Neon Graveyard: God’s Own Junkyard

by Christina

Imagine walking into neon heaven. Surrounded by the glow of a thousand signs that scream Girls! Girls! Girls! and Elvis and Hello Soho, its feels as if you’re in Vegas, except you’re in a salvage yard in Walthamstow, north east London, and the glowing detritus you’re surrounded by is the build up of years and year and years of hard graft that rather than being let go to waste, has been stock piled here for the enjoyment of others.

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In between the glitzy outlines of cocktail glasses and pairs of lips, giant disco balls and enormous, glittering stiletto heel sculptures, you’ll find a shed containing a shrine to a neon Jesus, holding a gun. Little neon-lined coffins decorate the walls. Baz Luhrmann would love it here. I love it here. I have come here on a Saturday afternoon with my friend Roisi, and now that I am here, I am never leaving.

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God’s Own Junkyard is, as you’ve guessed, not a cemetery. No dead Victorians are buried here. Instead it’s a collection of hundreds of neon signs made by Chris Bracey, a neon tube artist known as ‘the master of glow’ who lit Soho up in the 1970’s before moving on to design neon signs for Hollywood movies like Eyes Wide Shut, Bladerunner and Casino Royale. He sadly died in November 2014, and here is his legacy – a wonderland of razzle-dazzle all in one place, meaning that the neon he created never really dies.

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Instead of being discarded after use, it can live on here, and we can all go and see it for free. There’s even a cafe (The Rolling Scone Cafe) where you can drink tea, eat cake and bask in the sleazy glow of this beautiful light show.

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The God’s Own Junkyard web site has this to say (and it says it best, and it says it all, really):-

‘Chris has collected these neon and bulb icons and salvages old neons and architectural advertising from the streets before they disappear forever. Repaired and resurrected, coupled with quirky art and powered up to shine like jewels of light. Icons in their own right, Gods own junk yard where neon never dies.’

I am heartily glad that the decades and decades of neon tubing collected here did not disappear forever. A bright and fun legacy that lives on – a memorial to the work Bracey created and to the man himself. And a reminder not to discard the things you create, whatever that may be. You never know who might benefit from it later on.

And I cannot wait to go back and bask in the neon glow once again, and imagine that this is my living room.

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Want to explore some more ‘alternative graveyards’ in London? Check out Hungerford Bridge’s ‘Skateboard Graveyard‘ a touching and organic memorial to Timothy Baxter, a skater murdered in 1999, or keep an eye out for the ‘Ghost Bikes‘ located all over the city.

Visit God’s Own Junkyard on Friday, Saturday and Sunday between 11am and 9pm (6pm Sundays).

All photos taken by Christina Owen, (with kind permission by the owners of God’s Own Junkyard) Copyright January 2016. 

 

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If Only They’d Ended Up There

by Sheldon

One of the fascinating things I’ve found in researching blog posts for Cemetery Club is where people ended up being buried. In a cemetery, obviously, because where else would they be- but did you know some of our leading luminaries ended up somewhere else entirely?

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Let’s take a look at George Cruickshank. Any artists or illustrators – and historians, for that matter, too – will hear his name and simply go ‘AH!’ A phenomenally talented Victorian illustrator and caricaturist: his skill had him regarded as a then modern-day Hogarth. He was initially a friend of the Tour-guide’s chum and all-round writing supremo Charles Dickens – he provided illustrations for Sketches by Boz, the Mudfog Papers and perhaps more notably, Oliver Twist – until his views on temperance and morality, alongside a claim that he largely developed the plot of Oliver Twist led to distancing of the two men.

Cruickshank died in 1878 and was laid to rest in Kensal Green Cemetery. However, his story didn’t end there. On his deathbed, close to the end, his faithful wife attending his bedside, he sighed ‘oh, what will become of my children?’His wife sadly looked away: then quickly came to her senses. They didn’t have any children.

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Fagin in his cell. Public Domain

It turns out that he’d fathered 11 sprogs illegitimately with a former maid and had her installed three roads away from his marital home, using the story that she was the partner of a mature travelling artist and wood-engraver (so much for his well respected morality). After this revelation his wife knocked on the door of her love rival and instead of an almighty catfight, the two became good friends and raised the children together. Amidst this, his remains were removed from Kensal Green and reinterred in Westminster Abbey.

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via Philafrenzy, Wikipedia.

