vulnerable, they were good climbers and could fly from tree to tree.

The adult owls hunt by night and sleep out in the trees during the day, and are much more visible in winter because of a lack of leaves.  Young tend to emerge and are easy to spot in March, while the trees remain bare.  After an autumn and winter exploring the wilds of London, watching owls’ home-making just minutes from Oxford Street is surely the perfect way to herald in the spring.


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