Dear Readers, spring is really gathering pace in the cemetery, in spite of the fact that the temperature has gone from the low ’70’s at the beginning of the week to the mid 40’s Fahrenheit today. It’s a worrying time for gardeners with half-hardy plants, but the natives could care less about the cold. I saw my first wood forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) today….
and my first cuckooflowers, also known as lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis), which are another real sign of spring for me. The cemetery has several patches of these delicate flowers. Who’d look at them and think ‘cabbage?’ but that’s exactly what they are (or members of the Brassica family at any rate).
The cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) will be abuzz soon as well – it’s naturalised itself all over the cemetery. I have one in the garden just behind my semi-circle of sleepers at the back of the garden, so I know how it self-seeds. The flowers have a heavy, almond scent that I find borderline sickly.
But look at the horse chestnut leaflets! Last week they were just emerging from their buds, but this week the familiar hand-shaped leaves and candelabra flowers are already unfurling. It’s a shame that these leaves will be blasted by fungus and leaf-miners in a few months time, but at the moment they look young and slightly fuzzy and very, very green.
It’s fair to say that the grape hyacinths are doing very well on some of the older graves.
And while the lesser celandine is disappearing in some places, it’s at its peak in others, forming a carpet of yellow flowers.
Down by the stream, the blackthorn is in flower.
And the creeping comfrey is, well, creeping along the river bank. Later on it will be overwhelmed by the Russian and white comfrey that also grows here, and so the bees will be happy for months.
‘My’ cherry plum has stopped flowering, and so it’s the copper-coloured leaves that are coming into prominence now.
On the way back, we passed a man who was planting up one of the graves. I paused to tell him how lovely it looked, and he mentioned that his wife had passed away in March and that he was sorting out her grave, and the grave of her parents and grandparents. He had a pile of paving slabs next to him and while he wanted to let me know what had happened he clearly didn’t want to talk about it. I see what a help hard physical labour is for people who are mourning, and I suspect this is for a variety of reasons: exercise brings endorphins that help to soothe, physical exhaustion is good for sleep, and I think that the physical pain can be a kind of counter-irritant for the emotional pain. Plus, I suspect that making a grave beautiful is a way of communing with the loved one who is gone, and of serving them even though they are no longer here. Finally, there is meaning in the creation of beauty, and after a bereavement everything can seem very empty. Working in the midst of the new spring flowers and the bird song may bring a kind of solace, if even only for a moment.
I look at this Cedar of Lebanon, and think of it spreading its branches over all the many, many corteges who have passed under it. Whenever I look at it I somehow breathe in some of its peacefulness.
Dear Readers, after the fog, the snow, the icy winds, the rain and the general gloom it was a delight to be in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery today. The crocuses seem to have all burst into life within the past few days: the temperature was in the low thirties Fahrenheit last week, but today it was nearly sixty degrees, and everything seems to be in flower. What a joy it is! I spotted this queen buff-tailed bumblebee in the grass about ten metres from a patch of snowdrops, and I was quite concerned.
I thought she was dead at first, but as I crouched down she reached out with her middle leg in a very clear ‘don’t mess with me gesture’. As I hunkered back and considered what to do she picked herself up and flew in the opposite direction to the snowdrops, only to do a big loop and head back to them. How do they know, I wonder? Are they smelling the flowers, or had she visited before and remembered them? Anyhow, she had a good feed and then headed away at speed, so it was a most welcome false alarm.
There are two kinds of crocuses in the cemetery: Crocus vernus, which is the more typical garden crocus in its shades of purple, yellow, white/maroon and lilac, and Crocus tommasinianus, which is always a delicate lavender colour, and which seems more inclined to naturalise.
Crocus vernus (Spring crocus/Dutch crocus)
Crocus tommasinianus, or Woodland Crocus
Although the Woodland Crocus gets a bit floppy and falls over more easily than the Spring Crocus, I must say that I prefer it to its blousier relative. Some graves are absolutely covered in Woodland crocus, and the bees and hoverflies are already enjoying it. What a joy it is to see some colour after such a long, dark winter. And I am reminded that Woodland Crocus is known as elfenkrokus in German, which is just about perfect.
The native flowers are coming out too. I saw my first Lesser Celandine, but soon the paths will be carpeted with it.
First Lesser Celandine
There’s some red deadnettle, another favourite with the bees….
Some germander speedwell, with its sweet sky-blue and white flowers…
and of course some daisies, with their faces turned towards the sun.
But really it’s the crocuses and the snowdrops that are the stars of the show this week. They lifted my spirits and reminded me that the bulbs that I planted last year won’t be too far behind, though they are always later in my north-facing garden. Here are a few more photos, to cheer you up too…
And finally, it wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t found a grave to puzzle over. I had never noticed this one before, although it is literally the first grave that I pass if I walk my usual route.
