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January 24th – Hornsey

I’m in London for a few days to enjoy the company of my littlest grandson (and his mummy and daddy of course). They live in Hornsey, a district of north London in the London Borough of Haringey described by Wikipedia as “an inner-suburban, for the most part residential, area centred 6.2 miles (10 km) north of Charing Cross.” So, conveniently close to the centre of the city, but also well-blessed with easily accessible green spaces within and adjoining it. Close by there’s Alexandra Park, which surrounds the iconic Alexandra Palace, (better known to many as the Ally Pally), part of which is a Local Nature Reserve. There is also the added bonus of water in the form of The New River, which is much quoted as being neither new nor a river, as it’s a man-made waterway opened in 1613 to supply London with fresh drinking water from the river Lea in Hertfordshire. A rather disjointed Path runs the length of the river from its origins in Hertfordshire to its conclusion at New River Head in Islington, a total of 28 miles, two sections of which run through Hornsey.

Today I had a few hours in which to occupy myself, so set off on what has become a familiar and favourite route, taking in a short length of the New River, on through Alexandra Park Local Nature Reserve and up the hill through landscaped parkland surrounding the Palace building to the Boating Lake. There I was hoping to find a couple more species to help towards my aim for this winter of seeing and improving my recognition of ducks. The map above was taken from the info board at the entrance to the river and shows the route – it’s a bit weatherworn and marked with a graffiti ‘tag’, but is still legible. It was a cold day with little breeze, heavy cloud and a lingering mist, which I hope  all help bring interest and atmosphere to my photographs!


The access point to this section of the New River Path is located more or less at the point where Turnpike Lane becomes Hornsey High Street and opposite the junction with Tottenham Lane. The entrance is a sort of kissing gate, which it’s impossible to get through with a buggy, wheelchair or a bike. 

400 years after its construction, the New River is still an important source of fresh water for North Water and the Path is open to the public at the discretion of Thames Water, who own it. All sections of the Path are subject to being closed if any maintenance works are being carried out. The Path is not surfaced and gets muddy and slippery in wet weather, so may not look too appealing unless you’re wearing appropriate footwear.

Fortunately there is an alternative path along this stretch of the river on the opposite bank bordering the ‘prestigious’ New River Village development. Views of the river are good from here and you’re less likely to disturb any wildlife that just might be out on the grass bank of the other side. Surfaced with gravel it’s better for walking on too, albeit a bit noisy and ‘crunchy’,  but it’s still not ideal for anything with wheels. The access to this path is a little further up the Hornsey High Street, on the same side just beyond the traffic lights. The Path by the river looked wet and muddy, so this is the path I took today.

I wasn’t anticipating seeing anything ‘exotic’ on this walk, but as much of the wildlife is used to the close proximity of people, it’s often possible to get better close-up views  than you can in wilder settings. The first birds I heard and glimpsed were Blue tits flitting and calling as they foraged through the trees and shrubbery in the landscaped grounds of the development. Pigeons are numerous throughout this whole area of course, and I couldn’t resist this one with its lovely slate and purple feathers puffed out against the cold perfectly illustrated the mood of the day.

Black-headed gulls are equally as numerous, if not more so. This one, whose head is beginning to show signs of summer plumage coming through, was sitting gazing downriver-

perhaps he found the pair of synchronised diving Mallard as entertaining as I did.

Somewhere near the middle of this section of the Path, a small building spans the river. This is a sluicehouse built in the 1850s as part of the Hornsey Waterworks; it would have been used to control the river’s water levels then, but I don’t know if it’s still in use. More Black-headed gulls sat in a straggly line along a metal fence here.


A Moorhen had been foraging on the far bank then dropped back onto the water, paddled across and left it again to patrol along the pipeline that runs the length of the river, where it is exposed to differing degrees. In this shaded spot below an overhanging bramble the water below was icy.

On the other side of the building is a depth gauge, which shows the water to be slightly less than 8 feet deep.

There’s a sign here warning of a ‘sudden drop to water’, with an amusing graphic of a tumbling figure conveying a serious message. It certainly wouldn’t be amusing to be floundering in 8′ of freezing cold water today, especially as the lifebuoy is behind a spiky iron fence on the opposite bank of the river. Another requests that you don’t feed the ducks. I wonder if that’s to protect the ducks or to avoid contaminating the water? More likely the latter as the river is still a main supply of water to North London.   

Cold, low-lit misty days like today may not be the most enticing to get you out of the house, but the rewards for making the effort can be great. The ordinary may suddenly become extraordinary. Light on water silvers its surface and the clear cold water captures deep reflections. A light breeze skimming across adds texture broken apart by the passage of jewel-bright dabbling ducks as they swim and dive, creating momentary complex patterns within patterns.

Mallard female

The light catches the red eye of a Coot and brings out the purple in its plumage.

A Canada Goose grazed on bright green grass which is already showing signs of new growth.

