After our trip to Tower Hamlets, Sheldon and I said goodbye at Mile End tube station – he was off for a walk towards some other forgotten, hidden part of historical London and I was leaving to re-join the modern world. We exchanged a few words about beginning to write our respective pieces on the cemetery and park we had just visited, and agreed that Sheldon would write about the rich history of the place, because that’s what he does best.
‘And what shall I do?’ I asked, as an afterthought.
‘Just do what you do’ Sheldon replied and I nodded and began to walk away – then turned and called back through the crowds swarming around me ‘and what is that?’
Sheldon called the answer back to me and I just caught it as I disappeared down the steps and onto the platform.
‘You write the lovely fluff!’
So here it is – some beautiful, anecdotal fluff about our most recent CC visit – to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park (we have been reminded to add the ‘park’ bit, because indeed, it is not JUST a cemetery), and our most pleasant afternoon spent with Ken Greenway, who was kind enough to show us around and enthusiastic enough to tell us everything he has learnt and loved during his eleven years working among the greenery and the stones at this often overlooked beauty spot just east of the City of London.
It wasn’t a good start. The Tube train we were on kicked us off at Whitechapel for unknown reason, and we had to get on a bus, which was crowded and stuffy and smelt of body odour – a large, moving red tin can absolutely bursting with life, in contrast to the Dead World I imagined we were about to step into.
Of course, imagination is often not like real life at all, and I was wrong to base my expectations of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park on previous cemetery visit experiences, because as it turned out, THCP, much like the bus and the bustling stretch of East End high street we had just left behind, was also bursting with life. As soon as we walked in, I could see a handful of volunteers laughing, joking and hard at work with rakes and wheelbarrows and giant gardening gloves.
The entrance to the cemetery and park is on a quiet side street, far out of the way of your average tourist or even passerby who is well attuned to the neighbourhood, and therefore could easily be forgotten. And yet it hadn’t been – there was so much energy about the place. I was nervous about meeting Ken – I always am when faced with people I don’t know (in that respect, I am very much Not a Grown Up) – but my nerves disappeared the second he greeted us with a warm smile and launched straight into stories about life at THCP and the history and geography of the place. Sheldon had prepared a comprehensive list of questions to ask, but he didn’t need to ask them. Ken talked and talked and talked, and led us on a tour of THCP like a seasoned pro. He answered all of our questions and more.
I mostly trailed after Ken and Sheldon as they strode off into the foliage, and looked around in awe and listened, and took photographs. The greenery was very rich and very GREEN and every so often we would stumble into a clearing that played host either to some old gravestones or to an outdoor classroom complete with stumps fixed into the ground for children to sit on, or sometimes one that was just bare, and Ken would tell us about a chapel or set of graves that used to stand on that spot, and we would look about and try to imagine it.
Every so often, somebody would walk by carrying shopping, obviously using THCP as a cut through back to their home, and Ken told us how people have commented on how nice it is to have this lovely green open space as part of their daily walk to work or home. It was peaceful and it felt safe. And always in the background we could hear the volunteers at work, laughing and talking, and their voices floated to us through the trees, and you got the tremendous sense that here was a place always teeming with life and always changing and evolving, a constant work in progress by the neighbourhood and for the neighbourhood, as well as history being preserved.
It was an interesting few hours, and I got totally lost in Ken’s commentary, and enjoyed listening to him wax lyrical about plant life, and the sorts of plants that would have grown in the cemetery back in the Victorian day, and even before that, when the space was farm land. I got the impression he not only knew his stuff, but that he could talk about plants and horticulture all day long. Here was someone who was not only knowledgeable, but who really really loved his job and his environment, and had spent years collecting every scrap of information about it that he possibly could, to pass on to someone new – and today it was us. I felt privileged to be on the receiving end of his tour, and if you plan a visit to THCP in the near future (and I’m here to tell you that you should!) – look out Ken and have a chat with him about your surroundings. You won’t regret it.
One of the highlights of the day, for me, came right at the very end of our visit, after Ken had invited us into the community centre for a drink and a slice of pizza (the volunteers had ordered Dominoes, and there were pizza boxes stacked up to the ceiling!). Once we’d thanked him and said our goodbyes, we decided to go and find the oldest grave in the cemetery, which we’d seen a photo of on THCP’s web page. It didn’t take long – located right at the front of the cemetery near the entrance, among many other old, old gravestones, and long grass, it stood, looking just like the photo we used to identify it. We stood in front of it for a few seconds, in awe, muttering ‘wow’ in low voices and trying to imagine ourselves on the same spot in 1842. Then I ruined the moment by discovering I was standing on a red ant’s nest, shrieking and tearing off through the long grass to safety, flapping my arms and generally behaving in a way not suited to our tranquil environment. Even as I did so, I knew that writing this tiny anecdote in a future blog would be a perfect example of the ‘fluff’ Sheldon was talking about.
All photographs by Christina Owen.
For more information about volunteering at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, click this link. Pizza not guaranteed!
NB – Our first podcast debuts on Thursday! It’s a longer transcript of the information Ken relayed to us – we heartily recommend having a listen for a thoroughly interesting twenty minutes. Please check back at 07:30am on Thursday: it will be available to download. Sheldon