There was a big Welsh community in the Kings Cross area of London, and I love how this headstone bears the daffodil, the National Flower of Wales. I used to live very close to Amwell Street, and just half a mile away on Pentonville Road there was a building that used to be the Welsh chapel, with the London Welsh Centre about the same distance away on Grays Inn Road. The story seems to have been a sad one: Lloyd Lloyd was listed as being an ‘invalid for the last seven years’ in 1939, while Margaret was ‘a helper in business’. Their son, David, was a ‘master dairyman and provision merchant’. However, they at least had the money to have not only a servant living with them, but also a male nurse. Margaret passed away in 1946, Lloyd in 1948, and according to the probate records, David received what would have been a very decent inheritance of almost £8,000. A little more digging reveals why – their home at 42 Amwell Street seems to have actually been a dairy, so David had taken over the family business. Something about the name ‘Lloyd’s Dairy’ rang a bell, and so I turned to Google for some help. And here is the site of the dairy. Apparently it opened in 1905 and finally closed about a century later.
What I can’t work out is if there were actually cows on the premises. Many Welshmen, especially from Cardiganshire, set up dairy businesses from about the 1860’s in London, selling milk and cream by the bottle, and also running a milk round. This continued until about 1954, so it’s not ancient history. The dairies tended to pop up along the line of the Euston Road (like this one) so even if cows weren’t kept on the premises, milk could be easily picked up via Paddington Station, which had direct links to the Welsh farms. And (light bulb moment) this is probably why the first trains in the early hours of the morning were known as ‘milk trains’.
It never ceases to amaze me how a simple headstone can reveal so much and yet so little about the people that it commemorates. I now know a lot about Lloyd and Margaret Lloyd, and yet I know nothing about them as people. Still, I think I shall take some daffodils for their grave next time I visit, to say thank you for the insights they’ve provided into a whole area of London life that I knew nothing about.
Lloyds Dairy as it was (Photo One)I found this photo on A London Inheritance, a very interesting site run by one of my classmates from The Gentle Author’s blogging class back in 2014. If you are at all interested in London and how it has changed, I recommend you dash over to A London Inheritance right this minute.
Dear Readers, our first walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery this year saw us getting some glorious weather for a change – this week it has felt as if the sun hasn’t really risen above the horizon, so some brightness was most welcome. The birds seemed to feel it too – this ring-necked parakeet was uncharacteristically obliging as s/he posed in this horse chestnut tree and munched the buds. I see that Defra are talking about culling parakeets, but only in areas where they are new. They are well-established around here, so hopefully they’ll be safe. Personally, I think that with everything else that’s going on, shooting a few parakeets should be low down on the agenda but there’s no stopping some folk.
Elsewhere, the ash trees were a-twitter with goldfinches, who kept up a constant babble of contact calls that could be heard even over the traffic noise.
There were redwings everywhere, and they were being shy, as usual.
I must have counted twenty blackbirds, probably newly arrived from cooler parts of the continent – although it was long thought that blackbirds didn’t migrate, it’s now known that they often rear their young in one place, and over-winter somewhere else, with one bird spending every summer in a Devon garden and every winter in the south of France. In the winter the birds are much less aggressive and territorial, especially where there’s plenty of food, but they also seem shyer. Not one stood around long enough for a photo.
Fortunately, the moss is a lot more obliging, and on some of the older graves there is a whole miniature ecosystem.
I can just imagine all the tiny creatures slithering and creeping through the ‘jungle’ in search of safety, or prey. And look how the sun catches the moss sporophytes (the ‘flowers’ of the moss).
We have been walking different paths over the last few weeks, and every trip I find another new interesting grave. How about this one, for example?
Gillian Elinor was a bit of a late starter, having given up education to look after her children. However, she was nothing if not determined – she did her A-levels part time, followed by a degree in English and Art History at Birkbeck, followed by a Masters in the USA. Her first teaching job was at the Polytechnic of North East London (now UEL) where she started, at the age of 40, with a one day a week appointment. She stayed for 20 years, for the last 5 of them holding the post of Head of the Arts Department at the University of East London, and devoted many years of her life to the subject of women in the arts. She brought the African and Asian visual arts archive to the university, and was a founder member of Feminist Arts News and was heavily involved in the Women Artists Slide Library. In 1987 she was joint editor of Women and Craft, published by Virago. She was also involved in the Women’s Art Group in Education, which sought to disclose how few women there were in academic posts.
In her later years, Elinor moved away from the visual arts and became more interested in poetry. Her headstone is an elegant and rather beautiful tribute to her dedication to the recognition of the talents of women, so many of whom are still unsung.
My husband is particularly interested in the war graves in the cemetery: there is a ‘proper’ war graves area, but many are scattered about, often hidden amongst the trees, although all of them have bright, well-scrubbed new headstones, dating from the hundredth anniversary of WW1. This week we found this one; the graves of those who were in the Navy when they died often have more details than those from other services, as in the one below.
A little bit of research shows that Able Seamen Dennis Watts died of ‘illness’ after the war, on 9th March 1946. H.M.S Orlando appears to have been a shore-based HQ on the Clyde in Greenock, sometimes also known as a ‘secret facility’. The trail goes cold at this point however (unless I want to shell out another £180 a year for Ancestry.com). What a sad loss of a human being, though, at only 22 years old.
And this one actually brought me to tears.
