Sark and the Barclays – a psychological perspective


I began this piece as a psychological perspective on the political situation in the Channel Island of Sark, but something happened to divert me into the lyrical and the ecstatic. Because the lyricism that came to me felt authentic I have let the piece stand as I wrote it, though it may appear disjointed.

Famously, Sark was the last feudal state in Europe until its first democratic elections were held in 2008, considerably reducing the powers of the hereditary Lord of the Manor, the ‘Seigneur’, Michael Beaumont. I do not wish to spend too much time on the background, but for those unaware of the history, it may be useful to visit journalist John Sweeney’s Panorama programme investigating the tax affairs of the Barclay brothers (who own the neighbouring island of Brecqhou and many businesses in Sark on top of their businesses in the UK and elsewhere).


An article in The Independent from January 2014 recounts the events following those first elections. Apparently angered by their lack of success in the elections, the Barclays closed their businesses on Sark, throwing around 140 people (of a total population of around 600) out of work. This decision was reversed a few weeks later. More recently the brothers announced that they would close their four hotels on Sark for 2015 for the foreseeable future. It is believed that this tactic was a response to the island parliament’s refusal to set up a customs post on Sark, thus permitting direct travel from France.

The brothers conduct their businesses on Sark through the company Sark Estate Management. This Guardian article from November 2014 relates something of the toxicity of events and, in particular, the behaviour of the CEO of Sark Estate Management, Kevin Delaney, as evidenced in the pages of his Sark Newspaper.

I write here as an occasional visitor to Sark. Sometimes I manage a couple of day trips a year. Sometimes I get to stay a few nights. I claim no in-depth knowledge of the island economy or its infrastructure. However, I know a little of island life. I have family who have been living on Alderney (a little larger than Sark, with more facilities) for 43 years, and I have been visiting the islands almost annually for 61 years. I know that island life is sometimes hard. It is often necessary to take on several jobs. Work is frequently impossible because of adverse weather conditions. Often families keep feuds alive for generations, with the original causes of the enmity often long forgotten.

Fortress mentality

To live on an island one might perhaps be expected to develop an insular way of being, a fortress mentality. One might be stubborn, defended and anachronistic. It is easy to lose sight of the ‘bigger picture’ and cling on to outdated values. To some extent that has been true in Sark. There was considerable justification for democratic elections, particularly in relation to the practice of primogeniture. But island life can also foster a psychologically healthy state of inter-dependence. Residents of a small community such as Sark can ill afford division (they rely on each other more than on the mainland) – much less the kind of deep division that has been generated by the events of recent years.

A psychological perspective

Rather than focus on the division itself, I want to turn my attention to the psychology of the Barclay brothers. Once the brothers had bought their island, Brecqhou, they spent millions of pounds on transforming the rugged beauty of the island (which they described as an ‘eyesore’ before the alterations). They poured thousands of tons of topsoil onto the rocks, planted on a massive scale, and created a fairy-tale retreat. There is a mock gothic castle, a harbour, a lake with fountains, a village complete with a local pub, and two heliports. The image below shows the beginning of the terraforming process. The following image shows it nearly complete.

Early Development phase of Brecqhou
Early Development phase of Brecqhou – the harbour and castle look relatively complete.

And this more recent image, shot from a different direction, shows the design close to completion.

The late development phase of Brecqhou
The late development phase of Brecqhou – we are looking from the other side of the island to the previous picture.

Let’s consider the fantasy here. I think of the term ‘fairy-tale’ frequently in relation to these events. The brothers are secretive: access to their island gardens by the public was allowed briefly while their Sark hotels were open. Guests had to be security cleared, whatever that entailed, and photography of the buildings was forbidden. The creation of the castle itself was shrouded in secrecy (as once indicated here by the sadly discontinued satirical website Guernsey Futu) prompting John Sweeney’s first investigative report. Clearly something more is going on here than ‘just’ the building of an expensive house and grounds.

The sandpit

Notwithstanding the conspiracy theories, the tales of an underground nuclear bunker or a casino, the brothers have bought themselves a sandpit, and in it, they have built a fantasy castle in the same way that a child might build a castle out of Lego. It is secret. It is on an island. We can see it above all as a romantic move. But like children, the brothers want more, a bigger island, more bits and bobs for the fantasy kingdom, as a child decorates every empty space with shells and trinkets. The Barclays want a funicular railway from Sark harbour up to the village, in other words, a train set. They have planted hectares of vines on both islands, both the vines and wine redolent of myth, of romance. And also, again much like children, they get uncontrollably upset when they don’t get their own way. They break their toys (the hotels, the businesses), throwing them away and only grudgingly taking them back. They make demands and expect them to be met.

Sark Newsletter 17092014
Sark Newsletter accusing the Chief Pleas of fascism (27/09/2014)

Community feeling

The brothers gave Sark £200,000 for a new community centre. Then they demanded the money back, jointly and severally suing the trustees (unsuccessfully). They had given a present and then, finding that the conditions of giving were not met, they tried to withdraw it. The Barclays dearly want to play with the other children, but the other children don’t like them, and the brothers, rejected and hurt, are left to withdraw to their castle to plot their revenge.

Hearts and minds

In an article in the Telegraph (the Barclays’ own newspaper) the President of the Chief Pleas (Sark’s parliament), Lt. Col. Reg Guille says, “We are a very independent breed. We live and work by our own hand and long may it continue”. This is what the Barclays have not understood, that they must win hearts and minds, and do the work of understanding the culture of Sark if they want to be invited to play. Instead, their agent, Kevin Delaney, has resorted to a propaganda war against what he describes as the Sark establishment. The scale of the attack (Delaney compares the ‘establishment’ to Nazi Germany in the 1930s) has left some residents feeling bullied and traumatised.

Ironically, The Sark Newspaper’s tone (accusatory, angry, hectoring, blaming) is not a little reminiscent of the infamous Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer (‘The Attacker’), the Wikipedia entry for which reads, “[It] was known for its use of simple themes that took little thought”. Carl Jung had this to say about the abuse of power:

We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate; it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer.

C.G. Jung, CW 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, Chapter V, “Psychotherapy or the Clergy,” § 519-520


Nothing is without shadow. Delaney’s accusations of dictatorial behaviour, of criminality and wrongdoing amongst Sark residents, may or may not have a basis in truth. But the psychologist has to wonder to what extent these allegations are a projection, an identification in others of behaviour that is unacceptable in oneself. In any community, there will be some who are either actively breaking laws or who are operating at the margins of what is legal. So Delaney’s sustained attacks on the ‘octogenarian’ Seigneur, Michael Beaumont (now deceased – his son Christopher is the current Seigneur), describing him as a tyrant, might be Delaney’s projection – and by extension that of the Barclays. The psychologist James Hillman wrote this:

We adhere to what works for us. What works becomes a privileged way of doing things, soon the only way of doing things. As we get older, and more blind, this tyranny of habitual consciousness becomes more and more visible to others.

James Hillman, Kinds of Power: a guide to its intelligent uses. 1995

In other words, the habitual way of doing things, to bully, to oppress, becomes the only way. The oppressor has become blind, an enraged child, unable to find other ways of influencing.

The mirror of Sark

But why care about this tiny island and its affairs? Because the tragedy in Sark is a mirror for events playing out in the rest of the world. In the UK, and across the globe, rich and influential oligarchs are taking control of land and businesses, stifling competition, and creating a new soviet of rentiers. The Guernsey Press, fearful of a ‘blight’ on the island’s economy, the spectre of closed hotels ‘left to gather dust’, asked for mediation. But a mediator would have an unenviable task and would need to understand the tensions on both sides. Perhaps the Guernsey Press fell into the trap of believing in the perennial modern fantasy of constant growth, a fantasy that has led to the present state of titanism in the ‘global economy’.

