When someone at the photography club mentioned the Magnificent Seven, I thought we’d end up debating whether we preferred Yul Brynner or Denzel Washington. Little did I know, they were talking about the ‘magnificent seven’ garden cemeteries of London and an outing to “Abney Park”:http://www.abneypark.org/ in the Borough of Hackney.
Located on Stoke Newington High Street, it’s well served by buses but we travelled on London Overground to Stoke Newington Station (Liverpool Street to Enfield line) and easily found the Egyptian-style park gates a 10-minute walk away.
Abney Park is part woodland memorial park and local nature Reserve. It was built in 1840 as an overspill to the more well-known, Bunhill Fields in the city. Entrance is free (although donations are welcome) and once in the park, it’s hard to believe you’re in a London Borough. Nature takes its course and the overgrowth competes with the gravestones: but it’s stunningly beautiful and a photographer’s paradise. There was a huge range of memorials ranging from simple headstones to huge towers (some deliberately broken to denote someone cut down in their prime), angels, urns, a horse’s head through a horseshoe and many more.
We spent an hour wandering the clearly marked, easy to walk, bark chipped paths although a map is available at the Visitors Centre (where there are portaloos).
After being fortified by a Thai lunch at the “Coach and Horses”:http://coachandhorsesn16.com/ nearby, we returned to the park to join the free tour at 2pm (held on the first Sunday of every month).
John our guide was a bit of a goth, dressed all in black with chipped black nail polish and long grey straggly pony tail and matching beard. He was an excellent guide and began by telling us about the history of the cemetery before guiding us around and showing us the first plot (each are numbered but there is no logic to how they’re arranged). Around 200,000 people are buried here.
Out of the undergrowth, we came across the Gothic style funerary chapel, the oldest surviving non-denominational chapel in Europe, and were allowed to see the bare interior and hear about the plans for further restoration (it’s usually locked).
Probably the most well-known person buried here is William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. But there are many notable others including Frank Bostock, a menagerist responsible for bringing Asian and African animals to the attention of the Victorian public. Aptly his tomb is topped with a magnificent life-size sleeping lion in solid white marble. Likewise, the tomb of William Tyler, the first police officer shot and killed on duty in Tottenham, bears a sculpted police helmet and cape of white marble. He died in 1909 pursuing two anarchists attempting an armed robbery of a wages clerk – nothing is new.
We also saw numerous small headstones marking paupers’ graves and a number of war graves were scattered around (often reunited with family members).
John told us numerous tales about relatives who had visited the cemetery to track down the graves of their ancestors which had helped them build up the life stories of the people buried there.
As well as the tombs, we heard about the various trees, many very old, from around the world, and also the significant amount of insects, birds, bats and butterflies which are attracted by the rambling nature of the place.
We were told that Back to Black by Amy Winehouse was filmed in the cemetery and continuing on the musical theme, a number of music hall singers are buried there and every year, the musical society arranges a special tour where they sing at the various graves (one is George Leybourne, who became known as Champagne Charlie).
The tour lasted two hours, but the time flew and we were soon back at the gates in need of a well-deserved cup of tea.
Just in case you’re interested the other six are: “Kensal Green”:http://www.kensalgreencemetery.com/, “West Norwood”:https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/places/west-norwood-crematorium-and-cemetery, “Highgate”:https://highgatecemetery.org/, “Nunhead”:http://www.fonc.org.uk/, “Brompton”:https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/brompton-cemetery and “Tower Hamlets.”:http://www.fothcp.org/