London Grilling with Bob Gilbert, author of ‘The Green London Way’
Bob Gilbert is a long-standing campaigner for the protection of green spaces in and around the city and a passionate supporter for inner city conservation. Based with his family in the East End, London Living bumped into Bob signing copies of his newly re-released book, The Green London Way. Bob writes regularly on green issues, with a particular focus on urban ecology and the wildlife of London.
Your book takes the reader on a 100-mile walk circling the capital. Can you detail a little how the book works and how you came to write this piece?
I wrote the first edition of the book in 1990. At that time I was a single parent living in north London with my 15 month old son. Finding it harder to get away on weekend walking trips, I took to putting him on my back and exploring the streets around the area where we lived. Then I got the idea of putting them together into a continuous circuit. The thought that urban walking could be hugely enjoyable was a new and, to many people, a surprising one at the time and I had to overcome some initial scepticism. But what I wanted to show was the rich variety of wildlife that can be found even in the heart of a massive urban area. It was as I was exploring the walks that I became more and more interested in the social history of London and in the lost stories of ordinary Londoners -and began to realise the rich vein to be mined in exploring this relationship between our social history and our natural history. The route itself, 110 miles of it in the new edition, links parks, woodlands, commons, canal tow paths, riverside routes and abandoned railways in a circuit beginning and ending next to the Olympic Park at Stratford. But you don’t have to do it all in one go! It’s divided into 18 separate walks of manageable length, and each with good transport links at the beginning and end.
The wildlife of London is a topic you focus on in the book. What London wildlife would our readers be surprised to hear about?
The most surprising thing is actually the enormous variety of wildlife to be found throughout our densely populated capital city; from urban ferns and foxes through to the plants that grow from the cracks in pavements. London even has its own specialities; the black redstart, the stag beetle, the peregrine falcon and the nesting colonies of cormorant, to give just a few examples. But what really appeals to me is the strange juxtapositions that you come across if you really keep your eyes open; a heronry set in a central London park, a skylark singing above an old gas holder, a pheasant feeding on a scruffy allotment site or a sand martin nesting in a hole in the concrete bank of a London canal. London is famous, of course, for its wonderful array of open spaces and these provide a fabulous ecological resource, but we should never forget that just about every one of them has had to be fought for -sometimes literally- at some time or other. And we also tend to overlook the fact that as well as our parks and open spaces, our ‘brownfield’ sites and ‘waste’ spaces are actually very important ecological sites and that even the style of housing we live in plays a part. I am very concerned that much of the new development we are putting up so rapidly is actually a very sterile environment by comparison.
You also show an avid interest in botany: what are London’s most interesting plants and flowers?
London’s botanical diversity is one of its greatest treasures and again we have some very interesting specialities. And here I do have a favourite. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, a small yellow flowered cress grew up suddenly, and in such abundance, that it was believed to have regenerated itself directly from the ashes. It even became known by the name of ‘London rocket’. It is not nearly so common now but still hangs on in all sorts of unlikely places, like the small fragment of Roman wall immediately outside Tower Hill tube station, for example. It is probably commonest in the East End -which leads me to point out that Stratford also has its own speciality. The lesser elder or ‘danewort’ is a plant that grows four or five foot high with panacles of attractive white flowers and a crop of black berries which, unlike those on its close relative the common elder, are poisonous. It is scarce in most of the country but springs up in some abundance on the sides of the Greenway, along the waterways or in other ‘waste’ places that are now a part of the Olympic Park. In fact it is one of the ironies of the Olympic park site that while we have been sowing masses of introduced ‘wild’ flowers, we have been removing the habitat of a national rarity that occurs naturally.
Your book was originally published some time ago in 1991 before its re-release – presumably you’ve had to make huge changes in that time. What are the most prominent?
London is a living and dynamic city and, unsurprisingly, the changes since 1991 have been enormous. And they have been both good and bad. On the positive side, urban walking is now much more recognised than it was twenty years ago and this has led to the opening up, or improvement, of many more walking routes -such as the New River Path, stretches alongside the River Ravensbourne and the major route following the River Wandle. On the negative side, it is disturbing to see how much new development is being done without any sense of ‘place’. While the rest of the country has been undergoing a recession London has been witnessing a building boom that has led to many of its locations being replaced with ‘identikit’ building blocks and gated estates. The most obvious place to see this is along the riverside, parts of which are now just one long housing development with such little local character that it is impossible to tell whether you are in East Greenwich, North Woolwich or Blackwall.
I should also say that the wildlife of London has also changed significantly over this time. Some of our commonest species, such as the house sparrow, starling and house martin, have declined significantly, but it has not all been bad news and one of the good developments has been that the cleaner air has led to a great increase in both urban ferns and lichens. The most noticeable change, however, and one which actually thrusts itself on your attention is this; that twenty years ago free living flocks of ring-necked parakeets were still a curiousity restricted to particular parts of the city. Today they are everywhere and while rewalking the route it seemed to me that in many parts of London, the natural sound I was most likely to hear was their insistent screeching.
There are so many beautiful sites that it would be almost invidious to chose between them; Greenwich Park, Walthamstow Marshes, Cazenove Park, Lesnes Abbey Woods, Hampstead Heath, and many more, are all such special places. And we shouldn’t overlook the smaller sites that are so important to their own local communities and that you sometimes stumble across like well-hidden gems. I can, however, tell you my most enjoyable experience whilst rewalking the Green London Way. It was, having crossed Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park, to reach the steep slopes beyond Pembroke Lodge that lead down to the riverside, and to do it at dusk just as a rosy pink light was infusing the pine studded hillside and the panoramic view over the Thames valley and off to the Surrey hills beyond. Pure magic!