City of London Cemetery and Crematorium

by Sheldon

It was an October morning 1888 when an Elm Coffin left the City mortuary in Golden Lane.

This was no ordinary Coffin: and this could be verified by the thousands of people who lined the route it meandered on its way to the Ilford Cemetery. Not only did they line the route, but they adorned the rooftops and windows of buildings which overlooked the casket upon its final journey. It was never left unwatched. Upon its arrival at the ragstone gates of the Cemetery, many men, women and children had escorted the body to a public grave where it was lowered into the welcoming soil, overseen by the Reverend Mr Dunscombe. Despite the sombreness of the funeral, the horror as to how the woman contained inside had met her end shocked the East-End and the nation.

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A few weeks back I found myself at Liverpool Street Station boarding a rickety old 1980′s train, heading somewhere in the north-east of London, to a place called Manor Park. East London is one of those trendy places now: however whatever investment filtered through as a result of the Olympics seemed to have bypassed the route I took to Manor Park, where I disembarked and instantly felt a bit frightened. I was worried that by the end of the trip, I’d end up in the place I was visiting.

Me and Nick decided to visit the City of London Cemetery, where Catherine Eddowes, the lady aforementioned in the opening paragraph and fourth Jack the Ripper victim, joined Polly Nichols in being laid to rest.

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It was the City’s answer to its Churchyards, which, upon closure on 1854, had a hundred or so Parish Churches to provide burial space for. The sprawl of urban development meant placement within the square mile was impossible, so land was acquired from Lord Wellesley, a cousin of the Duke of Wellington, to build a new Cemetery that opened in 1855. Opened by William Haywood, a surveyor and an engineer to the City of London Commissioners of Sewers (and in this capacity worked with James Bunstone Bunning, who laid out Nunhead Cemetery, to design the Holborn Viaduct) in conjunction with  Dr John Simon, a surgeon and public health officer.

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It was opened a few years after the Magnificent Seven, and it’s very clear that its deliberately cherry-picked the best elements of its forerunners to create an elegant, well proportioned burial ground. And that’s what sets this one apart from the many me, Nick, Steve, Ian, Ben and Christina have visited. If you want to sample what these Victorian places would have looked like in their prime – get yourself here. Because it is IMMACULATE.

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What the blazes are these? Never seen them before!

In a highly contentious move: areas of the Cemetery are being reclaimed and opened, in a bid to continue using it for future generations of Londoners. Graves that are 75 years or more in age are being labelled with a sign indicating their eligibility to be reopened for more burials, as many were never fully occupied in the first place. If you fancy joining John Smith and his wife Jane who died in 1858 or Michael Bloggs who was born to eternal sleep in 1904, you can find out how to do so here. And you’d be in good company too – Sir Bobby Moore, Wren’s best mate Robert Hooke and Alfred Horsley Hinton are somewhere in this expanse of the dead!

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Close up of the Vigiland Tomb. Originally to David Vigiland, whose family fought the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to remove his remains from Mombasa. It took four years to sculpt from a 25 ton block of Carrera Marble

Close up of the Vigiland Tomb. Originally to David Vigiland, whose family fought the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to remove his remains from Mombasa. It took four years to sculpt from a 25 ton block of Carrera Marble

The cleanliness of what is reputedly the largest such municipal facility in the UK, possibly even in Europe, sanitises the gruesome end Catherine Eddowes endured at the hands of the Leather Apron upon the cobbles of Mitre Square in August 1888.

All photography © Nick J Richards 2014 

For a larger selection of Nick’s photography, please visit Facebook and Twitter 

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Shuffle Off This Mortal Coil

by Sheldon

What does the first Labour Mayor of Poplar, the bloke who built the Cutty Sark and the supplier of animals to P. T. Barnum have in common? Following the successful debut of our Brompton tour, I am pleased to announce I shall be delivering a tour of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park as part of the Shuffle Festival 2014!

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In the words of Time-Out magazine, ‘Shuffle started life last summer as a film festival in an abandoned psychiatric hospital in Mile End – a friendly, fun and downright lovely community project masterminded by Danny Boyle…more than a film festival, Shuffle is a local get-together and cultural free-for-all, with music, art, a pop-up restaurant (using locally foraged foods – the mind boggles), circus acts, a village fête, swimming pool and a mile-long hopscotch.’

