by Carole Tyrrell
It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year, the first death of someone really close to me. He’d been cremated, so there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.
This was Nunhead’s annual Open Day, so I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere. I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s London Cemeteries and Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7. Lucinda Lambton once described them as a jet black necklace running through London. Nunhead was no municipal cemetery, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth. Inside the imposing gates was overgrown Gothic splendour: angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, a roofless chapel, a myriad of fascinating monuments and memorials. I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed to mourn. I was home.
I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly Friends of Nunhead Cemetery publications stall, which accompanied the general cemetery tours. You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to you. Often it was local residents who remembered playing in the cemetery after it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969. Its railings long gone for the war effort, nothing prevented anyone going in and exploring. I wouldn’t have been able to resist it. There were horrible tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewelery — and skeletons as well. Eventually, questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament. As a result, the local council bought it for £1.
Visitors often just said how creepy it was, but what an amazing place inside. One man told me that he was a psychic and could sense all the departed spirits around him. He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere. He seemed completely sincere. I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability.
Sometimes visitors would ask about one particular symbol, as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery. This was what they called ‘the dollar sign’ or the combination of the letters IHS which means Jesus Honimum Salvator. I found out what it was for future questions, which led me onto a fascination with the meaning of cemetery symbols.
As a result, I created the Symbols tour and began my career as a tour guide. Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation. It’s always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group and all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.
But they’re always very keen. On a very wet Sunday afternoon, I kept turning round, thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end. Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations, they didn’t put them in chronological order in the graveyard, so we have to run about a bit.
I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching our largest monument: the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, Turkey. It takes up an entire room of the museum. I was always interested in history at school and my involvement in cemeteries has been a marvellous way to keep involved.
You never know what you might find in a cemetery, despite how familiar you are with it. In 2013, during a long winter, we discovered an unusual anchor-shaped tombstone commemorating a sailor killed in the First World War, although not buried there. In Winter 2014, I was updating my tour notes. Whilst walking along a familiar path, I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before. I will have to do some more research on it.
I always emphasise on the Symbols tour that it’s an introduction to the subject and there are many more to found. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it. In Nunhead, we have one 15-year-old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board, and the mask of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.
I’ve only had one strange experience in the cemetery, or rather, outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a Christmas social at a local community centre. As I passed by the cemetery‘s high wall along deserted Linden Grove, I heard children’s voices from inside the cemetery. As it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing. The houses opposite didn’t have any windows open. I walked on and the voices faded behind me.
The Brockley footpath runs along one of the high walls of the cemetery. Ill-lit, it is pitch black at night. Atmospheric, to say the least. I was making my way along it as a shortcut to an evening walk. Whenever I looked back, I could see that the darkness catching up behind me. I did walk a little faster after that.
I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice. The way in which the dead are treated are often an indication of how the living are treated. Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero. Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited. Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirkyard, but that’s another story. However, Nunhead will always feel like home. No famous people, no royal connections, but instead a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill, as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.
Carole Tyrrell has always had a desire to walk on the darker side of life. A published ghost story writer, her passion for cemeteries and graveyards began after her father died and she felt a need to be where the dead were remembered. She visited cemeteries in New York, Venice, Edinburgh, and all over the UK, but she prefers slightly overgrown Victorian cemeteries where ivy-clad angels watch as she discovers the stories behind every epitaph. She is a cemetery tour guide, specialising in the intriguing subject of symbols, and has her own blog called Shadows Fly Away. You can keep up with her on Facebook.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.) If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.