The WANDLE WANDERER detours from the riverside and finds a surprising oasis of calm and natural beauty within sight of the Purley Way
I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. It may undermine the calm and peace of this particular, precious spot, which would be a shame, although it has demonstrated the resilience of nature over the decades and, today, offers a real oasis within sight of one of the worst polluting horrors of the 21st century.
Yesterday was National Meadows Day. Who knew? And, according to the organisers, so is today. “We are keen to grow this event nationally so that National Meadows Day becomes an annual event taking place on the first Saturday of July every year (Sunday is fine too),” they say. It’s likely that they are seeking organic growth.
“National Meadows Day is a growing event which celebrates wildflower grasslands, providing an opportunity for you to showcase the amazing wildflowers and species you have on your sites and in your communities.
“Feedback from last year showed that many people attending events were surprised by the diversity of the flora and sheer number of insects and reptiles found in the meadows they visited. This really reinforced the importance of meadow preservation, and of the role of the National Meadows Day events in educating the public about this important habitat that is fast disappearing.”
And yet, on Croydon’s doorstep, there are wild flower meadows which are thriving. You just need to know where to look. There’s Coulsdon Common and Farthing Down, of course, and there’s Roundshaw, too, all managed by the City Commons. But there’s also a pockets of rural resistance to urbanisation and the motor car even closer to Croydon town centre.
All those car drivers speeding down the hill along the Purley Way probably never bother a glance either side. To their right are the playing fields, closely cropped parkland and football pitches. This expanse serves an important recreational purpose for the people of Croydon throughout the year, but as a haven for wildlife, it is really just a green desert.
But on the opposite, western side of the A23, there’s a small modern miracle of ecology taking place. Take a look, and you might not notice much, just that the grass has been allowed to grow uncut. And that’s exactly the point.
Roundshaw Downs, much of it around the former site of the old Croydon Airport, has been re-wilding for years now, and local wildlife trusts and the council (Sutton, in this case) have opted for some benign neglect to assist the process.
There’s a variety of habitats, with some mature woodland that snakes its way from around the back of John Fisher School’s playing fields towards Roundshaw Park, where the dappled light allows a rich undergrowth of nettles and brambles to thrive (the blackberries are looking particularly abundant this year).
Beyond the trees, between the housing and the urban motorway that is the Purley Way, pathways have been cut in the grass. Each Saturday, promptly at 9am, the Parkrunners stage their weekly race around two laps of the chalk downland, starting from close to Costco on Imperial Way.
Local rambler groups also make use of the space, setting out from the Colonnades and essaying a three-mile circuit to spend the hour before lunch and returning to the pub. And in an echo of the location’s aviation past, modellers are often to be found flying their planes over the expanse.
On a good day, from the Downs’ slightly elevated position, you can see Saffron Tower (is there anywhere in south London where it can be unseen?), the Ikea chimneys, the Beddington incinerator’s insidious new stacks, and in the further distance are the Crystal Palace towers, The Shard, even the Wembley Arch.
Of course you can see the Purley Way, with its traffic racing past in both directions. But there are times when you cannot here the noise of the main road. There’s silence. There’s peace.
And then you hear them: the constant buzzing of bees, allowed to get on with their busy work, unthreatened by pesticides or other modern, man-made perils to their – and our – existence. And before long, you’ll notice as a sky lark rises up from its nest, then another and another, and the whole place is bathed in bird song which many feared might be lost from southern England forever.
Thing is, the sky larks can nest at Roundshaw safe in the knowledge that the grass around them, upon which the very survival of their species depends, will remain uncut all year round, and pretty much undisturbed, apart from the attentions of the occasional curious dog out for a walk.
Two large enclosures have been fenced off where, each autumn, a small herd of Sussex cattle are left out to graze through to around Christmas time. It is all part of the project being used by City Commons at Coulsdon and in the Chipstead valley, and provides the cattle with rich winter feed, and naturally nourishes the soil and spreads the diverse and abundant plant life. Enterprising gardeners and allotment owners have been seen turning up armed with shovels and wheelbarrows for their own supply of free cow dung.
Now, National Meadows Day, the grass is shoulder high around Roundshaw, with an astonishingly rich variety of flowers and other plants thriving, butterflies flitting past everywhere you turn. There must be other wildlife hiding in the grass, too, because most days there will be a display of the local kestrel soaring and diving, hovering above a spot before swooping on its prey – a field mouse, perhaps.
Roundshaw is an absolute delight, and a real success for those behind the scheme. In these times of straitened council budgets, perhaps getting parks contractors not to spray or cut the grass in one corner or glade of parts of our public parks, and creating a chain of other little wildlife havens across the borough, could be a way forward to provide more habitats for the flora and fauna which would enhance our open spaces and help to reconnect our children with their environment.
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