London is blessed with many large and beautiful urban parks, and city dwellers are spoilt for choice for a Sunday stroll. But a slightly more intriguing, (albeit morbid) option is one of London’s Magnificent Seven. No, not an Enid Blyton novel, but one of London’s Victorian cemeteries – ivy-clad, tumbling mazes of fallen angels and broken tomb-stones.
Ask me where I’d best like to spend a brisk, autumnal afternoon walk, and I’ll tell you: amongst piles and piles of the Victorian dead. Alright, so that might not be my answer verbatim, but without a doubt I would choose Nunhead cemetery – my closest of the Seven. Not only is it one of the few places in the city where wildlife is really left to do it’s thing, it is also one of those rare outdoor activities that gets better in winter. And let’s face it: winter in London can get fairly bleak, and the last thing you want to do on your day off is leave the comfort of endless tea, sofas and central heating. But if you can manage this herculean feat, you’ll find that autumn leaves and blankets of snow only add to this eerily beautiful and peaceful retreat from the constant bustle of city life. For there’s one thing you can say for the deceased – they don’t make a lot of noise…
The history of the Seven is just as intriguing as their gently dilapidated grounds. In the 1800s London’s population was 1 million. Then in 1850, it exploded to 2.3 million. We all know the Victorian times weren’t particularly abound with health and vitality; and along with heavy population increases came, well, a lot of deaths. Predictably, this presented the problem of what to do with all these extra corpses, as church cemeteries rapidly ran out of space.
A health and safety logistical nightmare ensued. Body snatching, exhumations, and bodies piled into impractically shallow graves all attributed to more deaths through poisoned water supplies, and generally a really bad smell.
Luckily, in 1832, some bright spark in parliament came up with the idea of seven private suburban cemeteries, to house some of these lost souls. Architect Hugh Mueller dubbed these The Magnificent Seven. These are (in no particular order): Highgate, West Norwood, Tower Hamlets, Brompton, Kensal Green, Abney Park, and Nunhead Cemetery.
Controversial at first for their lack of adjoining churches (and therefore unconsecrated ground), these cemeteries slowly overcame their scandal, and became popular Victorian hang-outs. Unlike today, Victorian Londoners weren’t lucky enough to have big urban parks for perambulating on a crisp Autumn morning, and so they, like me, developed a penchant for grave-strolling (as I like to call it). The Victorians had a morbid romance with death, and liked to spend large amounts of their time hanging around the resting places of their loved ones. Beyond their memorial value, tombs and headstones were also seen as an extension of a family’s wealth – and therefore the more extravagant the better. These excessive tombstones now serve to add curiosity to a visit, as you hunt in the undergrowth for the weirdest and grandest memorials that lie hidden beneath.
Just one word to the wise before you embark on your ghoulish adventure: cemeteries are big places, so don’t get caught out after closing time…
On one particular trip to Nunhead, me and a chum spent rather too long watching a particularly friendly fox (it really was very friendly). When we finally decided it was getting dark (and high time we were outta there), we found, to our horror, that the gates were locked! What could have been the start to a low-budget horror film ended with an awkward exchange with the grounds-keeper’s wife, who finally – and reluctantly – unlocked the gates to let us out.
A lucky escape, some might say. But with a keen eye for closing times, London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries can become your perfect retreat from inner city pressure, with lots to discover, and just a hint of the macabre…
(Look out for our next post on London’s Victorian cemeteries where you’ll be able to get the low-down on your closest of the Magnificent Seven.)