As an obsessive birder and Stoke Newington resident of many years, it didn’t take me long to gravitate towards Abney Park Cemetery, the hidden jewel of N16. Indeed, when moving between the numerous local flats I’ve occupied, an always influential prerequisite has been how close my front door is to the cemetery gates (the last flat scoring highly with a door-to-gate timeline of three minutes).
In this increasingly gentrified, decreasingly bohemian corner of Mother Hackney, Abney is the emerald eye of Stoke Newington’s battleship-grey storm – an isolated, semi-natural oasis in an ever-expanding, ever-intensifying desert of concrete and clay. And, as it has for many generations, the cemetery unjudgingly provides sanctuary for both the most and least beautiful elements of local culture.
It is a place of complexity, subtlety and variety, bursting with life – especially gratifying and inspiring given its traditional purpose. It is many different things to many different people. From romantic wonderland to cruising hotspot, from enchanted playground to shooting gallery, and everything in-between. For me, Abney’s heart is resolutely, defiantly wild; increasingly beleaguered perhaps, but still beating to the strong, steady rhythm of a woodpecker’s drumming.
The cemetery reflects and helps define the area’s proudly left-field, free-thinking cultural heritage, with a permanent guest list that includes dissenters, music-hall stars, political radicals, poets and writers. And with the undeniable essence of a secret garden, you could easily imagine C S Lewis or Tolkien gaining inspiration from a wander within Abney’s labyrinthine pathways. Local 16th to 20th century boys Edgar Allan Poe, Daniel Defoe and Marc Bolan very likely did, all three living within a stone’s throw of the gates.
So perfect is Abney’s fantasy aesthetic of faded gothic opulence (right down to the weeping angels tenderly strangled by twisting ivy), it’s a location scout’s dream – a familiar backdrop for music videos and costume dramas, and the default setting for fashion shoots and ads. A week in the cemetery without a procession of furry boom mics and flash guns passing through its entrance is a strange week indeed.
Many communities in urban London (particularly in the traditionally poorer east) are lucky to have any accessible green space, let alone places where a degree of ‘wildness’ is allowed to flourish. Those public areas that have somehow escaped the relentless march of development almost exclusively consist of those bland, manicured, almost lifeless voids commonly known as amenity parkland.
With this in mind, the positive influence Abney yields not just for wildlife but for the local community, individually and collectively, is invaluable. Having been involved in connecting people with the cemetery’s wildlife for some years, witnessing reactions is one of the lasting pleasures that comes with the territory. Whether writ large on the faces of school kids staring into the deep brown eyes of Abney’s tawny owls, or in the whisperings of local elders watching long-tailed tits build their intricate, miniature Death Star nests in tangles of holly, few leave the cemetery untouched by its natural wonder.
Put simply, the cemetery’s significance as a semi-wild, extraordinarily important haven for birds and wildlife in the dark heart of the urban sprawl is impossible to underplay. Its flora and fauna range from rare orchids blossoming precariously on the edge of well-trodden footpaths and even rarer lichens thriving on fallen headstones and shattered crypts, to a lepidoptera list as long as Church Street. But speaking personally, birds are the conduit and the constant through which I fell for and remain in love with Abney.
Screeches, squeals and roars from the streets do battle with the cemetery’s songsters, trying and ultimately failing to drown the lyrical warbles of blackcaps and robins, the gentle purring of stock doves, the silvered tinkling of coal tits and goldcrests and the mocking yaffles of green woodpeckers. The further from the road, the closer to nature, whatever the time of year; but in spring especially, Abney’s avian musicians truly kick out the jams, providing a symphonic soundtrack unimaginable to the thousands of commuters shuttling by just metres from the gates.
Any place where nature is allowed room to breathe connects us intimately with the seasons, transmitting the essence of each directly to us via all of our senses. Just a few metres from the relentless urban chaos of the surrounding neighbourhood, I can’t think of anywhere where this connection is more potent and life-affirming. An often beautiful, almost surreal juxtaposition, walking through the gates can be like stepping onto the holodeck of USS Enterprise, albeit with cracks in the walls and flaws in the sound system.
© Mark James Pearson 2012