Perhaps I should have been thinking about the long game, when we first started running Bug Hunts at Nunhead Cemetery’s annual Open Day. I can’t actually remember when we began. The consensus seems to pick 1986 as our starting point. The Open Day had been run for a couple of years before, but this was to be the big one, and the Bug Hunt was born.
The premise was easy, the kids would come up and collect a plastic container, see what bugs they could find whilst they wandered about through the huge overgrown burial ground, bring them back to the stall to have them identified by yours truly, and receive a really cool certificate with what they found, Latin names and all. We were mobbed. And we have been every year since.
At first, it was just me, a few photographs and a simple trestle table. We were a bit more formal in them days. One dressed for the occasion, of course. That’s my favourite red bow-tie, I still wear it. I probably used a fountain pen to write the certificates.
I’m still not entirely sure what was going on with my hair in 1990. I vaguely remember thinking it was my Oscar Wilde look. I just looked like my mother. We had splashed out on a table cloth, but the signs were still all hand-written.
Every so often we would be caught out by the weather. The Bug Hunt would become a Slug Hunt and I would have a raging cold from sitting in the drizzle. By 2002 we had a gazebo to offer some protection from the elements. My father would come and help with the hordes (he’s just out of shot here), and my children would loiter in the background, peering over at the prizes brought back by eager bug-hunters. I’d usually still wear a tie, but the seriously greying hair is starting to look like faded astroturf.
So this is us in 2012 — casual chic, sans tie, sans hat. My father has decided, aged 82, that he no longer fancies the long drive up into the madness of London’s congested roads, so Lillian has been roped in to help. She writes out the certificates as I breeze on about woodlouse names (Porcellio scaber = “scabby little pig”), pretend to eat the occasional strawberry snail or describe in elaborate gory detail just how a parasitic wasp’s maggots eat the poor caterpillar alive, from the inside, to a disgusted, but enthralled, 5-year-old.
It’s all great fun. It’s exhausting, but immensely satisfying. Some of the kids come back year after year, and their parents proudly tell us that they have kept all the Bug Hunt certificates going back to… well, however many years it might be. And occasionally, it really comes home to us how long this has all been going on — when someone arrives with her 3-year-old, to do the bug hunt, just like she herself did it, 25 years ago.