Imagine yourself in a gloomy medieval church on the festival of Candlemass. You, and your fellow parishioners, have each brought your candles to be blessed by the priest and, after the procession which will fill the church with light, they will all be placed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Candlemass marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring and the blessing is to ward off evil spirits. It traditionally falls on February 2 and is shared with the Celtic festival of Imbolc. And in the churchyard outside you can see green shoots forcing their way up through the hard winter earth. The snowdrop’s milk-white flowers show that spring is on its way as they begin to emerge into the light.
The placing of the lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary’s statue gave the snowdrop one of its many other names – Mary’s Tapers. But there are many others such: Dingle Dangle, Candlemas Bells, Fair Maids of February, Snow Piercer, Death’s Flower and Corpse Flower.
The snowdrop’s appearance has also inspired many comments . According to the Scottish Wildlife Trusts website they have been described as resembling 3 drops of milk hanging from a stem and they are also associated with the ear drop which is an old fashioned ear ring. Anyone who has seen a group of snowdrops nodding in the wind will understand what they mean. The snowdrop’s colour is associated with purity and they have been described as a shy flower with their drooping flowers. However, the eco enchantments website reveals that the flower is designed in this way due:
‘to the necessity of their dusty pollen being kept dry and sweet in order to attract the few insects flying in winter.’
Snowdrops have been known since ancient times and, in 1597, appeared in Geralde’s ‘Great Herbal where they were called by the less than catchy name of ‘Timely Flowers Bulbous Violets’. Its Latin name is Galanthus nivalis. Galanthus means milk white flowers and the nivalis element translates as snowy according to the great botanist, Linnaeus in 1753. In the language of flowers they’re associated with ‘Hope’ and the coming of spring and life reawakening.
However, yet despite all these positive associations, the elegant snowdrop has a much darker side. Monks were reputed to have brought them to the UK but it was the ever enthusiastic Victorians who copiously planted them in graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries which then linked them with death. Hence the nickname name ‘Death’s Flower.’
They were described by Margaret Baker in the 1903 ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult of the World’ as:
‘so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some counties the people will not have it in the house, lest they bring in death.‘
So that’s where the ‘Corpse Flower’ nickname came from.
Snowdrops are also seen as Death’s Tokens and there are several regional folk traditions of connecting death with them. For example in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered very unlucky to bring the flower into the house from outside as it was felt that a death would soon occur. The most unlucky snowdrop was that with a single bloom on its stem. Other folk traditions were described in a 1913 folklore handbook which claims that if a snowdrop was brought indoors it will make the cows milk watery and affect the colour of the butter. Even as late as 1969 in ‘The Folklore of Plants’ it was stated that having a snowdrop indoors could affect the number of eggs that a sitting chicken might hatch. A very powerful plant if these are all to be believed – you have been warned!
It’s amazing that this little flower has so many associations and legends connected with it but I always see it as a harbinger of spring, rebirth and an indication of warmer days to come.
But the snowdrop also has a surprise. This came courtesy of the Urban Countryman page on Facebook – not all social media is time wasting! If you very gently turn over a snowdrop bloom you will find that the underside is even prettier and they also vary depending on the snowdrop variety.
Here is a small selection from my local churchyard and one from Kensal Green cemetery.
So don’t underestimate the snowdrop – it’s a plant associated with life and death but watch out for your hens and the colour of your butter if you do decide to tempt fate…..
With gossamer wings which turn into tiny rainbows under the sun’s rays as they pose on trees and tombstones and incredible acrobatic flying displays dragonflies and damselflies are regular visitors to my local churchyard. And 2017 has been an incredible year for spotting them.
I don’t think that a chucrwarden in St George’s, Beckenham, believed me when, in 2016, she found me trying to capture a Southern Hawker which was conveniently posing on a lofty yew branch.. But this year, I have seen so many in there that it did become a regular part of my day to walk through and look for them.
