Meryl Pugh describes her new book as a love letter to Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats. Here, the Bushwood resident explains the power of the local urban environment as a site for healing and connection
My new book, Feral Borough, is a bit of a love letter to Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats. One-third bestiary, one-third herbarium, one-third memoir, it celebrates the idea of home and being a local – and argues that urban nature is just as full of interest and beauty as the remotest mountain.
I’ve been walking the green places near my home in E11 for years, but it wasn’t until the death of a close friend that I became interested in the wildlife and history of the area. In the weeks that followed the shock of losing her, I wasn’t much good for anything, but walking and nature came to my rescue.
I walked for hours in Wanstead Park, and found myself one day crouched over a plant. It wasn’t long before I’d hauled out the bird and wild flower books, trying to identify what I saw; marsh pennywort at the edge of Perch Pond, tansy beside the path to the tea hut. Tufted ducks and greylag geese. The park had worked its magic.
One of the ideas I explore in the book is the way that even common plants and birds, such as yarrow or feral pigeons, are remarkable if you look at them closely enough. The geese on Wanstead’s ponds get an entry, as do the lime and sweet chestnut avenues, planted by the estate’s original owners.
Not all the entries in my ‘herbestiary’ are common, though, or even animals: there’s a chapter on the City Tree (a contraption outside Leytonstone station designed to improve air quality), and another on a flasher, complete with (invented) scientific name. There’s a boa constrictor, too, as well as, of course, the white-cheeked turaco of Leytonstone, which is famous (well, on Wikipedia).
I wrote a lot of Feral Borough during lockdown when I was unable to visit the local archives, so I did most of my research online. The Friends of Wanstead Parklands’ website was invaluable – particularly Richard Arnopp’s series of articles about Wanstead House – as a starting point.
And learning about Wanstead’s history sent me in some unexpected directions, to discover cloning techniques in 17th-century botany, for example, or to explore the links between shrews and ash trees in folklore.
It definitely increased my appreciation of the local area. I feel so lucky to be able to step out of my door now we’re out of lockdown and be under trees or by a lake within minutes.
Feral Borough is published by Penned in the Margins (£12.99). For more information, visit wnstd.com/feralborough
For more information on Wanstead Park, visit wnstd.com/fwp