Words by Abi Himan
One of the most fascinating things about London is the abundance of history that can be found at every corner turned. One of the other brilliant things about it is its green spaces (who doesn't love the statistic that almost half of London is 'green' space?!)
So what about when those two things come together? Sure, there are plenty of amazing historic buildings and whatnot, but London's real character undoubtedly lies in the people who lived (and still live!) in the city. We've gone a bit gothic this week as we explore the some of their resting places, showing how London's got a bit of a wild side even in the afterlife.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park (aka Bow Cemetery), Mile End
Situated just down the road from Mile End Park, the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is one of what has been the dubbed the 'Magnificent Seven' of Victorian London Cemeteries that were established to alleviate London's burial crisis in the 19th Century.
Form it's opening in 1841 It was very popular with people from the East End, but sadly didn't enjoy the same investments as some of the other 'Magnificent Seven' based in more glamorous locations, and had fallen into quite a sorry state by the turn of the century, made even worse following five bomb raids during the Second World War. Thankfully, a lot of work has since been done and it is now a designated local nature reserve that has a number of walks and trails, each filled with flora and fauna which encapsulate the surviving gravestones and monuments.
Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington
Another of the 'Magnificent Seven', if you live around Stoke Newington chances are you've walk past this place a fair few times and never known it. Just a stones throw from Clissold Park, Abney Park Cemetery doesn't give much away from its entrances, but behind it's gates you'll find a rambling landscape filled with gothic beauty, underpinned by its masses of trees and shrubs, and the glimpses of headstones and mausolea that peep from beneath.
Whilst there's not so much big name celeb-spotting'[ in the usual sense here, Abney Park Cemetery opened in 1840 as a pioneering non-denominational place of rest, serving London's increasingly diverse population. As such, it can claim a lot of very important non-conformists and social reformers amongst its inhabitants - it was definitely one for the rebels.
As well as a cemetery, it's also an arboretum (the first of its kind in Europe), and in its heyday had 2,500 trees and shrubs that bordered the site, planted alphabetically. Whilst not so ordered today, there is no denying that this is still a place where nature is valued above all else, and maintains status as an official local nature reserve.
The Hardy Tree, St Pancras
Found in the corner of an ancient churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, The Hardy Tree is a must visit for any Londoner with even the slightest of spooky interests. What was once a central burial ground for the area found itself in a bit of predicament when plans for a new railway line came along. A young architect by the name of Thomas Hardy (yes, the same Thomas Hardy who would go on to write Tess of the D'Urbervilles) was tasked with the rather grim job of clearing the burials to make way for the new tracks.
Task completed, Hardy was left with hundreds of headstones and no clear solution on what to do with them. No one is sure quite how it was decided, but in the end they were stood in a circle around a young ash tree in the church yard that wouldn't be disturbed by the trains, and so it remains today. As the tree has grown, the headstones have become jostled and absorbed by the tree and its roots, creating quite the momento mori to the ongoing interplay between life and death. Deep, man.
Crossbones Memorial Garden, Southwark
The 'Crossbones' is a particularly storied part of London and the city's history. Sat just behind Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market, it was once the site of an unconsecrated medieval burial ground for paupers and the 'Winchester Geese', the sex workers licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work in the brothels of the area (which was considerably shadier place to be than it is today).
Following its closure in 1853 it became a bit of a wasteland, protected from being built on but largely overlooked unlike the rest of the surrounding area, serving briefly as a timber yard and industrial park until 1990 when it became home to part of the Jubilee Line extension. It was following this that campaigners worked to reclaim the derelict space, making it into a more worthy memorial to, as the dedication reads, 'The Outcast Dead'. Their tireless work culminated in the community garden that occupies the space today. Sitting under the towering shadow of The Shard and surrounded by the buzzing energy of Southwark, it is a brilliant reminder of London's rich and varied history.
Barnes Old Cemetery, Richmond
This is definitely the spookiest feeling of the lot today. If headless angels and hauntings by nuns are your thing, this one's for you. In its heyday, it was a popular burial site for distinguished Victorians of the area, and it's got the monuments and statues to prove it. It fell into disrepair in the 20th century and was heavily vandalised and neglected, leaving the place overgrown and with lots of the aforementioned statues headless, but this only adds to the gothic charm of the place.
No longer quite so neglected, with active wildlife conservation taking place, it still makes for a very charming spot, oozing with romantic, if slightly spooky, atmosphere. Perfect for unleashing your inner goth.
Ok, this one's not really a secret (it's probably one of the most famous in the world) but there's good reason for that. Highgate Cemetery is yet another of the Magnificent Seven, and was first opened in 1839, and with its sweeping views across London and landscaping from top garden designer David Ramsey, it soon became THE place to go, ahem, after hours.
Some of the highlights include a spot of celeb spotting, the Egyptian Avenue (pictured above), the Circle of Lebanon and the Terrace Catacombs, all of which will help you take in the eery Victorian architecture and the somewhat romantic flora that does all it can to try and claim back the land.