Kathy Taylor explains the story behind Wanstead’s first large-scale mural, a singing nightingale on Nightingale Lane. Photo by Geoff Wilkinson
Back in January 2021, I was dreaming up an idea of a Festival of Nightingales for September on Nightingale Lane, Wanstead as a celebration, a wake and a rallying cry for this wonderful bird. Sadly, due to council Covid restrictions at the time, the idea had to be severely curtailed to last month’s mini festival.
However, in response to my door-to-door leafleting, Mark Clack of Wood Street Walls got in touch to ask if there was suitable wall space for a nightingale mural in the area. A few possibilities were identified and by February we approached Syed Asad Haque of the India Garden restaurant, who was delighted by the idea of having his end wall brightened up, being a fan of the Walthamstow murals. Mark selected one of his artist contacts, Gavin McPhail, who came up with a design that was approved by locals and Syed.
Now we see how a plain wall can be enhanced with design and colour, I am sure there will be a demand to brighten up other Wanstead walls!
The image is of a nightingale, which is a small brown bird with a creamy breast and a pale ring around its eye.
This mysterious, rarely seen bird is best known for its amazing melodious song (celebrated by poets since Homer in 750 BC) rather than its plumage, so the artist has made a depiction of its song prominent in the design.
The nightingale is in steep decline in the UK (a 91% dive in numbers since 1967), probably due to climate change and scrub habitat loss (disturbance from industrial farming practices – it nests near the ground – and grazing by muntjac deer both contribute to this). At a talk given by James Heal from the local Wren Wildlife group for the mini festival, attendees were amazed to learn that a nightingale was last heard on Wanstead Flats only this spring! However, this is a rare ‘sighting’ as it would have been passing through, looking for a suitable habitat on return from its winter migration to west Africa (it is thought).
Fishers Green in the Lea Valley is probably the nearest known place that you might hear one in spring at dusk. But what is the answer to the question: “Would there ever have been nightingales nesting in Wanstead?” There is a record of someone catching 34 birds in 1858 in Leytonstone, so almost undoubtedly, the answer is yes.
Thankfully, we no longer trap nightingales, even if we could find 34 of them! They are the canaries in the coal mine, an indicator of the drastic decline in our biodiversity and many of our much-loved songbird populations, including turtle doves and, locally, skylarks.
How can you help the nightingales? Campaign for better farming practices and more rewilding projects, find out how your food is produced and influence things via your spending power.
For more information on the Wren Wildlife Group, visit wnstd.com/wren
For more information on Wood Street Walls, visit wnstd.com/wsw