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Ignatius 'Iggy' Hillcoat-Nalletamby is a volunteer for the Brompton Cemetery Conservation Project. Iggy talks about his work as a conservation volunteer and the importance of maintaining sites like Brompton Cemetery.

Brompton Cemetery is one of those places that have an air of something that has stood the test of time and had seen London evolve around it. Walking through the archway I was met by a large line of lime trees, in hues of orange and gold, beckoning and welcoming me in.  “Come and explore” they seemed to whisper – I duly obliged. Walking down the tree lined pathway to my left and right were rows and rows of monuments of varying shapes and sizes. I noted that some areas were overgrown, and teeming with wildlife! I walked further, and in front of me I found the chapel, small in size, but expertly placed, giving it the impression of being the focal point of a painting. Turning back, I took a moment and realised how quiet the world seemed – even though I was in central London. This turned out to be one of the charms of Brompton Cemetery – a hidden gem of quiet and green in the big city that is London.

Brompton had a profound effect on me as I discovered it for the first time, it’s location, the sense of calm it gave me as everyone else around me was rushing around living their busy lives. It turns out that Brompton, being a green space in a city, is in a unique position. It is an area that has many different aspects of life associated with it; local history, remembrance of loved ones and heroes and a host of unique wildlife. In this way, Brompton and indeed cemeteries in general, play an important ecological role in the local community.

Cemeteries as green spaces have countless benefits to the health and wellbeing of the local community. Green spaces have been shown to improve the physical health and fitness of people that use them – people prefer exercising in natural areas away from polluted and dangerous roads. Use of green space has also been associated with reduced levels of stress and depression, acting as an area of refuge in a world of constant sensory overload. Of particular interest to me, as a biologist, is the role that green spaces play in environmental conservation and habitat provision. Brompton in particular is filled with rare and interesting wildlife, ranging from the smallest plant and invertebrates, all the way up to squirrels and birds that use its huge trees as a place to live and find food. The cemetery not only provides a vital ecosystem and habitat for natural visitors, it also allows human visitors to appreciate and feel connected to something bigger- the natural world. This seems to be something that society is moving away from, and in my opinion that is a great shame – nature reminds us of our roots, the simple pleasures in life and Brompton is a glimmer of hope and connection amongst the increasingly alien and “bigger is better” attitude that is Central London.

Robin on top of monument in Brompton Cemetery (Photo: Catherine Day)

Managing Brompton Cemetery poses unique challenges that need to be addressed to ensure that it is accessible to all, for whatever reason they come, be that to appreciate the natural habitats or to visit the resting place of loved ones. This is taken into consideration with the current investment through the Heritage Lottery Funded Brompton Cemetery Conservation Project. The maintenance team are often balancing two key priorities, an access to monuments and the conservation of natural habitats that grow amidst the monuments.

Planting yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor L.) is one example of habitat conservation that has been carried out at Brompton. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasitic plant that lives off other plants that grow around it. It grows roots that latch onto the roots of other nearby plants (mainly grasses) and siphons nutrients from them directly, ultimately bringing about their demise. This may sound horrid at first, but this cunning technique has been widely used by many wildlife reserve managers, including those at Brompton, to help diversify the natural environment. The natural world is full of competition, competition for space, nutrients, water, mates, and most importantly if you’re a plant, sunlight. In this way, those plants that win at the competition of life are those that grow the fastest and the biggest, as this allows them to block out any other smaller species that would grow in the same area. This creates a problem for areas such as grasslands as they are often dominated by only one species of grass – often not a native species. To combat this, we as volunteers are working with the maintenance staff to pilot the use of yellow rattle to help fight back against these dominant grasses. The yellow rattle will grow amongst the grass, steal the nutrients from them and eventually cause them to die. When the yellow rattle itself recedes, it leaves bare patches of soil that can be colonized by other native species that weren’t able to grow before, such as wildflowers and other native grasses. The wildflowers in particular act as vital habitats for bee populations as they are a source of food for the expert pollinators. Thus, as if by magic, planting yellow rattle hopefully leads to a massive increase in plant diversity, vital habitats for bees, blooms of beautiful wildflowers and happy people as they walk around soaking in the best sights and smells nature has to offer!

Volunteers in Brompton Cemetery

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