Wandering the overgrown pathways of Stoke Newington's Abney Park Cemetery, visitors can still appreciate its faded elegance

"Passing stranger call not this a place of dreary gloom/ I love to linger near this spot, it is my parents' tomb." This ghostly couplet is etched in stone on the Tod family grave in Abney Park Cemetery, a wonderful and neglected green space in Stoke Newington. Most lingering in the cemetery today, however, takes the form of malingering, the area being, like many wooded burial grounds in London, a minor-cruising ground inhabited by members of the cider-drinking fraternity. But it is also one of the most important sites of its kind, with a fascinating history and serene beauty which is perhaps best explored by daylight.

Entrance via the Church Street gate of the cemetery provides instant gratification for plot-spotters with the grand badge-shaped headstone shared by "General" William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and his wife Catherine. The remains of their son Bramwell lie just across the well-maintained gravel path. This first impression of militaristic order is misleading as the cemetery is in a state of glorious chaos. An estimated three quarters of a million people are crammed into its unconsecrated 32 acres and even the best-known graves are neglected and draped in green. The monument to Hackney's first MP, Sir Charles Reed, for example, is entirely concealed by a large bush and invisible to the passer-by.

Abney Park Cemetery was opened in 1840 as the first non-denominational cemetery in London. It was built on the grounds of the former town house of Sir Thomas Abney, Lord Mayor of London from 1700-1701 and one of Stoke Newington's many dissenters. The inspiration for the garden design came from an equally non-conformist New England and is based on the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston. Abney Park was London's first arboretum cemetery and 2,500 varieties of tree were planted and labelled around the border of the site in alphabetical order. Unfortunately, most of these were chopped down in the 1870s to make way for fresh plots.

It is by following the overgrown paths which criss-cross the centre of Abney Park that the real cemetery emerges from the wilderness. Standing proudly on a once majestic driveway which leads down to the old Abney House is a slightly pompous monument to the hymn-writer Isaac Watts. This was designed by EH Baily, the man responsible for the grandiloquent statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square. Watts' figure blithely surveys a monument to the cemetery's mismanagement, many hundreds of abandoned common gravestones set in tottering rows like lines of fallen dominoes. These tiny plots were sold in an effort to attract revenue to the company which eventually went out of business in the 1970s and was sold to Hackney council in 1978 for pounds 1.

The eerie grandeur of the Grade II-listed cemetery chapel has attracted film-makers whose fees provide income to the Abney Park Cemetery Trust. Scenes from I Hired a Contract Killer were shot there, while it has also featured on EastEnders. Rumour has it that names for the soap's characters were taken from headstones.

Among the most frequent visitors to the area today are foxes who are suited to Abney Park's sandy soil and dine on the titbits from Stoke Newington's fashionable restaurants. More people should follow this intelligent animal's example.