It is just past midday at Brompton Cemetery’s south gate. Sheldon is about to run through his first ever Cemetery Club tour before actual people begin arriving. As we start off for stop number 1 (Jon Snow), two dishevelled looking men with weather-beaten faces, Springsteen T-Shirts and bottles of cider in their hands start shouting at us. Or more specifically: me. ‘Alright love? Like the tattoos!’ I get this a lot. I thank them and we carry on, but they are still shouting after us. ‘Emmeline Pankhurst is over there! Go an’ ‘ave a look! She got women the vote!’ The voices fade away as we leave them behind. I turn to Sheldon. ‘I’m going on their tour. There’s alcohol on their tour’.
But all joking aside, Sheldon -a recently qualified Westminster Tour Guide – is a complete pro already, and he delivers a focused, informative and very interesting tour of the cemetery for us. All kinks are ironed out during our run through. We get lost a couple of times. We end up in the bushes, and discover that the inventor of the Christmas card is hidden beneath brambles. Then we go over the road to Tesco to buy water, as it is a beautiful but very warm day. Then we trek back to the beginning and find our tour group – a small but perfectly formed party numbering seven.
Sheldon then transitions seamlessly into being a Cemetery Expert. He begins by painting us a picture of what London looked like pre-cemeteries – complete with a dollop of Victorian gore (church vergers jumping on raised bits of ground caused by too many dead people, to get the coffins to stay beneath the surface of the land etc) for our delectation, to set the scene. He reminds us that these Magnificent Seven cemeteries would have been well out of the centre of the city back in the 1800’s, and we look about and imagine we are actually standing in Victorian countryside at the advent of Brompton Cemetery…..
…..and then Sheldon leads us off into the Victorian wonderland of the Open Air Cathedral….
The tour lasts for 90 minutes – and the time flies by. I usually lose interest in things after approximately a minute and a half and I can’t believe it when the tour is over. I could have listened to Sheldon talk all day. He doesn’t merely tell us about the lives of each of the notables he has chosen for the tour. He paints a picture for us. At the end of each stop, he gives us a teaser of what to expect at the next one. And we are never disappointed. My favourite is Blanche Roosevelt Macheta – who Sheldon nearly cut from the tour! – the lady who, not content to be remembered in death by an angel or cross as her headstone, chose a statue of herself to mark her final resting place.
I also find a soft spot for the stories of The Lone Wolf and William Banting – the latter being the original inventor of what became known as the Atkins Diet.
And I am not the only one who finds the tour fascinating, and neither are the rest of our group members. A lady passing by with a bag full of lunch and magazines, ready for a leisurely afternoon spent on the grass by the chapel at the top end of the Cemetery stops to listen to Sheldon talk about Emmeline Pankhurst. She is so enraptured that she stays for the whole tour. I get talking to her during walks between the graves and she tells me that she has lived in the neighbourhood for years and walks through Brompton Cemetery often. It is lovely that she gets to learn something new about her neighbourhood, and after the tour she waves merrily to us as she departs, telling us that her mother is coming to visit soon. Thanks to all the things she had learned here today, she is going to give her a proper tour of the Cemetery when she comes to stay!
After it is all over, some of us retire to a nearby pub, The Atlas, where we sit amid hanging baskets and window boxes in the beer garden and drink real ale and eat from the jar of sweets that Joseph, a member of the tour and avid Cemetery Club reader, has brought from Wimbledon Fair. We fish out candy sticks and chocolate coins and talk about history and geography and cemeteries and society and the sun shines and it has been a good day.
Yes, I think it’s fair to say that the First Official Cemetery Club Tour has been a resounding success.
All photographs © Christina Owen 2014