The great urban outdoors

The great urban outdoors

London is an incongruous place, where opposites bump up against each other and manage to co-exist in an odd kind of harmony. The packed landscape is one of brick, mortar, steel and glass. The air hangs thick with pollution, and there are people absolutely everywhere. But amid the man-made, wild things roam. 

Raptors (birds of prey) revel in a cityscape that mimics the shapes formed by cliffs and crags. Prehistoric-looking herons form huge colonies on islands in manmade lakes. Bats hang out in disused railway tunnels. And tawny owls bring up young in ancient oaks, mere minutes from Marble Arch.

What I love most about London is its endless capacity to surprise. I find it both brilliant and reassuring to know that a huge swathe of this heaving city is natural land and that a host of creatures thrive here. London is full of grand parks and leafy squares, as well as many other, more secret wildernesses. Some are nature reserves and community gardens, while others are the tiny, personal creations of green-fingered city-dwellers.

Home for me is a postage stamp-sized flat in Holloway. The best thing about it is the fact there’s a door in my bedroom that opens out onto my downstairs neighbours’ kitchen roof. Despite a complete lack of experience, I decided to transform this three metre square space into an aerial, edible garden full of fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs.

The rooftop is now an outdoor living room, a tangled knot of growth balancing on a cloud of noise and dust. Despite being sandwiched between the Camden and Holloway Roads, it almost feels remote and is soundtracked with birdsong as well as sirens.

Since inheriting the roof and deciding to grow green fingers and toes, London has changed shape for me. I notice different things and actively seek out camouflaged places to escape to. I don’t crave the countryside - it’s urban nature that’s interesting. 

The Parkland Walk and Gillespie Park are brilliant because they are found beside the horrors of Finsbury Park Station. Camley Street Natural Park is unique because it is in King’s Cross. Walthamstow and Hackney Marshes appeal because they’re ringed by light industry, and it’s the odd characters and crumbling statues found in Abney Park Cemetery that give it its charm.

You really can see raptors and owls in central London, as well as herons, rare beetles and bats. I’ve watched peregrine falcons eating pigeon for breakfast on the Houses of Parliament and seen tawny owlets perched precariously in Kensington Gardens. I’ve seen hundreds of herons at Walthamstow Reservoirs and bats commuting along the Regent’s Canal.

My new book
is all about the adventures there are to be had in the wilds of London. Called My Garden, the City and Me - Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London, it’s about the glory of growing things, urban nature and a side of London that’s not often explored. 

It reveals how much wildlife a city can support and invites readers to see built-up spaces in new ways. My rooftop is the main character in a non-fiction book that’s also an ode to how satisfying urban gardening can be, no matter how hopeless at it you are.  It isn’t a ‘how to guide’, more the diary of wide-eyed urban grower. 

Helen Babbs' My Garden, The City and Me is published by Timber Press. Read more by Helen at /