Islington is not a green borough. It has the lowest ratio of green space to built-up area in London. However, in terms of number of green spaces it ranks highly with just over 100 individual green spaces equating to approximately one for every 2377 people. There is an absence of large swathes of green space here but there is an abundance of smaller public greens and community gardens, many of which sprung up in the 1970s to combat the lack of greenery and have been tended by local residents ever since. These widespread, mini habitat islands across a borough can actually be quite helpful in allowing populations of butterflies and other invertebrates to spread, so I hoped to catch sight of a few species on this meander through south Islington.
My walk began at the buzzing Fortune Street park, a well-used community park, saved from development and created after the area was devastated during the Blitz. Unfortunately, the dry, cold April (the third coldest since records began in 1884) had left the park, like many green spaces, a bit barren and devoid of the nectar that would attract butterflies.
I moved on to Bunhill Fields, a nondenominational burial ground that serves as the resting place for many notable figures including Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress) and William Blake (author and poet). I was immediately struck by how much wilder this space was than the park I had just left. Bird feeders dangled from many of the trees and were regularly visited by tinkling Goldfinches and fidgety Blue Tits. Between the crumbling headstones lay a carpet of wildflowers - a pantone chart of bluey purples provided by Green Alkanet, Violets and Bluebells with splashes of gold from nodding cowslips and dandelion clusters. I think William Blake would have approved; one of his most famous and arguably most prophetic works, Auguries of Innocence, laments humans’ need to look after our world and the creatures within it and fittingly begins:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wildflower
It felt like the ideal place for butterflies. But no. I spent ages walking around the various paths and sitting on the well-placed benches but not a flutter. I kept thinking - if this were a chapter in Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles, I would just be giving up hope and then a butterfly would appear, and probably land on my hand or something else equally magical. I even pretended to give up hope a couple of times and headed towards the gate whilst sneaking side-eye glances, but they were having none of it. Eventually, I did admit defeat. Sometimes butterfly spotting can be like that, everything can feel so perfect and butterfly-y but for whatever reason they don’t show up; it was a delightful place for such a disappointment though.
I headed north-west towards King Square Gardens, famous for featuring in the 1979 video for Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall Part 2. Mostly made up of children’s play areas and sports fields, it is also dotted with blossom trees and sweet-smelling viburnums. The only trouble with blossom trees whilst butterfly spotting is that every puff of wind sends petals aflutter, and these can look remarkably like white butterflies. After a couple of petal-shaped false starts a flash of blue flitted past and I hot-footed after it. It settled on a nearby Cotoneaster bush and my suspicions were confirmed – a Holly Blue, my first of the year. In London, at this time of year, if you see a blue butterfly, you can be more or less certain that it is a Holly Blue, later in the summer, things get a bit more confusing with several other possibilities. Holly Blues are unique amongst British butterflies in that they have two broods per year each of which has a different primary larval foodplant. The spring brood feed mostly on Holly while the summer brood feed mostly on Ivy. They never fully open their wings and most often rest, as this one did, with wings tightly closed exposing their silvery, speckled underwings. I was so convinced that I would tick off a white species in Islington so the Holly Blue came as a complete surprise and I left King Square Gardens grinning from ear to ear.
My walk then took me through Spa Fields, a chunky crescent of park next to Exmouth Market, where I did find the whites I had been expecting, Small Whites dancing around some brassicas. Office workers enjoying their lunch breaks watched bemusedly as I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a photo of them before moving on.
One of my favourite spots on this walk was where I arrived next, Bevin Court (top picture). This modernist housing project was designed and realised by Berthold Lubetkin who was part of the Tecton group responsible for many modernist projects across London including the penguin pool at London Zoo. The ceiling fan-shaped design with three arms radiating from a central staircase is very unusual and must have dominated the area upon its completion in 1954 but now many of the trees planted at the time have matured and match or exceed the building’s height. Large areas of wildflower ‘meadows’ have been allowed to develop around the main entrance and I’ve since discovered these are tended by a residents’ gardening group. Even the recycling bins had a storage area with a green roof. It felt like a real green oasis and an inspiration for how newer housing developments in the capital could provide biodiverse habitats that local people can enjoy and that they want to help thrive.