It was my birthday on April 1st (no joke!) and as it was a sunny day I took myself off to snap photos of the lovely blossom around Stroud Green. The first tree I snapped was the one above. The Amelanchier is also known as Snowy Mespilus because of its delicate snow-white blossom. There are a group of them on the space in front of Vagabond Cafe on Stroud Green Road. Blooming only for a week, they always burst forth on my birthday. Another name for this beautiful tree is the Juneberry tree because of the small blue-black berries which fruit in June. They are edible and apparently taste rather like blueberries although I’ve never tried them. I have one in my garden and I can time the ripening of the berries as enthusiastic wood pigeons rustle and flap among the branches as they munch their dinner. The tree has all year round beauty – in autumn the leaves turn a rich dark red colour.
My blossom tour included Stapleton Hall Road and Mount View Road. Walking up Stapleton Hall Road a woman stopped me to complement me on my bright pink fleece. Arriving on Mount View Road two Portuguese women getting into their car stopped to chat and we got into a conversation about Easter traditions in Portugal where they scatter blossoms on the doorsteps. I continued on my way and as their car passed me the driver rolled down her window and gave me a medallion of the Virgin Mary which she had blessed for me. Hmm! But still, both encounters show how friendly people are round here.
When my hair began to fall out in the shower after my first bout of chemotherapy I took myself off to Met’s Hair Salon to get my head shaved. I thought it would be less distressing than having hair fall out in clumps over a period of several weeks. That’s when I met Metin, who’s from Gaziantep in south east Turkey. He bought the Stroud Green business eleven years ago from a Greek couple who were retiring. He’s assisted by Ali who is learning the trade.
Metin has been a barber for twenty years, first training in Turkey.
“I love my job,” he says with a smile. “I like the mixed community here in Stroud Green. You get educated with people’s different opinions and views.”
I ask him what he likes best about talking to people and he admitts he loves to discuss football. I’m glad he’s an Arsenal supporter, as am I!
I wonder whether he gets many women in the shop and he says he has quite a few female customers, partly because of the price and partly because he knows how to cut short hairstyles. “These days many women like short hair whereas the men are going for longer cuts,” says Metin.
To attract more customers, Metin wants to install a video screen in the window where he would play different demonstrations of his trade: cutting, hot towelling, shaving.
Met’s, which is open from 9 am till 7.30 pm six days a week, offers many services – from the usual short back and sides, colour, wet shave, and head and shoulder massage. As I spend a lot of time hunched over my computer I ask if he’d demonstrate a shoulder massage. Metin chooses a brush shaped like a fish to massage my shoulders which felt a lot more flexible after five minutes.
Since my first shave two years ago my hair has grown back but I keep it short and continue to go to Met’s.
Shinrin-yoku(forest bathing) – a short trip to a forest where you walk and relax while breathing in essential oils released by the trees – has long been practiced by the Japanese. Recent studies of the physiological and psychological effects of shirin-yoku have revealed that it can lower blood pressure, pulse rate and concentrations of stress hormones. There’s even a claim that it can reduce cancer tumours by raising Natural Killer cell activity, although that rings hollow in my ears as I already have incurable cancer.
Long before these studies I indulged in this practice, roaming through the woods at the bottom of my grand-dad’s garden, pretending to be a fox with purple-coloured gloves. I never did get poisoned by the foxgloves but I’ve always known a walk in the woods calms me.
As I’m too weak to go to the gym now I’ve taken to walking most days. I’m lucky enough to live a few doors down from the Parkland Walk, a disused railway running between Finsbury Park and Highgate, lording it over the rooftops and back gardens of Islington and Haringey. It’s the London equivalent of New York City’s Highline. Once you’ve negotiated recalcitrant dogs, buggies, runners and cyclists, and been terrified by the mischievous woodland-dwelling spriggan peeking out from one of the old railway arches, you emerge at Highgate Station. A five-minute walk will get you into Queen’s Wood, one of Haringey’s four ancient woodlands.
I’m not deterred by the rumours of the existence of a plague pit full of bones from victims of the 1665 Great Plague. Instead I’m rather intrigued by the Witches Coven, a ring of thirteen oaks circling a clearing, which is still used by modern-day witches. The wood has not been intensively managed, unlike its neighbour Highgate Wood, and supports a surprising diversity of flora such as Goldilocks buttercup, wood anemones, wood sorrel, yellow pimpernel and square-stemmed St John’s wort, as well as a rare colony of lady fern. The bird life is fairly diverse too. Some are quite shy birds like tree creepers; others, like the thrush and blackbird, shout loudly from the treetops. Through the summer you can hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker.
The paths are soft with oak leaves, one of the dominant species of the woodland along with hornbeam. There’s also hawthorn, hazel, rowan, holly field maple and cherry, as well as the rare wild service tree. The wood is most peaceful on a weekday when there are relatively few people; some days I encounter just one solitary dog walker. Aside from the trees I like the steepness of the walks in Queen’s Wood. It’s deeply cut by gullies from the meltwater of the Anglian ice sheet and gives me a proper work out which compensates me from the loss of my gym membership.
Whether shinrin-yoku lives up to its claims, it certainly works for me – whether it’s the peace, exercise or inhaling woody scents.
For the past few days I’ve been woken at dawn by a very loud thrush proclaiming from the treetops at the bottom of the garden. This morning I heard my first blackbird as I left the house. Spring is arriving. I say arriving because winter has not yet left us. My winter garden is still blooming with intermingling scents from the viburnum, winter honeysuckle and daphne. I walk down the railway sleeper path to the bottom of my garden to view the blooms still clinging to the autumn flowering cherry and the mahonia.
But my slow walk in the garden reveals that spring is almost here with wild primroses scattered between the sleepers and hellebores, which have seeded themselves underneath my two weigelas, sporting a variety of colours from white to deep purple.
Daffodils are budding and bluebells are poking their leaves above ground. The vegetable plot is doing well too. The seedlings I bought from the garden centre at the end of autumn have flourished. I’m very proud of my Romanesco cauliflowers and my calabrese, neither of which I’ve grown before. One of the cauliflowers looks as it should – tight green spirals forming the head – but the others have a form more like broccoli. Excellent taste though. The calabrese is not yet ready to eat, but it is as far as the wood pigeons are concerned. As the vegetable plots are near my bedroom window I find myself banging on the French windows to frighten them off, no doubt to the annoyance of my neighbours upstairs.
Last week a friend helped me to spread two dumpy bags full of compost mixed with chopped forest bark and the garden looks fantastically tidy with not a weed to be seen. I am eager for the rest of the perennials to thrust through the fine black compost so I can start planning to fill any gaps. But I don’t want to seem too eager for time to pass. Living in the moment is enough for me.