Abney Park

church collage

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.

nichola with graves

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.lion

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.

two faces

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. angel path

All photos © Emily CX Lines 2017. You can find more of Emily’s work here.

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Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

I never wanted this blog to be that serious-minded, so perhaps it’s appropriate that my first ‘Fancy a Walk’ walk was pretty much unplanned and saw me sitting on a rainbow bench, in a park graveyard, with a little can of vodka and ginger ale, talking about boys.

The graveyard in question was Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, just down the road from Mile End station, which, like many of London’s Victorian cemeteries has been turned over to nature, resulting in a romantic mess of broken tombstones and tangled wildflowers. The day in question was a sunny and warm Bank Holiday Saturday, and the company in question was my old friend Philomena and her sister’s adorable dog, Joey.

So after a lol-filled misunderstanding with a Muslim guy at Mile End station who was handing out anti-ISIS leaflets, and thought I’d refused to take one because I’d misheard ‘anti’ as ‘pro’ – as opposed to my general dislike of leaflets and waste – we set off on our merry way, drifting in and out of the gravestones, in and out of the sunlight.

One of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’, you could easily dismiss this space, with its inevitable war memorial at the entrance, as just another crumbling corner of Empire, another slice of chintzy Victoriana; all angels and melodramatic inscriptions. And if it were perfectly maintained then it certainly would be a strange and chintzy place, but giving spaces over to nature tends to free them a little, especially when the past is literally being swamped, rotted and covered up by the flora and fauna of the present. Nature has taken over to such an extent, that the graves themselves have very little impact; they’re merely a backdrop to the sun, which is what we’re really here to pay our respects to.

After weaving in and out of graves, we discover a pretty cool rainbow bench and sit down for a while to enjoy the warmth. Smoking, talking, taking photos, we chat about how unfair it is that women are labelled as ‘emotional’ and ‘moody’ when men, in our humble opinion, are just as batshit crazy and emotionally unstable as the rest of us. And as if to prove our point, we hear a drunk heading our way, yelling about ‘boners’ with his friend. Time to move on.

On our slow way out, after failing to find the chalk maze and pissing Joey off by kicking his ball into the undergrowth, we spot a kicked-in tomb. A black marble slab lies on top of a few rows of bricks, which someone has booted a hole in, so you can see down into the crypt below. Having been raised on episodes of Scooby-Do and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we go looking for the dead. With the joint power of two iPhone torches, we peer into the hole and there they are, Victorian bones. There was no skull in sight, but rows of bones, unmistakably ribs and legs, suggest someone, long since passed, was definitely resting gently on top of the soil. Buried perhaps 150 years ago (I forget the date or the name) they looked exactly how you’d expect a (headless) skeleton to look. And while it was a little eerie if you put your mind to it, there was also something quite everyday about it. You see them in museums after all; bones are bones, and when everything is stripped away they don’t have much power left. Put them together in a science lab and you’ve got a cheeky skeleton named ‘Bob’. Rotting flesh on the other hand, would’ve been another matter, but thankfully there’s none of that here, there’s just flowers and flaking stone, gently decaying under the warm London sun.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, Southern Grove, London, E3 4PX

Thanks to Philomena for the company, and the great photo of me and Joey!