One of the most enjoyable promenades a city walker can make has to be around the urban cemeteries that largely came into existence during the Victorian period, particularly if a respectable chunk of the graveyard has fallen into disrepair and been overrun by nature. Aside from the joy and tranquility of escaping the noise and eye-clutter of the urban environment, a wander around last resting places is a stroll through a people’s history of the locale, as expressed not only by the dedications engraved into the memorials but the very nature of the architecture of headstones, catacombs and obelisques, and the bric-a-brac some authorities still allow relatives to leave for the departed. By the mid-20th century, many of our town cemeteries were full to capacity and legislation to permit cremation was passed to provide an alternative, so the history is a snapshot of little more than the 150 year transition from Victorian to Modern via two world wars and various colonial conflicts. It is a period that marked the rise of the middle class, the entrepeneur and professional, and they weren’t going to leave their mortal coil without making sure people remembered them through the grand monuments they left behind. That the plot next door was to be occupied by a mere commoner or worse, a paupers’ grave where cadavers were stacked one one top of another was beyond their control.
Possibly the most evocative urban cemetery outside of London is the 45 acres of Arnos Vale in the heart of Bristol, particularly if visitied on a crisp and foggy winters day. Tumbling down a hillside, it is a beautifully ramshackle and neglected place, laced with muddy desire lines and winding paths, teeming with wonderful woodland plants and wildlife, and studded with fascinating memorials. Grim though it is and looking a lot like a steam-punk version of The Iron Giant, there is even an early furnace in the bowls of the café that I recommend starting with, just to get you in the mood!
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