Author Archives: Richard Jones

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.

Shieldbugs are simple things, but still fascinating

I’ve always been drawn to the more obscure insects — small, insignificant specks that can only be appreciated down the microscope. Part of this is, I admit, my elitist snobbery, but it’s also a response to the easily available images of bright and showy creatures to be found everywhere. It’s a claim that there is much, much, more to entomology than the usual butterflies, moths, bumblebees and dragonflies, and that it’s all right to stare intently through the hand lens at a grey 3-mm picture-wing fly in a glass tube and enthuse about its one- or two-marked costa and its semaphore wing signals. Insects are so bewilderingly diverse and numerous, and they dominate this end of the size spectrum.

But it is still fine to be fascinated by some of the larger stuff.

So it is that I have just about finished the New Naturalist volume on shieldbugs. With only about 80 species in the British Isles and most of them easily identifiable on sight, or from a photograph, I’d rarely had cause to examine them closely until now; I’d normally just note the species names in the field notebook and move on. But shieldbugs are lovely. Why else would we give them such an elegant heroic heraldic name? Sure enough, they are glossy, chunky, often large and brightly coloured, and suitably shield-shaped. Shieldbugs have a regal and aristocratic air about them. My stylish pentatomid-design enamel lapel badge often draws comments because its obvious shield shape looks as if it could be the emblem of some noble family. It is, of course, but not necessarily in the way most people imagine.

Occasionally I’d pick one up and hold it in my cupped hands. Shieldbugs give off a slightly rancid marzipan smell produced from chemicals in the thoracic glands just above the back legs. This tastes bitter in the beak of any bird foolish enough to try and eat one, but I can’t resist sniffing my fingers to savour this evocative smell. Sometimes, however, one shunts out something a bit stronger.

In the autumn of 1992 Catrina and I took a last-minute adventurous holiday to Costa Rica. A few days in, and we had driven our small hire car to the tiny town of Quepos on the Pacific coast with a view to visiting the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio the next day in search of tree sloths, agouti, white-faced monkeys and hummingbirds. We saw them all, but being an entomologist my lingering memory of the place (shortly after the sloth sighting) is of a loud rattling buzz as a large insect flew over my head. Without a thought, I jumped up and caught it in my bare hands. It was a huge orange shieldbug, probably one of the Edessa species so diverse there in the Neotropics. I held it gently, as I had done for many large insects, but it did not recognize my friendly behaviour and immediately exuded a copious amount of defensive chemical from its thoracic glands. Ordinarily I would have savoured the delicate almond aroma I knew from shieldbugs back home in England, but I was surprised to see my thumb completely stained a rich ochre brown. There was none of the accompanying pungent smell that I had come to associate with shieldbugs, but my skin was marked, immovably, for the next five days. It was quite unnerving to think of the chemical power from this insect, particularly as I’d always thought of plant bugs as being at the mild end of the insect danger spectrum. I’d like to be able to say that I was chastened by this episode, more circumspect in my future dealings with large tropical insects, but this was not the case; I continue my cavalier pick-it-up-and-see-what-happens attitude.

A few years later, demonstrating insects to small children at a local environmental event at the annual Nunhead Cemetery Open Day, I took great delight in getting my visitors to smell the mating pairs of the small bronze shieldbug Eysarcoris venustissimus, which many of them were bringing to the bug-identification stall. Holding them in the palm of my left hand I gave the still-conjoined shieldbug couples a rude poke with my right index finger and held them out to the noses of my audience. Sometimes I was given a screwed-up face of disgust; sometimes an amazed eyes-wide-open recognition from those who knew what a cocktail of almonds and diesel smelled like. But mostly what I got, by the end of the day, was a memory of that Costa Rican encounter when I noticed that following the repeated prod-and-sniff performances my left palm was marked with streaks of vague brown stain that would not be washed away. The home-grown shieldbugs, smaller, less loaded with bodily secretions, nevertheless had the same ability to tan my hide, albeit in a more subdued and gentle fashion. Despite these assaults on my epidermis, I remain unafraid of shieldbugs and continue to handle them as gently as I can. Plenty of the photos in this book are of shieldbugs crawling over my hand, or held gently between finger and thumb. Thankfully my fingers have never been tested so again.

