Every forest is a graveyard.
From bare, gnarled trunks standing alone in an opening to the heavy debris covering the forest floor, death is woven around the living. Without the passing of the each generation, the forest itself would disappear. The nutrients wrestled out of solid stone by the first moss and lichen are absorbed by the roots of bushes and trees which harass the sun and air to create even more nutrients. Insects, birds, and other animals come to feed, some of them in turn being feed upon by others. With each death, what isn’t consumed is broken down, returning the original nutrients wrestled from stone and sun to the soil.
Humans are probably unique in that we try to stay out of this cycle. While our creation myths may refer to ‘from dust to dust,’ we do our best to keep our dead from commingling with the rest of creation. Caskets and urns to contain, magic amulets and objects to protect, gravestones and pyramids to acknowledge, we do what we can to avoid returning to nature.
In the early 1800’s, London was rapidly growing and by the end of the 1820’s was the largest city in the world. Its expanding, and dying, population was overwhelming the cemeteries in the city. In 1832 a bill passed by Parliament allowed the establishment of new privately-run cemeteries. By 1841 seven new cemeteries, informally referred to as the Magnificent Seven, were established, including Abney Park.
Abney Park is located in the Stoke Newton neighborhood. The land for the cemetery was closely associated with Dr. Isaac Watts, a noted Nonconformist theologian whose views were not aligned with the Anglican Church of England. This connection with Dr. Watts lead to the cemetery being a dissenters cemetery, open for burials for people of all faiths. The next time you hear the Christmas carol, ‘Joy to the World,’ give a little thought to Dr. Watts, who wrote the lyrics, and this little park where people weren’t divided by sects.
In the 1970’s the company that operated Abney Park went bankrupt and the park was abandon. For almost twenty years it was left unattended and a woodland grew. In the 90’s, the park was set aside as a Local Nature Reserve and Conservation Area owned by the London Borough of Hackney. At 31 acres, it is one of the largest woodlands in North London and is managed by Abney Park Trust.
This overgrown graveyard makes for a provocative walk where lichen, ivy, and bramble take over the gravestones and growing trees push aside the ones that get in the way. It is a reminder that in nature death is not an end but part of a cycle.
The feeling of natural areas changes with each season. Add the effect of the tombstones and I can imagine the feel of each season is heighten. Spring with its new leaves and wild flowers perhaps give the sense of rebirth, new life arising from the old. Autumn’s falling leaves and fading green may heightening the sense of mourning and lose. Cold, grey Winter with its rains and occasional snow is a reminder that death is unavoidable, giving a sense of sadness both ancient and universal.
But I was here in summer. London was in the midst of a heat wave, but the trees covered the whole cemetery in dappled shade. It’s early July and most of the flowers had already bloomed. Despite the tombstones, the lush growth is a reminder that death isn’t the end. Our memorials and markers to love ones that died are as ethereal as the lives they represented but life itself never falters.
English ivy (Hedera helix) and bramble (Rubus fruticosus) are the dominant plants of the undergrowth, wrapping around and covering the graves.
English ivy is native to England and a very robust grower. Many of the trees and gravestones in the park find themselves entwined in the vine. Outside its native Europe and western Asia range, English ivy can be consider invasive that once established can overwhelm the areas native plants.
But within its native range English ivy provides nectar, berries and shelter for a variety of animals and is a host plant to a variety of butterflies and moths. Though it has a reputation of overtaking trees and smothering them, in its native range this is rarely an issue.
Bramble is also know as the blackberry bush. But bramble seems like a better name. Like ivy, it seems to overtake what ever it grows by, looking shaggy with long branches adorned with sharp thorns. It can be a nasty plant. To put it simply, you wouldn’t want to ramble through bramble…
At the time of my visit, the last flowers were blooming – pretty pink flowers resembling a wild rose – and the first berries were forming, most of which are still green. But soon they will be a sweet treat favored by birds.
