In search of the source. Not quite the Nile.

The City of London Cemetery is enormous.

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At 200 acres, it is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe and has a network of roads making it seem like a town of death. I understand that around one million people have been buried here and there are about 150,000 graves. If the maths of those two figures doesn’t add up to you, that is because the bodies are, literally, buried on top of one another.

The cemetery is not as interesting historically as some of the other London burial sites like Highgate, but it is of interest to me as it is a huge green space almost surrounded by my local patch – with the Eastern end of the Flats on one side and the Roding, Old Sewage Works, and Wanstead Park on the other.

It is full of manicured lawns, gardens, tree-lined avenues, and grave stones by the many thousand ranging from little wooden crosses to enormous, and often very gaudy, monolithic mausolea. But there is also a small corner that is not tended neatly by the groundsmen – a grove of trees clustered by the boundary fence near the Roding – known as the Birches nature reserve:

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X marks the spot of the wild area. Thanks to Google for the map

This small section of woodland is wonderfully wild. I presume that very few people indeed ever visit – partly because those of us likely to be interested in it would have to walk very far out of our way to get there as there is only one entrance to the cemetery and the fence is  high. In fact, it is so poorly known that I can only find one one reference to the fact that it is a nature reserve at all. 

Everything was wet. The leaf litter is so thick that walking around on the mulch is like walking on pillows. With all the mosses, fungi and ferns, it felt like I was experiencing the original Atlantic Oakwood temperate rainforest, not some small sub-urban plot re-wilded a decade ago (although this is wonderful evidence of how quickly nature can take back over if given the chance to thrive without being overly ‘managed’).

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Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

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The edible Jelly Ear Fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Indeed there was a lot of water in this grove, but I knew that from often peering through the fence just visible to the right in the photo below:

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That water collects as a pond and is the beginning of the poorly known Alders Brook. I had come in search of its source, and with limited thrashing about, I found it… sort of:

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Culverted source of Alders Brook

The concrete culvert pipe runs through the ditch that I understand was once part of the ‘Great Canal’ dug for the Manor of Aldersbrook. This is the first opportunity to see the Alders Brook. It presumably trickles down from the higher land off the Wanstead Flats (maybe including any overflow from Alexandra pond) and through, or hopefully beneath, the catacombs and graves of the cemetery.

The Alders Brook then flows under the fence and splits North and South. The Northern stream is a dead-end and so the water is stagnant, but South it flows into the Roding.

The Birches reserve is a known site for Woodcock and Snipe – the resident Woodcock seemingly roosts in this area and then flies out in the evening to feed on the Ilford Golf Course at night. I didn’t see any Woodcock and, actually, never have on the patch, but I intend to make an effort this year to tick it off.

I am indebted to Paul Ferris’ excellent Wanstead Wildlife website for much of the background information and history presented in this post.

All photos were taken on my iPhone and for some reason are lower resolution than usual – apologies.

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