On a sunny day in May, I went for a walk and photo outing. Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery, located in the London Borough of Bromley, was an intrinsic part of my childhood, and is probably the reason that I found Sheldon’s original proposal for trips to all 7 of the Magnificent London cemeteries so intriguing back in 2011. I had grown up with this one.
My Dad used to take my brother and I to collect conkers from underneath the giant horse chestnut trees there on autumn days, and we would enjoy walking around the maze of walkways and ‘off the beaten track’ style muddy paths, between graves and monuments. It was like a country walk, with added dead people. I would worry about getting lost and would find my way using special ‘landmarks’ that I had identified. There was the big white war memorial in a clearing, and just down the lane from there was a poor unfortunate stone angel who had lost a hand, and looked permanently sad about it. If I could find her, I could always find my way back to the main path and thus, find my way out.
As an adult I have attended several funerals in the crematorium chapel at the centre of the cemetery. More recently, I began running through the cemetery during my marathon training. During these runs I started to fully appreciate just how big this place is (41 acres). I began to identify the really old areas of the cemetery and the much newer parts. On my visit last week, the sun was shining and the clouds were lazily puffing across the sky looking springlike, and the cemetery came to life among the flora and fauna.
Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery opened in 1876 and was originally known as the Crystal Palace District Cemetery. It contained two gothic style chapels designed by the architect Alexander Hennell. One of these chapels was badly damaged during WW2 bombing raids, and was demolished in the 1960’s. The second chapel survives, and is now sits majestically in the centre of the cemetery, covered with ivy. It is still used as the crematoriums chapel for funeral services and has a modern extension built onto it.
Beckenham Crematorium opened on the site during the 1950’s. The oldest parts of the cemetery are located towards the front, with the very oldest graves I found being off to the right as you walk in from the main road. These older parts of the cemetery have fallen into extreme disrepair over the years and the old graves have been left to shift, fall over and become overgrown.
Away from this chaos, there’s a path that winds from the main entrance around to the left, and then back on itself to a memorial garden, water feature, rock garden and then the chapel. These parts are more modern and you can see the shift in trend from very old, fading gravestones with traditional writings and archaic fonts on them to shiny bright lettering, colloquial language, funny quotes and sometimes football team names and logos etched into the stone or marble.
Nature bursts through at every turn. Daisies spring up everywhere under your feet and the new green of the trees at this time of year makes everything look alive.
There are some famous names here too. Thomas Crapper is one of my favourites – his grave recognizes him as ‘inventor and sanitary pioneer’. He is often thought of as the inventor of the modern flushing toilet. This isn’t true – but he did do much to popularize the W.C and developed many important toilet-related inventions.
I hadn’t been to see W. G. Grace for years, but on this day I did. His grave recognizes him as a ‘doctor and cricketer’ and I have memories of going with my Dad and Grandpa to the crematorium one day when I was 8 or 9, to find W. G. Grace and take a photo with his grave – my Grandpa was a huge fan of cricket. I wasn’t sure where to look, and had to conduct a Google image search (thank heavens for modern technology), but I arrived in the right spot in the end.
On the way to see one of the greatest cricketers of all time, I stumbled past Frederick Wolseley, inventor of the first commercially successful sheep-shearing machine. He’s also linked to early motor cars and their production, but the sheep-shearing thing somehow captures my imagination more. He was born in Ireland, lived in Australia and died in Norwood, south London. There’s a monument to him in New South Wales, Australia – but he’s buried here in Beckenham.
There are also hundreds of burials from both world wars, including a Victoria Cross recipient to be found if you look carefully.
This place may not be high up on your list of places to visit – but it’s a peaceful walk that’s especially pleasant on a sunny day, it’s free and there’s a lot of history to be found. So, cemetery enthusiasts, I do recommend you go. It’s no Highgate cemetery. It’s not even Nunhead – but it has a lot of charm, it’s only 35 years younger than the youngest of the Magnificent 7 (so pretty old, then) and in the autumn, there are conkers.
Photographs by Christina Owen, Copyright 2015