I saw the event advertised through the Twitter of our good friends at Tower Hamlets, whom we interviewed last year for a blog post and podcast. The idea was attractive to me so I approached them to see if I could contribute in some way. After venturing up to Mile End by way of the District Line, I dropped in on Project Manager Lizzy and our old friend Ken to reacquaint myself with a Cemetery that holds more deceased people within its walls than living people currently residing in Tower Hamlets!

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© Iris Jones Photography 2013

© Iris Jones Photography 2013

The festival itself runs from the 30th July until the 3rd August, with my tour on both Saturday the 2nd and Sunday the 3rd. The walk will showcase the lives of some notable East-enders and the impact the Cemetery had on the local area: revealing a little of the history of this particular member of the Magnificent Seven to give a backdrop to the setting of this marvellous gala. Ken will also be offering a guided walk revealing the plants and wildlife of the Cemetery, on top of a plethora of films and other events including picnics, comedy and music which can be viewed here.

The Godfather of Soul also happens to be buried here…!

The walk will last roughly 45 minutes and tickets cost £3 (available here), starting at 5.45pm at the Entrance lodge/Soanes Centre. Do come along to celebrate this gem of east London for what will promise to be a remarkable turn of events!

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Looking for the Mystery Saint of Montcuit

by Christina

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It’s Friday night and I’m home doing Internet research. It is infuriating because I can’t find what I’m looking for, and in this day and age, when does that ever happen anymore? Seriously – when was the last time you typed a search into Google and you just didn’t find a single thing? Not a bean? It is happening to me right now. And I think this is because I am attempting to write about a place remote enough that the Internet has not quite discovered it yet. It is not in Antarctica or at the bottom of an ocean. It is in rural Normandy.

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Normandy has been in the news a bit recently hasn’t it? On account of the recent 70th anniversary of D-Day commemorations. Wherever you are and whatever you do for a living, I’m sure at some point in the last couple of months you’ve seen the photographs of the shores of the beaches at Arromanches with Veterans paying their respects, or the Queen visiting the British war cemetery at Bayeux. And last week I went to visit the region, and I looked out over the beaches, and stood in the beautiful Bayeux War Cemetery surrounded by wonderful smelling Wisteria and the graves of over 3000 soldiers, some as young as 18.

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And it was very moving. But a lot is known already about D-Day and what happened on 6th June 1944 so I won’t linger over that. The information that I’m searching for relates to somewhere further inland.

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The village I was staying in is about an hour away from that coastline. It’s called Montcuit and it lies in the district of Saint-Sauveur-Lendelin, in the department of Manche, in the region of Basse-Normandy, which was freed from German control 70 years ago last month. It seems somehow apart from the rest of the world. There’s no phone signal for a start. Unless you stand in a certain position, in the kitchen, by the window, with one hand on your head. Not that you’d want phone signal. It would detract from the insane beauty of a village that has 196 inhabitants, most of which I’m convinced are chickens, ducks and horses. There are 7 streetlights on the main road, and they go off at 11pm. There is no shop.

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There is a giant Catholic church, because every village in rural Normandy, no matter how tiny, has a giant church. The church is the Eglise Saint-Martin and it belongs to the parish of Saint-Sauveur-Lendelin, which is made up of 11 villages. As each village has a church, they share out the Sunday services between them all. My host and hostess for the week – Helen and Nick, go to the parish services. Helen told me when I arrived that each village also has a patron saint. The patron saint of Montcuit, she informed me, is Saint-Claude, who cured a young child of Meningitis on Christmas Day, by feeding it fresh cherries. And THAT is the information I am looking for, which brings me back to my fruitless (haha – cherries – get it?) Google search on this Friday evening. I have found a Saint Claude. But he doesn’t appear to have fed anyone any fresh fruit of note, and he doesn’t appear to be linked to Montcuit in any way. I wish I was back there, so that I could go and look up the parish records, if such things exist, and find what I’m looking for. Because, actually, Montcuit doesn’t seem to have discovered the Internet yet. Or to be more accurate – the Internet has not really discovered Montcuit.

Which comes as no surprise really, when you take into account that one of the main lanes in the village looks like this:

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You wouldn’t really want it to be slapped all over the Internet. It seems too quaint for that. I feel almost bad for doing it.

While I was in Montcuit, I took a wander around the churchyard. In the great tradition of village churchyards, it seems that every resident of the village who has died in the last century and a half is buried here. What strikes me is the amount of space – which gives you an indication to the population of the village over the years. This is no London. There is no jostling for space here. In fact, there is room enough for husbands and wives to have their own gigantic graves. Each! Next to each other. It’s a wonderful sight. The churchyard shows no sign of running out of room.

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There’s a magnificent Yew tree directly in front of the church, and a monument to ‘Les Enfants des Montcuit’ who lost their lives in the two World Wars. The list of names under the 1914-1918 war is so long that you imagine every male of fighting age in the village was probably lost. How extremely devastating.

As I walk around the churchyard, I look for signs of a mystery saint who fed cherries to sickly children, curing them of all ills. I’m probably not looking hard enough, but there is nothing.

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My Google search too, has yielded no results. The most famous occupant of this village, as far as the Internet is concerned, is the Yew tree in the churchyard. 

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Do you know anything about Catholic Saints of small French villages who cured children of Meningitis with cherries? Get in touch.

I guess maybe I’m no good at doing research but I do remember a story that one of my patients told me, maybe a year ago now. He had celebrated his birthday the same day that he’d stormed the beaches at Normandy. He showed me his gunshot wound, now 69 years old. ‘One minute I was running up the beach and the next – Bang. And I was on the ground.’

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One story, told in person, is worth a thousand Google searches.

All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2014

 

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One Man and his Dog(s): Stamps, Museums and Steam

by Sheldon

I was at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently to see the small section of funerary monuments and an exhibition on the works of the Georgian architect, William Kent. Before viewing, Steve and I wanted a spot of lunch so went out into the beautifully landscaped central square for a coffee and some pastries. It was here that I spotted two very strange memorials at about knee-height, on one of the buttresses of the Romanesque building.

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What a bizarre place to have two memorials, let alone their dedication to what were once clearly beloved pets. It’s the second plaque that grabbed my attention, as the gentlemen in question was one of the people I’d talked about the first Cemetery Club tour that happened the other week!

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Sir Henry Cole was a giant in Victorian society. Born in Bath, aged fifteen he started working for the Public Records Office where he helped overhaul and maintain the British Archive. Alongside Sir Rowland Hill, he helped implement the postage system which we still bemoan today, and is credited with designing the first ever stamp – the Penny Black. He wrote Children’s books under the name ‘Felix Summerly’ and invented a type of teapot. Not content with that, he’s also the bloke who invented the Christmas Card in 1843, commissioning John Calcott Horsley to provide the then controversial artwork of a family boozing away merrily in a festive scene. A shrewd manoeuvre which clearly sought to exploit the postage system he’d help organise three years earlier. Cole’s influence extended into education when he was asked by the government to reorganize the Schools of Design. Retirement didn’t stifle his efforts and he went on to set up a Cookery School.

© Wally Gobetz 2006

© Wally Gobetz 2006

His best known achievement is his association with the development of most of South Kensington, which including it rechristening it from its former name of Brompton. This was as a consequence of his involvement in setting up the Great Exhibition: it was he who decided what was to happen to the £186,000 surplus that the spectacle generated. His enthusiasm and dedication to projects was recognised by Prince Albert, who when needing momentum for an idea, was heard to say ‘when we want steam, we must get Cole’.

Cole was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, (originally called the South Kensington Museum) and it’ s under his tenure that many innovations were invested to ensure its credibility and attractiveness as an attraction were upheld. The Museum was the first to be lit by gaslight to extend opening hours, as well as attempting to lure people away from the Gin Palace. It was also the first Museum to have an public restaurant.

Cole as he was caricatured in Vanity Fair 1871, alongside Jim. His small stature compared to his dog is clear to see, as was his renowned wild hair and beard, baggy trousers and bulging waistcoat.

