St Pancras and Islington Cemetery


Cemetary and Parakeets 001 If you walk through Coldfall Wood, following the trail to the playing fields, you will find a path that goes through a hole in the fence. Once through, you will find yourself in a land of tilted headstones, of tombs overgrown with ivy and brambles, of mysterious narrow paths between ancient trees. This is St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, created in 1854 to hold the dead of Camden (formerly St Pancras) and Islington Boroughs. It holds over a million dead, more than any other cemetery in the UK.

Cemetary and Parakeets 002Parts of the cemetery are beautifully manicured, but in the older parts there has been a policy of benign neglect, which has created a wonderful variety of habitats for wildlife.However, this is a place that needs to be respected, not just because of its community of the dead, but because of the dangers that disintegrating tombs and gravestones present to the unwary:

Cemetary and Parakeets 009There are open, sunny places here, where  hoverflies and bees feed on the Oxford Ragweed, and day-flying moths flitter through the sunbeams.

Cemetary and Parakeets 005However, at this time of the year, much of the cemetery is shaded and  forbidding. I lean up against a tomb for a few moments, to decide which way to walk. This place inspires silence. It makes me want to walk as carefully as a cat so that nothing is disturbed. I hear the yaffle of a green woodpecker, the steady drone of bees. A plane roars overhead. The wind rustles the leaves of the hornbeams.

Cemetary and Parakeets 010As I walk on, my eye catches sight of a movement, flying fast in the trees overhead, then cutting diagonally down to the bramble thicket opposite. A Blue Hawker dragonfly, as long as my finger, is hunting above the path. It moves almost too fast for the eye to follow, hovers, darts off again.

Blue Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) in flight - I, Luc Viatour [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Blue Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) in flight – I, Luc Viatour [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

At one point, a Large White butterfly appears above the brambles, fluttering around. The dragonfly seems to materialise behind it, so fast does it move, like a missile locked on target. I can see the way that its eyes form an almost complete translucent helmet around its head. It likes to approach its prey from below, snatching it out of the air. I am frozen to the spot.  The butterfly would have no chance of escaping this sleekest of predators, but the dragonfly seems to change its mind, and darts over to investigate me. For a few seconds, it hovers at my eyelevel, its wings a blur, and then it’s away again, up to the treetops and out of sight. I am left a little unnerved by its surveillance, as if I’ve been assessed and found wanting.

I walk on. A crow calls from a dead tree. The community of crows in Coldfall Wood and in the adjacent cemetery must number at least fifty birds. In the evening, they gather together to poke in the turf of the playing fields for insects, and, it seems to me, to share the gossip of the day. But on this quiet afternoon, one bird watches me pass.

A lone crow.

A lone crow.

I do not feel afraid here. What I feel is a deep peace, but also a great need to be respectful, not only of those million dead, but of the living plant and animal community that surrounds me. In all the time that I am here, I see only two other people, both marching through to the lawns of the more recent burial areas, with their neat rows of graves and pots of begonias, their scrubbed headstones and sorrowing angels. But it’s here, amongst the brambles and the ivy, that I would like to be buried, where dragonflies hawk and foxes yip and the crows keep watch. I would never be lonely with such august company.


11 thoughts on “St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

    1. Bug Woman

      I hadn’t realised how interesting it was until last week, Laurin – this blog is taking me to all kinds of places that I haven’t been before!

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  3. Ann

    The cemetery is indeed fascinating and for many years has been a de facto nature reserve because of its immense size and the (benign?) neglect of many areas in it. Trouble is, it’s being managed more efficiently now, for various reasons, and the neglected parts are steadily diminishing. Luckily some of the cemetery staff and some regular visitors are wildlife enthusiasts, putting up bird feeders, watching and feeding foxes and delighting in the surviving Victorian specimen trees and the fungi.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Ann, I do hope that the wild places in the cemetary don’t disappear. It is so huge that surely a little place can be left for the foxes and the dragonflies. For me it is a magical place, wilder than Coldfall Wood next door though a very useful continuation of it. I would hate it if it was ‘tidied up’. After all, Highgate Cemetary and the cemetary in Stoke Newington are both wildlife havens.

      1. Bob Davenport

        I have a leaflet called ‘The Living Cemetery: Wildlife in Islington’s Cemetery’ produced many years ago (telephone numbers are prefixed by ‘017’ and ‘081’) apparently by Islington’s Nature Conservation Team and the cemetery office. This states that ‘The areas used for burials are kept as parkland with neatly mown lawns. Other habitats are managed to maintain their wildlife value. If grassland is left unmown it is quickly colonised by scrub. Some grassland is therefore cut annually and in some areas scrub has been cleared. Other areas are being left to change naturally as the succession from grassland, through scrub to woodland is important … ‘ So at that time it was policy to leave some areas wild. I’ve no idea if it still is, but I’d have thought it would be a huge job to ‘manicure’ all of them.

      2. Bug Woman

        Ah, that’s very interesting Bob, thank you….I think it would be a big job to tidy it all up as well. Long may it stay weedy, shady and full of creatures…

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