An Early Autumn Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

‘My’ swamp cypress

Oops! I accidentally published a draft of this post on Saturday 18th, gawd knows how. The full version is below. 

Dear Readers, it was an unseasonably hot and humid day today, but never mind, we have thunderstorms and flooding to look forward to tomorrow. I expect that the swamp cypress in the cemetery will be happy. At the moment it’s resplendent in green, but there are the smallest hints of the colour that it will soon be wearing.

Swamp cypresses are unusual in being deciduous conifers – this one will turn the colour of rust and then drop its needles. I will be tracking its progress over the next few weeks.

And after an absence of a month or two I finally caught up with a kestrel. This one looks in perfect condition, and was surveying the mown grass for little critters to eat.

It flew off after a few minutes, having been harassed by a pair of magpies, but I spotted again.

There was something about the wide open plains of the cemetery, the hot weather and the sight of a bird of a prey sitting on top of a tree that reminded me a bit of when I’ve visited South Africa, although of course there were no impala or zebras. The mornings when I’ve been up at 4 a.m. to sit in a jeep and head off to watch the wildlife in India or Africa have been some of the happiest of my life, but actually I get just as big a thrill from spotting animals in the UK.

Elsewhere, the white bryony is still attracting a mass of bees. You can just see one zipping off in the top right hand corner of the photo.

And in the category of ‘once seen, never unseen’, I have decided that some of the ivy-strewn headstones look as if they’re wearing hats. You’re welcome.

Some of the paths are covered with crispy brown leaves, which would be very autumnal except that it’s a month too early. These are the leaves of the horse chestnuts, desiccated by the work of the leaf-miner caterpillars.

But how atmospheric the woodland paths are at this time of year!

And finally, here is an interesting grave.

This is, however, a very confusing grave. What’s with the parachute, and how is it related to Harry Gardner, Lyceum clown? The parachute actually belongs to Captain Alex E Smith, the ‘friend’ whose name is at the bottom of the tombstone – Captain Smith was a pilot and parachutist for the balloon company of C. G Spencer and Sons. However, Smith’s wife, a parachutist known as ‘Countess S’, is also buried in the tomb although by the time she died in 1936 the tombstone was full, and so she is not mentioned. I think that the descending figure looks rather like a young woman, even so (and so does the author of this very informative piece, R. A. Davenport).

But what of Harry Gardner? He was born Edward Gardner, and seems to have specialised in pantomime, in particular being praised for his appearance as a polar bear in Aladdin in 1909-10. The Era, the show business newspaper of the time, notes that ‘‘Mr Harry Gardner’s realistic Polar Bear should be selected for warm praise’. I have some doubts about how realistic the polar bear was, and indeed about what an Arctic animal was doing in Aladdin in the first place, but I am willing, as always, to suspend my disbelief. Gardner went on to appear in Dick Whittington and his Cat (1911-12), The Forty Thieves(1912-13), Babes in the Wood (1913-14), Jack and the Beanstalk (1915-16) and finally Mother Goose (1916-17). Gardner died during the run of the final pantomime in 1917, at an estimated age of 66 years old. The Era noted that he’d died ‘after a short illness’.

I find myself wondering what Gardner did to support himself when he wasn’t appearing in a pantomime. What were the job opportunities for out of work clowns? And what of his wife, Alice Louisa, who seems to have disappeared without trace. Cemeteries can be so enigmatic sometimes, with their hints of lives past and their unanswered questions. Maybe that’s why I love them so much.

1 thought on “An Early Autumn Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

  1. Ann Bronkhorst

    Hurray, you have found ‘Studied Monuments’, a fascinating source of the history of past/passed people at rest in your local cemetery.


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