A walk through Sark

“With great power comes great responsibility,” said Voltaire, words that went unheeded by the French aristocracy. But eleven years after Voltaire’s death, the Bastille was stormed. While Sark is not pre-revolutionary Paris, nor is the castle on Brecqhou the Bastille, history is replete with examples of the powerful ignoring the weak until it is too late. So my request to Sir David and Sir Frederick, their son Aidan Barclay and their agent Kevin Delaney (and perhaps to some of the population of Sark as well) is this: consider how your wealth and power can be used to benefit Sark, not to harm it further. To help you in stepping out of the drama triangle of Persecutor/Victim/Rescuer in which you are so enmeshed, I take an imaginative walk through Sark from the harbour to the La Sablonnerie tea gardens, from memory. I invite you to join me:

The harbour to Dixcart bay

I walk up the slippery harbour steps from the ferry. Every time I have done this, without exception, I have seen the happy faces of people waiting to greet friends or family. I see many familiar faces, though I don’t know their names. Going through the short tunnel, rejoicing in the light and the sweet air,  I pass by the ‘toast rack’ conveyances because I prefer to walk. Up the hill, a few paces take me to the path that runs parallel to the road up to the village. I take it as I always do, and the flowers are like jewels. At the top of the hill, I nod and smile at the carriage drivers. I need to walk, but I’m glad they’re standing ready, the horses bobbing their heads. Turning left at the crossroads, there’s the house with the cats and the garden with the apple tree. Another path runs past a water trough where goldfinches are bickering. Soon I’m in a bluebell wood, young green leaves filtering the sun.

Bluebell wood
Sark – bluebell wood

I turn left down a path, a stream beside me, and I emerge into glorious light. Ahead there is a wide beach, the stream splashing on to pebbles and the sea stretched out before me. Done exploring, I walk back up the path and a young woman greets me, smiling. “How is the sea this morning?” she asks. “Glittering,” I tell her. We pass our different ways, conscious of something that happened between us of no importance, which also matters more than anything else, a meeting charged with love.

The Convanche chasm

Now I’m back in the wood, darker here, more mysterious. The trees are young, slender and strangely tall, but the sunken valley feels old, and the stream keeps me company. Then past two hotels, through some of the vineyards (and I wonder what they’re sprayed with), over a stile and on through the cliff path. Blackthorn is all around me in a froth, warblers are singing, the sea distant as I rise higher on to the back of the island. I want to stroke it, smooth its fur, and I do, running my hand through grass and leaves. Almost before I’m ready, there is that awful chasm, not quite separating the two islands. It is the waist of the wasp, and I’m on it, looking apprehensively at the frost cracks in the concrete. My stomach clenching as I look down into the depths.

La Coupée
Sark – La Coupée
Grande Grève
Sark – Grande Grève

But I take my time, savouring the moment, the unparalleled view, the sea so turquoise-blue it seems impossible. No sea can be this colour. There should be mermaids at least or Aphrodite herself might spring forth from the waters of Grand Grève.

Little Sark

Down the dusty road I tramp, each opening, left or right, offering a new possibility. There’s a field of corn marigolds, there an old mill turbaned with ivy.

Corn marigolds
Sark – corn marigolds
Sark - Old mill
Sark – Old mill

I resist refreshment, I turn and weave, through a gate, down past the crumbling ruins of the old silver mines, and I think about greed and growth. Look at that ivy growing there, the stems so gnarled and thick, did you stand here too Mervyn? Did you see Titus and Steerpike here, fighting for their lives?.

Sark - Ivy
Sark – Ivy

I reach the sea again, it boils here and I think I’d like to set a conger line. But I just sit and hear the current roiling in the crevices. I feel the power of it as it thuds against the rocks, and let the salt spray moisten my skin. I sniff that iodine tang, the rich rot of the ocean.

Port Gorey
Sark – Port Gorey

I go back, the cries of gulls echoing around the cliffs, and this time I give in to hunger. Walking through this lovely garden (where even the outside toilets have fresh flowers), I sit where I always sit. I order the seafood chowder (I always do). Then I look around and think about stealing the prints of Alderney on the wall, but don’t. Outside Jersey Tigers flash orange under-wings as they dart between the blooms.

Jersey Tiger
Sark – Jersey Tiger

Let’s stay here for now. Another time, we might take a different path, and watch sea mist roll in over the northern headlands.

Other paths

Sark – Eperquerie

Or we might visit the rocks and bays from a boat, and wonder at what fire and molten minerals finally cooled to form these fantastic shapes.

Sark- rocks
Sark- rocks
Madonna rock
Madonna rock

We might visit the harbour and fish for longnose and pollack. We might watch curious mullet nose around the piles of the jetty. Then, spotting a pod of dolphins in fast pursuit of a shoal of fish, arching and leaping through the water, we are awed beyond speech, and can only point mutely in their wake.

Grey Mullet swimming in Maseline Harbour, Sark
Grey Mullet swimming in Maseline Harbour

Another time. For now, I wonder if we could sit here and draw up some tables, I’m sure they won’t mind. Let’s drink some tea, eat some cake and turn our faces to the sun. And now, may I ask you this? Can you Men of Power see beyond your influence and the sphere of your control? Will you sit with me here, simply, frugally, and consider the ecstatic beauty of what surrounds you, the absolute privilege that we share in being here? Can I persuade you to recognise that it is not just profit that you seek? To play together only one thing is needed: a shared delight in play.

If you are interested in paintings you might like my view of Grande Grève or my view of Sark from Herm.

A celebration of autumn: part 3 – inedible

You can see my first two posts on Autumn here and here. As before I have added spreads from the Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged). The focus here is on the inedible (by humans) that comprises the bulk of the harvest.

Previously I said that the work has its own narrative because the posts explore change in the British landscape over the last fifty years. We see some successful species, ones that have managed to withstand the difficulties caused by population and agribusiness. There are many others that have been less fortunate. I hope that the skein of life, the web that connects us as humans and the other than human, becomes apparent as the series continues.

The pursuit of the uneatable

The hunt, blackthorn, parasols
What to look for in Autumn – hunt, blackthorn, parasols

Fox hunting may seem to have had its day but it is still legal in Ireland. A powerful lobby exists to bring it back. The lobby is led by the members of the House of Lords (who refused to pass the legislature) and the Countryside Alliance. But hunters no longer have an affinity with the land. The majority of foxes still killed are the victims of illegal hunts and poachers.

I cannot see that a pack of dogs, followed by a body of people on horseback, who in their turn are followed by still more people on foot and in cars, is anything other than a gross travesty of hunting in any form. It is neither ritual (because it has no spiritual significance) nor is it a sport. The prey is uneatable, as Oscar Wilde so memorably pointed out. So the hunt continues, sans fox, as a relic of privilege. The hunt itself is a dominant hierarchical symbol that is a mirror to the worst excesses of capitalism. It serves to illustrate the contempt that those who are elevated (whether on horseback or in power) have towards those without status.

.Quietly framing the anachronism of the hunt are the wild plums we call blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). The acrid fruits are called sloes. They are also inedible but a fine flavouring, particularly for gin. There is a fine crop of Parasols, probably Macrolepiota procera. The author doubts that they are edible. In fact, Parasols are delicious, though they need to be positive identification before eating, and may not be picked from nature reserves.

Fungus the Bogeyman

Autumn crocus, shaggy inkcap
What to look for in Autumn – autumn crocus, shaggy inkcap

The distrust of fungi in these islands so prevalent fifty years ago makes itself known again on the very next page. The author correctly asserts the toxicity of the Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) but goes on to claim that ‘no living things’ except maggots and insects, would touch the ink-cap toadstool. In fact, the Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus) is also delicious when young.

Inedible yams

Potatoes, black bryony
What to look for in Autumn – potatoes, black bryony

We have to be careful about looking at the past romantically. Some loss is welcome, and one such practice was the back-breaking work of picking potatoes by hand. E.L. Grant Wilson wonders if the tubers of Black Bryony (Dioscorea or Tamus communis) might be edible. Don’t be tempted, they are not. This is another plant that has suffered from the grubbing up of hedgerows. I used to regularly walk a path that had Black Bryony growing on one side and White Bryony on the other. The two plants are not related. Black Bryony is our one representative of the Yam family, whereas White Bryony belongs to the cucumber family. The fruits of both are inedible.

