Thanks to an unseasonably chilly start to April, I was feeling a bit despondent about my challenge – did I jinx the weather with my butterfly optimism? However, with sunny days aplenty last week I decided to venture into the City in the hopes of ticking off a species for this borough. Although technically the City is a ‘local authority district’ rather than a borough, I have included it in the challenge in its own right. Broadly speaking, the area covered by the City was the original Roman settlement of Londinium and at just over 1 square mile it represents the smallest borough I have to search. With so little space and being a business and financial services hub, you might have guessed that green space is thin on the ground but I was hoping one or two of the small pocket parks and gardens dotted between the high-rises would come up trumps.
Heading out from London Bridge Station, it was still cooler than I’d expected for 11am and one factor that I hadn’t considered before is just how much shade is cast by London’s tall towers. The sun just wasn’t quite high enough to cast more than a thin sliver of light and warmth even on the bright side of the road. Thankfully my first stop, St Paul’s Cathedral, was bathed in sunlight from the window in the skyline created by Peter’s Hill and running down to the Millenium Bridge. The cathedral is surrounded by flowerbeds, lawns and a rose garden so I thought I might catch some breakfasting butterflies but, alas, the gardens are closed at the moment; I peered through the railings for a while but not a flutter in sight.
Just behind St Paul’s is the beautiful Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden whose box-edged beds reflect the original layout of pews in the Christopher Wren designed church that was largely destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1940. The flowers were chockful of bees and, rather fittingly, a wren was singing its heart out. A blackbird hopped towards me from one of the beds but this wasn’t like any blackbird I’d seen before, it was flecked with white. This paint spattered effect known as leucism is apparently quite common in dark coloured birds, but it was a first for me – what a great little wildlife hub…but unfortunately no butterflies.
I cut through the peaceful Postman’s Park, site of the former headquarters of the General Post Office which was still too cast in shadow for butterflies but I spent some time reading the plaques that make up the poignant ‘Self-Sacrifice’ memorial, remembering ordinary people who have given their lives to save others. I continued on towards the Barbican Estate, past several remaining fragments of the old Roman Wall which once surrounded Londinium. The same bombs that reduced large areas of the City to rubble were also responsible for revealing significant sections of the wall which had remained hidden for hundreds of years; this subsequently allowed for their preservation – a nugget of goodness to come out of such devastation. Butterflies can often be found basking on walls to warm their bodies up for flight, so I slowed my pace in case there were any sunbathers on the chunky limestone slabs…but not today.
The Barbican Estate is another phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Second World War and its brutalist architecture divided opinion upon its completion in 1976. I love it. Underground parking means more room has been given over to public spaces and gardens making it one of the greenest areas in the borough. The car-free, raised walkways make it a real pleasure to explore but it can be a bit confusing. I found myself spotting an area of greenery from up high and then using the next available staircase to get down to street level only to find myself nowhere near anything resembling the greenery I’d seen. I felt a bit like Jennifer Connelly in the 80s film Labyrinth where she can see her baby brother in David Bowie’s castle but whichever stairs she heads up or down she can’t seem to reach him. After a few failed attempts I found myself back at street level alongside London Wall Place, a new commercial development that includes over 780m2 of green walls. When done well, these vertical gardens provide valuable homes and nectar sources for urban insects and perfectly placed to prove this point, there it was – a pristine Peacock feeding on wallflowers in the green wall at Wall Place. I did a little yelp of joy and stood on tiptoes to get a better look. I must have seen hundreds of Peacocks but I am still always mesmerised by how beautiful they are, how much they resemble a piece of antique jewellery, and this one, right in the very heart of the City seemed extra special and really clarified just how much every inch of green space can make a difference.