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.