In search of Firecrests at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington

In search of Firecrests at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington

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This visit to London certainly opened to my eyes as to how much wildlife can be found in the tiny pockets of green that are scattered throughout it. One of these gems turned out to be Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington.

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Whilst watching Winterwatch a couple of years ago, it showed a cemetery in London which was a popular site to discover firecrests (Regulus ignacipilla), using it as a refuelling stop off as they fly over London. Winterwatch should have been a clue at this stage (it was now summer), but it was somewhere I wanted to explore so decided to hit my old friend google and find out where it is. Coincidentally, it was only 25 minutes away by foot from where we were staying in Dalston.

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So with tripod firmly in hand I set off on another beautiful day, to spend a Saturday afternoon rooting around a now no longer in use cemetery.

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Abney Park opened up as a garden cemetery in the 1840s and was a pioneering non-denominational place of rest, the first of its kind in Europe. A total of 196,843 burials took place up to the year 2000, however the majority of these were before the 1970s, with only close family members or deed owners being permitted burials after this. In the 90s it was recognised as the largest woodland ecosystem in North London and so rightly became listed as the first statutory Local Nature Reserve in the London Borough of Hackney.

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Upon further reading about firecrests and their movements, I soon realised that the likelihood of spotting one in the summer would be incredibly unlikely but I felt it was good to explore the cemetery so when I return in the winter I will be able to hit the ground running.

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The site is spread over 32 acres, free to enter and there are numerous paths and trails that criss-cross and meander their way around it. I lost my bearings for probably the first two hours, and just enjoyed the experience of being somewhere so overgrown and wooded, in the centre of such a huge city.

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Birdsong and butterflies filled the air but unfortunately nothing of photographical worth. I could hear, and would often get a fleeting glimpse of a rose-ringed or ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri) that is becoming an ever common sight in the green spaces of London.

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I spent nearly five hours wandering this treasure trove of history, drawn to many an intricately carved tomb that is now overgrown with ivies, nettles and cow parsley. The atmosphere is almost jungle-like in some places, dense trees overhead, allowing rays of light to filter down onto the dense undergrowth. A little more humidity and I could have been in Cambodia and not London.

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In the centre (or what felt like it) lies a small gothic chapel, designed by William Hosking, it is now sadly unsafe for entry and so surrounded by a barrier making it unsuitable for wide glass photography, hopefully this will be righted in years to come as it offered a lovely focal point erupting through the trees and greenery.

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I was a little wary when I first entered, there are a lot of small overgrown paths, and you can find yourself alone very quickly, my over-cautious mind going into overtime about muggings (I am carrying expensive gear) but I soon felt at ease and I cannot wait to return.

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I did enter conversation with a couple of people, one a man in his 60s who was brought up in the area. He told me that even after it had closed as a working cemetery people would sneak in at night to bury relatives near their loved ones! He also said his aunty is in here (officially), but despite knowing the area where she is, he can’t find her as it’s so overgrown. But, he loves looking and visits often!

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I must admit, now that I know it’s there, it will be added to my list of priorities. It had such a peaceful feel, and if you catch it at the right time, it may be possible to catch a glimpse of fire flitting through the trees.

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