20th Century · Clerkenwell

Airships over London – in war and peace

Many people walking past the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital on West Smithfield, close to the memorial to William Wallace, stop to look at a series of craters and marks on the wall that look as though they were caused by an explosion of some sort.  These scars are from a devastating V2 rocket attack on the area during the Second World War, but this wasn’t the first aerial attack to bring death and destruction to this part of London.  Bartholomew Close, not far from the scarred walls, was hit during one of the very first air raids on London, a terrifying Zeppelin raid in 1915.

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17th Century · Isleworth

A plague pit by the Thames: All Saints, Isleworth

London’s many plague pits have a certain dark allure – they’re mysterious because so many of them lie unmarked, hidden and forgotten under the city’s streets, buildings and parks.  We’ve seen pictures of archaeologists excavating long-lost mass graves uncovered on building sites, with huge jumbles of bones emerging from the soil and centuries-old eye sockets peering out at us.  We’ve heard dark tales of homes built over old plague pits, haunted by restless spirits.  But upstream of the old city, in a quiet suburb by the Thames, a plague pit lies in plain sight – marked by a yew tree and a little memorial.  This is the plague pit at All Saints church, Isleworth, where local plague victims were laid to rest in a mass grave in 1665.

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19th Century · Kensal Green

A taste for the dramatic: the grand monuments of Kensal Green

One of the things that has always appealed to me about the big Victorian cemeteries is their sense of drama, and their grand, elaborate memorials.  Of course, there’s nothing new about the moneyed commissioning ostentatious memorials for themselves and their loved ones, but in the grand cemeteries of the big cities, like London, it’s possible to see lots of dramatic memorials clustered closely together, all vying for prominence in burial grounds that were designed to be visited by the living as well as being places for the dead to rest.

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Kensal Green, one of London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries, is home to many wonderfully dramatic monuments.  Opened in 1833, it was inspired by the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and the burial of one of King George III’s sons, Prince Augustus Frederick (died 1843), made Kensal Green a fashionable place to be laid to rest.

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20th Century · East Sheen

East Sheen Cemetery and the “Angel of Death”

Opened in the early 1900s in a well-heeled area on the edge of Richmond Park, East Sheen Cemetery seems at first to be an entirely typical 20th Century burial ground, its paths lined by stone and marble monuments, sheltered by pine trees.  Sadly, it’s suffered from vandalism over the years and a number of crosses and headstones have fallen or been pushed over.

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However, there is a dramatic surprise waiting for visitors to this otherwise unassuming cemetery.

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12th Century · 16th Century · City of London

St Bartholomew the Great: a Romanesque gem in the City

Nestled between pubs, restaurants and the hospital buildings of St Bart’s on West Smithfield is a Tudor gatehouse.  During the week office workers, hospital staff and the traders of nearby Smithfield Market hurry past this structure without giving it a second glance, but groups of people on guided tours usually stop outside this rather incongruous site.  The gatehouse marks the entrance to the City of London’s oldest parish church, St Bartholomew the Great, a rare survivor from the Great Fire, albeit much changed from its early years.

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19th Century · 20th Century · Stoke Newington

Autumn comes to Abney Park

What better thing to do on a chilly Sunday afternoon than explore a beautiful old cemetery?  Abney Park in Stoke Newington is one of London’s gems – as well as being one of the city’s “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries, it’s a peaceful space that members of the local community have worked hard to make into a welcoming place for visitors.  It was founded in 1840 as the first completely non-denominational burial ground in England and is the final resting place of many well-known nonconformists.  Bunhill Fields, which for nearly two centuries had been the main site for nonconformist burials in London, closed in 1854, and Abney Park took over as the most prominent burial place of nonconformists.  Probably the most famous people to be buried at Abney Park are William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.

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19th Century · Chelsea

Brompton Cemetery, an open-air cathedral of remembrance

A couple of weekends ago, I was invited to attend an event being held as part of the London Month of the Dead at Brompton Cemetery in west London.  The main cemetery entrance is on Old Brompton Road, not far from Earl’s Court station, in that slightly ragged edge of town where Chelsea, Fulham and Kensington meet, and where genteel houses make way for seedy hotels and dreary bedsits with grimy windows.  Behind high railings, and through an imposing gateway, is one of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries.

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17th Century · 19th Century · Stanmore

The ruin next door: exploring the Brick Church of St John the Evangelist, Stanmore

London is home to a number of ruined churches – in the City of London alone there are several, victims of the bombing raids of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War.  However, not all of the ruined churches of Greater London are victims of the Blitz.  In Stanmore, a comfortable suburb at the top of the Jubilee Line, another ruined church can be found alongside its Victorian successor.  The current parish church of St John the Evangelist was built in the mid-19th Century, but the picturesque ruins of the 17th Century church it replaced still survive in the church’s large burial ground.

The burial ground is a tranquil place, despite being close to a busy main road. Numerous squirrels darted in and out of the gravestones and a pair of magpies strutted around, while pigeons cooed softly, hidden from sight.  It was a humid September day when I visited, with shafts of sunlight shining through the clouds.  For an hour or so I had the place to myself, before the ruin was opened for the afternoon.

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18th Century · 7th Century · Isle of Iona

Rèilig Odhrain, the ancient cemetery on the edge of the world

Today, the tiny Scottish island of Iona is not the easiest of places to get to.  It’s a long drive across the Isle of Mull to Fionnphort from the main ferry link with the Scottish mainland at Craignure.  However, in the past Iona was the centre of Christianity in the region, as well as being a site of political significance.  Travelling by boat, it was easier to reach than its geographical isolation suggests.

I visited the island on a mild September day, after a long drive from the eastern coast of Mull.  The sea was clear and calm and made for a smooth passage on the short ferry trip from Fionnphort; later on a pod of dolphins could be seen in the Sound of Iona.  It is a peaceful place, with beaches of white sand and outcrops of pink granite.  Since the 7th Century it has been a place of pilgrimage, and it continues to welcome thousands of visitors every year.

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20th Century · Barnes

Marc Bolan’s rock shrine – a place of modern-day pilgrimage

Scenes of tragic road traffic accidents are very often turned into temporary shrines – loved ones of the unfortunate individual killed leave flowers and other tributes at the site.  Sometimes, these little shrines are maintained for years – in my hometown of Preston I still often go past a regularly replenished floral tribute at a set of traffic lights where a lady was killed in an accident in 2004.  One such shrine in south west London has become a permanent fixture and a place of pilgrimage for fans of man it commemorates, the musician Marc Bolan, most famously the frontman of glam rock band T. Rex, who was killed in a car crash on Queen’s Ride in Barnes in 1977.

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