A Walk in the Cemetery

Last Sunday saw a very well-attended walk in the City of London Cemetery in Aldersbrook Road. Run by Wren committee member Gill James the walk looked at some of the more unusual trees in the area with a little bit of history thrown in.

The cemetery was designed to be the ‘Cemetery in a Garden’ with a pleasant open aspect a world away from the doom and gloom of other conifer-ridden cemeteries. It was planted up with a majority of deciduous trees in order to give it a tranquil park-like aspect. Many people do not realise what a pleasant and expansive place this Cemetery is, with a wide variety of unusual and beautiful trees mainly planted in the nineteenth century, a large memorial garden full of roses, and some very fine Victorian buildings, all beautifully maintained and financed by the City of London.

The original design for the cemetery was the brainchild of William Haywood, who was active in the redevelopment of modern London. He was also the architect of the Holborn Viaduct scheme. There was a great need for more cemeteries to serve London at this time as the population had expanded rapidly since the beginning of the nineteenth century and the churchyards of the City were literally overflowing. It was not uncommon to find human remains scattered and bones gnawed by dogs. So Haywood was given the job of finding a suitable site for a new cemetery and he chose and purchased 200 acres of what was at that time Aldersbrook Farm. The purchase of this land, with its attendant grazing rights had an important knock-on effect for us, for it enabled the City of London at a later date to acquire Forest land, including Wanstead Park & Wanstead Flats, which would otherwise have been developed for housing.

A walk in the Cemetery is interesting in many different ways, not least to observe the variety and change of fashion in funeral monuments. Many people come to search out the graves of notable persons, such as Bobby Moore, Robert Hooke, and more recently Bob Crowe. But this really is a People’s Cemetery, meant to accommodate everyone including paupers and murderers. Some of the most impressive graves are the Churchyard Removal monuments, necessitated by the clearance of some of the ancient churchyards in the City and the reinterment of the remains of thousands of our forebears.

Many trees which were once rare and special and were collected from far-off spots such as India, China and America, are now familiar to us because they are commonly planted in our streets, parks and gardens. An example is the Purple-Leafed Plum, well-known to us for its pink blossom cheering our streets in spring, but which originated apparently by accident in the garden of the Shah of Persia before 1880. How are the mighty fallen!

The Cemetery is a good place to look for wildlife: the mature trees attract a variety of birds and many urban foxes find a home here. Some areas are left unmown to encourage wildflowers, and we saw many harebells, but there is always pressure to find more space for burials.

Why don’t you take a look ?

Gill James

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