I have a small collection of shieldbugs. Despite many being large and distinctive, there are still several that require close examination under the microscope. Sadly my first collected specimen seems not to have survived — according to my original manuscript catalogue it was specimen number 130 Acanthosoma dentatum. I found it on our family holiday to Prospect Farm Caravan Park (Caravan number 90), Swanage, on 17 August 1969. My Dad probably helped me to name it; I was only eleven. It’s a common birch-feeder now called Elasmostethus interstinctus. It is no longer in my collection; nor are 180 Piezodorus lituratus, Denton, 31 August 1969, or 626 Syromastes (Coreus) marginatus, St Lawrence, Isle of Wight, 20 June 1971. I suspect they all fell to the ravages of the museum beetle, Anthrenus verbasci. This notorious pest feeds on animal fibres in carpets (it’s also called carpet beetle) and as its name suggests it is an important nuisance in museums feeding on the preserved remains of stuffed animals and birds, and pinned insect specimens. It is against this critter that well-constructed cork-and paper-lined drawers with close-fitting framed glass lids are made to house insect collections. This level of workmanship does not come cheap and before I could afford my first proper insect cabinet I used a series of four small unglazed drawers in a flimsy desk-top cabinet more likely to have been made for stationery or knick-knacks. And I paid the price.

Shieldbugs is, apparently, due out in July. Here are a few random sample pages.

Today’s favourite beetle

There is no mistaking the inky blue-black domed form of Timarcha tenebricosa — the bloody nose beetle. I let out a little squeal of joy when the 17-year-old bent down and scooped this up from the grass at the edge of the track through Chysauster Ancient Village, Cornwall, a couple of days ago.

This is an insect from my childhood, and no walk over the Sussex South Downs (literally out the door and up the hill) was complete unless we’d found one of them bumbling through the herbage. Occasionally we’d find the equally inky blue-black and slightly oily-looking larvae feeding on goose grass or bedstraw, and more than once we took some home to rear through to adulthood.

The first time I picked one up, slightly roughly as a 6-year-old I guess, it exuded so much red liquor that I half thought it was my own blood, and that the beast had bitten me. That startle factor may well have been part of its defensive ploy — together with the bitter taste, which I did not try until much later in my life.

So much part of our lives were these insects that one even featured in the bedtime stories my Dad told us; along with Willie Stag Beetle, his wife Agatha, and Leggyleg the centipede, Ermintrude Squiggle was often called upon to write some secret message using her own bright red blood. Yes, I know that sounds rather gothic now, but these were just everyday tales of insect folk, for us, back in the day.

We were very gentle with Mr Squiggle (large broad front feet = male) at Chysauster and no haemolymph was spilled or secreted. After much admiration and some publicity stills he was sent waddling his clockwork way off through the flowery sward.

I don’t collect stamps but …

In 1962 the world’s postal services (not the UK’s Royal Mail though!) supported the United Nations ‘World United Against Malaria‘ campaign — a concerted effort to focus attention and funds onto a disease killing half a million people a year in some of the world’s poorest countries. Stamp producers came back with a wealth of eye-catching designs.

Italy’s showed lauded malaria researcher Giovanni Battista Grassi, who along with Britain’s Ronald Ross isolated the blood parasite from mosquitoes. The Cuban three showed the Plasmodium parasites under the microscope, the mosquito vector and chemical quinine. Kenya’s, rather disturbingly, showed a malaria victim looking very ill, with a horrid halo of the malaria infection cycle around his head. Mali’s were the brightest, showing a series of informative tableaux for the benefit of the malaria-stricken letter-senders of the country. On a lighter note, the Vanuatu series depicted a horse-rider (fund-raising charity races), an aeroplane (‘on a mercy mission’), a bright new ambulance, and a ‘mosquito-eradicated’ sign. Hidden among the stamp designs is the occasional error of printing so highly valued by collectors. On the green 100f from Republique de Guinée a few were printed with the black mosquito upside down.

I finally came across one on eBay. More than the 50p the original ‘correct’ printing cost me, but still only a few pounds.

The legs-up death pose makes a silent, optimistic and very moving statement.

