With Spring just around the corner and the temperatures soaring to a giddy ten degrees, you might be thinking about removing one layer of clothing, making it easier for your limbs to travel you in a walking motion. South London is not only my home but my playground, artist’s palette and my wildlife reserve. There are more green, wild spaces in here than any other city I’ve travelled in. The greenchain walk links the best of these to form an almost unbroken succession of woodlands, parks and overgrown cemeteries – home to a wealth of birds and beasts. Below are a handful of my most beloved haunts, all within a stones throw of each other.
Crystal Palace Park
This Victorian relic is home to the famed dinosaurs and sphinxes of the great exhibition after if was relocated from Hyde Park in 1852. The lakes are home to; cormorants, herons, egyptian geese, coots, moorhens, a collection of ducks and most surprisingly of all – around eight large terrapins. The terrapins can often be seen sunning themselves on the logs that float near the edge of the big lake, opposite pigeon tree, near the pathway to dinosaur island. You can no longer walk onto dinosaur island, unless of course you have no respect for the rules, but I’d never advocate that sort of behaviour…
At this time of year, you’ll see some of the early goslings and ducklings. Take care not to overdose on fuzziness. Also, prepare to overhear a lot of people misidentifying the geese as ducks. Now you’ve read that, I expect it will piss you off as much as it does me. Sorry in advance.
South Norwood Country Park
This is the single best place to watch the aerial displays of the black headed gulls. There are hundreds on the lake, making the large coot population look measly in comparison. It doesn’t seem to matter when you visit the lake, there is always someone there hurling stale bread at the gulls, sending them into frenzy. If you’re a photographer or you just need a bit of cheering up, watching this is pretty decent.
As well as the lake, there are all sorts of other habitats to explore here. It is an old sewage works, turned nature reserve and boasts; birds of prey, pheasants, an incredible amount of invertebrates and even the occasional water vole.
I have been fortunate enough to watch kestrels hunt, stalk pheasants and stumble across an owl chick in a tree. If you explore one new place this weekend, make it South Norwood Country Park. It is one you’ll want to go back to over and over as the seasons change.
South Norwood Lake
This is perhaps one of the lesser known spots, but might have the best bird life of them all. Parakeets nest on an island in the middle of the lake. Great Crested Grebes dive for the crayfish in the mud. In the summer, swallows skate the surface of the lake hunting for insects. It is buzzing with life all year round.
I have saved one of the best for last. It is no secret, being one of the magnificent seven historical cemeteries, but within it there are many secrets still to be found. Everytime I visit Nunhead, I find a new path that leads to a glade, full of birds and sometimes dog shit. I fell foul to the latter just yesterday in fact. Stout boots are advisable if going off piste.
Cemeteries are some of the finest places to see urban wildlife, as they provide their own ecosystem to the… nutrient rich soil. I’ve watched foxes appear from cracks in crypts, followed tiny goldcrests as they hop from grave to grave and listened birds sing at each other from the trees lining the pathways. Nunhead Cemetery is mainly an ancient cemetery, although some of the graves are more recent. This means that much of it is overgrown and you can explore the jungle of narrow paths for hours.
The residents of SE19 and beyond are very lucky to have all this one their doorstep, but if travelling further afield, below I’ve made a list of some of the best places on the edge of South London.
Selsdon Wood – A spectacle of bluebells in spring.
Shirley Hills – Burnt out cars hidden in the woods, jays and views across London.
Croham Hurst – Wild Deer!
Littleheath Woods – Foxes (sorry Ian!).
Titsey Place – I saw a WEASEL here once.
Sevenoaks Nature Reserve – Just beyond the M25 but well worth the miles for Herons nesting in trees and a million and one other birds.