By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Back from the grave

LANDSCAPE EXTRA: Sympathetic restoration of a long-neglected cemetery has created a new green resource for an inner city borough

When you walk down Linden Grove in the London Borough of Southwark, it is not lindens in particular that you notice, or any one species, but a tall continuous screen of trees at the edge of Nunhead Cemetery. The vegetation beyond them is dense, and gravestones only glimpsed, but this is not a scene of neglect or abandonment - in fact, the reverse. As its new perimeter railings and restored main gateway indicate, Nunhead Cemetery has been the subject of ongoing works.

With £1.25 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (Urban Parks Programme), and matching funds from the client, Southwark council, a ruined Victorian chapel has been stabilised, 50 selected monuments restored, and various adjustments made to the cemetery landscape.

HOK International has been the conservation architect, and Scott Wilson Resource Consultants the lead consultant - with a group of committed volunteers, the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, always on the scene.

Together they have brought back a certain dignity to the site, while increasing its recreational potential and value as a green resource in a gritty urban borough. As Lottery projects go, it may be low-key, but - given careful stewardship in the future - the difference it should make is very real.

Nunhead Cemetery owes its existence to an Act of Parliament in 1836 which, spurred by a rapidly rising population and the dearth of burial space in central London, permitted the foundation of new cemeteries 'northward, southward, and eastward of the Metropolis'.

Consecrated in 1840, it was laid out by the architect of the London Cemetery Company, James Bunstone Bunning, who was also responsible for the much better-known Highgate Cemetery in north London.

Nunhead was never so consciously picturesque and atmospherically spooky as Highgate. Nor was it so opulent in the architecture of its chapels and monuments as Kensal Green, which accommodated members of royalty and the aristocracy in suitable splendour with a range of revivalist styles - Greek, Egyptian, whatever gave distinction. The clientele for Nunhead were typically more suburban.

In fact, the cemetery was rather illstarred, as James Stevens Curl recounts in his book The Victorian Celebration of Death. Ingenious and protracted fraud by an official of the London Cemetery Company got things off to a bad start, decline in maintenance after the First World War accelerated after bomb damage in the Second, and subsequent asset-stripping and vandalism led to Nunhead's closure in 1969.

Southwark council became the official owner of the site in 1976, but by then, says Curl, 'the Dissenters' chapel had been destroyed, and the Anglican chapel burnt out by vandals. The cemetery acquired an unsavoury reputation among local residents, so bad was the vandalism, which included tipping bodies out of coffins and other activities over which veils should be drawn.'

Although the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery did what it could to reverse the decline and damage, it was only Southwark council's application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1996 that raised the possibility of major works there. A key document, commissioned by Southwark to support its request, was prepared by Land Use Consultants the following spring - a historic landscape study and restoration management plan.

This report argued that the site's significance was fivefold. There were its buildings: two Neo-Classical entrance lodges by Bunning (later the architect of London's celebrated Coal Exchange, now demolished) and the Grade II-listed remains of Thomas Little's Neo-Gothic Anglican Chapel (1844-45). There was its landscape design, seen as a precursor to the great Victorian public parks (eg Birkenhead, 1843), with Bunning's circuitous paths and cuttings culminating on a hilltop that gave views towards St Paul's Cathedral in one direction and the North Downs in another.

Ecologically, the cemetery was designated as a site of metropolitan importance for nature conservation;

recreationally, its 21ha were thought to be 'a much-used oasis'; not to mention its raison d'etre - around two million people were buried there, with many graves still visited.

Noting that dense native planting had largely superseded the lawns and ornamental planting of Bunning's layout, so giving the cemetery the character of 'an informal and wooded 'natural' landscape', the report stressed the importance of the formal aspects of the original design. It sought a balance between 'the very real sense of wilderness' found at Nunhead and what it called a 'heritage core', to create a contrast in 'landscape experiences'.

The visitor now finds contrast of this sort, following HOK and Scott Wilson's interventions. Their work in the 'heritage core' centred on Little's Anglican chapel, with its portecochere (sheltering hearses and mourners), an ante-room for assembly, and octagonal main space. The building's burnt-out shell was overrun with ivy which, threatening the structure, was completely removed, as were the saplings that had seeded inside. Badly eroded stones with a weathering function were replaced. A new floor was laid, with a membrane to stop water getting into the undercroft, in whose damp, concealed chambers a number of coffins were renewed.

Some 50 monuments in this core area, chosen for their historical or architectural merit, were repaired. A few were in fragments and had to be totally reassembled; some were in danger of collapse because of intrusive tree roots and had to be stabilised; others just needed new pieces of stone. Those of interest architecturally - the Figgins, Stearn and Allan monuments, for instance, all Grade II-listed - tend to be towards the top of the hill (where burial plots cost most). The NeoRomanesque Stearn mausoleum (c.1900) built of Doulton terracotta, with crowstep gable and crenellated parapets, is the best.

Landscape works in the core area have aimed to re-establish Bunning's scheme as far as possible, including the removal of encroaching vegetation, selective pruning of trees, resurfaced footpaths, and new flint kerbing up the main avenue from the entrance gates to the Anglican chapel.

The long 'corridor' views to St Paul's and the North Downs from the top of the hill had become obscured, and these are now once more a culmination to the gentle ascent up the winding cemetery paths.

Beyond this core, the landscape quickly seems wilder, the planting denser and less disciplined. Tree cover appears overhead to give a strong sense of enclosure. The narrower paths are unedged and unsurfaced, like routes established in the undergrowth by occasional ramblers.

Lichens proliferate on tree trunks and gravestones, but, for stretches at a time, graves are almost out of sight and it becomes like a walk in the woods. Shoulder-high blackberry bushes flank some of the paths, and on a late summer afternoon their branches are heavy with fruit.

A circular route through Nunhead's 'wilderness' returns you eventually to the Anglican chapel and the core where order reigns - a little too much order, perhaps. In his recent book In Ruins (AJ 13.9.01), Christopher Woodward writes: 'No ruin can be suggestive to the visitor's imagination unless its dialogue with the forces of nature is visibly alive and dynamic.' Stripped of its ivy shroud and newly paved, this chapel now seems rather sterile and unatmospheric - a shell without a story.

But as its immediate environs do too, it signifies the fact that someone cares about the cemetery and those who are buried there. This core of conspicuous maintenance makes the surrounding 'wilderness'more telling.

In the one, the dead are individuals, named and remembered; in the other, comes a strong sense of our oblivion, of our absorption by fecund nature.

Moreover, the new impression of order that greets you at Nunhead, from first sight of the new railings and restored entrance gates, makes the whole place seem safer than before - a setting in which people can relax and wander as well as seek out a particular grave. Future care will, of course, be important for that impression to persist.

As suggested in the Land Use Consultants' report, the appeal of this cemetery is varied. If you choose to reflect on mortality you can do so, as long and as gloomily as you wish - or you can just watch the birds and pick the blackberries.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters