Friday 13th, what better date for a walk in a Victorian cemetery?
It’s a typical mid-January day when we set out, all half-hearted sleety snow and lumbering grey clouds. For a graveyard walk though, this seems pretty fitting. Gotta love that pathetic fallacy.
Abney Park in Stoke Newington, North London, is another of the city’s Magnificent Seven, a group of suburban Victorian cemeteries originally designed to cope with the inevitable mortality of London’s rapidly increasing population. Like many of its counterparts, Abney Park eventually went to wrack and ruin in the 70’s, after the cemetery company that ran it went into administration. Their loss was natures gain though, and Abney Park – now managed by Hackney Council and Abney Park Trust – soon transformed itself into the crumbling, tumbling nature reserve it is today. However, unlike other cemeteries, Abney Park had a bit of a head start when it came to its natural instincts, as it was originally designed to be an arboretum as well as a place of burial, and some of the old trees from the initial planting in the 1840’s still survive to this day.
We’re not here to learn about trees though, we’re here to meander between the tombstones, take photos, wonder about the dead and analyse the living. Whenever I do these cemetery walks, I always end up struggling with the question of sentimentality. On a personal level, I have very little time for sentiment, or at least, I like to think I don’t. But when it comes to graveyards, all these big ideals tend to go out the stained glass window. Because what is it we do in old cemeteries? We stare, we read, we attempt to look pensive and profound, and we sentimentalize the dead. We see a picture of a boy on a gravestone, and we put ourselves in the mother’s shoes. We see cheap, small graves lined up row-upon-row and we rant about the evils of poverty. Though we usually have little time for religion, we see relics, insignia and symbols and gaze on in quiet respect. We see the best in people too. I, for one, never look at tomb and think ‘yeah, nice marble lion, but I bet he was a right dickhead’. The phrase ‘beloved mother’ picked out in gold may hide all manner of dark deeds, but we choose not to look too deep. In a graveyard, everyone is forgiven; in a graveyard, we are all unknown innocents reduced to our finest hour.
See, sentiment, it’ll ruin your writing too if you’re not careful.
One of the most notable residents of Abney Park is Frank C Bostock, travelling menagerist and lion tamer extraordinaire. Buried with his wife, his tomb is guarded by a large, sleepy lion and by all accounts he was one of the best lion tamers of his day, touring throughout the UK and America with his menagerie of lions, tigers and boxing kangaroos. Although his animals attacked him on many occasions, sadly it was a much less dramatic case of flu that led to his death in 1912. If you’re into marble lions, you can also see the tomb of Frank’s Grandfather, George Wombwell, which is guarded by a similar one, in Highgate Cemetery West. Lion taming clearly ran in the family.
After admiring their grave we wander onwards, chatting to a woman who’s out walking her dogs, a mother and daughter. We spot teenage graffiti spray-painted onto a tree, a chair hidden in the bushes, and get a bit lost in the undergrowth and have to turn back. Our conversation flits between work and relationships, men and women, good behaviour and bad. The sort of conversations people have probably been having in this cemetery since it was first built. Which is the magical thing about graveyards, they remind you that human nature, at its basic level probably hasn’t changed as much as we like to think it has. We’re still caught up in the same old emotional dramas, still trying to talk our way out of things, still trying to tame lions, or to resist being tamed ourselves. I leave thinking we should go somewhere modern next time, before sentiment destroys us completely. Time to move on.
All photos © Emily CX Lines 2017. You can find more of Emily’s work here.