‘From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity’. ~Edvard Munch
My friend Darren had told me that he and his wife loved cemeteries and in conversation we decided it would be a great idea, for one weekend to go and visit the magnificent seven cemeteries in London. I had only been to two of them previously, Highgate over 10 years ago and Abney Park, when I snuck in one night after dark to take photos of my friend and fellow photographer Tina. I jumped at the chance to see them all and to meet with Emma, who had an equalling passion for graveyards and the macabre.
There’s a pull for me to dark places and cemeteries are most certainly not the happiest places, but for me to walk amongst the dead in such peaceful surroundings is an almost surreal and tranquil experience. I have always felt that I was born in the wrong time, that maybe I walked this earth one day as a Victorian, so to go on this pilgrimage to seek out all 7 of these Victorian wonders, was pretty special for me. It’s weird to think that being London born maybe one of my ancestors could even be buried inside one of them.
The magnificent seven cemeteries of London, were seven large cemeteries built around London to help with a terrible condition of overcrowding of the existing cemeteries. Up until their creation, small parish churches were used to bury people, but with an increase of population in the Victorian era (even in the first 50 years of the 19th century the population increased by double) burying the dead became a serious problem.
There was a large number of deaths during this time due to the uncleanness and many serious epidemics broke out including cholera, which was a huge problem. In 1832, it spread via bacteria and its violent attack on the human body was frightening, the fact there were so many dead bodies around meant that bacteria from the body fluids washed into the new sewer systems could only increase the quandary. With the epidemics, parliament passed a bill that a number of cemeteries should be built to sort out the overcrowding of the central smaller churchyards and so seven cemeteries opened between 1832 and 1841, pretty amazing really at how quickly they went up and how quickly the others in the centre stopped being used.
They are Abney Park, Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets and West Norwood, they stayed busy with thousands of burials throughout the 19th century but in the 1960’s most of them became financially un viable and in the end were left for nature to overcome. Plants consume the graves and catacombs and tree roots grew in the graves and crypts, meaning gravestones toppled and now the cemeteries exist mainly as nature reserves.
Highgate was the top of our list, being the furthest north of all seven we decided to do them anti clockwise starting at the top. At the station meeting Emma for the first time was fantastic, it’s always nice to meet new dark tourists and we had been chatting a while about or love of cemeteries so was finally great to talk in person. It was a rather dreary Saturday morning, the skies grey and drizzle falling from the large dark clouds, it was kind of fitting for the journey we was about to partake. We left the car and headed on foot to the cemetery, excited to be the first of many, it was a little disappointing that we got lost and with many hills to climb. It was in fact the only one of the seven that we had to pay an entry fee and in the end we disappointingly only ended up going in the East cemetery as we didn’t expect to pay so much.
Highgate was built-in 1839 and run privately until 1970 when it became hard to run due to finances, slowly nature took over, growing all over the gravestones, trees uprooting the stone and then the vandals set in. There are two parts to the cemetery the East and West and there are roughly 170,000 people buried in 53,000 graves. The Victorians had strong fascination with death and as most of the era their queen mourned the death of her husband Albert, it was normal for the Victorians to show their wealth by creating extravagant grave memorials for their loved ones, resulting in beautiful examples of gothic architecture. Often it was competition to show the wealth of a family on how fanciful the memorials were.
The cemetery was a place to walk amongst trees, wild flowers and shrubbery, birds and animals roamed around the tombs, vaults, catacombs, mausoleums and gravestones. The older Western part of the cemetery has perfected and beautiful examples of tombs and graves and this part can now only be seen by a tour as they are very delicate and old and in danger of damage. Many famous people have been buried in Highgate, to include Karl Marx, Jeremy Beadle, Douglas Adams, William Rossetti amongst many more. The entrance fee helps to keep the cemetery to be kept in order and even in the 10 years since I last visited I noticed a difference in that it was more kept and the graves less abandoned looking. Whilst still retaining the feeling of being a nature reserve, we were of course happy to pay this fee so that such a beautiful place could be looked after.
On entering the cemetery, the heavens decided to open and it began to rain, we commenced to take photos, but the rain became a problem and instead we huddled under some trees and waited for it to die down. We talked about how we felt being there and how beautiful it was. We were in mutual agreement that it wasn’t spooky in any way, that it was in fact very calming. It was nice to just sit with the sound of rain pattering against the foliage and take in the scene around us. Unfortunately the rain didn’t seem to give up, so I walked around under an umbrella capturing some of the exquisite gothic graves and memorials before we decided to make a move to the next one, via a nice warm pub for lunch.
Kensal Green Cemetery
The next on our list and slightly further south than Highgate, was Kensal Green, we were shocked to find that we could actually drive inside with the car and could drive around the whole site. Kensal Green was built-in 1833 on 72 acres of land, I was very impressed by the profound mausoleums, the memorials were majestic, with large angels and spnx’s on plinths, the more we explored the more impressive it got. One walk way in particular was adorned either side with large gothic stone memorials.
Over 250,000 people have been buried inside in 65,000 graves and the cemetery also consists of underground catacombs, where bodies would be lowered down on a hydraulic catafalque. Still in use, burials still happen here regularly and although some of the ground is uneven and the graves are being succumbed to nature, it is inevitable I think due to their age and the rest of the site seems very well-kept.
I really enjoyed walking around, the rain finally stopped and the sun came out, casting a serene glow on the graves, I loved the scale of the memorials, truly breathtaking and I was amazed at the detail and workmanship of each of them. The fact that the dead were thought of so highly in this era and that they were treated as well as the living if not more so.
There was a strange sense of love for the ruin and decay of the stones, nature climbing up the delicate stone work in the form of vines and ivy, the autumnal tones of brown and red with the green of the ivy, sent this huge wave of love of where I was stood. As the stone monolith’s stood above my head and the sun poured down from the dark clouds backlighting the graves, it was clear that I felt truly at one here. I often ask myself why I am struck by such places of ruin and sadness, but for me it is the feeling of the senses around me and the things I see with my eyes that stimulates me, not the darkness of what once was and is no more. Yes it is a place where the dead come to rest, but it is for me the feeling of rest, solitude, beauty and enchantment that brings me to this place.
Next we briefly visited Brompton, designed by Benjamin Baud, its most impressive feature I thought was the central avenue with a domed chapel at its centre, in the style of the Basilica of St Peters in Rome, either side of the avenue are catacombs and long colonnades. The catacombs with huge impressive doors and iron work. The catacombs were built to have thousands of people in them, but didn’t prove to be all that popular only filling 500 of the places. The cemetery is 39 acres and holds the bodies of around 205,000 burials and over 35,00 monuments. The sun had begun to set, people casually walking their dogs and pushing children in push chairs down the central walkway, it felt really nice to be there, but soon we were told to leave as it was closing, disappointed we made our way back to the car with one final mission left for the day and an exciting one at that.
West Norwood Cemetery
We arrived at West Norwood cemetery in the evening and meet my friend Mike who had come to join us for an adventure well into the night, I won’t say too much in this post, but part two of this blog will explain a little more about this explore. We returned to my house nearby to sleep before we would embark on the second part of our tour in the morning.
Bright and early we headed back to West Norwood to check it out in the light and photograph, its most notable feature the catacombs. The Anglican and Dissenters’ chapels above had been damaged by the war and demolished, however the catacombs still remain and although some coffins were removed at relatives requests, most still remain to this day. It was required that bodies were buried in lead-lined coffins and these were lowered by a hydraulic catafalque designed by Bramah and Robinson in 1839. This area is now pretty dangerous and there are clear no entry signs around the site, with things collapsing in on themselves all round. We walked around and surprisingly in some of the above ground crypts you could shine a light in and see the coffins inside. Some may say this is rather macabre to do, but for me it is interesting to see such things that you just don’t get to see in everyday life.
Death is such a taboo subject these days in the Western world, it isn’t talked about and to look on it in any way is frowned upon, but for me, it seems just a natural thing, we are born, we live or lives and we die, the circle of life, in which has so many remarkable and monumental times in its length. I love that I am interested in death as well as life and I don’t feel the same horror most attach to it. It truly fascinates and to be able to shine a light down and see someones final resting place and imagine the life that, that person once had, fills me with fascination, wonder and sets my imagination alive. For me, things disappear from the world, they decay and go, but leave traces of what they once was. These things slowly decay and disappear, but these traces are what you to link emotion to the spirit of that building or person and this is what set my creative thought on fire.
We arrived at Nunhead and we stood admiring the large decaying chapel in the centre, its doors closed to the public, due to the stone work slowly crumbling away and its roof gone, but apparently you can take a tour inside and even visit the catacombs underneath. For the first time we were joined by a man here, who began to tell us some background to the cemetery, he wasn’t actually a tour guide, but a volunteer I think who was helping with the upkeep of the grounds. We walked with him up the hill as he told us about various exciting things. Like how common people being buried alive was in Victorian times and how bells were put on the outside so anyone buried alive could alert people of this horrifying fact.
Also he told us how people would be added to the small family crypts either side of the paths, that the path would be dug away, the coffins inserted and then covered, there were ventilation holes in the crypts as it was common for the bodies to decompose at alarming rates above ground and because of build ups of gases, it wasn’t uncommon for the bodies and caskets to explode. So to avoid this, ventilation holes were put on the sides so the gases could escape, I couldn’t have imagined how bad it smelled to walk around here during these times.
We also spent a lot of time in this cemetery walking around the more overgrown section, there were warnings of the danger of visiting these parts as graves were completely uprooted, decaying, old and sinking into the ground, but it was these parts I felt most excitement, I felt like I was exploring and the unknown was in my grasp, the path less trodden and the unseen to most people. We spent moments glancing at the names, the dates they died, how long they lived for and we chatted about how sad some of them were, with small children dying or from tragic accidents. I guess this is another part of dark tourism that I try to understand, it makes you realise how important life is and reminds you to live it to the maximum. For me it’s not an attraction to death but a realisation of how special it is to be alive.
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ― Mark Twain
Nunhead cemetery was built-in 1840, by the middle of the 20th century it became full so was abandoned an became very neglected, but now it is a completely succumbed by nature and is flourishing as a nature reserve, flower, birds, trees and woodland animals all make their home inside and with amazing views of London, it is a special place to be.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery
Our trip, took us to Tower Hamlets Cemetery next, which had a different feel to the rest, it was very much a city cemetery and there was an awareness of houses all round, the cemetery being the heart of the housing, I wondered how the people would feel living with a graveyard as their garden with views of the stretching rows of graves. I myself dream of buying and living in an old church with a graveyard for a garden and with these people whose houses overlooked the graveyard, I’m pretty sure they have grown to accept it and for it to be a part of their lives Walking their dogs in the grounds and talking their children for walks in the peaceful woodlands. We bathed in the evening sun and it cast a warm glow across the trees, we saw a fox and listened to the bird singing in the trees, it was very peaceful. It’s funny that the most peaceful places I have witnessed in the fast pace of central London could be where the dead live. The cemetery was built-in 1841 over 27,000 acres and around 350,000 people have been buried there.
Abney Park Cemetery
Abney Park was the last of the seven on our trip, we were tired after hours of walking, but very happy at the beauty we had seen over those two days, we walked from the car to the large entrance gates, to find it was locked! Can you imagine the gutting stomach sinking feeling we felt as we realised we hadn’t made it in time and that it had been closed for the night. We looked at each other with disappointment in our eyes, but Darren and I refused to let it stop us. We waited for a few moments while people passed by and when there was no one around we quickly jumped over a wall and quietly made our way from the path to the woodlands.
Abney Park was built-in 1840 over 31 acres and around 200,000 people were buried inside, it was unique as being the first arboretum to be joined with a cemetery in Europe and offered an educational place, where trees were named and the horticultural area was rich with experimental planting.
As I stood taking a photo, I saw a man on a bicycle and a dog cycle past, could I be imagining it, the place was closed after all, could it be a ghost? I don’t believe in ghosts, but already on edge about being inside when I wasn’t meant to, it certainly spooked me. I stood there silently still and wondered why that person hadn’t seen me, but they did not stop to tell me to leave which was very weird. As the sun set, we walked toward the centre where there was an abandoned chapel, we contemplated going inside, but we had left Emma back at the car as she didn’t feel comfortable with doing the whole jumping over the wall thing, So we took some shots of the exterior and then made our way out. It was a great feeling to know we had accomplished all seven in 2 days and we smiles at what we had witnessed in this time.
Shot with Mamiya 645DF+ Body & Leaf Credo 80 Digital Back, Schneider & Schneider Kreuznach 80mm f2.8 LS Lens