A Walk Through Time – London's Cemeteries
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
Cemeteries don't have to be gloomy places. They are often wonderful large green spaces, usually free to enter (Highgate is an exception), filled with architectural gems, most likely wildlife havens and a fascinating record of times gone by.
We have picked five London cemeteries – all quite distinct in their own way. Although none of their guided tours can operate at the moment, they are all open and are peaceful places to explore on a family walk or for solo contemplation – a good alternative to chock-a-block London parks.
215 Stoke Newington High Street, London N16 0LH
It's quite bizarre to step from Stoke Newington High Street straight into the wild, overgrown, higgledy-piggledy Abney Park. This Gothic cemetery is one of the 'Magnificent Seven' in London and also a nature reserve. Abney was originally laid out as an arboretum and is home to thousands of trees, plants and wildlife species. When the cemetery was opened in 1840 it became prominent as a burial ground for non-conformists (those who had rejected the Church of England) and dissenters. You'll find plenty of comedians, performers and actors buried here. In a small clearing in the middle is the oldest surviving non-denominational chapel in Europe (Grade II listed).
When you emerge you might want to have a wander into the lovely neighbouring Clissold Park where it's great cafe is doing a take-away service.
Fulham Rd, Kensington, London SW10 9UG
This leafy oasis is Julia's favourite place to walk. Managed by The Royal Parks, it is extremely well maintained and – although less wild that some of the others – is teaming with wildlife (more crows, Julia says, than she has ever seen anywhere in London!). The architect designed it in the style of St Peter's Square in Rome, with a domed chapel at its southern end, reached by two symmetrical long colonnades. It was intended to give the feel of a large open air cathedral.
The excellent interactive map here will help you to locate – amongst some 35,000 gravestones – the well-known people who have been laid to rest here. You might want to search for Emmeline Pankhurst or – for the cricket fans out there – John Wisden.
There's a good coffee shop serving freshly-baked takeaway pastries. Dogs on leads.
Calling all junior poets!
The Royal Parks are developing a new storytelling and learning area at Brompton Cemetery and are inviting children aged 7-11 to enter their winter-themed poetry competition. Words from the winning entry will be carved into stone and placed in the storytelling area.
Entries by midnight on Friday 12th February. Find full details here
BUNHILL FIELDS BURIAL GROUND
City Road, London EC1Y 2BG
A former burial ground (1665-1854) just north of the City. This is a much more of an urban walk experience than some other cemeteries but it is crammed with history. Over 2000 of the monuments remain and here you will find graves of famous literary figures such as John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake. However, one of the most fascinating and commented upon tombs is that of a woman called Dame Mary Page who died in 1729 [see photo above]. The inscription reads, "in 67 months she was tap'd 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation." It sounds like a gruesome end and surely this intriguing inscription will make all budding historians want to know more?
Swains Lane, London N6 6PJ
Highgate is London's most famous cemetery and its 37 acres of over-grown woodland scattered with obelisks, catacombs and vaults has remained open during Lockdown to give those who live near 'the opportunity for gentle exercise and fresh air during difficult times'. Amongst many others, you will find the graves of Patrick Caulfield (designed by the artist himself), Karl Marx, George Eliot, Paul Foot and Henry Moore. You must book a timed advanced ticket (click here to book) but unlike in normal times when the older, ivy-clad West Cemetery can only be entered by guided tour, there's a unique opportunity to enter alone (make sure to book a West Cemetery Ticket which includes entry to the East Cemetery). Leave your dog at home.
KENSAL GREEN CEMETERY
Harrow Road, Kensal Green, W10 4RA
Inspired by Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Kensal Green was London’s first commercial cemetery, opening in 1833. The neo-classical buildings are neatly laid out on long avenues lined by impressive Gothic mausoleums. The wide gravelled paths are easy for social-distance walking and you're not contending with the mud that's everywhere else! Famous graves include Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Thackeray, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Freddie Mercury.
If you want to extend your walk, it's fun to combine a visit here with a walk along the canal (you're by the Ladbroke Grove section here) and you could walk down to Paddington Basin.
Anya Waddington 4th February