In 1999 I was pleased to be invited to take part in an environmental survey of London Underground’s tracksides. Although the deep underground tunnels in the centre of the city are best known as “The Tube”, there are over 130 km of overground tracks running out of London, from Cockfosters to Heathrow and Amersham to Upminster. Usually these linear nature reserves are inaccessible to the general public, because of safety and security concerns, but after a training course (how not to get electrocuted or hit by a train) and a medical, I was allowed pretty good access, as long as I was accompanied at all times by a safety officer.
It was a fascinating year and lots of unusual things turned up. Water voles near Roding Valley, a muntjac deer near Chesham, the enigmatic weevil (5 UK records?) Otiorhynchus dieckmanni at Elm Park and a small crop of cannabis plants at Barkingside. Some things were more sinister; rubbish was often dumped over fences and we’d been warned about discarded hypodermic needles near the end of ‘quiet’ station platforms. Several times we found handbags and briefcases which appear to have been dumped after being stolen. One series of plastic bags contained obviously important documents, including medical cards and two passports. Thinking I should act the upright citizen and hand them in to be returned to their owners I took them with me back into Central London after the day’s outing.
The British Transport Police were not very interested and, finding no record of any crime against the passport holders on their computer, they seemed unable to cope with lost property. So instead, I took them into the tube station manager’s office at Victoria. She was a little surprised to find out that I had retrieved them from the trackside, but I was wearing my bright orange London Underground high-vis jacket to prove I was ‘official’. She pored over the passports, which were slightly mouldy and had been partly nibbled by snails, only to exclaim when she saw a minute creature crawling across one of the pages. I immediately snapped it up and put it into a glass tube — Chthonius ischnocheles (Herm.) the only pseudoscorpion found during the survey.
I well remember an entomologist who, on finding a very rare beetle under part of an old shoe washed up on a saltmarsh, refused to give the exact details on the data label, writing instead: “under rejectamenta”. You’ll be relieved to know that my London Underground specimen of Chthonius is correctly labelled: “Sudbury Town, 18.x.99, In old passport, dumped, stolen goods”.
PS. I was spurred to write this in response to Chris Buddle’s recent blog: Ten facts about pseudoscorpions: