Monday, 25 July 2016

Laura the Explorer: A visit to Nunhead Cemetery

 A new series in which I explore parts of London (and other spots), giving my camera a good workout while I'm there, and flex my writing muscles when I get back to my desk. First up, Nunhead Cemetery. Well, it's practically in my back garden - it'd be rude not to.

One of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, Nunhead Cemetery isn't a modern graveyard by any stretch of the imagination, and therein lies its charm. Expectations of tarmac paths and manicured lawns are soon washed away by winding gravel walkways and overgrown greenery.

Mother Nature rules here, and she wants everyone to know it. She dictates the gentle meandering of the paths -- paths that are really more like living tunnels, thanks to the near-complete canopy of trees overhead, leaning in towards the centre to form an arboreal guard of honour to anyone who has the privilege to walk through.

Mother Nature dictates where human footsteps can - and cannot -go
Entering at the Limesford Road entrance, I realised straight away how wild the cemetery was, and opted for what seemed to be the central path straight through the cemetery. I'm not one for believing in superstitions or ghost stories, but a cemetery isn't top of my list of places to get lost, thanks very much.

I strolled so far without encountering a single other soul, I was begin to believe I had actually travelled back in time to the 19th century. There was nothing around to date the scene, no point of temporal reference. Not an electric light, nor a pylon. Even the dates and names on most of the gravestones were mostly illegible, erased by the years and the elements.


By this point, a Victorian chap in a top hat wouldn't have been a shocking thing to find round the next bend.

The only sound was birdsong, plenty of it, and the occasional airplane overhead. Once or twice, the crunching footsteps of a fellow living being on a gravel footpath nearby jolted me back into my surroundings. The trees formed a curtain between us, so although they were only a few feet away, I couldn't actually see them. Still, their presence was reassuring.

There's an air of Jurassic Park to the place, and it's hard to tell what's been there longer - or which is holding the other up -the decrepit, gnarled trees or the greening, mossy graves.

Among the wonky, aged headstones, a more modern sight appears. It seems to be a war memorial area, the gravestones all lined with military precision, as the soldiers they represent would have been in real life, and so much cleaner than the other masonry.


Closer inspection reveals an even sadder sight; to the right of the war memorial headstones is a carved stone commemorating a local group of Scouts who drowned off the Isle of Sheppey in 1912. Nine of them, all named, and all aged 11-14 when they perished.

I wander on, deep and thought, and arrive at the what was once the central chapel of the cemetery. It's now a ruin, but on a Sunday morning, it's a bustling meeting point for families dog walkers, joggers. A meeting point for life. Suddenly the kids whizzing through the cemetery on scooters, the people throwing balls for their dogs and the joggers plugged into their headphones seem...insensitive. They're all using it as a regular park, when really, it's not a regular park at all.


Further snaking though woodland paths reveals the main entrance - I must have arrived via the tradesmens' entrance. A quick glance at the map board points out a viewpoint on the western perimeter of the cemetery. I love a view, me, and it's certainly a good enough reason to follow the path that skirts the western edge of the cemetery.

Round here, it's a bit livelier again, with dog walkers and ramblers going about their business. It's clear that no-one's brushed up on their cemetery greeting etiquette that morning. In a very British way, passing people half mumble at each other, not entirely sure whether to say hello or not. It's odd, really: we're clearly not here as mourners, me with my camera, them with their dogs. Indeed, mourners for the residents of this particularly cemetery are probably now the mourned themselves, so distance are some of the fading dates on the gravestones.



At the bottom of what transpires to be a steepish incline, the path is thick with mud in patches, even on a hot day in July. The sun never reaches these corners, kept out by the thick canopy of leaves, and that itself is a chilling thought.

Continue with the uphill amble, past a wild pond, and soon you'll be rewarded, not just with a bench -- which, to be fair, would be reward enough itself at this point in the battle against gravity, like the inexperienced hill climber's equivalent to shimmering in the desert -- but with this corker of a view:


I can only guess that this is one of the protected sightlines of St Paul's; you can't see it here, but out of shot, the trees had been so as to frame this view. This alone is worth the trip to Nunhead Cemetery, climbing the hill, waiting until a group of hikers had finished using the bench so that I could sit down and take it all in properly. And to think -- it's practically in my back garden.

Where in London should I visit next in this series? Suggestions in the comments below please.

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