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.
Parts 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:
However, 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.
As 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.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.
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.