Aside from being an unlikely location in respect of such an evocative title, Wormwood Scrubs is a name which is familiar for all the wrong reasons. The infamous prison to which the words are most often associated was built at the end of the 19th century, during a 16 year period up until 1891. Thanks to such 1970s and 80s TV gems as The Sweeney and Minder ‘The Scrubs’ earned a place in the consciousness of even the most law-abiding of citizens. Its full title is neither of the above and is officially referred to as ‘HMP Wormwood Scrubs’. The ‘Wormwood Scrubs’ proper are something quite different and, as I was to discover, rather a pleasant surprise.
I am not much of a city person. The town where I live, I am very happy to say, has always provided me with bolt-holes where nature still holds sway, be they the ancient woods that resisted the onslaught of suburban development, south-facing slopes of flowery grassland and even some wide-open expanses of coastal marshland beside the estuary of the Thames. There is something of an irony, therefore, that I should find myself on a beautifully sunny, cold January morning heading off for a day out in London, not to one of the many wonderful galleries, to one the vast museums, or to enjoy the amazing architecture of the city, but to none other than Wormwood Scrubs. At 67 hectares the Wormwood Scrubs Open Space is the largest such place in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which the council website proudly describes as “a tranquil area loved by local residents and visitors.” Such notions of peace and quiet are, in my experience, often a relative thing. The tranquillity of a spot in the middle of a large city, although very pleasant, is likely to seem rather different and somewhat busier than which someone like myself might be used to within one of my leafy suburban bolt-holes. By the same token, someone visiting my neck of the woods from more rural circumstances would probably notice all of the sounds of neighbours and distant traffic that for me fade into the background. What I have to admit to however, is on finding the place how genuinely surprised I was. The main incentive for my visit there I shall keep you guessing about for a short while longer.
When travelling on the London Underground it is very easy to forget that there is a huge city going on above your head. It is a mode of transport that makes it difficult to have a very accurate sense of distance and, for very obvious reasons, changes in the city-scape above ground. The short walk from Fenchurch Street overground station to Tower Hill tube allows a brief taste of busy central London: the footfall of people between stations; tourists visiting the Tower, St Kathrine Docks and such like; the stream of traffic rumbling across Tower Bridge. Quite often after your journey underground and when you reach your destination and re-surface, you notice little, if anything at all, by way of the city’s change of character. There is, however, a substantial difference between the surrounds of Tower Hill in the middle of town and East Acton station half an hour westwards on the Central Line. I emerged into the unexpected peace and quite of suburban London, complete with the avenues of pollarded London Plane trees, their bare fists clenched to the sky as if to decry this act of butchery wrought upon them (melodrama aside, I’m sure these tough old trees will be good and green, if not rather stumpy, come the spring).
From the station, it is a straight road up to the Scrubs and the location of my unlikely expedition into the exotic. Directly outside it I could already make out the green fringe of the park from where I stood. As I approached I was pleased to see a fair amount scrub near the edge – something to afford some shelter and seclusion – but was still not expecting anything more than that pleasant parkland setting, with its scattering of bushes and large trees, typical of large city parks. I wandered across the mown grass and in between two mounds of thorn and within an instant felt removed further from the city. What I hadn’t fully appreciated was the extent to which the park has been given over to wildlife. Ahead of me lay an expense of rough grassland, looking winter-tired, but which I’m sure twitches with the movements of insect life in the summer. Further away stood the woody fringes of the park and a large, circular copse surrounded by the playing fields. This wood and grassland comprise more than half of the area of the park which also includes areas designated as a Local Nature Reserve.
It was a cold and clear day, but the sun had a warmth to it. The sounds of bird life could be heard everywhere – tits twittering in the thorn bushes, blackbirds rummaging in the leaf-litter, wrens ‘tutting’ among the brambles. I was sure I heard meadow pipits calling, not the most usual of sounds in the middle of London. They apparently still breed here, but in declining numbers, as explained by a sign asking visitors to avoid certain paths for fear of disturbance to these ground-nesting birds. And there were stonechat, a male and a female and another bird species not very readily connected with your typical city park. There is something special about finding wildlife in the city, something uniquely poignant for its resistance to the concrete sprawl and tolerance of the disruptive human animal.
It was indeed a genuinely tranquil place. Away from the busy road over on the other side of the park it was also very quiet, enough for me to hear the languid swishing of a crows wings as it passed overhead. I was here for a very specific reason, but had arrived in good time to allow the chance to explore and see the woodpeckers investigating the bone-bare branches of long dead tree, or the sparrowhawk sliding through the shadows of the tree canopy of the woody fringes and hear the song thrush belting out its call of melodiously repeated phrases. I also came across a pair of ring-necked parakeet, gloriously green in the sunshine amid the denuded winter branches. The sight of these last two birds had a special significance.
The visage of kestrel-sized green parrots living wild in the UK is a distinctly odd one to many, but an increasingly familiar one to some. In the space of nearly 50 years, and as a result of escapees and introductions, the feral British population has grown, according to the RSPB, to some 8,600 breeding pairs chiefly centred around London and the Home Counties. The total, including non-breeders, could be as high as 30,000. The debate as to the continued viability of their current success, in terms of potential nuisances to fruit growers, the general public and our native hole-nesting avifauna is ongoing. They are great dividers of opinion.
