Erin Summers chats to fellow resident Lesley Scoble about her art

Lesley likes to paint watercolours using her photographs as reference.

I think it’s fair to say that many of the Barbican residents prefer a city life and one surrounded by concrete. But we are also a little partial to our green spaces dotted around the local area. From Thomas More Gardens and Postman’s Park, to sitting on a bench in Charterhouse Square, we are truly spoilt with the beautifully kept gardens and open spaces around us. And of course, all that green space attracts wildlife, making it easy to forget we live in the centre of the City of London. There’s the excitement of seeing the first ducklings staying close to their mum on the lakes, and of course many of us follow the dramas of the peregrine falcons often seen soaring above us.

But that’s not all to be found in the Barbican, and after I was introduced to Lesley Scoble, I started to look at our surroundings in a completely different light. She has an incredible talent of taking such intimate photos of the resident foxes, blackbirds, wrens, mallard ducks, and even Katie the Kestrel, so I decided it was time to introduce her to the readers of Barbican Life.

I caught up with her to hear more about the lady behind the camera, and her experience in the Barbican over a pretty difficult few years. With the streets of London empty of office workers, we seemed to have the City of London all to ourselves, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who bumped into a fox wandering down what used to be a busy road.

Erin – Hi Lesley, many thanks for talking the time to talk to me. First off, tell me how the last few years have been for you. A lot changed in a very short time and I for one certainly had a very bizarre experience being here during lockdown.

Lesley – Lockdown confined everyone within their own small areas. The City was closed down, the streets empty. Living in the City can be exciting and busy, full of hustle and bustle, but lockdown required us to slow down and stay put within our own four walls, with an hour outside in the exercise yard. 

Our exercise yard was a circuit round the Barbican podium. I also spent time in the Barbican Wildlife Garden. At the height of the first lockdown, they removed the benches, curtailing any unsafe sitting down. Nonetheless, strolling around helped take my mind off COVID-19 by just watching the garden’s inhabitants. 

Other pockets of green space I visited during lockdown included the Physic Garden and the pocket-sized Fred Cleary Garden (where I got to know a local crow). Other small green spaces included tiny squares in the City that would be too busy with the daily influx of office workers for wildlife to visit. Seeing a nesting pair of jays in a quietened office square cheered me no end. 

It was a time of discovery. A time spent staring at small things. A time to listen. The lockdown provided a silence unheard of before. A traffic-free sound. The City was now filled with the sound of nature. There was birdsong. A rustle in the undergrowth. A buzzing of a mining bee. Sitting still and quiet meant I got to see the resident fox close-up. Seeing a beautiful fox this close and personal was incredible. My small pocket camera became my tool of focus, distracting me from the ordeal we were all going through. Every day, I would go on a shoot, hunting for urban wildlife! It amazed me to see so many species in the City. 

It was an incredible list including the peregrine, the kestrel, the fox, the mining bee, frogs, invertebrates (even a stag beetle!), the crow, the mouse, the squirrel, the waterbirds on the lake, and the pigeons. Someone said, “Once you look straight into a pigeon’s amber eyes and into their soul, they will have your heart.” Did you know a pigeon can recognise you as an individual? Well, I didn’t.  

Lockdown gave me an extraordinary opportunity of seeing beyond the confines of concrete, and a tantalising glimpse of a natural world that is living here with us in the cityscape. 

Katie the Kestrel.

Erin – Despite being such a strange period, it sounds like you got the most out of it and took the time to really explore the area. I was new to the Barbican at the very beginning of all this and barely knew my way around which is a shame. I feel like I now make the most of our private gardens, but I must confess I’ve never been in the Wildlife Garden! Tell me why I should visit.

Lesley – It’s a tiny fragment of wildness but provides a peaceful haven for residents and a sanctuary for local wildlife. The Wildlife Garden has set an amazing example that shows how valuable such a space is to urban residential estates, providing a restful garden and wildlife refuge.  

Being in nature improves our mental health and wellbeing. I believe no housing estate should be without some wild space. Nature is struggling, and by providing hedgerows and shrubs in urban areas, we can make a home for nature. 

The Barbican Wildlife Garden’s unique example should be extended to other housing estates. Many of which only have mown grass and bare railings on their grounds. To plant hedges and shrubs and create a patch for a wildlife garden in these barren areas would be of immense benefit. It can make such a difference! Nature needs our helping hand. By helping nature, we help ourselves. 

The Barbican Wildlife Garden should be proud of itself. It is a pioneer of re-wilding. This garden now supports a small colony of the (not so common) common sparrow. The sparrow is, in fact, on the endangered list! 

I think it’s necessary to follow the Barbican’s lead and create wildlife gardens in more city housing estates. 

Erin – It’s true, I think I take some our green spaces for granted and I shall definitely pop down when I get the chance because it seems like a lovely place. In terms of wildlife there, have you seen an increase since you’ve been living here?

Lesley – The Wildlife Garden has attracted more wildlife. Where there was just plain flat grass, now wildflowers bloom. The construction of two ponds now attracts frogs and dragonflies, and birds to drink. Counting the variety of species in the garden today proves how managing a small green space this way can create habitats where there were none before. 

