Today, Spitalfields often feels like something of a battleground between the area’s rich and varied heritage and the seemingly unstoppable march of gentrification and redevelopment. Located on the north-eastern edge of the City of London, in recent decades it has been transformed from a mostly working-class district that was home to textile producers and a large fruit and vegetable market to a hub for high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants. It was the construction of a new office block in 1999 that led to the rediscovery of a medieval charnel house – the oldest building in Spitalfields – which had lain undiscovered for around 300 years. Fortunately, the discovery generated enough interest that the office developers chose to incorporate the building’s remains into the new development, and today a glass panel allows the charnel house to be viewed from street level, while a flight of stairs leads down to the ruins themselves, which can be seen behind glass. This little building gives the visitor a rare glimpse into medieval Spitalfields which was home not to market buildings or office blocks but to a hospital and an extensive burial ground.
In November 2017 one of London’s most famous Roman sites reopened to the public after spending several years hidden away in storage. The Mithraeum, a subterranean temple dedicated to the god Mithras, has had an eventful afterlife since its celebrated rediscovery in 1954. Moved from its original site to make way for a new office development, it was reconstructed at a new location nearby before the great wheel of redevelopment turned again and offered the chance for the Mithraeum to be reinstated at its original location on the banks of the now-underground river Walbrook. The Mithraeum offers modern Londoners a glimpse into one of the Roman period’s more unusual elements: the secretive cult of Mithras, and the work to restore its ruins to the banks of the Walbrook also gave archaeologists an incredible opportunity to discover more about Roman-era Londinium.
Chiswick Old Burial Ground is a large extension to the old churchyard at St Nicholas, Chiswick, close to the River Thames in west London. The Georgian graves clustered closest to the church (including the grand tomb of the artist William Hogarth) give way to Victorian and more modest headstones, filling a site that’s just under 7 acres in size. Unlike some of London’s larger Victorian cemeteries, most of the memorials here are fairly modest in scale and ornamentation, made from stone or occasionally marble. But one incongrous memorial catches the eye, despite being tucked away near the cemetery’s northern boundary wall: a striking copper tomb turned green by the passing of the years, which marks the burial place of two artists.
Part of the A212 road runs along one side of Crystal Palace Park, carrying traffic between the suburbs of south east London. However, beneath a section of the road – unbeknownst to those passing above – is a quite astonishing structure, usually hidden from the public. This is a subway, but not of the concrete, graffiti-ed, dubious-smelling variety more commonly seen beneath Britain’s roads: it is something else altogether.
If you walk along Redcross Way, a quiet street a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of London Bridge Station and Borough High Street, a strange sight can be found. Hundreds of colourful ribbons, flowers, toys and other trinkets are tied to the railings that surround a small garden, some bright and fresh, others faded with time and exposure to the elements. This is Cross Bones, an old burial ground where thousands of Londoners, mostly the poorest members of society, were laid to rest. In recent years this place has been transformed from a bare piece of land to a colourful community garden dedicated to the memory of London’s outcast dead.
Although the 19th Century is the most notorious period for desperate overcrowding in the churchyards and burial grounds of London, the problem of finding enough space to bury the city’s dead was not a new one. As London grew both in population and size during the 18th Century, little room was set aside for cemeteries and the garden we are visiting today is the first example of Anglican churches being forced to locate their burial grounds in far away from the churches themselves. Today, St George’s Gardens in Bloomsbury is very much a part of central London, but when the two burial grounds that were later landscaped into this pleasant park were first opened, they were surrounded by fields.
The word “necropolis” is incredibly evocative – it is somehow a far more atmospheric term for a burial ground than “graveyard” or “cemetery.” The word derives from the Ancient Greek term nekropolis (νεκρόπολις), which translates as “city of the dead.” Rather fittingly, given the origins of the term necropolis, today we are visiting the Greek Necropolis, a small but dramatic section of West Norwood Cemetery in south London – a Greek Orthodox cemetery that contains the highest concentration of listed funerary monuments anywhere in Britain.