George W. Dell was killed at the land-based centre H.M.S Christopher, which was again in Scotland, and was a base for training personnel to use the anti-submarine and patrol boats which were on constant watch around the coast. There are no details, but the lad was only 19. We can only imagine the sorrow with which his parents, back in Barnsbury, Islington, received the news.
That heartfelt message ‘Just one of many – but he was ours’ echoes down the years. I’m sure that the people who are losing their loved ones in the pandemic are just as intent that those that they’ve lost shouldn’t just become another statistic, but should be remembered as the unique individuals that they were. When I read that Joe Biden is planning a remembrance event for 19th January in the US, the day before his inauguration, it makes me think how much we will need something similar when this is finally under control.
But finally, I had never noticed this very elegant little figure before. I am not sure if she is the Virgin Mary, or another saint, but I love how precise and neat she is, with that air of austerity that I usually associate with Japanese sculpture. I think she will be someone that I’ll look out for on future visits.
And finally finally, here are a few more goldfinches, because you can never have too many 🙂
Dear Readers, what an atmospheric walk we had in the cemetery today! The freezing fog seemed to muffle every sound except the cawing of crows and the screeching of jays. The frost had touched the plants on the more open areas, turning this stonecrop into what looks like a mass of miniature cacti.
We decided to take a slightly different path from the one that we usually do – when there’s no view of the sky it seems perverse to take the route next to the North Circular Road with its constant traffic. So we passed this enormous mausoleum which is the tomb of Ludwig Mond, a German industrialist and chemist who developed a way of extracting nickel from its ore (called the Mond process). He was a benefactor of many scientific institutions, including the Royal Society. The tomb is based on the Temple of Nemesis in Rome, and is Grade II listed.
On we go. I love the underused, overgrown paths through some parts of the cemetery, like ‘Straight Road’ here. To the right, the moss has grown over something. I think it looks rather like a sleeping dog.
A sleeping moss dog?
We pass the grave of poor Percival Spencer, described here as an aeronaut – he was in fact an early adherent of hot-air ballooning. Legend has it that this tomb once bore the effigy of a balloon, but there’s no sign here. Spencer was the third generation of balloonists in his family, and made many cross-Channel crossings. He was the first person to fly a hot-air balloon in India in 1889, and subsequently passed his knowledge on to Ram Chandra Chatterjee, who was the first Indian to fly solo later that month. In the same year, Spencer was the first person to parachute safely in Ireland (one worries somewhat about the unsafe parachute adventures, but history has drawn a veil over those proceedings). After such an exciting life, Spencer’s end was decidedly earth-bound – he passed away from pneumonia at his home in Highbury, aged only 49.
Close by is this splendid headstone – there are a few of these monumental blocks in the cemetery, but none of the others have an artist’s palette on the front. Sadly, the wording is almost gone so I’m unable to tell you who was buried here. My husband thought that the palette was the cartoon figure of a man’s head smoking a cigar, and once you’ve seen it it’s difficult to see it any other way.
Further on I passed this rather cubist piece of tree surgery. I find all the planes and the way that the algae is shading the faces fascinating. The tree itself seems none the worse for the experience, and is already bursting with buds.
Then we pass another very fine mausoleum, this one with gold mosaics and a finely-wrought angel over the door. It’s the tomb of Letizia Melesi who, in 1913, was struck and killed by a taxi cab – this might have been the first road accident. One of the panels at the front shows the poor lady being helped to heaven by an angel while an alarmed taxicab driver gesticulates from his vehicle. The other panel shows Letizia’s husband, Gaetano, praying beside the tomb. All progress comes at a cost, for sure.
I think I’ve featured William Alexander Lamond before, but I never fail to be impressed by his statue. He looks almost as if he’s just about to step off his pedestal. He died in 1926, aged just 57, but his loving wife, Helena, lived on until 1961 when she was 95. Whenever I pass, he always has a bunch of flowers in his hand. Someone still loves him, clearly.
By now I’m thoroughly chilled to the bone in spite of the thermals, so we head for home.
But what is this, blooming by the side of the path? Did no one tell this plant that it’s the end of December? Well, this is winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced from Italy in 1806 and known from the wild since 1835. The little flowers are said to be strongly almond-scented, but there are too few of them, and it’s too cold for them to make much of an impression today. Still, if any bumblebee was foolish enough to stick her furry head outside for a quick nip of nectar, at least her search wouldn’t be totally in vain.
Dear Readers, it’s Boxing Day and all those who have been at home, eating turkey and watching Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special on the TV have suddenly burst out of their abodes and headed for the woods. We made the mistake of heading to Highgate Wood ‘for a change’ but it was so packed with people that ‘the dance of two metres’ became trickier and trickier, especially as the paths had been so trampled that there was thick mud on either side. It’s wonderful that people feel such a need to get out into nature at the moment (and I’m one of those people) but it does point up how much of ‘nature’ we’ve lost, when the small areas that remain are so overcrowded.
The love of the woods is clear, as seen by this bench, with its bowl providing water for dogs and its bunch of roses. The inscription reads:
‘I sit here with memories for company
Knowing that if life were moments
we’d all have a good time’.
