I spied on the MI6 building

This is the MI6 building at Albert Embankment, Vauxhall. When I worked for a medical publisher in nearby Bondway during the mid-1980s there was a bus-stop here from which I caught the number 36 routemaster back home to Peckham each evening. There was no ziggurat-style stone and green glass building then — just a chain link fence and an overgrown derelict site.

From the bus-stop you could look a good 10 metres down into a mass of bramble, buddleja, and wild flowers growing up from the bulldozed piles of crushed brick, broken rubble and twisted metal.

One warm summer evening as I peered through the wire, down into the deep wilderness I saw someone walking through the waist-high herbage with an insect net. I couldn’t imagine how they got in there, or what they were doing. I was too far away to hail them over the traffic noise and my bus arrived shortly after.

At the time it struck me as odd that any entomologist would waste their time in such an ugly and unprepossessing place. What on Earth could be worth finding there?

Nearly forty years on and it is now obvious that they were doing exactly what I do in equally grim and dangerous places — an invertebrate survey as part of the environmental impact assessment required by law for any major construction project. And they will have found wonders.

This is now my favourite type of site — floristically diverse, well-drained, warm, dry and sparsely vegetated with plenty of areas of bare ground. And although this is not a ‘natural’ habitat the insects that turn up are those that occur on very similar well-drained, warm, dry and sparsely vegetated sites like chalk downs, heathlands, coastal cliffs and undercliffs, and sand-dune systems. And these are often warmth-loving insects with a more Mediterranean distribution, right on the very northern and western edge of their European distributions. And often very scarce here.

No brownfield site ever fails to supply me with a ready list of red data book and nationally scarce species. I wonder what that entomologist found back in the 1980s. And I wonder whether his survey is available. Or whether it’s a classified document for MI6 eyes only.


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