Beauty amid death

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As a nation, we have been conditioned to view our cemeteries as dark, macabre places. And, to a certain extent, they are – each and every one subtly different to the next, but all standing as everlasting memorials to the ephemeral nature of life, and the certainty of death. They are sombre places which, even without a deep-rooted personal connection, dampen the spirits – generating countless doubts as to whether it is proper, or indeed, acceptable, to visit them at all absent cause to mourn. At the same time, they are also rather beautiful.

I love cemeteries. A bit of a morbid thing to announce publically but true, nevertheless, as for me – stranded in an urban setting – such places provide respite, escapism and wild allure. The sacred nature of such sites meaning that they are, more often than not, spared pesticides and the flail and, instead, are left to grow wild and undisturbed. In our cities, such places provide a rare glimpse into a forgotten age and make it possible to imagine, just for a moment, that you are elsewhere. Somewhere markedly more tranquil and wild.

This week, I visited Jesmond Old Cemetery in the heart of Newcastle. A particularly impressive site, by urban standards, rife with aged yews, tree-like giant hollies and countless other gems. Each wall gripped by the tendrils of ivy and each gravestone festooned with the rust and pearl coloured flecks of lichen. With some of the more impressive stone crypts – those which one cannot gaze at without contemplating their cost – now accumulating sufficient humus to facilitate the growth of woody cranesbill, slender-leaved ragwort, campion and other treasures. All of which, combined, makes the site flaming brilliant for wildlife.

Ivy and holly formed the basis of my most recent venture: the larval food plants of the enigmatic holly blue butterfly, Celastrina argiolus. Jesmond Old Cemetary, with its abundance of both, has long been revered by local lepidopterists for being one of the few sites locally where one can catch a glimpse of this high-flying and fleet-footed butterfly. Sure enough, within moments of my arrival, my eyes were drawn a lone butterfly perched atop a headstone, sapphire wings occasionally folding so to allow observation of the species characteristic, pearl-coloured underwings. Flecked with black and most different to the much more abundant common blue.

The butterfly in question did not stay long, darting upwards as soon as my camera departed my bag and leaving me with little option but to explore the site further and see what else may be hiding among the cracked, crusted tombs. Further investigations revealing a glut of common butterflies: comma, speckled wood, small copper, green-veined white, small tortoiseshell and large white, all engrossed in the equally vital processes of feeding and breeding. Elsewhere, tree bumblebees moved between ragwort blooms and my attention fixated, for a considerable time, on some delightful, soft pink bindweed flowers. My earlier identification of Field Bindweed proving incorrect upon consultation with the botanically-minded on Twitter. No matter.

Moving further along the twisted uneven footpaths that, once upon a time before they were overtaken with brambles and pioneering saplings, formed the walkways along which mourners would have travelled, it was difficult not to note the abundance of one of my favourite wildflowers: Bittersweet. The plant’s common name taken from the taste of its berries, being at first bitter but then sickly sweet. Not that I would advise eating the fruits of this particular nightshade: they do, after all, contain solanine, an alkaloid glycoside which, when ingested, leads to vomiting and convulsions. Interestingly, the degree of harm caused by ingestion is thought to depend on the quality of the soil on which the plant grows – with light, dry soils increasing its potency.

Concluding my visit, a rather distinct ladybird drew my attention. Quite unlike anything I have seen before here in the North, it’s distinct appearance reminded me of something seen elsewhere, in France and in London. My suspicions proving justified when, upon closer scrutiny, it was revealed to be a Harlequin Ladybird – perhaps the only ladybird in the entire world maligned as opposed to adored. And also a rather damaging invasive species prophesied to bring about the downfall of native ladybird populations.


Harlequin Ladybird and larvae, brought home for closer inspection