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Snowfall at Bow Cemetery

February 6, 2012
by the gentle author

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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Apart from his necessary business, Mr Pussy did not stir from the house during the snow.

35 Responses leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012

    Highly intelligent cat is Mr Pussy.
    I wish I was there to wander through the Bow Cemetery, it looks beautiful in its snow blanket.

  2. Marina permalink
    February 6, 2012

    Ah! The cemetery looks more chilly than usual! Lovely shots. Thanks for sharing.

  3. February 6, 2012

    Love the Alexander McQueen colouring – and you captured the fox!

  4. jeannette permalink
    February 6, 2012

    thank you for the picture of reynard.

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep
    But I have promises to keep.
    And miles to go before I sleep.
    And miles to go before I sleep.

  5. February 6, 2012

    Lovely photos! Glad you and Mr. Fox were able to share a moment together

  6. February 6, 2012

    Mr. Pussy isn’t silly – as usual love the piece. Annette

  7. February 6, 2012

    Beautiful – the fox picture is fantastic!

  8. Jared permalink
    February 6, 2012

    This is really wonderful – a joy to read. The first few lines there… it was bleedin’ de Maupassantesque. You write such a lot every day – tell me, do the words flow thus? Don’t you sit and mull? Where do you find the time? What with all your to-ing and fro-ing and interviewing – it’s quite astounding. I understand that you hadn’t written much prose before setting off on this blog odyssey (Blodyssey? Blogyssey?), but it is apparent that with each day the work is paying off. If you can bash out gems like this off the cuff then, well, I’m frankly bewitched, bothered and blinking bewildered.

    Yesterday morning it was -20°C outdoors. Breath freezingly, nose drippingly cold. It actually hurts to inhale through the poor nose under such conditions. Today it is by contrast, an almost balmy -10.

    Oh, how I miss London.

  9. Eden Endfield permalink
    February 6, 2012

    Beautiful! Thank you, now I know about it I must visit.

  10. Ruby Kay permalink
    February 6, 2012

    Thankyou… I have many relatives on my father’s side buried here. I trust they extended to you a peaceful welcome, as would the trees and abundant wildlife whose home you called upon. Wonderful!

  11. February 6, 2012

    It’s such a beautiful place. I spent hours walking there last summer. Lovely to see these wintry pictures now.

  12. February 6, 2012

    How wise Mr Pussy is to stay by the fire – but thank you for venturing into the churchyard and
    the beautiful photographs.

  13. Jennifer permalink
    February 6, 2012

    Who would guess this is Bow Cemetery, it looks somewhere in the middle of a forest. Beautiful photographs.

  14. Diane permalink
    February 6, 2012

    Such beautiful shots!

  15. Ree permalink
    February 6, 2012

    Something equally beautiful and sad about old cemeteries…A marvelous article…as per usual…

  16. jeannette permalink
    February 6, 2012

    forgive me for spamming you, but i would like to add that virginia woolf, who loved walking in london, had a persistent vision (i think perhaps during the blackout of the blitz) of london being taken over by nature and the badgers strolling through piccadilly. it’s begun to happen here in america in detroit, motown, with urban farmers establishing city gardens in the deserted city neighborhoods. it’s an interesting idea, the implosion of cities and detroit, which the po-mos are actually doing some good work on. the reuse of the vast suburban parking lots of shopping malls….has just inspired a reasonably scholarly book. i’ll get you the amazon url.

  17. Catherine permalink
    February 6, 2012

    So lovely–your photos and thoughts both. However adventurous Mr. Pussy may often think himself, I’m sure he would not like to exchange his place on the bed with that beautiful fox in the snow.

    (I’m Chicago-born and raised but now live in San Francisco and OH, HOW I MISS THE SNOW!!!)

  18. Gary permalink
    February 6, 2012

    A very good item with stunning pictures.
    Keep warm

  19. Betsy Rubin permalink
    February 7, 2012

    “[Snow] was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

    Yes, I know James Joyce wrote about Ireland, and Gabriel of “The Dead” was Irish. But these words echo in my mind as I look at your beautiful photographs.

