Category Archives: London Places

An Easter Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolaria)

Dear Readers, after a few weeks of having a break from the cemetery, it was such a pleasure to be back on a sunny spring day with not a cloud overhead. I was pleased to see the garlic mustard coming into flower, and was keeping a keen eye open for orange-tip butterflies, who lay their eggs on the plant. Well, I didn’t see any, but I did see several citrus-coloured brimstone butterflies, whose caterpillars  feed on buckthorn. There is a view that the name ‘butterfly’ came from these  bright yellow beauties.

Photo One by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Male brimstone butterfly in flight (Photo One)

I seemed to be scaring up butterflies at every step, like this peacock: red admirals, peacocks and the odd speckled wood were all warming themselves up on the paths. It wasn’t quite the swarms of lepidoptera that I remember from our walks in the Austrian Alps, but it wasn’t bad for East Finchley.

The Tibetan cherry tree is coming into flower, and very fine it is too.

This jay was a little less shy than usual…

But this green woodpecker was rather more reticent than of late…

And we saw the Official Cemetery Cat, who is very splendid…

And an unofficial cemetery visitor, who we’ve seen before, and who looks like a little panther.

But loveliest of all, against that clear blue sky, was the buzzard, peacefully riding the thermals and unharried by the crows for once. Maybe they’re all off on holiday.

Mustn’t it be lovely to fly like that! The closest thing that I can think of is swimming, which is something I haven’t done for way too long. Maybe I’ll find somewhere over the summer.

Oh, and the lesser celandine is still in flower….

 

….and there was this patch of pink sorrel close to the North Circular Road boundary. I hadn’t noticed it before, but no doubt it will soon be everywhere. All sorts of mysterious things grow in this rather ‘weedy’ area, including the mysterious salsify that I was so astonished by a few years ago. Although you can hardly hear yourself think for traffic noise, it is always full of surprises.

A Spring Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, three weeks after the onset of my Covid I’m finally feeling like myself again, and so it was such a joy to head out to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery to take in the glory of the Lesser Celandine. Just look at them! Could they be any more joyful, I ask myself.

And if you watch closely, you can see them being appreciated by a whole mass of bees and tiny pollinators.

The primroses are out in force too.

I heard the buzzards mewing, and saw one being hotly pursued by the usual gang of crows. And, for your delectation, here is a sparrowhawk’s backside, shortly before she exited stage left, also pursued by crows. Note those distinctive bars on the stomach.

Blackcaps were singing their heads off, as was this chaffinch, who was making a most uncharacteristic volume of sound.

And the blackthorn is in flower.

I have mentioned before that the lesser celandine was Wordsworth’s favourite flower, but I’d never read the poem that he composed to it. I had expected some cheery paean to the first flower of spring but, as so often with Wordsworth it’s rather more thoughtful than that. So here, for your delectation, is Wordworth’s Lesser Celandine. See what you think.

The Lesser Celandine

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite -then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner -behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

A Post Covid Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it felt very strange walking in the cemetery yesterday; although I am now past the worst of my covid infection I am still a little slow and breathless, and everything feels most peculiar. I first realised that brain fog was ‘a thing’ after my Dad died and I realised that I could no longer calculate percentages without having to think about it first. Fortunately my mental faculties gradually came back, but at the moment I’m still a bit hazy about many things. Still, it was good to get a bit of fresh air on the most beautiful spring day. I especially love the way that the Scotsman is standing in a pool of lesser celandine. I’ve remarked before that it seemed not to be having a very good year, but clearly I was just too early. It was everywhere on my walk, turning its shiny yellow face to the sun, and hoping for an early bumblebee to pop along, I’m sure.

The petals of many flowers in the buttercup family are shiny – there is a special layer of reflective cells which intensifies the yellow colour and makes the flowers even more attractive to pollinators. As the flowers grow older, this layer may rub off, leaving the petals white, as in the one on the far left hand side of the photo. There are some rather lovely buttercup photos (though not lesser celandine) on this microscopy-uk webpage, well worth a look.

