Category Archives: London People

Christmas on the County Roads

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.

Until today.

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.





Bailey, King of the Cats

img_9221Dear Readers, as I have mentioned before, this is not a cat blog. However, I feel that this week I have to pay obeisance to a particular feline who was so much part of welcoming us when we first came to East Finchley, and who still pays us an occasional visit today. His name, as we eventually discovered, is Bailey, and he is the undisputed King of the local cats.

img_9207Back in 2010, when we were first looking for somewhere to live in East Finchley, my husband was walking along the pavement on his way home from work when he was knocked down by a speeding cyclist. My husband hit his head on the kerb and was rushed to hospital with a massive gash on his temple, and a short-term memory of approximately two minutes. When I rushed to A&E to see him, the conversation went something like this:

Nurse walks into the room.

My husband shakes her hand, and introduces himself. Hearing her Australian accent, he asks ‘Are you from Sydney?’

‘No’, says the nurse, ‘Melbourne’.

She walks out of the room and comes back thirty seconds later.

My husband shakes her hand, and introduces himself. Hearing her Australian accent, he asks ‘Are you from Sydney?’

‘No’, says the nurse, ‘Melbourne’.

Repeat ad infinitum.

My husband did remember that I was someone important to him, but not exactly who I was. On the other hand, he did remember the names of the two cats that I owned when I first met him. I shall leave you to ruminate on his priorities.


Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that when I finally saw the house that was to be our home, my husband was at home recovering, and I took my friend J with me (as she is always up for ‘neb’ as my northern friends say). We were standing on the patio and listening to see if the noise from the North Circular Road was too loud to tolerate when a white apparition jumped over the fence, yowling, and threw himself on his back to have his belly scratched. Yes, this was our welcome to the neighbourhood.

img_9226Once we had moved into our house, the mysterious fluffy visitor continued to pay us regular visits. In the morning, he was immaculately groomed. By the afternoon, he was usually covered in twigs and dead leaves. Whenever he arrived, he would walk in, plonk himself down in the most convenient chair, and go to sleep. It was rather comforting, having him there while I worked away at my computer. Who was he, and where did he belong? His visits got longer and longer, and eventually we checked the tag on his collar. His name was Bailey, and he lived about ten houses up the road. If we carried him home he would jump out of our arms on his doorstep, but he seemed unable to work out where his house was if his paws were on the pavement. We were, in effect, his personal taxi service.


On one supposedly Bailey-less occasion, I was working in the office when I heard Bailey’s owner  H berating him from the front garden.

‘Bailey!’ she said, ‘Come down from there and stop making a show of yourself’.

And then came a familiar howl.

I went downstairs to find Bailey balanced on the top of the eight-foot high doorway that leads to my back-garden, his face wrinkled in distress. He appeared to be unable to get himself down. His cries were pathetic.

Two youngsters from the local school passed by, and looked at him with worried expressions.

‘It’s Bailey’,  they chorused, for the cat is a local celebrity.  ‘Is he stuck?’.

‘No he blooming isn’t’, said H, ‘He’s just being dramatic’.

But fuss or not, he wasn’t moving. My husband arrived home from work to find me tottering on a dining-room chair and trying to retrieve an enormous fuzzy animal from the top of a rickety fence. Being six-feet two inches tall, he was able to remedy the situation quickly and efficiently, and so it was that Bailey was returned home.

img_9223The thing about Bailey is that he thinks he’s human. When he strolls through the garden, the birds and squirrels look up briefly and then carry on, because it’s clear that there’s as much chance of him chasing them as there is of me prowling through the hawthorn on all fours. He gets intensely frustrated when people don’t understand what he wants. All this sitting in the sink, for example, was meant to inform me that he wanted to drink from the tap. Of course.

Bailey isn’t allowed to come indoors at our house any more, because as you might remember we now have a very shy little cat who is completely freaked out by the presence of others of her species. But Bailey has taken to disappearing from his house for days on end, so when he turned up at our house on Sunday we felt we had to take him in until H got home. We confined him to the kitchen, where he sat in the sink glowering, as if the kitchen was his (rather inadequate) fiefdom. It was just like the old days. And when H and her daughter arrived to carry him home, it was as if his servants had arrived with a sedan chair and a fine plump cushion, as befitted his aristocratic status.