Weasel, horse chestnut, wood blewit
What to look for in Autumn – weasel, horse chestnut, wood blewit

The Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda) is not perhaps a species to seek out for the table as it seems to disagree with some people. The naturally drying fallen Horse-chestnut leaves shown here are now only seen rarely because of the Horse-chestnut Leaf Miner (Cameraria ohridella). The predations of this leaf-mining moth prematurely dry and shrivel the leaves. Imported plants have enabled the moth to spread from its home in Macedonia. Since the late 1970s, it has moved inexorably northward. The tree is left unharmed, it seems, but this new moth species is also seen as a consequence of the reduction in diversity caused by over-planting. The tree is only distantly related to the Sweet Chestnut. The seeds are inedible, even to horses!

Misplaced morality

The Weasel – here the Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis) is shown – has a good population and is not of concern. It also has a fascinating mythology, presumably owing to its shrill calls and its fierce demeanour. The evidence for a weasel killing ‘for the sake of killing’ seems to come from owners of livestock, chickens, rabbits. The oncentration of animals in a small space creates confusion. I can’t see that one can apply a moral judgement to a weasel, and I wonder if this comes from the Puritan notion that weasels were the familiars of witches. The name itself has a base meaning of ‘stinking animal’, from its musky scent, and the connotation of ‘weasel’ as something underhand (‘weasel words’) is related to the weasel’s ability to suck out the contents of an egg without destroying the shell.

One in six

Teal, shovelers, goldeneye, black-headed gull, heron, lapwing
What to look for in Autumn – teal, shovelers, goldeneye, black-headed gull, heron, lapwing

Teal, Shovelers and Goldeneye all share RSPB amber status as, alarmingly, does the black-headed gull. The lapwing has red status, with a very much reduced population. It was wonderful to see them at the London Wetlands Centre, of all places. Of all these lakeside birds then, only the Heron enjoys a stable population, but it is a comfort to know that they are still all with us, decorating the still waters of late Autumn and Winter.


I ‘wrote’ all of these Haiku out of doors. Nietzsche observed that “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” and while I offer no judgement as to their worth or otherwise, I certainly found them useful to invent in the moment and so for me they worked as  ‘great thoughts’ in difficult times.

I was criticised by someone on Twitter who told me that I should loosen up and ignore the 5/7/5 syllable ‘rule’. In one sense he was correct in saying that a syllable is not the equivalent of the Japanese mora. Even in English Haiku forms, there are many variants. However, something about the form of the traditional Haiku appeals. I place value in the adherence to structure, the importance of the ‘cutting word’ and the seasonal reference.








April: and the trees
Flap and flutter with the wings
of pigeons fucking.

Celandines are out.
In the fumes, I think of those
Bright buttery stars.

I hate Valentine’s.
But Magnolia buds swell,
Swaddled in soft down.

I see a greening
In the tightly furled birch buds.
My tax bill is here.

Go to the Top


A hot day in June:
Confronted by pale orchids,
my pain is greater.


A tired aroma
of cheap fat barbecued meat.
Life in the city.

High Summer, rain falls
on sweet-scented Buddleia
This is without shame.


Still so far away,
but so close: an honour guard
of tall hollyhocks

A grey shroud of dusk:
Fat pigeons grazing the lawn.
A thud of car doors.

Goldfinches twitter,
The sun starts it’s slow descent
Behind tall grasses.

Glancing up you see
The sky criss-crossed with contrails.
The city’s white web.

The cafés are full,
iPads and sharp pencils poised.
Elsewhere curlews call.

Go to the Top


My footsteps fall hard.
Each sodden leaf in my path
Reminds me of loss.

I saw a Brimstone
In November. But it was
Just a leaf, falling.

In late Autumn light,
Each branch is dressed with bright shards,
And loss cuts deeply.

A few flowers still,
Scattered by the river bank.
A dog rolls in leaves.

Hedgerows are weary
With great swags of Old Man’s Beard.
The earth calls for sleep.

Go to the Top


Which invidious
Part of us dreams of white cliffs
And the hum of bees?

Black fruit and lush green
Of Ivy in the cold sun.
This is what matters.

Slender willow twigs
Droop into the stream, or are
Blown like golden locks.

Just a little sun
On a cold day – and small flies
Appear like magic.

After the market
Has gone, yellow grass straggles.
A twist of tinsel.

Beginning again,
Pushing up through frozen ground.
It looks so easy.