I would watch in amazement at their aerodynamics and speed as their 4 wings whirled furiously like helicopter blades as they flew at speed. However, they would also fly at a more leisurely pace around and around before, tantalisingly, they would veer off into the foliage of trees to vanish from sight. It would often be the bigger dragonflies such as Southern Hawkers that I would see on the wing but also as the summer moved on, Common Darters began to appear.
Often a dragonfly would obligingly land on a tombstone or lower branch and I noticed that they were particularly attracted to evergreens such as yews. This might account for their attraction to cemeteries and graveyards.
Here’s a selection of my favourite images of dragonflies and damselflies from both cemeteries and churchyards:
This is a Southern Hawker from 2016 and was seen it in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham.
This is a male Emperor from Kensal Green cemetery, London in July 2017. I spotted him/her flying around above The Meadow section which is left uncut around the monuments and tombstones during the summer to encourage wildlife such as butterflies, In some parts it’s very damp underfoot hence the dragonfly I thought. It evaded my attempts to photograph it until, near the entrance as I was leaving, it landed temporarily on an ivy clad monument.
These are two damselflies from Beckenham Cemetery’s Garden of Remembrance pool from July 2017. From July –August it is a magnet for red and azure damselflies. They look almost like tiny, coloured sticks floating on the breeze and I caught these two ovipositing i.e. laying eggs. The upright one is laying the eggs and the other is holding it steady.
Again from St George’s but from 2017, I waited patiently until this beautiful male Southern Hawker landed and helpfully rested on a tombstone. It stayed there for a few minutes until it got fed up and flew off again.
This is a Common Darter and I saw several over the summer this year in the churchyard. For some reason they were particularly attracted to the pink granite monuments – a cool surface on a hot summer’s day?
I enjoy looking out for them and on one occasion last year the angle at which the dragonfly was perched on a yew branch and the way in which the sun shone through its wings made them look as if they were made from burnished copper.
So do look up when you’re next visiting a cemetery or churchyard on a warm summer’s day and you might be surprised. I’m looking forward to what the summer of 2018 might bring already!
Summer is when you can really appreciate the wild corners and places within cemeteries. Often spaces between tombstones and monuments will be left unmown or unscythed which allows grasses to grow tall. The rapidly expanding bramble stands are good hiding places for foxes to hide in or use to travel between. Already ripe, plump blackberries are dessert for hungry birds and jam makers.
Wildflowers begin to stud the grass and undergrowth with bright dots of colour as they bud and begin to flower under the summer sun’s rays. These create dazzling combinations of colour as they grow together. At Kensal Green one area near the closed catacomb terrace is designated as a meadow. I stood inside it in early July of this year, almost waist high in grass and flowers, surrounded by flitting butterflies and day flying moths, leaping grasshoppers and even a large blue Emperor dragonfly. The latter was a complete surprise. There was even a pair of courting Small White butterflies as well. I just felt so happy to be there with the sun on my face and nature getting on with itself regardless of me.
Ragwort, a bright yellow plant which is rampant at the moment, divides opinion in some quarters. It has been described as a weed and a wildflower. Butterflies love it but it’s poisonous to cattle and horses. I counted 8 Gatekeepers on one Ragwort flower head munching away quite contentedly. The cemeteries that I explored teamed with wildlife and sometimes unusual or uncommon specimens.
I am a Citizen Scientist (not the most catchiest of titles I must admit and it sounds somewhat po-faced)which means that I go about recording wildlife and what I see on my urban ramblings for various websites including irecord and the LondonButterflyProject. Cemeteries are highly recommended by the latter organisation as great places in which to find butterflies and now, I go to a cemetery or graveyard first, in order to do my count.
So here’s a gallery of what you might find on a sunny afternoon wander through a marble orchard.
NB: Be careful and take care if walking through or exploring areas of long grass and wildflowers as monuments can be camouflaged by them. So wear appropriate footwear – not flips-flops – and watch out for kerbstones and the edges of graves so that you don’t trip over them. Also, due to subsidence monuments can also be at odd angles so again take care.