Where have you been?

Where have you been?

It is clear that we never really own a cat. They have their own views of how the world should be, and nothing we do will ever change them. It is also clear that every cat is an individual, with his own preferences and habits, foibles and tastes. Every cat has personality, but some personalities, and some cats, are much bigger than others. As Samuel Pepys said of his own cat: ‘He is a very fine cat indeed’.

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute/link back to the blog, thank you!

At Conker Time

img_7954As I walked through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery earlier this week, I came across the shed leaves of a horse chestnut tree, and a windfall of conkers. Some were new and mahogany-coated. Others had been crushed by cars, revealing their white, mealy interior. Some were still partly wrapped in their spiky green coats, and looked like half-open eyes. And as I photographed them, I suddenly remembered Auntie Mary.

Auntie Mary wasn’t a ‘real’ auntie at all: she was my maternal grandmother’s sister, whatever title that bestows. And yet we knew her better than we knew some of our official aunties. I can easily bring to mind her toothless grin, her thin dark hair held back by a hairgrip, her National Health glasses, the way she shambled around, shoulders hunched.

It was said that when she was a child, a boy had picked Mary up and swung her around while she screamed with delight, until suddenly his grip slipped and everything fell silent. Mary struck her head on the kerb, and was never the same again. These days, we would say that she had Learning Disabilities. When she was growing up, it was whispered that she was Simple.

img_7961And simple she was, in many ways. Mary never learned to count or to read or write. Her chief role was as wheelchair-pusher for my great-grandmother, who was crippled with polio. And yet, it would be a mistake to say that Mary didn’t understand what was going on.  When she was sent out to the corner shop to buy cigarettes, she remembered exactly what coins she had handed over, and what she got back. There was many an occasion when Mary was cheated, and my nan marched her back to the shop to say exactly what had happened. Faced with such evidence, most shopkeepers confessed to a mistake and returned the money. It was a trick that they didn’t try twice.

Mary was a generous soul with the little that she had. She loved the tiny chocolate-covered toffees that you could buy at the newsagents. Unfortunately, so did our mongrel dog, Sally. Sally would sit beside Mary and gaze up at her. Mary would resist for a few minutes, but then relent.

‘Alright!’ she would say, ‘But just one’.

And she would take out the paper bag that she had folded and folded until it was tight shut, and unfold it, and take out a single toffee the size of a bean, and give it to Sally, who would chomp it down in a tenth of a second. Mary would screw up the bag again and put it back in her pocket, but the dog was unrelenting. Mary would heave a huge sigh and take out the bag again.

‘This is the Last One’ she would say. But it never was.

Mum maintains that the dog had more of the sweets than Mary ever did.

img_7958Mary lived with Great Gran and Nan and Mum for years, but there came a point where it was all too much. Nan couldn’t look after a huge woman in a wheelchair and her own disabled sister any more. Great Gran went into one home, and Mary into another.

As was Mary’s way, she just got on with it. The home was in a mansion in Chigwell with rolling lawns and huge horse chestnut trees. We would go to visit, and play Banker with Mary. This easiest of card games involves breaking the pack into piles and betting on which pile will have the highest card. It’s pure luck, and Mary loved it, as did my brother and I – I was eight, and my brother was six, and so we were all pretty much at the same level. Mary’s glee when she won was infectious, and somehow she always won, probably because she wouldn’t let us stop until she had.

img_7964Mary was never loud or badly behaved, but the same could not be said of the other inhabitants, who were sometimes in the last stages of dementia. The screaming and the erratic behaviour of some of the ladies frightened my brother and I, and when it all got too much Dad would take us outside. In my memory it was always a damp autumn afternoon, and we would rustle about under the horse chestnut looking for conkers. The glint of the polished nuts shining amongst the fallen leaves, the faint smell of bonfires, our shrieks of excitement as we found yet another conker – these are the things that I associate with those last days, with the white mansion behind us and the lawn falling away. We would collect a whole shopping  bag full of conkers and bear them away. Strangely, I can’t recall playing conkers more than once or twice – it always seemed like a violent and dangerous game, in spite of Dad’s enthusiasm. I do remember sticking pins into the chestnuts and turning them into little temporary animals, before they were all tidied away in time for Christmas.

img_7967Mary went into hospital for a cataract operation one day. Something went wrong, and she died, never coming round from the anaesthetic. Apparently there was something wrong with Mary’s heart that had never been diagnosed. The staff at the hospital, and at the care home, were griefstricken.

What is a life worth, I wonder? It seems to me that the hole that is left in the web when someone dies is a bigger indicator of someone’s value than any money accrued or status acquired. Mary’s simple soul had drawn people and animals towards her like a magnet. She never created a great work of art or became a person of power and prestige, but she lived her life with joy, and never knowingly did harm to a living soul. The world would be a better place if we all lived so gently.


Flâneuse-ing on the County Roads

IMG_7356Dear Readers, for many years I have been intrigued by the idea of the Flâneur. This was a 19th century French character, invariably male, who would wander around a city wearing a top-hat and carrying a cane, and was described as a ‘connoisseur of the street’. He would get into all kinds of adventures and encounters, and would have a thoroughly interesting time. However for women, it was somewhat different.  In her new book ‘Flâneuse – the (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities’, Lauren Elkin records how women doing exactly the same thing as the Flâneur could be subject to harassment and suspicion, and were sometimes accosted or even arrested. Nonetheless, I strolled forth intrepidly (though without top-hat and cane) to explore the County Roads here in East Finchley.

The County Roads are a set of six roads, built at the turn of the twentieth century, and they are all named after old English counties: Lincoln, Leicester, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford and Durham. They are a jumble of different Victorian/Edwardian styles, and vary from the ornate to the simple, from the grand to the (relatively) humble. What they all have, however, are front gardens, and for a naturalist like myself, that’s good enough. Who knows what I might see? I was especially intrigued to see how the pollinators were getting on, and what was attracting their interest.

My first step was right outside my front door, to admire my giant buddleia. It is true that it needs yet another prune, but I’m reluctant to get rid of those enormous racemes of flowers just yet. Plus, the more I hack at it, the larger it grows. Yesterday afternoon, it largely attracted honeybees.

IMG_7353Onwards! I head down to the High Road and, as if for the first time, notice what a strange shape the London Plane trees are after their pollarding. Each one appears to be trying to accommodate the buildings around it. Apart from the peculiar topiary effect, however, they are looking very healthy at the moment, though we could do with some rain – my water butt has run dry for the first time since we installed it five years ago. Every night the clouds gather and then dissipate away over Muswell Hill. Who knows what we have done to anger the gods.IMG_7362IMG_7385If bumblebees could vote with their many little hooked feet, I’m sure they would put their crosses down for lavender. The County Roads are very obliging in this respect, and there is a fine patch at All Saint’s Church on Durham Road, while many individual houses have handsome stands of the plant.

IMG_7373IMG_7374Although modern roses are not a favourite, the ones that are closer to the wild type attact some attention.

IMG_7371On another note, the bollard on the corner of Leicester Road is still not fixed (or maybe was fixed and got walloped again). Is there a gremlin here that attracts collisions?


Lesser-spotted bollard

Alongside some very splendid cultivated sweet peas, there are some stands of a wild cousin, Broad-leaved Everlasting Peas (Lathyrus latifolius), and very pretty it is too.


Broad-leaved everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius)

I stop to congratulate a man who is two-thirds of the way up a ladder, re-painting some of his plasterwork cornice. He nearly falls off with shock, but recovers himself to say how much he loves these old buildings and the little details that make them different from one another. I couldn’t agree more.

