Dear Readers, we all love a good tree, but what about when it’s felled or trimmed or comes to the end of its life? I took a walk in Coldfall Wood on Friday with my good friend A, as people generally don’t seem to appreciate how important dead wood is to the ecology of woodland. Just look, for example, at the moss growing on these logs. There will be all kinds of invertebrates living under the bark, and no doubt mice and beetles and all sorts of other creatures will be living in the interstices. In time the whole lot will rot down (with the aid of a whole army of fungi, insects, bacteria and other detritivores) and return to feed the new trees that will grow up in the space that the tree once occupied.
There are wood piles from when some of the trees were coppiced a few years ago, and, whilst you can only see the fungal fruiting bodies later in the year, they host a whole range of different species.
Black bulgar fungus
Hairy Curtain Crust
Standing dead trees can provide roosting holes not only for the obvious candidates, such as woodpeckers and nuthatches, but also for birds such as this stock dove. These are shy little birds, smaller than a wood pigeon, with what I always think of as ‘kind’ dark eyes.
Dead trees often have a kind of grandeur and beauty all of their own. I love the peeling bark on this one, and the variety of colours on its trunk.
The Conservation Volunteers are an organisation who do a lot of work in the wood, including creating these dead hedges to protect areas from trampling. 95% of people recognise that these are meant to be a barrier. 5% take it as a challenge, and the hedges are sometimes dismantled, with the branches ending up in ‘dens’. Part of the reason for taking these photos with Friend A was to design some signage so that people know what the dead hedges are there for, so maybe we can get them left alone for longer. Getting the balance right between people exploring and experiencing the wood and its long-term survival so that future generations can also enjoy it sometimes feels like a real uphill battle, but it’s important to remember that most people do respect the woods, and that many of those who don’t are doing so out of ignorance rather than malice. Many of us seem to have become so divorced from nature and its patterns that we really don’t have the first idea about how to treat a ‘wild’ place.
A rather lovely dead hedge
And to cheer me up, the marsh marigold in the woods is in flower a good week before the one in my garden pond. There’s nothing more heartening than that glimpse of gold amidst all the green.
And hidden away, almost below the bridge, there are some enormous violets, definitely ‘blushing unseen’.
And of course some forget-me-nots.
So, let’s see where we get to with our ‘dead wood is good wood’ posters. Will they all end up in the stream? It’s possible, but I do hope that at least some people will realise that the hedges are there for a purpose, not just to be annoying. I will keep you posted!
Dear Readers, spring is really gathering pace in the cemetery, in spite of the fact that the temperature has gone from the low ’70’s at the beginning of the week to the mid 40’s Fahrenheit today. It’s a worrying time for gardeners with half-hardy plants, but the natives could care less about the cold. I saw my first wood forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) today….
and my first cuckooflowers, also known as lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis), which are another real sign of spring for me. The cemetery has several patches of these delicate flowers. Who’d look at them and think ‘cabbage?’ but that’s exactly what they are (or members of the Brassica family at any rate).
The cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) will be abuzz soon as well – it’s naturalised itself all over the cemetery. I have one in the garden just behind my semi-circle of sleepers at the back of the garden, so I know how it self-seeds. The flowers have a heavy, almond scent that I find borderline sickly.
But look at the horse chestnut leaflets! Last week they were just emerging from their buds, but this week the familiar hand-shaped leaves and candelabra flowers are already unfurling. It’s a shame that these leaves will be blasted by fungus and leaf-miners in a few months time, but at the moment they look young and slightly fuzzy and very, very green.
It’s fair to say that the grape hyacinths are doing very well on some of the older graves.
And while the lesser celandine is disappearing in some places, it’s at its peak in others, forming a carpet of yellow flowers.
Down by the stream, the blackthorn is in flower.
And the creeping comfrey is, well, creeping along the river bank. Later on it will be overwhelmed by the Russian and white comfrey that also grows here, and so the bees will be happy for months.
‘My’ cherry plum has stopped flowering, and so it’s the copper-coloured leaves that are coming into prominence now.
On the way back, we passed a man who was planting up one of the graves. I paused to tell him how lovely it looked, and he mentioned that his wife had passed away in March and that he was sorting out her grave, and the grave of her parents and grandparents. He had a pile of paving slabs next to him and while he wanted to let me know what had happened he clearly didn’t want to talk about it. I see what a help hard physical labour is for people who are mourning, and I suspect this is for a variety of reasons: exercise brings endorphins that help to soothe, physical exhaustion is good for sleep, and I think that the physical pain can be a kind of counter-irritant for the emotional pain. Plus, I suspect that making a grave beautiful is a way of communing with the loved one who is gone, and of serving them even though they are no longer here. Finally, there is meaning in the creation of beauty, and after a bereavement everything can seem very empty. Working in the midst of the new spring flowers and the bird song may bring a kind of solace, if even only for a moment.
