Category Archives: London Places

A Mellow Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, for once the elements were with us for this week’s walk in the cemetery. Things are so bad with the pandemic in London now that we wore our facemasks along the High Road until we were actually in and had room to social distance properly. Not all the pavements in East Finchley are wide enough to avoid getting closer than two metres to other people, and with the hospitals fit to busting, and the new variant apparently anything up to 70% more transmissible than previous ones, it seemed sensible to take every precaution we could think of. The last thing we want to do is to catch the virus ourselves or to inadvertently pass it on to anyone else, and I have to say that the vast majority of people are being extremely careful at the moment. I’m sure there are still a few folk who think that they are immortal, or don’t care enough to protect other people, but they really are few and far between around here.

But to get back to the walk – as we approached the entrance, I noticed that there were bits of car all over the place, and as we rounded the corner it became clear that a vehicle had gone bang into the wall of the cemetery. It’s been very icy around here, but this is a straight road so goodness only knows what happened. I just hope that nobody was seriously hurt.

Once we’re into the cemetery, I make a beeline for the chapel. My friend A told me that she’d spotted an interesting fungus growing from one of a group of plane trees, and her directions were excellent – it only took me about two minutes to find it. Having had a conversation with the experts on the British and Irish Fungi Facebook group, we think it might be the Spectacular Rustgill (Gymnophilus junonius),  and what an apt name that is! Apparently it tastes bitter and turns green when you cook it, but I’d have thought that the former fact precluded anyone doing the latter. Anyhoo, this is a very fine fungus, and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance.

Spectaccular Rustgill

The crows, squirrels, parakeets and jays were all in abundance today, gathering food and chasing one another. The crows in particular were very evident. The chap below seemed to be about to peck over one of the mourner’s wreaths that has been left out after a service. When he saw me, he folded his wings and hustled away as if to indicate that there was nothing to see here.

There are already primroses in flower in the woodland burial site, which always cheers me up.

And how I love the sunbeams coming through the trees.

The sun is so low that there are places in the graveyard that the sun doesn’t touch at all. I loved this icy stone with its hieroglyphics of fern and moss and seed.

And there is another crow, pecking over the leaves of a conifer to see what s/he can find. Maybe there are some tiny insects trying to hibernate amidst the needles.

And I do love a good reflection in a pothole. Isn’t that what they’re there for?

Last week, someone asked me about people in the cemetery who were buried following the 1918 flu epidemic, and it got me to thinking. I feel as if I haven’t noticed many non-military graves from this period: I found the one below today, but my husband assures me that the worst of the flu would have passed through by November 1919, so probably this person died of wounds or from the effects of gassing. It’s a very interesting question though, and one that I shall think on further.

I love the way that the melting frost lights up every blade of grass, as if each one was holding up a candle at a rock concert. Remember them?

And then, on the way home, I notice this wall.

Look at the moss! The cracks and crevices between the bricks are positively furry with the sporangia, the reproductive bodies. The moss must have found this spot to its liking, and multiplied like billy-ho (this is a relatively new wall). I loved the green and red of the moss against the terracotta stonework. It just goes to show how nature will colonise even the most unpromising of habitats.

The First Cemetery Walk of 2021

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 🙂

 

 

A New Year’s Eve Walk on Muswell Hill Playing Fields

Dear Readers, if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that beauty can be found by walking slowly and paying attention, even on the coldest and dullest of days. We’ve been avoiding the Fields for the past week or so because the mud was so pervasive and slippery that it was no fun trying to navigate it, but with last night’s freeze everything has turned deliciously crispy. The frost has touched all the seedheads and leaves, painting every detail with icy-white.

Brambles

We skitter down the slope beside the skate park, and then down a further slope to the bottom field. I think of this as ‘my’ wildflower border, though it is a pure accident, it appears. In the spring it was a mass of colour, but now it has a more austere and subtle beauty.

Muswell Hill Playing Fields in June

Each ‘scale’ on the seedheads of the greater knapweed seems to have attracted its own cap of ice.

