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).
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.
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.
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).
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.