Pat Tuson: urban nature photographer

29 Aug

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  Pat Tuson, 68, best known locally as leading the Gillespie Festival team, grew up in the East End but it’s Islington birds and blooms that feature most in her urban and plant photographs.  Interview by Nicola Baird

Pat Tuson: xxx

Pat Tuson: “I’ve always been a bit of a whiz with family history, but I was amazed to find out recently that my grandmother was born in the Paradise Cafe, 129 Holloway Road, N7 (near St Mary Magdalene Church) where my great grandfather was a coffee house keeper. It’s my only Islington connection but one until recently I knew nothing about.”

“I was accidentally born in Somerset, but we came from Bow* in East London, near where the terrible cycling accidents happen opposite where McDonald’s is now,” explains Pat when I track her down at the Ecology Centre off Drayton Park. She’s armed with her Nikon D300 camera waiting for the wind to die down so she can take photos of summer plants.

Pat was a war baby – born in January 1945, and her dad, known as Jack (“actually Denis Archibald – he was the seventh son so they’d run out of names,” says Pat joking). “My grandfather was a scrap metal dealer, and so was my father. There was no stigma to being a scrap metal dealer then, as there is now, and my father was a respected member of the local comunity and the Catholic Church. He was oftern referred to as ‘one of nature’s gentlemen’.”

Life in Bow
“My father was married in 1940, but he’d fallen off a roof a few years before and then rolled under a lorry. He was there concussed for two hours before anyone found him. He was in hospital for two years and nearly didn’t make it. It affected him always – he needed a stick and he was very nervous about my mother and I.”

“We lived in a little row of terrace cottages (not as grand as Whistler Street off Drayton Park, N5) that were in very bad condition. They were held up with wooden supports and our house had a corrugated roof. My uncle lived next door – he was a Labour councillor in Poplar, and became Mayor too.”

“In 1944 doodlebugs* had been dropped a few streets away – seven or eight people were killed, and my father was very nervous, so we went to Minehead. I was actually born in Bridgewater. A note was sent to my father saying he’d had a daughter and then he had to walk to the hospital [21 miles/33km] as there was no public transport due to the bad weather.”

The family was back in London by spring 1945, but in addition to post war austerity they had to put up with a lot. In 1951 Pat’s little brother died just four days after he was born, and then Pat was diagnosed with TB (caught from another uncle). “TB is contagious,” she explains. “I was only eight, and I didn’t feel ill, but I was carted off to High Wood, a sanatorium in Brentwood*, Essex for five months. The cure was rest, you had to stay in bed. I couldn’t understand why I had to go to sleep at 6pm in the summer when the light was flowing in from the window. My parents didn’t drive but I saw them on Sunday visiting. I made more friends towards the end – you start getting up for an hour at lunch, but I don’t remember how I spent the time, though I’ve always liked reading. I loved Biggles and adventure stories. At the end you are institutionalized, but I wasn’t happy there. As an adult in hospital I’ve been well-treated but when I came out of High Wood I didn’t like nurses.”

In those days TB was treated with isolation, and then a year off school – Pat had no chance of catching up the lost work and ended leaving school in Poplar before she was 15. Yet getting work at the start of the 1960s was no problem. “I could do clerical work and typing. I got my first job in Holborn,” she says. “Jobs were plentiful then and there was lots of choice.”

1960s London
It was the ‘60s and inevitably the teenage Pat fell in love with fashion. “I’ve still got a collection of very old Vogues, though I did sell some recently. I wore the trendy stuff. I loved short skirts from Biba and Mary Quant; I loved the first Biba shop. But then you grow out of these things and get into fleeces. Now I have an extra small, a medium and a large so I can wear them on top of each other when it’s cold.”

Pat met her life partner, Chris Ashby, at a party in Chelsea when she was 22. He’d grown up in Blackpool and was working as a mechanical engineer so they tried out Edinburgh, Liverpool and Spain. They moved to Islington in 1973, though In the mid-70s the pair spent a winter on the Island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides watching and photographing the wild geese that wintered there. “We arrived home with four kittens which we’d rescued from drowning, which eventually led to me setting up a cat sitting business in 1992,” she says.

