Letting the cemeteries grow wild for #NoMowMay

On wilder cemeteries and flowering trees

After a year of lockdowns and Covid waves, I managed to visit London again for a couple of days in what could be the wettest May on record in the UK. May can often be unsettled and is still spring after all, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. That said, I’ve never known it this stormy.

Camberwell Old Cemetery

London is renowned for its wild cemeteries with Nunhead being one of the most famous. One of my favourites is Camberwell Old Cemetery, a haven for uncommon local bird species like green woodpecker, stock dove and mistle thrush. These are species which like open, parkland style habitats with rich grasslands alongside older or veteran trees to nest in.

St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard as seen from the cemetery

It has some good views of London’s skyline in places, with quite interesting correlations between tombstones and skyscrapers.

A Victorian gravestone resting against the stump of a horse chestnut

This isn’t something that happens by accident. I can’t tell you how many times in the past I lobbied for these grasslands to be allowed to grow where possible or appropriate. Many times in May I would walk through and find the evidence of strimmed grass where flowers had flourished days previously. It’s a matter of communication with grounds staff but also the political will from people in managerial and leadership roles. There’s also the matter of complaints, the sense of things being ‘unkempt’ and ‘wasteland’.

The demand to mow everything is ingrained in English society. It’s a destructive tendency that reduces biodiversity on many levels, however much unintended. The success of initiatives like #NoMowMay are a sign that things are beginning to change and ecological literacy is developing in society. In places like Camberwell Old Cemetery it’s a ‘no-brainer’ because this is old meadowland and it’s been grown and cut once a year, or so, for hundreds of years.

It’s not just in the grasslands that flowers are appearing at this time of year. Many of our trees are angiosperms (flowering plants) and horse chestnut is one of May’s most attractive.

Up close these flowers can look like orchids, sometimes.

In England we have a tree that is also named after the month. One of hawthorn’s folk names is ‘may’. The ‘haw’ refers to the fruit, the ‘thorn’ the tree’s prickly nature. I wonder if the climate crisis may turn hawthorn into ‘april’.

It’s an exceptionally good tree for invertebrates.

In Czechia, my friend Karel recommended checking the flowers of hawthorn if you’re looking for insects. He wasn’t wrong. This tree was covered in large beetles, hornets, wasps, butterflies and bees, all nectaring on it. We lack that biomass and diversity in the UK, perhaps because we stopped allowing our grasslands to flower. At least we now have #NoMowMay to help us on our way.

There’s an old hawthorn growing in my family’s garden. That evening I had a look for invertebrates on the shrubs and flowers. It was a relief, in a way, to find the flowers of the hawthorn were being pollinated by a marmalade fly. Our hawthorn still has something to offer in the wettest of Mays.

Thanks for reading.

Photography: Hawthorns on a hazy day up on the South Downs

Storrington, The South Downs, April 2019

A recent walk along the the South Downs on a hazy day with hawthorns. They tough it out in some of the most intensively managed landscapes the UK has to offer.

A hawthorn stands alone, overlooking the folding Downs as they run deeper into West Sussex.

This hawthorn faces out over the Arun Valley towards Pulborough. The Low Weald is hidden by mist in the north.

Along the South Downs Way the trees show signs of pathway lopping, or an extreme politeness to the thousands of users of the National Trail.

A hawthorn obscuring a village built along spring-lines. The Arun snakes away in the background.


A tanker sits in an open field. I think that’s a hawthorn splodged against the South Downs Way towards Amberley.

Chantry Hill - 7-4-2019 djg-31

A monoculture of wheat (I think) with a single oak on the horizon. Wheat has been grown in the South Downs for thousands of years. It has only become mechanised and intensified in the past 100 years. We may idealise the days of horse and plough in the South Downs but it was a harsh and unforgiving existence. Few people could cope with it today. There were also fewer people to feed.

There was a single break of light over the Downs. The hazy nature of the day makes the photo look like a painting. My friend said it was good that the simple things matter to me, which apparently wasn’t an insult. I agree.