A Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Variegated Holly tree with ivy stems

Dear Readers, for the first time in weeks I was able to go for a walk in our local cemetery today – we’ve been away for several weeks, and last week it rained so much that I started on Ark construction in the garden. Today was breezy-ish and cold-ish but off we went. The first thing I noticed was this fine holly tree, and it took me a second to realise that its furry trunk was probably a result of a spot of ivy removal.

And here is one of those headstones which looks at a cursory glance as if it has a dollar sign on it. This is in fact the initials IHS, standing for the first three letters of Jesus Christ’s name in Greek. The emblem is known as a Christogram, and is often found on the tombs of people originally from Ireland who are buried in the cemetery. I first noticed this symbol in East Finchley Cemetery and, as is often the way of things, once I’d noticed it I saw it everywhere.

And here is the burial place of Henry Croft, the original ‘Pearly King’. The Pearly Kings and Queens are an East End tradition dating back to the 1920’s. Croft was born in a Victorian workhouse in 1861, and, while working as a road sweeper, became inspired by the costumes of the costermongers that he used to see (a costermonger is someone who used to sell fruit or vegetables from a handcart in the street). The costermongers often sewed pearl buttons on to their trousers and jackets to make themselves look a bit fancier, but Croft went one better, attaching buttons to every available surface. He used to dress as ‘the pearly king’ in order to raise money for the poor, orphaned, disabled and destitute, but soon so many people wanted him to attend events as an attraction that he asked other people to make ‘pearly’ costumes and become pearly kings and queens themselves. There were 400 Pearly Kings and Queens at his funeral in 1930 (though, as their website sadly laments, there are fewer now). Looking at the faces on the website I really do see the faces of ‘my’ people – my Mum’s family were from Stratford, my Dad’s folk from Bow, and so my roots are in the East End. Maybe I should get my sewing needles out and become a Pearly? I could certainly knock up a few button bugs on my jacket.

Photo One from https://pearlysociety.co/
Present Day Pearly King and Queens at an event in 2019 (Photo One)

There used to be a very fine statue of Henry Croft on his grave, but it was vandalised so many times that it has now been removed to the crypt of St Martin in the Fields Church on Trafalgar Square.

Photo Two from https://pearlysociety.co/henry-croft
Statue of Henry Croft (Photo Two)
Sycamore leaves with tar spot fungus

Now, I find myself becoming more and more fascinated with the tar spot fungus which seems to adorn nearly all the sycamore trees at this time of year. Its Latin name is Rhytisma acerinum, and it is a type of sac fungus, or Ascomycete – many of the group are pathogens, but it also contains the penicillin fungus so they aren’t all bad.

In the spring, the spores of the fungus are released into the air from the infected leaves of the previous year. They are slightly sticky, and cling to the fresh green leaves, entering through the stomata (the pores through which the plant breathes). The infection causes the area around the fungus to cease to photosynthesise, causing the yellow patches that you can see in the photo. Gradually, the fruiting bodies, known as apothecia, form, and it’s these structures that cause the black colour of tar spot. A badly-infected leaf may fall from the tree a bit earlier than it would otherwise do, but the tree as a whole doesn’t seem to be weakened or adversely affected. In this, the plant and the fungus seem to have reached a sort of balance.

Photo Two by By Debivort, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=865503
An apothecia (fruiting body of an Ascomete fungus) (Photo Two)

It used to thought that tar spot couldn’t thrive in conditions where there was a lot of sulphur dioxide (such as city streets) because urban sycamores seemed relatively unaffected. But then, some bright spark realised that in cities, the leaves carrying the spores are usually swept up pretty promptly, so the tree is not re-infected every year, unlike in forests and cemeteries where it’s an annual event. Just goes to show that correlation is not causation.

Acorn bonanza

I’ve been saying for a while that this looks like an absolutely bumper year for acorns, and also for conkers by the look of things. Certainly the cemetery is full of squirrels. This one was so busy collecting nuts that he didn’t even notice us.

And then I noticed another animal crossing the path

It’s actually most unusual to see a cat in the cemetery, though you’d think it would be paradise. There are dogs and foxes too, of course. This one looks pretty young to me.

Anyhow, we sized one another up at a distance, and then the cat went on his merry way, and so did the squirrel. It sometimes feels like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves with all the critters.

So, it was good to be back in the cemetery. For all that some of it is busy at the weekend, the overgrown bits are still thinly populated (by living people anyway). It’s perfectly possible to wander and not see anyone, and, if you ignore the constant hum of the North Circular Road in the background, you can still hear the birds. It’s a place to slow down and contemplate, and even though it’s still closed to the public during the week, I love that I can go there at the weekend. On a good day I can hear and see jays, long-tailed tits, green woodpeckers and nuthatches, not to mention an occasional goldcrest, and that makes me happier than almost anything else I can think of.

8 thoughts on “A Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

    1. Bug Woman

      But only at the weekends, sadly. It used to be open to the public all week, but after some idiots decided it was a great place for a party and a barbeque they clamped down.

  1. FEARN

    East Finchley Cemetery was on TV last night (Jodie Whittaker visiting the grave of a relative and WW1 casualty J W Clements in Who Do You Think You Are)
    Acorns are poisonous to dogs (cattle and horses too, which is why they used to encourage pigs to eat them – pannage). The squirrel is clearly not bothered about doing the job on his own!

    1. Bug Woman

      Interesting, I shall have a look – the name J.W Clements rings a bell. And yes, I seem to remember that acorns are poisonous to most animal except pigs. I imagine our local oak and hornbeam wood would once have been full of munchers of the porcine variety.

  2. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    It looks a very peaceful place. Our great great grandmother, great grandfather and great uncle are all buried in that cemetery. Our father was born in Bermondsey and a lot of his family came from the Islington area, mostly barbers.


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