Wildlife in Cemeteries No 8 – the dark side of the Snowdrop

As we are still in lockdown, I thought that I would repost an earlier blog about a flower that is traditionally associated with cemeteries and churchyards. This is the time of year when they start to  make a welcome appearance as signs of Spring and this year, especially, I think that we need to know that better days are coming.

Snowdrops in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Snowdrops, Brompton Cemetery, January 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

 

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.‘

Snowdrops, St George’s Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

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…..

 

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated

References:

http://www.plantlore.com

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/naturestudies/bright-in-winters-depths-why-the-flawless-flower-of-candlemas-is-ajoy-forever-8483967

http://www.flowermeaning.com/snowdrop-flower-meaning

http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/mysnowdropmagicpage.html

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2014/03/natures-death-tokens/

 

 

 

 

Advertisement

A pre-Coronavirus Spring Saunter though Kent churchyards – St Mildred’s and St John the Evangelist, Meopham, Kent

St Mildred’s Meopham
©Carole Tyrrell

The church in the field – St Mildred’s

The cawing of rooks in the bare trees kept me company as I walked towards St Mildred’s in Nurfield, just outside Meopham. It was a dark, wet, overcast day and St Mildred’s huddled surrounded by fields at the end of Church Lane. In fact, it’s known as ‘The Little Church in the Field’.

Kent has many of these picturesque churches and I hoped to discover more symbols or interesting headstones in the churchyard.  Coronavirus was snapping at my heels and I knew that all churches would soon be closed.

On the horizon of one field outside the churchyard I could see the bright yellow traces of a future rapeseed crop but the other field, alongside it, was still ploughed earth.  The bare trees tried to stretch up to the sky on the other side of it. I’ve always loved these in winter as you can really see the shape of the tree and the delicate pattern of branches and twigs.

St Mildred’s was closed but the church door was protected, or hidden, by four tall yew tree sentinels. A pot of purple pansies beside it were a splash of colour on such a grey day.

Pansies by church door of St Mildred’s, Meopham
©Carole Tyrrell

Despite the damp weather there were large patches of Spring flowers; Violets, both purple and white covered parts of the churchyard, together with smaller groups of Lesser Celandine which is one of the seven signs of Spring. Daffodils shuddered in the wind and a group of them huddled together for warmth by headstones.  But I was determined and found the symbol of a closed book on one grave to a man who had died young. The oldest headstone was now unreadable and was decorated with tiny pom-pom shapes of a lichen.  An imposing Celtic Cross was dedicated to a priest. The bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine had closed themselves up and who could blame them? Primroses kept their heads down but in one corner of the churchyard there were indications of living residents.  These were of the four legged kind who had dug deep holes and left pungent evidence…..

Nurstead was described 700 years ago as ‘a poor little parish with a church.’  St Mildred’s was originally a Saxon church and made of wood. The current flint structure dates from the 14th century and the guide leaflet says ’that together with the 14th century hall of nearby Nurstead Court it is the only surviving part of the Manor as it existed in 1349.’

Meopham town sign featuring St John the Evangelist church.
©Carole Tyrrell

Meopham is pronounced Meppham and it’s more of a hamlet than a village.  But it does possess another, larger church at the other end of it.  This is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and appears on the village green town sign. St John’s was open and I gratefully sheltered inside glad of the respite from the weather.

The church on the sign – St John the Evangelist

Inside it was peaceful and St Johns had some interesting features. There was a very decorative wooden pulpit attributed to Grinling Gibbons and dated 1632 and the colourful and beautiful tiles decorating the chancel. They were uncredited in the guidebook. There was also a window containing fragments of medieval glass which have been dated to 1346.   Curling hazel branches had been placed on windowsills and I wondered if it was in honour of Branch Sunday. Outside in the churchyard I explored and my shoes soon became soaking wet. A bonfire had been lit  in an adjoining garden and the combination of that and the gloomy weather made it feel more like November. The Millais painting, ‘Autumn Leaves’, with its melancholy atmosphere sprang to mind.  A patch of primroses cuddled up to each other in a drift of fallen leaves and the Lesser Celandine flowers had closed themselves in response to the rain. A lone dog violet stood in defiantly in the middle of them. It was time to go home.

But when I returned two days on the Saturday it was under sunny blue skies.  St Mildred’s was now open and despite the wind that made the daffodils blow this way and that I noticed that the Spring flowers seemed to have colour again.  The crisp white blossom of blackthorn foamed in one corner as did the Wild Cherry blossom on the other side of the churchyard. Late snowdrops nodded in the wind as I entered the church. The interior was very plain and simple with large ledger stones providing the nave flooring.   The bare fields now looked as if they were impatiently waiting for the forthcoming crop to burst forth. I had hoped to see a March hare but no such luck. The headstones were bathed in the golden glow of the sun and the bright flowers of Lesser Celandine lifted their heads upwards and basked.