I was surprised to see how much of the cherry plum blossom was gone (after all I’ve only missed one week on my walks), but it has been very windy. On the other hand, the horse chestnut buds are pushing through already.

And although the bluebells look a  long way off, there’s one tiny patch of woodland where the Scilla have naturalised, and their blue is almost as intense. What a pretty and delicate flower this is, and it’s obviously happy even in deep shade.

And so it was with some relief that I got home and had a sit down, but it was great to see something outside my four walls for the first time in ten days. For anyone who is getting over covid, or indeed any infection, I’d say ‘be a little more gentle with yourself than you think you need to be’ – it’s good to give yourself time for your body to adjust to getting back to ‘normal’ rather than throwing yourself in with enthusiasm, especially as you’re getting older. When I was in my twenties and thirties I thought I was immortal and indestructible, but sadly now I know a bit better.

An Exciting Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, there was lots to see in the cemetery on Saturday, most of it centred around the bird life. We were barely through the gates when we noticed this crow, getting stuck into a mystery fruit. At first I thought  it might be a mango, but on balance I’ve decided it was an orange. Who knew that crows had a taste for citrus? I love the way that the crow is keeping the fruit under control with his or her foot.

Normally the crows are pretty shy, but this one was clearly too involved in eating to be put off by me and my camera.

Then, I was looking at the blossom (which is rather fine at the moment) when my husband said ‘what’s that bird with the red head?’

And yes it was a green woodpecker, usually a very elusive bird. This one was digging up ants as if they were going out of fashion – the wet weather has made the soil a bit easier to hammer into. The bird was completely engrossed in its task, but was moving so quickly that it was hard to get a decent shot. Some birds seem to live on a slightly faster timescale than us, and this one definitely did that. If  you look carefully in the video below you can see the bird’s long tongue flickering out to lick up the ants. It looks in some of the photos as if the beak is malformed but the bird looked healthy and was clearly feeding, so hopefully it can still look after itself. It’s a hard life bashing yourself against hard surfaces all day, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t sometimes some collateral damage.

Then we spotted a small panther, clearly watching out for mice or other small rodents.

In the more open part of the cemetery there were several flocks of redwings, probably several hundred in total. They are starting to gather for the flight back north, but it was the first time I’d seen them in such numbers.

Round we go, and here’s another panther – this one is a bit chunkier than the earlier one.

And everywhere, the daffodils and various narcissi have taken over from the crocuses and the snowdrops.

The primroses are coming into their own as well.

And one of my favourite cherry-crabs is almost at the peak of flowering.

And finally, someone has given the lovely Scotsman on Kew Road some new flowers, and some twigs. I think this is probably the finest sculpture in the cemetery, and he never fails to move me, standing there so proud amongst the trees. When he was alive, someone clearly loved him very much.

Goings on in East Finchley

Statue of Susanna Wesley the ‘Mother of Malethodism’

Dear Readers, I was on my way to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery for my usual weekend walk when I was stopped in my tracks by this extraordinary statue. It appeared this week in the grounds of East Finchley Methodist Church. Last week, this was a red cedar tree, but this week it has been transformed.

The sculptor is Simon O’Rourke, and the funds for the project were raised after a 103 year-old parishioner died, and left money for something to be created ‘for the children’, with extra funds raised by local people and donated by the Heathfield Trust, a Methodist charity. The design of the sculpture incorporates some lovely details that I’m sure children will love.

Susanna Wesley was born in 1669, the youngest of 25 siblings. Although she never preached a sermon, she was a strong believer in the moral and intellectual education of young people, both boys and girls, and her meditations and commentaries on scripture attracted large crowds to her family services. Susanna and her husband had nineteen children, of whom only eight were alive at her death. Amongst the children were Charles and John Wesley, who went on to found Methodism, which now has about 80 million followers worldwide.

