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  photo: Tom Oates Wikicommons


Up where the smoke is

All billered and curled

‘Tween pavement and stars

Is the chimney sweeps world.

On the roof tops of London

    Coo, what a sight!

- Richard & Robert Sherman


‘Bloody Buddleia!’ said the chimney sweep as he climbed down the ladder from the Brixton roof-top. I had thought chimney sweeps to be a thing of the past, a relic of childhood when deliveries of coal and coke were a commonplace, as were fires in unswept chimneys. But that was a lifetime ago, before central heating, in a time when waking I could scrap figures in the ice on the window by my bed, while still snuggled under the sheets and blankets tightly tucked in the night before. Now, in an age of duvets and thermostat controlled domestic heating, chimney sweeps, and the children who climbed up sooty funnels to help them clean, were surely as extinct in London as the lamp-lighter and the horse manure collector.  And extinct they almost were, a species on the endangered list, until gentrification and the coming of the fashionable wood-burning stove. The Victorian dwellings of Brixton, newly salubrious, are having their bricked-up fireplaces opened, trendy stoves installed, and the chimneys behind cleaned out to allow air to flow through and smoke to once again funnel into the South London sky. There are regulations now controlling the newly reopened flues, and you cannot burn just anything. The Clean Air Act of 1956 rid the metropolis of the fog and smog that had chocked it from the industrial revolution.

The Act of 1956 was a response to the ‘Great Smog’ or ‘Big Smoke’ of 1952. That winter the city ground to a halt, the smog too thick for even the trains to run. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Londoners died. The year my sister was born, 1956 the year of the Act, was particularly bad, my father having to walk in front of the ambulance taking my mother to the hospital for the delivery, with a hand-held fog lamp. It has to be smokeless fuel in a log burning stove today, and not real wooden logs. Yet the romance of burning logs, even in Brixton, is what names and sells the heavy cast iron reproduction heaters that are being installed in so many ‘modernised’ homes. So it is that chimney sweeps have come back to the city. Though an endangered species no more, a sighting is still a cherished rarity. They come with one stem attached to another on their seemingly endless brooms, pushed carefully up the flues, the round brush on the end like a blackened daisy. As children it was a regular pleasure to watch for the sweep’s broom to erupt out of the chimney pot, its task half-completed. Soot and twigs and feathers would come out with it. Then the brush would be pulled back, its work completed with a rush of soot into the fireplace. Today the sight has returned, a simple pleasure once more.

In Brixton once his broom had pushed out of the chimney pot, the sweep had to climb onto the roof and remove the vegetation that was growing up there around the pot, an entangled mass of feral plants high upon the slates. ‘Bloody Buddleia,’ he repeated as he came back into the house to pull down his broom and with it all the decades old soot, birds’ nests, insects, brick dust and debris that make up the vertical, cylindrical environment of the London chimney. ‘That plant has done more damage to the roof-tops of London than the bloody Luftwaffe ever did.’

This was not my first experience of Buddleia in chimneys. In the jewellery district of Hatton Garden, I had been looking after hives on the roof terrace of the engineering firm Cundall, a company that realises the wildest of architectural fantasies and has built some of the world’s most iconic contemporary buildings. Tucked away at the back of their offices, a couple of stories below the roofline of the surrounding buildings, the two hives had done well for a couple of seasons, the bees foraging on the richly planted containers around them and flying off and out to the many sources of nectar and pollen in the areas around. One day, despite my best endeavours, they swarmed. The swarming did not go unnoticed; the engineers in the office saw the bees go, and so did people in other offices. There was a consensus amongst the neighbours that the bees had swarmed up and around onto a roof close by. With a colleague and a couple of Cundall staff, we began knocking on doors to be let into warrens of tiny rooms where hunched over brightly lit tables and wearing binocular microscopes, jewellers were examining and cutting diamonds and other rare and valuable stones. Here were men and women doing what jewellers in these streets had been doing since the Middle Ages.