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Another person who ended up somewhere entirely different is the biologist and writer Charles Darwin. Looking like an eternally down-trodden Father Christmas, his publication of the Origin of Species had him widely mocked and at the very forefront of a blistering argument between the worlds of religion and science. He was a resident of Down House in Downe, Kent from the 1840’s, and was to be buried in the Churchyard of St Mary, the local church, alongside his brother and some of his children. However, upon the suggestion of the economist, mathematician and neighbour Sir John Lubbock, he was given a burial space in Westminster Abbey.

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Where he was supposed to be…

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The Duke of Portland was another person who ended up in one place but should have been buried in another. Upon his death in 1879 his will emphatically states that he was to be buried in the Great Northern Cemetery, New Southgate. A week or two later his relatives secure a large plot  in Kensal Green. Whether they wanted to give his final resting place the status and normalcy he lacked in life –  building tunnels under his house (all 15 miles of them which he insisted on painting pink), walking around at night with a lady holding a lamp several feet in front of him and dismissing any members of staff who said ‘hello’ to him is unknown.

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Then of course there’s Richard III, King of England, whose noble burial was delayed for centuries whilst he languished under a car park. And he managed to dodge a fine for a long-stay too, which is impressive.

Do you know of any other people who ended up somewhere else? We’d love to hear their stories!


References & Source Material

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/the-secret-life-of-a-virtuous-artist-john-wardroper-turned-sleuth-to-find-the-startling-truth-about-1559547.html

The Late Duke of Portland’s Will – Dover Express, Friday 19 August 1898 – via the British Newspaper Archive 

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Murder, War & Gore: A Trip to the Long-Gone East End

by Sheldon

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© AFP 2015

Ticket alert! In two weeks time we’ll be kicking off our touring schedule for 2016 with our highly popular tour of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park!

Opened as the last of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Cemeteries in 1841; Tower Hamlets wasn’t quite the success its shareholders had hoped for – the rich flocked to West Norwood and highgate but because of the areas high social mobility and poverty from being close to the docks, the grandeur it was supposed to have wasn’t feasible and within a few years over 80% of its burials were in common graves.

The sheer volume of people buried here brought but criticism at the time – barely forty years after its opening people were calling for its closure as the Cemetery was becoming overgrown, mismanaged and crammed with the dead – a problem that it was created in response to, ironically.

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AFP 2015

Come and hear the tale of some long gone Eastenders – some of which were forgotten to the staff too until the wonderful British Newspaper Archive revealed some more notable figures – hear the tragic tale of little Eileen Lockhart, the blood-thirsty revenge of Major Buckley at Delhi and the supposed remains of the executed from Newgate Prison!

Here are some testimonials from happy customers…

‘I have always loved being told stories, and discovering stories to share with others – and Sheldon is an excellent storyteller. As we followed Sheldon through the woodland, skipping between decades, it felt like we were travelling through time’ – Rachel Belward

We enjoyed a great tour around Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park with Sheldon. He was engaging, well researched and has a great turn of phrase. Sheldon tells stories brilliantly and is able to bring the dead back to life (figuratively speaking!)Justin Leslie

 

Click here to book your place now! 

 

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A Frozen Photowalk at Beckenham Cemetery

Beckenham Cemetery

by Christina

I’ve been to Highgate in high summer, and sweated my way around the west side, looking for relief in the form of shade from overhanging trees. I’ve been to West Norwood in spring, when frothy pink blossom exploded from every branch, making the whole cemetery look like a disco. I’ve been to Kensal Green on a day so dark and wet that my feet were soaked before we’d covered even a quarter of the cemetery. But I’ve never been to a cemetery in the middle of frozen January, and I wanted to see what the gravestones looked like covered in a glittering sheen of winter frost. I also wanted to capture a cemetery just after sunrise, dowsed in mist. So I trotted down the road to Beckenham Cemetery on the Elmers End Road in South London, home of W G Grace and Thomas Crapper’s final resting places, just after sunrise on the first Saturday morning of the year where the temperature had dipped below freezing. There was no mist, but the sun rose from behind the trees and illuminated the icy stone and marble and there was no-one about and it was like being in Wonderland. For the dead.

And I took photos. Because that’s what I do.

And here they are.

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There’s something a bit magical about walking around a cemetery in daylight when nobody else is there. Somehow, the ice and frost made the place seem even more calm and even more still. I hope that comes across in the photographs.

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The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.’

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley

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‘I dig art. With a shovel. In the cemetery.’

