Category Archives: Nature

A Rather Blustery Day

The wind’s been getting up a bit lately around the city, and while I was looking up some interesting facts about the history of London, I came across a report of the tornado that hit London in 2006. I had absolutely no memory of this happening – it’s not like central USA here where tornadoes and hurricanes are ten a penny – so I delved a little deeper.

On the 7th December 2006, a tornado measuring T4 on the TORRO scale (which apparently equates to 16 on the Beaufort Scale) hit Kensal Green, passing through a number of streets in just a couple of minutes, ripping roofs off of buildings, upturning cars and injuring six people. The country had been undergoing strange and unstable weather phenomena all morning, having been affected by Ulrike, a strong Atlantic low pressure system, but a tornado was just the oddest of them all. Thunderstorms had been covering Cornwall, but it all came to a head over the capital, with strong winds, sleet and rain preceding a tornado that, according to one witness, looked “amazing […] but then it touched land … [and] went from exciting to terrifying.”

This is far from the first time that the wind has got a bit much in the city. Most of Britain still talks with a certain reverence of the Great Storm of 1987. Although considered by some to be a hurricane, officially it an extratropical cyclone with hurricane force winds, though if you ask me, that amounts to the same thing anyway.

"Aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987" by David Wright. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aftermath_of_the_Great_Storm_of_1987.jpg#/media/File:Aftermath_of_the_Great_Storm_of_1987.jpg

“Aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987” by David Wright.

The afternoon of the 15th October hadn’t had any particularly strong winds. Michael Fish, a meteorologist who has never lived down the experience, gave the weather forecast and stated, rather flippantly, that while it was going to get a bit windy, most of it would pass over France and Spain. He said that a lady had called the BBC asking about a hurricane, but he said there wasn’t one coming. He says now he was quoted out of context, but the incident is so ingrained in the nation’s psyche – the footage even appearing during the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony – that it hardly matters.

The strongest winds that night reached 120mph, and most of the south was battered beyond recognition, causing two billion pounds worth of damage in one night. Fifteen million trees were downed across the country, and London wasn’t free from any of that. Specimens of historic importance and great age were felled in such places as Kew Gardens and Hyde Park, and there was barely an avenue that didn’t have some trees knocked down, often crushing cars beneath them. The following morning, with no power across parts of the city and the public transport network down, many people stayed off work.

But let’s go further back in time, to another Great Storm. This time, the Great Storm of 1703. The calendar at the time said 26th November, but with the switch in dates later that century, it would have been equivalent to 7th December, oddly the same day as the 2006 tornado. Queen Anne was on the throne and she was led to shelter in the cellars of St James’s Palace to hide the damage to the roof. Across the city, two thousand chimney stacks were knocked down, the roof was blown off Westminster Abbey, and some seven hundred ships were blown together and destroyed in the Thames.

This being a slightly less scientific time, they did not all trust their barometers that this was something atmospheric. The church said it was because God was angry at all the sinning happening in England, Daniel Defoe said God was punishing the people for “poor performance against Catholic armies in the War of Spanish Succession”. Curiously, however, the storm may have helped the rising industry of journalism, and was the first weather event to become a national news story, with special editions of the paper listing information about the damaged and the dead.

London's first tornado

London’s first tornado

But let’s go right back. The earliest disaster we can find. That’s the first recorded tornado of British history; the London tornado of 17th October 1091. As a bonus factoid, it was a Friday. If the one in 2006 was measured as a T4 and was destructive enough, it was nothing compared to this. Modern scientists believe it would have measured T8, which suggests winds of up to 240mph, capable of throwing cars long distances, toppling high-rises with shallow anchors, and twisting skyscrapers in their foundations.

Bear in mind, then, that in 1091 there weren’t any skyscrapers, cars or high-rise buildings, suggesting that the damage done was almost absolute. These are wind speeds that can blow wooden houses apart with ease. Despite the severity, only two people were known to have died in it. The wooden London Bridge was demolished and St Mary-le-Bow church was badly damaged. It’s popularly remarked upon that four rafters from its roof each measuring 26 feet were forced into the ground by the wind with such power that only 4 feet remained visible. The storm did little to help the reputation of William II, who had just raided the resources of the churches. The people felt the storm was a judgment on his wickedness.

But, as ever, London clawed itself back from the brink, and rebuilt itself once more. After all, this is Britain. When did we ever let a bit of bad weather bother us?

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London’s Wild Heart

I’m not a native Londoner. I live in the heart of Sussex, in a small town crowded on all sides by farmland, open countryside and expansive forests. As such, one would believe that there is a lot more wildlife to be seen in my neck of the woods than in London. One wouldn’t necessarily be right.