It’s my standard line — “I did a survey there”

It’s become a bit of a clichéed joke in my family that whenever we’re out and about I can point casually out of the car window and claim “I’ve done a survey there, you know”. Part of the reason for the hiatus in this blog is that I have been busy out on field survey visits since April. This year I found myself at a site that I had not surveyed before, nevertheless, I knew of the place, in a reverse sort of way, from almost forgotten family history.

Travelling by train to Hampton Court Station to visit nearby Hurst Park, I see from the map that this block of land, next to the Thames, opposite Hampton Court Palace is called Cigarette Island, named, so the interpretation boards tell, after a large and impressive houseboat so called, which used to be moored here. I know that boat. My Dad used to live aboard.

Dad was always rather quiet about his past. He wasn’t one to regale us with tales of when he was a boy. I knew he’d lived on a houseboat at one point, but the exact details were sketchy until he wrote a short autobiography — a prelude to an explanation of his botanical records, diaries and notebooks which were to go to the Library of the Natural History Museum on his death. It was in this brief document that he described and named the boat.

“My mother was Henriette Lucy Jones neé Luxton who came from Yorkshire and my father Reginald Bernard Jones described as ‘blacksmith (journeyman)’ on my birth certificate, although as this was the time of the slump I gathered he did any jobs he could find. We were poorly off and at one stage my father, mother and I lived on a long houseboat called The Cigarette described as ‘Dr Walford Bodie’s Floating Palace Houseboat, The Lawns, Thames Ditton, Surrey (opposite Hampton Court Palace)’ on a post-card that I have.”

“My father was in some way a caretaker on board whilst it was empty, presumably temporarily. It had, as far as I can remember, kitchen, dining room, about five bedrooms and a long lounge/ conservatory and had bridges connecting it to the land at each end. Unfortunately this was my father’s undoing for in March 1934 he went out on the ledge that went all the way round the houseboat to get a loaf out of the River Thames with a broom for the swans and must have fallen in. I gave the alarm (at the age of four and a half) “Daddy’s in the water”. He drowned.”

“My sister was born two days later. From then onwards we were even poorer, with my mother going out to do office cleaning, supplemented by a government widow’s pension of 18 shillings a week. Sometimes we lived in one room (three of us, always in London). I looked after myself from the age of 6, with a front-door key. I think someone looked after my sister. They were hard times, but we knew no other.”

Apparently The Cigarette, was originally owned by Sir Henry Foreman (1852-1924), Member of Parliament and Mayor of Hammersmith. According to the Molesey History Society website, it and the other boats were given notice to quit in October 1931 and this is presumably when it took up its new mooring a few hundred metres away downriver at The Lawns in Thames Ditton. When he was alive my father never mentioned Walford Bodie (1869-1939), but the inernet is awash with his exploits as celebrity, showman, hypnotist, entrepreneur, and quack doctor who mock-electrocuted people on stage and made all sorts of medicinal claims about his galvanizing ‘treatment’. According to the Wikipedia entry on Bodie, his houseboat was actually called La Belle Electra, a name also used by his glamorous onstage assistant, who may or may not have been his sister-in-law. Who knows, maybe the boats were one and the same, renamed under new ownership?

Today there are still expensive houseboats on the River, but these are a kilometre further upstream opposite Hurst Park. I cannot find the post-card Dad mentions but have a vague memory of a black and white image of a vessel something like a smaller version of the Mississippi paddle steamers you sometimes see in westerns. Today The Lawns offer gentle views across the River Thames to Hampton Court Palace. A place of quiet reflection, to contemplate times gone, things half remembered, and people never met.

I’m not the only one finger-tip searching

On a bright and sunny 9 June 2004, I left London down the A2, exited through Strood, across the Rochester Bridge, and turned sharp left into the bluntly named Gas House Road. Parking near the gas storage holders, I emerged from the car to find, not the rolling Kent countryside, but a post-industrial landscape of derelict warehouses, disintegrating riverside wharfs, and piles of bulldozed rubble. Acres of old tarmac lay crumbling beneath broken street lights and straggly bramble bushes; there were several burnt-out cars, and fly-tipping by the lorry-load had been carried out on a criminal scale. A perfect place to look for insects.

