Totton's Wild Suburbia
Wedged in between Southampton and the New Forest is the little suburban village of Totton. It’s more of a place you drive through than a destination location and aside from a handful of estate agencies and pharmacies there’s not much to it.
And upon first inspection it doesn’t appear to be the wildest of locations. Granted there are some fantastic local nature reserves (managed by Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust) but the inner workings and the rabbit warrens of council estates may not be somewhere you think when you’re looking for your wild fix.
But – if you look a little closer you might be surprised.
The network of houses and gardens actually make this an excellent series of highways for suburban wildlife to travel along and make its home here.
I was born and bred on one of those Tottonian council estates and my back garden was my wild stomping ground until I was old enough to head out and explore Totton’s wilder corners.
Our back garden was a haven – we grew sunflowers, sweet peas, tomatoes and tall tangles of runner beans. There was even a giant marrow, that grew so big no one could eat it. It had an old, hand me down swing, that rusted in the sun on a lawn strewn with daisies. At the end of a drunken path was a tiny pond, home to goldfish, pondskaters, diving beetles and frogs – we even put in some rocky steps, just in case our frequenting hedgehogs ever got into trouble. I spent many a happy hour pond dipping, getting my hands dirty and marvelling at the cool, slimy skin of our resident leaf coloured frogs.
A purple buddleia sprouted from the grey fence at the bottom of our garden, the one that separated us from a tired line of rusty, run down garages. A splash of much needed colour, that in turn attracted more colours to our grotty council estate – the butterflies flocked to this bush and they spread onto the estate like a can of spilled paint.
For me, the most memorable part of the garden wasn’t necessarily the most colourful, but it was most prominent – it loomed across the garden and cast shadows across the lawn. The privet hedge separated us from our neighbours, it was a pillar of greenery that our garden birds were drawn to. It housed blackbirds, sparrows, dunnocks and even a wren. It was a perfect perch for starlings and visiting blue tits, and a sounding post for the restless woodpigeons to unleash their throaty calls. That hedge was alive with fluttering wings and floating song. All that bird song filtered through the usual council estate soundtrack and delicately accompanied the drone of a lawnmower, passing sirens, overhead planes and more than one rowdy neighbour.
We’ve sat in the garden late into warm summer evenings and watched, hypnotised, as bats traced patterns over our heads under an emerging plough.
We witnessed, completely gobsmacked, as a tawny owl floated down from the towering oak tree beyond the garages and sailed silently over our heads, disappearing into darkness as it climbed over the roof of our house.
I’ve picked mint fresh from the garden for our Sunday roasts, its tangy aroma cutting through the green earth scent that surrounded it, my hands deep into the plant to get the best bits. Rough leaves on my tiny child hands.
There’ve been sparrowhawk attacks, pet wood lice, elephant hawk moth caterpillars, a grass snake and even a squirrel that got stuck up a lamppost for a day!
There was wild here. I witnessed it with my eyes, and my hands and the grass stains on my jeans and dirt under my fingernails. I was brought up on it. Our manicured lawn with its rough edges showed me so much through all the seasons. It nurtured a love of nature and acted as a constant reminder that wild isn’t far away – it’s as close as you are willing to look.
Jump forward more than a few years and I found myself back here, in my childhood home, a temporary stop gap. I find myself looking from my bedroom window at a different garden.
The big looming hedge has gone, its been replaced with a sensible slat fence. The buddleia has been trimmed back and the pond once full, is dry and filled in (and a giant litter tray for the ever-expanding population of council estate cats).
It’s still a beautiful garden; the lawns still flushed with daisies and the sparrows still chatter amongst themselves – they’re just in someone else’s hedge now. But there’s a distinct lack of birdsong now and whilst the blackbirds are around, I can’t hear the blue tit shrill, or the whistle blow of the wren anymore. There are no frogs hiding in shaded edges and I certainly haven’t seen a grass snake or a squirrel here for a long time.
When I first came home, standing in the garden made me feel sad, like it had lost something. It had the feel of any other council estate garden, the next-door neighbours shouted at their barking dogs and someone excessively revved their engine and my heart sank a little bit.
But, wild has a habitat of sticking around.
All was not lost and a sunny day spent sat in the garden soaking in some spring sunshine, the garden revealed that wild hadn’t given up yet.
In just one day I had sightings of a buzzard, shortly followed by 3 sparrowhawks putting in a particularly impressive display: diving, twisting and falling together like fireworks. The gently warmth of the sun encouraged the first flaps of butterfly wings to the garden and crawling across the lawn was the lime green of an angle shade moth caterpillar. It concertinaed its way through the short blades of grass, surprisingly strong for such a tiny creature.
Once I remembered to look for it, there was wildlife everywhere. I even heard the faint but persistent chink of a blue tit somewhere in the distance.
Nature isn’t as abundant as it once was – not here anyway but it is still there, and we need to look after it. This suburban environment is a last stronghold for species, that if we don’t pay attention to, we might loose forever.
If you live in one of these places then you might not think your garden is graced with wildlife, but have you really looked? Have you poked around its edges or pulled back overgrown plants? Have you heard what the birds have to say? I think you’d be surprised at what you find!
So, plant some flowers and pay attention because you suburbanites have got quite the task on your hands.