On a recent visit to Brompton Cemetery to research animals on memorials my companion and I decided to explore a side path to find examples. On a corner where it met another side path we suddenly saw a very large gathering of crows perched on various tombstones, graves and memorials. There were so many that passers-by were stopping to look and take photos. My photo doesn’t do the scene justice as I couldn’t fit all the crows that were actually there in the picture.
Brompton’s crows have always been known for their photogenic and obliging qualities by posing on a nearby tombstone in suitably Gothic fashion but I’ve never seen that many gathered together in one place.
A group of crows is known as ‘a murder of crows’ and it only takes 2 crows to make one of these.
The phrase however, appears to date from the late Middle Ages and comes from the Book of Saint Albans or The Book of Hawking, Hunting and Blasing of Arms, which was published in 1486. This is a compendium of items for gentlemen of the time and had an appendix which consisted of a large list of collective nouns for animals. These were known as ‘company terms’ or the’ terms of hunting’. These include familiar ones such as ‘a gaggle of geese’ amongst other colourful and poetic names such as ‘a skulk of foxes’ or ‘an ostentation of peacocks’. There were also collective nouns for various professions such as ‘a melody of harpers’ etc. The ones that have survived to this day derive from this book include ‘a subtlety of sergeants’ and also ‘a murder of crows’. A crow gathering has often been the subject of folk tales and superstition and amongst these is the claim that crows will gather and decide the fate of another crow.
There are also other traditions, which considering that this was happening within a large London cemetery, are worth quoting ,
‘Many view the appearance of crows as an omen of death because ravens and crows are scavengers and are generally associated with dead bodies, battlefields, and cemeteries, and they’re thought to circle in large numbers above sites where animals or people are expected to soon die.’
Romain Bouchard, Etymology nerd
However, there are birdwatchers who insist that a group of crows should be known as a flock of crows and not a ‘murder’ so the jury’s out on that term.
A Facebook friend identified some of the crows as juveniles by the white patches on their breasts who may have just left the nest and are with their parents. The adults will defend their youngsters very aggressively. Crows are very social, live in tight knit families and they mate for life. They can roost in huge numbers of up to 1000+ as protection from other predators. Crows are also highly intelligent and have a repertoire of at least 250 different calls. A distress call will bring other crows to their aid as crows will defend other unrelated crows. A crow’s black plumage have led to them being associated with death and they are members of the Corvidae family which includes magpies and ravens. They are predators and scavengers and will eat virtually anything including roadkill, snakes, mice, eggs and nestlings of other birds amongst other delicacies. I often see crows inspecting the contents of large waste bins at supermarkets or communal litter bins and have seen them take young ducklings in a flash.
A couple of minutes after I took this photo the entire gathering took flight and scattered and I felt very privileged to have seen it at all.
Now that the spring equinox has arrived and winter seems to be coming to an end this is a good time to be visiting cemeteries. The vegetation will have died back and you can often find little gems which would normally be covered by undergrowth.
But cemeteries also attract many spring flowers as I discovered when I went to photograph Dr James Barry’s tombstone in Kensal Green cemetery recently. It was a March day and was initially overcast. But eventually the sun decided to make an appearance despite the slight nip in the air.
As I walked up the main avenue to the Anglican Chapel I noticed that in some areas the large swathes of flowers almost flowed like a colourful carpet between the graves and memorials. The backdrop of grey granite, pensive angels, crosses, Turkish men and many others emphasised their bright colours. Yellows, pinks, blues, whites and purples: they were all reminders that life goes on. Some graves were an absolute riot of nodding flower heads as the breeze made them move.
Snowdrops are often seen in churchyards. They are traditionally associated with Candlemas Day on February 2 and are often known as ‘the passing of sorrow.’ They are also called corpse flowers as the unopened bloom has been said to resemble a lifeless body in a shroud.
Here are some of the flowers that I saw, both in Kensal Green and also in my local churchyard:
A large, often quiet and deserted, cemetery or graveyard can be irresistible to an inquisitive feline. Once young Tiddles or Baphomet, depending on your taste in names or cat, has exhausted neat suburban back gardens or annoyed the neighbours sufficiently they often like to explore farther afield.