Sean Hughes (1965 – 2017)
Sean Hughes was born in North London but raised in Ireland – he was a very successful comedian (the youngest ever winner of the Perrier Award for stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival) and was one of the team captains in ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, the TV music quiz (not that that exactly sums up the complete anarchy that characterised the show). He was a vegetarian and a lifelong animal rights activist, but had a long struggle with alcohol, ending with his death from cirrhosis of the liver in Whittington Hospital at Archway in 1917. I remember his cheeky grin and his way with a one-liner, and had no idea that this memorial bench was here. RIP Sean. The doggies love their water bowl.
On we go, side-stepping the runners and choosing paths largely based on which large groups are approaching. I do take a detour to admire some fungi. I’m thinking this is probably not the hairy curtain crust that I spotted in Coldfall earlier this week, but maybe something exciting like Stereum ramaele, which is often found on oak.
Anyhow, just after this point we give up and head into the slightly quieter and wilder environs of Queen’s Wood. For some reason this doesn’t attract quite the footfall of Highgate Wood, I guess because there is no children’s playground or grassy area for little ones to play. I like its slightly eerie atmosphere, and I find myself admiring the way that the trees grow into strange contorted shapes in order to reach the light.
There has been a lot of coppicing here over the years, which has helped to bring light into some of the darker areas. I must definitely come back in spring and see what appears (before it’s trampled into the ground anyhow).
And by one of the entrances there’s a warning as to why dumping garden rubbish can introduce all kinds of plants into ancient woodland. I think that this is probably yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeabdolon ssp argentum), a popular garden plant and one which is widely naturalised in many hedgerows and woodlands across the UK. While the plain-leaved variety of the plant is a native, this variegated garden variety is not and, as it flowers earlier than the native plant it often out competes it. However, I am reserving judgement because I have no idea if the native species grows here, and this is still a useful plant for pollinators. David Bevan, who was the Conservation Officer for Haringey for many years, was relaxed about ‘introduced species’ in his recent LNHS talk, and my instinct is to agree with him.
By this time Queen’s Wood is getting a little busy for my taste as well, and so we head back towards Muswell Hill and home. On our way along Connaught Gardens I spot this street tree, which is covered in pink catkins. I rather think that this is a grey alder (Alnus incana var ‘Ramulis coccineis’) – if so it will have red shoots when spring comes. I must have a wander along and check.
Home we toddle, through Fortis Green, where we meet this very friendly cat. He does that ‘slow blink’ thing that cats do when they’re attempting to be chums, so I stand there like an eejit and do the same until my husband reminds me that it’s lunchtime.
And finally, I notice this single cyclamen in someone’s front garden, glowing like a small candle flame. I know that it’s not a fancy wild one, but it still cheered me up. And then it’s home for toast, and a cup of tea, while we wait for Storm Bella to arrive (70 m.p.h winds! Torrential rain!).
Yep, 2020 has definitely been a year for grabbing pleasures when you find them.
Dear Readers, firstly I would like to say thank you to everyone who has left comments on the blog and on Facebook following my mother’s death last week. I have read every single one, and they have given me such comfort. I will be responding to you individually as soon as I have enough mental bandwidth to do justice to your kindness. In the meantime, please be assured that you have made such a difference to me. It’s made me realise that I’m not alone, and that so many of you have already been where I am today, and are alongside me as I walk this path.
Now, some of you may have read Joan Didion’s book ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, in which she describes her emotional journey following the sudden death of her husband. She recounts how she keeps his shoes because ‘he’ll need them when he comes back’. The rational part of her knows that he’s never coming back, but she still can’t throw the shoes away. I had my own version of this when I found Mum’s hairbrush with some of her long, silver hair still in it. I found myself thinking ‘maybe someone could clone Mum from the DNA in her hair’. I know that this is completely ridiculous, but the thought was there. And I have the hairbrush, just in case.
More helpful is what happened to me earlier this morning. I was getting ready to go out for breakfast, and I was telling my husband that I probably wouldn’t do a blog this week because, after all, my mother had just died, and everyone would understand. And then I heard Mum’s voice in my head, as clearly as if she was standing next to me.
‘Don’t you dare not do the blog! Tell them about the Brussels sprouts’.
And so, Dear Readers, here is my take on that most divisive of vegetables the Brussels sprout, courtesy of my mother.
Every Christmas we would have Brussels sprouts with our turkey. I quite liked those sulphurous, squidgy little crucifers, and Dad positively loved them. They were usually a little watery and yellow, and I maintained that this was because Mum insisted on making a cross in the bottom of each one which allowed the cooking water to penetrate right into the heart of the vegetable. I, with my new-fangled modern ways, declared that this wasn’t necessary but somehow, even when I hosted Christmas in my own house, Mum managed to get hold of the Brussels and a sharp knife and the rest was history.
In fact last year, when we had Christmas in Dorset because Mum and Dad were getting over a chest infection and were too sick to travel, the only thing that Mum had the energy to do was to sabotage the Brussels sprouts. By this point I was only too happy to let Mum have her way.