These were dedicated to past residents, the Edmeades, of nearby Nurstead Court, and dated back to the 17th century. They are actually buried in the vaults beneath the stones. A squint could be seen in the West Tower and the slow, regular ticking of the church clock was the only sound. St Mildred and her stag featured in the window above the altar and an ancient piscina was decorated with wheat ears and grapes. A reference to a farming community?  The wind howled round the little church as it had done for centuries, as if trying one last time to blow it down, but it still stood.

In contrast St Johns was closed but the bright sunshine revealed several headstones that I had missed.  I’m not quite sure what this figure represents but he does seem to be pointing to the small skull in the corner.

This is on the headstone dedicated to

‘Hannah, wife of Joseph Munn the elder Feb 15th 1715 in either the 34 or 54 year of her age.’

Mr Munn is buried beside in a separate grave with his second wife but not with such an intriguing symbol.

Also this naive head or skull on one headstone.

A Naive skull on a headstone, St John’s, .Meopham
©Carole Tyrrell

 

The sticky buds on a venerable Horse Chestnut tree at the entrance reminded me that despite the horrible weather we’ve had over the last couple of months Mother Nature was just getting on with it as she studded and carpeted churchyards with the bright colours of Spring flowers and blossom.

Sadly, my poking about in churchyards has had to be put on hold this Spring due to the virus. However I did manage to visit two Kent churches just before the lockdown and I will blog about this on a future post. One churchyard was awash with symbols!

I hope that you are keeping well and safe during these strange times.  Life has taken on a surreal quality for some of us as others, keyworkers, keep things going and risk their lives.  Will things return to normal  afterwards or will we not take so much for granted again? Who knows.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

https://kentarchaeology.org.uk/

Guide Leaflet, St Mildred’s church

What I did over the summer and what is to come……

St Peter & St Paul churchyard Seal Kentt. A magnificent view of the North Downs from the back of the church.
©Carole Tyrrell

Dear readers

It has been an eventful summer for me, to say the least. I moved house again for various reasons and now live in Rochester, Kent.  For those of you that don’t know it, it’s a town associated with Charles Dickens and is on the banks of the River Medway.

But I have also been busy researching 18th century memento mori’s in Kent churchyards, both around Sevenoaks and Rochester. It was quite surprising to see the differences in carvings from church to church and parish to parish.  They started out as naïve, almost crude, motifs and then professional stonemasons became involved.  In the churchyard of St Peter & St Paul church in Tonbridge there were still 2 tombstones dating back to medieval times. A blog post on my research, or I prefer to call it, poking about in churches and churchyards, is forthcoming as is Symbol of the Month amongst others.

So although shadowsflyaway has been quiet over August I’ve been gearing up for the autumn.

To whet your appetite for the Memento mori post here is one from the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul in Seal, Kent which is almost like a piece of Folk Art in my opinion…

Memento Mori, St Peter & St Paul, Seal, Kent. I think it’s almost like folk art.
©Carole Tyrrell

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Names from the Necropolis – No 1 in an occasional series.

 

The Bellchambers headstone, St Mary’s, churchyard, Rverhead, Kent
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Pottering about cemeteries, burial grounds and graveyards as I do while undertaking research can often lead to  unexpected discoveries.  As  I search for symbols and epitaphs, and the occasional wildlife, I often find unusual names recorded on headstones and memorials,  They’re often names that you don’t see every day and so, if you’re a writer like myself, cemeteries can often provide inspiration for naming characters especially if it’s a historical piece.

So here is a small selection from St Mary’s churchyard, Riverhead, near Sevenoaks, Kent that I saw earlier in February 2019 on a lovely Spring like day, Crocuses and snowdrops clustered around the headstones and seeing a name like Mercy Bellchambers on a headstone felt really appropriate.  Now that’s a name really crying out to be used in a historical novel…..

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 8 – the dark side of the Snowdrop

Snowdrops in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Snowdrops, Brompton Cemetery, January 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

 

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.‘

Snowdrops, St George’s Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

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…..

 

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated

References:

http://www.plantlore.com

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/naturestudies/bright-in-winters-depths-why-the-flawless-flower-of-candlemas-is-ajoy-forever-8483967

http://www.flowermeaning.com/snowdrop-flower-meaning

http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/mysnowdropmagicpage.html

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2014/03/natures-death-tokens/

 

 

 

 

Wildlife in cemeteries No 7 – dragonflies and damselflies

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.

Southern Hawker on yew, St George’s churchyard Beckenham August 2017
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Male Emperor, Kensal Green cemetery July 2017
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Damselfiles ovipositing (laying eggs) Beckenham cemetery June 2017
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Male Southern Hawker on tombstone, St George’s churchyard, Beckenham August 2017
©Carole Tyrrell

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?

Common Darter on pink granite monument, St George’s churchyard Beckenham August 2017
©Carole Tyrrell

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!

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell