An overview of our 7th and final, but no means least favourite, Magnificent Seven cemetery.
I like to think of Abney Park as the ‘rebel cemetery’ – look back at the title of this post. A ‘dissenter’, for those who are not versed in all things ‘cemetery’, is traditionally someone who has ‘rejected’ the ways of the Church of England. Which includes Methodists, Baptists etc. Abney Park was effectively the successor to Bunhill Fields – which I STILL have not visited – which was used for non-conformist burials well into the nineteenth century after it was leased out as a possible burial site for plague victims in 1665 by the City of London. Abney Park was founded in 1840 by The Abney Park Cemetery Company, just as Bunhill Fields was nearing capacity. It has a hulking great Gothic cathedral of a chapel at it’s centre that is unique among the great London cemeteries in that it is non-denominational. It is grand and yet overgrown with vegetation and park life, making it a perfect urban haven and escape from Stoke Newington High Street, off which it resides. Amy Winehouse once filmed a music video there. And I found it spooky. Majestic, yet eerie. Although I think that is because we visited just after Halloween, and also, I had been listening to the classic Steampunk music of the Seattle band Abney Park on the looong journey up to north London. Their soundtrack was in my head as I gazed at the grand Victorian gravestones interspersed with silver birches and many other types of tree and plant – all labelled.
In fact, over 2,500 varieties of trees and shrubs were planted at Abney Park, in order to integrate the cemetery with the existing grounds of the grand houses that sat nearby. The greenery works well with the cemetery. It hides you from the sights and sounds of London life that you know is waiting for you as you exit the cemetery. If you want, you can pretend it isn’t there, and listen to the birdsong instead. The only trouble is that the cemetery is a bit of a thoroughfare for people passing through, and a haven for those hanging out on park benches, drinking and smoking, and in that sense, you can’t quite escape into the mid 19th century, although as the great, spired chapel looms in to view through the trees, you can have a pretty good go.
Sheldon, Stephen and I visited Abney Park on a Sunday at the beginning of November 2013. It was our last Magnificent 7 visit – at least, to one that we’d not been to yet. It was cold. I had not worn enough clothes. We got given the grand tour of the cemetery by the enthusiastic tour guide, who runs free tours at 2pm on the first Sunday of every month.
The tour was incredibly comprehensive, so much so that I had to leave before it was over – and in doing so I got lost, because Abney Park is quite unlike Kensal Green, Brompton and Norwood in that it is 32 acres full of winding, tree-enclosed pathways and you really need to have a good inner compass – or a map- to know which way is ‘out’! It’s far more like Nunhead or Highgate in that respect, although it is completely flat – making it more similar to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. That and the emphasis on the flora and fauna aspect of the space almost makes Abney Park and THCP sisters. And they aren’t too far from one another. May I recommend visiting them both in the same day, and then you can see for yourself.
As always, I learned a lot of new things, saw a lot of beautiful sights and left the cemetery feeling tranquil and that I had spent the afternoon in another time. From the road, you wouldn’t necessarily know Abney Park was there – the entrance is pretty well camouflaged among the modern buildings on either side, and you can’t see much of the cemetery at all from the road. I had been up and down Stoke Newington High Street myself, long ago, before I knew that there were giant, magnificent Victorian works of art and havens of nature to be found in this giant, grey city. I never knew it was there. Which I think just goes to show that we should look harder, for history and art and nature and beautiful, hidden things.
Photographs by Christina Owen at Iris Jones Photography.