Menu

Life in the big smoke

Finnish forests and London forests

I grew up in a small town in Finland, there was a woodland a couple of blocks from my house. Forests surround the city on all sides, except for in the west, where the land meets the Gulf of Bothnia.

When I was little my family spent a couple of weeks at the summer house in June and July. This is nothing special in Finland where most people have a summer house or a summer cottage . It’s a big country with not that many people, there is a lot of space and 75 percent of the land is covered in forest.

The woods around the summer house were great for playing in. My brother, my cousin and I used to go on make believe adventures, finding trails among the blueberry bushes and the moss, scrambling up big granite boulders and finding the courage to jump down again.

We trekked through what to us seemed like jungles of reeds and fire weed to find new ways to the road on the far side of the forest. We walked around the old swamp that had been filled in with ballast from the ships that once docked in town. According to my grandmother the soil had come all the way from Africa.

In the old swamp we found and collected rocks that were red and brown and sometimes inky blue, some had been hollowed out by foreign waves revealing a milky colour underneath a darker surface, some had holes in them, some were smooth and polished. My grandmother called them moonstones. There are still several of them sitting in a bowl on the veranda at the summer house.

When my grandad was still alive he made my brother a bows from the juniper bushes and arrows out of sticks. In the autumns when the forests turned soggy and soft my granny took us mushroom hunting in the forests.

She taught us to look out for grönkremlor and smörsoppar, the yellow-orange mushroom which according to her had to be fried in lots of butter. Often the mushrooms were slug eaten and hosting at least a couple of worms. The worm infested parts were cut away and returned to the forest. Sometimes my grandmother sliced a sliver of a gilled mushroom with a brick red hat. She tasted it, making sure it was a tegelkremla and not the one that would burn your tongue.

It’s more than fifteen years since I went out into a forest to forage for mushrooms, but I can still recall the smell of wet soil. I didn’t realise how precious and special this was until I moved away. I miss the forests now and I seek them out whenever I can and wherever I can found them.

I feel very lucky to have landed in a place in London surrounded by two forests – Oxleas Wood and Bostall wood. Some parts are over 8000 years old, there are oaks, hornbeams and hazel. The forests are split by the A2 and other roads. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but to me it seems like the constant hum of traffic is dampened by all that green.

When I walk to the forest it feels like the crinkles in my soul have been smoothed out. I promise myself I should go more often, but the first time I made it there this year was a few weeks ago.

There are several bits I still want to explore, but Gerry and I have already established “our” regular forest walk up to Bostall Wood. Apparently (according to the internet) the word bostall means “a secure place” in Old English. It couldn’t be more fitting.

 

The shipwreck at the studio

When Gerry and I moved to Thames Side Studios we often had to pinch ourselves. It had everything we had been looking for. It’s right next to the Thames, there’s a great community of artists and makers, a print-studio, an on-site sauna and the site has its very own shipwreck.

I remember walking around the place on a sweltering day in July several months before we knew we’d suddenly get kicked out of Hoxton, looking at the river and the shipwreck thinking, “wow, imagine working at a place like this”.

And now we’ve been here for two years. When it’s not too cold outside we take mugs of tea and stand on the sea wall, looking at the planes taking off from City Airport, the cormorants fishing in the river, the dredgers humming along and the occasional seal swimming by.

The shipwreck is still there, hosting an impressive colony of pigeons. When we moved in she used to float, now she sits on the riverbed at high tide like a stubborn old lady, the water lapping over her deck.

The man who owns her occasionally cycles in and uses an improvised drawbridge to get on board. Two years ago we still heard a generator whirring somewhere at the back. A year ago I spotted a group of people in camo-gear playing paintball on the ferry. Now there just seems to be more and more pigeons.

Once the Royal Iris hosted the Queen and the Beatles on trips across the Mersey. People at the studio have told me visitors from Liverpool have stood on the sea wall crying over the state of her now.

The Royal Iris sailed on the Mersey for 40 years and was decommissioned in the 90s. She came to London in 2002. The new owner found a spot for her in Woolwich and had planned on turning her into a floating nightclub.  It appears not much has happened since.

Although I’m told she once managed to escape, floating out with the tide. After that they cut out her engines and left a hole in her hull. Perhaps she too sits there watching the planes.

New podcast: The crazy tale of teenage mediums in Victorian London

Hi everyone. There’s a new podcast. This episode looks at the life of Florence Cook, a famous teenage medium in Victorian London.

I’ve been reading a lot about the girls who became mediums in the 19th century, why quite a few women suddenly chose this path, why there was a public hunger for séances and how mediumship gave women a voice at the time when they often weren’t allowed to speak in public. The episode is also about sex (and so were the séances according to some writers)

Hope you enjoy this month’s episode.

London, my London

I took the river boat home after doing interviews around London Bridge yesterday. I looked at the grey waves, the silt. This water, it’s seen tragedy before. It’s seen suicides and bombs and murders.

London has seen a lot. London has survived a lot. I saw some quote yesterday about how this old battle scarred city shrugs and moves on. But we’re fragile. Those of us who live and love and dream and hate in this city, we’re fragile.

I’m fragile.

I’ve seen the aftermath of terror attacks in two cities I love, in two cities I’ve called home, in the space of about a week. I’ve seen fear and resilience and strength and shock. I hid my face from the sweeping broadcast cameras at the vigil in Manchester, because journalists shouldn’t cry.

This is real. This is happening. This keeps happening. This white hot madness, like a pinched nerve running through society. Why does it keep happening?

I was at Borough Market on Saturday afternoon. I bought a coffee from one of the stallholders and then I got a train from London Bridge. A normal day.

A friend of mine left Borough Market a couple of minutes before the attack. A normal evening. Shattered.

Perhaps the people who look back at this time will find a narrative. We only catch glimpses of it, rushing forward and looking out at these events as they blur. In the future some sense might be made and some answers might be found. Until then we’re stuck with the blur and with our feelings.

This is what I thought yesterday. If we don’t take care of our societies they will break. If we don’t figure out what our values are and then stand up for them, what we have will crumble. If we’re not compassionate we engender hate. And if we don’t have honest conversations about fear and anger and who to blame for all kinds of horrors those feelings will crawl out like beasts from the most spiteful corners of our societies.

I wish I could have offered my sadness to the river. I wish she would have washed it all away. But she’s seen it before, she doesn’t care. It’s up to those of us who live along her shores to do that work for her.

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.