Cole as he was caricatured in Vanity Fair 1871, alongside Jim. His small stature compared to his dog is clear to see, as was his renowned wild hair and beard, baggy trousers and bulging waistcoat.

Tycho and particularly Jim were his faithful canine companions, who apparently rarely left their masters side. According to Sir Christopher Brayling, ‘The Builder’ magazine reported that these two well-known figures would ‘be seen clambering over bricks, mortar and girders up ladders and about scaffolding’ during the construction of the museum. Cole wrote in his diary that Jim apparently disliked the pomp and Ceremony that he was rather fond of, to the point where one morning as he prepared to join a Royal Procession in his court suit, the sight of him stopped Jim running down the stairs to greet him as he usually did. ‘He was pole-axed’, commented Cole.

His grave in Brompton.

His grave in Brompton. ©julia&keld, 2008.

Yet in many ways, the memorials his dogs received are in a better state than Cole’s own. As I researched the tour of Brompton, remarkably, his grave is not in a prominent position nor is it particularly majestic. It was lost in three foot high grass and off the beaten track. It’s weathered, dirty and in my own opinion, hardly a reflection of the work this notoriously hard-working and sensitive man accomplished in life. Albert’s terrier, Cole, like his dogs true memorial is the place he lived and worked for so many decades, a museum that showcases the best in decorative arts and design in a place that still contributes massively to London life.

 

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Guide & Seek: The Lost Lives of Brompton Cemetery

by Christina 

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It is just past midday at Brompton Cemetery’s south gate. Sheldon is about to run through his first ever Cemetery Club tour before actual people begin arriving. As we start off for stop number 1 (Jon Snow), two dishevelled looking men with weather-beaten faces, Springsteen T-Shirts and bottles of cider in their hands start shouting at us. Or more specifically: me. ‘Alright love? Like the tattoos!’ I get this a lot. I thank them and we carry on, but they are still shouting after us. ‘Emmeline Pankhurst is over there! Go an’ ‘ave a look! She got women the vote!’ The voices fade away as we leave them behind. I turn to Sheldon. ‘I’m going on their tour. There’s alcohol on their tour’.

But all joking aside, Sheldon -a recently qualified Westminster Tour Guide – is a complete pro already, and he delivers a focused, informative and very interesting tour of the cemetery for us. All kinks are ironed out during our run through. We get lost a couple of times. We end up in the bushes, and discover that the inventor of the Christmas card is hidden beneath brambles. Then we go over the road to Tesco to buy water, as it is a beautiful but very warm day. Then we trek back to the beginning and find our tour group – a small but perfectly formed party numbering seven.

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Sheldon then transitions seamlessly into being a Cemetery Expert. He begins by painting us a picture of what London looked like pre-cemeteries – complete with a dollop of Victorian gore (church vergers jumping on raised bits of ground caused by too many dead people, to get the coffins to stay beneath the surface of the land etc) for our delectation, to set the scene. He reminds us that these Magnificent Seven cemeteries would have been well out of the centre of the city back in the 1800′s, and we look about and imagine we are actually standing in Victorian countryside at the advent of Brompton Cemetery…..

…..and then Sheldon leads us off into the Victorian wonderland of the Open Air Cathedral….

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At the grave of Lone Wolf

 

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Sheldon gets everyone looking in a catacomb a la Sheldon

Peering into the Catacombs

The tour lasts for 90 minutes – and the time flies by. I usually lose interest in things after approximately a minute and a half and I can’t believe it when the tour is over. I could have listened to Sheldon talk all day. He doesn’t merely tell us about the lives of each of the notables he has chosen for the tour. He paints a picture for us. At the end of each stop, he gives us a teaser of what to expect at the next one. And we are never disappointed. My favourite is Blanche Roosevelt Macheta – who Sheldon nearly cut from the tour! – the lady who, not content to be remembered in death by an angel or cross as her headstone, chose a statue of herself to mark her final resting place.

Blanche in all her glory.

Blanche in all her glory.

I also find a soft spot for the stories of The Lone Wolf and William Banting – the latter being the original inventor of what became known as the Atkins Diet.

