Wildflowers and wild animals – a spring saunter through West Norwood Cemetery

A lovely display of tulips along path.
©Carole Tyrrell

Nature has decided to burst forth now that the sun’s out and suddenly everything’s out at once.     West Norwood Cemetery basked in a warm glow and its two terracotta mausoleums; the Doulton and the Tate,  seemed to be glowing.  I walked along the path from the entrance towards Ship Path and realised again how beautiful a cemetery can be in spring as new life appears amongst death.

I admired the groups of brightly coloured red and yellow tulips as they gracefully lifted their cups to the sun as in homage and a perennial Spring flower, garlic mustard, clustered around the base of a hedge around a memorial.  I’ve seen plenty of it already this year and wondered if it was an omen of future weather.

A queen wasp flew indecisively above one group of primroses as if unable to choose which one to land on and so evaded my camera. A Queen wasp is one of the 7 signs of Spring as they awake from their winter slumber. Multi-coloured carpets of primroses were everywhere between monuments and memorials and butterflies were on the wing obeying the imperative being to mate.

Orange Tips, Holly Blues and the odd Brimstone, the first butterflies of the year, impressed me with their speed and acrobatics.   One Holly Blue dived under a spreading rug of plants that covered last year’s forgotten or discarded horse chestnuts and dead leaves.    There has been a lot of clearing going on in West Norwood and it was like rediscovering it again as I found memorials and monuments that I had never previously seen as they’d been hidden under ivy, brambles and other vegetation. The clearances have made it much easier to get to the back of Captain Wimble’s exuberant and magnificent tomb to admire the still crisp carving of one the ships on which he sailed. But more about him and his indomitable wife in a later posting.  It is the reason that the grass path that runs past it is named, strangely enough, Ship Path.

Captain Wimble’s magnificent tomb – you’d never guess that he was a nautical man would you? It’s a shame that the stone model of a ship has lost its mast but there are carvings of 3 of the ships in which he sailed around the monument’s sides.
©Carole Tyrrell

In one clearing two drifts of wood anemones stood proud and nearby was a large patch of lesser celandine – another Spring time flower.  I’ve also seen so much of it this year and again is it an omen of a hard winter to come or a hot summer….

Another view of the wood anemones as they looked so impressive against the background of dead leaves.
©Carole Tyrrell

A flash of russet behind a group of headstones caught my attention and I saw an adult fox selecting a good place in a patch of foliage as his mattress in which to have an afternoon kip. After he tucked himself in he then spotted me and got to his paws and limped off with difficulty.  He appeared to have a bad problem with one of his front paws and I felt guilty for having disturbed him.

There is a part of West Norwood Cemetery which backs onto a small row of houses and so the occupants household pets, cats,  come into explore.  There’s often a good selection of them on a sunny afternoon; using the cemetery as an extension of their garden while checking each other out, going on the hunt or as their playground.  After having disturbed the fox, I caught sight of a fluffy back and white cat on his rounds trotting along a grass path.  I tried to keep a discreet distance as he passed Mrs Beeton’s modest memorial and the top of Ship Path.  However, as I galumped along, he began to pick up speed.  He trotted, more quickly now, across the main path in front of the catacombs and then leapt gracefully onto the wall above them. He looked back as if to say ‘Too late!’ and then vanished over it.

Nervous cat by railings – I tried not to come too close.
©Carole Tyrrell

A grey cat near the houses was quite timid and I didn’t want to come too close and frighten him away completely. I took a couple of photos from as close as I dared and moved on.

So many dandelions this year and there was a fine spread of them in between memorials. After all the recent murky weather it was encouraging to see their bright splashes of colour.

Bluebells, at their most effective when in great drifts in woodland, were clinging together in a patch opposite the crematorium.  It was just as if Mother Nature had brought everything into bloom at the same time instead of one after the other.

As I ate my lunch whilst admiring the crimson blossom on a tree nearby I could hear an old lawnmower in the distance.    As I got up and came around to explore another large cleared area I saw a descendant of the Doulton family mowing the grass around the mausoleum.  Terracotta always looks at its best in the sunshine and today it looked almost on fire.


A small statue of a praying child was almost being enveloped by lesser celandine and there’s been plenty of it everywhere I went this year,

Child angel statue surrounded by copious lesser celandine – it’s been everywhere this Spring – a hard winter or a good summer? We shall see.
©Carole Tyrrell

I descended from the columbarium admiring the speed of butterflies as they whizzed around tantalizingly out of reach of my camera.  It was then that I encountered the fox again. He lay draped over a grave like a fur stole and raised his head as I passed.