This may not be everyone’s idea of prime habitat, but the brownfields of South Essex and North Kent, now grandly titled the Thames Gateway, have revealed many invertebrate wildlife wonders over the last 25 years. The crushed brick and concrete from buildings demolished long ago has become mingled with a meagre topsoil, and nature has taken back what was once her own. It’s hot and well-drained, but sparse vegetation sprouts, just enough to give a delicious softening green haze to the harsh edges of half-buried foundations and crumbling walls.

Rochester Castle overlooks prime wildlife habitat as far as I’m concerned.

Brownfields are poorly named — this, like many, was a riot of colour as sea aster, ox-eye daisy, yellow hawkbit, bristly ox-tongue and yarrow flowers vied for my attention. And with the wild flowers, more diverse than on ancient chalk downland, come the insects: this is why I was here.

Anticipation was high, and my excitement was soon justified. A green hairstreak, living up to its name, dashed past at full pelt over a sunlit corner of bramble flowers, and a six-belted clearwing moth flitted by soon after. The tiny round yellow fly, Gymonsoma nitens, was visiting the white flowers of wild carrot. A parasite of shieldbugs, it was thought to be virtually extinct in Britain until it was found in the Gateway — it’s now a regular.

Brownfields are particularly good for ground beetles; they thrive on the hot sunny ground. I soon adopted the standard entomological pose — head down, bum in the air, scrabbling with my fingers in the crumbly root-thatch and loose soil. This being an official environmental survey I decided to put in some pitfall traps for them — plastic disposable cups, tops set in flush to the ground to catch whatever might fall in. Unfortunately, the broken rubble was completely defeating my garden trowel. Undeterred, I started to use my sheath knife, the one with the stout 20-cm blade. On my knees, using bone-jarring double-handed stabs into the hard ground I was making some headway when I noticed I was being watched by a smartly dressed man carrying a clip-board.

Not the knife I use to cut the apple in my packed lunch.

I stopped and looked up, thinking he must be a planner or engineer connected to the proposed redevelopment of the site. He introduced himself: he was a police detective. A body had recently been hauled from the River Medway nearby, those uniformed men over there were the finger-tip search team examining the area where the sawn-off shotgun had been found, and I was in the middle of a murder enquiry.

The Rochester Police search line.

Trying not to look too guiltily at the large Bowie knife in my hands, I explained what I was doing. He was mildly interested, but unconcerned. Maybe, though, I could keep a look out, during my own hands-and-knees searches, for anything that might be helpful to their enquiries. I unhesitatingly agreed.

Needless to say, I spent the rest of my time in Rochester in a state of heightened wariness. Now I can make light of it, but I’m still thankful I didn’t find anything more suspicious than a drift of bee orchids and a nationally scarce tortoise bug. Oh, and there were several interesting ground beetles.

In case of emergency — break glass

I’m not sure what sort of emergency will see me needing 50 Mexican pesos in a hurry. Nevertheless, this is the latest bit of framed entomological ephemera to grace the wall of my office. The entomological bit is small, but fascinating.

Cincuenta pesos y tres mariposas.

The reverse of this note shows three butterflies in celebration of the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, a natural wonder when it hibernates in the oyamel firs in a small valley in central Mexico in such numbers that it is known to break limbs from the trees under the sheer weight of the insects. Although locals in the valley knew of the Monarchs’ appearance each year, it is only since 1975 that this phenomenon has been widely known to the outside world. It is already being threatened by human encroachment and interference as logging takes its toll on the forested hillsides and eco-tourism makes the once isolated site more vulnerable to disturbance.

The Monarch had already been celebrated on Mexican stamps, and on an earlier bank note in 2000, but when this note was issued in 2004 it contained an artistic blunder. One of the three butterflies was not a Monarch, it was a different species the Viceroy, Limenitis archippus, in a wholly different subfamily.

The Viceroy (upper left) has a continuous black band across the marginal cells of the hind wing. The Monarch (bottom right) has markings bordering groups of wing cells.

