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Rescued from a grave condition

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Cemeteries have always held a morbid fascination for the curious- minded, and remain a constant source of inspiration for fiction writers and film makers. Kensal Green Cemetery in North London is just such a place. The first of eight cemeteries, modelled on the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, created to deal with the severe overcrowding of London's burial grounds, it is now a designated Conservation Area and Grade II* item on the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It contains many listed monuments and three Grade II*-listed buildings: the Anglican Chapel, the main entrance and the Dissenters' Chapel.

The Dissenters' Chapel, completed in 1834 to the designs of John Griffith of Finsbury (1796-1888), sits in the south-eastern corner of the cemetery. After years of neglect, and in spite of its earlier Grade II listing in 1969, the chapel had slipped into a precarious state. In 1995 a partnership comprising the Historic Chapels Trust, North Kensington City Challenge and English Heritage was formed to rescue the chapel, a Grade II* building at risk, to open it to the public and to put it to use as a base from which to visit the cemetery. As part of its grant aid, English Heritage's Professional Services Team provided the expertise to realise the project.

The chapel is regular in plan and designed in the Greek Revival manner. The body of the building is constructed in brick overlaid with Roman cement, while the main facade and details are in Portland stone. Before restoration, the entrance loggia had survived but only vestiges remained of the low covered colonnades on either side which would formerly have been curved to follow the alignment of the boundary wall. The small vestry to the rear of the chapel (east end) was ruined but the staircase leading from the vestry down to the brick-lined vaulted catacombs remained intact. Within the chapel itself, only fragments of panelling, the ceiling rose, cornice, corner and wall pilasters survived.

To ensure accurate restoration and repair work, original architect's drawings, photographs, documentary reports and physical evidence were referred to. The works included the renewal of the roof covering in terned steel detailed to imitate the original lead roof, rebuilding the vestry and rebuilding a section of collapsed vaulting in the catacombs. The colonnades were placed as closely as possible to their original position and about 50 per cent of the original stone was reused.

Within the chapel, the two rows of timber pews were reinstated, together with the reconstruction of the timber pulpit at the eastern end and the reconstruction of the panelling, the repair of the plasterwork and the floor. The discovery of a remarkable decorative scheme beneath many layers of paint made the stabilisation and retention of the internal plasterwork of the chapel of paramount importance.

A contemporary addition which sits discreetly on the north side of the chapel contains essential new facilities: a meeting and exhibition room, kitchen, store and wc, with direct access down Portland stone steps from Ladbroke Grove. The new interior is flooded with natural light via a wide floor-to-ceiling window, a glazed entrance and a thin, strategically placed rooflight running along the south side. The combination of the new protruding curved wall separating the public space from the services with the existing restored wall cleverly draws the visitor to the pocket of white light at the eastern end. The overall effect is one of calm and subtly understated quality.

At an approximate cost of £520,000 (£200,000 donated by North Kensington City Challenge, £95,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £5000 raised by Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery), the English Heritage team has sensitively restored this graceful chapel and created a complementary addition, ensuring that future visits will be pleasurable and uplifting.



Historic Chapels Trust


English Heritage Architecture Team of Professional Services: Richard Linzey (project architect), Sarita Robson (job architect)


English Heritage Conservation Engineering Team, Professional Services


English Heritage Building Services Engineering Team


Jim Child


English Heritage Building Economics Branch, Professional Services


Gilbert and Turnbull


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