We headed up to the roof and there, rising from it, was the top of the widest chimney we had ever seen, perhaps two metres in diameter, a circle of ancient brick, blackened with age and soot, rich with mosses and lichens, and with great bushes of Buddleia growing out. And there, flying in and out of the chimney and around the Buddleia, were thousands of honeybees. We had found our swarm.

Climbing up we peered over and into the chimney. We doubted anyone had looked down into it for decades, but no doubt back in the day when it was in use, and who could now know when that was or what that use had been, Dickensian children would have climbed up inside, directed by their chimney sweep master below, to keep it clean. Now we were dangling down inside it from the top to retrieve our swarm of bees nesting in a great clump on the Buddleia growing out from the brick work a couple of feet down inside the chimney stack. One of us reached into the void and held an empty copier paper box under the swarm while the other gave a whack to the branch on which the swarm had made their new home. The bees dropped as one heavy clump into the box and were lifted out into the sunlight. We put the lid on the box, leaving a little space for bees to fly in and out, and took a break while the rest of the swarm, sensing and smelling the whereabouts of their queen, made their way into their temporary cardboard hive. An hour or two later, most of the bees in the box, we taped it up, put it on the back of my scooter and rode it around to the apiary at nearby Coram’s Fields.


Thomas Coram established his first Foundlings’ Hospital in a house in Hatton Garden in 1739, as a home for the ‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’. Women with babies newly born out of wedlock could bring them to the hospital and leave them anonymously in a box outside the door, knowing that they would be cared for. So great was the need and so many the children left, that before too long Coram began work on plans for a purpose-built hospital on close by fields. His friend the composer George Frederick Handel gave an early performance of his new oratorio ‘Messiah’ as a fund-raiser and donated the score of the manuscript of the Hallelujah Chorus to the hospital. The artist Hogarth, another friend, helped out.

The Foundling Hospital soon moved from the houses it was occupying in Hatton Garden to the new building on a nearby site in Bloomsbury donated by Lord Salisbury. The hospital survived on the site for two centuries until, in 1926, it moved from London to the healthier countryside of, firstly, Redhill in Surrey and then, later, Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. Much of the original building was demolished and the land sold to a property developer, but ten years of local community activity saw the remaining nine acres of land saved and become a park for children. Original Georgian arcades line three sides of the park, all slightly undersized as befits a place for young people, like a stage set for a Mozartian childrens opera. On one side they are a home to goats, chickens and other domestic creatures, and on the other side behind a cafe, offices and nursery that occupy the opposite side is a strip of land given over to a suitably unkempt wildlife garden with trees that were young in Corams day, a pond and beehives. It was here that we took our cardboard box of swarming bees.

The elongated Wildlife Garden at Coram’s Fields is genuinely wild. It stretches between the street and the Georgian colonnades and is rich with ancient foliage, huge trees towering far into the sky, plants climbing up the trees, around the railings and up the walls, thick mosses on the slate tiles, insects nesting and foraging in the leaves and flowers, and birds feeding on the insects. Rarely do humans intrude, except to tend the hives that sit atop an old well shaft and occasionally to keep the wildest of the vegetation at bay.

Thomas Coram was buried at the Foundling Hospital. His body stayed undisturbed until the hospital relocated in 1926 when his remains were moved a mile up the road, the other side of Hatton Garden, to the church of St Andrew, Holborn. It is the largest of all the fifty-two parish churches Christopher Wren built in London after the Great Fire. With its clear glass windows that replaced the stained glass destroyed in the Blitz, and its lofty open spaces, it is flooded with light on even the most miserable of winter days. The gardens, like the church itself, are immaculately kept. It must be one of the few old buildings in the heart of London to have no Buddleia growing anywhere on or near it, an irony given that the body of an old friend of Coram is buried here.  That friend was Adam Buddle after whom Buddleia is named.