Introducing shimmering, swaying reed beds into the lakes is also to be applauded. The reeds give shelter to nesting moorhens and ducks. Dragonflies swoop around, catching whatever dragonflies catch. A visiting heron stalks the fish. I couldn’t believe it when I took a photograph of a female reed bunting in the reeds! It is worth sitting by the lake at night, when you can see bats flying over the lake catching insects. 

Erin – I love spending time around the lake.  There’s just so much to see and many of the birds seem so unphased by what’s going on around them! Do you have any other favourite or secret spaces in the City you’d like to share with us? 

Lesley – It’s quite hard to have a secret space in London. There is always someone else who knows about it! I do like the new podium area built around Salters’ Garden and the London Wall. It shows what combining modern architecture with green walls, and good landscape gardening among ancient ruins can do.  

Inside  Salters’ Garden there is a flowing water feature that I like, but it has a Do Not Drink warning sign because it contains bromide. This concerns me, as I have seen crows bathing and drinking from it; how will the bromide affect the wildlife? 

The Barbers’ Company Physic Garden is a favourite secret garden of mine. During lockdown, it was a special haven. I also saw the fox and kestrel here. It’s within the ruins of a London Wall bastion. It has a medicinal herb garden within which grows many old healing balms and toxicants, such as the Autumn Crocus. I have taken photos of this plant in all its stages. I even managed an in-focus photo, zooming in on a tiny mint moth without getting up off the bench! 

I love sitting in this garden watching butterflies, wasps, bees flitting among the herbal remedies of lavender, self-heal, lemon balm, betony, pennyroyal, and loads more. There is plenty here to fill the apothecary’s cabinet! 

Across the road, where William Shakespeare lived nearby, there is a section of the London Wall that you cannot enter, but I love looking down on this small strip of wildness. Bees love the plant that blooms here called London Pride. I enjoy watching the wren sing from the top of this wall. Last year, it built a nest within the old stones. The crows love cawing and picking for scraps along its top, too. There are a couple of beehives, but I have seen no active bees humming round them since before lockdown. 

London alleys are places I enjoy wandering down. It is possible to discover many secret haunts and histories in an alleyway! I think I stumbled upon St Dunstan in the East church garden after getting lost following such a route. This is a garden that is worth a visit. It is a secret garden that might just be a little haunted. 

Erin – Some lovely places, I agree, although St Dunstan in the East is now back to its busy self with so many people taking photos! It’s a great space when you have it all to yourself, though. Tell me, what are some of your favourite things you’ve photographed and what you are most proud of.

Lesley – Apart from my sons when they were little, one of my favourite things I’ve photographed is the fox. The first time I ever saw a fox up close in my life was in the Wildlife Garden. I came upon him unexpectedly. He was sitting in low sunlight, sniffing a flower. Sniffing and smelling a flower! Can you imagine what a fabulous shot that would have been?! Instead of being slow and stealthy, I gasped in utter excitement, and even though I had the camera in my hand, I never pressed the shutter! I just leapt about with joy. The fox, of course, scarpered. However, I stayed still and waited, and when he returned and I got him! 

Another favourite is the kestrel. A kestrel visited the garden regularly for a while. They named her Katie, and it was a joy to see her and attempt to capture her with my camera. 

I saw a kestrel flying around, circuiting the wildlife garden the other day—I hope it is Katie returning. 

Erin – I love all your photographs of the wildlife you’ve spotted in the area.  You have such a good eye! To finish off, can you give us any tips?

Lesley – 

  • Have a camera handy, always in your pocket.  
  • Regarding wildlife photography, being still and quiet is helpful.  
  • Expect the unexpected. If, for instance, by lucky chance you stumble across a fox smelling a wildflower – avoid exclaiming in excitement as I did! This alerts the animal to your presence. The important thing is to try to not startle your subject.  
  • Spotting wildlife is key! A good idea is using your peripheral vision to notice any slight movement to the side of you. It’s surprising what you can catch from the corner of your eye!
  • Relax and let your eyes see
  • Use stealth and move slow and silently.  Sneak. 
  • Have a few tasty tit bits to leave in strategic positions. I got my best shots of squirrels when I lured the animal with top quality nuts!  
  • Stay still. Let nature come to you. Patience will get its reward.
  • Anticipate your subject’s actions. What are they going to do?  Where might they move to next? 
  • Shoot from the hip! New cameras enable fast, impulsive shots without need to peer through a small viewfinder. A quick, snappy shot can meet with fortunate success! 
  • Lighting is important. Sometimes you might need to change the mode in your camera. That may sound technical, but it means just fiddling with a few dials and seeing what comes out! Get to know your camera and what it likes. My camera doesn’t like me taking close-ups. But it makes up for this misbehaviour, by having the most incredible zoom lens for its size! 
  • Aim for their eyes. Capture the light in the eyes. This is where you find their soul. 
  • Wildlife photography is exciting! And frustrating. The best shots run or fly away! Animals don’t always pose for your camera! They don’t listen to direction. They ignore me when I ask if they can do it again, please? 
  • The fun of wildlife photography is in the chase. Go catch a fox! 

Erin – You’ve inspired me to dust off my camera and get out there exploring and I hope others feel the same. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.  It’s been really refreshing hearing about the Barbican and the local area in a different light and I’m now off to have a wander round the Wildlife Garden, camera in hand!

Blackbird sunbathes in the Wildlife garden.

Instagram – @lesleyscoble 

Twitter – @scoble_lesley