By Helen Jeffries

As a key worker in central London I’ve seen a very different side to my city since the partial lock-down. Walking to work at 6.30am for the morning shift the birds are so much louder than before – whether that’s real or my impression now the traffic noise has reduced I don’t know. The birds are more visible as well too – not just the habitual pigeons but also the robins near my flat have been sitting on the fences and paths as I walk past. There are more green areas than you might expect even in the residential parts of Westminster and Vincent Square is one of the best near me. Even in normal time the green parakeets I sometimes see there add a touch of the exotic, but recently I’ve seen coal tits in the gardens and possibly a wren. With the coming of spring the London plane trees are in bud and the blossom trees are making a splendid show. Just recently it’s been so cold that the flurries of white falling around me may have been either petals or snow.

Walking into work for the afternoon shift around lunchtime presents some different scenes. There are rather more people but they tend to be cycling or walking now so the birds can still be heard. The sun when we get it brings out the best in the gardens – there’s one that has a particularly beautiful weeping willow that I always look out for because it makes such a lovely shape.

But on the sunny days there’s nothing better than the bright light on a blazing red and yellow tulip in a pot.

It’s also odd to see the birds landing in the roads because there’s no traffic – for example a rather splendid pigeon marching in social isolation down the middle of the road.

Returning home from the late shift I see a different city again – there’s still plenty of light but very few people around at 10pm. The lights of the residential buildings are bright in a way they seldom are because of course everyone’s at home rather than out on the town. Coming back round Vincent Square I’ve seen a fox scuttle off onto the playing fields as well as the usual town cats. And heading back to my own place I count it a lucky day when I’ve seen a brown rat disappear down a drain cover. It’s just amazing the tiny holes they can squeeze through!

At home on my rest days, there’s still no shortage of nature to enjoy. I have some pots outside my door and my current delight is a tiny succulent that’s grown as though by magic. A small piece of a neighbour’s plant was blown off in Storm Ciara and landed right outside my door. I dropped it on an old water logged pot thinking that might give it a day or two of life, but it’s actually taken root, grown a lot and is now in flower. Even in the most difficult times, life will find a way.

Written by Helen Jeffries

Helen Jeffries is a civil servant currently working on the health sector response to COVID-19.  She is based in central London where she is able to walk to work and observe the natural world in the city, inspired by Maxwell Knight’s “Be a Nature Detective”.

Note from Simon King: I’d like to thank Helen for kindly accepting the challenge to write this inspiring piece for the FFON blog. The first time I read it, in my mind I was out there in the streets of London walking through the park and spotting green parakeets – which are, apparently, a nuisance to some but an entertaining diversion to many and it’s good to read Helen sees them as a touch of the exotic. This is what the ‘Armchair Naturalists’ project is all about. Sharing our stories and helping others through the challenging times ahead. Let’s hope we hear from Helen again soon… With best wishes to all. Simon

Response to Helen’s piece: Writing something about nature

Maxwell Knight (MK), after whose unpublished manuscript this FFON website is named, would have approved of your piece, Helen. (Please note that we are using 1950s English, without modern hyperbole, to reflect how he might have put it!).

John recalls how he (MK) would stress that a true naturalist sees or finds something of interest everywhere, not just in the countryside. MK was based in London for much of the Second World War. He must have walked its streets as Helen does now and, because there were so few vehicles (in part because it was war-time), he would have delighted in the fact that birds were more visible and their calls and songs more audible. Likewise, he would have been heartened by how vivid spring flowers could be, even in the centre of a war-ravaged city.

Maxwell Knight’s solace during those difficult years would have been his natural history, his visits to the London Zoo (when it was open) and his own collection of animals in his flat. Some of the latter came from Palmer’s Pet Shop, which was situated on the road going up from Camden Town tube station to London Zoo. The shop is still there (when Covid-19 is defeated, armchair naturalists should try to find it) but it no longer sells animals! The shop does, however, still bear the original signs above the windows. In addition to those advertising parrots and monkeys, is one that says “Naturalists”. This word is more significant than it might seem. MK knew the owner of Palmer’s well and would recount how the establishment was not just a pet shop; it was a meeting place for people who were interested in wildlife, both in the wild and in captivity, and who wanted to come together with kindred spirits (no social distancing then!) to discuss the appeal of animals, of every kind.

John and Margaret Cooper