And I am not the only one who finds the tour fascinating, and neither are the rest of our group members.  A lady passing by with a bag full of lunch and magazines, ready for a leisurely afternoon spent on the grass by the chapel at the top end of the Cemetery stops to listen to Sheldon talk about Emmeline Pankhurst. She is so enraptured that she stays for the whole tour. I get talking to her during walks between the graves and she tells me that she has lived in the neighbourhood for years and walks through Brompton Cemetery often. It is lovely that she gets to learn something new about her neighbourhood, and after the tour she waves merrily to us as she departs, telling us that her mother is coming to visit soon. Thanks to all the things she had learned here today, she is going to give her a proper tour of the Cemetery when she comes to stay!

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The Chapel

 

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After it is all over, some of us retire to a nearby pub, The Atlas, where we sit amid hanging baskets and window boxes in the beer garden and drink real ale and eat from the jar of sweets that Joseph, a member of the tour and avid Cemetery Club reader, has brought from Wimbledon Fair. We fish out candy sticks and chocolate coins and talk about history and geography and cemeteries and society and the sun shines and it has been a good day.

Yes, I think it’s fair to say that the First Official Cemetery Club Tour has been a resounding success.

Sheldon at Brompton

All photographs © Christina Owen 2014

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A New Cemetery

by Ian

So, you’ve run out of space in your cemetery: what do you do? Devotees of Cemetery Club will recall Sheldon, Christina and other describing how the Magnificent Seven were forced to close to new internments as demand outstripped supply. The living may be forced to bury their dead in far-flung places not of their first choosing or maybe even consider a nice tidy cremation instead! But what if you are a thriving local village church, still serving a community whose members desire a local resting place for their mortal remains? I was fascinated to hear of just such a turn of events at the secluded and stunningly beautiful church of St. Martin of Tours, Chelsfield, Kent.

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St. Martin (same saintly dedication as that of St. Martin-in-the-fields) was a fourth century Roman Soldier turned conscientious objector, monkish missionary and latterly Bishop of Tours in central France. He was deemed responsible for several miracles, including the most famous story associated with him, when he divided his cloak to share with a freezing pauper who Martin then envisioned in a dream as being Christ himself. He awoke to find the garment restored to its original immaculate fullness. This and other such miraculous stories led to Martin being elevated to Sainthood and Patron Saint of Soldiers. It is thought that the name of this saint was introduced to England by the Norman aristocracy who accompanied William the Conqueror. As they settled the land and founded churches in the Norman style, Martin is one of the saints to whom these soldier invaders dedicated their churches.

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The parish Church of Chelsfield was divided from the centre of old Chelsfield village in 1926 when the new Orpington Bypass was built to relieve traffic from the nearby town centre, linking the A21 with the A20. The lack of any large scale development has meant that the church retains an air of seclusion which, as it turns out, has served it rather well. St. Martin’s church is a beautiful building showing clear signs of its Norman origins. There were two graveyards, the original one surrounding the church building itself and a latter extension. Clever and wise church leaders noticed that more space would soon be needed and about 30 years ago an area of farmland adjacent to the existing graveyard was purchased from the Tryhorn family for the church by public subscription. It remained unused and grazed by horses until the original graveyards were full. But this was only the start of the process.

Chelsfield used to be in Kent but is now part of the vast London Borough of Bromley and planning permission for a change of use from farmland to burial ground was required. Bromley Council consulted English Heritage who dug test holes to ascertain whether there were any significant archaeological remains on the site – a painfully long and frustrating process by all reports. Once planning permission was eventually obtained, a faculty from the Diocese of Rochester was required for the burial ground as well as permission to re-build a decaying Victorian boundary wall. Simple post and rail fencing was erected to mark out the land to be consecrated and all was set for the Consecration service itself.

On a gloriously sunny Sunday in July 2013 the Rt. Rev. Brian Castle, Bishop of Tonbridge, conducted the service of consecration supported by the church wardens who signed on behalf of the incumbent, as the church was without a Rector at the time. Holy water was sprinkled in each of the four corners of the new burial ground using a branch of Rosemary. Prayers were said and, finally, a brand new cemetery was ready for use.