Similarly shaped and similarly coloured, it was once thought that the Viceroy was a mimic of the poison-packed and warningly coloured monarch, but it turns out it is equally foul-tasting to predators and the matching colour scheme benefits both species by emphasizing the dangers to any bird foolish enough to try and take a bite. Just as predators might mistake the two butterflies, so too did the Banco de México artist when seeking source material for the design. The note was altered in subsequent printings.

As soon as I read about this, I thought it would be an interesting item to have framed in my office. I already have a fine array of insect stamps, post-cards, cigarette cards and other assorted collectibles. It would demonstrate the use of insects on national bank notes, butterfly mimicry, and how easy it is for artists and picture editors (even in one of the most quality-conscious sectors of the print industry) to muddle the species and make mistakes.

Originally I tried to just print off a copy of the note from an online picture. The quality and resolution was good enough that a framed picture would look just like the real thing. It didn’t really have to be the real thing, after all, it was simply a decorative object. But I could not get it to work. No matter what I tried I kept getting an error message “reading pixels failed” and a blank piece of paper was ejected from the ink-jet printer. What was going on?

Nothing to do with tech-failure, or butterflies; I had not run out of ink or lost wireless connection to my HP Deskjet, I had stumbled on an anti-counterfeiting mechanism built into my computer and/or the printer. It turns out that there is a series of markers (The EURion or Omron rings) in this case decorative orange circles, arranged a bit like recurring orion constellations or quincunxes, which are an internationally recognized sign only used in the printing of bank notes and which trigger a failure if anyone tries to print out from their home computer. Have a look on the fivers in your wallet and there they are.

I’ve been looking for this note ever since, and finally tracked one down on eBay for £4.50. Mint condition. Bargain. I photocopied the obverse though, so my printer isn’t quite up to exact EURion cancellation calibration.

The move to the country

Torendo, 11 Station Road, captured by local artist George Sims, showing a deceptively vehicle-free street, as it no doubt was in July 1968.

When my family moved from urban terraced Croydon to a sunny detached house in Newhaven, in Sussex, in 1965, the great vistas of the South Downs, Sussex Weald and English Channel were laid out before us, and we leapt at them with extensive family rambles most Saturdays and Sundays from March to October. Before we owned a car those family trips took the form of picnic hikes over the Downs  — quite literally just out the door and up the hill. Or we’d take short journeys by bus and train to Friston Forest near Eastbourne, Mount Caburn on the outskirts of Lewes, or particularly the famous Victorian naturalists’ destination, the Abbot’s Wood complex at Polegate. But for my 6-year-old mind, just stepping into the garden was an adventure.

Our Croydon house (15 Suffolk Road, South Norwood) was a corner end-of-terrace. It had three floors and four bedrooms, but it only had a tiny courtyard garden. Mum could water the whole thing by angling a short 1-metre stretch of thick hosepipe out of the window, from the kitchen tap, and using her thumb over the end to squirt the tiny rug of lawn and the narrow surrounding flower bed. My tricycle took three pushes on the pedals to get from one corner of the side passage, where the old washing machine was gradually filling with rain water, to the door of the coal shed, or whatever the dim airless former outside toilet was now used to store.

But I thought Torendo was a palace. It had a broad staircase with elegant dark-wood acorn-topped newel posts and a polished curving banister rail, and at the half-landing there was a bloody great stained glass window. I’d only ever seen things like this in a church or a manor house. I was agog. Nobody really knew where it had come from, or why it was there. My Dad had got the notion that it showed three of Apollo’s muses, but he’d never showed a great knowledge of classical literature or art on which to base this. Who knows? The story had also gone that the original builder had scavenged different sized doors and windows to fit the place out, and so the leaded glass had probably come from some sort of scrap yard — architectural salvage it’d be called nowadays.

It was quite a few years before I realized that stained glass windows like this don’t often feature in standard family homes.

The house was one of the oldest buildings on Mount Pleasant, the hill above Denton Corner, and on old Ordnance Survey maps it could be seen, a lone square grey spot, just up the hill from the Ouse flood plane and the sweep of the A259 Eastbourne-to-Brighton coast road, passing below. It occupied a large plot over which its white cube form presided regally. At least it did until we bought it. Just before us, the house and grounds had been bought by a developer, a Mr Fish, who lived further up Station Road. He’d then severed off two plots of land down the hill of Station Road and two plots along Beresford Road, on which four new houses would be built, leaving the Torendo we bought now in a much reduced square of land in the corner.

An aerial photo of the house in its original large corner plot. This can only have been taken a year or two before we moved in.

When we moved, the only signs of these future houses were some meagre wire fences and the trenches now filled with concrete foundations. Needless to say I went exploring, fascinated by the offcuts of reinforcing steel, rubble remains of some demolished outbuilding, and the large buddleja bushes abuzz with bees and hoverflies and the occasional red admiral butterfly. Building site security is a bit more stringent nowadays.

Torendo was named, apparently, for a previous owner’s three children, taking the first few letters of their names — Tom, Renie and Donald. In its heyday it had been a bed-and-breakfast guest house. The original painted metal sign, long mouldering in the loft, now hangs in my living room and still proudly announces its credentials. The TORENDO typeface, with its mid-line swash detailing is similar to that used on BONANZA and RAWHIDE, the famous western TV series of the 1950s and 60s, and was presumably meant to give the place an exotic air. When the new houses were built in Torendo’s former garden, number 3 of the 4 of them was called Tol Pereth, perhaps having a West Country sound to it, but it was actually an anagram of ‘plot three’.

A very 1930s colour scheme.

When we first arrived I also remember a series of large wood and hard-board signs in the shed; they were battleship grey, painted with white block letters proclaiming, vertically: ICES, TEAS and OPEN. I guess they were propped up against trees or road signs down on the main road, to entice passing traffic to stop over for light luncheon refreshments.

At first, the garden was like a jungle. The house had been unoccupied for many months and even when we bought it we didn’t move in for some time until Dad’s office finally relocated from London to Lewes; this was the motivation for our move to Newhaven in the first place. A massive privet bush, 3 or 4 metres high, in the middle of the garden, made a fine den for my brother and me to play in and an old apple tree outside the kitchen door afforded good views past the house to the grazing meadows that stretched away off towards the sea. The garden was dominated by red valerian, growing out of the broken concrete paths and thin soil just a few centimetres deep over the solid chalk rock. Of a summer evening it smelled strongly, and attracted hummingbird hawks and other moths, and above the roof any outfliers were picked off by the clouds of bats that thronged around the lamppost on the pavement nearby. I was in awe of these animals’ aerial prowess as they flapped about madly like deranged black handkerchiefs, scattering flurries of disembodied insect wing fragments.

Mr Sims’s rear view of the house, showing the stained-glass window, but also the disreputable shed and some attractive drain pipes.

The garden clearance started piecemeal each weekend as Mum and Dad found the time. The privet thicket was felled and a couple of old china butler sinks were set in as ponds — soon colonized by frogs, dragonflies, damsels and water boatmen. Digging the thin earth became an adventure too, as the ground everywhere was littered with large spent rifle shells and the occasional impressive live bullet. Prior to the D-Day landings just over two decades earlier, the house had been a billet for Canadian infantry and they must have been target-practising regularly. Every so often Dad and I would take the live rounds and hand them over the counter at the police station in Newhaven. Here it was, on the community noticeboard, I first saw the ‘wanted’ posters for Colorado beetle, the potential potato pest insect that had recently become unassailably established in Europe, and about which British farmers were rightly concerned. The cartoon style watercolour showed the shining striped and domed adult beetle, and its blobby plasticine-like larvae busy demolishing a ragged-looking potato crop. It seemed a peculiar juxtaposition to be handing over murderous ammunition under its gaze. Not that I really knew much about police work — my information came from Dixon of Dock Green and the occasional gossip from my police inspector uncle about vandalism on North Kent farms or a bungled robbery in a village post office.

That year we arrived, 1965, had seen one of the hardest winters in living memory. Unoccupied because we were not moving down until Dad’s office relocation was complete, one of the water pipes in the bathroom had frozen and with the thaw it burst and leaked, bringing down the kitchen ceiling. It also damaged the cheap veneer parquet-style flooring that covered the floorboards downstairs. All that had to come up and the ceiling had to be replastered before the house was habitable. My Dad being a hoarder, salvageable bits of the parquet were knocking about in the shed for years afterwards. They were all pretty bashed up, not just with water-staining, but from the dimple puncture marks of countless stiletto heals — the results of wild dance parties organized by those Canadian soldiers, we were informed.