  • Jarod Kintz

Beckenham Cemetery

 

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Put On Your Red Shoes and Dance The Blues – A Bowie Tribute.

by Sheldon & Christina

(Written yesterday, on 11/01/2016, after meeting at the Three Tuns pub, now Zizzi’s Beckenham, where Bowie started his musical career)

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It was the news, first thing on Monday morning, when the context of Blackstar clicked into place as the 28th and final entry into Bowie’s catalogue. Upon its release, the jarring, stark, melancholy album of seven songs was birthed into the world and instantly won over critics and fans alike. Succinct, sultry, seductive. But it’s subject matter always struck me as odd. Now, with recent news updates, it doesn’t.

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Under the stewardship of long time collaborator Tony Visconti, three days ago the video for Lazarus premiered. Following on from the haunting lead single which shares the name of the album, it was the unexpected news of Bowie’s death that clarified the Sound and Vision of what would be his last single.

His bedclothes barely containing him; Bowie, looking gaunt, thin and war-weary (from a battle none of us knew he was facing), he defiantly croons:

‘Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now’

It’s like every Bowie track had come together, merged and reconstructed itself into his last piece of music. One journalist wrote that he was ‘entirely in charge of his own swan song’. Yes. Yes he was. And isn’t it beautiful?

He was a Hero.


Christina

Written yesterday: 11/01/2016

We all remember where we were when we heard the news about a celebrity that meant a lot to us dying. It becomes that much of an important moment in our lives that we do not forget where we stood the moment we found out that someone we admire is no longer with us.

When the news broke about Michael Jackson dying, I was in the cinema watching Transformers 2. I found out when I got out and checked Facebook on my smartphone. The public outpouring of grief on people’s statuses was hard to miss. When Princess Diana died…well, we all remember where we were when we found that out. But smartphones and social media didn’t exist in 1997 so we mourned quietly, at home. There wasn’t an immediate outlet for us to write what we thought and felt about it.

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This morning, I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth with the door open. Dan yelled WHAT?! at the TV in the other room and I didn’t immediately go to see what was wrong, because my mouth was full of toothpaste and also Dan talking to BBC News in the morning isn’t entirely out of the common way. But then I did go to look and my jaw hit the floor. The screen was full of the words ‘Breaking News: David Bowie has died’ and the words just didn’t make sense to me. Next to us, on the sitting room wall, the black and white oil painting of David Bowie smoking a cigarette that Dan, the Bowie super-fan, had received for his 30th birthday stared off into the middle distance like always, but perhaps with a slightly more troubled expression than usual.

On the way home from my work appointments later this morning, I started thinking about how public mourning has changed over the years. In the days of Victorian Britain, the streets would be lined with people dressed in black, waiting for the funeral cortège to pass. Something echoed by the funeral of Princess Diana – it felt like the whole world lined the streets of London for her funeral.  Nowadays, we just write our sentiments on Facebook. Driving home via Beckenham, I remembered that I live one town over from where Bowie lived, wrote his early music and performed his early concerts. I decided to go and see if physical tributes still exist.

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20 minutes later, I am standing in front of a generic looking Italian chain-restaurant in the middle of Beckenham high street. The sky is very, very grey. It is freezing cold. You wouldn’t know this restaurant was anything if you happened to be going by, unless you knew what to look for, or stopped for long enough to look up at the front of the building, where the town forum, some years ago, raised enough money to put a bright red plaque up with the name ‘David Bowie’ in the centre and the names of the venues that this building used to house.

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Someone has brought a big photograph in a frame, of Ziggy Stardust, and placed it against the railings in front of the building. People have left cards and tributes written on white paper or photographs, and left them for us all to read. As I stand there, more and more people arrive. They are of all ages. Some of them are laying flowers and some are taking pictures. I stand and watch them and take some photos of my own and people talk to me, we talk to each other. Because we all feel something about this person who has just died, and we need to talk about it.

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Bowie

Amid all the people I talk to over the next 15 minutes, one sticks in my mind. A woman of about my age arrives with a little girl who cannot be more than 3. ‘Mummy, why are people leaving flowers here?’ she asks, and her mother visibly steels herself in the way that you do when a child asks you about death, and then says ‘when someone has died, people leave flowers to say ‘thank you’ because that person meant a lot to them’. As they walk away a few minutes later, I hear the mother say ‘when we get home we’ll put some of his songs on’ and I smile, thinking that David Bowie will live on because we’ll make sure our children know about his music, and in this way, he won’t be forgotten. Because that’s the real memorial isn’t it? It isn’t this place, it’s the memory that people leave behind.

