The Final January Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, what a cold and windy day it was today, made rather worse by my not getting to sleep until 3 a.m. Usually I haven’t been sleeping badly during the lockdown, but on some nights my brain starts racing and won’t stop, and this was one of those nights. Plus in the rush to get out of the door I forgot my trusty hat, so the icy wind seemed to get into the deepest interstices of my ears. Harrumph! It’s fair to say that I wasn’t in the best of moods.

However, there’s always something to see in the cemetery, even though on some days you have to dig deeper than others.

I noticed this angel, with fist raised and trumpet. I would love to see the cemetery through the eyes of someone who didn’t share our iconography. What on earth would they think of all these winged figures, I wonder?

And I found myself completely fascinated by, of all things, the bark on the ash trees. As I’ve mentioned before, there are ash springing up all over the cemetery, and they are by far the most numerous tree, although it’s the stately Victorian plantings that get most of the attention.

On the younger saplings, the bark is smooth and pretty much without blemish.

However, according to The Science Photo Library, the smooth bark of the ash tree is also less acidic than that of many other common forest trees, which encourages the growth of lichens. The pH of the bark also offsets some of the effects of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, making them more amenable to the lichens and to fungi.  In fact, 536 different species of lichen have been found on ash trees, and ash dieback will put them in danger too.

My guess is that the lichen is black apothecia (Arthonia) though I am no expert. Some trees also have a marked rusty tone (as this one does), which could be another lichen called pale orange apothecia (Leconora). I shall have to come back with a hand lens and have a proper look. ‘Apothecia’ relates to the cup-shaped fruiting bodies of the lichen.

Marked orange staining on this ash tree.

Ash trees often develop huge scars on their trunks as they get older. My Collins Tree Guide refers to these as ‘erupting black cankers’ that ‘disfigure many trees’. That might be so, but the trees largely seem unperturbed by these scabs. 

And having referred to the stately Victorian planting, I rather liked this fine tree, which could not be more conical if it tried. It could be a Western Red Cedar or it could be a Leylandii (which I just discovered is a hybrid between a Western Red Cedar and a Monterey Pine). It just goes to show that even the much maligned Leylandii (if that’s what it is) is fine in the right place. It’s just not a good idea to create a suburban hedge out of it without being prepared to do a lot of trimming.

And here is a fine Scots Pine, which must have looked even more magnificent without the current backdrop of other trees. Now I look at the photo though, do I see the outline of what was once a holly hedge to the left of the tree? In my cemetery guide, it says that it seems that the custodians of the cemetery were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place (at 185 acres it’s the second largest cemetery in London), and seem to have decided largely to keep the more recent areas neat and tidy, letting the rest of it grow wild. Long may it continue!

And here is some more forest statuary – the lady seems to be clasping a palm branch, but I’m not quite sure what the object is to the left. An urn, possibly?

And finally,  as we leave, my husband decides to go into the War Graves Cemetery for a quick look. I, however, am distracted (as always), this time by this stump.

Just look at the fine array of bracket fungi that are breaking down what remains of the tree!


I am thinking that the fungus is a variety of forms of the ubiquitous turkeytail (Trametes versicolor) but I’m no expert. I was just very taken by the way that the stump was providing sustenance even as it disappeared. Some red deadnettle was just coming into flower in the shelter of its roots.

I’m guessing that the tree was cut down because of some kind of fungal disease – even the main branches have been cross-hatched with an axe, and even they are providing a home for moss.

And so, feeling slightly less tired and with my head full of questions about lichens and fungi, I head for home. And by the time you read this it will be February! The cemetery is full of singing robins and squabbling blackbirds. Spring is on the way, readers.

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