Tag Archives: slavery

Amazing Grace: down by the riverside

I have blogged about the river Great Ouse before. It is one of the two important rivers of my childhood (along with the Nene). These are rivers I have fished and walked along many, many times.

The Great Ouse flows through the small town where my family now live: Olney in Buckinghamshire…

Great Ouse

The town stretches up a hill which overlooks the flood plain of the river…

Valley

… which is effectively an island surrounded by the branches of the river…

bridge

It contains beautiful meadows…

Meadow

… and land used as pasture…

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Cow

But the riverside is also home to many wild animals:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) keeping a sharp eye out for fish or amphibians…

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Another creature that I found out hunting for amphibians is the Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)…

Grass snake

I also surprised a semi-feral Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) wandering in the grass..

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But deeper in the grasses, it was the insects that told me we were at the height of Spring. I found mating Crane Fly (species unidentified)…

Crane Fly

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)…

Banded Demoiselle

And most wonderful, for me, were the Mayfly: one of the many species of the aptly named genus, Ephemeroptera; the Mayfly is surely the embodiment of ephemeral nature. Mayfly will only live in their adult form for a few hours – maybe a day – to mate and lay their eggs before they die (often sending trout and other fish into a feeding frenzy)…

Mayfly

On the lakes of Emberton, I saw the common Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis)…

Canada Goose

and the much rarer feral breeding population (amongst only around 1000 in the UK) of Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)…

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Goose 2

The river runs right past the impressive church of St Peter and St Paul…

Olney Church

In this churchyard is the grave of John Newton (1725-1807)…

John Newton

John Newton started life as a sailor. He was involved in the slave trade and was even enslaved himself for a short period. On his grave stone it says he was originally “an infidel and a libertine”. He had a damascene conversion to Christianity whilst on a ship in a storm.

Eventually, he joined the clergy, renounced his former wicked ways and became a prominent campaigner against slavery. He was pastor of the church and wrote some famous poems and hymns whilst reflecting on his former life and looking out at the countryside of the Great Ouse. By far his most famous hymn is ‘Amazing Grace’ which is believed to be played/sung around 10 million times a year!

Secret London: Part VIII – In memoriam nival

Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington is most definitely not a secret place (it is rightly famous as one of the ‘magnificent seven’ great Victorian cemeteries of London), but it contains many, many secrets within its walls. It is a stunningly wild place at any time of year, but the lovingly overgrown (if that is not oxymoronic) labyrinth seems particularly charmed under a coating of snow.

Abney Park Cemetary

The giant Victorian cemetery seemingly has a thousand long and winding paths, each which twist around old and decaying trees and incalculable numbers of grave stones almost overwhelmed with brambles which appear to be re-claiming the rock from the stone mason back to the wild.

Abney park nature
The cemetery can appear wonderfully wild and unplanned, but as one might expect from such a place of faith, there is both intelligent design in its layout and management. Originally landscaped by a man called George Loddiges in 1843, Abney Park is rare in that it is both cemetery and arboretum. Inevitably, mid-winter is not the best time to view trees at their best, but it is patently clear that the trees form a central role in the eco-system that has grown up in the 32 acres of land.

Whilst still very much alive as a tree, you can see from the holes in the deadwood of this Common Ash’s crown that Great Spotted Woodpeckers use it as a home and feeding station…

Woodpecker holes

London parkland wouldn’t be what we know and love without the ubiquitous and largely tame Grey Squirrel…

Grey Squirrel

Or the equally bold Robin fearlessly guarding its territory…

Robin

The Carrion Crows flapped and hopped like feathered onyx automatons in the sheet of white snow…

Carrion Crow

Some residents, which were certainly not present when the dead were first laid to rest here, are the squawking Ring-necked Parakeets which appear strange and incongruously exotic for a Victorian London cemetery (Parakeets are the feral descendants of escaped captive birds from the 1960s that are colonising much of London and the South East)…

Ring-necked Parakeet

A grave story
A thousand grave stones tell a thousand stories, and mainly stories of loss (in fact there are around 200,000 internments in Abney Park; a town of death one might muse). It would be almost inhuman not to feel the pathos reach back across the generations, often carved into real and sentimental expression:“In loving memory of our dear little Stanley who passed away Jan 29th 1925 aged 7 1/2”

Little grave

Sometimes short passages from the Bible or Lord’s Prayer are etched into the stone expressing the futility of human struggle against the inexorability of fate/death/heavenly plan…

Thy will be done

Sometimes, a grieving family might use poetry to express their loss, but also their resilience through faith…

“A light is from our household gone,
A voice we loved is stilled:
A place is vacant in our home,
Which never can be filled.
To live in hearts we leave behind,
Is not to die

Poem

A general complaint I have with grave stone design is the focus on how people died rather than how they lived. I must have read a hundred times how someone “fell asleep” or “passed peacefully”, but other than the fact that they were a beloved father/mother/husband/wife/son/daughter, we learn nothing about the person whose remains lie six feet below our feet. I did find, however, some simple but notable exceptions…

Such as the 40 year old tax man from Kirkcaldy (the constituency of our dour former Prime Minister, Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP)…

"Yeaahh I'm the tax man"

…or Betsi the “faithful” nurse, whose grave stone looks suspiciously modern for a lady who passed away over 150 years ago (which along with the snow-coated daffodil posie at the base of the stone hint at the sure fact that Betsi is not forgotten)…

Nurse

There is clearly a tragic story behind the military grave stone of Private C.R. Haughton who died the day after World War I ended (presumably from his wounds sustained earlier in the trenches)…

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A modest modern memorial stone stands in front of the much older tomb of Rev. James Sherman…

Abolitionist

As the stone simply notes, Sherman was an ‘abolitionist’ (one of many buried at Abney Park, but the only one I found in my wanderings in the freezing cold). Sherman wrote books about, and financially aided, the cause of the abolition of slavery in North America right up until his death two years into the American Civil war. Sherman financially assisted the stay of escaped slave, and abolitionist minister, Samuel Ringgold Ward, who wrote a book based on the speeches he gave in London to raise money for the cause in North America, Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: his anti-slavery labours in the United States, Canada and England. Which made me realise how the stories of 200,000 people often also overlap with the stories of countless others.

So much could, and perhaps should, be written about the many brave and wonderful things done by those whose remains lie in the frozen earth of East London, but I shall end this post with an image of the lion of the Bostock family crypt who appears to be sleeping peacefully under a blanket of snow…

Lion