How competitive walking (in Blackheath) captivated Georgian Britain h/t @FakeDaveGreen

via How Competitive Walking Captivated Georgian Britain – Atlas Obscura

I’ve been enjoying this surprising article about competitive walking in Georgian Britain, it was particularly interesting to me given that it takes place partly at Hare and Billet in Blackheath which has been the site of my own recent excursions 🙂

Incidentally the reason I took up walking in and around London was after re-reading Dickens’ Oliver Twist in my mid-twenties. I’d always taken the bus everywhere before that (living in Camberwell at the time meant the tube was less of an option anyway) and enjoyed reading about people walking through bits of London I passed on the bus. It just hadn’t really occurred to me that one might or could walk around London, or that it might be done for pleasure, or health benefits. The people in the book had to walk from necessity (couldn’t afford the alternatives) so it probably wasn’t much fun for them.

I would have been no good at Georgian competitive pedestrianism though. Because I’d regularly bussed and walked the journey from Camden to Charing Cross, and from Charing Cross to Camberwell I’d assumed it would be plain sailing to follow the 53 route back to Blackheath. So one hot Saturday afternoon a few years ago I set off from Camden and walked all the way to Deptford before thinking better of it. According to my GPS tracker I’d done 14 miles in about six hours, which is fairly feeble (and the distance can’t really be much more than 9 miles – though I was following the less direct bus route). By the time I arrived at Deptford Bridge I was more shuffling than walking. A 53 bus arrived and I realised I wouldn’t be able to get on to it as I could barely lift my feet up, then someone with crutches arrived (overtaking me) and the driver lowered the platform for them and I was able to shuffle on. I remember my hip joints squeaking as I walked up the stairs to my flat and I thought I’d never do that again, though by the next day I was perfectly fine. These days I tend to restrict myself to 40 minute walks though, can’t be too careful 😉

Walking in London is actually quite hard-going and it’s not that related to the distances. You’re constantly keeping out of others’ way and at very regular intervals you’re required to cross roads which breaks your pace a fair bit, not to mention the general background efforts at being ‘London alert’. And in my case especially, trying not to get lost (this is why I follow the bus routes).

 

Watch out for the cute beetles in Blackheath

A few years ago, while walking across Blackheath, I thought someone had started throwing popcorn at me. It turned out to be Summer Chafer (similar to cockchafer beetles but a bit smaller) in flight. These sleep underground and then in the late afternoon / twilight pop out of the ground and buzz around the tops of trees to meet other beetles, make friends, mate, lay eggs, that sort of thing. There are a variety of cockchafer beetles, and other beetles known as ‘June bugs’ (or in some places ‘May bugs’).

I’m pretty sure the ones we get in Blackheath are the summer cockchafers (they go by the name Amphimallon solstitiale (I’ve also seen it spelled solstitiale but this is apparently incorrect terminology)) which look like little mint humbugs and persistently ‘attack’ you if they think you might be a tree. They’re actually utterly harmless but the Daily Mail has singled them out as something to be frightened of1.

Here’s a pic of one from 30 June 2010, sitting on my hat (original Twitpic), three segments (four stitched lines) is about an inch. In flight they remind me of the Golden Snitch in the Harry Potter books/films.

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Below you can just make out the blurry image of the beetle in flight above the tree.

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And here a beetle obligingly landed on a bit of the same tree.

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Here’s me talking (sorry for the windy recording, taken while on the heath), exactly 7 years ago today on 30 June 2010, about my growing fascination for the small beetles.

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Yesterday, while walking across the heath I spotted lots of birds (I think they’re either swifts or swallows, I’m not knowledgeable about birds) which are a very good marker at this time of year for the beetles being out and about swarming the trees. The birds were up by Hare and Billet pond so I headed over there and sure enough, it was full of beetles. The pictures above (except the one on the hat) and below were taken there on 29 June 2017.

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(Above) Hare and Billet pond at dusk. Isn’t it lovely. The only birds visible in this picture are a duck and his / her duckling on the water. Just out of view of this picture, on the grass to the right is a moorhen (probably).

The video below is a not entirely successful attempt at videoing the birds, in slow motion, to see if I can work out what they are.

Update 30 June – I popped back there this evening and there were loads on the walk over from the heath, persistently buzzing and divebombing me. When I arrived at the pond one of the larger trees was surrounded, a very health crop of Summer Chafers this year, hooray. The tweet right at the top was taken after one landed on my bag while I was trying to take a photo of another one that had ‘attacked’ me. I had to swat them away with a bit of card haha.

1. see [warning: Daily Mail link. Click cautiously as the Mail is surely far more terrifying than beetles] “The chubby insects terrorising Britain’s backyards: The plague of fat, flying beetles found in your garden (and your home)