Rose Rouse rocks around Harlesden with Patrick...the tree expert
Writer Rose Rouse is scouting around her home turf in Harlesden. Every month, for her Not On Safari In Harlesden project she walks and talks with NW10 friends and neighbours. Today’s interviewee is plant expert, Patrick
I play tennis at Elmwood Tennis Club – a brilliant community-orientated club in Kensal Green founded in 1898 – and there is often a mysterious bearded gentleman who appears quietly with hedge cutters or a chain saw whilst we’re on court. This is Patrick who ‘reigns’ over the wild flowers and trees in the amazingly green grounds.
Today, I’ve invited Patrick to give me a plant and tree tour. In residence – as it were – for the past fifteen years, he is ever-present and yet almost invisible. This is the day when I will try to urge him into visibility.
I must say he sounds posh in a kind of aristo way. He could be the Marquis of Bath’s little brother but he isn’t. He admits warily to having formerly worked in ‘heritage’ as a clerk. Which seems a rather strange, lowly position for such an intelligent man. He’s probably too much of an eccentric when it comes to employers. Which is good news for Elmwood.
Why did he decide to give his valuable time to Elmwood, I wondered. “I kind of adopted the place,” he smiles, “I saw it as a bit of the country in the city. This is called Elmwood Green according to the mayor’s office’s list of sites of importance for nature conservation, did you know?” I didn’t.
How does he see his role here? “I try to improve the biodiversity by re-introducing wild flowers into the land here. I grew up in the countryside in Herefordshire so I learnt all about them there. I’ve planted alder buckthorn here because they encourage fritillary butterflies. We have an amazing variety of butterflies and moths here. And over 30 types of tree. I’m rather proud of that.”
All done without any fuss. In fact, he operates so invisibly, the tennis players – if I’m anything to go by – don’t realise what this unassuming man is doing. Although I have noticed that he has tackled the privet hedges that surround the club.
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And off we go on our tour. There’s yellow toadflax under the hedge which I remember from walks with my grandfather in Yorkshire. There’s the majestic sight of verbascum which has a central stem of yellow flowers.
Then he confesses. About the huge-leafed burdocks under the hedge. As in the drink – dandelion and burdock. “I put them there when no-one was looking,” he laughs at his own furtiveness, “I’ve always got a few seeds in my pockets.”
That’s what I like to hear. A man with seeds in his pockets is irresistible. Then, there’s feverfew - “listed by old herbal books as helping with fevers and migraines” - with their white daisy-like flowers, and yellow tansy - “a tonic for well-being” - and the dandelion-related but nobler and taller hawks tail. There’s something I thought was deadly nightshade but turns out to be woody nightshade, plus wild carrot and silver weed.
Then an exciting rarity. “Haresfoot clover,” declares Patrick about a bigger, hairier clover that dares to reside here.
Is it the same every year in this meadow area that is no longer mown? “No,” he says, “last year it was full of red poppies which haven’t come up at all this year.”
The corner of this meadow triangle used to be a nightmare. Old bedsteads, the remains of the wooden shed that used to be at the end of one of the courts, any old rubbish people fancied throwing over the hedge – and the magnificent Patrick has slowly but surely (and invisibly) cleared it all away.
Changing the subject to a more comfortable one, he points out the young chestnut tree behind me. “I noticed some kids who had these matt black conkers. Nothing like the usual ones. I managed to get one of them and plant it. This is the result,” he grins at his biodiversity cunning.
Then, there’s the sweet smelling, delicate meadow sweet, (also sewn by Patrick), the tall but not giant hog weed and the blackthorn bushes. And the pond. Patrick re-instated the pond when workers renewing the courts destroyed it. “The frogs found this first,” he says, “then I dug a pond out.”
Whilst balls whizz back and forth, we squeeze our way down a narrow path at the back of the courts. It’s heavy with ripe, succulent blackberries. We try a few and they are almost ready.
Patrick calls the west corner next to All Souls Avenue and Buchanan Gardens, the tree corner. And there certainly are a lot. “It has awfully poor soil,” he explains, “and new trees often dry up and die. The houses opposite were bombed in the second world war and all their bricks and waste ended up being dumped here. That’s what made it such bad quality.”
I had heard that there used to be a chapel over here. “Apparently there was but I’m not sure where,” he says, “but there was a wardens’ shelter just over there, “ he says pointing at a concrete bunker that I’ve never noticed before. “Air raid wardens with rifles and police whistles would patrol the streets.”
Cherry, silver birch, plum, rowan, buddleia and elder trees abound. As do the exuberant staghorns that look as though they have strayed from Kew Gardens. With their fan-like leaves and beaky buds. Finally, we pass the noble red oak which is flamboyant in autumn like a tree bonfire.
A longer version of this walk is at email@example.com