In our garden, bushes bedecked with bird feeders chuckle with the noisy conversations of sparrows and dunnocks. Chirrups, quarrels, confrontations, reproaches, warnings, laughter and gossipings: they’re all there, creating the hubbub which, at certain times of the day, makes the garden a cathedral of noise. Then, just as quickly as it started, the noise stops, silence falls and the parliament of fowls disperses as subtly as it formed, the little creatures gone to their rest, or to rootling somewhere else, perhaps. Wherever the sparrows are, it is the same; even last week but a stone’s throw from the Thames, in St George’s Gardens. Here, despite being in the very heart of Shadwell, further east than London’s Tower, nature thrums, and right behind St George in the East – one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s iconic and mysterious churches – the cat seeks out Jenny Wren while her noisy carollings continue. Did that little hunter turn around rather sheepishly as we passed, or were we the embarrassed ones? This ancient graveyard is now the creatures’ playground and they are at home here: as are we.
Many visitors are struck by London’s incomprehensible size, which has the effect of siting its most popular landmarks often miles away from each other; the air on the main streets is choked with diesel; the crowds press on; the traffic and the sirens of emergency vehicles roar. But, to us, trekking on foot along its lanes and byways – our footsteps echoing our ancestors’ – London is a land of tiny details: a succession of memories from time way beyond memory, a kind of fossil record of an entirely different kind, built in layers of little things and the ordinary things found in the great places.
And thus we find it, again and again on the streets beyond the City, where past meets present in the tread of a cat or the twittering of a bird. Amazing to relate, but despite being ringed round with busy streets, peace and wildlife abound within the award-winning garden on Portsoken, one of King George’s Fields, set up by the Lord Mayor of London in 1936 to honour recently dead King George V. Bat boxes, a wildlife pond and thoughtful seating await patiently the lunchtime seekers of peace and contemplation. During the middle of the day, Stepney Green is an elegant joy and the alleys around Wellclose Square, where Wilton’s Music Hall once again resounds to the human voice, whisper their ghostly secrets to those who listen attentively; once left for dead by a firebomb in 1941, the great white Hawksmoor church now ushers us inside its great wall of glass, candle in hand. Beyond the detail, in the mists of time above the rooftops, the Shard and the Gherkin stand guard: small things in their own way when compared with the conglomeration which is the heart of London – the City and that which lies to its east. A different kind of trundle from the beach, but what a place to walk, and to ponder.