By the 19th century London’s population had grown so much the churchyards were full, and what to do with the capital’s dead was becoming a serious problem. So in 1832, an Act of Parliament was passed permitting the creation of private cemeteries, in what was then the suburbs of the city – though of course, they’re all considered ‘inner London’ now.
The Magnificent Seven form a rough circle around the capital like some kind of macabre necklace, and each cemetery is unique in the way it has developed. Some, like Brompton, are relatively neatly-kept, others, like Highgate, have become overgrown to the point where they resemble the set from a vampire movie(in Highgate’s case it WAS the set for vampire movies) – but all house their own celebrity graves, all have some very, very quirky memorials and all are deeply atmospheric.
Nunhead Cemetery, in South London, is possibly the least famous. It’s definitely one of the most overgrown, though, and to see its mouldering tombs – its weeping angels, broken columns, doric temples and creepy mausolea – peeping through a thick cladding of ivy and brambles is at once romantic and moving.
Many of the headstones have fallen over and their inscriptions are lost, but it would be a mistake to think this place is abandoned. It’s much loved by an active group of Friends who lovingly record what inscriptions are still there to be read, make sure the memorials don’t topple any further and liaise with the council to keep the undergrowth under control.
It’s a delicate balance as although it’s still a working cemetery it has also taken on a new and important task in modern London as a wildlife sanctuary. To keep it too neat would not only strip the place of its atmosphere but also of its benefits to animals, birds and plants.
There are free tours at 2.15pm on the last Sunday of every month. It’s easy to get lost inside this urban wilderness and to miss some of the best features.
Centre of it all is the spooky, ruined gothic chapel, and the even spookier vaults below. Huge tombs to local industrialists and Victorian worthies, sit alongside simple graves – such as those of war heroes from South Africa, New Zealand and Canada – who died in France in the Great War.
Especially affecting is the memorial to nine young boy scouts who died when their boat capsized on a troop outing in 1912. What’s odd about this cemetery, though, is that it’s not a gloomy place of tragedy, more one of peace. It’s a true joy to wander Nunhead’s leafy hills, overgrown paths and quiet glades.
Don’t miss one of the loveliest vistas in London – a specially-cut hole in the trees at the very top of the hill framing St Paul’s cathedral with quiet precision.