I look at this Cedar of Lebanon, and think of it spreading its branches over all the many, many corteges who have passed under it. Whenever I look at it I somehow breathe in some of its peacefulness.
Dear Readers, how much I took for granted before this year of Covid 19! In 2019 a bus ride and a walk to Golders Hill Park and through the Heath to Hampstead Garden Suburb would have been a perfectly normal, even mundane, thing to do at the weekend. But this week we decided to catch a bus and go for a walk in these previously well-known parts of North London, and it was a revelation.
In theory, we were going to look for the West Heath bog: as you might know from previous posts, bogs are extremely rare in London, and so this little area of sphagnum moss is a most unusual habitat. But first we had to pass through the more manicured area of Golders Hill Park, with its cafe (homemade icecream resulted in a queue a couple of hundred metres long), and its animal park. And, it turns out, its stumpery, which was new to me. How extraordinary these felled stumps are, and how imaginative of the park keepers to turn them into a whole new habitat rather than just carting them away. They look like modern sculpture to me, and they were much appreciated by the pigeons and squirrels, as well as providing a nice niche for wood anemones and hellebores.
Further along the path is an ornamental lake. This year it has a bit patch of crown imperial fritillaries – these lilies are so prone to rot that the bulbs are usually planted on their sides, which makes me wonder how they managed to grow so well in such a damp spot.
Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)
And I was a little perturbed to see these western skunk cabbages. These are a member of the Arum family, and are become a problem in Scotland and in other damp parts of the UK. The RHS has recommended not growing them since 2018 as they are considered invasive, so I was surprised to see them here, especially next to a stream which will easily distribute the seeds along the whole length of the stream. There’s no doubt that it is an attractive plant, with its lemon-yellow ‘petals’ and pale-green spathe, though the ‘skunky’ odour, said to persist even after the plant has been picked and dried, would put a lot of people off.
So now we had the task of finding the bog. It’s outside the park itself, on the area known as West Heath, and as I know from previous bog-finding expeditions they can be surprisingly elusive, especially during a dry patch. We had a couple of false starts as we followed tributaries from the Leg of Mutton pond. I found myself wondering whether this was so named because of its shape, or because it was in some way related to the Mutton Brook which rises in my local park, Cherry Tree Wood. I had just started to voice my queries when we discovered the first glimpses of flag iris and, glory be, some sphagnum moss.
The big problem will be protecting the bog from too much trampling: this is a very delicate habitat, and with the current footfall it would be easy for it to turn into a muddy soakaway. But I know that various conservation groups have been involved in removing invasive grasses and suchlike so that the bog will at least have a fighting chance. There are little wooden bridges and boardwalks too to help keep big feet at a distance. The bog is a bit off the beaten track as well, so hopefully that will help it to thrive. There is another tiny area of bog close to Kenwood, and that’s it for the whole of the Heath. There are plants that grow here, and invertebrates that use the area, that won’t be found anywhere else, so it’s important for biodiversity.
The bog. See how green it is!
And then we turn for home, planning to walk via the Heath Extension which borders Hampstead Garden Suburb. However, we get a little turned around, and I suddenly find myself catching a whiff of coconut. There is a small area of ‘proper’ heathland, with gorse in flower, pumping out that tropical scent. What a surprise! To find woodland, a bog and heathland within a minute’s walk of one another must be a true rarity.
I half expect to find a basking adder or spot a Dartford warbler. I wasn’t that lucky, but this little spot did make me very happy, and, in spite of it being Good Friday and very busy on other parts of the Heath, we had the gorse all to ourselves.
And then we head along North End and into another part of the Heath, and we found this gate to nowhere, next to the most magnificent tree.
It turns out that it was part of the gatehouse to the estate of William Pitt back in 1766. His house is round about here, too. It’s easy to forget that the Heath was once a series of great estates (such as Kenwood) and was also farmland, though sometimes you can be looking at something and realise that it was probably once a hedgerow.
Were those cherry plums once part of a hedgerow?
The final part of our walk takes us along the edge of the suburb. There is a fantastic wall here, full of strange manorial doors and antique brickwork.