Go to the Top


How small things remind:
the smell of a wool carpet
to a lonely child.

My pillow mocks me.
I wrap myself round it but
it cannot reach out.

It is hard to feel
the deep yearning in my heart
for sacred places.

It’s seven o’clock.
Dinner jackets and silk gowns
Gather to eat lies.

Another day goes.
Peaches and avocados
Belong to last year.

As the dark settles
I begin to dread the night.
Yawning hollow hours.

Dawn brings foolishness.
My black sea – was it so deep?
I reach out again.

I don’t often find
That poetry can quieten
The shrieking sirens.

It’s Saturday night.
Loud voices spill from the bars.
But they can’t listen.

In the morning sun
They can’t see how I’m bleeding.
I chase my desire.

I breathe a great breath
and swing the antique sabre.
Look how it glitters!

They want me to fight
To don the rusty armour.
Once more, with feeling.

What is this sharp pain?
A memory of spun gold:
Her hair in the light.

Sick for what I’ve lost,
A sweet longing dwells inside.
I spurn all doctors.

How a picture wounds,
Bringing back from long ago
A scent of ripe pears.

The gardens were closed,
I was robbed of many things.
Days of peace and light.

With a storm, a surge,
Things of the past are revealed.
My secret sadness.

How much I would like
To see tall buildings fall, and
Gaze at distant hills.

The Tories: neck deep
In the blood of bribery,
And the stink of lies.

The world will force you
To stay safely in the light.
But you need the dark.

Go to the Top

A celebration of autumn: part 2 – fruit

You can see my first post on autumn here. In this post, I have added more spreads from the delightful Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged) as well as a few pictures I took at Sydenham Hill Wood. This post talks a bit more about autumn fruit. These posts have another purpose (if there has to be one). We are exploring both actual and perceptual changes in the British countryside over a fifty-year period. The work already has its own narrative.

The hayrick

Barn owl, Wayfarer Tree, Traveller's Joy
What to look for in Autumn – barn owl, Wayfarer Tree, Traveller’s Joy

Hayricks might be a thing of the past but luckily but there is still plenty of Traveller’s Joy, also known as Old Man’s Beard or the rather more prosaic Clematis vitalba. It’s a great food source for many moth species but its invasive habit makes it a problem outside the UK, particularly in New Zealand. In France it has the name herbe aux gueux, meaning beggar’s herb, because (according to this article) beggars used the juice of the plant to deliberately inflict ulcers, so arousing the pity of passers-by.

The wayfarer

The Wayfarer tree (known in the past as hoarwithy, an entirely pleasing name) is also relatively common but often goes unremarked. E.L. Grant Watson wonders how it got its romantic name of Wayfarer tree, speculating that it was so called by passing pilgrims. There is a poem, reproduced below, that suggests a similar origin:

Wayfaring Tree
What ancient claim
Hast thou to that right pleasant name?
Was it that some faint pilgrim came
Unhopedly to thee,
In the brown desert’s weary way,
Midst thirst and toil’s consuming sway,
And there, as `neath thy shade he lay,
Blessed the Wayfaring Tree?

Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894

A nice idea, but this description applies to the Guelder Rose, Viburnum opulus, not the Wayfarer tree, which is Viburnum lantana: besides, the fruit is toxic to humans. One uncredited source suggests that the name was invented by the Elizabethan botanist John Gerard. Confusingly, the name ‘Wayfarer tree’ is also applied to the European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). The idea that the shrub is a natural signpost has some credibility, and so perhaps the name ‘Wayfarer’ was applied to any shrub or tree with vivid red berries.

Extraordinary that Grant Watson seems to consider that any reader might have had a pet barn owl. At the time the book was written DDT would have been in use in the UK, one of the causes of significant population decline in barn owls.

Wild berries

Bullfinch, Elder, Maple, Ash
What to look for in Autumn – Bullfinch, Elder, Maple, Ash

And here is one of the other ‘Wayfarer’ trees, the Rowan or Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia), a tree with a history of usage going back to prehistoric times. I’m thinking of making some Rowan jelly if I can find some fruit, it’s been a long time since I tasted any (here’s a good recipe).

