The Magnificent Seven is an informal name given to seven large, private cemeteries in London that were established in the 19th century to prevent overcrowding of parish burial grounds.
• Kensal Green Cemetery – Kensington and Chelsea
• West Norwood Cemetery – Lambeth
• Highgate Cemetery – Islington, Haringey and Camden
• Abney Park Cemetery – Hackney
• Nunhead Cemetery – Southwark
• Tower Hamlets Cemetery – Tower Hamlets
• Brompton Cemetery – Kensington and Chelsea
Before this challenge I had heard of these cemeteries individually but not as this revered group and I am going to try and visit all seven this summer to compare and contrast the habitats on offer and the wildlife that calls these spaces home.
Many green spaces have been subject to substantial changes and pressures in recent centuries including intensification of agricultural practises, urban development, increased recreational use and chemical interventions. This has had significant impacts on biodiversity, but churchyards and cemeteries have largely avoided these changes and represent thriving wildlife hubs providing a window into the past. Lichens and mosses encrust walls and headstones, ancient and veteran trees cast dappled shade, wildflowers flourish providing a pollinator buffet and there are plenty of nooks and crannies for small mammals.
First up is the 39-acre, Grade I Listed Brompton Cemetery, resting place for more than 200,000 people beneath over 35,000 gravestones and monuments including those of Emmeline Pankhurst and Sir Henry ‘King’ Cole. I entered the cemetery at the southern, Fulham Road entrance which has a backdoor feel about it and lacks the audacious grandeur of the main, northern entrance. As I stepped through the cast iron gates and onto the winding pathways it was like putting on noise-cancelling headphones. The contrast between roaring high street and cemetery serenity was stark, traffic to tranquillity in a few steps.
Cheek by jowl gravestones poke out from the tangled mix of greenery and as the grey squirrels scurried along their tops, darting from stone to stone, it reminded me of the scenes in Mary Poppins when the chimney sweeps skip between the rooftops of Edwardian London. I watched on amusedly and was joined by a couple stone angels that adorned the nearby graves; one was missing a hand and the other a wing tip, but both seemed to retain wry smiles. I then caught site of my first butterfly, a Small White, flitting between cow parsley umbellifers. It was then joined by two Large Whites and the trio danced and bobbed, disappearing and reappearing from behind headstones. In its pre-cemetery days this land was used as a market garden and several plants have endured since then including wild cabbages which no doubt act as a draw for the white butterflies who lay their eggs on Brassicaceae species such as these. In some cultures, white butterflies have spiritual associations and in Ireland, up until the 1600s, it was illegal to kill a white butterfly as they were believed to hold the souls of dead children.
I paused to try and decipher the fading carved message, half hidden by an ivy cloak, on one of the gravestones, when a carrion crow the size of a small dog seemed to appear from nowhere and cawed loudly, startling me, and jarring the peace. I love corvids and admire their fierce intelligence but there is definitely something quite sinister about them and this one, unflinchingly peering at me with beady eyes definitely seemed to be telling me to move on. I did.
The cemetery is dominated by the Great Circle and colonnades which architect Benjamin Baud meticulously designed to make the flat site more interesting for visitors and which are said to be inspired by the piazza in front of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Circles, representing eternity, are a strong theme in the cemetery from buildings to grave features. The buildings are beautiful, but I much preferred the quieter, untamed fringes of the cemetery where the nature is the architect. Tunnels disappear into the vegetation, probably created by foxes repeatedly using the same shortcut home, roots of Horse Chestnut trees have tilted gravestones and walls of thick bramble are slowly swallowing memorials.
Fluttering down from one of these bramble thickets, I thought one of the Small Whites had returned but on closer inspection it turned out to be a female Orange-tip feeding on the purple blooms of Ground-ivy. Female Orange-tips lack the orange tip for which they are named, this is only present in males meaning the sexes look quite different, so different in fact that early naturalists thought they were two different species. The females are easy to confuse with Small or Green-veined Whites but the stunning pattern on the Orange-tips’ underwings gives them away. Yellow and black scales combine to create the illusion of mottled green blotches which provide excellent camouflage when the butterfly is at rest. The cemetery has an abundance of Garlic Mustard which is one the Orange-tips preferred larval foodplants along with Cuckooflower.
It is always worth having a closer look at these plants at this time of year as Orange-tip eggs are quite easy to find amongst the flowerheads. I started peering at the white blooms in a large clump of Garlic Mustard, getting garlicky wafts as I did so, and before too long – Bingo! A tiny, bright orange, bottle-shaped egg. A week or so after being laid, the larva will hatch and feast on its own egg and nearby seed pods for a couple of weeks before pupating. It will remain as a pupa until next spring when the whole cycle will begin again.
In this place, engineered to include so many physical representations of circles and eternal life, it seems highly fitting for the Orange-tip's cycle to be repeatedly occurring, year after year, largely unnoticed.