Canada Goose – Branta canadensis

I’d reached the end of this section of the river Path now; this look back shows the New River Path on the left bank, the gravelled path I walked along on the right and the sluicehouse spanning the water. The tall old building directly behind it is called Bank Chambers, appropriately as it did used to be a bank and is on the corner of Hornsey Hight Street and Tottenham Lane at the beginning of my walk.

I was standing on the bridge to take this photograph. Looking in the other direction, the river continues on through a fenced-off waterworks compound, where there is also a reservoir. Of course there’s a break in access to the NR Path here, but it can be picked up again further along.

The signpost indicates routes that are Greenways, a Government initiative to encourage the use of  “safe, quiet routes through parks, green spaces and lightly trafficked streets. They are designed for walkers and cyclists of all ages and abilities and encourage healthier, more sustainable travel and lifestyle choices. They are ideal for seasoned commuters, novice cyclists, family groups and responsible unaccompanied children”.

From here you get the first glimpses of Alexandra Palace.

The route to the Park passes a reservoir that is part of the Waterworks then around the back of a small housing estate and past a fenced-off Community Garden. From in there I heard the loud, cheerful cheepings, chirpings and chatterings of House Sparrows way before I located them in this leafless tangle of a twiggy shrub. They were so well camouflaged in there I could hardly see them; the level of sound told me there were a lot of them better than my photograph can show.


The entrance to Alexandra Park Local Nature Reserve. My picture speaks for itself I think; damp, muddy, brown, misty, not much light, pretty much deserted today.

On the enlarged map below I’d come in via Gate 3, which is next to the red dot on the pointy bit on the bottom right. the path I would take then goes around that outside edge, meets Alexandra Palace Way then continues on up around the right-hand side to the Boating Lake.

Staged for full dramatic impact atop a natural platform, the Palace was veiled in mist. 

Another flock of Black-headed Gulls hang around on the muddy playing field.

The path winds sinuously onwards. This is often a good place to see small birds; there’s usually a Robin or two and Great and Blue Tits frequent the vegetation to the left of the path. I did hear a Great Tit calling and saw it fly away, but nothing else today.

To the right of the path the land is very often flooded and almost always at least damp and muddy. I don’t know if there is a stream or whether this is just a drainage ditch. Again the water was capturing perfect reflections. The pollarded tree is a Goat Willow, already showing forth the soft silver-grey catkins that give it is other name of Pussy Willow.

There’s fresh new greenery in the water; I couldn’t get near enough to see for sure what the plant was. Perhaps it will be in flower next time I visit.

There was other new greenery; clumps of cow parsley and nettles are both already a couple of inches high. There were Hazel catkins too.

At the end of the path is a charming little building set at the top of a flight of steps. There’s no information close by to tell you what it’s purpose was; I keep trying to find out – curious by nature, I like to know these things! An old ticket office maybe – there is a bricked-up doorway?

At last, a bird! A rather handsome Carrion Crow foraging for worms and any other titbits that may be found on a grassy verge.


I crossed over the road, Alexandra Palace Way, into the parkland surrounding the Palace. The path goes through an avenue of lovely old trees interspersed with elegant cast-iron lampposts, which are all numbered. Those at this end of the path are up into the 200s.

I love these huge old London Plane trees. There was a flock of bright green Ring-necked Parakeets screeching as they flew amongst their high branches, but they were too mobile and too high up for me to catch a photograph. I’d not seen them here before.

Remnants of snow and icy puddles show how cold it was, but walking uphill is a great way to keep warm!

It’s hard to convey the size of some of these trees, but the one below is enormous both in girth and height.

London Plane – Platanus x hispanica

London Planes keep their round woody fruits, which slowly break up over the winter to release their seeds. The seeds don’t have much value as food for birds and are probably only eaten by grey squirrels.

The enclosure to the left in the photograph of the big tree used to be home to a herd of Deer, but is now a climbing adventure park. Apparently an independent vet concluded that “the health of the herd was in slow decline and the animals were displaying symptoms of stress. This can be caused by a number of factors including the size of the enclosed area, proximity to the general public and general noise from the surrounding urban environment. As such the Park is no longer suitable for keeping deer. In the best interests of the deer they are being relocated to two well-respected existing deer parks in Devon, both larger than the enclosure in Alexandra Park, where they will be able to roam free and thrive.” I’m sure they’ll be much happier there.


Between the entrance to the Boating Lake area and the Lakeside Café  stands this rather handsome statue of a lion. A collar round his neck names him Leo.

Disappointingly the café  was closed. In fairness they wouldn’t have had much trade this afternoon as there were very few people about.

The flotilla of brightly painted Swan and Dragon-shaped boats brought colour to the scene, but they weren’t operating either.


The Lake is huge and home to a good number of ducks and I didn’t have long to wait before I had at least one species to add to my afore-mentioned duck-sightings list.

As I’d hoped there were Tufted Ducks. Two drakes and a duck raced towards me, I’m sure hoping or expecting to be fed. There are no information boards showing what species you might here, nor are there any notices about not feeding the ducks or advice as to what food should be offered. Maybe that’s because getting out to feed the ducks is an important part of some people’s days and is often the first experience children have of contact and awareness of our wildlife, particularly in towns and cities. I have fond memories of doing just that with my grandparents in their local park in Northampton. Nowadays in most places, the ducks face stiff competition from the gulls.

Tufted Duck – Aytha fuligula (Drake)

Tufted Ducks have adopted many lakes and ponds in city parks and gardens, and despite being unknown in Great Britain before 1849, the species is now our commonest diving duck. They are often very tame and contend with the Mallards, Coots and Moorhens for any scraps thrown in by visitors.

Tufted Duck (female)

Further back, on the vegetated edge of the lake I spotted the rusty-red head of a Pochard drake, but no sign of a female.

He obligingly swam towards me too.

There are plenty of Coots here. I watched this one pull a twig from beneath the water, probably to investigate eating it, but maybe it’s nest-building already.

A Black-headed gull that came in to have a look was soon sent packing – Coots are very territorial.

This one was a little more serene and perfectly reflected in a patch of still water.

I’m sure you all know that this bird’s bare bright white frontal shield and bill explains the origin of the expression ‘as bald as a Coot’. As I said earlier, male Coots are feisty and territorial squabbles break out frequently between them. Their shields play an important part in displays of aggression when it is held forward, low on the water with wings and body feathers fluffed out behind to look as fearsome as possible. Did you know they also have fabulous, if slightly weird,  blue feet?

From a distance I’d assumed the flock of Black-headed gulls were floating on the water, but looking more closely they were actually standing on it- it was frozen! Their clear reflections doubled the apparent size of the flock, but there were a good number of them anyway.

This young Black-headed gull still has some of its adolescent feathers.

I set off to make an anti-clockwise circuit of the lake and was met by a Moorhen walking in the opposite direction foraging for scraps of food.

A grey squirrel scampered towards me and waited hopefully at the bottom of a tree. It was so close I think it would have come and taken food from my hand.

The view of the lake from the opposite far side gives a better impression of its size.

A flock of Pigeons perched up in a tree.

I stopped to smell the flowers of this pretty Viburnum shrub, gorgeous perfume.

Virburnum Bodnantense

They may be common and numerous, but I think our native Mallards are gorgeous-looking ducks; they are certainly colourful. Look at that beautiful emerald head, bright yellow beak and orange legs.

Amongst the Mallards sat this pure white duck, which could well be a throw-back from a past Mallard mating with an Aylesbury duck and creating Khaki Campbells, as I’ve posted about before. It’s the same size and shape as a Mallard but with a more orange bill. Maybe it is just an Aylesbury. I don’t know!

But then again there was another pair close by with a ‘proper-looking’ male Mallard and a very pale brown female with some white feathers around her rump, so it’s possible some inter-breeding of species has occurred at some time.

Canada Geese are much simpler to be sure about.

I’m fond of Moorhens too, which crop up just about anywhere there’s available water. They have bright yellow, chicken-like legs and feet and like Coots they also have a shield at the front of their heads, but that and their bills look to me like they’ve been daubed with sealing wax.

Having made a full circuit I was back in front of the café. Such a shame it was closed. But here I had a sighting that made my day – a Moorhen that from where I stood looked like it was walking on water. Of course it was really walking on ice! I wondered if it could see its own reflection?

as it stopped and stood for a few seconds looking a bit confused

then set off again.

From the Boating Lake I walked over towards the Alexandra Palace building. From the terrace in front of it there are spectacular view over North London to the City skyline. On this misty day I didn’t hold out much hope, but felt I had to look anyway. Walking beneath the trees I heard a Jay screeching as it flitted amongst the branches of a Plane tree.

A  pair of Magpies turned over leaf litter hunting for anything edible that may be hiding beneath them. They attracted the attention of two more that flew down to check out what they doing. This provoked quite a feisty response from one of the original pair resulting in the intruders being seen off with much loud harsh scolding and flapping of wings. I hoped this wasn’t parents chasing off their last year’s young ones.

Bulbs had pushed their leaves up through the cold winter ground; they’ll soon be flowering and heralding in the spring.

I reached the Palace terrace, but as I’d suspected there was no view of the City today; the skyscrapers just visible on the left horizon are in Canary Wharf. The still unfinished new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, known locally as ‘The Toilet Bowl’ due to its shape, can also be seen from up here – I’ll point it out on a better day!

I did have a nice view of a turning British Airways plane though.

And I was treated to an eye-level view of a Blue Tit that seemed to be determined to dig something out of hiding in the bark of a cherry tree.

There are several choices of route back, but I opted for the simplest downhill route through the landscaped parkland. The short grassy banks are a favourite feeding place for Wood Pigeons, there were several there today.

Blackbirds rummage around beneath the shrubs and hunt on the lawns for worms.

Blackbird female

A close sighting of a cute little Dunnock prompted my last bird photograph for the day. The daylight hours are getting longer, but days like these remind you there’s still a way to go till winter’s end and a warm home with tea was still a mile or so away!

Dunnock – Prunella modularis