At the time of writing, it is too late for elderberries (Sambuca nigra). Like much wild fruit, elderberries are slightly toxic until cooked, but you can make wonderful things from them without too much effort. Cordial, wine and syrup can be made from the flowers and the berries, but the leaves, and all the other parts of the plant, contain cyanogenic glycosides – hence the use against flies.

Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) were until recently very common but suffered a dramatic decline in numbers. Happily numbers are rising again. If you can’t see bullfinches, you might be able to hear them: their particularly mournful call can be easily identified.

The Hazel coppice

Nuthatch, Hazel, Rose
What to look for in Autumn – Nuthatch, Hazel, Rose

This illustration is a personal favourite (I love the rust on the hazel leaves). Hazel (Corylus avellana) was once very widespread, and much used in hedgerows and coppicing. It supports over thirty moth species and it follows that the reduction of hazel coppice has had a negative effect on biodiversity. Moreover, the eradication of temperate rainforest through the intensive hill farming of sheep has had an untold consequence. This detailed look at Atlantic hazel in Scotland reveals the beauty and mystery of a particular type of hazel forest and the extraordinary life that it supports.

The jewelled rose-hips of the dog-rose (Rosa canina) are a particularly wonderful sight in Autumn. I often feel like picking one of these juicy gems and eating it, but unfortunately, the seeds are covered with irritant hairs (used once for itching powder) and need to be removed carefully before consumption. If you can persevere with the de-seeding task, you’ll be rewarded with fruit high in antioxidants and vitamin C. They also taste good – and can be made into tea, wine and syrup. I almost used to look forward to having a cold as a child because it meant a dose of rose-hip syrup! It’s good that Tunnicliffe painted Robin’s Pin-cushion galls, a chemical response caused by the gall wasp (Diplolepis rosae). Birds and other insects predate the galls. What intricate relationships exist around the hazel and dog-rose alone!

The Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) is also common, with an increasing population. If you see a bird running headfirst down a tree trunk, you are not seeing things, it’s a nuthatch. Here’s a link to its call.

Sydenham Hill Wood

Camille Pissarro - Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871)
Camille Pissarro – Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871)

I visited Sydenham Hill Wood quite frequently once – it is an interesting mixture of old and newer woodland. A railway used to run through it and there was a station, Lordship Lane. The line was closed in 1954 (so the infamous Baron Beeching was not responsible) but the closure meant that new woodland could emerge alongside the old. Astonishingly, the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro painted a scene of the track.

This is an old photo of the footbridge itself:

Cox's Walk footbridge, Sydenham
Cox’s Walk footbridge, Sydenham

And a contemporary view from the footbridge looking down the old track:

View of the trackbed from the footbridge. Sydenham Hill Wood
View of the trackbed from the footbridge. Sydenham Hill Wood

You can walk across the footbridge Pissarro used and compare the painting to the current view of trees – this must be one of the few reversals from open land to woodland in London. It is managed by the London Wildlife Trust and it’s a wonderful place for many important and rare species, as well as a good spot for a short walk amongst glorious trees. Right now the forest floor is rich with fallen leaves and fungi. There’s a blog here about Sydenham Hill Wood with a wealth of information about its history and wildlife, but sadly not updated for a couple of years.

Hairy Curtain Crust

The wood has many species of fungi, including these fantastic bracket fungi (rejoicing in the name of Hairy curtain crust, identification courtesy of @wildlondon_SHW) growing from an old tree:

Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum

So far we have looked at the red berries of the Wayfarer tree, Rowan and Rose. To conclude this post here are another fruit, Holly berries dripping with rain, looking as pristine as one could hope.

Holly berries
Holly berries

A celebration of autumn: part 1 – harvest

Autumn – autumpne in the 16th Century, from the Old French autumpne, automne (13c.), via the Latin autumnus (or possibly auctumnus, perhaps from auctus meaning ‘increase’).

Before the 16th century, the season we call Autumn was called Harvest – though that word has now come to mean the action of harvesting, rather than the entire season. Some believe the lost root suggests a ‘drying out’ and point to the old English word for August: sere-month. If we could go back in time I wonder how many of the harvest scenes below we would recognise. How many of them belong to the imagination? Even sixty years ago, well before the advent of Big Ag, people were looking back wistfully at a time before world wars and motorways.

The wonderful painting by the 16th-century Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, shown above, depicts Autumn wittily personified. In this New York Times article, the author asks if Arcimboldo was insane. A meaningless question, since the tastes of the 16th-century aristocrat who commissioned Arcimboldo were of their time and place in history, which is not ours. Moreover, collectors and artists alike have often evinced a taste for the bizarre and theatrical. It is entirely fitting that the Paladin 1977 edition of Thomas Szasz’s seminal work ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ bore Arcimboldo’s painting ‘Water’ on the cover. Here it is:

Thomas Szasz: ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’
Cover of the Paladin 1977 edition of Thomas Szasz’s seminal work ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ features ‘Water’ by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

I’ll write of the Four Elements in a later piece, but as part of my celebration of Autumn, I’m posting the illustrations and text from the Ladybird publication ‘What to look for in Autumn’, with words by E. L. Grant Watson, and illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe. The illustrations in particular are deeply evocative of a lost time and place.


The book I own was published in 1960 (it is not my own, which I lost over the years). Leafing through the pages I am transported back in time. Once again I experience the fascination with nature that these books inspired. The books even have a slightly musty smell of old damp, redolent of Autumn itself, just as my lost books did. Back then, without central heating, everything was slightly damp.

While it is clear that the books are out of print, the copyright belongs to Ladybird books. I acknowledge this and hope that my scans will be allowed to stay online (I emailed Ladybird to ask for permission but received no reply).

Here are the first four spreads of the book:

The Harvest

Pigeons, stoats, oats, mushrooms, harvest.
What to look for in Autumn – pigeons, stoats, oats, mushrooms, harvest.

There is a sad innocence in the writing. Nowadays venturing onto a ploughed field is to invite prosecution for trespass, and quite possibly illness from the residue of spraying.

A note too about identifying mushrooms: please go on a course or find someone who has expert knowledge. There are many species that look superficially similar but differ considerably in toxicity. For identification that is not aimed at consumption, here’s a good site:

The Wild Harvest

Starling, blackberries, greenfinch
What to look for in Autumn – starling, blackberries, greenfinch

We’re past the blackberries now, though I still have an untouched bottle of cordial that I hope is still drinkable. Nothing evokes late summer/early autumn quite as much as the scent and dark wine-like flavour of blackberries. To harvest blackberries is truly a labour of love. You are torn and bloody by the time you emerge, sticky and purple with blood and juice. A shot glass of warm blackberry cordial served neat, is a truly delicious nightcap that will instantly conjure hot country lanes and the sound of drowsy insects.

The Hop Pickers

Hop picking
What to look for in Autumn – hop picking

As far as I know, this is an activity that has just disappeared. No one goes on hop-picking holidays now, though they used to be an institution. Here’s a rather bucolic account and here’s another more socially aware treatment from none other than George Orwell.

The Flight of the Swallow

Swallow, house martin
What to look for in Autumn – swallow, house martin

I love Tunnicliffe’s lichen-covered roof (it looks so hot and dry) and the carefully observed stances of the birds. You can read a celebration of autumn: part 2 – fruit here.

A memory

We ignore how memory brings not just an event of the past but all the senses that went with it too.

Walking past a greengrocer I saw him line a box with cabbage leaves. Something different about the leaves caught my eye, the dark crisp pungent green of them, the lighter veins, strong and juicy, the green looking almost knitted. I was eight years old and cleaning, probably under protest, my guinea pig’s hutch. I remembered the moist sawdust, the perfume of resinous shavings, a sharp tang of urine, the darker note of the droppings. I remembered the light scratching of his claws as I held him in my hands, the feel of his ribs beneath his silky coat, the brightness of his eyes.

Guinea Pig

Because I walked on a sunny morning in October, because the greengrocer cared enough to line his displays with cabbage leaves (not plastic bowls), because I was open, I received the gift of this memory. I felt sad that I had not looked after my pet as well as I could, but moved to have his scent in my nostrils after so many years and, at that moment, happy.