Tag Archives: London wildlife

Site Unseen: Rainham Marshes

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building, or place, that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

Whoever would have guessed?

[Y]ou approach Rainham Marshes through a dystopian world with dozens of large lorries thundering past decrepit industrial units complete with power lines overhead. This must be one of the grimiest areas of London, the dust and fumes pervade everywhere.

Turning into the Reserve one wonders if the journey was worth it.

Then everything changes described as a vital green lung for the Thames corridor, suddenly all you can hear is birdsong. This was a day spent with my grandson recently. With a cloudless blue sky, it was the first indication of an early spring.

This ancient medieval grazing marsh bordering the mighty River Thames on the Essex borders was a Ministry of Defence firing range for nearly 100 years up until 1996 which inadvertently saved it from development. The RSPB have spent since 2000 restoring this vital green lung for the Thames corridor to its former glory. It now holds the biggest flocks of wintering dabbling duck, godwits, and curlew, of which we saw hundreds, along with buzzards and thanks to a friendly twitcher, a peregrine falcon perched high up on the electricity pylon. For the London area and is one of the easiest places to catch up with some of London’s scarcer birds.

The visitors’ centre is manned by friendly volunteers offering advice and refreshments with plenty of activities for little ones. While views through the huge picture windows offer a landscape of huge skies and the panoramic sight of the Marsh with its abundant wildlife as the Thames at this point, wide and slow-moving, drifts by with large dredger boats, with Queen Elizabeth II Crossing in the distance.

Wheelchair access and clean well-built hides gave my grandson an opportunity to see nature up close: waterfowl, water vole, and grazing cattle. With the Thames estuary along its southern flank giving a glimpse seabirds.

This is the last stretch of ancient riverside marshland inside the M25. Little has changed on this medieval freshwater march since its original reclamation from the salty Thames. A perfect day out from the hustle and bustle of London.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 7th August 2015

Royal rat catcher

The brown rat arrived in England during the 18th century and quickly supplanted the native black rat. By the end of the 19th century these creatures were swarming around the sewers and cellars of Victorian London.

Rat-catching was a popular profession among London’s poor, who were well acquainted with these creatures. In 1851, Henry Mayhew published London Labour and the London Poor, a ground-breaking examination of the condition and lives of London’s underclass. In volume III, he wrote of the lives of the ‘Street-Folk’. Here he described he life and time of Jack Black.

The first time I ever saw Mr Black was in the streets of London, at the corner of Hart Street, where he was exhibiting the rapid effects of his rat poison, by placing some of it in the mouth of a living animal. He had a cart then with rats painted on the panels, and at the tailboard, where he stood lecturing, he had a kind of stage rigged up, on which were cages filled with rats, and pills, and poison packages.

Here I saw him dip his hand into this cage of rats and take out as many as he could hold, a feat which generally caused an ‘oh!’ of wonder to escape from the crowd, especially when they observed that his hands were unbitten. Women more particularly shuddered when they beheld him place some half-dozen of the dusty-looking brutes within his shirt next his skin; and men swore the animals had been tamed, as he let them run up his arms like squirrels, and the people gathered round beheld them sitting on his shoulders cleaning their faces with their front-paws, or rising up on their hind legs like little kangaroos, and sniffing about his ears and cheeks.

But those who knew Mr Black better, were well aware that the animals he took up in his hand were as wild as any of the rats in the sewers of London, and that the only mystery in the exhibition was that of a man having courage enough to undertake the work.

[B]lack told Mayhew that he had started catching rats at the age of nine, and by the early 1840s he was rat-catcher for various government departments in London, which included the Royal Palaces occupied by the Queen. Well-trained ferrets and terriers were the tools of his trade.

Jack-Black

Like many a successful 19th-century entrepreneur, Black [right] was one-part showman. To advertise his business, he took to exhibiting in the streets wearing a striking costume of what leather breeches, a green coat and scarlet waistcoat, and a gold band round the hat, with leather belt embellished with cast iron rats worn sash-like across his body.

Rat-baiting

Not only did Black destroy the vermin, but he also supplied them for use in ratting competitions held in taverns, where terriers fought live rats [above] while their masters bet on their prowess at killing the rodents.

He appears also to have eaten them. “Moist as rabbits, and quite a nice”, was how he described them.

Black was reported to be ‘the most fearless handler of rats of any man living’, and Mayhew witnessed it himself when, at a public display, Black placed half a dozen rats (taken directly from the sewers) inside his shirt while delivering a sales pitch on the rapid effects of rat poison.

He was covered in scars and on his own account he had been at death’s door three times through rat bites.

When he caught any unusually coloured rats, he bred them to establish new colour varieties. He would sell his home-bred domesticated coloured rats as pets, mainly, ‘to well-bred young ladies to keep in squirrel cages’. In this way the keeping of domesticated rats was established.

Featured picture: Jack Black and the Wistar Rat © P. Burns Terrierman’s Daily Dose

A badger at Claridge’s

Recently I had a short break in the Cotswolds, situated a short drive from central London. With its honey coloured houses and small fields bounded by hedgerows it epitomises rural England.

We visited Sudeley Castle, a large house with links to much of England’s history including the grave of Henry VIII’s last wife and the only English Queen to be buried in a private house.

[O]wned since the 19th century by the Dent-Brocklehurst family, who manufactured gloves for Victorian ladies, the house had a large exhibition showing the house’s connection with English history and for children a room devoted to badgers. It was in the exhibition that a notice caught my attention:

Sir Philip Brocklehurst (1887-1957) the great-great-uncle of the present family at Sudeley, who went to the Antarctic with Shackleton in 1909, is the only recorded guest at Claridge’s who was allowed to bring his badger to stay with him when he came to London.