In the distance you get a great view of Sir Edward Lutyen’s St Jude’s Church, sadly currently swathed in scaffolding.
And as we head back towards our bus, I notice the pinkest of pink magnolias, so that our walk has been bookended with such plants. It seems to be a stunning year for magnolias – I have never seen so many varieties in flower, or in such healthy profusion. What a treat, and how easy it is to let blossom time pass by without sufficient admiration time. Go out and admire a tree today, Readers! They always lift the spirits.
Dear Readers, I think we’ve reached the height of Lesser Celandine season here in the cemetery – every path is ankle-deep in those shiny yellow flowers with their heart-shaped leaves. I love the polished look of the petals, so different from the waxy petals of the daffodils.
It seems difficult to imagine that in a few weeks they’ll be gone, the leaves dying back until next year. I note from my Harrap’s Wild Flowers that there are two sub-species of Lesser Celandine, one which is fertile (Ficaria verna ssp fertilis) and has petals that are 10-20mm long, and one which reproduces from bulbils (Ficaria verna ssp verna) which has flowers 6-11mm long. I shall have to take my ruler next time I visit, but my hunch would be that these are the latter – plants that reproduce by bulbils are often seen as indicators of ancient woodland because they can’t travel quickly from one place to another. The cemetery has only been around since 1854, but previously the land belonged to Finchley Common, so the area has a long history. At any rate, it’s difficult not to feel the spirits lift at the sight of all these little golden flowers.
Lesser celandine is not the only plant that’s in flower at the moment, though – the violets are just starting to emerge. I found this lovely patch of sweet violet close to a fence – the flowers are very pale and I didn’t get any scent, but the rounded sepals (the ‘covers’ for the bud) give the game away.
Sweet violet (Viola odorata)
I was very struck by the red flowers on the Lawson cypress as well – I had never noticed them before, but this year they are very bright, almost like drops of blood, or like some stripy beetle.
The ground ivy is in flower, too – a member of the deadnettle family, the flowers always remind me of little dolls.
The blossom is going over, particularly on my favourite cherry plum where the coppery leaves are just coming through.
Lots of daffodils are still out, and although as you know I have mixed feelings about them, they are very striking when backlit by the sun.
And here are the sticky buds of the horse chestnut getting ready to burst. Soon there will be the candelabras of creamy, sweet-scented flowers, but for now it’s the first intimation of spring.
As we walk through the cemetery I hear the mewing of a buzzard, and for once it isn’t being mobbed by crows. We watch it catching a thermal (no mean feat on this blustery, chilly day), and it continues to call until another buzzard appears. They can travel a long, long way at speed just by riding the wind. Are they nesting somewhere in the cemetery? It wouldn’t surprise me, but I haven’t found the site yet. If they are, I’m sure it will be hidden away in one of the most difficult-to-access parts of the forest, but how exciting it would be!
And finally, here is another little patch of violets. These are a ‘proper’ violet colour, but it’s difficult to make out the sepals. However, those perfect heart-shaped leaves make me think it’s dog violet (Viola riviniana), so-called because it doesn’t have any scent, and ‘dog’ is often used as an epithet for something commonplace and uninteresting. Try telling that to any dog (or dog owner) though.
Dear Readers, it’s been a right old mixture of weather today – I’ve been pelted with hailstones, baked in the sun, rained on and nearly blown over. But it’s also been rather exhilarating – in the Alps they say ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute’ and that could have been the mantra for today as well.
As it’s the day before Mother’s Day, the cemetery was very busy. One man stopped me to ask where the chapel was, as he knew his Mum was buried close by, but wasn’t sure exactly where. Sadly, there are two chapels and a crematorium in the cemetery, so all I could do was send him off to the most likely one and keep my fingers crossed. At 190 acres, the cemetery is enormous, and it’s very easy to get turned around. I hope he found what he was looking for.
In spite of the weather, the blossom is looking very fine. Apparently the flowers on this cherry develop a ring of pink at the base of the stamen when they’ve been pollinated, as an indication to bees to head off to another bloom.
And the primroses are in flower in the woodland grave area. I love how some pale pink ones always seem to turn up, planted or not.
There seems to have been quite a lot of tree-felling this week. I have to bear in mind that this is a cemetery, and people die, and space is needed to bury them in. I do hope that some of the much-needed wildness is preserved, though. This cemetery has been a godsend for so many people this year.
I find some daffodils that I rather like, with pale cream flowers and a lemon-yellow trumpet, plus there are some of those miniature ones that I have a soft-spot for.
