Where does Dennis Wheatley rub shoulders with the writer and illustrator of the Rupert Bear cartoon, or with John Singer Sargeant? Where do hanged women murderers – or suspected murderers – lie side by side with Ladies of the Realm; engineers beside VC holding soldiers; Dr Robert Knox, the biggest ‘customer’ of Burke and Hare share a resting place with Vickers ( of aircraft manufacturing fame) family members?
The answer is at Brookwood Cemetery. In the late 1850’s London no longer had the space to bury its dead and so thousands of acres of land were set aside near Woking, a 40 minute train ride from the capital. The London Necropolis was born. A special railway station was built next to Waterloo station in London to carry mourners and the coffins of the deceased direct to Brookwood’s own stations, on the edge of the cemetery grounds. North station was for non-conformists and South station was for Anglicans.
The first trains ran in 1854 and continued until the London terminal was destroyed by bombs in 1941. Two hundred and forty thousand people are buried there, beneath the Surrey pines.
The graves are higgledy piggledy, in some places crowded together, in others the space is amazingly open. There are simple markers and imposing mausoleums. Anchors, angels, pillars, forlorn faced statuary, groves of massive pines surrounding solitary graves, age old trees nudging closer and closer to the stonework, blocking all light; rusting chain link and ironwork fencing, fallen crosses of all designs – occupied, bare, celtic – just about every variation possible; so much to see, so many inscriptions ranging from severe to overly sentimental – typical of the Victorian way of death.
I have found my summer project, and have obtained permission to paint and write in the grounds – no photography allowed. Geese guard the entrance, choruses of birds sing, beetles scamper and rabbits bound. The grass is covered with pine cones and spotted with wild violets. The world is at bay and all is calm. Should be a great place for stories real and imagined to surface and the muse to reawaken.