Summer is moving on apace and as I don’t want to waste a single sunny day when it crops up, I grabbed my camera and binoculars and cycled up the River Lee after the first good forecast this week. The idea was to go dragonfly spotting, something I’ve been aching to give a whole day to, but the day itself had other plans for me.
I had a particular spot in mind, Gunpowder Park, near Waltham Abbey. I’d been there many years ago and had a vague memory of myriads of dancing insects, so having for once a specific destination in mind I set off at a brisk pace.
The towpath was deserted, surprisingly so for such a lovely day. I usually cycle the towpath slowly, mindful of pedestrians and dogs, but on this occasion there was not another soul to be seen, and I sped along. Due to my haste I will have missed a lot – I know it – just from the tantalising things that I only glimpsed like the plums glossy and ripe and good spilled across the gravel as windfall, the skulking herons, the bright flash of wildflowers. The horse meadow with it’s bright garlanded hedgerow coaxed me to pull up and drink in it’s beauty, the scent of buddlea and wild sweet peas heady and intoxicating.
Usually I’d stop alongside those pylons to search for Little Owls (at one point I was seeing so many and so regularly there that I just called them “pylon birds”) but this time I was on a mission, and thinking that I could easily stop there on the way home I hurried by. A bank of honeysuckle flowers tempted me to pause, but I was uncharacteristically hasty in getting back in the saddle.
Ever feel like you’ve jinxed yourself? All those things I told myself I’d stop and look at properly on the way back never did get looked at after all, which proves to me that being in a hurry to get anywhere is just a great big waste of NOW. Hurrying discourages curiosity, blinkers us to the unexpected. And on I sped, intoxicated with the swift breeze and the scrunch of gravel under my tyres. The towpath finally emerged from beneath the roaring M25, ducked under one more road and rolled out into parkland. Was this Gunpowder Park? I wasn’t sure, and a quick rummage in my saddlebag confirmed that I’d forgotten to bring a map. No problem! It would surely be signposted and besides, I could always ask for directions.
I got off the bike and strolled slowly along the riverbank in hope of spotting a dragonfly or two, but the wind was strong and I could not find the sheltered places where the dragons and damsels would be patrolling. Still, the river was beautiful, a slow, sinuous dancing river, and the weeds under the water swayed slowly like mermaids tresses. So many wildflowers I did not recognise! I got down on my belly to take pictures, to the mild alarm of strolling families who couldn’t see anything special about the clump of weeds I was prostrated by. I’m truly glad I spent a bit of slow time here, because when I got up and got back on my bike in search of Gunpowder Park and dragonflies, I realised something wasn’t quite right. Oh no – no WAY. I had a puncture. Normally this would not be an issue but I think you can guess what else I’d forgotten. That’s right - I’d set out to cycle miles out of London over relatively rough ground and not even brought a pump with me. And as I’d forgotten my map, I had no idea where the nearest train station was. Where was everybody? Now that I needed to ask directions the park seemed suddenly deserted. In search of directions or even a sign I followed the nearest road and stumbled upon a very unfriendly looking gated community on the edge of town; big ugly houses with big ugly cars parked in all the drives, completely sterile and unhelpfully deserted. But here I found a genuine and lovely surprise.
A flowering ornamental shrub was by some magic growing wild at the side of the path, and on it’s flowers danced an astonishing number of Painted Lady butterflies. The nectar laden flower heads tossed in the strong breeze and the insects clung to the blossoms determinedly, everything moving back and forth as if being pulled by a tide. Bees hummed industriously between the butterflies – everything was so intensely involving that the mystery of how I was ever going to get home seemed very far away.
I know most people in the UK have been seeing these lovely butterflies in great numbers since their mass migration here earlier this spring, but I’ve been singularly unlucky and seen hardly any. To find dozens of them all in one place was plenty consolation for the lack of dragonflies and the long, hot, unpleasant slog home.