Is it a bit odd that I have visited two out of the Magnificent Seven within four days?
Although I am a Steve McQueen fan, the Magnificent Seven does not have to do with country and western films. It refers to seven great cemeteries in London, established in the 19th century.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is an amazing find hidden behind the bustle and buildings of Mile End Road. I had a vague recollection that there was a cemetery in that area, but nothing prepared me for what I found last Saturday on a walk home from Mile End tube station. The cemetery is radically overgrown with incredibly tall trees and dense plants. Gravel paths and woody trails lead visitors through this immense space, both eery and captivating. Further research yielded more details about its past and present.
The cemetery opened in 1841 as the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery and was closed to new burials in 1966. The cemetery suffered from over a hundred years of neglect until its purchase by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1986. By this time veteran trees were well-rooted and made what appears to be a winning bid over the grave plots to reclaim its territory. Dense flora engulfed the ground.In May 2000, the cemetery was designated a Local Nature Reserve, the first in the borough and is home to many species of birds, insects, and mammals.
Local conservationists, Friends of Towers Hamlets Cemetery Park run various activities including guided evening bat walks in the summer (more on bat walks and how bats feature in urban development in a later post!) I had been to a small Gillespie Road Nature Reserve, a small local park in north London which incorporated the Islington Ecology Centre and had visited the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, south west London and lamented about how East London was lacking in natural tree-filled green spaces like these. I was more than pleased to discover that my borough had its very own nature reserve – and a 15 minute walk from my home no less!
The discoveries continued as I found myself walking down Stoke Newington Church Road on Wednesday. I passed on my right, steps leading up to Abney Park Cemetery. It looked grand and rugged and so I walked through the park for a better look. Abney Park was just as immense and thickly covered in trees and plants. It was like Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park only more exaggerated – it felt even more creepy, the monuments appeared more grand, and there was a chapel in the centre (it turns out the chapel in Tower Hamlets Cemetery had been demolished in the 1960s). I went right at the chapel and found myself at the High Street entrance to the park which was also more prominent in its neo-Egyptian style, in tact and well-maintained. There were volunteers busy working on tablets and stones out of a small building to the left of the gate as I exited. The cemetery opened in 1840 and in 1978 the cemetery company ceased operating and the grounds’ ownership was passed to the Borough of Hackney. The council still allows certain burials to take place in instances where the family previously held deeds from the former cemetery company. The park is also a designated Local Nature Reserve and Conservation Area and is leased to the Abney Park Cemetery Trust which runs activities and community events.
Both of these public spaces contain a vast amount of London’s history. On land developed in the Victorian era, having survived disease (very much being part of the solution to contain the spread of disease that was resulting from London’s “inner city” burial grounds and churchyards) and war, nature has outlasted human intervention and ambitiously co-exists with the deceased. Once considered to be part of suburban London, boundaries have continued to be extended and we now find them amidst urban development and communities. Both eery and beautiful, the parks are an unlikely rural retreat from the city.