A cemetery can also attract prey such as rodents or birds and so can be a happy hunting ground. And of course it can be unrivalled as a place to hang out and just chill.
At West Norwood and Woodbury Park in Tunbridge Wells, for example, cats have only to climb through an iron railing or over a wall to gain access and the whole marble orchard is their domain.
And, if you know where to find them, the keen photographer can take some wonderful pictures. I belong to a Facebook page called appropriately enough, Cemetery Cats, and features photos of cats roaming and often posing by pensive angels, monuments, crosses, or on monuments or just generally going about their lives. Contributions are from all over the world; the UK, USA, Italy, France and Eastern Europe.
Cemeteries, and in particular large Victorian ones, often have areas which are either a designated nature reserve or just left to run wild. These are havens to insect and mini-beasts and also to the dedicated lepidopterist or butterfly fancier. On a long, warm, summer afternoon their tiny, colourful, patterned wings can be seen fluttering over their favourite foods such as the humble ragwort. No wonder a group of them are described as a kaleidoscope of butterflies.
Commas, common and holly blues, large skippers, meadow browns, red admirals, gatekeepers and, if you’re lucky, the magnificent Peacock , are all summer visitors to cemeteries.
However, an increasingly common visitor, once rare, isn’t a butterfly at all but is, instead, a day-flying moth. This is a Jersey Tiger or Euplagia quadripunctaria to give it its Latin name. Its striped upper wings, when closed, give it the appearance of an African mask. But it also has a surprise for, when in flight, it reveals its iridescent orange underwings. When the sun catches them it’s like a small jewel on the wing.
This one obligingly posed on an inscription at Brompton Cemetery’s 2015 Open Day.
A lovely Peacock butterfly in Elmers End Cemetery. When closed its wings are completely black and then open to show the beauty inside.
This is a gatekeeper roosting on its favourite food, the ragwort. Although a common butterfly and sitting on what is generally considered to be a weed it does make for an effective composition. Again from a Brompton Cemetery Open Day in 2013.
Below is a six spotted burnet – it’s dramatic red and black colouring always makes me think of it as a Goth Moth. It is very impressive when it’s on the wing and is very fast. I first saw it on an Open Day at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, in 2013. It was a warm and sunny July day and I was making my way to the open air colonnade when I saw a burnet fluttering past I have only found it at one location within the cemetery so far but I always look out for it.
This was an unusual moth to find on a damp winter’s day in Nunhead Cemetery. This is a lacewing. Its Latin name is Neuroptera and it’s not known to be as a day flying moth. It clung to the side of our gazebo for some time.
So although cemeteries are primarily to remember the dead, they can also provide a vital ecosystem as well. Next time you visit one take some time to check out the wilder areas and you might be surprised at what you find!
Although very much a controversial figure to some, the red fox or Vulpes Vulpes, its Latin name, has increasingly moved into towns and other urban areas. Like Marmite, you either love them or loathe them. I think you can guess which side I’m on.
However, as the concrete sprawl reaches out further and further their habitat grows smaller and they move into our territory as we moved into theirs.
About 10 or 15 years ago it was unusual to see foxes in towns but now it’s almost commonplace. Increased access to ready food sources such as takeaways etc mean that they know when a quick meal is easily available.
I myself have seen dozing foxes very close to railway lines and once had the privilege of seeing a vixen shepherding her little cubs, still in their dark brown coats, along a tram platform in SE London.
I saw this particular fox in a large central London Victorian cemetery over 2 weekends in October 2015. He didn’t seem to be too bothered about being in the presence of nearby humans and I managed to get up reasonably close to him.
But, on the second weekend, he did start becoming agitated about being pursued by photographers. I really felt sorry for him when a small dog started chasing him whilst barking furiously and, as he ran for shelter, hearing the dog’s owner say loudly ‘That fox is a coward’ Presumably if the fox had turned and retaliated then he would have been seen as the aggressor.
Urban nature can be very random. Earls Court was only 10 minutes walk away and the busy Kings Road a short bus ride from one of the entrance gates. To see a fox so near to the centre of London was quite a surprise.