Cemeteries have long been top of the city flâneur's agenda, with their promise of romantic neglect and architectural excess. Terry Philpot has produced an informed and stimulating guide to London's cemeteries, combining practical stuff about how to get there with commentary on state of repair and areas worth exploring.
Most of the "magnificent seven" (Kensal Rise, Highgate et al) were built in the early-Victorian era when fever and cholera – abetted by noxious-smelling shallow graves – led to the creation of large privately-run cemeteries outside the centre. Here the architectural battles between neo-classical and Gothic revival could commence – with bad taste often the winner.
Philpot notes the level of upkeep, from the neatness and levelling simplicity of the Gardens of Peace Muslim Cemetery at Hainault to the tangled charm of Tower Hamlets Cemetery. As well as the obvious attractions of Kensal Green and Highgate, he draws our attention to less well-known gems like Bunhill Fields, where William Blake is buried.
With most inner-city churchyards little more than tiny urban parks, headstones stacked like sheeting materials, the big cemeteries are where the dead still get buried, though they mostly double up as "cemetery parks". Philpot repeatedly notes the wildlife and quirky sights like the grave of a woman who "died of a heart attack when she stopped eating after having been upset at the abdication of Edward VIII".
His preference for prettifying these welcome urban wildernesses puts the author on a collision course with sniffy urban conservatives like Iain Sinclair, who attacked the "community miscreants" who tried to spruce up Abney Park in Stoke Newington. For the rest of us, this is a valuable guide to some inexhaustibly interesting London spaces.
Nicholas Murray's 'Acapulco: New and Selected Poems' is published by Melos Order for £12.95 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030Reuse content