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The new ground provides spaces for 1000 plots which, at an average burial rate of ten per year will hopefully last St. Martin’s for the next 100 years. Anyone who is a member of the church electoral roll or who is resident within the parish has a right to be buried there; others may also be laid to rest with the permission of the Incumbent. However, there will be no grand mausoleums or grand Victorian monumental architecture here, the rules of the Rochester Diocese are strict: Headstone only, no monuments, thank you!

Post script: Mr Tryhorn (of the family from whom the land was purchased) recently died and, although he had chosen to be cremated, the church gave his family plot number one. Accordingly, he will forever occupy ‘pole position’ in the eponymous graveyard.

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Songs of Innocence and Experience:- Meeting William Blake and Disappointment at Bunhill

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

- London by William Blake

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by Christina

William Blake paints a picture of a London full of grit in this poem, the one poem I did not feel I could confidently analyse, should it come up during my A Level English exam, because I didn’t really understand it, didn’t feel I could get my teeth into it. ‘Never mind’ I told myself, because The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, aside from being some of the most mind numbing poetry ever to exist, are great in number, and the chances of London being the poem they choose for the exam paper are very slim.

But ha! The Universe wasn’t smiling on me that day. And somewhere up there, on his higher plane, Blake was laughing his head off.

But now, 13 years later, I think I get the poem a little bit more. Maybe it’s all the time I spend looking for the hidden parts of London, the grim history and the resting places of those long forgotten, those who lived in a London full of plague and gin palaces and you know, mind forged manacles, and things. But it makes sense to me now. Long before we were here, there was a much sootier London where everyone lived closer together, all heaped on top of one another, and were buried the same way. Common burial grounds were the forerunners of the bigger Cemeteries we know today and one of these was Bunhill Fields, which is located off City Road in the London borough of Islington – just outside the City boundaries and with the ultra modern Shoreditch in it’s sights. It used to be fen land, and in 1665, one year before the Great Fire demonstrated just how closely together everything was arranged and burnt down half the City, the City of London Corporation decided to use some of the fen as a common burial ground for victims of the plague who could not be accommodated in the churchyards inside the City.  Walls were built around the burial ground, but the ground was never consecrated, and so the land became somewhere for non conformists – in other words, those who practiced Christianity outside the rulings of the Church of England. And so it remained until 1854, when it became full. Approximately 120,000 interments had taken place there.

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Sheldon has written about Bunhill Fields and it’s origins, and I had wanted to visit for a long time, and never got round to it. But last Friday, a sunny day that warranted strappy shoes and a giant sun hat, I found myself with a rare day off work, and so I took my Mum, a Congregationalist minister, into London to visit John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and my old friend from my A level days, Mr William Blake. 

Strappy shoes at Bunhill Fields

Strappy shoes at Bunhill Fields

Mum was pretty excited about visiting some of the most famous Non Conformists England has known and I was pretty excited about disappearing among headstones for a while, leaving London behind and falling into a world where red buses and bearded hipsters do not exist. The English Heritage website describes Bunhill as ‘an oasis of city calm’ and I’m all for that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, when we got there, I realised that English Heritage had lied to us.

An oasis of railings.

An oasis of railings.

First of all, the vast majority of graves had been fenced off, leaving only narrow paths to walk along and making it necessary for the unsightly draping of oneself over a metal railing to get even a cursory look at the gravestones nearest to the edges. The innermost stones were out of bounds completely. The Bunhill Fields web page states that you can find an attendant who will be able to open the gates for you to get behind the railings if you visit between 1 -3pm on a Monday to Friday. We arrived at 2pm on a Friday and there was no attendant in sight. The web page also states that ‘some’ graves are behind railings. Read as: all but about 5. On the up side, I was able to stroll right up to William Blake and his wife (or at least, the approximate location of said couple, which is what the stone marks) and take ridiculous selfies.

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And Mum found John Bunyan alright.

