I woke up early again this Sunday! I had my breakfast, said goodbye to my other half and off I headed out in the rain. For the day was made for cemetery wandering and cemetery wandering I was about to do!
The gates from within the cemetery
Nunhead cemetery is one of the least known of the Magnificent Seven Victorian cemeteries and the fifth one that Laura D and I have visited this year. It’s large gates crop up along a road that looks completely like any other suburban road with housing on the other side. There are free tours run by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery which is excellent, and they accept donations which is also excellent. It’s lovely to see the members upon entering the cemetery and their little hut. We asked if we could use the facilities before the tour began and I was amused that the toilet doubled up as a tool shed and the cloakroom!
The view from the toilet seat
The tour started and we were introduced to the cemetery and the gatehouses. There are two gatehouses, one of which is the home to a family and the other which is shrouded in fencing and scaffolding- a derelict wreck of its former self. We were told that there is funding to restore the gatehouse but the use is still under discussion, future home anyone?
The fencing around the derelict gatehouse
We begin by wandering to the side of the derelict gatehouse, to where a platform with two steps up to it resides. Keith, our tour guide, revealed that this area is what is left of one of the five catacombs that were in the cemetery, but are now sealed. It proved that the catacombs were not very popular among the deceased, but popular for vandalism and children playing in the cemetery so it was decided these would be sealed shut and closed. I find this quite sad as catacombs are very interesting to me! Behind this flat area are also the relocated remains of those who were buried in the St. Christopher le Stocks graveyard which was cleared to make way for an extension of the Bank of England. I’ve noticed that graveyards often have the relocated remains of people from elsewhere, so rest in peace is not always permanent!
The flat top of the sealed catacombs
Looking up the path towards the chapel
The main chapel here is beautiful and a great example of gothic revival architecture, designed by Thomas Little. Sadly it was gutted by fire in the 1970s but the structure that remains is still a sight to behold. Opposite the chapel there is a tall monument among the others that is slightly different. It has an eclectic mix of fonts and styles, an abundance of symbols and carvings around it. This is the grave of Mr Daniels who was the chief mason to the cemetery, Keith told us that his grave is like a catalogue of designs for people to choose from when designing their own.
The Chief Mason’s monument
I honestly could write about the cemetery for thousands of words but I will only scrape the surface of what I discovered there. The tour was so expansive and fascinating. I would to encourage you to go yourself if you are able to and I’ll provide some highlights of the rest. Unlike most of the other Magnificent Seven, there are no famous names you would recognise buried at Nunhead. There are famous people of the time however, music hall stars and industrialists that you would have known in Victorian London. The inventor of canned food is there, Brian Donkin, and the notable Catholic Lord Mayor of London Dekeyser.
Volunteers recording the engravings on the tombstones
The cemetery has a viewpoint all the way to St. Paul’s from the top, that even on a drizzly day could be seen if squinting through the rain. The top is 200ft above sea level and is quite a climb but worth it. After the climb we enter the ‘dissenters’ area of the cemetery where it is unconsecrated ground and the non-Anglicans are buried.
This mausoleum really caught my eye
The whole area is a great nature reserve and full of wildlife and trees which is something I find funny. We are now seeking out ‘green burials’ in cemeteries that look like parks or woodland, all while our Victorian cemeteries are being taken back by nature nonetheless and forming woodland around the gravestones. It’s a funny thought, I do wonder if the days of perfectly preened lawns and large clear spaces are coming to an end towards a greater balance between our input and nature.
The area of the site of the origin Dissenters Chapel
If you would like the visit Nunhead or find out more, the website is here. Please, please go on a free tour if you can! I was told they never cancel them for the weather either. If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, please also don’t hesitate!