Someone is having much more luck with Nepeta (Cat Mint) than I did. I planted mine in a pot, and came downstairs to find that I had apparently grown a cat, though it just turned out to be some stoned feline who had crushed it in his frenzy, and who gazed at me with a demented expression.


Honeybee on catmint (Nepeta).

It's no good trying to look innocent.

Evil cat-mint destroyer in pot.

Evil cat-mint destroyer

It’s no good trying to look innocent, though you are a very fine cat indeed.

I stopped to view a particularly wildlife-friendly garden that met with full Bugwoman approval. It had verbena and nicotiana (for the moths), some sedum just ready to come into flower, an interesting yellow vetch and all manner of other delights. I stopped to photograph it when, dear reader, I was finally accosted, by a lovely lady with a bunch of lavender from her allotment in her hand. She asked me if I was Bugwoman, and so of course I could not demur. Then another lovely lady approached, and I was introduced to her too. My cover was blown! Maybe I should create a Bugwoman costume, perhaps with dangly antennae and wings, though it might be difficult to handle the camera with extra legs.


Sedum – a great plant for autumn pollinators


Verbena bonariensis and nicotiana, amongst other pollinator-friendly delights


Honeybee on Verbena boniarensis, a great bee and butterfly plant

Now, East Finchley readers, have you noticed our magnificent pigeons? We have our fair share of the normal blue-grey birds, and very fine they are too. But we have more than our share of birds which are partially white, and also ones that have a pinky-grey colouration, which is known as ‘red’ in the trade, I think. Huntingdon Road has its own resident pair of red birds, which I fear is due to the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner, and concomitant rubbish which is strewn at that end of the street (in spite of the litter bin). (Don’t get me started).


A red pigeon about to indulge in KFC chips


One of many pied pigeons in East Finchley

As I loop up towards the corner of Bedford and Durham Road, I stop to look at the fennel growing in one of the gardens. All of the umbellifers (plants with flat, multi-flowered blooms like Cow Parsley and Hog Weed) are pollinated by insects smaller than bumblebees: all kinds of flies, wasps, honeybees and beetles. It is thought that flies, in particular, are not so skilled at pollination, and don’t have the ability to cope with the complicated flowers that bumblebees do, so they tend to prefer single flowers, and lots of them.


Little and Large….


Ichneumon wasp on fennel

And some surprisingly complicated flowers can be ‘cracked’ by bumblebees, who really are the brains of the pollinator world. It’s been shown that, given sufficient incentive, they can tell the difference between human faces, so a passion flower is easy-peasy.


Bumblebee on passionflower

As I make my last turn around the County Roads, the sound of cawing alerts me to the fact that the crow family have reproduced successfully again. Earlier, one of the parent birds was trying to persuade a fledgling to come down and eat a suspiciously new-looking slice of bread that they had filched. By the time I returned, the adult was watching as the youngster pecked about in the gutter of a nearby house, looking for food.

Parent crow

Parent crow



Dear Readers, I had a very fine walk around the County Roads, and I wasn’t arrested once. Even in a built-up area there is lots to see and enjoy. I would like to leave you with a brief clip of the bees feeding on a particularly lovely patch of lavender, where the heat of the sun was bringing up the scent, and the lazy droning of the insects (only partially obliterated by a plane heading home to Heathrow) made me wish that I had brought a deckchair with me. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. There is so much more ‘nature’ in a city than people often think.


Coming Home to East Finchley

Somebody has been eating my ox-eye daisies.

Somebody has been eating my ox-eye daisies.

Dear Readers, for most of last week I was in Dorset with my parents (who are both doing very nicely at the moment). So, when I got home I decided to take myself for a walk around the ‘hood. The first thing I noticed, on stepping out of my front door, was that the snails have been eating the petals from my pot of Ox Eye Daisies. Now, I have no problem with molluscs, but this was a bit cheeky, especially as one baby snail was snuggled up asleep in the middle of one of the now semi-bald flowers, probably replete from his midnight snack. Others were hiding under the leaves, and had found a spot under the rim of the pot. I collected all of them and tossed them into the lavender bush.