But my heart is really with the wildflowers, like the red deadnettle that’s flowering in such profusion. There are quite a few bumblebee queens about, being buffeted by the wind, and plants like this are a god send.
The feverfew will be open soon, too – I love the buds, they look like tiny buttons.
Off to the loos (another godsend, especially on a windy day like today – there’s something about chilly breezes and bladders that seems intertwined). On the way, we pass the three mallards that we saw last week: what looks like a mated pair, and a lone drake. What’s going on, I wonder? Is the lone drake hopeful that he can woo the female, or is he from last year’s brood, or is he just lonely?
And there are some goat willow catkins, which will soon be full of bees, I have no doubt. I sometimes think about finding a miniature willow for next to my pond, but I’m not sure if there is any such thing. I know that these catkins are a very useful source of pollen at this point in the year. Actually, I think the Kilmarnock willow is a tiny version of the goat willow, now I come to think of it – any experience, readers?
Goat willow catkins
We trundle on through a rain storm, stopping briefly to admire this splendid cherry.
And then it’s a quick loop through Kew Road and Withington Road, the least-peopled part of the cemetery. It is full to busting with lesser celandine, which carpets the woods with its heart-shaped green leaves and shiny yellow flowers. In a month or so it will be completely gone, and the bluebells and Queen Anne’s lace will have taken over, but for now it’s definitely in charge.
Someone has left some chestnuts and hazelnuts on a tree-stump for the squirrels. By the nibbling, I’m sure they’re extremely grateful.
And the sun pops out for a few minutes.
The crocuses are mostly gone, but are hanging on in a few places.
And I rather like the spots where the daffodils have gone feral amongst the brambles and the ash saplings.
And as if to prove that lesser celandine is not the only buttercup in these parts, here is a very early creeping buttercup, pointing its sunny little face up to the sky with what I can only hope is not misplaced confidence in the beginning of spring.
Actually, the strongest sign of spring to me is not the lesser celandine, it’s the leaves of the cow parsley popping up through the dead leaves wherever I look. The very first of the umbellifers to flower around here, the white flowers will probably begin to open in late April.
But then, they will be superseded by the hogweed, and today I saw my first hogweed leaves emerging from the ground. They look so green and toothsome at this stage! And although the flowers of this family can look rather similar, the leaves are a real giveaway.
I love the way that the pace of life quickens at this time of year – the trees are full of robins singing and blue tits arguing, jays and magpies squabbling, squirrels chasing one another. Although we’re still bleary-eyed from winter and lockdown, they are at the high point of their year, with several months of hard work and challenge ahead of them. But how nice to know that, in spite of our human problems, the world still turns, squeaky wheels notwithstanding. There is such pleasure in small things that can be so easily overlooked when things are ‘normal’. I hope we don’t forget about these small pleasures when the world opens up again.
Dear Readers, it really feels as if spring is gathering apace this week. From a few tentative flowers opening gently on the crab apples and cherry trees, there is now an abundance of fluffy blossom.
The chapel looks spick and span after its long renovation, although these days it only houses the (much-appreciated) toilets rather than holding any services.
The tree on the corner of the woodland burial area is looking very fine as well.
The primroses are emerging under the cedars of Lebanon.
And the daffodils are everywhere. I feel a bit of a Scrooge for saying it, but I am generally not a great fan of those big butter-coloured daffodils, though they are cheerful enough, I suppose. I like the paler, creamier ones that look more like the vanishingly-rare wild daffodils of Wales, and I have a fondness for the little miniature ones as well. And I’m fond of what I think of as ‘proper’ narcissi, like the pheasant’s eye ones with a small, red-rimmed trumpet. Paperwhites have their place, though Mum used to find their scent overpowering in a small space, and I must admit that they can make me feel slightly nauseous too. I’m becoming so fussy! Or is it just that I’m noticing my preferences more?
Little daffodils (Tete-a-tete I think?)
On a few of the sunnier graves there is a cheery outburst of red deadnettle.
And of course there are always daisies. I think you could find some in flower in the cemetery on every single day of the year. They always seem so modest and so hard-working to me.
There are some unexpected visitors resting next to the stream. I love the way that ducks appear to be asleep but always have one eye open to make sure that you aren’t up to any mischief.