The greater burdock seeds are iced into something that looks rather like the images of coronavirus that I’m seeing, or maybe a Sputnik (which of course is the name of the Russian vaccine). But they are also perfect examples of evolutionary design, with those hooks that inspired the creator of Velcro. All they need is a large hairy mammal to brush past and transfer them to pastures new.

Aren’t the seedheads of the fennel exquisite? They would be perfect for a winter wedding.

And even the long seedheads of the mugwort are lent an elegance by the ice that they didn’t have when fresh and new.

In this strangely monochrome world I find myself yearning for a bit of colour, however. At the pyracantha hedge on the other side of the field, I hear the familiar breathy call of a redwing. The cemetery in particular is heaving with these birds at the moment, as they pick over the ivy berries, but this little one had stopped for something orange.

This bird from the cemetery yesterday was too far away to get a decent shot, but it was glowing white and red against the ivy foliage.

As we come to the beginning of a new year, I am so glad that I have had a few open spaces to walk in. The birds, insects and plants that I’ve seen have been a real balm for the soul in these dislocating, troubling times. I hope that you have had some access to nature too. Although I managed to have a big birthday trip this year, it’s difficult to see exactly when overseas travel will be safe again. However, it seems to me that there is much to be discovered and marvelled at within a few hundred metres of ones own front door. I will never get to the end of learning about Coldfall Wood and the fields, or the local cemeteries, or even my own back garden, and praise be for that. There is no end of wonder in the world, no end to the connections and relationships that can be made.

I wish you all the happiest and healthiest of New Years. May 2021 bring you everything that you most need.

A Misty Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

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.

Photo One from http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/picture_view/214/Melesi_Mausoleum

Photo One

Photo Two from http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/picture_view/214/Melesi_Mausoleum

Photo Two

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.

Flower of winter heliotrope

Photo Credits

Photo One from http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/picture_view/214/Melesi_Mausoleum

Photo Two from http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/picture_view/214/Melesi_Mausoleum

A Busy Walk in Highgate and Queen’s Wood

Bark!

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.

 

A Christmas Eve Walk in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, by the time you read this it will be Christmas Day, so for those of you celebrating I hope you have a peaceful time, especially as for many people it won’t be the kind of Christmas that you were hoping for. I am hoping that 2021 will be a lot less ‘interesting’ than 2020 was.

Onwards!

The temperature dropped overnight to the high 30’s (which is coldish for us – don’t laugh, people in Scotland and Canada and other chilly parts of the world). But it was sunny and DRY hallelujah. We decided to go for a quick mooch around Coldfall Wood, which has saved the sanity of many people this year, including me. Every time I go I notice something new, and I think that lockdown has heightened my appreciation for the gradual changes of nature. How about you?

So, on the way I noticed this little posse of starlings. For once they were eerily silent – normally they’re whistling and clicking and generally making a racket. From the amount of suet that they eat every day I’d say that the inhabitants of East Finchley are single-handedly preventing them from migrating. Who’d want to fly all the way to Africa when there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet in the County Roads?

Is it just me or is this one looking a little portly?

And then we stroll into the woods. We’re a little later than usual, so the place is full of dogwalkers and small children and people going for a walk. For many of us, the Christmas preparations are a lot simpler this year. While for me this is a source of sadness, it’s also rather nice not to be run ragged. It makes me wonder what I could have dropped during previous Christmases to make it a bit easier on myself (and to make me a bit less stressed and easier to be with).  Worth pondering if you’re in the middle of a Christmas frenzy I think. 

I noticed how the holly trees often spring up when a tree has fallen or been pruned – that little bit of light seems to help them to lurch into action. I wonder what seedlings are stirring under the fallen leaves even now?

Little holly and yew trees growing in an unshaded spot.

The cyclamen is doing very well behind its stockade of branches. How sweet that someone has cared enough to try to protect it. I think that it might need a bit more room next year though.

And here is another, more advanced holly tree growing up in a gap.

And here’s some ivy, to complete the picture.

I’ve mentioned the mud before, so here’s a photo to give you an idea of how we’re doing (though it’s much better in the wood than it is on the field – at least in the wood there are lots of trees to drink up the excess water, though they are less thirsty without their leaves).

Some little hoodlum has been graffiti-ing the trees with this time-honoured fertility symbol, though why the testicles appear to have little faces is anybody’s guess.