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I can’t write anything that hasn’t already been said about David Bowie. I imagine that by now, you’ve read so many eulogies and fact files since the news broke, that you know more about him than he did. But here’s the thing that no-one else can write, not exactly like this anyway:- my parents showed me Labyrinth, taped off the telly, when I was 6 or 7 and it became my favourite film. I watched it until the tape broke. I grew up in a town full of locals who proudly wore the David Bowie connection like a badge. His music has always been in the background of my life, and then, last year, when I met Dan, who worships him, his back catalogue came to the forefront of my world and I fell in love with it all. I feel like I DID know him. And this personal element of mourning is just as important as knowing about the history of somebody’s life. Which is why I’m sharing it with you.

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edited to add: we went back later, when it was dark, so Dan could see it too. The memorial had grown into a shrine, and there was a crowd of people, standing quietly and lighting candles. We found Sheldon there, and we all stood respectfully and watched all the people who were touched by this person that once lived here, and by his amazing music. Then, as is the Cemetery Club way, we went to the pub.

  

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The Life and Loves of a Victorian Clerk

By Sheldon

The City of London is known for many things. For centuries it has been the epicentre of trade, commerce and finance. To consider that events such as the Great Fire of London happened here are remembered largely due to the efforts of one of its most famous sons: Samuel Pepys.

Pepys, a seventeenth century naval administrator, kept his diary for seven years until poor eyesight and old age prevented him from maintaining further journals. Written in code and chronicling every day events such as watching plays, official business and the occasional tryst, much to the dismay of his wife; it is his account which keeps the embers of that rest conflagration alive to schoolchildren and adults up and down the line.

Pepys wasn’t the only one to keep a diary. Let’s move geographically and relocate to the City of Westminster, to the year of 1846. In Richmond Buildings, in the heart of Soho, a nineteen year old huddles over a brand new ledger. Illuminated by Candlelight, he dips his quill into his ink pot and writes about the execution he sees outside Newgate Prison.

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I’m pleased to say, the Diary of Nathaniel Bryceson has returned to the Internet! Originally posted on the City of Westminster website a few years ago, his tales disappeared into the ether after a website redesign, seemingly lost forever. But no! Nathaniel has returned with his stories of twenty mile walks, a peculiar love affair with a woman in her fifties and his charming fascination with death.

What’s more, yours truly is lending his vocal talent in a weekly podcast where I read out entries of his diary.

We have briefly touched on his life before. Originally, there was more than one diary but the others have been lost over the years. I hope at least another year exists out there; yarns such as his fascination with the great-granddaughter of John Bunyan; stalking her after a number of  Sunday services from St Leonard’s Shoreditch, clothes purchases and realtime coverage of incursions in places such as India make fascinating reading.

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Let’s raise a quart of beer to his discovery of WordPress. If you’re following the rules of Dry January however, raise a fruit juice instead to the marvellous adventures of one of Westminster’s favourite sons.

Also available on iTunes.

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Kemnal Park: The Next Generation of Garden Cemeteries in London

by Christina

On a cold day in late December, the sun came out long enough for Dan and I to make a trip along the A20 to Kemnal Park Cemetery in Chislehurst, which was opened in October 2013, and is therefore brand spanking new, to visit his Nan’s grave.

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I didn’t know much about Kemnal Park, except that Sheldon had once told me it was being touted as the 8th Magnificent Cemetery of London. I found no real evidence of this when researching the place, but the sleek looking official web site for the cemetery offers to make remembering your loved one a slick process that can be tailored to your own specific wishes, or something. It was very 2015.

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In actual fact, it wasn’t until I really started to walk around Kemnal Park (NOT to be confused with the much more ancient Kensal Green Cemetery in North West London!) that I began to see the emulation of the Victorian Cemetery era – it was present in the details, such as the ornate wrought iron gates that front the private memorial gardens, the row of modern mausoleums next to the incredibly contemporary chapel and the long driveways that intersect the 55 acres of parkland, that have already been mapped out in their entirety, even though only about 10 acres are currently occupied. But lost in that this is 2015 and you can never get that sense of grandeur back, not really. Contemporary cemeteries have everything from photographs on the gravestones to an interactive video option, which is exactly what made Kemnal Park famous recently – it became the first cemetery to offer live streaming of a funeral, making it possible to watch the event on your smartphone if you can’t be there to mourn in person.

