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A visit to Nunhead Cemetery

The mini-heatwave London’s currently experiencing (the warmest start to May for 200 years apparently) has provided me with a good excuse to down-tools and potter off to explore one of south London’s hidden gems, Nunhead Cemetery. It’s been a good few years since I was last there, and I’d forgotten just how impressive it is. So, in a change from the norm, I’ll do my Blue Badge bit and give a brief of the history of the place….

By the first half of the 19th century, London was faced with the problem of overcrowded and unsanitary graves.

Grave digger’s would dig up partially decomposed corpses to make room for new interments.

The rich of the times would strive to be buried either in the church itself or in brick lined graves in the churchyard which would offer some security against being disturbed.

Evidence of this dire situation can still be seen today in the way that many churches appear to be sitting in a ground depression, but in reality it’s the level of the surrounding graveyard that has risen due to the vast number of burials.

The authorities decided the solution was a series of seven large commercial cemeteries around the outskirts of the city – known as the Magnificent Seven – of which Nunhead is the second largest.

Nunhead Cemetery was opened in 1840, but by the middle of the last century the cemetery was nearly full, and so was abandoned by the United Cemetery Company. This neglect led to the cemetery gradually changing from lawn to meadow and eventually to woodland. It is now a Local Nature Reserve and Site of Metropolitan Importance for wildlife, populated with songbirds, woodpeckers and tawny owls (and of course the obligatory south London parakeets).

Avenue of trees at Nunhead Cemetery The Anglican Chapel Headstones at Nunhead Cemetery

Entering the walled cemetery through the main north gate, one is faced with an impressive lime-lined avenue leading up to the imposing Chapel. However, apart from a small tended area by the south gate, the rest of the 52 acre cemetery largely consists of lanes and pathways through overgrown woodland of ash, sycamore and oak.

Monument in the cemetery Statue of an angel praying Carving of ivy on a headstone

The Victorians, following the example of Queen Victoria, certainly liked to make a statement when it came to death, and at every turn there are ornate headstones, columns and monuments, full of symbolism. Peering through the trees one can see angelic statues peeking out above masses of parsley, rows of wonky, ivy-covered headstones, and gothic tombs fighting a losing battle with tree roots.

Carving of a bird Gravestone Headstones

It’s a wonderfully tranquil place to explore, with only the occassional dog-walker for company (it’s almost like being in the country – passing strangers actually say hello!). Wandering off the main paths though, even on a hot, sunny afternoon the place can feel rather like a setting for a Hammer Horror film; one could easily imagine rounding a corner to find Peter Cushing breaking into a tomb, or perhaps Ingrid Pitt trying to lure one off the track with her heaving bosom (I should be so lucky).

Carving of an angel Statue hidden amongst undergrowth

Every so often the paths emerge into sunny clearings and grassy spaces, including an area for Muslim burials. At its highest point, the cemetery rises to 200 feet above sea level, and on the West Hill path there’s a spot where you can see across to St. Paul’s Cathederal through an opening in the trees.

The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery help maintain the cemetery, and their aim is to conserve what’s there, rather than to return it to its original state. They offer guided tours on the last Sunday of each month, and are holding an Open Day this Saturday, the 17th May. Unlike the more famous Highgate Cemetery, visitors are free to wander around (between 7am and 7pm in the summer months) seven days a week, without having to take a guided tour.

Nunhead Cemetery is about a 5-10 minute stroll from Peckham Rye Park, and even closer to Nunhead railway station. If you do pay a visit, there’s a map of the cemetery outside the gate, rather than on the notice board inside where you might expect to find it.

Elsewhere on the web, there’s a very good piece about Nunhead Cemetery at Nothing to See Here. You can also find quite a few photos of Nunhead Cemetery at Gothic London, and an interesting page on Victorian cemetery symbolism at Dark Destiny.

7 Responses

  1. I have this post marked “as new” on bloglines so I get to look at it every day. Your photos are terrific — specially the last, which looks like a Cottingley fairy.

    Next time I am in London (and bear in mind I am Australian) I have promised myself I’ll go.

  2. Thanks Miss Schlegel, it’s actually really nice to hear that other people enjoy my photos. I’ve got quite a few more from Nunhead, which I’ll try put up on Flickr in the next week or two – hopefully that will suffice until your next visit to London. I hadn’t thought of the similarity to the Cottingley fairies, but now you mention it, that last photo does have that sort of ethereal quality. Thanks again for the feedback (BTW, I’ve been enjoying reading your blog too).

  3. bryan rumbelow 10.11.2008 at 8:01 pm

    what time are the guided tours in the winter months?

  4. I cam across your website by accident looking up references to Dr Salter’s Daydream, which my wife and I also found in a walk from Brunel Museum to Waterloo. We went to Nunhead Cemetery in March last year looking for the grave of my maternal grandmother who died in 1937. We were disappointed that the cemetery was so overgown and it took two visits and a lot of hard work to find the headstone. Having found it and cleaned it up we set it up in a clearing near another which someone had obviously lovingly cared for. It was interesting though that the name on the headstone was incorrect. It had her name as Florence Winifred Plumb instead of Florence Annie Plumb. Winifred was one of the daughters’ names and it probably got mixed up in the grief of the moment.

  5. when i was a child me and my siblings and pals use to play in the cemetry
    one day i noticed a man dressed in black wearing a tall pointed hat following us, after awhile i turnt to the others and said to them about the man whom they couldnt see but i could, when we got to the front church bit he vanished
    im 33yrs old now and still remember it like yesterday

  6. I have ancesters buried there I have burial records I would love to locate there graves.

  7. My Father William Belmont Robert Whitward lived on 80 Buchan Road as a child- he left London to join the WW1 Canadian Army. He met my Mother in Canada and after the war ended he came to Windsor, Ct.USA. I would like to know if I could find out where my grandparents were buried. Their names were Emily and William Whitward. My father was born in 1900. His birth was in the Sub. District of -Peckham. I am 86 and have often wondered about my grandparents- How could I find out if they were buried in the Nunhead Cemetery? I visited London a few years ago and did find 80 Buchan Road. The home was not there. Probably bombed. There were nice apartments with roses on a stone wall. I hope to go back someday.

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