The whole of the area around the sculpture will be transformed into a garden for adults and children.

I rather like the statue, with its intricate details and the sense that Susanna Wesley is both welcoming everyone with open arms and simultaneously jetting off into heaven like a Red Arrow trailing smoke.

There is an explanatory sign hung on the railings.

In spite of this, I was intrigued to hear one male passerby describing Susanna Wesley as ‘John Wesley’s wife’. And this is how women are regularly denied their place in history and relegated to the role of appendages. Our assumptions betray us, every time.

After this, a walk in the cemetery was going to seem a little ordinary, unless the foxes would oblige with a spectacular showing. Alas they were keeping a low profile, but there were lots of more subtle delights on show. For example, my husband said that his hay fever was kicking in, and sure enough, lots of the conifers have their tiny cones just opening.

I love the way that the sun shows off the smooth silver bark of the young ash trees. It’s easy to forget how many there are in the cemetery. If/when ash dieback hits hard, it will be a very different place.

I love the way that horizontal branches develop their own ‘moss gardens’ as well. In the tropics they have bromeliads, in London we have moss.

The lesser celandine are really starting to kick off now….

And whilst in some places the snowdrops are in full flower…

…in other spots the buds are just starting to emerge, like little rockets.

Everything is starting to push up through the soil, and it will only be a few weeks until the cemetery is a riot of birdsong and crocuses. This year the winter has seemed very long to me, and the greyness unrelenting. How lovely to see the days grow longer (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere), and to feel winter losing its grip for another year.

You can read more about the Susanna Wesley statue in the Ham and High article below:

https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/susanna-wesley-sculpture-in-east-finchley-church-8652556

A Damp Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, I was in the mood for a brisk walk on Saturday – the fog had just cleared but it was a damp, dreary day that didn’t really encourage my usual drifting along. So it was not until I reached the ladies ‘convenience’ on the far side of the cemetery that something finally caught my eye. What was this in the corner of the building? Well, it appears to be a group of hibernating harlequin ladybirds (they are much too large to be any other species). I love the way that the ones in the middle have piled on top of one another for warmth. I am slightly surprised that they haven’t woken up yet, what with it being so mild, but maybe they know something that I don’t. There certainly aren’t many greenfly about yet, and as that’s mainly what they eat, maybe it makes sense to snooze on for a little longer.

There was lots of crow activity today – this magpie was throwing the leaves about in much the same way that a blackbird does. I think it gives an indication of how many invertebrates use the leaf litter as a place to spend the winter, and how important it is to leave at least some leaf piles in the garden.

The crows are super-curious, and are always investigating the graves to see if there’s anything edible. I sometimes see them picking up the artificial flowers and then throwing them over their shoulders as if in frustration. This one eventually flew off with what looked like a chrysanthemum flower. Maybe there are some seeds or insects inside. The magpies will also take shiny objects and fly off with them, so the old adage about magpies being ‘collectors’ still seems to hold true.

The first primroses are starting to emerge…

And there are still some rather damp-looking fungi around.

Mystery fungus! All suggestions welcome.

But what does this hogweed think it’s doing? It’s at least four months too early. It was flowering away in splendid isolation, with not a single fly to pollinate it. There were a few winter gnats around, but as far as I know they don’t act as pollinators. This is a high risk strategy, but as the winters get milder, who knows whether early-flowering plants might be the winners in the end?

And finally, we were accosted by this enormous squirrel. I am 99% sure that she is pregnant, rather than just well-cushioned – I noticed squirrel mating behaviour back in December, so although she’s a bit early, she’s not that unusual. I imagine that there’s lots to eat in the cemetery, so let’s hope that she gets enough nutrition to provide for her kits. She looks in excellent condition.

