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.
• West Norwood Cemetery – Lambeth
• Highgate Cemetery – Islington, Haringey and Camden
• Abney Park Cemetery – Hackney
• Nunhead Cemetery – Southwark
• Tower Hamlets Cemetery – Tower Hamlets
• Kensal Green Cemetery – Kensington and Chelsea
Cemeteries are valuable green spaces in urban areas, providing a safe haven for wildlife. As part of the 33 Butterflies Challenge, I plan to visit all of the Magnificent Seven to compare the flora and fauna found there.
The most southerly of the Magnificent Seven, West Norwood Cemetery is recognised as being the first cemetery to be designed in the Gothic Revival style. It contains 69 listed buildings and structures and has over 42,000 graves including those of Royal Doulton founder Sir Henry Doulton and Victorian cookery writer Mrs Beeton.
A grand stone archway dating from 1837 greeted me at the main entrance to the cemetery but its grandness is almost immediately eclipsed by the vast number of highly decorated mausolea just inside the gates, and beyond. One had forlorn-looking baby faces carved into the stone pillars and another housed an intricate mosaic floor dedicated to a mother and father, each one a mini shrine designed to befit those it memorialises.
On the way in, I spotted a Small White feeding on some Red Valerian and remembered the Celtic folklore of white butterflies being believed to be the souls of the departed and so it seemed like a fitting welcome.
As at Brompton Cemetery, wildflowers have been allowed to thrive in the areas between the graves and ox-eye daisies seemed to be doing particularly well - I'll leave you to insert your own 'pushing up the daisies' pun. The site felt much more peaceful than Brompton and as it doesn’t contain a thoroughfare it means that none of the visitors are ever just passing through. Several ancient oak trees are scattered across the site, some of which are known to have been part of the Great North Wood that once covered this area and from which Norwood gets its name. Along with the oak, cherry and ash cast dappled shade and several Speckled Woods danced in and out of the shadows.
A Silver Y moth flew out from a grassy tussock, its dark grey and silvery brown wings matched perfectly with the colours on many of the headstones. A common migrant from the continent, Silver Ys can be seen throughout the summer months and are easily identified by the clear, white ‘Y’ on each wing. It landed on one of the many graves covered with colourful glass chippings and I was reminded of a time when I visited a graveyard in Ireland as a child and started collecting these ‘pretty stones’ before hastily being told by a relative to replace them immediately lest I face the wrath of the dead.
I continued on towards the back of the site following a Holly Blue as it jinked and weaved between the memorials and on into the rose garden. Warmed by the late afternoon sun, the roses perfumed the air and a fox lay snoozing in the grass nearby. I later read on the Friends of Norwood Cemetery notice board, that they have a resident fox who is regularly seen by visitors, so I wondered if that sleepyhead had been him.
Across the path from the rose garden lies the most impressive part of the cemetery, the Greek Enclosure. Acquired by London’s Greek community in 1842, this necropolis is filled with many incredible monuments, several of which exhibit classic Doric architecture, including St Stephen’s Chapel, which dominates and dwarfs the surrounding graves. Also dwarfed by the chapel was a dinky Small Copper who I almost didn’t spot as its wings matched well with the lichen covered headstone on which it had landed. Small Coppers are warmth-loving butterflies that are often found in cemeteries and churchyards which usually have plenty of open spots for basking.
Amongst the ancient memorials, there are also many much newer ones and death felt much fresher, much more present. At Brompton Cemetery many of the inscriptions on the headstones had been worn away and made illegible over time but at West Norwood many of the epitaphs were gut wrenching and heartfelt and it made me think that although cemeteries are generally thought of as places of death, they’re also places filled with overwhelming love.