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Snowfall At Bow Cemetery

December 11, 2017
by the gentle author

On Sunday morning, 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 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 spring. The appealing irony 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 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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20 Responses leave one →
  1. Hélène permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Beautiful walk in a very atmospheric place. Love the young fox!

  2. December 11, 2017

    Many of my family are laid to rest at ‘southern grove’ as we call it
    The last family member being my Dad. Aged 50(28:12:1960)
    Buried next to him marks the grave of a child. Who died when her night dress caught alight whilst standing in front of a open fire.
    I can remember my mum telling me about the 6 o/clock trot. This is when the paupers were buried

  3. Esther permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Thanks for sharing this with us. I always love visiting old graveyards; reading all the names and dates and then trying to figure out who was family of who and just enjoying the restful place.
    With snow everyting looks even more beautifulful.I recently moved to an house from 1890 in a beautiful old neighbourhood and there is a small graveyard nearby with very old stones and even a grave family-tombhouse; I still have to take the time to check it out; curious who used to live here in those times 🙂

  4. Peter Harrison permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Thank you for such an evocative group of photographs-and well done for catching that glimpse of the fox!

  5. December 11, 2017

    Another great article. Thanks. Thanks and see you in spring!

  6. December 11, 2017

    Many thanks for this magnificent series! It fuels my current interest in documenting and photographing all seven cemeteries in our tiny rural town in the Hudson River Valley.
    Although two of the sites are large and visible, the others are small “family” cemeteries tucked back into thick woods and (in one case) totally overgrown/eclipsed with brush. Your photos have inspired me to keep working. Although we are new kids on the block compared to your long
    storied history, it thrills me that we have at least two Revolutionary War soldiers buried here in
    Ah, the young fox!

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, again beautifully written and photographed. The red fox seems to be thriving there at Bow Cemetery.

    Winter does have its charms. We had our first snow here on Saturday – harbinger of things to come…

  8. December 11, 2017

    How beautifully written,as usual. My mornings start with a coffee and Spitalfield Life. I keep some photo’s for my Pintrest and today’s is a namesake on one of the stones,I wonder if the names will appear as I get deeper into my family history. Then I wonder if any graveyards have been registered as Village Greens to protect them from development?

  9. Leana Pooley permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Sitting here on my sofa in Acton with the rain dripping down outside and feeling jaded from too much food and drink, it’s been a real pleasure to look through your fresh and snowy photos. And that fox in the middle! This has been a nice contrast to those interesting velvety night photos of London streets.

  10. Bill Osborne permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Fourteenth photo down notice the bear with outstretched arms singing his praise to the weather gods above.

  11. Delia Folkard permalink
    December 11, 2017

    I would have loved to have gone for a walk in Bow Cemetery on Sunday but made with do with a trudge through the snow in Buckinghamshire. We visited the cemetery in October before going on to the Nunnery for the East End Painters exhibition and your book signing of East End Vernacular. We made a special trip to E.Pellicci for a cup of tea and Nevio gave us directions on how to get there. We weren’t sure at first if it was the right place as it was signed Tower Hamlets Cemetery. We loved it and although tranquil it was good to see it being well used by children on their way back from school.

  12. Gayle Thorsen permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Gorgeous photos…I feel as peaceful looking at them as if I’d been there.

  13. David Bishop permalink
    December 11, 2017

    Beautiful post and photos. Thank you Gentle Author.

  14. Malcolm permalink
    December 11, 2017

    I used to walk through the cemetery with my friends, who lived just behind it in Fairfoot Road, when I was at Coopers’ school in Mile End. This was before part of it, where Cantrell Road is, was dug up. There was a concerted attempt by Tower Hamlets to dig it all up and sell it for development at that time, in the late 1960’s, but fortunately they failed.
    I still like to wander there when I’m in the area, just to remember.
    Memento Mori.
    Great photographs GA.

  15. Jill permalink
    December 12, 2017

    Thankyou for these vary atmospheric views, I need to visit sometime as my 2x great grandfather William James Crisp and his wife Jane Perrin Brown Crisp are buried somewhere in Square 59 in the cemetery, they bought the plot when their baby son Frank died in 1865.

  16. Kitanz permalink
    December 12, 2017

    Beautiful and Sad. Thank You for these pictures.

  17. Brenda Sanders permalink
    December 12, 2017

    Beautiful, as usual. I enjoy your writing and photos very much. I am from Arkansas, one of the United States, and have a question or two, if you don’t mind,but first let me say that I do have an England connection, as one of my maternal grandpa’s was from there, and immigrated here in the 1880’s.

    To the questions. The first photo – at the top- shows the stone of Jane Maria, with much writing below. I was curious about what it said, and enlarged it as much as I could. There seems to be multiple names, but I could not make out their connections to Jane Maria. I have read of (due to space shortage) burials of a family being one above the other (a stack for want of a better word). Is this such a case?

    Second question, which I admit sounds kind of….weird even to my own ears… what are the markers made of? Now please let me clarify before y’all write me off as totally crazy American. I assume they are marble. Most of the ones in our local cemeteries are. I can’t speak for the ones in the US’s northern States, nut here in the upper south, we have trouble with moss growing on them, and without scraping and a whole lot of work you can’t read LARGE lettering, much less the smaller lettering like is on the stones shown in your photos although your stones are much older – the oldest stones in the two cemeteries that I am most familiar with are in the early to mid 1800’s. I guess I am really wondering how y’all keep that from happening, because I would really like to try it on my family tombstones.

    Again, thank you for your writing and pictures. I truly enjoy reading about England. Great Grandpa Allen was not from London, but it gives me a picture of his native country, nevertheless. For him to have journeyed so far, and ended up in a small, rural place such as I live, is such a marvel to me.

  18. Susan permalink
    December 13, 2017

    Curiously, what one reader sees as a bear (in image 0063), I see as a fox leaping into the sky.

  19. December 13, 2017

    What a wonderful mood — that’s probably also the opinion of the fox!

    Love & Peace

  20. Ardith permalink
    January 6, 2018

    These are utterly captivating photos, GA. Thank you for them.

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