IMG_6470Whether they’ll make the journey back or content themselves with the dead vegetation that they now find themselves reclining upon remains to be seen, but I suspect that this is only the first skirmish in a long-running battle. Where oh where are the hedgehogs when you need them? I would also exchange my queendom for a bevy of toads, who are more resistant to dessication than frogs and could therefore maybe live in the south-facing front garden. Unfortunately, many of them were killed off by those little blue slug pellets that gardeners took a shine to a few years ago. You can never kill just one species without leaving a big hole in the ecosystem.

Onwards! I decided to give you all a break from Coldfall Wood and the Cemetery (though I will give you a fox update at the end of this blog, once I’ve been myself and found out what’s been happening) and to head for Cherry Tree Wood. The first thing I notice is that the lovely people from N2 Community Garden have made a little plot next to the children’s nursery, and opposite the station.

IMG_6353Already there is a blaze of colour: bright orange poppies, the magenta of Bowle’s Mauve wallflowers, a bright red Heuchera (I think), a purple geranium and some white alyssum. What a lovely, bright-coloured plot for the toddlers and their mothers to look at on their way to and from the nursery! As I passed, a man was cutting the grass, and taking care to avoid the marigolds.

IMG_6358 IMG_6357 IMG_6355 IMG_6354The Wood itself is already in its first flush of green.

The entrance to Cherry Tree Wood

The entrance to Cherry Tree Wood

The cow parsley and hawthorn are in full flower, the latter filling the air with its feral, fishy scent.


Hawthorn Blossom

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

There is an enormous plot of dusky cranesbill, which surprises me because I’m sure that it wasn’t here last year, and I wonder if someone has been a-scattering with seeds. If so, they made a good choice – the plant is both native and a popular bee plant, and the purple flowers are a great foil for the pale blue of the forget-me-nots and the white of the umbellifers.


Dusky cranesbill

There is bird song everywhere: a flight of long-tailed tits peeping their contact calls, the ‘teacher, teacher’ calls of great tits, the buzzing of blue tits, the outrage of blackbirds.

My one long-tailed tit photo. They are so speedy, and so hyperactive!

My one long-tailed tit photo. They are so speedy, and so hyperactive!

But one bird, which is silent, is turning over the leaves, and I recognise a mistle thrush, surely one of the ones that I saw last year. When I arrive at the other side of the wood, I see a second mistle thrush, with its beak full of worms. It looks as if they have a brood somewhere, and this makes me so happy. Mistle thrushes used to be common in every park, but have become less and less so in recent years. Big, bold birds, I love the way that they run, listen, and stab their prey. It’s easy to forget that ‘predators’ include the blackbirds and robins that hang around our gardens, or even the tiny blue tits. Even mostly gramnivorous birds may turn insectivorous at this time of year – I remember seeing house sparrows hawking for flies a few summers ago.


Mistle Thrush

I also did a spot of tidying up while I was in the woods: my friend A always takes a carrier bag with her, and I have taken to doing the same. Some young people had built a little den, which is fine, provided they’re using dead branches and not destroying the trees. There was also a fine collection of soft drink cans, which I put in the litter bin.


A den….I’m hoping that these branches had already come down during the high winds of the past couple of weeks


Cans in need of a tidy-up. Maybe it’s not ‘cool’ to put them in one of the many litter bins?

I struggle to understand why someone would come all the way to the wood to dump this, though.

I wonder what happened to the table top?

I wonder what happened to the table top?

On the way back, I decide to have a quick look at the N2 Community Garden beside the station itself. Last time I wrote about this, I was berated on Twitter by someone who maintained that ‘if I was honest, I would accept that it was full of weeds’. Well, one woman’s weed is another woman’s wildflower. At the moment, the plot is full of forget-me-nots and white deadnettle, the latter a nectar source for bumblebees – I saw two species in the ten minutes that I was there. Chard and beans are growing in the vegetable plots, a clematis montana is wending its way through the wire fence, and love-lies-bleeding and centaurea are in full flower, along with dill, the first leaves of wild strawberry and garlic mustard.

IMG_6407 IMG_6408 IMG_6411 IMG_6414 IMG_6416 IMG_6417 IMG_6418 While I am taking photos, I hear the soft wheezing call of a baby bird, and catch the briefest of glimpses of a young robin. In the branch of one of the shrubs there is what I think is a failed long-tailed tit nest. It could also possibly be something that someone has hung up to provide nesting material for the birds, but I tend towards the first interpretation. Do write in the comments below if you know one way or the other.

A failed long-tailed tit nest?

A failed long-tailed tit nest?

Long-tailed tit nests are delicate, stretchy structures, manufactured from moss and grass and dead leaves, bound together with spiders’ webs. This one looks as if it might have incorporated some dog-fur or thistledown as well.  A completed nest looks something like a weaver bird’s nest, perfectly camouflaged, with a downward pointing opening. I once found a deserted nest and was amazed by how stretchy it was, like putting my hand into a magic glove. This one is only half completed, and probably just as well – it’s a very public spot for a nest, and one all too easy for cats to get into. I have noticed before that long-tailed tits can put a ridiculous amount of energy into nest building in the most inauspicious of sites, like the pair that part-built a nest in a viburnum bush in a public square in Islington, right behind a bench much frequented by drinkers and courting couples.

IMG_6423I very much enjoy the little patches of colour that the N2 Community Gardeners bring to East Finchley. I like the informality of their plots, and the abundance of wild and ‘domesticated’ plants. While others might prefer a more structured, formal ‘look’, I think that there is much to be said for serendipity, for happy accidents. There is also much to be said for growing plants that actually like the conditions that they are presented with, rather than insisting on species which would be much happier in somewhere shadier or with lighter soil. And from my visit this morning, the bees and the birds are happier with this approach too. If it were not classified as a ‘weed’ I’m sure that many of us would be planting white deadnettle, both for the subtle beauty of its flowers, and for the way that the bees preferred it to anything else on the plot. Planting a garden that includes everyone, not just humans, is what a real ‘community garden’ is all about.

Later in the afternoon, I headed off to the cemetery, where I found a happy crow bathing in one of the bowls that are used to carry water to the graves when visitors are washing down the stones or watering the flowers.

IMG_6435 IMG_6433And I also found the foxes. The dog fox who is part of a pair was laying happily on his usual tombstone, waiting for his sandwiches. And shortly after I saw the vixen and the other dog fox. So, all is well here, which is always a relief after a few days’ absence. How strange that I seem to think that if I visit every day, things are less likely to happen. Or is it just that I fear returning to the cemetery to receive bad news? I know that to love something or someone, just as I love these foxes, is to be constantly vulnerable – they are wild animals after all, and I have no control over what happens to them. But would I swap my unease and potential distress for indifference? Absolutely not. All love has an edge of fear, but without it we might as well be dead.

IMG_6438All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Feel free to use with attribution,and with a link to the blog.


The Cemetery Is Not Just About Foxes…..

A new fox!

A new fox!

Dear Readers, today I am going to share sightings of some of the other animals and plants that live in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, but I thought I’d start with a fox update. We have a new fox visiting the feeding area, and what a handsome animal s/he is: this one is a loner, a little bigger than the dog fox who usually visits with the vixen. They all arrive at about the same time, so I’m fairly certain that the vixen is getting her share of the medicated sandwiches and the dog food that I’m distributing during the cubbing season. No sign of cubs yet, but it’s a real joy to see these three animals, and to note that although the vixen is still skinny, she definitely seems to be getting her fur back, and her limp has pretty much gone.

The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

So, with this week’s fine weather as a spur to action, I decided to do a complete circumnavigation of the cemetery. There is one long road that winds along the top edge of the cemetery, parallel to the North Circular road, and so haunted always by the rumble of traffic. And yet, where the path is lined with big old trees, the noise level drops away dramatically. I spotted young magpies in the trees, squawking and arguing, and an adult bird flying from headstone to headstone.

