I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:
How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.
But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.
– London by William Blake
William Blake paints a picture of a London full of grit in this poem, the one poem I did not feel I could confidently analyse, should it come up during my A Level English exam, because I didn’t really understand it, didn’t feel I could get my teeth into it. ‘Never mind’ I told myself, because The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, aside from being some of the most mind numbing poetry ever to exist, are great in number, and the chances of London being the poem they choose for the exam paper are very slim.
But ha! The Universe wasn’t smiling on me that day. And somewhere up there, on his higher plane, Blake was laughing his head off.
But now, 13 years later, I think I get the poem a little bit more. Maybe it’s all the time I spend looking for the hidden parts of London, the grim history and the resting places of those long forgotten, those who lived in a London full of plague and gin palaces and you know, mind forged manacles, and things. But it makes sense to me now. Long before we were here, there was a much sootier London where everyone lived closer together, all heaped on top of one another, and were buried the same way. Common burial grounds were the forerunners of the bigger Cemeteries we know today and one of these was Bunhill Fields, which is located off City Road in the London borough of Islington – just outside the City boundaries and with the ultra modern Shoreditch in it’s sights. It used to be fen land, and in 1665, one year before the Great Fire demonstrated just how closely together everything was arranged and burnt down half the City, the City of London Corporation decided to use some of the fen as a common burial ground for victims of the plague who could not be accommodated in the churchyards inside the City. Walls were built around the burial ground, but the ground was never consecrated, and so the land became somewhere for non conformists – in other words, those who practiced Christianity outside the rulings of the Church of England. And so it remained until 1854, when it became full. Approximately 120,000 interments had taken place there.
Sheldon has written about Bunhill Fields and it’s origins, and I had wanted to visit for a long time, and never got round to it. But last Friday, a sunny day that warranted strappy shoes and a giant sun hat, I found myself with a rare day off work, and so I took my Mum, a Congregationalist minister, into London to visit John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and my old friend from my A level days, Mr William Blake.
Mum was pretty excited about visiting some of the most famous Non Conformists England has known and I was pretty excited about disappearing among headstones for a while, leaving London behind and falling into a world where red buses and bearded hipsters do not exist. The English Heritage website describes Bunhill as ‘an oasis of city calm’ and I’m all for that sort of thing.
Unfortunately, when we got there, I realised that English Heritage had lied to us.
First of all, the vast majority of graves had been fenced off, leaving only narrow paths to walk along and making it necessary for the unsightly draping of oneself over a metal railing to get even a cursory look at the gravestones nearest to the edges. The innermost stones were out of bounds completely. The Bunhill Fields web page states that you can find an attendant who will be able to open the gates for you to get behind the railings if you visit between 1 -3pm on a Monday to Friday. We arrived at 2pm on a Friday and there was no attendant in sight. The web page also states that ‘some’ graves are behind railings. Read as: all but about 5. On the up side, I was able to stroll right up to William Blake and his wife (or at least, the approximate location of said couple, which is what the stone marks) and take ridiculous selfies.
And Mum found John Bunyan alright.
I shall now complain about how Bunhill Fields is not, in any way, an oasis of anything but annoyance. The narrow walkways mean that everyone and his dog (and sometimes dogs, plural) is using the place as a cut through to get from City Road to Bunhill Row, and you gotta keep moving otherwise you’re going to get barged. The abundance of park benches and trees (the saving grace of Bunhill Fields – were it not for the trees casting an aura of shelter and shade over the place, I think I would have got annoyed and left sooner than the 32 minutes it took me to do so) means that every professional person who exists under strip lighting or buried deep in the bowels of the banks and stock exchanges of our fair city 10 hours a day, 6 days a week is collapsed gratefully over every available, sittable surface, lost in their smart phone whilst maneuvering shop bought, plastic sushi towards their face – and they are not just doing this during normal lunchtime hours, but all afternoon long. Hipster beards were in abundance, and I am not used to this sort of contemporary nonsense when visiting a cemetery. I like the living population to decrease, and it very definitely did not.
I could not get a feel for the place and try as I might, I could not even begin to imagine what this part of the city was like in the 17th century. Also, there was BUNTING draped over most of the railings, accompanied by signs advertising a weekend treasure hunt – and nobody in the time of the Plague had time for bunting*.
* I like bunting, a lot. But there’s no place for it in historical London. It’s too colourful. There was no line in a William Blake poem that went ‘and Lo! T’was Bunting!’
And so, we left. Mum had made noises about going over the road to see Wesley’s Chapel, and I hadn’t paid much attention up until that point, as I had been busy imagining myself skipping happily among large gravestones paying tribute to the Williams and Georges and Ethels of another time, in which everybody died aged 34 for hours upon hours. But now I suggested it because we had fought our way through scores of Friday commuters in the baking hot sun for over an hour to get to where we were and 32 minutes spent scowling at a railing didn’t really seem like a good day out.
So we went across the road and YES. This was better. This was somewhere that didn’t feel like London. In fact, as soon as we entered the courtyard of Wesley’s Chapel, with his house and the museum off to our right, it felt like being in a lovely garden somewhere in the Mediterranean. The sky was blue and there were lovely trees and flowering plants everywhere. I spent 10 minutes taking pictures of a fuchsia. Then we went into the chapel, which was beautiful and Mum demonstrated her potential as an informative and interesting tour guide by repeating ‘oh yes, now THIS is a non-conformist chapel’ and then not saying why, for about 15 minutes. There were some cracking stained glass windows. And beautifully finished wooden pews, and aside from the distant sound of a lawnmower, the rest of the world was nowhere to be found. It was incredibly peaceful. The chapel is free to go into (although donations are accepted) and I recommend that you do if you’re ever in the area.
We paid a visit to the toilets, made famous by Sheldon in this Cemetery Club entry, while we were there (although obviously to the ladies) – and a more beautiful example of public toilet design and layout I never did see. The tiled floor was particularly marvelous. Thomas Crapper would have been proud.
And then we decided to go looking for Wesley himself, and we found him, in a small and unexpected garden around the back of the chapel, hidden away completely from the City. It was beautiful, it was quiet, and it was devoid of lunching hipsters. I wanted to go across the road and shout HEY YOU! YOU’RE ALL MISSING A TRICK! YOU WANT REAL PEACE AND TRANQUILITY – GO ACROSS THE ROAD AND DISCOVER A BIT OF HIDDEN LONDON! but then everyone would know about it and some things are best kept secret, at least until you blog about it. I told Sheldon that I had found the hidden garden churchyard and his reply was ‘5000 people are buried there. Shocking!’ Which is a fact I didn’t know, and goes to prove that the dead are everywhere in London. You just can’t avoid it, not with a history like it has – one of Plagues and pestilence and overcrowding.
The moral of this short story is – go and visit Bunhill Fields by all means. Go look at the place that used to be moor and fen, that once had bones piled up on it and was home to 3 windmills. It’s stuffed full of interesting history and it’s not without beauty. But then also go across the road and find the hidden garden around the back of Wesley’s Chapel and spend a few minutes there too. Look past what you can see from the street and delve a bit further into our city’s less obvious bits.
Also, take selfies with dead celebrities of the 18th century. And when you come to eat lunch, go somewhere that the whole world and his dog has not yet discovered. You’ll be lunching with the dead, but that’s okay. They don’t chat all that much.
All photographs by Christina Owen Copyright 2014