Does anybody see the face of the elderly man in the trunk of this tree? I suspect he’s annoyed about the phallic symbol.

The little streams that run through the wood are making their way down to the wettest area of the wood. This year, so far, it hasn’t risen too far.

The wet woodland – bulrushes dying back, and the boardwalk well above the surface of the water so far.

I rather liked this completely surreal photo of a crow flying overhead. To some people it might be a blur, but to me it’s abstract art.

The crows are bathing in the stream, and turning over the leaves to find morsels to eat.

Squirrels seem to be chasing one another around and one was investigating the hole in a hollow tree. They don’t normally nest in holes, so I wonder if it was caching food, or looking for something to eat? They are very inquisitive and adaptable animals, so nothing would surprise me.

And when I look at the hornbeams in the wood now I am reminded of David Bevan’s talk about the ancient woodland of North London, in which he speculated that although the oak trees are probably several hundred years old, the hornbeams, cut back year after year for firewood, could easily be much older. When you see a hornbeam ‘stool’ like this one, you get the idea of how long the original tree could have been around, throwing up new stems every year only for them to be regularly cut back.

Hornbeam ‘stool’

And in some places in the wood which have been coppiced, allowing the light to get to the forest floor, young hornbeams are growing up as single-stemmed trees.

And so that was our walk for the day, and we headed back so that I could write the blog. Later we’ll be watching the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College on the television, filmed under social distancing rules and without a congregation. Will I manage to stay dry-eyed as those first notes of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ sung by the boy soloist soar through the church? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A Muddy Walk in Coldfall Wood

Holly tree growing at the foot of a dead tree in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, I don’t know about where you are, but here in East Finchley the rain has been a big feature of the weather for the past few months. Couple that with clay soil and you have a positive quagmire which, while it hasn’t deterred me from Coldfall Wood, has made me a little chary about going out on to Muswell Hill Playing Fields. Why, only the other day I saw a man running in plimsolls and baggy shorts (clearly old school, no lycra at all)  come a cropper as he tried to spring like a gazelle over a particularly muddy patch. All was well, but I wouldn’t have liked to be doing his washing. Today, however, I decided that a vast stretch of slippery, squelchy ooze wasn’t going to keep me from my beloved ‘wildflower border’ beside the cemetery, and so off we went, clad in walking boots and optimism.

But first the wood. What a year it’s been for fungi! I am positively tripping over them now I’ve got my eye in. Here is some candlesnuff fungi (Xylaria hypoloxon) growing out of a stump for example. The spores, which are black, can apparently be seen as black smudges on the tree bark, but as this stump is rather damp I think that might not be visible here.

There are some felled branches further into the wood (the tree surgeons have been doing a bit of pruning and tidying up) and they are being gradually broken down by some rather lovely caramel-coloured bracket fungus which has been identified for me as hairy curtain crust (Stereum

And then it’s out across the mud and onto Muswell Hill Playing Fields. It really is a bit of a quagmire, but as with all things there are worse bits and better bits. And soon I’m distracted from the state of the ground by the austere beauty of the plants at this time of year. This shrub was glowing green, and when I got closer I could see why – it’s encrusted with lichens and moss. The branches are miniature habitats of their own. I can imagine tiny spiders patrolling through the ‘leaves’ of the lichen like panthers.

The Japanese Knotweed is a hundred shades of brown and grey. What a dense thicket of stems it forms! I would be amazed if some birds and small mammals didn’t take advantage of it.

But what concerns me a little is that I think it might even be able to outcompete bramble. I’m pretty sure it’s taking over in this part of the ‘border’ between the cemetery and the skateboard park.

There are a pair of alder (?) trees here, and I love the bark and the fruit. Look at all the different lichens on this tree! You might remember a talk that I reported on about the flora of Hampstead Heath by Jeff Duckett, where he mentioned how lichens made a comeback once the Clean Air Acts were introduced in the 1960s. It just goes to show that damage is not always irreversible if we act in time.

Incidentally, I’m not absolutely sure of the ID of this tree, so let me know what you think – the bark looks more birch-like to me, but it’s difficult to tell with all the pretty encrustations.