When we eat sprouts, we’re actually eating the buds of the plant. I was too late to get a picture of the Brussels sprouts on the stem that were being sold at Tony’s Continental in East Finchley (the best greengrocer in London in my humble opinion), but here are some so that you get the idea. The plant is, of course, a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) which accounts for those hints of sulphur if the plant is overcooked. It probably originally came from the Mediterranean area, and forerunners of our sprouts may well have been grown in ancient Rome. The plant was known in northern Europe from about the 5th century onwards, and was said to have been grown in Belgium from about the 13th century, hence the name.
Brussels sprouts ready for harvest (Photo One)
Each stalk can bear a harvest of up to 3lbs of sprouts, which can be picked all at the same time, or over a period of weeks. The sprouts are normally ready for harvesting between 90 and 180 days after planting, and are considered sweetest after a frost. They are a traditional winter vegetable in the UK, though I would be willing to bet that a lot of people have them with their Christmas dinner and at no other time. Personally, my winter crucifer of choice would be a fine green cabbage, but that is an absolute no-no in my household.
There are some new varieties of Brussels sprout about, including a rather neat looking red and green flouncy variety that cropped up in Waitrose last year, and red Brussel sprouts have been around for a while . The red ones are a hybrid between red cabbage and the traditional Brussels sprout. Just as I find it hard to keep up with the ever-burgeoning selection of citrus varieties that appear in the greengrocers, so I am overwhelmed with Brassicas. I just get my head around kale when cavalo nero appears, and now there is micro-kale. I am not always sure that too much choice is a good thing.
Red Brussel sprouts (Photo Two)
Most of the Brussels sprouts eaten in the UK will be home grown, with the ones in Tonys coming from Lincolnshire. Sprouts need temperatures no higher than 75 degrees and are also fairly thirsty plants, so the climate in East Anglia is ideal. In the US, the area around Monterey Bay, with its year-round coolish climate and coastal fog, is a big area for growing sprouts, although up to 85% of them will be for the frozen food market. I’ve never eaten frozen sprouts, my great fear being that upon defrosting they would turn into mush, but surely all those American consumers can’t be wrong.
Like all members of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are very good for you, packed full of vitamins and minerals and that all important fibre. But if you are on Warfarin or some other blood-thinning drug, beware: sprouts are high in Vitamin K, and a Scottish man was hospitalised following excessive consumption of the vegetable at Christmas. Apparently eating Brussels sprouts means that the Warfarin is cleared through the body more quickly, and therefore does not create the desired anticoagulation effect. And here’s me thinking that the main danger from a Brussels sprout was stepping on a raw one and being catapulted into the Christmas tree.
Then there is Linus Urbanec from Sweden who holds the world Brussels sprout consumption record, eating 31 sprouts in a minute in November 2008. I assume that they were cooked.
And on the subject of cooking, there are so many recipes for Brussels sprouts that it is difficult to choose just a few. The rumour is that roasting sprouts avoids the sulphur flavour that results from boiling or steaming, and you can also shred them and stir-fry them. One of my favourite dishes is bubble and squeak, which uses left over mashed potato and left over sprouts. But I don’t think they should ever be turned into desserts, or smoothies for that matter. I am reminded of the time that I used swede in a cake recipe, and the whole thing was so revolting that even I couldn’t eat it. For those who are keen on such things, however, there are some Brussels sprout smoothie recipes here. And good luck.
I note that the ever-innovative Heston Blumenthal made a ‘Brussels sprout’ dessert for Waitrose last year, but, quel suprise, it contained no actual sprouts, only green profiteroles filled with lime creme patissiere. Hah.
In ancient folklore, Brussels sprouts were said to have sprung from bitter tears, although it is also said that eating sprouts before a riotous evening will help to ward off drunkenness. It seems to me that a combination of sprouts and beer would be apt to produce both bitter tears and all manner of personal explosions, but there you go. If you can’t let rip at Christmas, then when can you?
And finally, in my journey through the world of sprouts I have found the delightful ‘Sprouts are Cool‘ website. And for your delectation, here is a poem by Suzie S, which sums the whole sprouts dichotomy in a few sentences.
Brussel Sprouts Poetry
O, Brussels sprout sae green and round,
Ye sit upon ma plate, So innocently mystifying, The cause o’ much debate.
Some say ye taste like camel droppings, While others think you great, I’m sure your sitting there a wonderin’, Whit’s goin’ tae be your fate.
So let me tell you o’ so quick, As nervously you wait, That I find you e’er so loathsome, So you definitely won’t be ate.
Mum was always so supportive of my writing. For years I would write 1000 words and send it to her, and she would read it, and then read it out loud to my Dad (who often fell asleep but there you go). She would foist my magazine articles onto anyone who stood still long enough, whether they wanted to read them or not. She always believed that I was meant to be a writer, and would chide me if I stopped producing for any reason. And here she is, still doing it although she’s no longer here. She wanted me to be the best version of myself that I could possibly be, and so I guess I’d better get back to my notebooks and laptop and get composing. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, even now.
