The holly bush was quivering with sparrows and their chirps filled the air, bestowing on me one of those “all is well with the world” moods. The sparrow-hawk changed all that. It came from over my shoulder, barely brushing my ear with the lightest of breezes as it passed, and silently swept into the sparrows’ roost. Missing its target, the hawk doubled back and settled on the church roof. Now I was no longer serene but almost manically protective. Picking up a stone I immediately hurled it in the general direction of the predator, missing by such a large margin that the bird was not troubled at all. Calming down a little, I folded my arms and prepared to stand guard until the intruder decided to seek easier prey elsewhere. This turned out to be totally unnecessary, as within seconds two carrion crows glided in from behind the south side of the church and drove the sparrow-hawk away.
Sadly, the sparrows have since abandoned our church garden, not through fear of any birds of prey, but due to the refurbishment of the house opposite which for years had provided them with a nesting site and a look out point!
When I moved to Southfields 12 years ago, today’s church garden was an L-shaped area of grass and bramble, surrounded by a hawthorn hedge. It was viewed as a troublesome area, needing controlling and subduing, and was managed by sporadic work parties who mowed the grass and hacked back the vegetation. One of the reasons for its neglect was that behind the church, the church hall, and the adjacent Edwardian vicarage was an established garden, with open areas, fruit trees, and what amounted to a small copse. This was seen as “the garden” because it was used regularly, and inevitably was more highly valued.
However, it was well understood that this space was about to be lost, as the vicarage was to be sold and demolished for development and the existing hall and garden site was to make way for a modern “sustainable” vicarage and a new hall complex. Thus, all green spaces around the church were viewed as transitory, but there was little idea about what would replace them.
In time, as more flesh was put on the development plans, it was agreed that there would be a small courtyard garden at the southside of the new hall, and a sedum roof would be installed. Whilst all this work was going on, the L-shaped strip of land on the north and the east side became an area for storing building equipment and providing our contractors with office space. Finally, 8 years ago, much of it was dug up to install new drainage. It was only at that point that we began to think what to do with it next.
With the help of a local gardening firm, and a member of the church who was an architect, I began to shape a plan, which was partly inspired by the principles of Octavia Hill – for example, that churches have a role in providing spaces for nature and people – and the fact of climate change. The continuing disappearance of local gardens under stone, astro-turf and decking was also a factor, as was reading about the importance of creating diverse habitats to create a home for the less glamorous species. Always at the back of my mind were memories of visiting St Just in Roseland and seeing its remarkable garden of exotic plants when in my teens, so once a new lawn had been laid the first planting was of a row of olive trees, shortly followed by an almond tree, a Judas tree and a Cistus.
It is not a space with a grand plan, and David who does most of the work, although proud to be known as the gardener, is generally content to mow, prune and tend what is there. My main preoccupation has been the wildlife the garden currently attracts, and what might find a home there in the future.
In 2012 I bought five swift boxes, made by John Stimpson, which a local roofing company installed for me high on the north wall. To date though the only birds which have nested in these have been great tits, and so far (to my knowledge) no brood of theirs has survived the attention of the local magpies and carrion crows. Last year I witnessed four magpies waiting in a nearby plane tree for the fledglings to fall, and this year found the down of a young victim floating on the water in our bird bath, which the crows use to wash their food! Other birds do regularly visit, and we have had robins and blackbirds nesting. Wrens, song thrushes and hedge sparrows are common.
It has been a bit of a battle to persuade people that manicured hedges and lawns, although satisfying a craving for neatness, do not create the best habitats for wildlife. We are very fortunate that when the iron railings which fenced in the garden were requisitioned for government use during the Second World War, they were replaced by a hawthorn hedge, most of which still survives. In recent years we have allowed it to thicken and grow a little higher, and have stopped pruning back the encroaching holly and ivy. We now leave an extensive – for this part of London – stretch of lawn unmown for most of the year too. The result is that we have plenty of resident invertebrates, including spiders and grasshoppers, and many visiting bees, hoverflies, wasps and butterflies. This spring I lost count of the holly blues.
Our mowing strategy does also encourage the return of wildflowers – last year, self-heal appeared for the first time. One of the more exciting developments this year has been the setting up of a nature and science project working with the local primary school, Riversdale, where I am also Chair of Governors and science link governor. The children have been visiting the church garden on a monthly basis since January, so they can observe, record, and draw the plants and creatures they encounter as the seasons pass. They have been disappointed that the new sparrow terrace has not yet succeeded in enticing the sparrows to return, but have been fascinated by the subtle changes they have been able to observe and the animals they have stumbled upon in such a confined but local spot.
by Ian Tattum