And so it’s back home, to get stuck into the chemistry module of my Open University degree. Studying the Periodic Table reminds me of why I loved chemistry at school – what an elegant and precise way of starting to understand the material world it is! No doubt I shall be waxing lyrical about it soon. For now, I’m just grateful for the way that science provides a way of asking questions about the world that is calm and rational. It feels like just the bracing intellectual exercise that I need.

A Winter Walk at Walthamstow Wetlands

Hazel catkins

Dear Readers, today was a perfect time for a walk around Walthamstow Wetlands – it was cold but not too cold, and there was a perfect crispness about the light that made everything so cheerful. Look at those bouncy hazel catkins, which look just like the tails of the lambs that will be born soon.

The twigs of the weeping willows were a perfect mellow yellow colour, and I think that the electricity pylon actually adds something to the scene. We are so lucky to have so much green space in London – the city certainly punches above its weight in terms of biodiversity.

There was a solitary coot rooting amongst the reeds, and not a hint of wind to ruffle the surface of the reservoir.

A tufted duck glided serenely away, before diving and leaving nothing but ripples.

The gorse is in flower (so kissing must still be in fashion, as they say).

Herons glided over the path, looking positively prehistoric. In a few weeks time they will be setting up their nests on one of the islands, and the serenity will be broken by the sounds of heron chicks, but for now the main sound is the chorus of robins. This one was singing, then listening out for a rival, then singing again.

And a great-crested grebe patrolled the water. No sign of a mate today, but probably she or he is very close.

It was one of those days when I feel delighted just to be alive, and clearly I wasn’t the only one – one woman, who had been admiring the view over the water, just turned to us and remarked how beautiful it was. It was a day for pausing, and looking, and soaking it all in. They say that nature is restorative, and today it felt as if every breath was medicine. I felt so lucky and privileged just to be able to enjoy it. I wish the same for all of us.

An Autumn Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Parasol mushroom

Dear Readers, autumn in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery means a wealth of fungi. The cemetery is now open during the week as well as at weekends, so today I went for a walk with my friend A to see what was popping up. This parasol mushroom was a particularly fine specimen (though a closer look revealed that some little creature had been nibbling at the gills underneath, but there were lots of white fungi of various kinds. You need to be very sure about what you’re doing before you start nibbling at them, however tasty they look. I could imagine some of these bubbling away in garlic butter and finished with a touch of parsley, but personally wouldn’t dare to eat them. How about you, readers? Do you forage for mushrooms yourselves?

On the way to the cemetery, we were briefly detained by this rather unusual oak. It’s a street tree with a very upright habit – from a distance you’d almost think it was a larch. However, I suspect that it’s actually a ‘normal’ English Oak (Quercus robur) but of an upright variety known as fastigiata (otherwise known as the Cypress Oak, and becoming increasingly popular as a a council planting.

The oaks in the cemetery itself are frequently heavily infested with spangle galls, such as those in the photos below.  These galls are caused by the gall wasp Neuroterus quercusbaccarum. The wasp ‘persuades’ the plant to develop the outgrowth of tissue that covers and protects the egg and then the developing larva. In the autumn the galls fall to the ground around the oak tree, and the young wasps overwinter before emerging in the spring to lay their own eggs, normally on the leaves on the lower limbs of the tree because the wasps are poor fliers. Although they look unsightly, the gall wasps appear to live in relative harmony with the oak trees, and do no lasting damage.

Deep in the woody area of the cemetery we found this impressive sessile oak (Quercus petraea) with its surprisingly thin, elegant stems. I usually think of oaks as being robust, thick-set trees, but they can be lithe and graceful too.

And we are coming into the season for the Raywood ash trees to put on a show. These are a variety of the Caucasian ash tree (Fraxinus angustifolia ssp oxycarpa ‘Raywood), also known as the Claret ash. The variety originated in Australia but during the 1970s to 1990s it was a very popular street tree. Sadly, as Paul Wood reports in his book ‘London’s Street Trees – A Field Guide to the Urban Forest‘, Raywood ashes have a habit of unexpectedly splitting apart, not a great characteristic for a tree that comes into such close contact with people. Furthermore, it doesn’t respond well to pollarding, becoming ungainly. I shall make a point of appreciating these trees while we have them – their autumn colour is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will also have resistance to the ash dieback that is going to kill most of our native ash trees.