Dear Readers, you have been with me through the whole of the journey of the past few years, with all its ups and downs, and I have so appreciated your thoughts and support. So today, I wanted to share with you the last few days of my mother’s life. I realise that many people are finding this time of year difficult enough already, so please don’t feel obliged to read this if you think it might make things worse.
I got the call to go back to the Nursing Home on Monday. When I arrived it was clear that Mum’s breathing had changed – there was a distinct rattling sound with every breath, and it seemed as if it was shallower and faster than it had been previously. Mum seemed to be totally absorbed in the process of dying, and unaware of what was going on, but I tried to remember that she could probably still hear at least some of what was going on, and could still feel. We all spent a lot of time holding her hand and talking to her. My brother and I took it in turns to be there – there is no way of knowing how long this stage will last, and Mum was a tough, determined woman.
After a couple of hours, I went to speak to the staff nurse.
‘This may sound cold-blooded’, I said, ‘but I want to know what the practicalities are, and what needs to happen once Mum has passed’.
So it was explained to me exactly what would happen in the next few hours and days. One thing that the Staff Nurse said triggered something in me.
‘You need to think about how you want her to be dressed when she leaves’, she said.
Mum was always a splendid dresser. She loved bright colours and it was a running joke that her socks had to match her outfit. I went back to the room and rooted through her clothes, but Dad has been packing and unpacking their clothes and it was difficult to see what was clean and what what wasn’t. And so I found a nightdress that didn’t look too bad, but felt very uneasy about it.
I went back to my Bed and Breakfast, and lay on the bed. It occurred to me that there was no way that I could let Mum be buried in a tatty nightdress. It was pouring with rain outside, the raindrops bouncing off the window. I made a decision, and phoned a taxi.
I went back to Milborne and collected the clothes that Mum had been wearing for her 60th Wedding Anniversary Party. She described the event as ‘the best evening of her life’. I folded the lacy top, the waterfall jacket, the pale blue trousers. Then I jumped into the cab and headed back.
I told the Staff Nurse that I’d got the clothes and that I had another request.
‘I’d like to help to wash and dress her after she’s passed’, I said.
‘That’s very unusual’, said the Staff Nurse, ‘ but of course you can be involved, I’ll write it down on her notes. But if, when it happens, you don’t feel up to it, that’s fine too’.
I had no idea that I was going to make the request until I made it, but this was a lesson for me – this is a time to go with your instincts. Do not override them. Do not delay, and do not second-guess yourself. Only you know what you and your loved one needs at this time, and it will be different for everybody.
I went back in to sit with Mum. I held her hand, and noticed that it was starting to feel cold. I kissed her on her forehead and told her that I was back. And then, she took a breath, and there was a pause before she took another one. I was watching the fluttering of the pulse in her neck. She took another breath.
‘Dad, hold her hand’, I said.
And we waited for a breath that never came. The pulse at her neck slowed. It was like watching a feather gently drift down and come to rest.
Oh the peace in that moment, after the breath has stilled.
‘Should we call the nurse?’ said Dad.
‘No, ‘ I said, ‘Not yet’.
It was good to just take that time to sit with Mum, to feel her presence still with us but ebbing. I opened a window so that she could fly if she wanted to. She hadn’t been able to take more than a few steps for months, but I had a clear, clear picture of her flying free.
Eventually, we told the nurse, and she stood and watched Mum for a few moments. My father was distraught, but his dementia has become much worse, and although he knew he loved the person that had just passed, I am not sure if he knew exactly who she was. My brother took Dad to a quiet room downstairs, and I watched as the nurses examined Mum to ascertain if she had passed.
‘Sorry, Sybil, if the stethoscope is cold’, said one.
‘Sorry, Sybil, I’m just going to shine a light in your eyes’, said the other.
And death was pronounced at 08.50 on Tuesday 18th December 2018.
Two carers came in , and together we worked to wash her and to dress her in the clothes that I had only picked up a few hours before. Mum was still beautiful, in spite of, or maybe because of, her suffering. We talked to her the whole time, explaining what we were doing, apologising in case it was uncomfortable. In death my mother had achieved a kind of gravitas and authority. She commanded respect, and that was what we gave her. I found that I was a little in awe of her for all she had achieved, and all she had been through.
The funeral company came to take Mum to the funeral home. Because Mum and Dad shared a room, it wasn’t possible to leave it till the following day. The nurses and carers lined up to watch in silence, heads bowed as Mum passed. How hard it must be for them, who get to know the people that they look after so intimately, and yet see them pass, inevitably, through those doors and into a hearse.
Mum had always been terrified that she and Dad would end up in separate homes, or that Dad would die first and she’d be left alone. And yet, they were together to the end. She passed out of this life peacefully, without pain, and surrounded by her family. I hope that we all may be so lucky.
Back at home I realised that I still have Mum’s hairbrush, with some long strands of silver hair still in it. It seems like only five minutes ago that I was brushing her hair for the party, and now I had just finished brushing it on her deathbed. We might know rationally that someone is going to die, but It will take me a long time to realise that I will never see that little figure toddling out to the kitchen with her zimmer frame to make me a cup of tea again.
