The first rule of Cemetery Club is: you can talk about it as much as you like. People might think you’re weird so be ready to defend your interest in posh graveyards and all things Dead Victorian Person. It’s an interesting hobby to have and many people I know, having seen my links to the blog on the Internet, have approached me and asked how it all came about. So I tell them – we started going to cemeteries and we enjoyed it so much that we gave it a name and made it into a ‘thing’.
The second rule of Cemetery Club is: make sure you have all the correct equipment when you undertake your visits. You DO NOT want to be caught short when confronted with a sea of gravestones and sudden memory loss regarding how you got there from the entrance. To help with this, and to hopefully inspire a whole new generation of cemetery visitors intent on seeking peace, quiet and a little death-related history of the world around them, I have provided the following handy list of things to take with you when you embark upon your journey into the past.
1.) Sensible Shoes.
You will be doing quite a lot of walking, and cemeteries tend to be grassy or muddy or a combination of the two. Think: country walking. I wore insensible canvas slip-on shoes when Sheldon and I visited Kensal Green, and it rained, and my feet got wet (it was January – what was I expecting??). I turned the white tips of my Converse brown when we visited Nunhead (in February of the same year – perhaps I should have learned from the Kensal Green experience?). Sheldon’s comment on entering the cemetery was ‘I hope you don’t like those shoes too much’. They were new. I did quite like them. It was not a good move.
Sheldon, by contrast, has Victorian -style walking boots (would you expect anything less?) and he has never complained of wet feet, trench foot or similar.
2.) A Camera (or seven)
Because cemeteries are often beautiful and you’ll want to capture that beauty. In various formats and with various types of film. I, for example, usually take my digital SLR (currently a Nikon D90 with 18-105mm kit lens), a spare lens (typically a 50mm f/1.8 lens, although I have recently bought a Macro lens which I can’t wait to take on a future visit), my ancient but wonderful Canon analog compact with an extra roll of 35mm film (often but not always black and white), one of my Polaroid cameras (I have three) and my iPhone with assortment of photography apps (my favourite for cemetery pictures is Hipstamatic). I recommend experimenting with different formats to see what kind of moods and effects you can capture. My black and white 35mm film was only 100 ISO, and shooting on it in a dark cemetery in January made for some very dark, moody, sludgy pictures which otherwise would have annoyed me, but in this setting was kind of awesome.
If you’re artistically inclined, you could also take a sketch book and some pencils, which is what I imagine I would do if I thought I could do these majestic examples of Victorian history and architecture any justice on paper.
3.) A Phone or Device with 3G Capabilities
So that when you spy a stone, monument or masoleum that looks particularly impressive or curious, you can Google the name on it and learn some interesting history about someone who died a long time ago.
We have done this many times. John Saint John Long is the name that I remember the most. He was known as the ‘quack doctor’ and his gravestone was used as a literal platform to hit back at his doubters, funded entirely by his devoted patients. His stone caught our eye and if it wasn’t for the ever-knowing power of Google, we wouldn’t have discovered, there and then, that there was an interesting story to be gained.
4.) A List of the Famous People You Want to Visit
There’s usually a famous face or two to be found (not literally because that would be odd, and imply zombies) in a member of the Magnificent Seven. Check the individual web sites for a list of who has taken up residence there. We found Henry Doulton occupying an impressive plot at Norwood, Karl Marx taking up space in the East side of Highgate and Emmeline Pankhurst reclining somewhere in the centre of Brompton.
5.) A Pointy Object
We’ve all seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer and generally accepted it to be fiction. But you never know. I’m secretly convinced this is why Sheldon carries his large umbrella with him, even when it isn’t raining. You never know when the supernatural might become real, and being stranded in the centre of a cemetery as expansive as Norwood, for example, is not the time for this to happen. Go armed.
6.) A healthy dose of respect
Because after all, you’re visiting the final resting place of a lot of people. In the case of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, a lot of these people will have been dead for a very long time, but that doesn’t mean you can have a rave on their grave (although I’m sure that at some point, this has been done). Also, some of these cemeteries are still active – as in, they are still burying people and some plots are very new. Be aware that family members may be visiting on the same day as you. Don’t be loud, don’t stare, don’t try and photograph an area where mourning is happening. Don’t walk over graves unless you absolutely have to (and sometimes you do have to because some areas of some cemeteries have become so dilapidated and graves displaced – Nunhead springs to my mind especially).
But DO enjoy your surroundings, and the atmosphere. There is something incredibly tranquil about a graveyard and this can inspire thoughtfulness and a sense of calm and peace that is difficult to come by in big cities nowadays. Let everything else melt away and just fall into the immense history and grandeur of what you are experiencing. And then afterwards, come away and tell us about your experiences. I’d be interested to hear how your found your cemetery visit.
7.) Knowledge of the Best Place to Have Tea and Cake Afterwards
After a long walk around a large cemetery, you’re going to be thirsty, and fancy a sit down with a cup of tea or a pint to discuss your visit. Sheldon and I try to do this after all our Cemetery Club excursions. I take the opportunity to trawl through all the photos I have just taken on my phone and DSLR and Sheldon likes to use Google to further research some of the things he has seen.
After Norwood, we went to Beamish and McGlue, a quaint and very lovely independent food store and cafe on Norwood Road. We drank tea and ate gluten-free cake and admired the bunting hanging outside and the pretty decorations in the windows. You can buy many interesting things there including postcards with local scenes on (I have a great West Norwood picture postcard from there) and jams in many different flavours. Beamish and McGlue bill themselves as ‘delicious food’ and they are well worth a visit. Look out for a striking blue shop front on a corner, just down from the cemetery entrance.
After we took the Highgate West tour, we went to The Flask on Highgate West Hill, and sat outside in the July sunshine and supped vodka and gossiped. There were overflowing hanging baskets nearby and Sheldon tried to identify all the flowers, because he is into horticulture, another of his diverse and interesting hobbies (my hobbies are less diverse and interesting and include sitting down, cake and collecting postcards, and things with Battersea Power Station on them). An interesting fact about The Flask – the oldest part of the pub dates back to 1663, and it’s haunted by a Spanish barmaid.
After Nunhead – well, there was nothing in the immediate area because Nunhead is located off all main roads, with the entrance on a quiet side street. Also, it was pretty cold the day we went and we were pushed for time. We went to a newsagent and I made Sheldon buy me a carton of Ribena. That one was probably a fail. I challenge you to go to Nunhead and find a better post-cemetery watering hole.