My visit to Nunhead Cemetery marked the mid-point of my “Magnificent Seven” tour. I very nearly didn’t visit on Sunday – I lost an hour of sleep to the clock change, and when I woke up all I could hear was the sound of the wind and the rain hitting my window, which didn’t exactly make me want to leap out of bed and spend time out of doors. However, I forced myself to make the effort, and luckily by the time I reached the Cemetery the wind had died down and the rain had stopped.
Nunhead is one of only two of the seven cemeteries to be located south of the river, the other being West Norwood. Its address is Linden Grove, London SE15 3LP, and the closest railway station is Nunhead, which can be reached from Victoria or London Bridge stations. Peckham Rye station is a little further away but as more trains stop at this station than at Nunhead (including Overground trains), it is sometimes the better option.
The cemetery is located very close to Nunhead station, and it is easy to reach, though you do come upon it suddenly as you step out of a housing estate. The railings are reproductions, the originals having been removed during World War II, but the neoclassical gates are original, although they have been restored. The upturned torches, which symbolise life extinguished, are common symbols in Victorian cemeteries.
I was due to participate in the tour, the meeting place for which is beside the Anglican chapel.
The fourth of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries to be built, in response to an overcrowding problem in central London burial grounds, Nunhead was founded in 1840 by the London Cemetery Company. It was originally called All Saints Cemetery, Nunhead. The first person to be buried here was a man called Charles Abbott, a 101 year old Ipswich grocer. The cemetery was popular, becoming nearly full by the middle of the 20th century, but was never as prestigious as Kensal Green or nearby West Norwood.
Abandoned by the company, the Cemetery fell into a state of disrepair and neglect, exacerbated by vandalism. In the early 1980s, the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery were formed to renovate and protect the Cemetery. Nunhead is now owned by the London Borough of Southwark and is a Local Nature Reserve, forming a habitat for many animals and birds. It was reopened in 2001, having been restored with funds from Southwark Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Nunhead is listed Grade II*.
The neoclassical lodges were designed by James Bunstone Bunning, who was also responsible for the entrance gates and the landscaping. One is now occupied as a private house, while the other is sadly derelict.
The Gothic-style Anglican chapel was designed by Thomas Little. It fell victim to arson, but has been partially restored.
I attended a tour run by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. The tour began at the Anglican chapel, and we learnt about the history of the Cemetery. I was impressed with the height of the landscape, and the wonderful views that were apparent even on such a dull day.
One of the first graves we saw was that of Henry Daniel, a mason employed by the London Cemetery Company, buried surrounded by many of the memorials that he built.
An interesting part of the Cemetery was the Muslim section, something I had not expected to come across.
We noted the tomb of Bryan Donkin (d. 1855), the inventor of the tin can. His son, another Bryan, also buried here, opened a banknote factory in Russia.
On our way up the hill, our guide pointed out the silver granite memorial to the ship owner John Allen (d. 1865).
The tomb is a reworking of an ancient monument brought to Britain from Egypt.
Some parts of the memorial are in excellent condition, but others have decayed: the two angels that formerly flanked the head of the monument are no longer in position.
The Stearns family mausoleum was built in 1902 by the Doulton firm. It is similar to monuments at West Norwood.
Our walk eventually brought us to the top of the hill. It was considered more prestigious to be buried at the top, because you were thought to be closer to God.
However, being at the top does mean that your memorial is more exposed to the weather. This one is looking a bit wonky.
It is possible to see St Paul’s Cathedral from this point on the hill – a stunning view.
Near the top is buried John Moritz Oppenheim, a skin and fur merchant who died in 1864 and was a generous patron of the arts, despite being blind for 20 years. His stone shows an angel touching his eyes.
The Cemetery is overgrown in parts and could do with some restoration, although I did think that this unkempt look made it more atmospheric.
The Cemetery is an important nature reserve: this pond, for example, is very important for wildlife.
We headed back down the hill towards the entrance.
The location of the former Dissenters’ chapel is marked by a clearing. The unconsecrated ground surrounding it contains graves of people belonging to non-Anglican denominations.
In the area you can see the Cemetery’s only gravestone with a Welsh inscription.
Finally, we were shown the Scottish Martyrs obelisk, a memorial to 5 lowland Scots sentenced to transportation for advocating parliamentary reform.
The Scouts memorial commemorates a tragic accident that occurred in 1912. On the 4th of August, nine boys were drowned at Leysdown after their boat overturned. The tragedy resulted in huge public mourning, and a bronze life-size Scout was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and erected here in 1914. Sadly stolen in 1969, it was replaced by this marble stone in 1992.
Some Commonwealth war graves are located in the same area, soldiers who died in a nearby hospital after returning from the Front in World War I.
As with the other cemeteries I have visited so far, the architecture is varied and impressive. Many of the usual symbols are present, including angels, broken columns and crosses.
This unusual anchor does not actually belong to the grave on which it rests. It was discovered after a period of bad weather destroyed the vegetation covering it, and bears an intriguing message.
Nunhead is one of the least-known of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, and its lack of fame and location south of the river might put people off visiting. However, it is a little gem: a lovely site on a hill, romantically overgrown, and a haven for wildlife.
Would I go back?
Yes – Nunhead would be a lovely place for a quiet walk. I also want to do a tour of the crypt, chapel and viewing tower, run by the Friends on various dates throughout the year.
There is an Open Day each year: in 2015 this will be the 16th of May. You can view details here.
Address: Linden Grove, London SE15 3LP
Size: 53 acres
Still in operation?: Yes
Official website: http://www.southwark.gov.uk/info/461/a_to_z_of_parks/660/nunhead_cemetery
Owners: London Borough of Southwark
Friends group: Friends of Nunhead Cemetery (FONC) (http://www.fonc.org.uk/)
Tours: General tours on the last Sunday of every month, free, 2.15 pm at the Linden Grove entrance. Special interest tours on certain dates – see the FONC website for details.