Dear Readers, there is a little patch of green and gold wildness in Tarling Road, just off Oak Lane in East Finchley. For many years it has been locked up behind a chain mesh fence and allowed to go its own way, with brambles bursting into berry and the leaves of sycamore yellowing and falling. But this is all about to change. This secret place is going to be managed as a space for the whole of the local community, from fungi and plants and birds to people.
I met Leo Smith, a member of Grange Big Local and one of the people behind the site’s resurrection. Leo has form when it comes to wildlife gardening. Look at this wonderful hedge that he planted 9 years ago.
The site used to form part of the grounds of the Old Barn Community Centre, (hence the name ‘Barnwood’) but when the community centre fell into disuse, the little wood was left neglected and unloved. For many years Leo and other local people have seen the potential of this tiny site, and have wanted to make it a place that people could visit. The first stage has already begun – paths have emerged through the bramble thickets, each one curved so that you can’t see what’s around the next corner.
Each twist reveals something something new in this overgrown but enigmatic site.
In the very middle of the wood an open space has been cleared. This is where Leo envisages that events will take place. Maybe people will carve wood into benches, or make bug hotels, or put up bird and bat boxes. Maybe they will sit and tell stories, or share their memories. Maybe children will learn about the wildlife and plants that surround them. There is so much possibility here.
Maybe people will harvest the blackberries, or even get to the cobnuts before the squirrels.
There are other plans, but the important thing is balance. There might be a rain garden, or a wildflower meadow, to increase the biodiversity of the site. Some trees are in a dangerous condition, and may need to be cut down, but others will be planted in their place. People will be able to walk straight from the spanking new (and currently empty) community centre into Barnwood.
The new (empty) community centre
It’s possible to underestimate the importance of tiny wild places such as Barnwood. But in a city, every resting place and food stop for birds and insects is important. As I have a cup of tea with Leo after the visit, we discuss all the birds that we’ve seen in East Finchley, and watch as the goldfinches and chaffinches visit Leo’s feeders. A patch of trees and shrubs might not account for much on its own, but when you see how it forms a corridor with other green places in the area, you start to appreciate how animals can survive even in the built-up environment of the city. And the plan will make the site even more attractive to birds and invertebrates. Every half-acre counts, whether it’s a garden or a park or a place like Barnwood.
On Sunday 25th November, from 1-3 pm, there will be a community bulb planting event at Barnwood. Native snowdrops will be planted, as part of the Holocaust memorial, and as a symbol of new beginnings, hope, purity and consolation, alongside native bluebells and snake’s head fritillaries. All are most welcome.
Dear Readers, one of my most popular posts from last year was created during a deluge. ‘Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day’ was so much fun to write. The main challenge was keeping the camera from getting water-logged during the downpour…
The month started a visit to the new gardens around Kings Cross station, for an assessment of how helpful they were to wildlife. The answer was that it’s early days, but the signs are very hopeful. Sparrows, vanishingly rare in central London, have already moved in, and there was an active wasps’ nest. I shall have to visit again soon to see how things are shaping up.
The month continued with my friend A bringing me a Knotgrass caterpillar for me to identify. What a fine creature! It has now pupated, and is back in A’s garden, with a barricade of twigs for protection. One day, no doubt, it will emerge and fly away, probably when no one is looking.
A theme throughout last year was my Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary party. At times it was all very stressful, and it was good to go for a walk around their village, Milborne St Andrew, and to reconnect. There’s always something wonderful to spot, and slowing down to actually see things is a very fine way of gaining perspective.
The party was held on 21st September. Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, so every bit of hassle about table-settings and whether or not to have a photographer was worth it.
Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….
A few days after the party, we had the heart-breaking news that one of the people who had attended, someone who had battled for years with depression, had killed themselves. It was so hard, especially after the event had been such a good one. I wrote this piece in the days afterwards, and believe every word.
I also took a visit to Dundee. I worked as a carer in a night-shelter for homeless people in the city when I was in my twenties, and wondered how things were going. The shelter is about to be converted into luxury flats, the pub where we used to drink is now a college, and there’s a new branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum going up on the quayside, but there are still people asking for change on the streets. Everything changes, everything stays the same.
The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter
The garden was visited by an amazing visitor in October: a female emperor dragonfly, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs.
November saw me back in Milborne St Andrew, following Mum and Dad’s spectacular double fall down the front doorstep. Fortunately neither of them were seriously damaged (though after spending two and a half hours waiting for an ambulance while laying on the front lawn Mum was a little less sanguine than usual). But once in hospital, they were delighted to be placed in adjacent beds, and even more delighted to be sent home after a couple of hours. Suffice it to say that my visit the next day was well-timed. But I did manage to get out for a walk, and finally got photos of a buzzard, and my first ever meadow pipit.
We even managed to make the Christmas cake. By the time we ate it, Dad had fed it with so much brandy that I’m glad I wasn’t driving.
Once home, I went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery, where I found a strawberry tree, some greenfinches, a handsome jay, and this lovely gravestone. How I would love to find out a bit more about Muriel….
