“Cemeteries in Bohemia are like gardens. The graves are covered with grass and colourful flowers. Modest tombstones are lost in the greenery. When the sun goes down, the cemeterysparkles with tiny candles… no matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery.” – Milan Kundera
There’s a small cemetery on the north side of Putney Bridge, tucked away behind the 15th century tower of All Saints Church. I wandered in one chilly November morning to find a wooden quiet bench where I could sit and tuck into the pão de queijo I bought from nearby Tinto for breakfast, watch the squirrels darting around the trees and sip my tea before heading off on a long walk along the river to Hammersmith.
There’s something intriguing about cemeteries that always draws me in: a glimpse into history through the partially sunken, roughly carved stones with dates long before that country where I grew up was even discovered, the tranquil atmosphere, the juxtapostion of life and death. And so I took some time to wander through.
Every inch of the ground in one corner was covered in layers of crisp orange leaves and bit of fallen twigs, a few green weeds popping through. It was silent, not another person in sight, so early for a Saturday morning that much of Fulham was probably just waking up. I crouched down to take a photo when I heard a large rain drop splash against the leaves next to me. And then another. And another. The canopy of trees above my head made a natural shelter.
Being at the edge of Bishops Park, near Fulham Palace, there are plenty of bishops who call this small patch of earth their final resting place along with Sir William Butts who was the physician to King Henry VIII and the architect Henry Holland.
There’s another little story I read about on the Historical Trinkets blog. Local Isabella Murr died in 1829 and the following eulogy from her husband Joseph is inscribed on her gravestone in the cemetery:
Ye who possess the greatest charms of life
A tender friend – a kind indulgent wife
Oh learn their worth! In her beneath this stone
These pleasing attributes together shone
Was not true happiness with them combin’d?
Ask the spoiled being she has left behind
At some point later on he passed away (no dates are indicated) and beneath this delicate type, in capital letters at the bottom of the stone, it is written: “HE’S GONE TOO.”
From 1863, new plots were no longer created here as the churchyard had become overcrowded and unsanitary. It was, interestingly, also a site of many body snatching incidents until the late 1820s due to its close proximity to the river and therefore the graveyard had to be guarded at night.
From the cemetery, I made my walk through the spitting rain along the river path that runs between the Thames and Bishops Park, kept following it all the way to Hammersith where I walked around a bit more before heading back down Fulham Palace Road.
At the end of a four hour adventure, I stopped in another cemetery: Fulham Palace Road Cemetery, which opened in 1865, so not quite as old (or as cosy) as the first stop, but like just about all cemeteries, still fascinating and beautiful with its peaceful tree lined pathways.
There aren’t too many notable burials in this one that I’ve come across, despite being much bigger than the last but there’s an area of World War II graves and a touching story of Jane and Frederick Wright who were married for 48 years and who died within an hour of each other in 1881.
My feet were sopping wet at this point, I was hungry and the rain picked up so I decided it was time to head home.
While I’m writing about cemeteries, though, I also wanted to share some photos that I took back when the leaves just started to tun in another one of my favourites, and of London’s Magnificent Seven: Brompton Cemetery.
I used to live a few minutes walk from here and still work very nearby, so it’s a place I’ve visited many times and have written about in the past.
Brompton has quite a different atmosphere to the other two. It’s much bigger, the plants and trees grow wildly around and over mossy, weather-worn graves and people use it as more of a recreational area, eating lunch there, reading on benches, going for walks, jogs or taking tours.
(It’s also the stomping ground of a few friendly neighborhood exhibitionists who I’ve encountered on a number of occasions, most recently on the visit where I took these picures – at 1pm on a weekday lunch break. Creepy, but they’re pretty harmless and there’s usually lots of people around. It also has a bit of a reputation – or at least it used to – as a London’s weirdest cruising ground for gay men…fun facts.)
With around 205,000 burials, it’s one of the country’s oldest and most distinguished garden cemeteries. It’s also featured in quite a few films, like Sherlock Holmes, Crush and Eastern Promises, among others.
And remember Mr. Nutkins, Mr. McGregor, Mr. Brock, Mr. Tod and Jeremiah Fisher, characters developed by the lovely Beatrix Potter who had lived nearby? It’s suggested that some of these names were inspired by people who were buried there. Besides all of the above, there’s also a Peter Rabbett.
Who’s buried there? Quite a few people of note! A couple include Henry Cole (founder of the V&A, the Royal Albert Hall, Royal College of Music, the 1851 Great Exhibition and inventor of the Christmas card); actor Brian Glover; photojournalist Tim Hetherington; Henry Augustus Mears who founded the Chelsea Football Club; suffragette Emmaline Pankhurst; and John snow (anaesthetist and epidemiologist, who demonstrated the link between cholera and infected water).
It’s one of my favourite London cemeteries, mainly for the atmosphere of romantic decay, with pillared colonnades at the center, gravestones tilting and covered in vines, anglels with missing arms, hidden trails along the edges and a tree-lined avenue through the middle and flocks of birds waiting in tree branches.
You could (and I have) spend hours there, exploring, reflecting, photographing and enjoying a slice of the city’s history and solitude – a stark contrast to the busy streets and flow of foot traffic beyond its gates.