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London's Green and Great Cemeteries: Nunhead revisited


I wasn't expecting to find children shrieking and clambering over the graves like wild ivy, ice creams dribbling down their grinning faces. I also wasn't expecting to see Nunhead Cemetery quite so full of people, upright and upstanding, enjoying the early summer sun.

As I move through the grave wrought iron entry gates, the sunlight filters through the broad oak leaves. Bright white and apple green blinds me, adding to my bewilderment. Goths dressed in black smiles hunt amongst the headstones for trophy photographs, while children with faces painted like tigers roar around amongst them. I move in a trance with the steady stream of people flowing back and forth along the stony paths thick with bodies. As the gravel crunches beneath my feet, I'm transported far away to the sucking of the sea as the waves melt into a shingle beach. Somewhere in a corner of my mind, I am dimly aware of the bird alarm calls ringing everywhere - where did all these people come from?

Recovering my senses enough to vaguely orient myself, I join a group of cemetery walkers for a guided tour. My guide Chris looks a solid sort, the type of chap who'd open the batting of the local club cricket team and arrange a magnificent tea to top it all. He's been involved with the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery conservation group for the last twenty-five years, and he clearly enjoys sharing his knowledge and views. Chris draws us closer and focuses my attention upon the facts. "The Magnificent Seven" Victorian cemeteries were built in a ring around London in the 1830 and 40s, Nunhead and Highgate being just two examples. Around this time, there was a massive expansion of the population of London, where the only burial places were churchyards in the City.

"The City Planners talked of the need to end this horrendous practice of burying the dead in the midst of the living, and these garden cemeteries were a solution to this," said Chris.

We walk up a broad landscaped avenue, past a multitude of noisy stalls and a labourer in a fluorescent vest lying on a shady grave trying to sleep. He slowly raises his head and grimaces at everyone disturbing his efforts to take his routine afternoon snooze.

"These cemeteries are more than burial places – they were designed and landscaped as public gardens, with an educational and spiritual purpose," Chris said. The sun was making me feel dreamy again. I looked sleepily at Chris and the labourer, thinking I could probably do with a spiritual recharge right now too.

Chris showed us a print from the late 1800s of the view from the entrance to the gothic Chapel. The place looked desolate and lonely. It is certainly neither today. As we walk towards the chapel, three dandy Lord Byrons emerge from the darkness of their Crypt tour in various states of frilled excitement. They each embrace a trio of velvety Kates Bush in synchronized passion, while a rather portly Ozzy Osbourne looks on in the bright sunshine.

We continue along a shaded earthy path, the ground becoming softer beneath my feet. The monuments tip over at crazy angles here, fallen angels tilted skywards, hinting at the shifting ground beneath their wings. The marks on the graves tell me stories of young women dying in childbirth and children succumbing to rampant and lethal infections. Although Nunhead was surrounded by leafy Surrey in the early nineteenth century, early death was no less common than in the urban ghettos of the time. Death was also a chance to mark your place in society. Many parents chose to save towards their future cemetery monuments, at the expense of sending their children to school. The elaborate carvings and monuments common throughout Nunhead bear witness to Victorian idea that an impressive cemetery monument was a certain way to get on in this world, if not the next. An Egyptian urn on top of a solid Portland Stone with inset lead lettering was an expensive social statement and would leave a lasting legacy long after their lives were over.

Moving along the path, the views become more expansive, as do the monuments. The higher ground was for the rich folk, and their families could enjoy views towards the City when they came to visit their beloved deceased. Many of the "Nunhead Notables" are buried up here, including Bryan Dorkin, an engineer credited with inventing the tin can for food. His cans were used to transport food to the South Pole to feed hungry adventurers, such as those in the crew of the ill-fated HMS Terror and HMS Erebus exploration of the NorthWest Passage in 1845. After 18 months at sea, this well-stocked expedition simply disappeared. After an extensive and expensive search, some clues were found in 1850 but the mystery deepened. Some of the items that were found included food cans from the expedition. Unfortunately for the ravenous adventurers, Dorkin's can manufacturing method used lead as well as tin to make the cans, and this had serious consequences. Lead poisoning is a nasty business, and can lead to symptoms such as delusions and an inability to make good decisions. One forensic study of frozen bodies of the crew found lead levels in hair follicles at over 100 times the acceptable amount. Many researchers are convinced that the sailors died from a combination of lead and food poisoning, especially as their Captain was one of the first to die.

At the crest of the hill, and the cemetery becomes much more open. We walk downhill through a small meadow, and swallows swoop down amongst the wild flowers, picking off insects and zoom back up into the azure sky like rockets.

"They'll still be making tea for a good quarter of an hour yet!" said Chris, our cricket captain type person.

He encourages his crew to follow him at a slightly more manic pace and I suspect that he's rather thirsty. Just so long as the tea doesn't come in cans, I think to myself. 

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Sunday, 21 July 2019

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