Oh to be in England now that April’s here!
If the weather’s being kind to us there should be plenty of blossom on the trees. Starting at the park café and walking anti-clockwise towards the multi use games area; look out for the cherry trees. Their bark is easy to identify as it has a pattern of horizontal lines all over it; looking like hundreds of smiles! You’ll see several of them along the path before you get to the Parks Department storage containers.
While you’re on this stretch of the path, the small area of woodland on your right was once Greenwich parks department tree nursery; gifted to the University in the 1980’s and now very much overgrown. Take a moment to look northwards along the path through the trees to your right; there is a lovely view of the Groom’s cottage at the end of the hedge avenue. Colonel North’s Stud stables are just to the left of the groom’s cottage; they are the last remaining agricultural buildings in the borough. When the University sell this land they are scheduled for demolition. In his hey-day Colonel North had 64 horses in training; the most famous was Nunthorpe who won the Jubilee stakes at Kempton Park in 1891. North would take his house guests over to Newmarket by special train and hold a private race meeting, all his horses taking part!
April is the month most of our birds will be nesting; make the most of it for it will be the only time of year the Ring Necked Parakeets won’t be screaming. They are amazingly silent when nesting! The hedges in the park are “des. res.” for nesting birds. As you walk down into the little valley formed by the Pippenhall stream keep your eyes open for nesting birds. One of the easiest to spot is the Magpie’s nest; it’s usually near the top of a tree and is roofed over with a dome of twigs. There are two other birds that build a domed nest; the Wren and the Long tailed Tit. You never know what you can spot if you’re observant! The perimeter hedges along Gray’s (the rugby) field and the southern boundary with the Uni. field and Southwood campus are great places to look.
As you wander back to the café via the path alongside the Mansion buildings, look to your right and see if you can spot the small pond just west of the Uni tower block. There is the base of a fountain in this pond; it was once the centre piece of the Winter Gardens. Walking past the Winter Gardens again, glance to your right; the clock tower you can see is on North’s riding and carriage horse stable block. Once this was the first stables to be centrally heated. There was even a Turkish Bath to cure any horse that caught a chill!
Back to the café, there’s always a hot cuppa to make sure you don’t catch a chill!!
It may be January but there’s plenty to see. Who says everything is dead in winter!
From the café go towards the Winter Gardens and just follow your nose; there’s a heavenly smell from the Christmas Box plants at the top of the wall in the shade of the Cedar tree. There’s an even better place to enjoy this plant in the upper Italianate Rose Garden. Just relax on the bench and drink in the fragrance. Hopefully you’ll get some sunshine too!
Follow the walk & cycle route, east alongside Avery Hill Road; there’s just one Alder tree on the right near the path here. Easy to spot as it’s the only tree to have cones and catkins at the same time!
Keep your eyes on the playing fields on your right and look out for the sea gulls. They spend a lot of time here during the day If you see a few “tap dancing”, they’re not auditioning for “Strictly Come Dancing”, simply hunting for worms! Usually you can see a smaller gull, the Black-headed. A bit of a daft name in winter, as it won’t have a black head until the breeding season. Two sorts of Black Backed Gull, lesser & greater like being in our park and if you’re really lucky you’ll see the Common Gull, easy to spot with its green legs. The noisiest bird in the park is the Ring Necked Parakeet. This bright green bird is hard to miss; it hangs out in family groups and between them they make a great deal of noise! Around dusk they will gather in flocks of 20 or more and fly off to their communal roost at Hither Green. See if you can spot the Owl nesting box in the trees on your left. There are 20 bird, bug and bat boxes in the park.
When you get to the bridge over the stream, look to your right again; there is a Hazel tree here. Its yellow catkins are a welcome sight in January; there are more Hazel trees along the Green Chain walk; see if you can spot the tiny red star shaped female flowers! While you’re walking around the edge of the rugby field (its old field name is Grey’s field) Have a look at the colour of the twigs on the trees in the hedgerow. Who said twigs are all brown! Can you spot the yellow twigs on the willow and the purple twigs on the birch?
Keep going along the walk and cycle path crossing the stream for the second time. This is Pippinhall Stream, it rises on Pippinhall Farm and is one of the headwater streams for the River Shuttle. At this time of year there is always water in the stream; further down its course you can find freshwater shrimps and sticklebacks swimming about. Passing the holly hedge on your left look out for any berries left on the bushes; the birds love to feast on them! You may be lucky enough to spot a Little Owl flying alongside the holly hedge and out across the playing fields. This smallest member of the owl family often hunts in daylight.
Return to the café for a welcome hot drink to warm you up at the end of the walk.
December gives us dark mornings and evenings but this gives us opportunities to watch wildlife at dawn and dusk without having to get out of bed at an unearthly hour! Most of the trees will have lost their leaves giving us better views of the birds and squirrels!
Leaving the café follow the walk/cycle path towards the car park. There are some interesting plants in bloom at the park entrance here. The first one you will see is the Winter Jasmine. Its yellow starry flowers brighten up the lower corner of the Italianate Rose Garden. Walking towards the car park look out for the pink flowers on the winter flowering Heather.
Return to the main walk/cycle path look out for signs of the spring bulbs emerging along the base of the Italianate Garden wall. These bulbs were sourced by the Friends of Avery Hill Park and will brighten up the park in the weeks to come. Passing the Winter Garden look for five magnolia trees, gifted by the New Eltham Allotment Society. Their flower buds, covered in silky hairs, are swelling showing us that spring is not far away!
Keep right at the fork in the path ahead; walking along beside the Avery Hill Road boundary on the left you will see the light green feathery leaves of Hedge Parsley. This wildflower reminds us of the agricultural past of the park. You’ll find plenty more as you walk round the hedgerows in the park! On your right look out for the first signs of the dark green leaves of Snowdrops emerging. Planted by the Cub Scouts of 1st Royal Eltham, this brave little bulb has earned itself the name of “Frost breaker”!
As you walk along the south boundary of the park, past the University student campus, keep a look out for birds. There may be two migrant members of the Thrush family, Fieldfare a larger bird with spotted chest and prominent eyebrows; and the smaller Redwing. This looks very like our common Thrush until it flies away when you will notice its red “armpits”! Both these birds love the berries we have in our hedges. Listen out and you will undoubtedly hear the screeches of the Ring Necked Parakeets; you can’t miss them in their bright green plumage! You may be able to hear the Robin singing too; this little bird likes to remind us that Christmas is near!
High in the trees on your left as you walk nearer to the path down to 40 Foot Way see if you can spot the Squirrel’s dreys. These nest like constructions are stuffed with dead leaves to keep the Squirrels warm. Does this make you feel glad you’re not a Squirrel! Brrrh, looks a cold and drafty way to sleep in winter!
Continuing around the path bordering the Rugby field you may well see more birds feeding on the Hawthorn berries in the hedgerow beside the path. Keep going along the path until you get to the zig zag before the MUGA. The very large tree, last in the row of trees making the avenue beside the tall Holly hedge; is a Caucasian Wingnut.
The only one in our borough, this tree was planted by James Boyd in 1885. This lovely old tree is usually the last in the park to loose its leaves for the winter. How’s it doing as you pass by today; still green or in autumn colour or has it succumbed to the winter winds? This is the end of your walk of the month…the café awaits!
All parks have a great history, created as public open, green spaces by visionary men and women for the people to enjoy.