It feels strange to be seeking relief from a pandemic among the dead, but I have spent the past couple of months watching spring and now summer’s arrival from my local graveyard.
My fiancée and I live within walking distance of Brompton Cemetery in the south-west corner of central London. Yet we had rarely visited until lockdown narrowed our horizons but also sharpened our appreciation of the local area.
We are lucky to be living in a city with so many parks, but they have become disconcertingly crowded as the crisis has coincided with unusually hot, sunny weather.
The city’s garden cemeteries have been providing people with quieter respite for nearly 200 years, and right now these green spaces are more welcome than ever.
Brompton Cemetery is one of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries in London. These Victorian graveyards emerged as a private-sector solution to a messy problem: where to dispose of a growing number of dead?
In the mid-19th century, London was industrialising rapidly, triggering a population surge. As the burial grounds in the city’s churchyards began to run out of space, investors saw the chance to build cemeteries in what were then outlying villages — and charge premium prices for burial plots for the city’s wealthiest residents.
The seven were built in a ring around the capital, stretching from Nunhead in the south to Highgate in the north. All the districts where they were located have since been swallowed up in the sprawl of Greater London.
Brompton Cemetery, which is sandwiched between Old Brompton Road and Fulham Road, is a 15-hectare oasis away from the traffic that can be incorporated into any run in the area, though is best experienced at a much slower pace.
The coronavirus crisis is forcing us to confront our own mortality and the nature of mourning — something the Victorians had down to a fine art.
This is a respectful and quiet space that feels more like a nature reserve than a carefully planned final resting place, although it is still a working cemetery and one corner has carefully tended modern graves. There is a tranquility throughout that makes it hard to believe you are still in central London.
Entering from the northern gate, your eye is immediately drawn down a 600-metre central avenue that stretches into the distance, still flanked by its original lime trees.
However, we prefer to explore the maze of small paths that cut through the overgrown vegetation. Old gravestones lie scattered in the long grass, fighting a losing battle for space with the plants — a mix of wildflowers, grasses and nettles.
Nature has taken over completely in places, with some headstones being suffocated by ivy and others sinking into the grass.
This magical, untamed environment contrasts with the meticulous layout of the site, designed by architect Benjamin Baud in the 1830s.
The cemetery was built on flat, featureless market gardens, so Baud had to work to impress potential customers. He turned to neoclassical architecture with dramatic effect, including a circle of yellow stone colonnades that arc to a domed chapel, built to evoke St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.
The Victorian preoccupation with social status extended to death, and there were high prices for the best spots along the central avenue.
The 205,000 graves here include those of some of London’s most influential reformers, including suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and physician John Snow (1813-58), whose pioneering research into a cholera outbreak in 1854 in Soho helped prove a link between the disease and dirty water.
You could easily stroll past either of them without noticing, although flowers and ribbons are often left next to Pankhurst’s grave in the purple, white and green livery of the Women’s Social and Political Union that campaigned for female suffrage in the early 20th century.
There is something cinematic and gothic about the scene in the cemetery. But you are brought back to reality by the sight of Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge football stadium looming over one corner, or the sound of underground trains pulling into West Brompton station.
It is hard to believe the cemetery was once considered to have failed as a venture. Early investors had pushed for a quick return, meaning the cemetery opened in 1840 before the grandest buildings had been finished. There were too few takers for the most expensive plots, and Baud was fired before his vision was fully realised.
By the 1850s, Brompton was nationalised. It is now managed by the Royal Parks, and has been open to the public since it first opened.
Slowly, spring is giving way to summer and lockdown is being eased. The coffee shop by one of the gates has reopened. So has one local bar, Troubadour, which is serving welcome pints of draft beer to take away.
It is starting to feel like a normal summer in London again, although fears are growing of a second wave of coronavirus infections. For now though, there is nothing to do but to sit it out in, of all places, a graveyard.
Map by Liz Faunce
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