The deciding factor about visiting Nunhead Cemetery
was weather. We had had a light dusting of snow through the night and while a return to Highgate East
was a possibility, Nunhead was theoretically closer. My information said catch a 78 bus in Peckham, which I did; and I ended up at Tower Bridge instead! I should have caught it in the other direction! So it was back to Peckham I went. Nunhead is situated at co-ordinates 51.464171°, -0.053068°
My cemetery guide considers Nunhead to be one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries in London, although it does seem to be somewhat overlooked in favour of Highgate and Kensal Green. It was consecrated in 1840 and became a popular place for many eminent citizens in the area. Sadly though it too suffered from a lack of maintenance and changes of ownership and the result today is more like a woodland than a cemetery. In fact, it is now considered to be a nature reserve.
The first thing you see as you walk through the gates are the remains of the Anglican Chapel, with the paths heading left or right from there. Realistically this is not so much a cemetery of individual graves, rather it is about graves in the woods because there are graves literally scattered amongst the thick foliage.
Following the path is made more difficult by the large ponds of water and mud that is the result of the weather, and possibly high water table.
The remnants of snow made everything look different to what I was used to. And it was really pretty. As usual I was looking for statues and Angels, but there did not seem to be too many of them, although how many were lurking in the trees?
The cemetery is also a very popular place for people taking their weekend stroll and the many dog walkers testified to how popular the cemetery was with the local dog population. That is what I love about these old cemeteries, they are seen as parks, rather than cities of the dead.
I was also hoping to spot lots of mausoleums, but was disappointed, although there was one that really stood out. This is the mausoleum of John Allan, sculpted by Matthew Noble. And while it may have been the most expensive, it is certainly the most complicated that I saw here.
The young lady below, seemingly all alone in the corner was locked up in the chapel, a waste of a really pretty statue as far as I am concerned.
The question arises, how do you deal with a place like this? if you remove all the foliage and trees you may uncover many more graves, but then what? there are many signs warning of the instability of some of the memorials and I was not really willing to be brained by an angel who decided to fall off her pedestal. These places can be dangerous, but then so is crossing the road.
There are 580 Commonwealth War Graves from the First World War, with the majority being in 3 war grave plots. But to be honest I missed seeing most of them. I only saw a small plot of about 40 graves of which a number were South Africans, and I am glad I didn’t have to hunt down the CWGC graves in the bush.
The graves in the United Kingdom plot and the remaining war graves scattered throughout the cemetery could not be marked individually; the casualties buried in these graves are therefore commemorated by name on a screen wall inside the main entrance gate to the cemetery. A second screen wall commemorates the 110 burials of the 1939-1945 war in a further war graves plot in Square 5 and elsewhere in the cemetery whose graves could not be marked by headstones. With hindsight I am sorry that I did not photograph the plaques on it.
I really liked the snow effect because it lent some colour to what was a drab and grey day. I would have liked to see the cemetery in the sunlight and without those huge mud puddles.
Then it was time to consider heading home. I was cold and damp and time was marching. I was still thinking about going to Camberwell Old Cemetery which was close by, but at that point had not made a final decision as yet.
This beautiful mausoleum has two similar duplicates in West Norwood, although they are in a much better condition. They were built by the architect Harold Peto, using terracotta, this particular example was built for Mrs Laura Stearns.
And like most cemeteries there are stories to be told. This snow covered plaque made for interesting reading.
I investigated this story and discovered part of its history on the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery website. It seems as if 1912 was not a very good year in which to go on ships or boats.
That path was tantalising, it could lead anywhere, I could even end up going in circles. Its true, navigation in a place like this is difficult. You realistically need a map (or two)
At ground level however, things look very similar, and I know I ended up taking the same path at least 3 times. Ideally a gps would help, but they are not really geared for walking navigation the way I do it, and the gps on the phone can be extremely irritating. I need to think about alternatives though.
Update 20/02/2020. After many frustrating searches I have discovered that my maternal grandmother’s father is buried in Nunhead in a communal grave. The odds are there is no headstone, and had I been going to London this coming week I would have made a plan to see if I could find the grave or at least photograph the area where it is. Unfortunately I have not as yet found where his wife is buried.
I had walked the cemetery flat, and I doubt whether I saw all of it. I was cold, damp and slightly happy with myself. I bid this faded lady a fond farewell, she was my first Cemetery in The Snow and she did not disappoint. The cemetery is run by Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and it is well worth the trip. Do not expect too many individual headstones though, unless you have lots of patience, wellington boots and all the time in the world.
DRW © 2013-2020. Recreated images and added 4 new images 02/03/2016. Updated 20/02/2020.