Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green'
GK Chesterton, The Rolling English Road
|The Anglican Chapel|
An Open Day at a 72-acre cemetery? Seems an unattractive prospect for a daytrip... unless you harbour an interest in Victoriana, a fondness for Gothic sculpture, and the burial ground in question just happens to be one of the most celebrated in the world. There is even a free photography exhibition. Maybe a trip to Kensal Green Cemetery could be fascinating after all (unless, of course, you have a one-way ticket).
|Angel at Kensal Green © E&K|
The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, was created in 1833, using the famous Pere Lachaise in Paris as its inspiration. The 'General Cemetery Company' was created in order to run it... and indeed they run it today, making Kensal Green the only one of the 'Magnificent Seven' cemeteries surrounding London to be maintained by its original owners.
The need for cemeteries arose due to the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the churchyards in the City (which are mentioned in some detail here). Kensal Green was the first to arrive, the other six being West Norwood (1837) Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Nunhead (1840), Brompton (1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841). Many others have opened since, including the City Of London Cemetery at Manor Park, which is one of the largest in the world. The City churchyards were finally closed in the 1850's, and those that have not been cleared and had big office buildings planted on them have become pleasant gardens.
|Tomb with caryatids © E&K|
The centrepiece of the cemetery is the classical Anglican Chapel, recently restored with the help of English Heritage and now a Grade I listed building. Two other structures at Kensal Green are listed Grade II: the Dissenters Chapel and the North Colonnade. All three of these structures have catacombs running beneath them.
The catacombs beneath the Anglican Chapel follow the footprint of the Chapel and its colonnades, and have room for 4000 coffins, although 3000 have been filled. Like the rest of the Cemetery, they are still being used for internments today. They are currently under restoration. The catacombs beneath the North Colonnade are sealed. On the Open Day that we attended, the catacombs beneath the Dissenters Chapel were open for the first time, providing a home for a Photography exhibition.
|The Grade II listed North Colonnade at Kensal Green, overpowered by a block of flats. Nice one, town planners.|
The reality of mortality. It is uncomfortable to be confronted with it, but you can scarcely avoid it here. I turned up with my photographer daughter, her boyfriend, and the promise of another friend joining us later. All roads in Kensal Green lead to the Anglican Chapel, and we naturally gravitated to the stalls, the exhibitions, and the leaflets embellished with convenient maps, before striking out to explore the grounds.
We headed for the Dissenters Chapel. It sits at the eastern end of the cemetery, reflecting a Victorian division that has, thankfully, pretty much disappeared today. The catacombs below the Chapel are hosting an exhibition of images by the Guardian photographer Sean Smith, and his work is not easy to behold. Dead bodies laying in the street in a warzone, ragged prostitutes, junkies shooting up... all within a space defined by our being surrounded by curtained vaults. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, to say the least.
|Impressive tomb © E&K|
I pull back a heavy curtain to show my companions the true purpose of the catacombs. Behind me lie coffins, Victorian-era Dissenters, wrapped in polythene to protect them from damp.Their names glare at us, scribbled down on cards and attached to their caskets. This touch makes it personal. We have a male name, a female name, an 'unidentified adult', and then my daughter shrinks back, alarmed by something she has noticed. A fourth coffin, atop the other three. This box is about three feet long.
I try to explain the reality of infant mortality in Victorian times. It has been said that if you could survive all those childhood illnesses, then you had a good chance of living a relatively long life. The stumbling block was, of course, those childhood illnesses. Chicken Pox, Smallpox, Whooping Cough etc. This is why the Victorians had such large families. They simply didn't expect half of them to survive.
|Anglican Chapel catacombs. The coffins in the Dissenter Chapel are 'sleeved' in polythene.|
Explanations are not enough. The stark reality of the Catacombs, the coffin of a child, the blunt confrontation with the fact that History is not just costumes and archaic phrases. Time to leave the brooding vaults, to leave Mr Smith's photographs in their admittedly appropriate surroundings. Time to explore, with slightly troubled minds, what Kensal Green can show us not just about our past, but about our mortal futures.
As an avid bookworm, my chief interest in Kensal Green is its literary connections, and we explore the ground to find the places of repose for those famous for their writings - and their relatives. Not far to the east of the Anglican Chapel can be found the tomb, half-hidden in the undergrowth, of Byron's wife Anne Isabella Millbanke (his half-sister/mistress Augusta Leigh is in the Anglican catacombs). Their quiet repose belies the scandals that often blighted their lives. One of the poet's closest friends, the politician John Cam Hobhouse, also lies in the cemetery, as does Lady Charlotte Bacon, the 'Ianthe' to whom he dedicated his epic poem Harold Childe's Pilgrimage. Around this area can be found the novelist William Thackerey, the playwright Harold Pinter and the poet Thomas Hood. To the west of the Chapel can be found Anthony Trollope and one of my favourite Victorian authors, Wilkie Collins of The Moonstone and The Woman In White.
|An old photo of Collins' grave. Today, the iron railings have disappeared.|
Collins' grave has a few weathered pages from a book placed upon it. I pick up a page and try to recognise the words, but they are in German - a language of which I have little knowledge. We walk north of the grave, to an area where the grass is growing wild, covering many of the crumbling stones. Something catches my eye; a small white mausoleum, standing stark and lonely between minor monuments in this neglected part of the cemetery.
It catches my eye for three reasons: it stands alone, not clustered with other, more opulent mausolea near the Anglican Chapel. It is anonymous, no inscriptions visible on its exterior. And, unlike the other mausolea which have doors or bricked-up substitutes, this one lacks a door at all. A black rectangle where the door should be seems to beckon us.
My daughter, possibly still unnerved by the experience of the catacombs, has no wish to explore the mystery. Her boyfriend and I hold no such qualms. We pick our way to the structure, taking care not to stumble on hidden graves, and keeping an eye out for adders.
|The Somerset Mausoleum|
Gingerly, we step into the mausoleum. Of its door there is no sign. The floor has litter, but not in any great quantity. A memorial medallion on the rear wall commemorates a woman. A shadow to its left attests to the presence of a now-vanished companion medallion. A slab is in the middle of the floor, inscribed with names and dates: Edward Adolphus Seymour and his second wife Margaret, who died in 1855 and 1880 respectively. We have found a descendant of the famous Tudor courtiers. We have found the 11th Duke of Somerset and his Duchess.
Somerset seems to have been an erudite man. As well as being a Knight of the Garter, he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, and the President of the Linnean Society, the Royal Institution and the Royal Literary Fund. Unusually for a large landlord, he supported the repeal of the Corn Laws.
|Edward Adolphus Seymour (c) NPG|
We emerge into the daylight, and I wonder why the Duke chose to have his mausoleum in such an isolated spot, away from the impressive funerary architecture that characterises the 'fashionable' areas. Many noblemen are buried at Kensal Green, yet this one seems to have made an effort not to be buried alongside them, and failed to even place the family name on his tomb. For a descendant of Edward VI's Lord Protector, this seems curiously modest. The building is Grade II listed, and on English Heritage's 'At Risk' register, due to erosion at foundation level and the encroaching undergrowth.
We meet up with my friend and explore the neighbouring Roman Catholic cemetery, which contains the entertainer Danny La Rue among others. In the centre, a white headstone shines like a beacon, marking the resting place of Mary Seacole, after whom a ward in my local hospital is named, and making this the second time I have tracked the grave of a Crimean War nurse. Then it's back for a final stroll around the hallowed bowers of the main cemetery.
|Nature taking over... ©E&K|
|Many fine things... ©E&K|