There are a few last maple leaves on the grass. Both of these look as if they’ve come from a Japanese Maple, and indeed there is a sapling ten metres away. Case closed, I think.

And then it’s a quick slide down a small hill to ‘the wildflower border’ that I fell in love with back in July. There isn’t much in flower now, though there is a single mallow flower, and some white deadnettle in case any bees are about.

But it’s the seedheads that I love. Everything from fennel….

to greater burdock….

to greater knapweed……

to the unexpectedly beautiful seeds of broad-leaved dock.

And maybe it’s no coincidence, but there was a flock of about 20 house sparrows flying between the shrubs and chattering away. At the very least, all the shrubs give the sparrows somewhere for cover and roosting. I wonder if they ever eat the seeds? I know that finches do.

Lots of parakeets about today as well, including this pair who seemed interested in the fruits on the London plane tree, though goodness knows why. We used to use the blessed things for itching powder.

And on the way home, I notice how the weeping willow is already changing colour. I do wonder if, when people plant weeping willows in their garden, they realise quite how big they’re going to get, or how thirsty they are. This one, I suspect, is taking advantage of the drainage ditch next to the fields.

Part of me wants to take a comb to that mane of ‘hair’.

And then it’s off home, for a cup of tea and a clean-up of those muddy boots. It’s always worth getting out for a walk, I find, especially if you can dodge the worst of the showers and stay warm. And as we turn into our street, there was a great tit absolutely singing its head off. Maybe he knows that the year has just turned, the solstice is passed, and spring is on the way.

 

A Winter Walk in East Finchley Cemetery

The view along Cypress Avenue

Dear Readers, Christmas was pretty much cancelled for lots of people yesterday at 4 p.m. in the UK, just as most people had stocked up on food for the people who were allowed to travel to see their relatives for five days over the holidays. Instead, in areas with Tier 4 (pretty much all of the south-east including London) no household mixing is allowed (unless you have formed a support bubble) and everything except essential retail is closed. In other parts of the country, 2 households can mix on Christmas Day only. If you’re in Tier 4 you shouldn’t travel to lower tiers, but of course everyone jumped onto a train or into a car and headed off to escape the lockdown which started at midnight last night. My heart goes out to everyone who had made plans and wanted to finally be with the ones they loved after this terrible year. The numbers of cases are frightening, though. My main ire is with the powers that be, who have ignored calls from scientists for London to be completely locked down since October. Only a few days ago, Boris Johnson was mocking Kier Starmer when he called for household mixing restrictions to be cancelled.

Anyhow, here we are. For me personally it makes very little difference, what with having no parents left. We were planning a quiet Christmas, and that’s exactly what we’ll have. I am planning to get out for a walk whenever the weather cooperates even a tiny bit, however, and so today we found ourselves back in East Finchley Cemetery (which confusingly is largely owned by Westminster City Council). Maybe it’s this Westminster connection rather than the Barnet one which makes it such a posh place – everywhere is well manicured and there are a plethora of graves with extravagant headstones. Angels and Celtic crosses abound.

I found this headstone particularly interesting – I’ve not seen anything like it before. The wheel at the bottom looks like a Buddhist symbol for the wheel of reincarnation, but I’m not sure about the boss in the middle – could it be a lotus? Let me know if you have any thoughts, I haven’t included the details of the person buried because there weren’t any clues, and also I try not to be too personal out of respect.

There is some very fine carving, particularly of plants, as in the headstones below. What patience must have been required to create them!

But what I like most are the ones that are intensely personal. Have a look at this cricket-themed gravestone, for example.

And who was ‘Harry’? And why is this all that is on his gravestone? Did his family run out of money to put more details, or was his name all that you needed to know about him? So many mysteries….

And then there is that magnificent Italianate crematorium which is still largely fenced off, and probably will be until the pandemic is over.

But look at the trees! This is the home of some fine Cedars of Lebanon, some of which are covered in pine cones this year.

A gnarled and ancient-looking tree  has what looks to me very much like home for a woodpecker – I will have to check it later in the year to see if anyone has taken up residence.