One flower still blooming in large numbers was the wild carrot (Daucus carota), its umbels of flowers lining sunny section of the park’s paths. In the center of the umbel are one to four tiny flowers that are a dark purple, though the rest of the flowers are a solid white. Often referred to Queen Anne’s lace in North America where it has naturalized, the dark purple is said to be blood from the Queen when she pricked her finger making lace.
Wild carrot is an ancestor of the carrots found in our produce section. The young tap roots from wild carrots can be eaten like carrots but as they get older they become woody and unpalatable. Probably better though not to try, as wild carrots have a similar appearance to poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).
When it was first established, Abney Park was also a botanical garden with trees from around the world. Most of the original trees have died, some are still lingering on, a few have naturalized in the park and share the space with native trees.
Common ash (Fraxinus excelsior), several varieties and hybrids of black poplar (Populus nigra) and horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) are common and provide plenty of shade. Both common ash and black poplar are native to England. Horse chestnuts originated in Greece but are commonly found throughout England.
The caretakers of this oasis understand the role that dead or dying trees play in the forest. Dead trunks are left standing unless they present a safety issue. The old wood is colonized by various insects which, in turn, provide food for birds. Fungi and moss grow on the trees, breaking down the wood tissues, returning nutrients to the soil.
Fungi is the unsung workhorse of the natural landscape, with mushrooms just being the tip of the iceberg. Some fungus are pathogens that can disfigure or kill plants, but most do the important job of breaking down organic matter to soil. Fungi even benefit plants by helping to them add nitrogen to the soil. The variety of fungi found in the woods is staggering. To get a sense of the number of fungi found in Abney Park see Abney Fungi.
The gravestones too have been colonized by life. A few stones are maintained by relatives and a few new graves have been added, usually a spouse of someone buried in the cemetery in the years just before it closed. But the rest are part of the natural cycle.
Lichen, moss, and algae grow on many of the stones, slowly erasing the names on the markers and softening the details of the statues. Brush and ivy surround and climb the tombstones while the growth of trees cause the markers to tilt. In some cases, the bark of the tree itself starts to envelop the stone. the gravestones are no longer artifacts left behind but now part of an ecosystem.
The cemetery is young by London’s standard, but the Celtic crosses rising above the brush feel ancient, harking back to a time when humans and nature were more connected.
Other crosses seem to have prophetized about the fate of the park, craved as old wood entwine with ivy and roots.
The statues of angels are particularly provocative. Their hard chiseled details softened by the years, some with arms and wings broken; many are dressed in a green sheen of algae and lichen.
The aging has given these statues a certain grace, making them seem both more real and less of this mortal coil – perhaps glimpses of forest spirits.
The woods here are also home to more earthly spirits. My mid-day visit kept most of them hidden, but Abney Park has become a very important habitat for birds. Tawny owls and sparrowhawks breed in the park while woodpeckers work the old trees for a buggy taste treat. Much like the patches of wilderness found in Los Angeles, this patch of wildness is a valuable asset for the native wildlife, those that live there year around or for a season or passing through as they are migrating.
Overall, London has a wonderful patchwork of green spaces from private gardens to royal parks. Some estimates have over 40% of London as green space. All provide a places for nature in the urban environment, but in the manicured parks and yards the complexity of a natural ecosystem is missing. By removing dropped leaves and dying plants, a true ecosystem cannot be created. For that, death is needed. The interplay of plants, insects, fungi, wildlife, weather, life and death that truly let nature thrive, rare in the city, can be found in Abney Park.
For a visitor to London, Abney Park also offers a treat – no crowds. After days of being part of the tourist hoard shuffling through Westminister Abbey or being claustrophobically cramped looking at the Crown Jewels, I found myself mostly alone, occasionally passing a local taking a stroll. Don’t get me wrong, I found the historic buildings of London fascinating, but it is hard to let oneself just be when a large sea of humanity jostles around them. The quietness and space in Abney Park allows for the body to relax and breath, giving the mind space for contemplation and reflection.
And walking through an old overgrown graveyard gives you a lot to contemplate.
To learn more about Abney Park, its history and flora and fauna go to abneypark.org.
All photographs by Alan Starbuck