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It’s just bliss to be with the birds

PUBLISHED: 08:00 01 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:56 22 October 2010

IAN COLLINS

In a past life I was a young kittiwake, or an old bat. I love sleeping on ledges and best of all in attics, with my head in the clouds and the stars. After a year of planning hell and a week of fraught installation I can now write this column from my perfect perch - a mezzanine on top of the Barbican, now dubbed the Barbicave.

In a past life I was a young kittiwake, or an old bat. I love sleeping on ledges and best of all in attics, with my head in the clouds and the stars. After a year of planning hell and a week of fraught installation I can now write this column from my perfect perch - a mezzanine on top of the Barbican, now dubbed the Barbicave.

Big in volume but small in ground space, a double-height barrel-vaulted room on the 11th floor has now yielded a 12th floor too. Cunningly fixed in concrete, and open on two sides, my new eyrie seems to float in the air.

White against white walls, my modernist light box also feels like a shepherd's cave on some bright Cretan mountain. It has the atmosphere of the sort of space in which a medieval mystic might have retreated to contemplate God. I retire here to marvel at birds - which may amount to much the same thing.

Through a semi-circular window I will be able to watch skeins of migrants on their epic journeys across cities and countries and seas, while others flit and flap on my balcony and way down in a lake which forms a lid to one of the capital's busiest railway junctions.

This corner of the concrete jungle slap bang in the city of London is now a mini nature reserve, just like the larger and greener space I left last year in Lewisham.

I would have moved long before had it not been for the birds in a walled garden bordered by the fabled River Quaggy (a tributary of a tributary of the Thames).

Living at the very lowest point of a local flood plain, where the garden had been doused in the previous decade, and the house drowned in an earlier generation, was an edgy business.

My love for rain, rain and more rain was tested by knowledge that the river was rising, rising, rising. That pleasant gurgling sound which sent me gently to sleep left me wide awake and bolt upright when the notes and decibels changed to the tumult of a raging torrent.

But water meant wonderful wildlife. When spying a kingfisher the second time, I knew I hadn't hallucinated the first time.

A flood protection and environmental scheme was planned in which a burrow would be added in a concrete bank as a des res for kingfisher-kind opposite my bedroom window.

The project was delayed and delayed (it's happening now) and in the end I had to be at the heart of London and could bear the daily commute no longer. On the morning of moving I saw my first green woodpecker in a garden which regularly drew the great spotted variety. Nature can be cruelly mocking.

Older residents say that when the concrete edifice of the Barbican was built in the 1960s there was no wildlife here whatsoever, which, given the willow herb and buddleia forests on surrounding City bombsites, seems rather unlikely. But now nature is flocking in.

I've put potted trees and shrubs on the balcony and on the very day I added a nestbox a pair of scrawny and bedraggled bluetits moved in.

Now from dawn until dusk I hear a dozen or more sprogs clamouring. The din of all-day dinner.

Several bird feeders are now in place, the best being the Observatory model (a Droll Yankees product marketed by Jacobi Jayne) which sticks to the window and gives a great view of London's messiest eaters.

A large and deep feeder tray is emptied in two days - by the blue tits, by scraggy greenfinches (all birds seem leaner and meaner here than their cousins in East Anglia) and by the greatest treat of all for me: a flurry of Cockney sparrows.

The house sparrow is still said to be the commonest bird in Britain, and in London too, but not one came to my Lewisham garden. I saw two in the Barbican last summer. Now I have a window diner for half a dozen.

London just wouldn't be London without sparrows, and I find they produce as much pleasure as a kingfisher. Brown and beige are fine by me.

I've also spotted blackcap, willow warbler, and pied and grey wagtail, while gazing often at heron, coot, moorhen, mallard, widgeon, wren, robin, great tit, blackbird, starling, woodpigeon, jay, crow, magpie (inevitably), and herring, black-headed and lesser black-backed gulls.

I'm still awaiting my first glimpse of Harris hawk, winging weekly in these parts as a thrilling remedy to a swarm of feral pigeons - and a reminder of the red kites that scavenged in the rubbish of medieval London.

Bliss is bird-shaped.


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