Unlike Rome, which plays host to wolves, or the suburbs of Berlin, where the intruders are wild boar, my patch in south-west London boasts an urban fox. With his lush orange coat speckled with white and grey, George – or should it be Vivienne – is impressive and, in his demeanour, takes the description of being ‘urban’ to another level. There has been a grassy patch around the Church of St Mary Magdalene, or its predecessors in central Richmond, for almost 800 years. Throughout its history foxes will have come by, but I doubt if any will have behaved quite like George. Everyday for almost a month, he could be seen sunning himself in the graveyard, in full view of the public and totally unconcerned.
Although I say ‘he’, gender assignment was difficult – in this particular respect, foxes are modest and discreet. It was a middle-aged woman who introduced him to me as George – “After Clooney, that is”. While a sligthly older man called her Vivienne because ‘she moves with such feminine grace”. For me, the name George felt right, a hunch that was confirmed soon after he left at the end of May.
When I arrived in Richmond in the early 1990s, fox sightings were viewed as special and worthy of comment. Moreover, when seen, they behaved according to traditional urban fox rules. They appeared in the early morning or late at night, they usually skulked in hedgerows or other dark corners and, if disturbed, would scamper off. In those days they were seen as timid, suspicious and unfriendly. George was very different.
Paths divide up the churchyard and, despite a continuous flow of people, on most days George could be seen on one or other of the cemetery lawns basking on his back, stretched out on his front or sitting on his haunches. When he moved he did not walk, he loped with a swagger. Often passers-by gathered to admire him, to feed him, or even to take his photo for which he sometimes appeared to pose (it’s George in the photo above).
From our very first sighting, my wife and I saw George as a wondrous treasure. To discover whether others felt the same, over one weekend I did a survey. During a series of half-hour slots, with a pen and clipboard at the ready I sat on one of the walls beside the path waiting to pounce. While some of those I approached walked on smiling and others ignored me or even scowled, most stopped and gave their views.
Of the twenty or so people solicited, around two thirds reported sightings and, it soon became clear that, for most of them, seeing George was a pleasure and a privilege. He was seen as ‘handsome’ and ‘healthy’, ‘cool’, ‘calm’, even ‘chilled’ and, mysteriously ‘well-organised’ and ‘well-dressed’. By his very presence he gave this group of locals feelings of ‘joy’, ‘excitement’, ‘wonder”, ‘thrill’, ‘pride’ and ‘amazement’. Above all, he was viewed as unusual. Many had seen other urban foxes, but in his relaxed, outgoing manner, George was exceptional.
Naturally, some others, a small minority, saw things differently. For them, George was a ‘sickly’, ‘wild’, ‘troublemaker’ who engendered ‘fear’ and ‘suspicion’. He might, after all, ‘attack dogs or children’!
Soon after the survey, George disappeared, and another side of him was revealed. At the moment the church is being restored in readiness for its forthcoming 800th birthday. One of the artisans working on the project knew the fox well and confirmed that the name George was indeed appropriate ‘He had a missus living up the hill in the vicarage garden where she looked after their cubs”. That put a new complexion on his demeanour – could it be that George, this paragon of an urban fox, had spent a month in the churchyard in order to avoid his domestic and parental responsibilities?
And there was more, this time gleaned from the vicar herself. On the same day that George left the churchyard, the vixen and her pups left their garden den. The vicar believed that the whole family, now re-united, had left for the wide open spaces of Richmond Park, a much classier place to bring up a family. With such a move, any pretence George might have of being ‘urban’ could be dropped – until next year that is!