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/

 

 

 

 

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Ancient stones and new beginnings – a Spring saunter through St Nicholas churchyard, Sevenoaks

 

 

Another view of St Nicholas with a war memorial in the foreground.
©Carole Tyrrell

On my previous spring saunters I’ve wandered through two of London’s large, sprawling cemeteries; Kensal Green and West Norwood but this year I thought I’d stay nearer to home.    St Nicholas is my local church and within walking distance of my home.  It’s in a prominent position in the town as it’s at the top of the hill and  opposite the entrance to Knole Park, another local landmark.   One of its most famous Rectors was the preacher and poet, John Donne, who was in post from 1616 until 1631 and is commemorated with a metal plate on the pavement outside. Every time I visit its churchyard I find something new and at a time when Nature is beginning to awaken again what better excuse did I need?

The present building’s shape dates from the 13th century and in fact the present nave dates from 1270.  It replaces an earlier church.  The north aisle was added in 1320 and the chancel south aisle and tower around 1450.  There have been many later alterations but the basic 15th century structure and style remains.  In 1995 excavations took place to create more meeting rooms in what may have been the crypt.  The interior of the church has some monuments dedicated to prominent local families.

But it’s the churchyard that fascinated me.  Intertwined with plain Victorian headstones are some wonderful examples of 18th century tombstones adorned with memento mori.  A couple are naively executed but others are finely carved with the wonderful 18th century calligraphy accompanying them.

The Spring sunlight illuminated the thick patches of moss and lichens that had carefully draped itself over the monuments and memorials.  It made the subtle hues and shades really stand out; the combination of green and gold or browns seemed to gleam amongst more subtle hints.

Some of the lichens looked as if someone had taken a paintbrush loaded with colour and then dabbed it onto the stones.  Moss has the effect of softening the edges of stones and letters and, where it replaces letters completely, gives a more organic feel to the epitaph.

A spreading horse chestnut tree was laden with sticky buds already beginning to burst into leaf. ‘How many years has it stood near the church door marking the seasons and years?’ I thought.

The spreading horse chestnut is now into full leaf burst.
©Carole Tyrrell

A chaffinch called loudly for its mate from the closed part of the churchyard.  I had explored this in October and seen its large carpet of prickly sweet chestnuts as a fox had turned tail and run back to where it had come from.  There has been a piece of bone abandoned on top of a flat headstone and I hoped that the fox had brought it in from a nearby butchers rubbish bin…….now alas this part of the churchyard is closed due to Health and Safety as it’s so overgrown.  On this visit I disturbed a fluffy ginger and white cat who soon fled in the same direction as the fox.

The closed part of the churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

Three large patches of snowdrops clustered protectively around the base of a tree, their pristine heads nodding in the breeze as if deep in conversation.  Primroses had begun to stud the grass and I saw my first ever cowslip amid headstones.

The tiny bright blue flowers of Speedwell blossomed beside a small tombstone and a red-tailed bee, one of the first signs of Spring, buzzed along the top of the grass.    Dog violets, a much underrated flowers in my opinion, frothed plentifully beside the iron entrance gate.

 

Nearby, was not so much a carpet of Spring flowers, but more of a small rug of them.  More Primroses, the bright yellow of Lesser Celandine, another harbinger of Spring, and more dog violets all combined to make a wonderful collection of green, yellow and purple.

There are some remarkable epitaphs in St Nicholas churchyard and this one which has now been incorporated into the fabric of the church caught my attention.

The epitaph reads:

To the Memory

of John Braithwaite Chief Coachman

to his Grace Lionel Duke of Dorset

He died by an unfortunate fall from

Ye coach near Riverhead in this parish.

His loss was greatly lamented

and by none more than

by his Lord and Master

to whom he was a most just and faithful servant

This sad accident happened

on the first day of July in

the year of our Lord 1723

 

 

 

With the Caring for God’s Acre project which is linked with the bio diversity recording site, irecord, biodiversity within cemeteries is being examined more closely. They are real havens for wildlife especially in big cities as they are an invaluable green space that’s accessible to everyone.  I’ve always enjoyed exploring cemeteries partly for this reason whether it be standing waist high in wild flowers on a hot July day in the meadow at Kensal Green cemetery or counting butterflies along the side paths leading to the Courtoy Mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery.

Sadly the Spring sunshine was replaced by April showers but Mother Nature ignored this and kept bursting forth regardless.  I’m already looking forward to my summer saunter within St Nicholas.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

References and further reading

https://www.sevenoakssociety.co.uk/upper-high-street-west/255-st-nicholas-church

https://www.stnicholas-sevenoaks.org/

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

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 4- Life and Death – springtime flowers

 

An April day in my local churchyard, St George’s and a profusion of Spring flowers on one grave.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

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:

:

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell