A few Sunday’s ago I wasn’t feeling my best and fancied a walk. I got my books about cemeteries out and found that the two grand Camberwell cemeteries were just down the road, and that they were within a mile of each other. Dan and I got in the car and went a-visitin’. It turns out that neither Camberwell Old or Camberwell New Cemetery are in modern-day Camberwell, but instead in Forest Hill – misleading! We hit up Camberwell Old first, in the spirit of doing things in chronological order.
On arrival, we found the main gate to be rather covered in litigation.
I remembered Sheldon’s post from last December, detailing the ongoing ‘War on the Hill’, and my heart started to sink.
We ventured further. I was surprised to learn that despite Camberwell Old being ‘Old’ and having already been superseded by a sister cemetery built down the road specifically because this one was becoming too full, (the land for the New Cemetery was purchased in 1901) it is still accepting burials today, although far less than it used to.
The cemetery presented a pleasing mix of open garden cemetery and overgrown woodland, and it was, as most great old cemeteries are, in various states of Falling Down.
We strolled around, taking photos of graves and bluebells, and then got back in the car and pootled on up One Tree Hill to Camberwell New, which screamed ‘GARDEN CEMETERY’ right from the open plan layout to the lady selling flowers outside the front gate. It gave off an impression of being a modern, ‘working’ cemetery much more than it’s predecessor, in that I recognised it as a place akin to the cemeteries I wandered in as a child, or the places where my grandparents were buried. It was quite obviously of a new generation. It sprawled over acres and acres, and climbed up a hill in haphazard manner, to a place that afforded a magnificent aspect towards the Isle of Dogs.
When we got home, I decided to research the nature of the official looking notices on the gates of Camberwell Old. I found the Facebook page of Save Southwark Woods and got in touch with a spokesperson for the campaign, Blanche, who also belongs to the Friends of Camberwell Old Cemetery. She told me that the battle that Sheldon wrote about back in December is still raging on, and that Southwark Council show no intention of backing down on their plan to open up more burial plots at the two Camberwell cemetery locations.
‘The Council just felled two acres of woods on one site for 750 new private burial plots over 48,000 existing graves‘ she told me, and I thought of the beautiful woodlands making up part of both the Old and the New cemeteries that I had just visited. ’12 acres of trees and woods have grown up over the old graves and make a beautiful combination for reflection, harmony, great for bereaved people as well as lots of local residents with mental health and well being issues, children and walkers‘. I had to agree – one of the things I love most about the cemeteries I have visited, and visit on a regular basis, is the possibility for peace and reflection that lie within them. These places are spaces for the dead but also spaces for the living – both humans and wildlife. Why are Southwark Council intent on digging up these areas of woodland and what measures have they l taken to get to this point?
‘Basically, Southwark Council are intent on digging up all graves over 75 years old and mounding over all public graves to sell new private burial plots for profit. But they have not consulted the families and relatives and residents and the law says they absolutely must only proceed with full consultation‘ Blanche explained. ‘They should also have waited for Church permission, which they applied for and then went ahead without.’
The plans have proved unpopular. Blanche went on to tell me that over 800 people have written to the council to contest the plans, and so the current state of play is that Southwark are holding off making any decision as to what happens now until a hearing can be held.* Nearly 1,500 people have joined the Save Southwark Woods Facebook page, and it definitely seems to be a topic people are passionate about.
Sheldon has previously explained that one of the reasons Southwark Council want to go ahead with this plan is because Southwark is running out of burial space. A fact that shows that everything comes full circle – London is starting to be back where it was at the start of the 19th Century. Overcrowding in the City led to garden cemeteries first becoming a Thing, and they were built well outside of the city boundaries. Fast forward nearly 200 years and a population boom and urban sprawl has led to exactly the same situation again. Evidently Southwark do not want to ship deceased residents out of borough, and have come up with the solution to re-use some existing space. In a way, you can see the logic, and it demonstrates a certain compassion – why should people have to travel far away to visit their relatives’ graves? Why should one not be permitted to be buried in the place where they lived?
But equally- why should existing graves suffer? And existing wildlife? I get the sense that the council have picked these spaces because they seem ‘expendable’. But how can they be? They already contain so much history. They belong both to the living and the dead. There’s really no room for more.
And what will happen in another 75 years? Will the powers that be look at the people that were buried on the land in 2016 and think ‘well, some time has gone by. We can re-use this space now.’ It seems almost barbaric to pretend the past doesn’t matter in this way.
What do you think? Which side of the argument do you come down on? Leave us a comment and let us know.
I enjoyed my walk through the two Camberwell cemeteries. I found the green spaces peaceful. Personally, I hope they are still there for future generations to explore.
*amendment: we have been advised that in fact, it is approx. 1600 people who have contested the plans rather than 800 as originally stated, and that Southwark Diocese are holding the hearing rather than the council.