Monday, 13 June 2016

Thirty-nine acres of idyll in London

Summer storms caused flooding chaos in London this week. I watched from the dry comfort of an office in the Natural History Museum as visitors raced down Exhibition Road through the pelting rain. I'd come to the city to spend a few days combing through the Middle Jurassic mammal collections as part of my research. The large office space I occupied had big windows overlooking the elegant Victoria and Albert Museum.

Not sure what's better, the view out of my window, or the view down the microscope at the UK's Mesozoic mammals?

There was a cycle to each day. The dawn brought a bright and warm morning, during which I lolloped bare-legged from my no-frills hotel in West Brompton to the affluent district of South Kensington. I absorbed some caffeine and people-watched from an over-priced cafe, before heading to the museum to begin work. In the afternoon the skies were leaden and oppressive, bursting themselves across the city and washing the streets clean of tourists. By the time I left the museum each evening, the sun had returned and made a humid sauna of the city.

People moan about rain (usually because they aren't dressed for it), but hot summer rains are fantastically refreshing in the city: they wipe the dusty concrete clean as they seek the gutters. More than this, they revitalise thirsty urban plant and animal life. Never has this been more obvious to me than one evening this week in London when I discovered the emerald that is West Brompton Cemetery.

One of London's "Magnificent Seven" historic cemeteries, West Brompton is designated grade 1 on English Heritage's Register of Parks and Gardens. You find it right beside West Brompton station, sandwiched between Old Brompton Road and Fulham Road. It was from the north entrance that I entered, drawn in by the ridiculously long, arrow-straight thoroughfare that bisects the cemetery.

The Southern end of West Brompton cemetery is full of neo-classical architecture and grand memorials.

After a few days in the city, I ache for greenery - I'm an unabashed country bumpkin, more at home in a tangled forest than an urban jungle. The overgrown delights of West Brompton cemetery took me entirely by surprise. If you wander away from the central path you find much of the graveyard left to go wild: shoulder high blossoming brambles, swathes of wild annuals, trees both native and exotic. The air is thick with birdsong, and if you stop for a moment to listen carefully, rustles in the bushes betray small mammals and foraging blackbirds. It is 39 acres of delightfully overgrown peace.

"Peace, perfect peace".


I was, of course, not the only one there. An estimated 700,000 people visit each year. At 7pm on a weekday, most visitors are dog walkers, locals out for a stroll with a friend, or those seeking peace among the stones and greenery. Spaces like this often leave you feeling unwatched and deliciously alone. On one bench, a woman wearing a pastel pink tracksuit cuddled her white chihuahua, kissing it repeatedly. Nearby, a man read his kindle while absent-mindedly picking his nose. Joggers padded through. An elderly man, hands clasped solomly behind his back, paced respectfully between the memorials, nodding a polite "good evening" as he went.

A man picks his nose as though he were alone in the world, wrapped in the peace of the cemetery.

That this cemetery is an amazing public space is not an accident, but an act of design. It was created as a neo-classical recreational park as well as a final resting place for human bodies. Laid out in a similar style to the gardens surrounding St Peter's in Rome, it is now a wonderful mix of grandiose architecture, the beauty of decaying stone, and the rampunctiousness of nature. Those interred here include the Scottish geologist Roderick Impey Murchison (see page 43), and the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

Look who I bumped into, completely by serendipity. After writing about him for the Palaeontological Association newsletter last year (page 43), it was a delight to see his final resting place.

I wandered down a less trodden track. Many gravestones were lost to undergrowth, rocks reclaimed by nature. Beside the path grew grasses, ox-eye daisies, nettles, bugle, vetch and many more wild flowers. On their stems ants diligently farmed their aphids: caressing their backs and drinking from them. Fat bees hummmmmed between blossoms, navigating the humid air like ships at sea. A beetle shot across the path in front of my feet.

Aphid-farming ant, tending his flock.


As I stood turning in a circle to admire my surroundings, a collie dog bounded up to me with something in his mouth. He dropped it at my feet and bowed; waiting expectantly. A huge pine cone, partially opened, certainly non-native. It was from a Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), a species that produces impressive circles of fist-sized cones at intersections along the branches. I obliged the handsome collie and kicked his toy away for him to chase. He brought it back again. We played like that for a minute or two before his owner turned up to claim him.

The Monterey pine, Pinus radiata. Native to the coast of California and Mexico, it is commonly planted around the world, yet becoming rare in its native range.

Suddenly above me there was a raucous screeching call I'd never heard before. I looked up in time to see four parakeets chase one another across the sky and land in a nearby tree. I'd heard that these feral rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) could be found in parks in London, but never seen them before.  Bemused locals stared as I clambered around the park trying to get photographs. There are thought to be around 17,000 parakeets living wild in the South-East of England, with the largest colonies in the capital city. Originally from Asia, they are omnivorous, but mainly eat fruit and flowers. No one is sure how they first established themselves here, but the earliest sightings date from the middle 1800s.

The rose-ringed parakeet, Psittacula krameri, in West Brompton cemetery.

West Brompton cemetery is a wonderful oasis in the urban sprawl. The posters for bio-blitzes, talks, walks and events prove it to be a valued space for the local community, as well as national and international visitors. Recently nearly £4.5 million was secured from the BIG Lottery Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund to restore and protect this valuable place. If you ask me, that's money well-spent.