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On days when working doesn’t drag me into school and the office I prefer to be outdoors, simple as that.

We’re fortunate in living in a generously-sized flat but even there the high ceilings and long windows have a tendency to close in on me after a few hours. I prefer a room with an open window or the balcony door open rather than closed.

Being outdoors on the other hand inspires a sensation closer to that of surfacing after diving, that huge gulp of air that affirms you’re alive!

Much of the elation, and I don’t think it’s too exaggerated to call it that, comes from a sense of closer connectedness to the outside world, to the weather, the seasons, the plants. Even living in the city just stepping outside the front door brings the wild natural world to my senses, from the scent of the trailing wild roses on the path to the gate to the cool shade of leathery rhododendron leaves guarding the recycling bins; from the snail sanctuary of ivy smothering the red brick walls to the towering ash tree that dominates the front garden and matches the house, at five storeys, in height.

On the path to the swings we pass a line of informal, ill-formed gardens between a council block and the railway line. This is part of my unofficial countryside (the title of Richard Mabey’s ground -breaking 1973 book). It’s here that birdsong is amplified and there’s a greater chance of spotting foxes or feral cats or swift-scurrying creatures; it’s here that wind-blown aliens seed amongst the remnants of someone’s decking-clad arcadia. The spaces can’t be called either allotments or gardens, they’re something in between, a space hacked out of the brambles and dandelions, shaken by the passing Metropolitan and Chiltern Railway trains, impoverished and quite literally gone to seed.

The last thing I want to do is to excuse the dereliction, the shoddiness and the sheer wastefulness of much of our urban landscape…Discovering that the natural world is indifferent to at least the clutter and ugliness (but not usually the poisons) of our urban environments does not mean that we should be also. We should instead be trying to make our built-up areas more fruitful and life-giving for all their inhabitants…For it is nature’s fight back which is such an inspiration, her dogged and inventive survival in the face of all we deal out.

Richard Mabey The Unofficial Countryside

These sometimes neglected, sometimes cherished plots have taken on a talismanic importance to me over the years of our walk to the swings. Watching their fortunes through the seasons, linking layers of memory with memory, have encouraged a quiet bond to the site. It’s a small piece of unofficial countryside on my doorstep.

The photos capture it on a misty, rainy January morning earlier this year.

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If the ability of wildlife to survive literally on our doorstep is remarkable, its persistence in the face of this ceaseless change is amazing. It is also, I find, amazingly cheering. For it is a bleak view to see this story as nothing more than one of survival, with Nature irrevocably opposed to Man, forever just holding on. Looked at more hopefully it is a story of co-existence, of how it is possible for the natural world to live alongside man, even amongst its grimiest eye sores.

Richard Mabey The Unofficial Countryside

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At times like this I would find in myself an affection for those grubby landscapes that I could never have predicted and would have been hard put to excuse. Visually, they were without exception ugly. Although the healing processes of natural growth were everywhere in evidence (they were what I had been looking at the whole year), each one of these habitats represented an assault upon some green country. They had none of the restful predictability of ancient countryside…Yet it is the disorder and incongruity that I find so exciting and irresistible.

Richard Mabey The Unofficial Countryside

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In a prologue Mabey remembers this moment:

It had been what they call a normal working day. … Driving home in the middle of a creeping three-lane jam was about as much relief as if the office had been towed away on wheels. I was locked-up, boxed-in, and daydreaming morbidly. It was difficult to believe that there was any other sort of world beyond all this.

On impulse, I had snatched out of the homebound crawl after a few miles and headed down a winding suburban lane. It led to a labyrinth of gravel pits, reservoirs, and watery odds and ends that I had often visited during my work on the book. It was hardly the promised landscape, and the whole area was pocked with working quarries and car dumps. But in the mood I was in, just to have seen some murky water lapped by non-air-conditioned wind would have set me right.

What I did find that early autumn day was, I suppose, nothing special … I had parked by the edge of a canal which curled around the western edge of this maze of water, and had stumped off, scowling, along the towpath. I think it was my black frame of mind that made the unexpected late fruitfulness of this place strike me with such intensity. I had never noticed before that the canal here was as clear as a chalk stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface. Near the edge of the water drifts of newly hatched fish hung in the shallows. […]

What had begun as a nervous gallop soon turned into a stroll. My eyes began to relax a little, and following the last swallows hawking for flies over the water, I caught sight of a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance. I had never before seen this plant so deep into suburbia. The towpath itself was festooned with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms and when a bicycling worker bucked past it seemed as natural to exchange greetings with him as if we had been in a country lane. No matter that the place he had come from was the gaunt Water Board pumping Station that stretched along the bank, looking like nothing so much as an oil refinery. As dusk fell and the warning lights on its roof began to flush the bellies of the roosting gulls, I went off home like a new man.

Getting outside, being outside, making connections, simply taking time out to be in nature, inspires the ‘new man’ in me too.

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