Dear Readers, I hope you’ll forgive a second cemetery post in seven days. This week, we found ourselves in need of some fresh air and some melancholy Victorian angels, and so we headed to East Finchley Cemetery on East End Road. If you decide to visit, can I recommend Margot Bakery, which you pass en route? It specialises in Jewish breads such as challah , and sourdough of all kinds. I bought a rye loaf which was crusty and full of flavour, and it was only my gross overindulgence at Christmas that stopped me from pocketing a chocolate babka.
Anyhow, back to the business in hand. East Finchley Cemetery is owned and managed by the City of Westminster – I am forever confused about who is responsible for what in the field of cemeteries and crematoria – City of London cemetery is actually in Newham, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is in Barnet. This cemetery has had a lively recent history: it was sold to a development company for 3p in the 1990’s, was then sold on for a million pounds, and then finally purchased by an offshore development company for three million pounds. How it came back to Westminster City Council is a mystery. I’m sure the land would be worth much more than three million pounds now, but it seems unlikely that it would be allowed to be built upon. Maybe someone, somewhere, is hedging their bets for the future.
As you enter the cemetery, you are greeted by two magnificent cedars of Lebanon (planted in 1856) and the main chapel. Opposite is the memorial to Sir Peter Nicol Russell, who founded a school of engineering in Sydney, Australia. I rather like that he is posed topless with the tools of his trade, watched over by a solicitous angel. The statue is Grade II listed, as is the chapel.
The chapel has two carved stone faces next to the window. I love the way that church buildings so often have these little details that are not apparent at first glance.
On we go. As we head along the road, passing some very fine stone crosses, a car drives slowly past us, with a schnauzer attached to a lead running alongside. The lady driving gives me a cheery wave as she notices me watching. The dog seems completely unperturbed. Just goes to show that you never know what you’re going to see in a cemetery.
Before Christmas, when I was desperately trying to find plants for the Wednesday Weed, I looked everywhere for some mistletoe. Well, I didn’t look hard enough, because there’s some right here. Now I just have to remember it for Christmas 2020.
I was also stopped short by these small, smoky-foliaged trees, which I suspect are a variety of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). The variety here is probably a cultivar called ‘Elegans’, which retains that delicate, feathery juvenile foliage for its whole life. The wild tree is the national tree of Japan, and can grow up to 230 feet tall. These little chaps won’t get above ten metres.
Once I start to slow down and take notice, I find that there are things to look at on both a large and a small scale. I am taken by the solemnity of an avenue of conifers, but I also love the bright green of the moss against the paving stones.
There is a memorial to the people who died in the City of Westminster (St Marylebone as was) as a result of the bombing of London during the Second World War, and who are buried in the cemetery. I am always moved by the ‘old-fashioned’ names – the Violets and Winifreds and Horaces and Ethels and Mauds. These are the names of my grandparent’s generation – my granny on my mother’s side was called Minnie, and on my dad’s side we had Ivy. They went through so much, and seem to have borne it with a kind of stoicism. My Mum and Nan were buried in an air-raid shelter after the house next door was completely destroyed. My Mum remembered going off to school with her little gas mask strapped to her bag, and sitting in the underground cloakroom singing endless rounds of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ while the bombs fell on the houses round about. Now that people who remember the war directly are passing away, I hope that we remember their stories of what living through a war, either as a civilian or as a soldier, was like. There is too much political bluster and rhetoric, and not enough thought about what being in a war actually means for ‘ordinary’ people.
The yew bushes are all a-bustle with redwings, who pop out as soon as I go within 100 feet. They are nervous about the camera too, true farmland birds who know all too well what someone raising a metal object might mean. I love these small thrushes, blown in from Scandanavia and hoping for food. Well, there is lots of waxy red fruit on the yew to fuel them on their way.
Before we leave, we have to loop round to visit my favourite tomb, a monument to Sir Thomas and Esther Tate. Someone has left a pink rose on his foot. Thomas Tate was not related to the sugar moguls, but seems to have made his fortune through the manufacture of tennis racquets. His wife died within two weeks of his demise, in spite of being considerably younger than him. Whilst researching the memorial I have discovered a positive treasure-trove of information on London’s cemetery memorial in The London Dead blog. Along with Margot Bakery, this website is definitely my most exciting find of the week.
The very expensive bronze memorial has two very over-worked cherubs at the corners. Poor things, after all this time they look in need of a rest. Plus, surely that posture can’t be good for their infant backs?
And so, as it starts to rain, we turn tail and head home. Whether we shall find ourselves mysteriously drawn to some local spot that does chocolate and raspberry babka, only time will tell. Suffice it to say that all that walking has made us hungry.