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A Link to the Magnificent Seven

As we walked through the empty grounds of this most forward thinking of cemeteries, we came across a large signpost announcing a section of the cemetery that would be for the residents of Tower Hamlets borough in East London.

What was this? we thought. Tower Hamlets is miles away. Beyond the foreboding black signpost, strung with bunches of grapes and flowering vines, all cast in black ironwork, there was nothing, yet. I thought ‘Okay, so the borough of Tower Hamlets must be full’, and I later discovered via Google Search that I was right. In a bizarre, yet inevitable nod to the 19th Century, this part of inner London is becoming overcrowded, with nowhere left to bury the dead. It turns out that Tower Hamlets council did a deal with the owners of Kemnal Park back at the beginning of the year – they purchased enough land for 3,000 burials, at a cost of £3m, and explained to confused locals that it would only take 25 minutes to drive from there to here. Right….Blackwall Tunnel anyone?

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It had, at one point, been suggested that Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park could reopen it’s gates to new burials but the idea was scrapped in 2007 and buying up land in other borough’s became part of the solution instead.

Walking a bit further through the cemetery turned up another ornate signpost introducing a memorial space for Muslim burials. Echoes of The Gardens of Peace in Ilford, but again, empty for now. We walked on, trying to imagine what the whole place will look like when it’s full.

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A Very Victorian Affair

One of the reasons we were walking around the cemetery instead of standing in respectful silence before Dan’s Nan was that there was a loud and increasingly crowded party happening literally RIGHT NEXT to her grave. A family and their friends had evidently decided to throw a birthday party for a dead relative – they had set up a folding table from which they were serving tea and coffee out of large flasks, and several bottles of bubbly. Tied to the table and floating in the December breeze were bunches of blue helium balloons which shouted HAPPY BIRTHDAY! on them in Gold. The mood appeared rather sombre (understandably) but the peace of the cemetery park was shattered as more and more people turned up. As we walked over to see Doris, they all turned to glare at us until intimidated, we backed away. We certainly were not the only people trying to have a quiet moment at a graveside, and being denied it completely. As even more people arrived to join the party being thrown for someone no longer with us, I began to think about the Victorians, and their penchant for throwing lavish and extravagant funerals. Perhaps this party was not so inappropriate after all. They’d fit right in at Highgate West in the 1800’s.

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For The Birds?

Kemnal Green had some touches that I liked a lot. Built on parkland that lay derelict since the 1960’s when a fire destroyed the estate that had stood there in some form since 1250, it is surrounded by woodland and fields on 2 sides (the other 2 sides being dual carriageway and a new build housing estate still in the process of being, well, built, but let’s not focus on that) it has all the elements of a stroll in the countryside, and this made it a very pleasant place to be. There were some very old, creaky trees next to the new chapel, remnants of bygone eras and a reminder of the history of the land on which this cemetery is built. These trees were peppered with wooden birdhouses, all dedicated to the memory of someone or two someones. I’ve seen memorial benches and gardens but never a birdhouse. I like the idea of it.

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A Visitor From Southwark

Before we left, we paid a visit to the Unknown Parishioner of Southwark, a memorial statue that, like the Tower Hamlets corner of the cemetery, seems to have travelled a little far from home. It turns out, this parishioner was interred in Southwark and disturbed during the building of the Thameslink line. Reburied here in 2012, after a very traditional funeral, underneath a plaque that announces sponsorship by Network Rail, you sense a certain amount of guilt, and panic about where the best place would be to re-inter this unknown person. They found their new home on a hill in Chislehurst, overlooking Woodland, and perhaps it is a much nicer view, although the location is probably a little irrelevant.

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As we got back in the car and made to leave, after wondering one last time if we should be brazen and march back over to Doris’s gravestone, threatening looking party goers be damned (unanimous decision: nope), I thought about how the Magnificent Seven cemeteries were originally built in answer to the overcrowding problem in London, and the disease that was rife as a result. Back then, those locations – Tower Hamlets, Abney Park, Nunhead etc – were well out of the city centre. In the centuries since then, urban sprawl has overtaken them. Now new cemeteries are being opened in the green belt once again – just like this one. In answer to exactly the same problem. How long before urban sprawl overtakes this cemetery as well? 

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