“When I was young everyone got married,” explains Pat. “I always said Chris was too mean to pay the 7/-6,’ she says with a gentle grin, “but my parents weren’t smart people and they didn’t mind what I did, as long as I was happy and healthy. We’ve been together for 46 years and still not married… but we may now, for financial reasons!”

The Ecology Centre becomes a jazz stage with a cafe behind during the Gillespie Festival (on the 2nd Sunday of September).

The Ecology Centre becomes a jazz stage with a cafe behind during the Gillespie Festival (on the 2nd Sunday of September).

Islington changes
“In 1973 Islington was already slightly trendy – it started being so in the ‘60s. Then it became more established, lived in by older people. Because there are now lots more flats there are more younger people again, but I feel it’s become very over-crowded. Our house (behind the Emirates Stadium) is now surrounded by people who are new to us. They are packing everyone in and there isn’t enough green space. They build on every tiny little corner: if you can squeeze a house or a flat in, then they’ll do it. In the 1970s Peter Bonsall, parks officer, opened up Barnard Park*, but since then we’ve lost half of Gillespie Park with the Quill Street development.”

One of the many lovely views at Gillespie Park, just behind the Ecology Centre.  Find it seconds away from Arsenal tube, just off Drayton Park in the shadow of Arsenal's old and new ground.

One of the many lovely views at Gillespie Park, just behind the Ecology Centre. Find it seconds away from Arsenal tube, just off Drayton Park in the shadow of Arsenal’s old and new ground.

Keeping it green
In a bid to deal with Islington’s lack of green space Pat and Chris have an allotment, were stalwarts of the Green party for years and also used to run the Islington Wildlife Group (part of the London Wildlife Trust). They also joined the campaign to save Gillespie Park from being built over in the late 1990s.

“The first festival was part of that campaign, 27 years ago,” explains Pat who still helps co-ordinate the annual community festival with a green edge held in this unique ecology park behind Arsenal tube. “You can’t imagine the amount of work involved for everybody. You’ve got to make sure the insurance is in place, the police and fire brigade are informed and that all the stallholders are happy…” Despite the workload, Pat, and her team, will ensure everything’s ready for the 2,000 visitors expected to turn up for the 27th festival on Sunday 8 September from 2-6pm.

(c) Pat Tuson - Gillespie Park Local Nature Reserve under snow with Common reed Phragmites communis in foreground Highbury Islington London England UK.

One of Pat’s beautiful pictures of urban nature, by (c) Pat Tuson – Gillespie Park Local Nature Reserve under snow with Common reed Phragmites communis in foreground near Highbury Islington London England UK.

Why I love cameras
Q Why do you photograph Islington?
A: Because it’s there when I open my front door. It’s a fascinating place and the supply of images is never ending.”

Q: Where’s your favourite place to take photographs in Islington?
A: Well, it should be Gillespie Park, but I rather like just wondering around the streets and looking at people’s front gardens to see what’s growing over their walls or railings. So if anybody sees their front garden in a smart magazine I hope they don’t mind!”
Feeling good
After successful heart surgery in 2012, Pat’s health is good again – “because I’ve got so many bits of metal and wires inside me, and take so many tablets,” she jokes. As a result she is able to add more pictures to her urban and plant photography collection, which is exactly what she heads off to do when our interview finishes. So, if you see a woman (possibly in fleece) photographing overgrown plant signs, allotment produce or a perfect bloom – at the Festival or locally anytime – there’s a strong chance it’ll be super-organised Gillespie Festival co-ordinator, Pat Tuson.

See Pat’s photos here Her photos are also stocked by Gap Photos, Nature Picture Library, Ecoscene and Alamy.

Pat’s partner, Chris Ashby, may be able to feed your cat if you are away, check prices and dates at 020 7609 5093.

It’s free to join Friends of Gillespie Park

Gillespie Festival is on Sunday 8 September 2013 from 1-5pm. It’s a free event – the entrance is close to Arsenal tube.

If you’ve enjoyed this piece about a Gillespie Festival committee member you might also like to look at interviews with other committee members – Diane BurridgeStephen Coles, Sue Jandy and ex-committee member Angela Sinclair-Loutit.


Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy the most popular of all islingtonfacesblog posts, Nina Marcangelo from Alfredo’s Cafe on Essex Road which had 800 viewers in a week, 187 views on its 2nd day up and 97 facebook shares.


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