Winter Dawn At Bow Cemetery
Photographer Duncan George sent me these pictures of Bow Cemetery at dawn, inspiring me to pay a visit at first light yesterday.
With the passing years, each winter seems to present a greater challenge to my resilience and – sometimes – as I lie in bed pulling the covers closer to keep warm in the cold of the old house, I can almost feel the chill gathering around me at night. Yet rather than cower behind my feeble defences any longer, I decided to venture out before dawn into the freezing mist in the hope of ameliorating my aversion to the grim weather.
A generation ago, Brick Lane would have been alive at six in the morning with people going to work in the clothing factories, and at the brewery and the market, but yesterday no-one was stirring except me. There was an artificial glow to the west from the lights of the City as I set out to walk down the Mile End Rd, but otherwise the low cloud which obscured the sky was grey – turning uniformly luminous by the time I turned into Southern Grove.
Passing between the high walls of Bow Cemetery, I encountered moisture in the air and a pang deep in my stomach. Even at this hour, the trees and the natural life of the place overwhelmed the presence of the tombs, and my first impressions were of wild cherry blossom glowing in the half-light and the first catkins of the year hanging from bare branches. Nevertheless, I could not help myself scanning the gravestones for any signs of movement and, spying a moving figure that I assumed to be an early dog-walker, I turned in the opposite direction walking deeper into the maze of overgrown paths.
Above my head, birds were singing in chorus from the forest canopy, yet it only served to emphasise the stillness at ground level, where I stood among funerary statues that were poised as if ready to spring into movement. Overhead, a subtle balance was shifting as the streetlights, which I saw in every direction, were losing their dominance over the cool gloom of the cemetery where snowdrops sprang luminous in the shadowy haze. In the distance, a disinterested fox barely adjusted his pace upon registering my existence.
In my fantasy, it was the coldest, chillest place – the locus of winter. In reality, there was life there, ticking over and marking the slow advance towards spring. I stood in a clearing, slowly lifting my gaze to the tree tops as the day broke. Once upon a time, I could never have been there to see this. Even well into adulthood, I could not walk into a dark room without switching on the light for fear of unknown horrors. One summer, I lived in a cottage at the end of a wooded lane and, if I returned at night down the dark road through the trees, it would always be with my heart in my mouth. Experiences that are absurd in retrospect as, through the intervening years, these irrational terrors have - inexplicably - receded and vanished from my psyche.
Yet I did not linger that morning and, as I walked, night faded from the cemetery. In spite of the Gothic statuary, I was relieved that my experience was not of the Gothic variety, save the mysterious lone figure moving amidst the stones, that I did not see again. There was no unholy chill. Neither were there dog-walkers or joggers, as I had expected. On such a morning they had stayed at home. I wondered if I was alone, until I reminded myself that you are never alone in a cemetery.
In the Mile End Rd, street lights were flickering out and the first commuters were to be seen upon the glossy damp pavements, making steps to towards the tube. In Vallance Rd, I passed Kevin the Milkman and arrived home to discover his delivery on my doorstep, and thus I was grateful to return to my warm bed again.
Photographs copyright © Duncan George
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Find out more at www.towerhamletscemetery.org