Small flocks of redwings go twinkling away as soon as I get within a hundred metres. Was there ever a shyer thrush? I am even prouder of my devastatingly good portrait captured in the other cemetery yesterday.

I am very fond of this fine angel who is one of a row of very fine tombs beside the entrance. I think that the ivy rather enhances the overall effect.

But before I forget, here is a rather surprising sight. It’s 46 degrees and the middle of December, and yet, on Bedford Road in East Finchley, two bumblebees are collecting pollen from Mahonia- these are not queens, but workers. The nests of buff-tailed bumblebees sometimes survive throughout the winter these days – normally all the adults except the queens, who hibernate, die. But you can clearly see the pollen in the leg baskets in the second photo – a queen at this time of year would just be gathering nectar to keep herself fed until she started laying eggs in the spring. These workers still have a nest to go back to, and if we don’t have severe weather, who knows but that they might survive right through? The impacts of climate change are unpredictable, for sure.

 

Another Wet Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it takes more than a torrential downpour to keep me from my weekly visit to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery and so it was that I found ourselves standing under a tree during a deluge. I took the obligatory photo of ‘my’ swamp cypress, and I also managed this splendid shot of a fox as he headed into the undergrowth. Wildlife Photographer of the Year awaits me, I’m sure.

But then it let up a little and so on we (my long-suffering husband and I ) slogged. I noticed lots of blackbirds about, for the first time in a while – some blackbirds spend their summers in other parts of Europe and only overwinter in the UK, and some blackbirds pop in from Scandinavia. At one point a few years ago, when everyone was grounded due to the bad weather, there were no less than eight blackbirds in my back garden, all getting along swimmingly provided I kept the food coming. You wouldn’t see that when the territories are established in the spring.

There was no kestrel in the kestrel tree this week, and I assume that, like all sensible birds, s/he was under cover somewhere, hoping for the worst to pass. But nothing stops the crows, and there was a little gang of them looking shifty by Harwood’s path. They were turning over the leaves very methodically, and I wondered if someone had scattered something for them. But they flew off as we approached, and although I had a good look, I was none the wiser.

I have become fascinated by what I think of as the stumperies in the cemetery – the remains of trees which have been cut down and which are now being gradually eroded by fungi or covered with ivy. There is one close to where the wreathes are left following cremations which has been planted up with succulents and what appears to be a smiley face, though whence this came I have no idea.

Some are sprouting a few annual ‘weeds’ on the top, but I wonder if all those stems at the side might actually sprout when spring comes, I shall have to keep an eye on it.

This one is forming a very nice base for some ivy.

This one is becoming a whole mini-ecosystem, with moss and lichen and turkey-tail fungus.

And while the fungus seems to be eating this stump to pieces, there are also some tell tale holes which could be beetle larvae, but could equally well be caused by the thump of green woodpecker beaks as they drill for ants.

So far, so unspectacular. But then, I spotted what appeared to be a doorknob growing under one of the fir trees off Withington Road (a very muddy and underused path), and here is my highlight of the week.

This is, I believe, an earthstar, and I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s Geastrum triplex, the Collared Earthstar. What I love most about this enigmatic fungus is that I probably only noticed it because it’s pouring with rain – when raindrops hit the ‘ball’ in the middle, spores are sent flying out through the hole in the top. When it’s dry, the ‘petals’ of the earthstar curl up and protect the fruiting body, making sure that the spores aren’t released when conditions aren’t ideal. How I love spotting something that I’ve never seen before! It puts a spring in my step like nothing else.

And so we make our damp, muddy way back to the entrance, where I spot two crows sitting on top of the cedar of lebanon. What are they up to? Well, they appear to be bashing their way into the barrel-shaped pine cones, though whether they are after the pine nuts or the little insects that are attempting to have a peaceful hibernation I have no idea. I am full of admiration for these intelligent resourceful birds. Never underestimate a crow.

A December Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

My favourite swamp cypress

Dear Readers, our weekly walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is often a splendid mixture of the familiar and the surprising, and so it was this time. I started off with a visit to my favourite swamp cypress, which is continuing to shed its leaves so that it looks as if it’s standing in a copper-coloured lake.