With the repairs done we finally moved in May. I have no memory of the removals lorry, partly because I was not there when they packed up. But I do clearly remember my arrival in our new home. On the day before the move, Dad and I came down by train and we camped in the empty house overnight. The tiny box room, my sister’s bedroom for all the time I lived there, had a built-in wooden cot-type bed, with cupboards and drawers underneath it. This was where Dad slept. I was on the camp bed next to him. Goodness knows how anybody ever went camping in those days. This ostensibly moveable bit of furniture was actually a heavy and unwieldy contraption of thick articulated wooden struts and a sagging slung hammock of stiff hessian cloth and webbing. Maybe you were supposed to have a sherpa or a bearer to carry it about for you? Two perhaps. Anyway, fish and chips from the local shop for dinner and an off-the-cuff bedtime story about Willie Stag Beetle and his family, and I was nearly out. But I’d forgotten my cuddly toys. Never mind, hero Dad to the rescue as he brought them out of his rucksack — the unimaginatively named Dog and my broken-nosed threadbare teddy Patch. Calm resumed.

We soon settled into a routine of household life. Every morning my mum would come down to the kitchen and rake out some of the slag from the square, grey, coke-burning stove that heated our water. I never quite understood why it ran on a different fuel from the coal of the open fires elsewhere in the house; we had to have two concrete storage bunkers outside to separate them. Strange that I should recall a dirty, antiquated and slightly dilapidated boiler, except that I remember it was made by the Glow-worm brand. On the front it had a metal serial-number plate adorned with a logo which I immediately knew was a very anatomically incorrect caterpillar/ worm type thing with happy bulbous eyes and a shining light-bulb tail. Ever seen an indignant know-it-all 6-year-old? That was me.

Because we never really knew the house with its former grounds still intact, I never felt hard done by or resentful that we only had limited space to play. Anyway, we had the South Downs at our back and the ditch-lined meadows below. Within minutes we could be collecting sheep snails from the chalk hillsides, chasing clouded yellow butterflies across the clifftops, or picking out crabs and sea slaters from under the muddy rocks that edged the creek down at Tide Mills. So many worlds were our oysters, and there were pearls aplenty.

An aside on church visits

I like old churches, I like them very much indeed. Which is something of a paradox for someone who is very strongly atheist. I think it’s because I find a familiarity in them which, despite my views on organized religion, I do not find threatening. They also have, for me, an aura of nostalgia. This is not the all-too-frequent nationalist yearning for some imagined Miss Marple England; it is a genuine series of memories from my childhood during the late 1960s.

When our family moved from terraced urban Croydon to a bright detached house at the foot of the South Downs in Newhaven in May 1965, my father’s natural history wanderlust took the family hiking across the hills, squelching across the flood plains of the nearby Ouse, and padding deep into the woods of the Weald. This was a time before we owned a car, so all these weekend rambles were by bus and train. Heading off was a quick march down to the Number 12 bus-stop at Denton Corner, or along the Drove Road to Newhaven Town Station to catch our scheduled train to Lewes and beyond.

We’d head to Friston Forest, Abbot’s Woods, Vert Wood, Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters, the South Downs escarpment from Itford to Willingdon, and the meandering valley of the River Cuckmere from Alfriston to the sea. At the end of the day we’d amble back to the bus stop to head home. This would inevitably be in one of the endless tiny villages and hamlets that dotted the area, and in the half hour or so that we waited for the small green and white charabanc to appear, we’d inevitably take a turn round the local churchyard to eye up lichens on the pollution-free gravestones and filmy ferns betopping the ancient flint-and-mortar walls. We might even pop inside to admire the stained-glass windows or browse the local history exhibited on the memorials lining the nave.

Lullington was one of many claiming to be the smallest church in England, at only a few metres square it could hold (barely) a congregation of a couple of dozen people. Beddington had sheep grazing around the stones to save the warden the time and effort of scything. The tower at Jevington had a feral honeybee colony, with an endless flight of workers coming and going from an air vent or hole in the brickwork high up one face. It’s probably still there.

