Nunhead Cemetery, London
Even some of the most experienced south Londoners will furrow their brows and scan their mental A-Z’s in vain when you mention a visit to Nunhead. Despite being firmly lodged in zone 2 the area possesses a spymaster’s flair for anonymity. Perhaps its low profile can be ascribed to the Post office decision in the early twentieth century to lump Nunhead and Peckham together within the SE15 postcode. Ever since being made GPO bedfellows, Nunhead has played the poor relation to its neighbour and the crisis of identity was only exacerbated when Del Boy and his three-wheeler stamped an indelible mark on the nation’s popular consciousness. But while Peckham revels in notoriety, Nunhead possesses at least one very good reason why you should make tracks to this overlooked corner of the capital. Tucked away among the ordinary terraced side streets is perhaps the greatest of all London’s nineteenth century cemeteries, a true hidden gem, which the more discerning visitor will be just dying to visit.
From the outside, the front entrance to Nunhead cemetery exudes the sort of gothic menace which would excite the location finder for any Hammer House of Horror film production. The drama of the huge iron gates hanging from towering stone columns is heightened by their recessed location from the main road. It’s easy to imagine long faced Dickensian undertakers arriving atop a jet black carriage, pulled by plumed horses the colour of midnight. This monumental entrance is the meeting point for the vast ten foot high wall which encloses some 52 acres of gravestones. The gates revel in the insignia of death featuring badges depicting an emptied hour glass flanked by wings of a feathered angel, and more ominously, a skeletal demon. Similarly the stonework is decorated with down turned torches, the life of their flames permanently extinguished. It’s fair to say that this exterior possesses sufficient creepiness to encourage the casual passer-by to consider crossing the road even in the full glare of daylight. But if the outside alone is liable to unnerve then perhaps those of a nervous disposition would be advised not to take a stroll inside.
The origins of the cemetery are to be found back in the early nineteenth century when the rapid expansion of London was causing a serious headache for urban planners. While the new arrivals resulted in a doubling of the population in the first fifty years of the century it was the ‘departure’ of souls which really caused major problems. Traditional burials at local parish churches could not cope with demand and the unauthorised dumping of bodies resulted in disease. In 1832 Parliament passed a bill encouraging the establishment of private cemeteries and over the next decade a series of cemeteries which became known as the ‘magnificent seven’ were established on what was then the outskirts of London. Originally known as 'All Saints' Cemetery', Nunhead was opened in 1840 by the London Cemetery Company and for the next hundred or so years the graveyard welcomed a steady stream of permanent guests. Some took up residence in elaborate tombs boldly inscribed with their achievements, while others found themselves in more modest lodgings. Whatever the level of grandeur the graveyard was set out around a series of elegant interconnecting paths which meander around the site. The careful planning and planting of the site was matched by its supurb location on land which slopes upward at sufficent angle to afford mourners a magnificent vista across the capital.
Today the the marvellous views still remain intact despite over a century of urban expansion. It’s worth turning back as you enter through the main gates and taking in the horizon, from Canary Wharf westwards to the London Eye. This is where similarities between past and present part company as today the site is more woodland than graveyard. The changing economics of death meant that Nunhead slipped into a spiral of post war decline. A lack of care and cash surrendered the graves to the ravages of nature and vandalism, and it was not until the early 1980s that a group emerged to champion the graveyard. Since then ‘The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery’ have spearheaded a renovation and protection campaign which has replaced terminal decline with careful stewardship. However, the long term aim is not to return the site to its former glory and part of the graveyard is now a designated nature reserve. Fresh burial plots on the manicured south side of the cemetery are shadowed by a mass of tall trees and twisted undergrowth. The resulting fusion of rampant nature and human demise is as intriguing and beautiful as it is disconcerting. The main path leading from the entrance to the imposing, but long disused chapel is lined with impressive monuments. These, like most of the graves in the cemetery, display the scars of neglect, but start to look into the undergrowth, beyond the edges of the walkway, and the true scale of the cemetery begins to reveal itself. Out of the vegetation, a jumbled mass of graves appear, hundreds of stones contorted by expanding roots and throttled by advancing brambles. This is an almighty mess of cracked plinths, armless angels, overturned urns and decapitated crosses. The majority of the final resting places have been lost to the wilderness and the dense greenery is only occasionally penetrable thanks to rough paths which veer off the main thoroughfares. Often these tracks simply peter out, but sometimes they lead to tended graves, marooned among their long forgotten neighbours.
For many the thought of wandering around an overgrown cemetery will not be instantly alluring. Reminders of our own mortality are normally best left undisturbed and during a solo visit it’s hard to shake off the nagging feeling that you are not completely alone. However a wander around Nunhead will reward all but the most easily spooked. In terms of grave spotting it’s worth looking for heroes who fought at Trafalgar, a cavalryman from the charge of the Light Brigade as well as an airman who chased a Zepplin across London. More poignantly are the small white stoned First World War graves which group together men from around the globe. Soldiers from South Africa, New Zealand and Canada lie next to each other having traveled thousands of miles for the privilege of dying in France. Also sobering is the memorial to the 1912 Leysdown tragedy which once galvanised the nation in sorrow. Nine young Scouts died when their boat capsized in off the Isle of Sheppey. The public impact of the disaster was profound, and the boys' coffins were carried up the Thames by a Royal Navy Destroyer to Rotherhide. During the funeral procession to Nunhead a million people lined the streets of London in sympathy.
Nunhead Cemetery photos
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How to get there
Nunhead Cemetery, Linden Grove, Southwark, London SE15, UK.
The best time to visit the cemetery is on the last Sunday of each month when the Friends organise a guided tour.
The cemetery is a short walk form Nunhead railway station. Upon leaving the station cross the road into Oak Street then take the first right into Linden Grove. The cemetery is on your left.