A May Day Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

May (Hawthorn) blossom

Dear Readers, the May blossom was right on time this year, in the cemetery at least: the few flowers that had opened last week have been joined by thousands of others, and the sunnier parts of the cemetery are abuzz with early bumblebees. Now that the queens are mostly underground, laying eggs and being provisioned by the workers, there’s a noticeable decrease in size – some of the early workers are very little indeed, but are collecting pollen diligently.

Some of the flowers that the bees have chosen to collect from have been a surprise, I must admit. I have always thought of narcissi as not being particularly bee-friendly, but the ones planted in the woodland grave section seem to be popular with this female hairy-footed flower bee at least. The orange pollen looks most inviting, and the design of the flowerhead seems very easy to navigate.

My poor husband is the victim of much ‘womansplaining’ when we go for a walk. Sometimes I have the audacity to quiz him on things that I told him last week, just in case he wasn’t paying attention. This week he was able to tell me that forget-me-not flowers go pink after they’ve been pollinated, and that this probably acts as a signal to the bees to look elsewhere. My work here is done, clearly.

Forget-me-nots demonstrating post-pollination colour change

And look at this lovely cowslip which has popped up! There would have been lots of these in East Finchley Cemetery too if someone hadn’t been so over-zealous with the strimmer.

Cowslip (Primula veris)

‘My’ Tibetan cherry is in flower. I first noticed it because of its shiny bark, but it has abundant blossom too. I always give the bark a little polish when I go past, it’s irresistible.

The candelabra flowers on the horse chestnut are developing nicely too. I am looking forward to telling my husband that they change colour after pollination too. What a joy I am to be married to! To be fair, he does fill me in on the various battles that many of the war graves commemorate, so he is not totally without defence.

There is a fine selection of ‘weeds’ under the horse chestnuts. I cannot make up my mind if this little geranium is the ubiquitous hedgerow cranesbill (Geranium pyrenaicum) with particularly small flowers, or a small-flowered cranesbill (Geranium pusillum) with non-standard leaves. Why does nothing ever look exactly the way that it does in my field guide?

And just look at the dandelions…

A blackbird serenaded us from the top of a willow.

The white dead-nettle is in flower everywhere.

And some of the dandelions have already set seed. No wonder there are so many of them!

And there are fine patches of ground ivy. Every year on the UK wildflowers website, someone notices these tiny flowers for the first time and asks if they’re orchids. I am always touched by their wishful thinking and I must confess that I live in hope of spotting an orchid in one of the hidden parts of the cemetery, but no luck so far.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea)

The wrens are belting out their songs, but it’s hard to get a photo of one.

The stand of Japanese Knotweed is getting more extensive every year, and grows thickly right through the fence and alongside the playing fields next door. At this time of year it’s bursting through the ground like the spears of those skeletons who ‘germinated’ from dragon’s teeth in the Ray Harryhausen film (‘Jason and the Argonauts’ if I remember correctly).

And then it’s back into my favourite ramshackle part of the cemetery, where the graves are covered in moss and ivy and nature holds sway. There is a fine crop of sticky mouse-ear (Cerastium glomeratum) which is one of those tiny plants that no one ever notices. This is a member of the chickweed and campion family, and I feel a Wednesday Weed coming on, so I shall say no more for now.

Sticky Mouse-ear (Cerastium glomeratum)

The garlic mustard is looking very fine, but no orange-tip butterflies today – I guess it’s a tiny bit too cold. All I spotted was a single speckled wood, flying away at speed.

Garlic mustard

And here’s another of those tiny plants that goes unnoticed, though this one has featured in a Wednesday Weed. This is ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia) and it is growing in such profusion in some parts of the cemetery that it makes the edges of the walks look positively furry.

The tiny flowers are a very pale lilac blue, and the whole plant is so delicate that it’s difficult to imagine how it survives in the rough and tumble world under the trees, but here it is, thriving. It has a high tolerance for shade so, as the lesser celandine goes over and dies back beneath the ground, the ivy-leaved speedwell sees its chance. And here it is. In nature, timing is everything.

The bluebells have almost finished, but not quite.

And a detour took us past this wonderful tree. I’m thinking hornbeam from the leaves, although strangely enough there aren’t many hornbeams in the main part of the cemetery, except along the perimeter fence where it meets Coldfall Wood. The trunk has that muscular look that I associate with hornbeam, but I’m guessing that this could be beech at a push. See what you think (leaves below).

And so, our first May walk in the cemetery came to an end. I am loving the way that the flora and fauna changes week after week, and I am also constantly surprised by how quick the transitions can be: one week the cemetery is full of redwings, the next week they have all left for their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. There is something about the rhythms of nature that I’ve found very consoling during this past year, the sense that the cycles of breeding and flowering are carrying on even as we reel from shock after shock. Soon the ivy-leaved speedwell be gone, but I am looking forward to whatever will grow in its place. The walk in the cemetery shows me that there is always something interesting and beautiful going on, I just have to slow down enough to notice it.

And so, here is the bark on a horse chestnut tree in one of the shady spots in the cemetery. I love all the cracks and crevices, which are no doubt home to all manner of little critters. The recess in the centre has been colonised by algae, probably because it’s damper than the surrounding bark. And there are little spots of lichen starting to form too. I imagine that in the whole of the cemetery there are more species of microorganism, plant, bird and invertebrate than I could possibly count. For some reason, this cheers me up enormously.



3 thoughts on “A May Day Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

  1. Anne

    Your careful observation – and documentation of – the cycles of nature are fascinating to read. I did not know forget-me-nots turn pink after pollination! Also, I have accompanied my husband on trips to sites of military historical interest all over the country – fortunately enough birds, insects, flowers, trees and other interesting things abound in those wild and lonely areas to satisfy my interests too.

  2. Andrea Stephenson

    I have to say that learning about nature is much more interesting to me than learning about battles! I didn’t know that about flowers changing colour after pollination.


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