Elegy in a city churchyard

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Francesca Greenoak discovers a graveyard with a new lease of life. Not all city schools find field studies a problem. In densely-populated Stoke Newington in north London, Abney Park cemetery, created from parkland in the 1830s (but now taking only occasional burials) has become an educational and recreational resource greatly appreciated by local residents. Sixteen or so local schools use its 12 hectares, many of them within walking distance.

Janet Ullman, Abney's environmental education officer was waiting for a class of primary children by some elaborate tombs, overtopped by large trees and infilled by saplings, bramble, bushes and ivy. In the early years of the cemetery, the local gentry vied for grandeur with their memorial angels, shrouded urns, garlands and lions. Later, vistas were filled up and the drives crammed with new burials. So now the gravestones are as crowded together as passengers in a commuter train.

Abney Park cemetery was one of the first to recognise the need for rehabilitation and conservation, setting up its own management trust in 1992. An environmental team funded by a community grant from the London Borough of Hackney undertakes conservation work and enthusiastically explores the educational possibilities, from invertebrate and plant studies (primary to A-level), to the geology and history revealed by gravestones.

Momentarily, the sullen sky lets through some sunlight, making the sodden grasses sparkle, and Class 3 from Grassmere Primary School comes tumbling through the gate. They are in a state of high excitement. Counting the heads seems impossible, but Janet persuades them into pairs, equipping each with a clipboard, bug worksheet and bug box.

Leaping on to a nearby bench, she recaptures the attention of the children who are already beginning to peel off in all directions, telling them that for the morning, they are her voice hushes dramatically explorers, but Grassmere Class 3 is having none of this they are hunters. Janet assents: right, they are hunters but a "special kind".

Class 3 likes being special and before Janet has finished speaking, they are off, searching up and down for the tiny wool-strands she scattered about earlier. Back from their quest before she has the Sellotape ready, they clamour to stick on their multicoloured worms. In a few minutes, a halt is called and they count up the colours, finding that the bright reds and yellows far outnumber the few blacks although equal numbers of all colours were originally distributed. They argue out the best colour to be if you are an insect, and where you would hide amongst the kerbs and statues, bushes and trees of the cemetery. Then they go out looking.

The lively hunters shriek with excitement when they spot their quarry but they are gentle as they coax them into the bug boxes. There is more buglife around than we had expected and from the first foray the children discover more invertebrates than they have on their worksheets and set about drawing new sketches of their special animal. Alex and Michael have a large vivid green shieldbug, Shani and Jaya a shiny beetle, Eva and Jenny have found a leaf-hopper and are puzzling over a twig with coral spot fungus.

Next (a stupendous effort) is a silent walk, observing flying insects, and finally an introduction to the cycle of life and death as we gather around Janet, who takes on the role of a predatory ladybird while the children are leaf-eaters. Actually the children have already been talking among themselves, some have helped to bury dead pets, some have garden compost heaps. Newly alert to small signs, they have also begun to notice fungal decomposers as well as invertebrates. It is this kind of heightened experience of the natural world that the Abney team is working towards.

Abney Park Cemetery Trust, The South Lodge, Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington High Street, London N16 0LN. Tel: 071-275 7557

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