Most of these churches were all or part Norman, flint walls with pointed  arches on doors and windows, although most had been added to, repaired, restructured, or rebuilt in the subsequent 9 centuries. Some retained Saxon features, or floorplan, or some notion of pre-conquest religiosity. I always thought there was a pagan power in the glistening silica of the napped flint, a stone from an antediluvian world, formed from sponge spicules or some other vaguely imagined animal origin as the shells of countless marine organisms formed the chalk that enveloped it at the bottom of some ocean long ago. The crumbly cream lime mortar contrasted with the obsidian black of the flint and always looked organic, rather than made by human hands, as if it had been extruded from the very earth. If we were lucky, we’d also get a treat from the village shop, a 6d orange lolly for us kids, and a 1/- orange maid for Mum and Dad; later, if it were just me and my father, he might splash out on a choc-ice — ooh, luxury beyond belief, it was.

Some years later, when a family car meant we could venture further afield, even into the wild unknown of West Sussex, I remember catching a glimpse of a strange church tower as we whisked along the A27 past Worthing. It had oddly chamfered corners and four diamond-shaped roof slopes meeting at a short but delicate point. Of course there was need to go loitering there waiting for a bus any more, so this distant fleeting minaret was all I knew.

This year I visited a survey site in Worthing, just on the north-east edge of the town, and as I sat having my packed lunch on a fallen tree trunk I could see that distinctive tower sticking up above the trees away across the meadows. I had to visit.

The church of St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Sompting, West Sussex. Nowhere to get a choc-ice, though.


See what I did there?

Not only is it the time of year for flying ant days, the last week in July was also my final submission of the typescript for Ants, in the Bloomsbury British Wildlife Collection that I have spent the last two years writing, on and off. The final rejig was a reshuffling of the chapters and renumbering of the illustrations.

I started in July 2018, and half way into the first chapter, I was already writing about those familiar flying ant days. “These mass aerial releases of new males and queens, usually of the ubiquitous black pavement ant, Lasius niger, fill the air with countless millions of flying insects. The flying ant morsels are manna to the swifts, swallows and martins that scream after them, but a potential breathing or blinking hazard for cyclists, and a real visibility nuisance to motorists running low on screen-wash.” And how’s this for a strange coincidence? On the day that I wrote that paragraph, 4 July 2018, it was also flying ant day in Nunhead, where I was writing, and East Dulwich, to which I cycled home in the afternoon. I didn’t swallow any ants on my way, but plenty bashed into my face and got tangled in my eyebrows. It’s a gentle traffic-free cycle ride through Peckham Rye Park, so there wasn’t too much chance of me being dangerously distracted in front of a speeding juggernaut.

However, later that same day the number 2 women’s tennis seed Caroline Wozniacki lost to relative outsider Ekaterina Makarova; magnanimously Wozniacki did not blame the flying ants for her surprise defeat, but earlier she had asked the umpire if anything could be done about the ‘bugs’, and the media coverage was full of images of her swatting at the hordes of winged ants sweeping across Court Number 1 at Wimbledon. There was another media circus event in July 2019 when clouds of flying ants confused the meteorological office by appearing on the increasing sensitive radar as ‘rain clouds’ over Brighton, Bournemouth and Winchester. It was repeated again last month too.

It’s not just that there are more flying ants, it’s also that the radar is becoming more sensitive. In 2020 we had our first flying ant day in East Dulwich in mid-July, but I came across another in Catford on 29 July. Yes, it’s a myth that there is one all-over national flying ant day in the year. There is some local synchronization, but different regions have their own days, and on every warm day between July and September there is a flying ant event going on somewhere in Britain.

Winged queen ant trotting across a Catford Paving slab.

People tend to cross over to avoid you if you start taking photos of the pavement.

That’s Lillian’s shadow, she thought my interest in the pavement looked funny. She was right, but if you look really close you can just make out the queen that I’m interested in.

The book is scheduled for publication in spring 2021 — just in time to pre-empt flying ant media madness next year perhaps.