A cool wind blows across Blackheath this afternoon. The low grass is immobile cut so tightly that not one blade of grass can move in the breeze. Yet besides the A2 a bank of herbs stands tall and the white flowers of the Ox-eyed daisies sway in the wind. The low mounds that the daisies grow out of rise up from the flatness of the heath either side of the main road – a boundary of colour separating the traffic from the managed heath.
It wasn’t always so. Before 2009 the roadside was just grass and stumps of wood hammered into the ground to stop cars parking randomly on the heath. It was about the time when the climate change camp arrived on the heath. Like modern day Wat Tyler’s they bivouacked on the heath beside the two new mounds that were just starting to flower. Since then what was once just a roadside verge of no consequence has been transformed into a ‘bee’ road.
In April this year the Co-operative Bank in partnership with Buglife – the Invertebrate Charity launched a programme to set up ‘Bee’ roads across the country. It would seem that Blackheath got there first. Our very own bee road in SE London is now home to a wild range of wildflowers; Ox-eye daisies, plantains, Viper’s bugloss, Campion, Knapweed and Corn chamomile. Bees patrol the Bee road, as do the few species of butterfly that can be seen on the heath.
Roadside verges were commonplace in my youth but with management practices farmed out to distant contractors they have disappeared across the country. I can also remember driving in the countryside and watching the midges and gnats splattering against my father’ windscreen. At the end of the journey it would be covered in dead insects. Driving now and you would be ‘lucky’ to have the imprint of dead insects on the windscreen, which is perhaps a rather macabre indication of how we have affected invertebrate biodiversity over the last thirty years. Pesticides and factory farming, mowing and tidying up keep wildflowers and weeds at bay in turn reducing the amount of insects along our roadways.
The Blackheath bee road goes some way to reinstating wildness on the heath, where Linnaeus, the great organizer of nature once roamed. Our need to order the world around us and ‘tidy’ it up leaves most of the heath a mown desert, where only a few flowers creep above the cutting of the mowers. Fortunately in places the heath is allowed to be what it wants to be. In the West around Wat Tyler Road you can you find Knapweed growing, it’s purple thistle like flower head attracting the occasional burnet moth. Besides Cade road bird’s foot trefoil grows a plenty attracting small heath butterflies and carder bees. Near the Vanbrugh Pits the delicate blue flowers of harebells can be found and if you look hard in places you can also find knotted clover- a rarity in London.
The ‘Bee’ roads on the heath differ slightly. The northern mound is more densely packed with wildflowers – beautiful in a gardening sense. The southern mound is weedier – there are less ‘flowers’ and more plants that many would be consider to be weeds – Shepherd’s purse, mustards, rapes, rockets and fat hen. Yet this weedier stretch later in the year will attract the goldfinches and linnets that can be seen on the heath, in late summer and autumn, foraging for seed heads.
These ‘Bee’ roads connect the patches of wildness on the heath. They also recreate the roadside verges of the countryside right here in the heart of south east London. But this is only one stretch of road. To imagine all of the roads that crisscross the heath framed with low mounds and swaying wildflowers – Cade road to Croom’s Hill, Goffer’s road to Orchard Place, South Row to Germain’s Place, a riot of flowers in bloom and if one were to walk there early in the morning before the traffic is full flow we would hear the buzz of bees.
First appeared in The Guide – Nature Notes – Monthly nature column written by Dusty