Snowfall at Bow Cemetery
On Saturday night, a hush was cast upon the East End as the first snowfall of winter came down. Many cancelled their plans for going out, consequently the traffic thinned and the pavements emptied as the falling snow took possession of the territory. Awaking to silence on Sunday morning and looking from my bedroom window, the dark boughs of the great yew tree in the back yard were weighed down with a heavy covering of white – a bucolic wintry vision filling my gaze, as if the house had been transported in the night and I had woken high in the mountains.
Even as I opened my eyes, I knew I wanted to go to Bow Cemetery where I paid a visit to admire the precocious spring bulbs last February. That year, the snow had begun before Christmas and the spring came early, whereas this year the winter has been mild until the temperatures took a dip in mid-January, making up for lost time. So, as I have been awaiting the opportunity to see this magnificent graveyard in the snow all winter, the fulfilment of my wish compensated for the indisposition of slush filling the streets.
The appealing irony of Bow Cemetery is that this vast garden of death has become the largest preserve of wildlife in East London. Created once the small parish churchyards filled up, it is where those numberless thousands who made the East End in the nineteenth century are buried. On the Western side of the cemetery, near the main entrance, are fancy tombs and grand monuments but, as you walk East, they diminish and become more uniformly modest until, at the remotest extremity, there are only tiny stones. At first, I thought these were for children when, in fact, they were simply the cheapest option. Yet even these represent an aggrandisement, beyond the majority of those who were buried here in unmarked communal graves.
My spirits lifted to leave the icy mess of the streets and enter the quiet of the cemetery where since 1966, a forest has been permitted to grow. A freezing mist hung beneath the high woodland canopy, and the covering of white served to emphasise the rich green and golden lichen hues of the stones, and subtle brown tones of the tree trunks ascending from among the graves. As on my previous visits, there were few visitors here and I quickly lost myself in the network of narrow paths, letting the trees surround me in the areas where no human footprint had yet been made.
Crows called to each other and woodpeckers hammered away high in the tree tops, their sounds echoing in the still air. Thrushes searched for grubs under leaves in the rare patches of uncovered earth beneath stands of holly, and a young fox came by – standing out as a vivid rusty brown against the pale snow – slinking along self-conscious of his exposure. The spring bulbs that I saw last year in flower at this time were evidenced only by sparse green spears, protruding from snow criss-crossed by animal and bird tracks.
It was a very different place from the lush undergrowth of high summer when I first visited and another place again from the crocus-spangled garden of spring, yet I always discover peace and solitude here – a rare commodity in the East End – and, even in this bleakest season, there was life.
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Find out more at www.towerhamletscemetery.org
Apart from his necessary business, Mr Pussy did not stir from the house during the snow.