The Primrose Pilgrimage

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They came from Tooting, Earlsfield, Wandsworth, Summerstown and Streatham, united in the joy of newly-discovered  shared history about the place where they live. It was the warmest of Saturdays in mid-September, a day I will never forget. For almost a year we have been absorbed with the story of Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’ and trying to tell it to as many people as possible. It’s involved trips to museums, libraries and archives, consulting with experts. We’ve done guided tours, talks and school visits to spread the word. There have been trips to daffodil farms and involvement in community events encouraging people to make handmade flowers, write poetry and paint murals. We have found out about the likes of horticultural contemporaries such as Nellie Roberts, Frederick Sander, William Copeland and Henry Moon. We have sourced historic bulb varieties and will be giving them out for people to plant. We have learned more about daffodils than I ever thought there was to know. Nothing though was quite like the trip to Peter Barr’s grave in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley on ‘The Primrose Pilgrimage’.

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An article in an edition of ‘The Journal of Horticulture and Home Farmer’ in the Lindley Library Archive indicated that a few years before his death, his daffodil work done, Peter Barr turned his attention to wildflowers. He was working on a classification of primroses – cowslips and oxlips also tickled his interest. His ‘Daffodil King’ legacy assured, but his wildflower work only beginning, he remarked in a letter to fellow daffodil afficianado H.P. Brotherston ‘I wonder who will plant my grave with primroses?’ How could we resist!

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St Pancras and Islington Cemetery opened in 1854. Newly arrived in London and settled in Islington, it’s likely Peter Barr and his wife Martha bought a plot there. The 1861 census has then living at 31 Cloudsley Square. The cemetery is an enormous two hundred acre site with almost one million burials, one of the largest in the country. It was a magical day when we located his resting place a few months ago after a furious search in a densely overgrown section. Under a canopy of trees, midsummer sunlight danced on his headstone. We bathed in a green otherworldliness as we pulled away the ivy to reveal the names of Peter Barr, Martha, their daughter Alice Maud and her husband Edward. Perhaps most movingly of all was the surprise find of a fifth interment. Indicated by the top two lines on the headstone. ‘Samuel Hewlings Barr – born at Tooting July 31st 1869 – died September 17th 1869’ One hundred and fifty years after his infant son’s death, it was as if our connection with Peter Barr was rubber-stamped by these words on the family grave.

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On Saturday we gathered at Tooting Broadway, local residents tickled, curious and most certainly a little moved by this history that most of them knew nothing about a few months ago. We were armed with a spade, trowels and secateurs. We also came with primulas, all the way from County Down and ‘Barrii Conspicuous’ daffodil bulbs from Ron Scamp’s farm in Cornwall. We also had Peter Barr’s Plaque, making a final outing before it gets fixed to the entrance of the Aboyne Estate. Our twenty two stop journey on the Northern Line whizzed by in a whirl of excited anticipation as we read some of the words written about The Daffodil King by pupils at Broadwater Primary School.

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It was all going so well as we tumbled out at East Finchley. Boarding the wrong bus took us off-piste, but gave us a chance to view a bit of suburban north London dissected by the North Circular. Spirits remained high as we met up with Sam Perrin, historian and cemetery guide, who got us back on track and provided some fascinating insights into this remarkable cemetery. To show that Peter Barr is not the only royalty here, on our way to him we passed Henry Croft the original ‘Pearly King’. As we entered the heavily wooded section it all came back and we diverted from the path and tentatively took the plunge into the deep green realm of The Daffodil King.

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At this point something magical happened. Our group of ten, who hadn’t planned what we were going to do – without any words and almost as one, sprang into glorious action. We pulled back twisted ivy roots and tore into the tangled mess on the grave. Removing some of the growth revealed the word BARR in four large letters at the edge of the plot. A small stone urn was straightened. Leaf mulch was gathered and the soil was turned in preparation for the planting of our historic bulbs. (By the way, it’s the same spade you’ll be using next week Mr Pennings!) Water was collected from a nearby tap in plastic bags to feed the voraciously thirsty earth. We then took it in turns to each gently dig in one of the bulbs. It took no more than forty minutes, though maybe I just dreamt that and we were there for hours. In any case I may never again witness a more moving display of teamwork or genuine show of the power of community history to bind people together.

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All our connections worked out on the way home but it’s the one between Peter Barr and our area that had brought us together and our mission to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery has bound that more strongly than I ever believed was possible. Who would imagine such a scene a few days before the 110th anniversary of his death? We will be back soon, Mr Barr to check on our pilgrimage progress – FLOWER TO THE PEOPLE!

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