Adam Buddle had been Reader, a lay preacher, at the Chapel of nearby Gray’s Inn until his death in 1715. A botanist as well as a cleric, Buddle spent most of his life not in London but in Suffolk. He compiled a new ‘English Flora’ which he finished in 1708. It was his lifes work, though never published and surviving only as an original manuscript in the Natural History Museum. Buddleia is named after him, yet he never heard of it let alone saw it in his lifetime. Today it is ubiquitous, found everywhere. The railway lines into and throughout London are lined with it. Its vivid purple flowers are magnets to honeybees and other pollinators, and not for nothing is it commonly known as the Butterfly Bush. The plant is endemic in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and it is from the Americas that it first came to England, sent from the Caribbean by Dr. William Houstoun in around 1750, thirty-five years after Buddles death. It was Houstoun who suggested to Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish cataloguer and classifier of the world’s flora and faunas, that the plant be named after Buddle.

The flowers are most commonly pinks and purples in London. These are the colours that honeybees are particularly attracted to. Honeybees see differently from humans. They perceive a colour spectrum shifted up from the rainbow that we humans recognise. They cannot see red, but they can see beyond violet, to ultra violet and other colours we do not even have names for. It is purples and violets and that far end of the spectrum that are especially alluring to bees. Buddleia is attractive not just to the bees’ sense of sight, but to their sense of smell as well for it is rich in nectar, nectar that often smells of honey. Small wonder that the swarming bees from Cundall’s office chose to set up camp on the sweetly smelling purple Buddleia in the nearby chimney stack a short stroll from the Reverend Adam Buddle’s chapel in Gray’s Inn.

But how did this plant, specimens of which were sent to London by Houstoun in the middle of the Eighteenth century, come to take over the city and become the nemesis of its rooftops and its chimney sweeps? It was almost certainly as a casual garden escapee. The Victorians loved their Buddleias. The plants had the exoticism of the furthest reaches of Empire, and with their attractive range of colours, pinks, and purples and blues from the East, but also yellows and reds from the West, they became a popular garden shrub.  What was originally an exotic incomer from the colonies, soon came to be an invasive species. It is difficult to imagine journeying by train into London without the livid purple flowers of the Buddleia all along the cuttings to brighten the journey. Mostly this is Buddleia Davidii and it comes not from the West Indies as London’s first Buddleia did, but from Sichuan in Central China, some five thousand miles away. Just as the Buddleia half of the name is from an English clergyman so the other half, Davidii, is from a French priest, Father Armand David explorer and missionary, who first brought it to the attention of Western science. In 1887 a fellow French missionary and botanist sent seeds from China to a nursery in Vilmorin in France. Three years later the shrub had been cultivated and put on sale. It was perfect for a long Victorian garden and often these gardens stretched down to the ever-extending railway lines being built at the same time.

Seeds from plants in Victorian gardens were blown about by the rush of the locomotives chugging past and so moved by trains themselves, self-sown in their slipstreams. As the railways proliferated and the Buddleia grew ever higher and stronger, pollinated by the many beehives that would have been a commonplace in these London gardens, so the Buddleia spread. The railway lines provided perfect pathways for the pollinators and the distribution of the small seed pods, no more than a millimetre or two across but packed with multitudes of tiny seeds, of the plant the Victorians had come to love.

There are something like a hundred and forty different species of the Buddleia genus, and though most are shrubs, some are trees growing up to a hundred feet tall. While Davidii dominates the London townscape, there are innumerable cultivars, for the Victorians liked nothing better than to tinker with the genes of the plants they grew in their gardens. So it was that the long cone-like inflorescences grew ever richer, more varied in colour, each a dense collection of many individual flowers, too heavy with nectar to stand upright, bending, drooping, hanging under their own weight all through late spring and summer only finally dying away as the days begin to shorten and the chill of autumn is in the air. Even then these lush flowers from deepest China will still colour the train tracks while commuters have already put on their winter coats, and the wood-burning stoves of Brixton are sending smoke into the London sky.