I also had a few thoughts about the use of fruit trees as street trees: there is a crab apple on our street which causes all kinds of mess, but which does attract such exotic creatures as this one.
What are you looking at?
I finished off the month with some thoughts about the passing of time, which seems to be have been a theme last year. With so many people that I love in their eighties and nineties, and with my own seventh decade approaching, I suppose that it’s inevitable that mortality should be on my mind, along with other existential thoughts, such as ‘what’s it all about’? ‘How do we live a good life, and what is a good life anyway?’ All this was prompted by watching a band of sunlight move across the garden in the space of a few minutes. I had a similar sensation last week as I watched the moon rise with Mum, and we both realised that you can actually see it moving, and wondered why we’d never noticed before.
December saw Mum and Dad struck down with a chest infection, and so I headed West again. It was a stressful time: the carer who normally looks after Mum and Dad was struck down by her own health emergency, and so I had to negotiate to try to get Mum and Dad to accept a carer who came from an agency, rather than someone that they already knew. I found it unbearable to think of them struggling on, sick, without someone to help them, and so I took myself off to the frozen fields for a walk and a think. Oh, the light on those December days. It felt like a blessing.
Then we had a spot of snow, the first that’s fallen and stayed for about five years.
and in Dorset. We hadn’t expected to be in Dorset (Mum and Dad usually visit us in London) but they were both still too sick from their chest infections to travel. This didn’t reduce their appetite fortunately, and ridiculous quantities of the aforementioned Christmas cake were eaten, along with chocolates, roast potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts. Just as well we were able to get out for a walk.
It saw the very welcome arrival of a song thrush in the garden (still here as I write in February), and the continued presence of a single pied wagtail, who has been here since November. We are all hoping that he or she soon has some company.
So, readers, that’s the end of the review of the past year. Thank you for all your input – I read every single comment, and love the community that we’ve built together. Don’t forget that if you’re on Facebook, you can find me here. I look forward to ‘meeting’ with you all in the year to come. And during the next few weeks, you will find that Bugwoman has been on a very exotic adventure, and has been living up to her name, for once. Stay tuned…..
Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that Christmas has broken out all over the County Roads here in East Finchley, so, on a particularly damp and misty morning I went out for a walk to see what was going on. I am going to be away from home for Christmas for the first time since I moved here in 2010, and it feels a little strange: I haven’t put up the Christmas tree, the pink velvet reindeers are still in the box in the eaves, and several Father Christmases will be feeling very irritable if I don’t fish them out soon. But, somehow, I feel a need to let go of expectation and to simplify this year, and to that end I thought I’d enjoy what everyone else was doing rather than feel as if I had to do it myself.
The door wreathes, for example, are particularly splendid this year, and very varied. As with the Christmas trees, there are those who favour natural materials, and those who have an artificial one that lasts for many seasons.
And then there are the decorations. I am very taken with the little glass creatures in the photo directly below.
But as I walked around, I quickly became aware that although much of nature is quiescent at this time of year, there is still a surprising amount going on. After all the snow I was surprised to see fresh spiders’ webs, bejewelled with mist.
And what is more festive than a shrub full of fruit?
The cotoneaster below was a mass of berries
The black fruits of ivy promise some respite for the thrushes if the weather turns cold again.
And I shall need a hand with this one, gardening friends. The fruit reminds me very much of spindle but the leaves are different. Maybe it’s from the same family.
A relative of the spindle?
There is a strange beauty to the decay of plants. For example, I think I prefer the browning heads of the hydrangeas to the blooms in their fresher, more pristine state.
And in the insect-damaged leaves of mahonia and holly there is a flame of colour that the perfect ones lack. It reminds me that the beauty of a face that has been through trouble is often more profound than the picture-perfect features of someone who has not yet been tested by life.
And who should pop up when I was walking down Bedford Road but Bailey, the King of the Cats? He didn’t want to stop for a chat, but headed off down the road at a brisk trot, yowling all the way. He is a most determined puss cat.
To my surprise, some things are in flower, like the pink camellia and the clematis below. Although there are less blooms about at this time of year, the ones that there are seem all the more precious.
But what lifted my heart most today was not one of the more obvious things, but a tiny seedling. A few months ago, I captured a green oasis at the bottom of a wall along from Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were approximately ten species growing there, all ‘weeds’ to be sure, but tiny spiders were making their homes between the leaves, and there was even a caterpillar.
Then came the paving improvements, and, whilst the new paving slabs are delightfully even, there is not a blade of grass to be seen.
I love that the natural world never gives up. Where there is a teaspoonful of soil, and a spot of rain, some plant will put down roots and throw up flowers. it gives me such hope to see that whatever we do, nature can circumvent us.
So, by the time this is published I’ll be heading off to Dorset for Christmas with Mum and Dad. It will be a different kind of celebration, but none the worst for that, and I’m actually rather looking forward to it. At least the parents will be snug and warm in their own home, and won’t have to worry about braving the Christmas traffic, or coping with the air quality in London. I wish all of you a peaceful and happy holiday, and hope that 2018 brings you everything that you long for most.