Bunhill Fields, just to the north of the City of London, is one of the capital’s most famous burial grounds and particularly noted as the final resting place of many of London’s nonconformist Christians. Close to Bunhill Fields is another green space, its history as a burial ground much less conspicuous than that of its famous neighbour. But like Bunhill Fields, Quaker Gardens has a long history of burial and religious dissent. I visited Quaker Gardens on a sunny winter afternoon in early 2020 to see what remained of this historic site.
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.
Sheffield, in south Yorkshire, is famous around the world as a centre of steel production – stainless steel was invented in the city in 1912 and many thousands of the city’s residents worked in crucibles and factories producing steel and steel products such as cutlery and weapon components. On a peaceful hillside thousands of Sheffield’s citizens lie at rest, some with graves marked by grand memorials, others unseen beneath the trees and undergrowth. After a period of postwar neglect and uncertainty, the Sheffield General Cemetery is now a celebrated part of the city’s heritage.
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.
I visited the Lune Valley again recently, that picturesque corner of Lancashire that I’ve found to be rich in history and fascinating old churches. This visit was no different – driving into the village of Hornby, a striking octagonal church tower caught my attention. Stopping to explore this church and the church situated opposite uncovered the stories of two men with strong links to Hornby who both made their mark on history.
Many of London’s big Victorian Cemeteries have suffered over the years. Originally set up and run by private companies, many of these companies ran into financial difficulties after the Second World War, effectively abandoning cemeteries or selling them cheaply to local authorities. As a result, these cemeteries became overgrown and vandalised. Tower Hamlets, one of London’s “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries, was one of places that found itself derelict and unloved in the late 20th Century. Thankfully, today all of that has changed.
Not far from the famous Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park is a field that was once a large cemetery. Today, all that remains are a few modest mounds that mark where the burials took place, and it’s unlikely that most people who walk past them, or sit on them, have any idea what they are. This is perhaps not surprising, as this old burial ground is over 1,000 years old.
Oak trees loom large in English history. From the sacred oak groves of pre-Roman Britons and the oak wands used by Druids to the oak tree that sheltered the future King Charles II as he escaped from the forces of Oliver Cromwell and the countless oaks used to construct England’s proud navies and merchant ships, this tree – perhaps more than any other – is seen as the national tree of England. Many individual oaks up and down the country are revered and protected for their age, their size and shape or the stories attached to them. The oak we’re looking at today is famous not just for its huge size and distinctive shape, but also for its link to that most famous of English legends, Robin Hood.
St George’s Gardens, the park on the site of the former churchyard of St George in the East in Stepney, is a neat, peaceful place – when I visited, the play area was full of children, and other people were relaxing on benches or looking at the old monuments near the church. In the midst of all of this is a derelict building that looks terribly sad and out of place. However, this forlorn little building has a fascinating history that includes that most infamous of East End criminals, Jack the Ripper, and later became a pioneering centre for the education of local children.