  20. February 7, 2012

    I was in the UK all of January and it got colder and colder until it made you shout out and laugh in the streets. I watched and waited, watched and waited for the snow you write of. It must have fallen the day after I got in the plane (on Friday) to come back to Australia and I am sad (and a touch indignant) that it did not fall while I was still there. Woe! Though I’m very glad to see and read of it here.

  21. Judy Poleg permalink
    February 7, 2012

    Again a wonderful, nostalgic artile! I do miss the UK and the snow!
    Thank you once again!

  22. February 8, 2012

    magical! I was transported.

  23. Anne Forster permalink
    February 8, 2012

    Mesmerising seeing all those stones at crooked angles with a ribbon of snow perched on the top of each one.

    Yes, jeannette it made me think of Robert Frost too , I love that poem , i think it is my favourite.

  24. susie ford permalink
    February 12, 2012

    I visited the cemetery this morning – still patches of snow crisscrossed with crows feet.
    However the spring flowers are emerging – snowdrops, aconites, even tiny violets are
    opening. An abundance of wild life too – Mr Fox startled in his tracks, many squirrels, a robin, a wren, assorted tits and blackbirds singing, crows, wood pigeons, 4 lime green parakeets (or possibly 2 seen twice!) too many magpies… and hardly any humans

  25. February 16, 2012

    Hmm takes me back to my childhood, in the early fifties we used this cemetory as our playground, the brick wall in Wellington Way had been breeched by Mr Hitler, and this was our entry into the cemo as we called it…It wasnt such a pleasent place during the war years with some dead unfortunates blown up into the trees…My mum is buried there in a nonedescript grave, only 31 years old…But I am pleased to see it as it is now, thanks for the memories…

  26. March 4, 2012

    Beautiful photographs indeed …….

  27. grace broad permalink
    May 15, 2012

    the pictures are lovely.I have many family members resting there and this is only way I can see this place asIi will never get to visit.Thank You.

  28. Miriam Delorie permalink
    January 16, 2013

    How I wish I could look at those pictures and see the graves of my grandparents…but the search goes on!!! Gorgeous pics – lovely bluebells – that I remember as a child from the woods in Hertfordshire where I lived. I am so enjoying these Spitalfield emails and look forward to them every day…all the way in Cape Town, Africa!!!! regards, Miriam

  29. Sonia permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Thank you, as always, for the memories… walking to school in the snow at Aldershot during the war, the year of the very cold winter…. the woods of Hungry Hill… My grandmother’s grave at Minster in Kent. Makes me homesick!

  30. Patricia permalink
    January 21, 2013

    How lovely! Thank you for your thoughts and photographs!

  31. January 21, 2013

    Currently housebound – like Mr Pussy. But you certainly do my heart good with these articles. I do so love the peacefulness of the older London cemeteries. And thank you muchly also for today’s Snowmen images… I’m still wearing a smile.

  32. February 2, 2013

    Your photographs are just beautiful. I love cemeteries. They’re so calm and reading the headstones and learning their occupants’ stories is a fascinating pastime. (to me anyway!) Thank you for this collection.

  33. Barbara Henry permalink
    April 24, 2017

    I lived in Dotheboys Hall 1964/65 , on one of my winter walks with my 18 month old son now aged 53yrs ! I came across a Gravestone of a ” Lady …………” forgotten “Lady in waiting to the Queen” Year 15 —- ” forgotten , would love to be able to go there again and see it now I’m of an age to appreciate the History !

  34. Pamela Morrision permalink
    July 21, 2020

    A glorious post, thank you gentle author.

  35. Debra. E. Sewell permalink
    April 17, 2023

    Again..beautiful. Just takes ones breath away. Sad and yet lovely. I like you called it a Garden of Death.

    Magical in the snow

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