A Mid May Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery




Dear Readers, this tumbled headstone, complete with its own pond and fine growth of algae, just about sums up this week. It is heading towards being the wettest May on record. What people generally don’t appreciate is that climate change creates weather chaos, not just a gradual rise in temperatures. For the birds who have started breeding the lack of insects will probably increase the rate of nest failure, and for insects trying to complete their reproductive cycles it will lessen the amount of time that they have available. At least we haven’t had snow in London, though it has fallen further north this month.

It’s also been very windy, so the dandelion clocks, so abundant last week, have more or less disappeared, to be replaced by a carpet of daisies and buttercups.

Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

There are several species of buttercup in the cemetery: there’s the typical creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), with its three-lobed leaves, the poor old Goldilocks buttercup, (Ranunculus auricomus) where the flowers are always missing their petals and it looks as if it’s been nibbled even when it’s pristine, and the delicate meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), with its finely-cut leaves. Once you’ve got your eye in for identifying these plants, you notice that the flowers on the meadow buttercup seem to have more separated petals, and the whole plant is a bit taller than the creeping buttercup. My Dad taught me that where there are buttercups of any kind it’s an indicator that the soil is wet, so it’s best to avoid standing near them if you don’t have your Wellington boots on.

Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)

I am pleased to report that ‘my’ swamp cypress is finally getting a coat of green, rather later than I expected. Look at it standing ankle-deep in cow parsley!

I noticed how the flowers on the horse chestnut turn pink when they’re pollinated – you can see the mixture of yellow and pink blossom on this flowerhead. I have seen bumblebees about in the midst of the storms this week, determinedly heading for the dusky cranesbill which is in full flower in the garden. I am a recent convert to species geraniums – some varieties are shade-tolerant, and the bees love them. I imagine that a tree like a horse chestnut must be a powerful bee magnet. So many flowers! So much nectar and pollen!

There is some sorrel just starting to appear too – I horrified my husband by eating a leaf just to make sure. It looks rather like a grass, but it’s actually a member of the knotweed family. The leaves have a delicious lemony tang to them, and if you look at the stem you can see how similar it is to plants like bistort and redshank.

Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

When we reach the main path that leads to the North Circular Road entrance, what should we see but a blooming little egret flying past! I apologise for not getting a better photo for you, readers. I promise that the white blob just right of centre towards the top of the photo is actually an egret, not a stray handkerchief whooshing past in the high wind. I wonder where s/he was going?

On we go. I am delighted with the way that the sycamore flowers are already turning into the little ‘helicopters’ as we used to call them.

A rather magnificent crow surveyed the scene from the top of a tree. We’d just watched a crow pick up half a sandwich that someone had dropped, dunk it in a puddle to moisten it and then fly off, presumably back to a nestful of little dinosaurs waiting for their lunch.

And there’s an area completely covered in shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum). Even allowing for the damp weather, just look how shiny the foliage is! And look at all those fallen horse-chestnut flowers, probably ripped untimely from the tree in this week’s wind, rain and hail.

Shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum)

Storm damage



More branches down

My friend A told me that there were some whole trees down in other parts of the cemetery. It’s such a large area that they can lay around for quite some time if they haven’t fallen onto a recent grave, and if they aren’t blocking a well-used road.

And, as usual in the cemetery, I notice something that I’ve walked past a hundred times without really seeing it.

The broken column symbolises a life cut short, and was often used to signify the death of a child, as indeed is the case with this memorial. Little John Arthur Winter died at the age of 18 months, and is buried here with who I imagine are his grandparents, judging by the ages.

John Arthur was born in Shoreditch,  to Charles Richard and Amy Jane Winter, and was baptised in St John the Baptist church in Shoreditch. In 1881, 5 years after John Arthur had died, Charles Richard and Amy were living at 164 Southgate Road in Hackney. They had two children, Charles aged 12 and George aged 4, and their 4 year-old niece Alice was visiting them on the day of the census. Charles Richard lists his occupation as ‘clerk/surveyor’, but the section for Amy’s employment is blank. By 1891 the family have moved to Hever in Kent, and it seems as if Charles Richard has gone up in the world, with his occupation now listed as ‘Architect/Surveyor’. The older boy, Charles, is now 22 years old and a stonemason, and the younger, George, is a draughtsman and architect, so it looks as if both children followed in their father’s footsteps. Their niece, Alice, seems to be living with them, and they now have a general servant. In the 1901 census Charles Richard and Amy are still living in Hever, but all the young people have left and they no longer have a servant. The couple are only 55 years old  but by 11th November 1901, Charles Richard is dead, and is buried in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, though not in the same grave as his infant son. Amy Jane follows him in 1920, and it seems from the burial records that she might have spent her last days in Brighton. Maybe one of her sons lived there?

It is extraordinary what you can find out on the internet these days, but the bare bones of a life give no idea of the really important things – was a person kind? Did they have a sense of humour? What infuriated them, and what got their pulses racing? Did they love their job, or hate it? Did the sons get on with their father? How come the niece was living with them? All these things vanish when the last person who remembers someone, or has heard about them, dies themselves. Nonetheless, I think we often don’t realise what a huge difference we can make to the people around us, for good and for ill, and how those things ripple out into the wider world. My grandmother remembered her two dead sons until her own dying day: one died at eighteen months of scarlet fever, and the other at two years old from diptheria. But the stories that she told me about them live on in me, and so in a way they still live on, though their lives were so short, and so long ago. Let’s never forget to pass on those stories.

2 thoughts on “A Mid May Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

  1. Anne

    Let us never forget to pass on those stories … even the shortest of anecdotes remembered can trigger memories for others or help to flesh out a name on a photograph.

  2. FEARN

    A very timely comparison of ranunculi from my point of view. They have sprung up everywhere around here. Creeping buttercup is the one I know best!


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