Nature in the city: An hour in… York Cemetery

5 Mar 2013 @ 11.36 am
| News

An abundance of wildlife flourishes in York’s “garden of death”. Photographs: Jane Whitworth
In the first of a new series, Christopher Backhouse seeks out the flora and fauna of York

“It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place” Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Sweet indeed. Recently described as one of York’s six most romantic places, the 24 acre York Cemetery, “is the last resting place of 122,710 people since it opened in 1891,” said Mr Waterston the warden. It is also home to an astonishing variety of living plants and animals.

Early spring flowers looked at their best in my hour on a beautiful, sunny February day. Snowdrops abound, while celandines, aconites and crocus added variety to the wonderful show. Soon there will be daffodils, bluebells and hyacinths in abundance.

A large eucalyptus caught the eye among the varied collection of trees which includes a mature magnolia, poplars, beech, ash and many catkin laden willows. Beneath the trees there are an assortment of shrubs and in the wilder part, thickets of brambles, cover for small birds, and later food for the insects attracted to the buddleia planted in profusion along a south facing wall known as the Butterfly Walk.


High in the trees six, for gold, magpies excitedly called as their courtship begins. A sentinel crow stood on guard watching the few visitors below while keeping his beady eye on his territory. In the far distance, over the city, a buzzard, vagrant from the countryside, floated on stiff wings. A pheasant called from a far corner. Small birds abound and as the year progresses more will seek nesting sites away from the noise and bustle of the outside world.

A whiff of fox scent betrays their presence and I was told that there is certainly one resident dog fox in the cemetery, possibly two and their families. It would be interesting to locate the earths and to hear tell of any sightings both inside and outside the perimeter.

The Friends of York Cemetery have erected bat boxes and one of them has been occupied over the winter. A summer evenings bat watching would be rewarding. The Friends have also created shelters for insects and small mammals, including hedgehogs at intervals in the more informal parts of the area.

There are no serried, formal ranks of gravestones or monuments in the cemetery. There are some scattered war graves of Yorkshire servicemen from the first and second world wars among the old and newer memorials. A visit is a must to experience the peace, poignancy and sometimes humour of this inspiring place so close to the city walls and yet seeming so far away.