Rising particularly early one morning and feeling it was a good time to get outdoors, I set off for Brompton Cemetery in West London.
I have travelled past this cemetery many times on the bus but have only once visited, on a similarly warm summer’s day when I took a book to a stone archway and enjoyed a couple of hours’ quiet. Walking under the fine stone arch of the North Lodge entrance, I took a turning to my left and within seconds a meadow brown fluttered in haste across my path. The gravestones were overgrown with sweet peas which grew in abundance in shades of pink and purple. Also striking was the bright yellow of ragwort, which was growing up between many of the headstones and was supporting lots of stripy black and yellow caterpillars. I bent down to observe one more closely. It was munching a leaf and holding on with its front legs. It had quite a cute face and up close rather resembled an elongated stripy teddy bear. These were caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and brightly marked to discourage predators.
I straightened up and, as I paused to find my sun cream (the sun was bright, even at this time) a marbled white fluttered across my path and stopped on a leaf within full view, obligingly opening its wings so I could see its markings. I had, that morning, been reading an article on brown butterflies by Butterfly Conservation’s Dr Sam Ellis and was delighted to see a marbled white at close range with such relative ease. The overgrown tangle of grasses, bracken and wildflowers was clearly perfect territory as I noticed several more over the next hour. I was reminded of Patrick Barkham’s great search for butterflies in his book, The Butterfly Isles; there’s a lot of joy in seeing butterflies. Meadow browns and gatekeepers fluttered about, sunning themselves and providing me with ample time for observation.
A variety of trees provided habitat for birds, and I watched several great tits darting around in the branches above my head. The pine trees, the Classical architecture of the mausoleums and the bright blue, cloudless sky gave me the feeling of being in Italy and all was calm with only the gentlest of breezes. Every now and then a magpie squawked from within a tree. I wound my way along the narrower paths, out of the way of early morning joggers. A blackbird tripped daintily in front of me whilst pigeons took flight from the undergrowth as I approached. To one side of the catacombs, I passed a yew tree, which was appropriate in this space reserved for the departed. In the Great Circle, an area of gravestones surrounded by the catacombs and marked at the top by the Chapel, the mood changed drastically. The grass had been assiduously mown and with the absence of green – the lack of rain meant the grass was mostly a dull brown – a sombre mood took over. The buildings are impressive and worth a look. It is also possible to visit the catacombs, on certain days and only with a guide.
Having paused briefly at the Chapel, I headed back towards the entrance. The gravestones on the left-hand side were well-maintained and there was less diversity of wildlife here. I crossed over the main path to finish my visit on the right-hand side, where I had begun, amongst the cheerful colours of sweet peas and foxgloves. Maintaining this space is clearly a big job – I also noticed brambles, thistles and the rampant white flowers of bindweed spreading their way over some of the headstones – but less regular mowing has allowed the wildlife to thrive. I was thankful to visit in the quiet of a Saturday morning, but, even at busy times, I imagine the cemetery is still something of an oasis.
I had reached the entrance; by this time, the traffic was in full flow and the city had woken up.