As I type this, Soho is sunny. Not just a-few-weak winter-rays sunny, but a glorious, blazing, Vitamin D fest that has us sweating into our suddenly unseasonal puffas. Yesterday evening, it was 4 degrees; today, miraculously, it is 16. And while the miserable London winter has given me a perfect opportunity to spend months feasting on some of the planet’s best theatre, cinema, art and lard, the only question in my mind right now is: where can I find a patch of green that isn’t crammed with media executives slowly lobstering in their lunch hour?
I grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside, and although I am now a happy Hackney resident, I still get painful cravings for nature a tad more splendid than the semi-feral Staffies and wilting perennials in my neighbouring Shoreditch Park. Evidently, I’m not the only one. Alain de Botton’s cultural powerhouse The School of Life is currently putting together a series of classes offering jaded Londoners advice on how to ‘treat their nature deficit,’ and course tutor Hugo Whately, a teacher, writer and educational researcher, believes that many city dwellers may be suffering from a wholesale ecological imbalance.
“Just spending more time outside is not the best way to address the idea of a nature deficit,” he explains. “Of course getting out and about is good on all sorts of levels, but to engage with the structures and systems of nature - with ecology - is altogether another matter. That involves reflecting on how your work, your family, your friends, the things and people that you love and don't love, are all bound up together... Isolation and atomization are the pale brothers of individualism, and I think it’s worth working to counter them.” For Whately, the act of appreciating London’s historic streets can be a tonic in itself. “There is a sense of interconnections there between the present and the past; a sense that life is layered. That, for me, is where the concept of ecology comes in.”
In that case, wandering lonely as clouds amongst London’s eight celebrated Royal Parks or 1110 square kilometres of further parkland and gardens may be a case of sticking a plaster on a deeper wound. But Whately agrees that the city’s surprisingly profuse pockets of nature are “a good place to start looking for inspiration” that might help transform your personal ecology long term. With that in mind, here are our five favourite ways to reconnect with your roots in the capital as spring starts to creep in.
1. Cycle along Regents Canal
Whately is a big fan of London’s eight and a half mile stretch of nineteeth-century canal. “Cycling by the canal on a cold sunny morning, you move through plumes of wood smoke as you pass by each canal boat, and the smell evokes another world entirely. You might see great old carp gliding silently through the water; and a pair of swans gliding low over the water, necks swaying as their feet skim the surface. I think just trying consciously to notice the activities of animals in the city as the seasons change can help you keep a sense of perspective on your own life.”Jump on a Boris Bike at Paddington and follow it all the way to Limehouse, looking out for kingfishers, herons, rare orchids and yes, Banksy’s rats.
2. Skinny dip on Hampstead Heath
The Ladies’ and Men’s Ponds on Hampstead Heath are the only life-guarded open-water swimming facilities in the UK that remain open to the public every day of the year. Originally dug as reservoirs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and fed by the natural springs in Kenwood, they are peaceful havens in the city, with thickly wooded banks providing shelter for a variety of water birds and dragonflies. March temperatures remain bracing to say the least but the camaraderie between swimmers is fantastic. Take the plunge first thing in the morning and your adrenaline rush will last all day.
3. Worship insects at the Natural History Museum
We’re all suckers for a big fluffy mammal, but the rich, complex micro-world of insects – they make up 80% of the species on earth, with ten quintillion (I didn’t make that up) alive at any one time - can give us a whole new perspective on our own busy hive-lives. Throughout March, Entomologist Erica McAlister, Curator of Flies at the Natural History Museum, is broadcasting a Radio 4 series called ‘Who’s The Pest?’, exploring how insects’ ‘superpowers’ have implications for human medicine, defence, food, art and architecture, helping us to live more healthily, safely and sustainably. Accompany the series with a tour of the museum’s state-of-the-art Cocoon experience, which uses virtual guides and interactive exhibits to provide a behind the scenes look at the latest scientific research into insect and plant life.
4. Stroke a kitten at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium
London’s first cat café is due to open in Shoreditch in May, after an overwhelming response to a pitch by Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium on fundraising platform Indiegogo. Based on the Japanese vogue for combining coffee with creature comforts, Australian Lauren Pears hopes that by sourcing her cats from North London animal charity The Mayhew Rescue, she might translate some temporary laps into long-term homes. Keep an eye on Pears’ blog for updates and prepare to get some feline face-time very soon.
5. Join a working party with London’s Wildlife Trust
London’s Wildlife Trust manages over forty nature reserve sites across the capital. Keen to engage the local communities that use the sites, the Trust organises working parties where you can get some soil under your manicure, and put that faux-Lumberjack Hackney beard to good use. Upcoming events include a spring clean of Chiswick Nature Reserve on Sunday March 24th, where volunteers are needed to coppice trees, cut back vegetation from meadows and paths, clear ponds, litter pick “and occasional DIY and arty stuff.” No experience is required for this drop in session, which will be a great opportunity to get down and dirty with amphibians, woodpeckers, sparrowhawks and fungi.
This feature originally appeared in London Calling.