It was a light bulb moment when I realised that there was another of those Victorian cemeteries just “up the street” as it were. Arnos Vale (aka Arno’s Vale) is about an hour away by 1st Great Western. I had used this particular train between Southampton and Salisbury and it continues on its journey to Cardiff via Bristol Temple Meads Station. I can’t just head off to these places without a reason, and my reason this time around was the 507 military graves in the cemetery, See, a reason can always be found, although the weather is the deciding factor. We have been having rain for quite some time, but last week it showed signs of clearing so I made tentative plans for the 11th.
The weather played along and just after 7.30 I was on the train. Arriving just over an hour later at the glorious Temple Meads Station. Its a bit of a hodge podge of a building though, but that cathedral like roof just leaves me gawking
The cemetery is about 20 minutes away by foot and I set off at my usual brisk pace, arriving with my heart in my mouth just in case it was closed. I was also clutching at my pocket just in case I lost the train ticket.
Arnos Vale is a massive cemetery, with hills and paths and overgrown woodlands that are daunting. Strangely enough there were no mausoleums, although there is a crypt under the Anglican chapel. The military graves are scattered between a Crematorium plaque, Soldiers Corner plot/screen wall, and what is known as “Sailors corner”. There are also a lot of familiar white headstones scattered amongst the graves, and many are what we know as “private memorials”. My wandering eye could not help but take in the statues and obelisks and strange headstones with the long lines of names and dates.
It is difficult to quantify a place like this because it changes as you explore. The area near the front gate is really well tended and recognisable as a cemetery, but as you penetrate deeper into it, and towards the back area then you realise how big the cemetery really is and how overgrown parts of it are.
I ended up picking my way through the undergrowth photographing individual graves, slowly working my way towards what is known as “Sailors Corner”.
It was strange coming across this immaculate piece of lawn with its naval burials, while all around it are the graves of the people who lived and died in the city. During the war the city and docks were bombed and many of the casualties from the bombing were probably buried all around me if I knew what to look for. However, it is hard enough trying to find a white rectangular military headstone, all the time trying not to fall over or get entangled in the many plants that all seem to have thorns!
At this point I deviated from the burial plot and walked in the road, assuming that I would be able to rejoin the burial area lower down. but that did not happen and I ended up heading down the path towards the chapels and bottom lodges. There was a lot of mud around too, so at times taking a short cut would have been disastrous. Looking through a gap in the shrubbery I could see the cemetery far below me.
It was while heading towards this space when I got really downhearted by what I was seeing. Amongst the trees there were these obelisks, erected as a monument to somebody who has now been dead over 100 years. Some of them were huge too, massive stone spikes that were now just like some strange ruin of an alien civilisation.
The amount of money that was spent on some of these headstones/statues was incredible, and a place like this was considered to be “fashionable” at the time, I don’t think that anybody who was pondering having a monolith erected, ever considered that just one day down the line this place would be an overgrown tangle, with their fancy memorial slowly decaying and becoming increasingly unstable and illegible. It was a very depressing thought, and one that I had never really felt so much in any of the other “garden cemeteries” I had visited before in London.
Like so many other cemeteries there is an Anglican and a “dissenters/non conformist” chapel, and they are both magnificent classical buildings, and in a really good condition too.
The crypt is under this chapel, but was not open to see (I was able to see it on my return visit in 2015). The other chapel is used as an exhibition space and I did not really investigate it as there seemed to be a private function on the go.
My first circumnavigation complete, I now started my second, this time concentrating more on the artistic and aesthetic side of the cemetery which has been interesting me a lot more than ever before. The rent was paid, I had photographed about 130 individual CWGC graves as well as the plaques and screen wall. Now it was time to enjoy myself.
There are not too many statues of interest here, although there were some really beautiful ones that I had not seen before. Probably the most visually impressive tomb of all was that of Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadoor, yet it no longer holds the remains of the person it was built for in 1843. It was one of the earlier buildings in the cemetery which was established in 1837.
I headed back along the path towards where I had been before, but via a different route, this time taking an earlier fork in the road and discovering a whole section that I had missed, and it’s many CWGC graves too, so it was back to rent paying for me. This area was quite heavily overgrown and I struggled to move between graves and finding enough space to get back far enough to take a pic. But, if you are photographing war graves it is worth considering that conditions on the Western Front during WW1 were thousands of times worse than I was experiencing now.
It was time to move onwards, and I eventually found out how to access the Roman Catholic cemetery next door to Arnos Vale. There were a number of CWGC burials here too, and I struggled to find the graves I was after that were not in the small plot. This one I will definitely have to return to so that I can gravehunt it properly.
It is quite a steep climb though, and in parts the footing was treacherous, and I was not in a mood to tumble down that hill. The screen wall and plot was close to the bottom of the cem, but looking back I missed quite a few individual private memorials within this cemetery
Just over the road from Arnos Vale is the churchyard of St Mary’s Redcliffe, and that held 18 CWGC graves. But the lower part of this cemetery is in a deplorable condition and it seems as there is a dispute over the continued existence of the cemetery.
It was a find I did not expect to make though, but quite a large space. I don’t know where the original church is (I rectified that in 2015), although I did spot a large church on my way to Arnos Vale, but it was atop a hill and I did not like the look of the climb. Maybe next time?
Arnos Vale is a magnificent old lady, and very different to the similar cemeteries that I saw amongst the magnificent 7 in London. It did not have as much of the visible ostentatious mausoleums and statues, and there are a lot of ordinary people buried there, although it could be that a lot of the Victorian era graves are still hidden in the undergrowth. There are quite a few areas that are really just a mass of trees and bush, and there are the occasional headstones visible amongst them. Possibly the only way to find out is to wait and see whether they ever get to clear that area,
From a war grave perspective I am still missing at least 100 graves, so that is a good reason to return. Besides there is a lot to see in Bristol that I only really peeked at. From here I went to the docks to see the SS Great Britain, although that is for a future blogpost. I was semi satisfied with my accomplishments, and the winter light was very interesting to photograph in. The sun was always low on the horizon and it made for some very nice light, but it also made for some very difficult viewing. Irrespective though, I will be back some day, just watch this space.
Postscript, April 2016.
In October 2015 I returned to Arnos Vale, Holy Souls and St Mary Redcliffe cemeteries. I still had all of those missing CWGC graves to find and after an intensive hunt was able to whittle the total down to roughly 90 graves outstanding at Arnos Vale, 2 at St Mary Redcliffe and 4 at Holy Souls. I was also able to visit the church associated with St Mary Redcliffe, and it was magnificent. I will return to Bristol one day. I just must find the inclination.