Where Are the Dragons?

Rewilding vast landscapes may bring wolves to restore balance to the natural world.

But rewilding the child will bring dragons to help fight for it.

Yesterday, we visited The Vyne, a National Trust location in Hampshire. I’d love to say that we’d gone to dig into the history of the area but, really, we went to catch-up with family and enjoy a mini break away from everything else (Saturday had been hectic for a whole other reason).

It marked the first time in months that I picked up my big camera, expecting to get lost in the treasures, tapestries and architecture of the big house. What actually happened was that, just before our timed entry started, I realised my audio recorder had fallen off my bag and disappeared, lost forever (despite some frantic searching). That left me a little lacking in inspiration, so whilst the house was extremely interesting, I’m afraid that I barely took a single shot before lunch.

Once we’d eaten, we decided to explore the wider grounds and get away from the manicured lawns and beautifully arranged vegetable beds. The grounds at The Vyne are dominated by water, with a series of man made lakes and rivers running down the centre, captured and diverted from naturally occurring wetlands ‘upstream’. Near the main house, the lakeshore is dominated by viewing spots and feels artifical, though pleasant. As you get further away, though, the wild creeps back in and starts to dominate the senses.

Huge banks of rosebay willowherb, thistle and willow rise up to meet deciduous forest. I was immediately struck by the wealth of butterflies surrounding us. The water was alive with movement from the fish beneath and the calm (at times) paddling of mallard, coot, moorhen, swan and tufted duck above. Squirrels chattered through the trees, momentarily disrupting bird song. And everywhere – everywhere! – that you looked,  bright blue damselflies darted through the air, never breaking their restless patrol of the waterways.

It was fantastic! I routinely trailed the group, pausing to watch a hoverfly balance precariously on the breeze or male beautiful demoiselles fighting over a patch of stream. It re-energised me, and whilst I doubt I got a single “keeper” of a shot I had a lot of fun trying. It made me realise how little time I’ve had with nature over the past 12 months.

Since moving to London in March (what?! yes, this has happened but more to come on that later) I haven’t felt disconnected from the wild. We live near both a large park and the Thames, we have parakeets routinely flying overhead and we even have a small roof ‘garden’ which is becoming increasingly green. Comparing day-to-day sightings, I probably see more large mammals and garden birds then we ever did in Taunton or even Devon.

But there is something different about truly wild places. Something that’s hard to pin down, to formalise or describe as a tick list. The areas around The Vyne aren’t necessarily “wild” in the true sense; after all, they form part of a heavily managed and well funded estate and are based on a Tudor-through-Victorian notion of upper class land management, not natural forces. But they reward and, crucially, encourage exploration – they have  secrets!

The quote at the top of this article is from a post on Rewilding Britain by Gill Lewis, which neatly puts into words some of my instinctive feelings about the nature in London. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, and I am joining hundreds of others in trying to create a fragmented network of wild(er) spaces across the capital, but there’s something that still feels lacking.

Perhaps it’s the never ceasing background hum of traffic and Heathrow, or perhaps it’s that even the least manicured space still feels somehow ‘allowed’ to exist, as if its fate is very much in the hands of the people around it. But something imperceptible was different when I walked around the man-made lakes at The Vyne compared to the man-made gardens at Kew. Somehow, there were just fewer dragons…