Caught by the River

The Victoria Buddleia

Adam Scovell | 18th July 2018

Adam Scovell muses on the buddleia he has watched grow at Victoria Station over the past few years.

There is what I presume to be a small buddleia growing from the high wall at Victoria Station. It is alone among the steel and the girders, standing silently as the trains slowly make their way to and from the station. I’ve been staring up at this plant for some years now, its vision becoming a symbol of arrival that I used to ritualistically call the “Victoria Tree” before realising that it was merely a resilient weed. It is so ill-placed in its brutal surroundings that only its top-most part now has any leaves at all, its purple flowers rarely ever grow and its lower stems are reduced to a thick but hardy wood. It might not even be a buddleia at all, considering how different and haggard it looks. In spite of its battered appearance, however, I take some pleasure from seeing this plant, not least because it has been there for as long as I have been using the station. The buddleia at Victoria seems to me the perfect embodiment of how wildlife copes in the ever-shifting world of cities.

My train journeys from either West Norwood or West Dulwich often present an array of wildlife. With the right eye, the passing scrubland and patches of nettles fizz with life. On moody mornings, packs of foxes can be seen roaming between the debris left by the railway, as can rats carefully avoiding the local cats if the commuter is eagle-eyed enough to spot them. In the summer, flowers sprout into beautiful waves of colour; radioactive yellow ragwort, buddleia’s virulent purple, the lilac of an occasional foxglove and the dizzying array of insects which dart and flash between them all. The contrast between this life and its environment is the most optimistic start to the day conceivable in the humdrum of London mornings.

Victoria Station slowly approaches. Developments dominate the scenery before crossing the Thames. Battersea has been literally flattened and now looks more like some horror’s vision of the future. But the plants soon appear again, growing along the old brick wall alongside dangerous spikes, graffiti, a foolish pro-hunting poster on the back of a wealthy Pimlico house and other things washed up on the railway’s sidings.

Then it all stops.

The station, which threatened to begin a minute before, grows quickly into your eyes. The sky is swallowed under the steel and glass, the ground greying and sloping up into platforms usually either packed or totally empty. Yet, just when London begins again for proper, the Victoria Tree appears. There’s no other greenery in sight so it stands out doubly. It’s a reminder of what continues to live on as people wander to their ever-changing destinations. It’s telling that the plant was referred to as the bombsite plant, such was its proliferation in the bombsites of the capital and other cities after the Blitz. It is a fledgling of urbanism in flux.

Such little details are almost always under threat in cities, largely from councils – desk-bound and blind – rather than from the public. In Liverpool, I watched a natural wildflower bed be turned into a temporary car park before being entirely flattened for no specific reason at all. In Sheffield there is still an overt but slowly losing fight against the illegal felling of its many trees. In other parts of London, such fragments of scrub and the wildlife that lives on it often disappear, usually when developers decide that the land is now viable and valuable. Trinity Buoy Wharf is a good example, where the edgeland that grew through the old warehouses on its docks has now been cleared for a new-build luxury property development. This land is priceless but that is also its weakness.

I knew I would need to take a picture to preserve the Victoria Tree. It will go eventually, of that I am sure. So, in spite of some worried stares, I ventured to the very end of platform 6 and snapped a single Polaroid. It is a plant that is untidy by merely existing and that, I believe, is its charm. I think of what Richard Mabey, forever the forerunner in appreciation for such things, wrote about weeds in general. “The wild gatecrashes our domains,” he wrote, “and the domesticated escapes and runs riot.” Even if it is a quiet rebellion, it is still resistance. It is a part of our fabricated world as much as we are a part of its. It renders our buildings as transient as our time spent in the station. The latest new build will quickly slip away, businesses will change hands, fail, collapse, peter out. But the buddleia still grows.

In this climate, the Victoria Tree, that hardy buddleia that grows where it should not, feels rebellious but also comforting. It’s a subtle welcome when arriving at the station that is unexpected and a pleasure to see continue to outlive the buildings and offices around it. Before the smell of acrid McDonald’s fries, bad coffee and bus fumes begins, this small plant waves in the breeze as we stumble on underneath its gaze. That a seed somehow found its way up into the metallic bridge above and successfully made roots there is as hopeful a message as you’re going to get in the city today. For where there is space, there is growth; always.