What I always like to do at a dinner party is brightly whip out my iPad and show everyone pictures of my day in a cemetery.
That isn’t actually true, but it occurred at this particular dinner party, which while not quite up with the soup from hell disaster of last October, had so many teething problems that I’m amazed I didn’t just burst into tears when my friends arrived.
It’s sod’s law that the one time you’d particularly like your Competent Human mode to function, the fates conspire against you. So, in prep:
- I spilled candle wax all over my kitchen and clothes while cleaning out my storm lamps (this is not a euphemism but it absolutely should be
- While putting beer up on the shelves, I put the box the wrong way round and three bottles fell out resulting in a terrifying jumble of limbs, screaming, and smashing all over the floor
- The wine was corked. All of it. I had 18 bottles
- My completely trusted casserole threw an unprecedented fit of not quite working
- My first guest, who I was hoping to impress, had to go to the shop and get some different wine
- I felt utterly guiltbarrassed
- The guiltbarrassment caused my brain to short circuit so I put the plates in the oven for an hour instead of 10 minutes
That aside, it was a wonderful evening with tremendous people. Nobody died! That’s pretty much all you can hope for in such a perfect storm of incident.
So, those are the circumstances that lead to me showing people pictures of Nunhead Cemetery in the middle of a dinner party at all. I wasn’t just hanging around it for the lolz, although I am a Victorian at heart, but for a volunteer day with the office and Groundwork UK.
I’m intrigued by London’s vast network of beautiful cemeteries, and on the occasion that I’ve wandered around Highgate or Stoke Newington, found them rather incredible. My friend Issy did the whole lot of the Magnificent Seven (basically, London’s top sexiest cemeteries) as part of her new year’s resolution to do a different resolution each month, and I was deeply reassured when her boyfriend Josh tweeted me to say that Nunhead had won the accolade of their second favourite cemetery when doing the tours.
Nunhead Cemetery was abandoned years ago when it ran out of room to bury people. That’s basically the world’s most miserable landfill. I also love the idea that people can just casually go “Oh, you know, let’s just leave it, nobody will notice” and run off whistling. As a result it became wildly overgrown, with trees and gravestones falling over each other in the manner of a Tim Burton theme park, and it only opened again in 2001 after years of careful restoration.
After some introductory corporate bonding (never not hideous) we split into two groups, with ribbons to wear for identification. At this point I rather wondered if we were going to have a horticultural Battle Royale. My group was tidying up the tatty banks of the beeches, which involved industrial amounts of raking, cutting and heaping, then I went off to build a bird box. As I hadn’t wielded a saw since D&T classes at school, I wasn’t expecting this to go well, but it was actually really fun.
Well I say fun, the poor man who was teaching us to make them had clearly taught school children who were quicker on the uptake.
“Look mum, no hands! (were destroyed during the making of this bird box)”
After this I went back to join my yellow group rakers, via the most circuitous route I could so I could have a good nosey round the grounds. It was all so still, so green and so peaceful.
I wandered off the main paths down some smaller ones, with gravestones everywhere. Piled on top of each other, pushed out of the way by roots.
There were so many stones for babies and children. This one, just about balancing under the stone that had fallen on it. Also, a lot of references to people “falling asleep” which gave me the raving heebs about ever going to bed again.
I turned a corner into an area lined with stones, and came across two dazzlingly well-kept graves with flowers. Apparently people are still buried here – I’m not entirely sure how, given the lack of room. Moments later, six waggy dogs pounded round the corner accompanied by a cheerful dogwalker who gave me a lovely spiel about the volunteers and that she called this part of the park “the magic path” which was rather nice.
After lunch we went on a quick tour, including that beautiful Anglican chapel from earlier. It was set fire to in the 70s when it was abandoned and the roof would cost too much to replace so now it has buddleia growing out of the top, and local film societies and schools hold concerts and show films here. Lovely. There was another chapel for atheists and non-Anglicans, but it got bombed in the war. Marvellously, the architect for both won the commissions in a magazine competition. More of this sort of thing please Condé.
The chap who was showing us round was clearly a bit of a showman as well as a fan of the cemetery, so when he asked if we’d like to go into the crypt it was like asking a group of kids if they’d quite like an ice cream.
The stalactites are made up of limestone water from the floor above, not spirits from Korean horror films. Despite knowing this, I still screamed involuntarily when one of them dripped on my head.
There was that feeling of something missing, which wasn’t helped by bits of shroud and decaying wooden coffins. It made you think that the something missing might well be hiding malevolently in the corner, or just behind you with their arms outstretched.
We went off for more of a walk, past the Muslim section – top grave fact: Muslim coffins are buried top down so the occupant can face Mecca, and there’s only one part of the cemetary with deep enough soil.
The “other lot” (fight! fight!) were clearing graves up by The View. This was a pretty hot property in Nunhead, apparently, as despite being a suburb outside London in the 19th century, you could still see St Paul’s.
If you peered really, really hard.
(A really, really small Bear Grylls moment.)
PS: I really hope my parents and godparents look forward to a nice album-full of cemetery chat should something disastrous occur at Sunday lunch. But ideally, that normal service can resume sans hilarious consequences.
PPS: This post has proven that I absolutely cannot spell cemetery. My fingers insist it ends with an -ary and I’ve had to go through every single instance and correct it. WRETCHED WORD.
PPS: I couldn’t resist tweeting from inside the crypt, which now has to do a death match with “inside the ambulance carting me off to A&E” and “from on top of an elephant” for weirdest or most inappropriate place I have tweeted.