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Published: 24 April 2020

By Andy Ross

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Of stag beetles and giraffes

During this crisis many people are out walking, and lots of us are finding new things to see and explore. Even if we have lived in one place for a long time, there is always something new to find. The walk in Shetland from my home at Gutcher to Sellafirth, where the studio is, never fails to lift the spirits, taking in the views across the sounds and islands, and the lochs and valleys along the way. 

London is, of course, very different to that. It offers a novel set of experiences and one that does take a bit of adjusting to after years spent living in the isles. Some of those delights are of the architecture, or the unexpected discovery of a park, or a monument, and some are of the plant and animal life in the capital. 

This week we have been walking in our borough, Southwark. It is truly a fascinating place, full of history, yet with a fast-changing face, as is evidenced by the area around Elephant and Castle. Nowadays that looks more like New York than London with high-rise apartment blocks and trendy cafes, markets and shops. But hidden away are also wildflower meadows and gardens, and some very special guests live there. 

In 2013 the Town Hall in Walworth burnt down, along with it the Cuming Museum. Some very important pieces, thank goodness, were stored offsite, including artefacts which are in the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum for safe keeping. One of the items that was damaged though in the fire was a small model of a giraffe, seen here in reconstructed 3D. This piece commemorated one of five young giraffes which were brought to The Royal Surrey Gardens, opened in 1831 and the home of one of London's first zoos. Elephants, monkeys and lions and tigers were kept in what is now a completely urban area, but which once was known for its spectacular entertainments,including fireworks, hot air balloons, volcanic explosions and re-enactments of the Great Fire of London. 

A hoarding which surrounds the damaged Town Hall tells some of the stories of the borough, amongst them the tale of the giraffes. Beautiful flowers and luscious fruits which were grown for centuries in Southwark for sale in the markets in London, and some of the important buildings in the area, are also depicted. And did you know that this highly-populated part of the capital is also home to stag beetles! These large insects come out in May, having been living in rotten wood as grubs, and we will be going on a hunt to see if we can find some. I plan to make maps of our walks which can be shared, and to see if photographs can be added so that you can share in our explorations. 

I miss Shetland. The studio, the long hours of walking over the hills, the beautiful scenery, and the good community spirit that exists in the islands. However, in these unsettled days, it is good to be together in our flat in London where we can explore and find wonderful, interesting things for future projects, and thank goodness for the internet so we can still speak to our friends Up North!