When Sheldon and I ventured to Nunhead, on a sunny but chilly day in February this year, Cemetery Club (not yet named so) had been lying dormant for a good 18 months. We had both been busy with other stuff, as mentioned by Sheldon in his last post, and our hobby had been neglected somewhat. Or, a lot. Luckily, we found some time to head out on our next adventure with the Posh Victorian Dead. And Nunhead was close by for us born-and-bred South Londoners (Sheldon is half Indian and I have Welsh ancestors but close enough), so we hopped in my tiny Nissan Micra and headed out to the quiet suburb that’s tucked behind East Dulwich, looking distinctly less fancy.
Nunhead is the hardest to find of the Big 7 cemeteries we’ve visited so far, mainly because the main entrance is located on a sleepy side road, and from the outside it just looks like a large park. The upside down torches on the pillars at the gate, which Sheldon took a long time examining, are the main giveaway that something beyond the trees is goin’ on in this neighbourhood (also the sign saying ‘Nunhead Cemetery’ but that’s a minor detail).
The cemetery seemed….neglected. Almost unfinished, either that or it had fallen into such disrepair that no-one could be bothered to do anything about it. I’m sure at one time it was very grand, and this comes through as you walk up the path from the main entrance, with wonky obelisks towering above you on either side, but something got lost along the way, and this was the first of the cemeteries I’d been to that I felt needed some love – or that seemed like a graveyard of a graveyard. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely loved it. I’ve always had an unexplainable soft spot for the dilapidated, worn down quality that parts of south London seem to specialize in (another of my hobbies is photographing the now nearly deserted Heygate Estate in SE17). Nunhead had a charm that the others lacked. It didn’t take long there before it rocketed to the top spot in the Magnificent Seven rating system I got going on in my head. Sheldon, on the other hand, was not impressed. There was a certain amount of storming about among the stones muttering ‘what on earth is going on here? They’ve placed these graves completely at random! What were these people thinking last century?!’ etc etc.
Something we noticed pretty early on was that the addresses of the families represented by the biggest, most impressive tombs were less grand than those we had seen represented at Highgate and Kensal Green. Deptford rather than Kensington, Bromley rather than Mayfair etc etc. Without delving into the history of the cemetery, we got the impression that this had been the less prestigious place to be buried. Perhaps the families that had plots here had failed to get into Highgate? On the UCAS form of graveyards, Nunhead was far down the list. Having said that, the place did have a distinct poor-man’s-Highgate quality. Effort had been made to make it into something grandiose but they never quite succeeded. Although, by today’s standards, Nunhead is incredibly grand. A bit of a ghost-town, even for a cemetery (we saw a couple of dog walkers but other than that, the place was as still as…a tomb. At the others we had seen other people, and maintenance staff mowing lawns, but here – birdsong and sunlight and mud, and gravestones half buried amid the trees) But still grand.
My favourite part of the visit was the long, winding climb up the hill to the top of the cemetery, to a place that perhaps had once been reserved for the richest and most influential of the people that had found their way here. At the very top of the hill, the trees parted to reveal a most breathtaking view across London, right to St Paul’s Cathedral. We wondered if this had been done deliberately – the trees parted in just the right way, and the famous Cathedral seemed perfectly placed for the (dead) people of Nunhead to gaze down at it forevermore. I tried to take photos but my lens wasn’t quite right, and it couldn’t do the view any justice. I demand that you go, and see it for yourself.
To sum up – Nunhead was my favourite of the Big 7 so far (bear in mind though, that I haven’t yet been to Abney Park or Tower Hamlets). I like it’s underdog quality. If I had to choose one of these amazing cemeteries to be buried in, I’d choose Nunhead all day long.