Graves fall from romance to ruin: One of Britain's finest cemeteries faces an uncertain future. Andrew Mourant reports

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The Independent Online
CRISIS talks are to be held shortly to discuss the decline and decay of one of Britain's finest cemeteries.

Arnos Vale in Brislington, Bristol, covers 45 acres and contains 20 Grade II listed buildings and monuments, some of which have been vandalised. Greek temple-style chapels have been set on fire and are no longer usable.

Mike Jenner, a Bristol architect, ranks the privately-run cemetery, which was founded in 1837 and is now frequently the haunt of glue sniffers and grave robbers, alongside Highgate Cemetery in north London. 'Highgate is grander, but Arnos Vale is of great importance. It used to be a romantic, slightly decaying, melancholy sort of a place. Now it has gone to pot,' he said.

Its deterioration has become a cause celebre in Bristol. Many of the 40,000 graves are inaccessible, because of brambles and undergrowth. But Tony Towner, managing director of Bristol Cemetery Company, which owns the site, feels he has been unfairly pilloried by critics.

An amenity group, the Association for the Preservation of Arnos Vale Cemetery, was founded five years ago to resist possible devlopment. It has requested access to the cemetery so it can clear a way to the graves through the overgrown paths. But after a meeting last year Mr Towner refused permisssion.

'The cemetery is our responsibility. We can't just have people wandering around. If anything happened . . . we are liable and we are uninsured. And we simply don't have the money to employ anymore management staff,' he said.

'If a tidying-up operation was started, we would want some certainty, some continuity. People may lose interest. When we did have a voluntary scheme here five years ago it nearly brought us to our knees. We had a job scheme sponsored by Bristol churches. But the supervision of those people was a nightmare. We had complaints from funeral directors, the public and from the clergy. They were playing transistor radios during services and graves were being desecrated.'

Mr Towner, who took over the cemetery five years ago when the previous owner went bankrupt, says the company's ability to be profitable through cremations has been thwarted by competition from two city council-run crematoria. 'We are surviving from month to month,' he said.

Bristol City Council is unlikely to intervene, though it has spent money on a perimeter fence. Its officers are due to attend the meeting, being co-ordinated by Jean Corston, Labour MP for Bristol East, to discuss the future of Arnos Vale.

A city council spokesman said: 'I think it is spurious to blame the decline of Arnos Vale on us. The cemetery company is a business. Perhaps the only way we might have any interest is through any public health issues that might arise.'

Both Mr Towner and Mr Jenner agree it would cost a seven- figure sum to refurbish the cemetery. Recently Mr Towner applied to English Heritage for a grant, but was turned down because 'they said we could not demonstrated we had income to keep up the buildings'.

Mr Towner has no illusion about the company's future. 'We could cease trading. Then the place would simply become more and more derelict. Some obelisks and tombs are already dangerous,' he said.

Mrs Corston said: 'We have to work out a strategy and an agenda for the cemetery in future to allay the fears of people who have relatives buried there.'

(Photograph omitted)