IMG_6217As I draw alongside a stand of conifers, I look through the trees and see that there is a purple haze all along the path and blanketing some of the graves. I can’t resist going off piste for a look. The ground is soft and mossy, and there are violets everywhere –not the violas and pansies that I see on so many of the graves, but real wild dog violets. Each individual face is so tiny and shy, and yet here there is an ocean of them. I have never seen so many in one place. What is it about this particular spot that makes it so perfect? Who knows. I find myself kneeling on the ground, taking photograph after photograph. It’s been such a time of rushing about that I’ve forgotten how nice it is to make time to really look.

IMG_6172IMG_6176As I walk north, I pass another  area that is glowing, this time in royal blue – the bugle is in flower. What an interesting plant this is! The leaves and stem of this variety are  a deep chocolate brown, and the flowers are the deepest lavender blue. The individual blooms remind me slightly of the ‘bunny rabbits’ on an antirrhinum, and the bees love them, forcing their way between the petals and then droning away to the next flower like a fleet of miniature bomber planes. I lay down on the warm grass to take some photos, and all I can hear is the buzzing, the sound of the birds and the constant roar of the North Circular Road.

IMG_6187IMG_6189As I walk back to the path, a black cat walks out of the wood. He isn’t one of B’s little collection of four – this is a much slinkier cat, who obviously hasn’t been feeding on chicken legs and Sheba. He glances at me, blinks once, and bounds through the grass and over a fence into the houses beyond. It is like a brief meeting with a miniature black panther.

A mysterious black cat

A mysterious black cat

I turn right at the top of the path. By now I am alongside the road, separated only by a six foot wire fence and a verge on either side. The speed and noise and fumes of the traffic are constant, with the occasional rumble of an articulated lorry. But on my side of the fence there are hawthorn trees and a great stand of garlic mustard, its grass green leaves looking as fresh as salad. And looping around it is an male orange-tip butterfly. Soon the females will emerge, mate with the males and lay their eggs on this plant, so it was good to see so much of it, looking so healthy.

IMG_6210 IMG_6208 IMG_6228I walk on, turning right, back down the hill. I pass a big wall covered in plaques remembering the dead. There are vases of flowers and pot plants all along the wall beneath, big blousy orange lilies and yellow chrysanthemums. Here, the headstones are all the same, granite with a black plaque in the middle, and they have none of the charm of the angels and urns in the rest of the graveyard. I hope that the place doesn’t turn into somewhere regimented and manicured. It seems that we take up more room than we should even after we’re dead.

I detour through another area of tombstones, and am astonished to see, on one grave, a four-foot tall statue of an Egyptian cat. Well, I’m not supposed to take photos of graves, but surely they can make an exception for something so surprising. The grave belongs to a man who died in 1971 so it’s not some Victorian artefact. There are lots of references to the Sun God, and I sense that the man buried here was a lover of ancient religions, something of a pagan. It moves me to find the cat here, gazing out over the graveyard with the same imperious expression as one of Beryl’s cats.


One of B's cats

One of B’s cats

I circle back to check on the foxes, and find that every scrap of food has gone. I say hello to  the Dog Unit man and to B, who is feeding Boris the cat and cleaning her husband’s grave. The German Bee Man pops in as well – last year he had so much success with the bees on his allotment that he ended up with twenty hives, but this year it’s been a cold, wet start. We chat for a while, and then I head back. It’s a luxury not to be shivering or soaked, both of which have happened in the past week.

There is a kind of peace to something that happens regularly, be it writing or exercising or knitting or meditating. I have tried many different places to write, for example, but always end up back in Costa Coffee on East Finchley High Street, because I’ve written there so often that the very air feels imbued with inspiration and commitment . Equally, I’ve been going to the cemetery pretty much daily for a couple of months now, and that just feels natural, too – I feel the tension in my shoulders relax as I walk through the gates. There is always something to see, if I pay attention. Some days I go in through the front gate, and out through the front gate, and the round trip takes about 30 minutes. Other days, I wander for an hour or more, keeping my eyes open for the stories of the day, because there are always stories, and that’s what I want to share. It occurs to me that I enjoy my fox postings because they’re telling an open-ended story, one which could continue for as long as I’m alive and well enough to be able to report on it. And what of all the other lives and stories here? There’s a novel in it, for sure. Who knows where it will all lead.