Outside the breeding season ring-necked parakeet are birds given to communal roosting. Such gatherings can often be in large numbers and I had heard that one such roost of thousands of birds occurs, or at least did occur at the Scrubs. I wasn’t certain that the spectacle I had come to see was one that still took place here. I hadn’t been able to find any mention of it after 2013, which seemed a little surprising given that a roost of 5000 (one figure that I had read of) bright green parakeets in the middle of London you would think is something much talked about. The birds didn’t feature at all on the council webpage for the park and neither was there any mention of them on the wildlife information boards on site. Perhaps the local naturalists prefer to draw attention to the native wildlife of the park, or maybe (with my not knowing a great deal about the roosting behaviour of parakeets) the mass-gathering has moved on to another green space in another part of town. With a distinct paucity of the birds present at the time, there were a few doubts wheedling their way into my mind.
I continued my wanderings in search of Little Wormwood Scrubs, a smaller area (a tenth of the size) just across the road at the eastern edge of The Scrubs proper. This is another enclave of greenery that must presumably also be much cherished by the city-based naturalists in the district, with a large chunk of it kept as scrubby grassland and on this occasion satisfyingly full of the movements and sounds of small birds. It was getting on for 3 o’clock and not really knowing how the hoped-for roosting spectacle would proceed and also having no idea exactly where it might occur, I decided to head back to the larger expanse to find myself an adequate vantage from which to view any likely locations. Better to be early and wait.
It was not long after re-entering The Scrubs before I heard the distinctively shrill call of a parakeet and found a pair of birds in the trees close to where I stood. One of them called again and this time was answered. I walked a short way further to where that other bird had called from and found what I presumed to be the two that I had seen in the first instance, still perched in the same tree. One of them called again and in a few moments the other pair flew up to join them. Together they took to the wing, four sleekly contoured shapes, slender wings tapering back either side of the long, narrow pointed tail. Several times they swept round in a tight circle around the tree, the low-angled sun drawing out all of the colour from their brightly pale green plumage, calling raucously to each other before settling again. Was I witnessing the beginning of the roost? They continued to call intermittently, perhaps as if to advertise their location to any others arriving in the vicinity. This seemed like the obvious place to position myself. I found a park bench close by but a discrete distance away, sat down and began to wait, with my hopes very much raised. When they flew off and out of sight a quarter of an hour later I did feel a little deflated and somewhat disappointed. Those embryonic feelings of doubt grew larger.
Continuing to wait I drank some tea, scanning the area for flashes of green and straining my ears for any distant squawking calls. It was almost 4 o’clock; if the roosting extravaganza was to happen surely the first arrivals should be trickling in by now, with the sun edging towards the horizon. I walked across some football pitches towards that sizeable island of trees and shrubs rising conspicuously from the flat expanse of the close-cropped sward and with distinct possibilities as the potential sight of a huge bird roost. I walked around it, optimistically inspecting the bird shapes among the treetops, but found only magpies and the odd woodpigeon. With sunset fast approaching did I sit tight and wait for something which I was convincing myself was not going to take place or look somewhere else?
I decided to follow the direction that I’d seen the four birds depart to. They were nowhere to be seen or heard, so I decided to revisit Little Scrubs where I had heard a parakeet calling earlier. I was rather relieved to see half a dozen birds alight in some trees near the play area close to the entrance and beside the high brick wall running the length of the park’s boundary and separating it from the adjacent road. I sat and watched them, hopeful of a subsequent gathering. Perhaps the roost had moved across the road to here? But dusk was starting to set in and these few birds hardly comprised a mass roost. With a tinge of disappointment I started off for the other park and my eventual departure for the station. A larger group of birds swept in to join the other six before I could take more than a few steps. Not quite the thousands I had hoped for, but to see these 40-odd birds together in their tree was a nice enough sight and not one I had witnessed before.
Back in The Scrubs I had resolved to take a slow walk across the park for the tube station. It was about 4:30 as I approached the bench where I had sat waiting an hour or so before and heard a few birds, close to the same tree that those four had briefly raised my hopes. There were more there now, a few dozen. A few more slightly larger parties sped in low over the ground to join the others. There were probably about 200 of them now, chattering shrilly to each other in what fancifully seemed like the conversation of re-acquaintance, each having returned from their own patch of London. Then things really started to happen.
I had wandered towards the shrubby trees that the parakeets had gathered in. Then, once more, low over the ground and along the thicket of trees that runs the length of the park boundary, another hundred or so dashed past me and into the growing flock. Then another, this time tearing in from behind me and over my head. In the glow of the setting sun and the failing light they seemed like so many shards of shining green glass shattering out of nowhere to become embedded in the branches. The noise grew with their number, raised now from a chatter to a cacophonous clamour of shrieks and squawks. And they kept on coming, wave after wave. I looked through some low scrub and across the playing fields and the direction of the day’s afterglow and caught sight of dozens of flickering wings. Then slipping briefly out of sight a hundred birds rose across the tops of the bushes. Coming towards me, more or less at head height, the group parts either side of me and into the melee. I looked for more following the same route, but the next flock materialises along the line of trees as they had before. I caught sight of a few birds arriving from the other side of the trees and realised that of course they must be coming in from all directions, although it did seem that the majority were flying in across the breadth of the park. And so it went on; for twenty/twenty five minutes the birds kept on coming. It seems perfectly probable that for 15 of those minutes they were arriving at a rate of 200-300 every minute, which even at the more conservative estimate suggests a total in excess of 3000 birds, all crammed into a stretch of modest, shrubby trees of only some 40 metres in length. It is easy to appreciate why the collective noun for a group of parrots or parakeets is a ‘pandemonium’. The noise was immense, quite piercing to my ears as I walked closer, into their midst, that solitary, shrill ‘kyik’ amplified and combined to tumultuous effect.
It was an extraordinary spectacle, especially that it was witnessed in the middle of London. It was 5 o’clock and the dusk was thickening into night and aware that I had to make my way across the park in the dark reluctantly pulled myself away and made for the station. Half a kilometre away I could still hear the racket. Rather that than the drone of the rush hour traffic.