A lady stopped her car to say she’d been seeing the ‘birds’ for a few days, but wasn’t sure what they were. Unfortunately she asked my husband, who, momentarily flustered, could only say that they were ‘ducks’. I have more work to do, clearly, though if she’d asked me she’d probably still be sitting in her car listening to me pronouncing forth on the wildfowl of London, so she had a lucky escape.
and some Loddon lilies, which seem to be a cemetery speciality. I’m sure all of them are planted rather than wild, but they are naturalising in some areas. At first glance you might think that they are just giant snowdrops, but the shape of the flowers is quite distinct.
A rose-ringed parakeet posed very nicely for the camera, unlike the two that were briefly on the suet feeder in the garden this morning. Whenever I see them I think of the one that visited the garden the day after Dad died. It’s funny how superstitious death can make a person: I almost believed that Dad had popped back to cheer me up, and with the two this morning I automatically thought of Mum and Dad together again. Of course, I don’t really believe that they have somehow been reincarnated as parakeets, but part of me wishes it were true. What complicated beings we are as we wrestle with the big, unsolvable questions of life. Or maybe it’s just me.
And as we head into my very favourite part of the cemetery, the overgrown, unpeopled area around Kew Road and Withington Road, I am struck yet again by the beauty of a blossom tree.
On the other hand, the Dutch crocuses are just coming out.
And while the snowdrops in the sunny areas emerged first and are now dying back…
…the ones in the shady areas are still in full flower.
And, let me share a little story with you that made me gasp. One of the Facebook groups that I belong to is about plant identification. A person posted that they had been reading about sorrel (the lemony-leaved member of the dock family), and so when they saw the plant below they decided to forage some and eat it.
And of course, it’s cuckoo-pint/lords and ladies, and is poisonous. How you could mistake one for the other astounds me, but then it’s often difficult to judge scale and size from a photo, and I suppose that the leaves are a similar shape if you squint. Fortunately, the poison in cuckoo-pint expresses itself by making the lips tingle and the tongue swell up, plus it tastes extremely unpleasant, so you aren’t likely to eat a lot of it. But even so, this was a close escape. I guess it’s exactly how our ancestors learned, and the ones who didn’t learn ended up deaded, as my Dad would have said.
Cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)
I heard the buzzard but didn’t see it. It’s very frustrating – I have a feeling that there’s a nest in the cemetery somewhere, and it must be pretty big, but I can’t find it. Anyhow, instead I saw a pair of crows harassing the kestrel, poor thing. It’s very difficult to make out from my most excellent photo (ahem) but it’s the bird in the middle. Kestrels don’t take nestlings or eggs, but I guess the crows aren’t taking any chances.
I saw one of the feral cats looking very sleek and well-fed – the lady who used to travel all the way from Camden to feed them and the foxes and the birds every day manages to get in at the weekend now when she can get a lift, but I suspect that other people are doing their bit to make sure that the animals don’t go hungry. I caught a quick glimpse of a fox too, but not for long enough to see if it was the poor vixen who’d had an accident that I saw last time.
And in other news, I had my first Covid vaccination on Wednesday (the Astra Zeneca one), and although I felt pretty rubbish for about 24 hours it really does feel now as if there is a glimmer of hope for some return to a new ‘normal’. I am so grateful to the NHS and all the people who are volunteering to help with the programme, and to the scientists who have managed to perform this miracle. I just hope now that we find a way to distribute the vaccine more equitably than we currently are, because in this situation it really is true that none of us are safe until we’re all safe. As I have done right through lockdown I am counting my blessings fervently and hoping for a decent pay rise for NHS staff (rather than the derisory 1% currently on offer), for more recognition for our care home staff, for a complete review of the care system, for support and recognition for our teachers and for all the workers who continued to staff our essential shops and transport systems, who collected our waste and delivered our post. If nothing else, this last year should have taught us who really is essential, and who really does deserve to be rewarded.
Dear Readers, you might think that the trees that form part of an ancient woodland nature reserve would be safe from being cut down, except when it’s essential for the management of the area. Sadly, as I have learned, you would be wrong. Trees are often felled in urban areas because they are blamed for damage to nearby housing, even when the houses are built after the trees are fully grown, and even when such housing is extended right up to the treeline.
Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know how passionately I care about the few small areas of ancient woodland that remain in North London, in particular Coldfall Wood. At only 14 hectares it provides a home for 26 species of breeding birds (including the lesser spotted woodpecker and song thrush, both Red List species), 2 species of bat, 106 species of beetle (including three Nationally Notable species), 56 species of spiders and 3 species of pseudoscorpion.
Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing in Coldfall Wood
Black and Yellow Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata) in Coldfall Wood
Two nuthatches – Coldfall Wood
Stock Dove (Coldfall Wood)
Treecreeper (Coldfall Wood)
One of the species recorded is the very rare Lesser Glow Worm (Phosphaenus hemipterus).
However, being a rare ecosystem brings limited protection when insurance companies become involved. A local householder has been having subsidence problems with an extension that was built ten years ago. A number of two-hundred year-old oaks have already been destroyed without the knowledge of the local Friends group, whose role is to liaise with the council and to protect the wood. The plan was to fell a further seven trees on 1st March, even though the loss of the other trees hasn’t improved the situation. Fortunately we were able to get the felling postponed, but the trees still aren’t safe.
Coldfall Wood August 2020
Speckled Wood butterfly
Our local Council, Haringey, is under pressure from the insurance company (AXA) to fell the trees – the council can be found to be negligent if it doesn’t act, and can be forced to pay for any works deemed necessary. However, there are lots of reasons other than trees that can cause subsidence to occur, including the soil composition, the geography of the area and the adequacy of the foundations of the building, and none of them have been explored. Our question is this: if cutting down a number of mature oak and hornbeam trees didn’t solve the subsidence problem, how will removing further trees help? Where does it end?
Water mint (Mentha aquatica) next to the seasonal pond, Coldfall Wood August 2020
There is a meeting on 5th March at the council to discuss a strategic approach to the problem, and we hope that this will at least allow for further research into the causes of the subsidence. However, we also have a petition asking for the felling to be stopped, which has over 50,000 signatures already (link below). We are angry that trees and the habitat that they represent are considered so expendable at a time when councils, corporations and our national government all claim to be working to alleviate climate change. There is so much talk about protecting the environment, and yet greenspaces have never been under so much pressure. While we want to work constructively with the council and with the insurers, we have no intention of allowing the destruction of these trees.
The by-line for this blog has always been ‘ Because a community is more than just people’. That community includes the trees that provide much of the oxygen that we breathe, that shade us in the summer and that provide a home for hundreds of other species. If we don’t act now to give them the protection that they deserve, then when?
The link to the petition is here. Please feel free to sign and share. I shall let you know how we get on.
Coldfall Wood 7.30 p.m. August 4th 2020
Photo One By Urs Rindlisbacher – Majka GC, MacIvor JS (2009) The European lesser glow worm, Phosphaenus hemipterus (Goeze), in North America (Coleoptera, Lampyridae). ZooKeys 29: 35–47. doi:10.3897/zookeys.29.279, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8770508
Dear Readers, as if by a miracle the temperature has gone up a tad, the mud has (probably temporarily) abated in Coldfall Wood and on Muswell Hill Playing Fields, and so it was a good day to get some air. The woods have been more heavily used this year because of lockdown, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the understorey quite so bare. The leaf cover makes it difficult for smaller plants to survive in the uncoppiced areas, but because of the need to socially distance, many new paths have been carved through the trees. Still, some plants are still popping up, like this Italian Cuckoo Pint (Arum italicum), poking out from below the holly.
We head out to the fields for the first time in ages – it was such a mud bath for a few months that we decided to give it a miss. But today it’s full of people walking their dogs and playing with their children. It’s been such a hard time for everyone, in so many different ways.
On the way round, I spot the crossbar from at least three football goals. I wonder if people swing on them and they collapse?
The pyracantha berries on the big hedge look to be well-nibbled, and I wonder if it’s the redwings.
There is a small group of black-headed gulls – the ‘black’ mark behind the ear of this one is gradually getting bigger. Soon it will have a fine chocolate-brown hood, and summer will be here, and this gull will probably be much further north. Over two million black-headed gulls overwinter in the south of the UK, so they aren’t rare, but they are elegant, and noisy!
I have a look at ‘my’ wildflower border. Not much to tell at this time of year, except for some impressive burrs and the new leaves of the lambs-ear.
Oh, and the fennel seedheads.
I almost walk past the Japanese knotweed, though I do like the mixture of browns and tans that the dead stalks make at this time of year.
But then I spot this.
I thought that it was some kind of man-made object, but when I waded through the stems to get a closer look, I was fairly convinced that it is in fact a bird’s nest. It’s attached to the stalks by a filigree of plant stems. What bird made it I’m unsure, let me know if you have any thoughts. I did wonder about long-tailed tits, but then they tend to be mossy rather than grassy. At any rate, it proves that Japanese knotweed is at least good for something – I doubt that anything could have reached the nestlings while the plant was in full leaf. And what fun to find a nest! Considering how many birds nest every year, they do a fine job of keeping the locations pretty secret.
