A December Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

My favourite swamp cypress

Dear Readers, our weekly walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is often a splendid mixture of the familiar and the surprising, and so it was this time. I started off with a visit to my favourite swamp cypress, which is continuing to shed its leaves so that it looks as if it’s standing in a copper-coloured lake.

The dead tree on the other side of the path is starting a slow dissolution as fungi infiltrate the cracks in the bark – this looks almost as if turkey-tail fungus is getting a hold, but being no expert I shall have to wait and see how it develops. There is something fascinating about the way that life is never still, and I love the ring patterns in the lopped-off branch as well, they remind me of a wormhole reaching into another galaxy.

There are some new fungi on a grassy slope nearby too. They look as if they’ve been carved out of ivory and are tiny, only a couple of centimetres tall.

And then we head towards the noisy part of the cemetery, next to the North Circular Road, and who should fly into a small, isolated ash tree? Yes, it’s the kestrel. This is obviously a favourite spot for surveying the kingdom. Kestrels mainly hunt small rodents but the local birds obviously don’t know this (and I have seen sparrowhawks here too), as they are all of a twitter.

 

At one point the bird has a different twig in each foot and is rocking around trying to balance, his head perfectly still. The one thing I haven’t seen this bird do is hover – maybe s/he doesn’t need to if there are perching places. Hovering takes up a lot of energy, after all.

And with a swoop s/he’s off. It’s difficult to get an idea of how elegant this bird looks in flight, but the photo below shows how long and tapering the wings are.

I am starting to think of this ash as ‘the kestrel tree’. The bird obviously feels very safe here as it pays me little mind even as I fumble around with exposure on the camera. Someone told me that they’d seen a red kite over the cemetery last week too, so I shall be keeping a keen eye open. Buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk – there must be a whole lot of biodiversity in the cemetery. Let’s hope that it doesn’t become too regimented.

And I rather liked the way that this ‘winged creature’ was taking advantage of another one.

 

At this time of year, nearly all the leaves are gone, but I rather like the smoky effect of the bare, grey branches.

And those magnificent dark brooding trees against the skyline.

The snowberry is covered in ‘lardy balls’ this year – the tiny pink flowers are popular with bees in the spring, but nobody seems to like the berries, which is probably why they stay around for so long.

We turn into one of my favourite parts of the cemetery, along Kew Road and Withington Road. A Japanese gentleman is practicing his tai chi – we nearly always see him here, wearing a facemask and going through some moves. We wave and say hello, and he does the same. I often see the same people here every week, going for their constitutional. I do hope that at some point the cemetery will open up to ordinary folk during the week, it is such a source of solace for so many locals.

Anyhow, I suddenly notice a most unusual flag on one of the graves, and we head over for a look.

This is the one of the many designs of the early American flag, probably dating to about 1877. So what’s going on?

The grave belongs to George W. Denham, who fought in the Civil War (1861-1865) for the Unionists. The 111th Pennsylvania Volunteers were at the Battle of Antietam (one of the bloodiest battles of the war), and at Gettysburg.  He was on the USS Choctaw, a steamship that was converted into an ironclad ram and sent down to the Mississippi, where the ship was involved in the destruction of a number of confederate navy yards. Later, the Pennsylvania Volunteers were folded into the Army of the Potomac, which by 1865 had over 80,000 men either killed, wounded or missing in action. What a bloody war this was! What I don’t know is how Denton came to be living in North London, although it’s clear that he was involved with his fellow veterans, being a member of the London Branch of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. I managed to find a George W. Denham living in St Pancras parish with his wife Jane and six children, but whether this is ‘our’ George I’ve been unable to ascertain to my satisfaction.

Denham’s  great grandchildren laid a wreath on his grave, and they clearly got to know their great grandfather through the letters that he’d left. What a treasure trove for future generations something like this is, especially as this man had really lived through history, and furthermore had obviously recorded it.

What I found most poignant though was not so much the flag, and the wreath, and the letter, but the cap left on the corner of the grave, a memento of a soldier who was finally free to take it off.

And finally, to finish up our walk together, here are some more angels, because we need as many of them as we can find at the moment. Here’s an angel crowned with ivy.

And here are some cherub faces, on a family grave that included a child of one year and ten months old. There is something about the specificity of that which reminds me of how I often correct myself when I’m referring to Mum and Dad’s death – ‘Mum will have been gone for two years on 18th December this year’ for example. For those who grieve, the precise details are so important.

 

6 thoughts on “A December Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

  1. Anne

    Walking a regular route – and you have a most interesting one to follow – often yields surprises for the observant. I enjoy seeing ‘your’ kestrel and to know that raptors are alive and well in the city. That grave is fascinating: so much history – and so many questions – await the curious in cemeteries!

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  2. Ann Bronkhorst

    The white fungi are hard to identify but I don’t think they are the notorious ‘Destroying Angel’ (deadly poisonous) though you’d have to be sure by seeing if there is a volva at the base of the stem. Lots of whitish fungi grow on rotting wood but here they seem to be in grass. Someone else may have a suggestion?

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  3. Emily B

    Fascinating! I do like reading your posts- I’m originally from that neck of the woods (as it were) and it’s very interesting to read about the area!

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  4. Gina Denham

    Thanks for sharing. The grave belongs to my Gt Gt Grandfather George W Denham. He was member #8 London Branch of American Civil War veterans. We plan to have an official headstone sited there. Thanks for checking in on him and my family buried in the same plot. Covid has prevented more recent visits.

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