The dead tree on the other side of the path is starting a slow dissolution as fungi infiltrate the cracks in the bark – this looks almost as if turkey-tail fungus is getting a hold, but being no expert I shall have to wait and see how it develops. There is something fascinating about the way that life is never still, and I love the ring patterns in the lopped-off branch as well, they remind me of a wormhole reaching into another galaxy.

There are some new fungi on a grassy slope nearby too. They look as if they’ve been carved out of ivory and are tiny, only a couple of centimetres tall.

And then we head towards the noisy part of the cemetery, next to the North Circular Road, and who should fly into a small, isolated ash tree? Yes, it’s the kestrel. This is obviously a favourite spot for surveying the kingdom. Kestrels mainly hunt small rodents but the local birds obviously don’t know this (and I have seen sparrowhawks here too), as they are all of a twitter.

 

At one point the bird has a different twig in each foot and is rocking around trying to balance, his head perfectly still. The one thing I haven’t seen this bird do is hover – maybe s/he doesn’t need to if there are perching places. Hovering takes up a lot of energy, after all.

And with a swoop s/he’s off. It’s difficult to get an idea of how elegant this bird looks in flight, but the photo below shows how long and tapering the wings are.

I am starting to think of this ash as ‘the kestrel tree’. The bird obviously feels very safe here as it pays me little mind even as I fumble around with exposure on the camera. Someone told me that they’d seen a red kite over the cemetery last week too, so I shall be keeping a keen eye open. Buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk – there must be a whole lot of biodiversity in the cemetery. Let’s hope that it doesn’t become too regimented.

And I rather liked the way that this ‘winged creature’ was taking advantage of another one.

 

At this time of year, nearly all the leaves are gone, but I rather like the smoky effect of the bare, grey branches.

And those magnificent dark brooding trees against the skyline.

The snowberry is covered in ‘lardy balls’ this year – the tiny pink flowers are popular with bees in the spring, but nobody seems to like the berries, which is probably why they stay around for so long.

We turn into one of my favourite parts of the cemetery, along Kew Road and Withington Road. A Japanese gentleman is practicing his tai chi – we nearly always see him here, wearing a facemask and going through some moves. We wave and say hello, and he does the same. I often see the same people here every week, going for their constitutional. I do hope that at some point the cemetery will open up to ordinary folk during the week, it is such a source of solace for so many locals.

Anyhow, I suddenly notice a most unusual flag on one of the graves, and we head over for a look.

This is the one of the many designs of the early American flag, probably dating to about 1877. So what’s going on?

The grave belongs to George W. Denton, who fought in the Civil War (1861-1865) for the Unionists. The 111th Pennsylvania Volunteers were at the Battle of Antietam (one of the bloodiest battles of the war), and at Gettysburg.  He was on the USS Choctaw, a steamship that was converted into an ironclad ram and sent down to the Mississippi, where the ship was involved in the destruction of a number of confederate navy yards. Later, the Pennsylvania Volunteers were folded into the Army of the Potomac, which by 1865 had over 80,000 men either killed, wounded or missing in action. What a bloody war this was! What I don’t know is how Denton came to be living in North London, although it’s clear that he was involved with his fellow veterans, being a member of the London Branch of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. I managed to find a George W. Denham living in St Pancras parish with his wife Jane and six children, but whether this is ‘our’ George I’ve been unable to ascertain to my satisfaction.

Denham’s  great grandchildren laid a wreath on his grave, and they clearly got to know their great grandfather through the letters that he’d left. What a treasure trove for future generations something like this is, especially as this man had really lived through history, and furthermore had obviously recorded it.

What I found most poignant though was not so much the flag, and the wreath, and the letter, but the cap left on the corner of the grave, a memento of a soldier who was finally free to take it off.

And finally, to finish up our walk together, here are some more angels, because we need as many of them as we can find at the moment. Here’s an angel crowned with ivy.

And here are some cherub faces, on a family grave that included a child of one year and ten months old. There is something about the specificity of that which reminds me of how I often correct myself when I’m referring to Mum and Dad’s death – ‘Mum will have been gone for two years on 18th December this year’ for example. For those who grieve, the precise details are so important.