Nunhead Cemetery

January 26, 2012

London has many attractions, not least its vast number of parks and public gardens. So when it came to picking a nice outside location for photographing [m]’s latest knitting project, we had plenty of options to choose from. But knowing us, you won’t be surprised to hear that we ended up in an old graveyard, Nunhead Cemetery.

Consecrated in 1840, Nunhead Cemetery is one of the so-called Magnificent Seven, the seven major cemeteries newly established in London during the first half of the 19th century when the city’s population had more than doubled in the course of a few decades. I guess there’s a good chance that over the next three years all seven of these cemeteries will make an appearance on our blog – Nunhead, though, was a good starting point for the simple reason that it’s located within walking distance from [m]’s London home.*


When the cemetery was opened in the mid-19th century, it seems to have been a light and airy park-like space, as is attested by a couple of engravings dating to c. 1855. Today, however, it presents itself mostly as an overgrown wilderness, and while the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery are doing all they can to save the place from falling into total decay, it now looks very much like a backdrop from a Tim Burton movie. It almost goes without saying then, that when I got out my camera the graveyard practically begged to be photographed in black and white

As you know, Vienna’s 19th century cemeteries are something like a second home to us, so walking along the paths of Nunhead Cemetery felt oddly familiar in many ways. On the other hand, a lot of what we saw was quite unfamiliar because, apparently, there were major national differences when it came to tombstone design – and I’m not just talking about those Celtic crosses which, for obvious reasons, seem to have been popular in Britain but not in Austria…

But in Nunhead even the “normal” headstones have a distinct Englishness about them that is hard to describe…

And the same may be said for the now ruinous cemetery chapel, a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture designed by Thomas Little…

As The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal Vol. 7, June 1844, put it:

“[The chapel is] in the style of architecture prevalent in England about the middle of the 14th century, known as decorated English. The principal chapel is an octagon with a high pitched roof, and groined ceiling, modelled after the Chapter House at York ; the exterior is to be built of Kentish Rag and Bath stone.” (p. 244)

As you can see, the roof and ceiling are long gone, but the octagon is still there, looking perhaps even more picturesque in its current ruinous state than it did when it was new:


* That is to say, it’s a 20-30 minutes walk – I’m aware, though, that this may not count as “walking distance” by everyone’s standards…

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