A connection with badgers clearly ran in the family, after all their surname means brockle (badger) hurst (hill).

A later descendant, Mark Dent-Brocklehurst in 1972 whilst living in Kensington brought home two baby badgers. Naturally the young charges were taken to the nursery for the children’s nanny to administer care. One badger later was given to Mark Dent-Brocklehurst’s mother at Sudeley Castle, while ‘Badgie’ resided in a comfortable kennel at their Kensington home, doing his ‘business’ in a suitable drain.

Brock-the-badgerThe family with nanny in charge would set off to Kensington Gardens on fine days to join the other nannies of titled families from this exclusive quarter in London, each pushing a crested pram. Incredibly conversation turned without hesitation to “my hasn’t he grown” as if a badger reclining in a smart perambulator was a perfectly natural occurrence.

When too old for his pram ‘Badgie’ was walked on a lead around London’s streets. He once escaped only to dig up some of the well-tended gardens of their neighbours. Later the badger was taken to Sudeley Castle only to tangle himself up in the 17th century curtains. Eventually the badger was released back into the wild.

Brock: The Tale of the Family Badger

This book tells the tale of Brock, and the badger’s life with the Dent-Brocklehurst family in the late 60’s and early 70’s, including growing up in the nursery with Mollie and Henry and subsequently coming to the live at Sudeley Castle.
Story by Elizabeth Ashcombe
Illustrated by Katie B. Morgan

A ramble in Rainham

Whoever have guessed?

You approach Rainham Marshes through a dystopian world with dozens of large lorries thundering past decrepit industrial units complete with power lines overhead. This must be one of the grimiest areas of London, the dust and fumes pervades everywhere.

Turning into the Reserve one wonders if the journey was worth it.

[T]hen everything changes, described as a vital green lung for the Thames corridor, suddenly all you can hear is birdsong. This was a day spent with my grandson recently. The weather held the promise of rain in the air and a strong wind. It didn’t matter the little lad was fascinated.

This ancient medieval grazing marsh bordering the mighty River Thames on the Essex borders was a Ministry of Defence firing range for nearly 100 years up until 1996 which inadvertently saved it from development. The RSPB have spent since 2000 restoring this vital green lung for the Thames corridor to its former glory. It now holds the biggest flocks of wintering dabbling duck, godwits and Curlew in the London area and is one of the easiest places to catch up with some of London’s scarcer birds.

The visitors’ centre is manned by friendly volunteers offering advice and refreshments with plenty of activities for little ones. While views through the huge picture windows offer a landscape of huge skies and the panoramic sight of the Marsh with the abundant wildlife as the Thames wide and slow moving drifts by, with the Queen Elizabeth II Crossing in the distance.

Wheelchair access and clean well-built hides gave my grandson his first opportunity to see nature up close: water fowl, water vole and grazing cattle. With the Thames estuary along its southern flank giving a glimpse seabirds.

This is the last stretch of ancient riverside marshland inside the M25. Little has changed on this medieval freshwater march since its original reclamation from the salty Thames. A perfect day out from the hustle and bustle of London.

Bees in the City

Have you noticed there are more bees in London? Me neither, apart from 10,000 that swarmed on a pyracantha bush at the bottom of my garden last May [see picture below].

Now I realise that we should see more bees after reading Steve Benbow’s The Urban Beekeeper, for its author is on a mission with all the zeal of an evangelist to turn the capital into an apiarist’s paradise, bringing local honey to its residents.

[H]is paternal grandparents tended bees on their smallholding in Shropshire giving Steve a taste for honey and working with the little critters. He spent years learning his craft from the master beekeepers and rural locations but felt that London could benefit from their introduction.

Removing bees Years of intensive farming had denuded the supply of nectar and pollen, and more importantly reduced the diversity of plants attracting the bees. Steve had aspirations to bring bees into London. After talking to other beekeepers from Paris, Rio and New York he moved to Bermondsey 17 years ago and set up hives behind the lift shaft on the roof of his flat.

The sky was the limit, well at least some of London’s tallest buildings. He persuaded Fortnum & Mason’s to give up roof space for the bee hives, painted in Fortnum’s trade mark duck-egg blue. For the famous grocer it seemed as if they had turned full circle.

In 1707 Hugh Mason had a small shop in St. James’s Market and a spare room in his house, which was taken by William Fortnum, a footman in Queen Anne’s household. The Royal Family’s insistence on having new candles every night left the budding entrepreneur enough wax for a sideline that gave him enough money to start what was to become the famous Piccadilly store.

Now Steve maintains hives on some of London’s greatest landmarks, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery selling local honey. Apparently London’s plant diversity makes for really good honey that varies enormously from borough to borough and Steve hopes to eventually have hives in all of London’s 32 boroughs; Dark and aromatic from Bermondsey, citrusy Westminster or the slightly bitter tones of Harrow.

The only problem with the apiarist’s success is the gruelling work load. Reading his book you realise that there is a lot more to beekeeping than jus extracting honey. To maintain hives across the capital involves heaving lifting, often at great heights, working nights, apparently it’s the best time to transport them and tending his bees throughout the year.

The chapters of his book are sub-divided into the calendar year giving an insight into his often nomadic life and the work that goes into giving us the true amber nectar.

Steve Benbow in a London roof: ©Julian Winslow