Some of the cedars of Lebanon are in flower: I always get confused between the cones and the flowers, but these seem to be the male flowers, just cracking open to release their pollen. The female flowers are smaller and green-coloured and, if pollinated, will eventually turn into the barrel-shaped cones that are so familiar.

‘My’ swamp cypress hasn’t turned rust-brown yet, but it has produced some round, green cones. The tree got its leaves very late in the spring, so I think we’ll have to be patient for the autumn colour,

We spotted this young woodpigeon pecking about – it hasn’t developed the white flash on its neck yet. Plus I think all immature pigeons and doves spend a while ‘growing into’ their beaks (much as I had to grow into my size 8 feet, which looked a bit daft until I grew to 5 foot 11 inches tall – at that point it seemed rather important to have big feet, otherwise I’d have fallen over).

On the way out of the cemetery, we were rather surprised when A suddenly spotted a dead animal bird of some considerable size laying beside the Payne mausoleum. It turned out to be a small white goose, maybe from the allotments that border the cemetery. I have spared you a photo of the ex-goose, but suffice it to say that it was definitely demised. Was it taken by a cunning fox, or did it fly into some solid object and meet an untimely end? At any rate, it was a most surprising thing to spot on an autumn walk. We alerted the cemetery staff, and no doubt the corpse has been removed by now. Life and death are everywhere in a graveyard, and not always in the way that you’d expect.

A Late Summer Walk at Walthamstow Wetlands

The Engine Room at Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, last time I was here with my friend S, the site was closed due to flooding, so it was a relief to actually be able to see the reservoirs and lakes this time. The whole place was full of dragonflies, not one of which sat still long enough for me to get a photo. Still, they are such a delight, zipping about like those toy planes powered by elastic bands that you used to get for about a shilling when I was a girl. 

They currently have a Moomin trail for the children. I was never a great fan of the little critters, but my lovely friend Susie, who died much too young, was an avid collector of all things Moomin, so I had to take a few photos for her.

On the ‘real’ wildlife trail, though, my Birdnet app proved its worth again. I heard some calls coming from what I thought were small birds in one of the goat willows. Well, I was half-right – they were small birds, but they were Little Grebes, or Dabchicks (Tachybaptus ruficollis). According to my Crossley Bird Guide, their ‘very well-known call is like whinny of tiny horse or slightly insane giggle’. I love this book!

The young birds can apparently retain the stripes on their head through their first winter, which I think is what is going on with this bird. It has a fluffy tail too, which leads Crossley to describe the bird as a ‘floating rabbit’. All in all it’s a slightly bedraggled-looking little bird, but it bobs under the water with all the efficiency of its larger relatives and then bounces back up like a cork. Dabchicks eat insects and larvae, so any baby dragonflies had better watch out.

On one of the other lakes, I spotted an adult bird, looking a bit more dapper. That splendid chestnut neck is diagnostic for the species, and I’d have though that the white mark below the bill was a good indicator too.

Adult Little Grebe

What’s going on with the water, though? Although in some places it looks like one of those Venetian marbled papers, it does look a little alarming. It’s not duckweed, and it doesn’t seem to be chemical pollution, so I’m assuming that it’s algae.

And how about this fabulous spider, who was floating in mid-air half way across the path and wasn’t best pleased when we accidentally undid all his/her hard work by walking right through the web…

There’s also some flowering Japanese knotweed (though as we know there are only female plants in the UK so it’s not the seeds that are the problem, but the roots) and! apparently some Giant Hogweed though I couldn’t see it. For those of you who don’t know, the sap of this plant can cause blisters, and it also makes the skin photosensitive so that it becomes red and sore on exposure to sunlight, sometimes for years afterwards.

There are lots of rosehips about too, including this sweetbriar( Rosa rubiginosa) – the hips have much longer sepals than on a dog rose.

A lot of the paths are out of action at the Wetlands at the moment – when ducks moult they lose all their flight feathers at once, and so are extremely vulnerable and need places to hide without disturbance. It’s always a great place to wander around, though, with lots to see if you’re patient. Today felt like summer’s last gasp, with temperatures in the high twenties, and so it was good to make the most of it. Plus, the cafe does the most delicious sandwiches and cakes, so it makes it easy to just ‘hang out’. What a great addition Walthamstow Wetlands is to the green spaces of London!

A Bank Holiday Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it was extremely quiet in the cemetery today. I’m guessing that lots of people are away, what with it being the August Bank Holiday and all, but it meant that I spotted two handsome foxes (though they dashed away too quickly for me to get a photograph), and also saw two buzzards circling overhead, mewing to one another. I expected the crows to rise up in umbrage, but they didn’t for once – maybe they’re all on holiday too.

Some Japanese anemones are just coming into flower in the woodland grave area, along with some most unlikely-looking plants – they remind me of one of my house plants. Let’s hope they survive.

Look at the swamp cypress, people! I am waiting for the first hints of rust to appear. There is a definite increase in tempo this week, with the coal tits and blue tits cheeping and the robins starting to announce their winter territories. I love autumn though, it’s probably my favourite season – there is strangely more of a sense of possibility and new beginnings for me at this time of year than in the spring. Maybe it’s all those years of education, when the school year started in September, but it’s always been pivotal for me – I got married in September, as did my mother and father, and I started my most recent job in September too.

The swamp cypress

Anyhow, I’m starting to see a lot of wasps drifting about. I wonder what this one was after on this conifer? Maybe there’s something sweet and resinous being produced.

The Cedars of Lebanon are looking particularly magnificent, and several of them are producing their female flowers, which will be shedding pollen and irritating the noses of hay fever sufferers for the next few months.

 

The conkers are filling out nicely, and there are plenty of berries on the holly.

And here’s a holly-blue butterfly, sunning itself. This one is a female (you can tell by the black edges to the wings).

I always stop and give the Tibetan Cherry trunk a little rub as well, to keep it nice and shiny.

There is a definite meadow-ish feel to some parts of the cemetery at the moment – the gardeners are out with their strimmers and, I regret to say, their leaf-blowers, but it’s been such a wet summer that everything is springing up as fast as it’s trimmed. Some grave-visitors have taken to bringing in their own strimmers. Still, I thought I’d try to take a couple of grasshopper-eye views of the plants while they’re still around.

Red clover and ribworth plantain

Other notables today were the hedgerow geranium, with its intensely mauve flowers..

…the common toadflax…

…the bristly oxtongue…

….the nipplewort…

…and the Japanese Knotweed in full flower. Just as well it doesn’t spread by seed in this country, there’s quite enough of it in the cemetery as it is.

And in other signs of autumn, there’s the tarspot fungus in all its glory on the sycamore leaves…

and the hogweed seeds, which are rather pretty close up. I’m sure someone on Masterchef actually used these in a dish recently, I shall have to check (though the umbellifers are a tricky family with several, such as hemlock, being extremely poisonous).

And finally, it’s funny what you don’t notice, until you do. I walk this way every week, but never saw that the ivy had covered a whole row of graves just by one of the woodier parts of the cemetery. It’s amazing the way that ivy just reclaims things. Was this part of the cemetery once pristine and neat, I wonder? I know that I prefer it the way it is now. Although a lot of the wilder parts of the cemetery are being dug over for new graves, I imagine that there will always be older parts where it’s just not economical to cut down the trees. I hope so, anyway.

Graves disappearing under the ivy.