While I’ve always noticed that there seems to be a distinct lack of dogs and cats in London, there is wildlife in abundance. Before London was there, of course, it was just wild land and forest, so we’ve encroached on the natives who haven’t all been so keen to leave. Some of them even perhaps seem to prefer the city. Oh sure, the majority of these animals are squirrels, mice, rats and pigeons, and even the most eager of tourists would have to be hard-pushed to find any of those particularly exciting to see.

But did you know that there are pelicans in London? Deer? Parrots? Flamingos? Well, there are. But how did all of this come about?

deerLet’s start with the deer, since that’s probably the one I mentioned that most people do know about. The current herds of red deer and fallow deer are likely descended from those installed by Charles I in the 17th century. When a plague was threatening London, he moved his court out to Richmond and decided that he wanted to do some hunting. Today there are over six hundred deer living in the park, all of them completely wild and free to roam. They came to the public eye a few years ago when, in a viral video, a dog walker was left helpless when his Labrador decided to give chase. (I’ve included the link for the three people who haven’t seen the video.)

I’ve spent a lot of time in Richmond Park and the deer are astonishingly beautiful. I’d advise you don’t try and get too close. The fallow deer are more likely to flee, but the red deer are prone to standing their ground. And if it’s the breeding season then anything goes and I’d stay away altogether.

The deer are culled twice a year, simply because they have no predators and if left to breed indefinitely, there would be too many for the park to sustain. If you really want to see deer but Richmond Park is too difficult to get to for you, there are deer in Bushy Park too, again both red and fallow deer.

Speaking of Richmond Park though, this is where you’ll find parrots. Granted, the maritime climate of Britain doesn’t seem appropriate for these birds better suited to tropical forests, but nonetheless a population lives here, known to some as the Kingston, or Twickenham, parakeets. They are rose-ringed parakeets to be specific and they’ve been here since – well, that’s just it. No one can really agree on when or how they arrived, because they’re definitely not native.

The first recorded sighting of a parakeet was in 1855, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that their population exploded and they became a common sight in south London, although their territory seems to be spreading ever more northwards. How they got there is a mystery. Some say that they escaped from the film set in the 1950s. Others prefer the theory that they escaped from an aviary during the 1987 hurricane. Another theory posits that Jimi Hendrix released a pair in Carnaby Street in the sixties. Not only can we not agree on how they got there, but no one knows how many there are either. Estimates range from 6,000 to 50,000.

PelicanMoving to a different park, St James’s Park specifically, we find another strange bird that looks out of place in the city of London, but has now become so accepted that most Londoners simply don’t question it anymore. Yes, these are the pelicans of Duck Island. Their population has grown and dipped over the years, ever since they arrived in 1664, as a present from the Russian ambassador. They’re hugely sociable, but that doesn’t mean they’re always pleasant, and some of them have a nasty habit of eating the pigeons. Again, there’s a video, but watch at your own risk.

The pelicans seem to live a semi-wild state, as while they hunt for their own fish and, apparently, pigeon, they are also fed every day by the park’s wildlife officer, who also deals with the other exotic birds of the lake.

If you’re of a certain age, you will remember that Trafalgar Square used to be absolutely heaving with pigeons. Less so these days, mostly because it was becoming a health hazard, but there are still some about and the rest seem to have scattered to elsewhere in the city. But another reason that the population dropped was that birds of prey were introduced to scare the smaller birds away. Because of this, even the densely packed city of London is home to several hawks and falcons. Peregrine falcons have been known to nest here, and are often seen around the Tate Modern, St Paul’s and the Barbican, so keep your eyes peeled to the skies and you may catch the sight of one.

I knew about all of these before I started my research but I had no idea that the city also hosts flamingos, right there in Kensington. While people are at ground level shopping their way through the department stores, one hundred feet above them are the Kensington Roof Gardens, a peaceful spot that’s been there for eighty years and seems to be one of London’s best kept secrets. In one of its three themed gardens you’ll find flamingos, which just seems a tad insane. But, then again, I didn’t know that a building in Kensington has seventy full-sized trees on its roof, so I guess it’s all relative.

mozzieTo finish off, let’s descend below the surface and find an animal that’s far less beautiful or cute and turn our attention to the London Underground mosquito. Although mosquitos are probably not massively associated with Britain, much like the other animals we’ve discussed here, they have been living in the tube network for long enough that they have become their own species, resistant to the cold and not fussy about what they bite. They pestered Londoners sleeping down here during the Blitz and spread disease. Even more interesting is that different tube lines have different subspecies of the critter. They’re not unique to London though – pretty much any underground network you can name has them, although how they’ve spread from one to the other is a little unclear. However it’s done, they are one of the most recently evolved species on the planet.

So next time you’re in London and want to see something a little more exotic, hunt down one of these curious creatures (though maybe not the mosquito), and be reminded again that this is a city that always has another surprise tucked up its sleeve.