Nunhead, unless you live locally, will register not a flicker of recognition on the average Londoner's expression. No Tube station, stadium, or shopping centre of note - in fact, there are few hooks to snag and categorise this modest area of South London. Except its jewel: Nunhead Cemetery.
Back in the early Victorian Era, London was expanding at an alarming pace. Centre of the British Empire and eye of the industrial storm, everyone and everything gravitated toward London. Commerce meant jobs and the ever-accelerating migration from a rural to an urban lifestyle, with the whole family off to work in the morning. More than anything else, business needed people and London's population like its footprint - was booming. Life expectancy however, was low, which created the straightforward logistical problem of too many dead bodies in the capital. Churchyards were unable to meet the demand and the unsavoury practice of corpse dumping, was having serious health repercussions via infected water supplies (from soil leaching). A parliamentary bill of 1832 ushered in 'private cemeteries' and Nunhead Cemetery (formerly 'All Saints') was one of the initial [magnificent] seven which formed a ring around the periphery of London at the time (Highgate Cemetery is another).
'Burial Grounds' had been introduced by non-conformists in the previous century (like Bunhill Fields, Islington) as alternatives and useful overspills to churchyard burial, which was every parishioner's right. Churchyards also rarely represented the scarcely-believable number of actual burials which occurred beneath their soil. It's estimated that over 70,000 people are buried in the diminutive 200 square-foot (living-room sized) churchyard space, of St Martin in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square.
Built on rising ground overlooking central and west London, Nunhead Cemetery immediately offers a striking view. Enter by the North Gate and proceed up the avenue of lime trees towards the shell of the Anglican chapel and (rarely for London) you're struck by an extraordinary generosity of space. Grand tombs and mausoleums in the grip of ivy, line your path with each having a pleasing, dilapidated quality. Nunhead Cemetery was in terminal decline until the 'Friends of Nunhead Cemetery' stepped in to reverse the trend in the 1980s. Today it is as much a recreational green space and nature reserve as a municipal cemetery and is home to tawny owls, and other rarely seen urban-dwelling birds.
If you walk up the avenue and take a left before the Anglican chapel there's a pathway through the tangled woodland, which eventually delivers you to an area of expansive lawns and recent burials. Not before taking you through some of the most atmospheric and charged woodland you'll encounter in the capital. Melancholic, contemplative, tranquil and beautiful. The mossy and root-fractured graves are interspersed with much newer headstones, each with a succinct window into a former life. You don't have to be a cemetery enthusiast to appreciate Nunhead Cemetery, and there's a surprisingly cheerful atmosphere among the dog-walkers and curious explorers. However you will encounter periods in your own company, where the wood deadens the urban hum of London and a twig-snapping will cause eyes to dart and heads to spin. Was that a shape in your peripheral vision? Where's that noise coming from? Where is everyone? Why am I here?? Those with overactive imaginations may like to download something appropriate for the iPod; chanting Gregorian monks perhaps? Moving, interesting and one of those essentials 'details' of London which should be seen, in order to understand this 'big picture' you hear mentioned so often.
Spin around Nunhead Cemetery with a YouTube user.
Charlotte Mew and 'In Nunhead Cemetery'
Londoner Charlotte Mew wrote the poem "In Nunhead Cemetery" in 1916. Born into a comfortable family, the premature death of her father led to a drastic alteration of circumstance, for her and her siblings. Three of her sisters died in early childhood and two were committed to asylums. She formed a pact with her remaining sister, Anne, that they would never marry or reproduce for fear of passing insanity on to their children. Charlotte enjoyed high regard among other writers including Siegfried Sassoon and Thomas Hardy. Virginia Wolf called her '...the finest female poet of her time'. Anne died of cancer in 1827 and Charlotte plunged into unrecoverable depression, tragically taking her own life the following year by ingesting poison.
'In Nunhead Cemetery' is a meditation on alienation and insanity and was influenced by the burial of her brother at the cemetery, some fifteen years earlier in 1901. It is written from the perspective of a man contemplating the death of his fiancée, one month before their proposed wedding. Mew was a lesbian at a time when being so, was regarded as a form of insanity itself. Her plight is given voice by expressing feelings through an imagined third party. In Nunhead Cemetery evokes a desperate desire that there must be more to life than meaningless suffering, narrated by someone who received more than their fair share of tragedy, repression and loss. The entire poem is reproduced at the end of this article.
Nunhead Cemetery Opening Times: daily 7:30am-7pm (8am-4pm in winter).
A two-hour guided tour takes is held on the last Sunday of every month.
Nunhead Cemetery, Linden Rd, London, SE15 3LP
Nearest Tube: Nunhead Rail or New Cross Gate Overground
Call: 020 7732 8396
In Nunhead Cemetery
It is the clay what makes the earth stick to his spade;
He fills in holes like this year after year;
The others have gone; they were tired, and half afraid
But I would rather be standing here;
There is nowhere else to go. I have seen this place
From the windows of the train that's going past
Against the sky. This is rain on my face -
It was raining here when I saw it last.
There is something horrible about a flower;
This, broken in my hand, is one of those
He threw it in just now; it will not live another hour;
There are thousands more; you do not miss a rose.
One of the children hanging about
Pointed at the whole dreadful heap and smiled
This morning after THAT was carried out;
There is something terrible about a child.
We were like children last week, in the Strand;
That was the day you laughed at me
Because I tried to make you understand
The cheap, stale chap I used to be
Before I saw the things you made me see.
This is not a real place; perhaps by-and-by
I shall wake - I am getting drenched with all this rain:
To-morrow I will tell you about the eyes of the Crystal Palace train
Looking down on us, and you will laugh and I shall see what you see again.
Not here, not now. We said "Not yet"
Across our low stone parapet
Will the quick shadows of the sparrows fall.
But still it was a lovely thing
Through the grey months to wait for Spring
With the birds that go a-gypsying
In the parks till the blue seas call.
And next to these, you used to care
For the Lions in Trafalgar Square,
Who'll stand and speak for London when her bell of Judgement tolls -
And the gulls at Westminster that were
The old sea-captains souls.
To-day again the brown tide splashes step by step, the river stair,
And the gulls are there!
By a month we have missed our Day:
The children would have hung about
Round the carriage and over the way
As you and I came out.
We should have stood on the gulls' black cliffs and heard the sea
And seen the moon's white track,
I would have called, you would have come to me
And kissed me back.
You have never done that: I do not know
Why I stood staring at your bed
And heard you, though you spoke so low,
But could not reach your hands, your little head;
There was nothing we could not do, you said,
And you went, and I let you go!
Now I will burn you back, I will burn you through,
Though I am damned for it we two will lie
And burn, here where the starlings fly
To these white stones from the wet sky - ;
Dear, you will say this is not I -
It would not be you, it would not be you!
If for only a little while
You will think of it you will understand,
If you will touch my sleeve and smile
As you did that morning in the Strand
I can wait quietly with you
Or go away if you want me to -
God! What is God? but your face has gone and your hand!
Let me stay here too.
When I was quite a little lad
At Christmas time we went half mad
For joy of all the toys we had,
And then we used to sing about the sheep
The shepherds watched by night;
We used to pray to Christ to keep
Our small souls safe till morning light - ;
I am scared, I am staying with you to-night -
Put me to sleep.
I shall stay here: here you can see the sky;
The houses in the street are much too high;
There is no one left to speak to there;
Here they are everywhere,
And just above them fields and fields of roses lie -
If he would dig it all up again they would not die.
© Charlotte Mew, 1916