Distressing News From the Cemetery


‘My’ mangy fox, with the healthy fox in the background

Dear Readers, the plot has thickened regarding the foxes in St Pancras and Islington cemetery this week. On Monday, B informed me that she had seen three foxes, two with mange and one without.

‘Blimey’, I said, ‘I’m going to have to buy more jam’. As you know, I’ve been trying to medicate the fox in the photo above with a homeopathic remedy from the National Fox Welfare Society, which I’ve snuck into some jam sandwiches. ‘My’ fox seems to be on the road to recovery, much to my amazement – I’d been very skeptical when I’d started the process. I fairly skipped back to my house, passing en route a lovely patch of fritillaries, which may well crop up in a Wednesday Weed at some point in the future.

IMG_6001The next day, bearing an additional sandwich, I walk down to where B feeds the foxes. I’m a little late and I don’t see B, so I creep down to the feeding spot, behind the grave with the full-sized stone Labrador on it. This unlikely memorial celebrates a man who died rescuing a dog from drowning, and is always adorned with artificial flowers.

A very skinny, mangy fox watches me briefly from the other side of the hedges, and then crosses the path at a trot. I sit down with my camera. This is not ‘my’ fox, but I remember what B mentioned about one healthy fox, and two mangy ones. I see the fox again among the gravestones, just his ears and one bright eye. Then he’s on the move again, looping round behind the bins where the cats live. I sit a little longer. And then he’s back in the hedges, eyeing up the jam sandwiches with obvious longing.

I spot B making her slow progress towards where she feeds the cats. She raises her stick in greeting. I stand up and walk over, leaving the fox to his snack.

‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ says B. I have always liked the way that she looks at me directly, honestly.

‘Ok’, I say.

‘The Dog Unit man said he found a dead fox further up the road’, she says, and pauses. ‘A fox with mange’, she adds.

I have to look away for a moment.

‘What happened?’ I ask.

‘Martin thinks he was run down’, she says. ‘The cemetery people will take the body away’.

‘Where was it?’

B waves her hand vaguely. ‘He just said further up’, she says.

And so it may be that ‘my’ fox is dead. My mind is racing. I wonder if the body is still there, so that I can know for sure which fox has been killed. But then, I know that it’s hopeless. I’m sure that the evidence is already tidied away. Even if I saw the body, would I know?

And how am I going to cope with the unknowing?

'My' mangy fox

‘My’ mangy fox

I am reminded of people whose beloved cats and dogs just disappear, and they never know what happened to them. But a fox is dead. The question is, what am I going to do now?

B can tell that I’m upset, but she carries on fussing over her cats, bending over, pouring the food into their bowls.

‘The thing is’, she says, ‘that we do what we can do. And that’s all we can do. They’re wild animals, after all. They come and go, and live their lives, and one day they’re gone. ‘

She straightens up.

‘A bit like people’, she says.

Her husband and father are both buried in the cemetery, and B visits them every day.

‘Did you see that skinny little fox over there?’ she said. ‘He’s got the mange really bad’.

And of course, my decision is made for me. ‘My’ fox, the one that drew me here, is most likely dead, but there are other foxes here that need help. Am I just going to give up now because all my hopes were pinned on one animal?

There’s a rustle in the brambles and the skinny fox heads off at a brisk trot. His whole tail and hindquarters are bald. He looks back briefly and accelerates his pace, until he is bounding off.

‘I’m down at Mum and Dads next week’, I say to B. ‘Could I leave the medicine with you for a few days?’

‘Of course’, says B. ‘And I’ll see you at the weekend’.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, you will’.

The healthy fox.

The healthy fox.

For the fox story so far, have a look at the posts below:

Jam Sandwiches in the Rain

News From the Cemetery

Fox Update