The fox again! Still trying to have an afternoon nap.
©Carole Tyrrell

A cuckoo flower was half hidden in the long grass near another glorious display of brilliantly coloured tulips.

As I walked I thought how lucky I was in to be in this oasis with the busy world kept at bay outside its magnificent Gothic gates.    I passed the Stonehenge inspired monument to John Britton which still looks as if it’s just landed from the opening scenes of 2001 and then to one of my favourite memorials in West Norwood or maybe any cemetery.

It’s a real gem and is the unashamedly Art Nouveau headstone dedicated to Amelia McKeown.  Its modest size and poignant dedication have always impressed me and the primroses beneath it emphasised its deep blue colouring.  This had been a chance discovery a few years ago when the main entrance had been closed for building works and visitors had had to enter via a side gate. Sometimes the road less travelled can bring the unexpected to your notice.

As I left the cemetery, feeling that I’d had almost a Spring walk in the countryside with some attractive monuments, I noticed the Unknown Mourner still grieving in a rose garden.  The elderly lawnmower and the sparse cars of visitors were behind me and I was back out onto the slow moving traffic of Knights Hill and Norwood High Street again. I nearly turned round and went back in again…….


©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell


The Terracotta Trio – The Doulton mausolea of West Norwood and Nunhead – Part 3 The Stearns Mausoleum, Nunhead

View of the Stearns mausoleum - note stepped roof and water spouts. copyright Carole Tyrrell
View of the Stearns mausoleum – note stepped roof and water spouts.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is the last of the trio and, in contrast to the ones in West Norwood, wasn’t designed by Harold Peto.  He had left Peto  and Geoge by then and it has been suggested that the building was actually designed by an anonymous assistant who worked from previously rejected designs.  It’s very different from the other two, both in style and decoration.   It was built in 1901 to house the coffin of Mrs Laura Stearns.   She died in 1900 and came from Twickenham.  William Chillingworth, her father, is buried next to her in his own vault.

He was a wine merchant and they owned Radnor House in Twickenham.  It was known as Pope’s House as it was built on the site of Alexander Pope’s original house.  It no longer exists as it was demolished in 1940 after being hit by a bomb.  There seems to be no mention of a Mr Stearns.  In the 1930’s Mrs Stearns’ coffin was removed from the mausoleum by her relatives and interred behind it.

The interior was never finished which is why it is so plain.  However, 20 years later, an anonymous builder glazed it with bland tiles.  There are two simple, unadorned stone coffin shelves set into each of the side walls.  A trefoil shaped window on the back wall lets light in as the side windows are blocked up.

The mausoleum is decorated in the Romanesque style.  This is an architectural style of medieval Europe which possibly dates from the 10th century and was characterised by the use of semi-circular arches. It was used extensively throughout Europe and in Britain is referred to as Norman Architecture.  The word ‘Romanesque’ originally means descended from Roman and most surviving examples are on churches.

It is also characterised  by its use of columns and, on the Stearns vault, we can see that the two small ones on either side of the entrance are carved with birds etc in a medieval style.   The carvings are very tactile and I can never walk past within wanting to touch them.  The side window columns are also patterned but not as beautifully as the entrance ones. Romanesque was also a highly decorative style as can be seen from the arched bands of stylised leaves over the entrance.

Close-up of Romanesque semi arch over entrance with stylised leaves. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Close-up of Romanesque semi arch over entrance with stylised leaves.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The 19th century saw a Revival of Romanesque although it was decried by some writers as ‘barbaric ornament.’    The Natural History Museum in London is highly decorated in Romanesque Revival style and is well worth seeing.

It’s the only surviving mausoleum within Nunhead Cemetery and, although a tree tried to grow through it while the cemetery was abandoned, it’s still in good condition.  When I first visited Nunhead in 1989, it was rumoured that the only person who now rested within the mausoleum was a passing tramp.  It now has a wrought iron gate to protect it.


Nunhead Cemetery, An Illustrated Guide by The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery . 1988, FONC Publications, London




The terracotta trio are all so different and unique and  all three are Grade Ii listed and although, in comparison to other mausoleums such as  Highgate’s Beer vault and Hannah Portnoy’s vast Egyptian Revival sepulchre in Brompton, they are relatively modest.  However, I feel that  they deserve their own special place in 19th century English funerary architecture..

©Carole Tyrrell Text and photos unless otherwise stated.