Dear Readers, I often get a glimpse of a fox in the cemetery, but today we had quite a long encounter with this vixen. She looks in fabulous condition, and was cheerfully trotting around the area at the entrance to the cemetery, sniffing at twigs and occasionally squatting to scent-mark. However, when I got home and looked at the photos properly, it’s clear that she’s had a close encounter with something very recently.
My guess would be that she’s narrowly avoided being run over by a car, poor thing. However, the fact that she’s still alert and moving normally makes me think that it’s probably just a flesh wound. I do hope so. She looks a bit thick around the midriff to me, so it may be that she’s pregnant (or just well-fed, which is another good sign). The main road that surrounds the cemetery is a death trap as the young foxes try to disperse, but fingers crossed that this one will be ok. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that foxes are extraordinarily resilient creatures, and seem to bounce back from things that would fell a human.
I know that people are still feeding the foxes in the cemetery, so she’s in a good place at any rate, and the cemetery security guys have a soft spot for all the wildlife, so they’ll keep an eye on her.
As we walk on, I have a quick look at the swamp cypress to see if it’s getting any spring growth yet. Not much yet, but these things happen very gradually, and I’m sure this cold snap will have put everything back a bit. Next week the temperature is supposed to be up to 59 degrees Fahrenheit at the weekend, which will feel positively spring-like. I’d bet my bottom dollar that it will bring the frogs in my garden out.
Nothing very exciting happening on the swamp cypress
I spotted a rather exciting new grave today, simply by taking a quick detour to the left instead of the right. The memorial is for Francisco ‘Frank’ Manzi, born in 1913 and died in 1962. He was the chairman of the Amusement Trades Association, and appears to have been married to Elizabeth Paolozzi, but only for three months in 1934. Therein hangs a tale, I’m sure. And I couldn’t find any indication of who sculpted the memorial, which is really rather remarkable.
As we took the perimeter path around the edge of the cemetery, closest to the North Circular Road, I noticed that some of the twigs were absolutely covered in lichen. Then I remembered an LNHS talk by Jeff Duckett about the flora of Hampstead Heath, in which he noted that there are lichen which actually thrive on the nitrous oxide from car exhausts. I wonder if this species is one of them? It certainly loves this area, and I haven’t noticed it in anything like as much profusion anywhere else in the cemetery. I have a feeling that this might be golden shield lichen, and if so it’s known to love nitrogen – it’s often found in areas where there are lots of bird droppings which are rich in ammonia. Who knew that being a nature detective could be so much fun?
Someone has put up a little bird house next to Randall’s Path in the cemetery, and I was delighted to see a pair of robins checking it out. In fact, in even more exciting news (for me anyway) I saw a pair of blue tits checking out the bird houses that I’d put up for sparrows last year. They might not meet with the approval of the prospective tenants, but it’s the first interest that anyone’s shown in almost two years, so at least my hopes are raised a little.
I loved this statue too, swathed in ivy and holding artificial flowers.
And also this modern cross, with the red stems of dogwood glowing behind.
The snow has almost gone in some places, but is clinging on in others. The places where it remains are the least trodden, and so the most interesting.
And finally, four graves that caught my eye today. The first is of Thomas Hollyman Nicholls, a despatch rider for the Royal Engineers, who served in the First World War and who finally passed away in 1930 as a result of his war service. I have found some information about his war record, and it seems that he was discharged with heart and lung trouble, caused by being gassed at Ypres. Poor man.
The second is this one, with its beautifully carved anchor and chain. Walter Hugh Price was in charge of a motor boat during the raids on Zeebruge and Ostend, a campaign that ended up costing 200 British lives. However, it wasn’t enemy fire that killed him: according to an article on the history of Friern Barnet (where Price lived), he caught a cold during the raid which turned into something worse, and he actually died on a hospital ship in Dover harbour.
Thirdly, there’s another anchor, this one broken by frost and time. Robert Samuel Nodes was Chief Officer on board HMS Vesuvio when she was torpedoed in 1914. On his pension card, his death in 1916 is described as being due to ‘shock caused by explosion on ship’. In the War Graves records, his death is said to have been caused by ‘acute laryngitis’. On his grave, it says, more explicitly, ‘shell shock’, though I wonder if, at this point, it refers to what we now think of as shell shock (i.e a mental breakdown), or if it means the physical effects of being caught in a confined space when there’s an explosion. Whichever it is, Robert Samuel Nodes died at 27 years old.
And finally, I found the austerity of this grave, with its broken column, rather affecting. John Stuart Alexander was born in Alnwick in Northumberland, and was married to Maria, who was from Scotland. He seems to have been a secretary in a private company, and the 1881 census finds them living in Barnsbury, Islington, at 52 Mildmay Grove. They shared the house with their son, Stuart, who worked as a commercial clerk, and their servant, Mary. John was only 53 years old at this point, and I imagine that dying was the last thing on his mind. However, he did at least leave his widow and son well provisioned: probate records show that he left an estate of £2417 0s 7d, which would have been a sizeable amount in those days. And could there be a better epitaph?
‘He was one of the best of husbands, and the kindest of fathers’.
Dear Readers, what a cold and windy day it was today, made rather worse by my not getting to sleep until 3 a.m. Usually I haven’t been sleeping badly during the lockdown, but on some nights my brain starts racing and won’t stop, and this was one of those nights. Plus in the rush to get out of the door I forgot my trusty hat, so the icy wind seemed to get into the deepest interstices of my ears. Harrumph! It’s fair to say that I wasn’t in the best of moods.
However, there’s always something to see in the cemetery, even though on some days you have to dig deeper than others.
I noticed this angel, with fist raised and trumpet. I would love to see the cemetery through the eyes of someone who didn’t share our iconography. What on earth would they think of all these winged figures, I wonder?
And I found myself completely fascinated by, of all things, the bark on the ash trees. As I’ve mentioned before, there are ash springing up all over the cemetery, and they are by far the most numerous tree, although it’s the stately Victorian plantings that get most of the attention.
On the younger saplings, the bark is smooth and pretty much without blemish.
However, according to The Science Photo Library, the smooth bark of the ash tree is also less acidic than that of many other common forest trees, which encourages the growth of lichens. The pH of the bark also offsets some of the effects of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, making them more amenable to the lichens and to fungi. In fact, 536 different species of lichen have been found on ash trees, and ash dieback will put them in danger too.
My guess is that the lichen is black apothecia (Arthonia) though I am no expert. Some trees also have a marked rusty tone (as this one does), which could be another lichen called pale orange apothecia (Leconora). I shall have to come back with a hand lens and have a proper look. ‘Apothecia’ relates to the cup-shaped fruiting bodies of the lichen.
Marked orange staining on this ash tree.
Ash trees often develop huge scars on their trunks as they get older. My Collins Tree Guide refers to these as ‘erupting black cankers’ that ‘disfigure many trees’. That might be so, but the trees largely seem unperturbed by these scabs.
And having referred to the stately Victorian planting, I rather liked this fine tree, which could not be more conical if it tried. It could be a Western Red Cedar or it could be a Leylandii (which I just discovered is a hybrid between a Western Red Cedar and a Monterey Pine). It just goes to show that even the much maligned Leylandii (if that’s what it is) is fine in the right place. It’s just not a good idea to create a suburban hedge out of it without being prepared to do a lot of trimming.
And here is a fine Scots Pine, which must have looked even more magnificent without the current backdrop of other trees. Now I look at the photo though, do I see the outline of what was once a holly hedge to the left of the tree? In my cemetery guide, it says that it seems that the custodians of the cemetery were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place (at 185 acres it’s the second largest cemetery in London), and seem to have decided largely to keep the more recent areas neat and tidy, letting the rest of it grow wild. Long may it continue!
And here is some more forest statuary – the lady seems to be clasping a palm branch, but I’m not quite sure what the object is to the left. An urn, possibly?
And finally, as we leave, my husband decides to go into the War Graves Cemetery for a quick look. I, however, am distracted (as always), this time by this stump.
Just look at the fine array of bracket fungi that are breaking down what remains of the tree!
I am thinking that the fungus is a variety of forms of the ubiquitous turkeytail (Trametes versicolor) but I’m no expert. I was just very taken by the way that the stump was providing sustenance even as it disappeared. Some red deadnettle was just coming into flower in the shelter of its roots.
I’m guessing that the tree was cut down because of some kind of fungal disease – even the main branches have been cross-hatched with an axe, and even they are providing a home for moss.
And so, feeling slightly less tired and with my head full of questions about lichens and fungi, I head for home. And by the time you read this it will be February! The cemetery is full of singing robins and squabbling blackbirds. Spring is on the way, readers.