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I shall now complain about how Bunhill Fields is not, in any way, an oasis of anything but annoyance. The narrow walkways mean that everyone and his dog (and sometimes dogs, plural) is using the place as a cut through to get from City Road to Bunhill Row, and you gotta keep moving otherwise you’re going to get barged. The abundance of park benches and trees (the saving grace of Bunhill Fields – were it not for the trees casting an aura of shelter and shade over the place, I think I would have got annoyed and left sooner than the 32 minutes it took me to do so) means that every professional person who exists under strip lighting or buried deep in the bowels of the banks and stock exchanges of our fair city 10 hours a day, 6 days a week is collapsed gratefully over every available, sittable surface, lost in their smart phone whilst maneuvering shop bought, plastic sushi towards their face – and they are not just doing this during normal lunchtime hours, but all afternoon long. Hipster beards were in abundance, and I am not used to this sort of contemporary nonsense when visiting a cemetery. I like the living population to decrease, and it very definitely did not.

A hipster.

A hipster.

I could not get a feel for the place and try as I might, I could not even begin to imagine what this part of the city was like in the 17th century. Also, there was BUNTING draped over most of the railings, accompanied by signs advertising a weekend treasure hunt – and nobody in the time of the Plague had time for bunting*.

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* I like bunting, a lot. But there’s no place for it in historical London. It’s too colourful. There was no line in a William Blake poem that went ‘and Lo! T’was Bunting!’

And so, we left. Mum had made noises about going over the road to see Wesley’s Chapel, and I hadn’t paid much attention up until that point, as I had been busy imagining myself skipping happily among large gravestones paying tribute to the Williams and Georges and Ethels of another time, in which everybody died aged 34 for hours upon hours. But now I suggested it because we had fought our way through scores of Friday commuters in the baking hot sun for over an hour to get to where we were and 32 minutes spent scowling at a railing didn’t really seem like a good day out.

a railing.

a railing.

So we went across the road and YES. This was better. This was somewhere that didn’t feel like London. In fact, as soon as we entered the courtyard of Wesley’s Chapel, with his house and the museum off to our right, it felt like being in a lovely garden somewhere in the Mediterranean.  The sky was blue and there were lovely trees and flowering plants everywhere. I spent 10 minutes taking pictures of a fuchsia. Then we went into the chapel, which was beautiful and Mum demonstrated her potential as an informative and interesting tour guide by repeating ‘oh yes, now THIS is a non-conformist chapel’ and then not saying why, for about 15 minutes. There were some cracking stained glass windows. And beautifully finished wooden pews, and aside from the distant sound of a lawnmower, the rest of the world was nowhere to be found. It was incredibly peaceful. The chapel is free to go into (although donations are accepted) and I recommend that you do if you’re ever in the area.

 

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Are we still in London?!

Are we still in London?!

We paid a visit to the toilets, made famous by Sheldon in this Cemetery Club entry, while we were there (although obviously to the ladies) – and a more beautiful example of public toilet design and layout I never did see. The tiled floor was particularly marvelous. Thomas Crapper would have been proud. 

And then we decided to go looking for Wesley himself, and we found him, in a small and unexpected garden around the back of the chapel, hidden away completely from the City. It was beautiful, it was quiet, and it was devoid of lunching hipsters. I wanted to go across the road and shout HEY YOU! YOU’RE ALL MISSING A TRICK! YOU WANT REAL PEACE AND TRANQUILITY – GO ACROSS THE ROAD AND DISCOVER A BIT OF HIDDEN LONDON! but then everyone would know about it and some things are best kept secret, at least until you blog about it. I told Sheldon that I had found the hidden garden churchyard and his reply was ’5000 people are buried there. Shocking!’ Which is a fact I didn’t know, and goes to prove that the dead are everywhere in London. You just can’t avoid it, not with a history like it has – one of Plagues and pestilence and overcrowding.

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The moral of this short story is – go and visit Bunhill Fields by all means. Go look at the place that used to be moor and fen, that once had bones piled up on it and was home to 3 windmills. It’s stuffed full of interesting history and it’s not without beauty. But then also go across the road and find the hidden garden around the back of Wesley’s Chapel and spend a few minutes there too. Look past what you can see from the street and delve a bit further into our city’s less obvious bits.

less obvious bits.

less obvious bits.

Also, take selfies with dead celebrities of the 18th century. And when you come to eat lunch, go somewhere that the whole world and his dog has not yet discovered. You’ll be lunching with the dead, but that’s okay. They don’t chat all that much.

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All photographs by Christina Owen Copyright 2014

 

 

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