Ashes to Ashes
As the world goes mad and Summer has made way for Autumn, on a rare day off I decided to have a stroll around North London.
It wasn’t around a Cemetery, for once. I know, I know. Considering that 75% of us decide to be cremated nowadays, I thought I’d take a slight tangent from graveyards and have a look around the the cremation world’s equivalent to Highgate. Ivor Novello, Sigmund Freud, Enid Blyton- they’re all here.
Golders Green is just as pristine now as it was when it first opened in 1902. Designed by Sir Ernest George and his partner Alfred Yeates, the former being the same architect who designed Claridge’s Hotel. Founded by Sir Henry Thompson, the surgeon to Queen Victoria, its unveiling was a slightly delayed response to the fact that many northern cities already had crematoria of their own. If you were a Londoner and wanted to be cremated, the nearest facility available was in Woking.
Thompson, a pragmatically stated ‘those cemeteries won’t be able to cope forever and cremation is more hygienic anyway’ [sic]. Opening in stages as funding became available for each section, another Victorian talent was put to good use here – William Robinson, a landscape gardener who championed the ‘English Country Garden style’ rather than formal, ordered planting which was common in many parks and public gardens at the time.
Crematoriums aren’t the first place you’d think such an impressive Mausoleum would be found, but that’s exactly where you’ll find this architectural masterpiece, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the man who designed the Cenotaph, country houses up and down the land and a large part of Delhi.
Lutyens was commissioned to build this mausoleum in 1914 upon the death of Florence Philipson. Florence, then a Mrs Woodard, hailed from California and met her husband, Ralph, aboard a ship in 1907, marrying in the Church of Ascension on Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in New York a year later. Ralph was a coal magnate from Newcastle and once their honeymoon to Canada had ended, they settled in London where they settled by way of Mayfair and then latterly, 74 Portland Place, London. Sadly she died six years later; the fact Lutyens was approached for this tomb gives a pretty good indication as to how distraught he must have been at losing his wife.
Roses were originally supposed to be planted behind the latticed stonework and a dish in the central atrium would have collected rainwater, as it was intended to be open to the elements. Peer through the door and you can see them, side by side, on a pedestal in Alabaster urns.
In the main cloister, two comedy legends reside in wall nooks side by side. Bud Flanagan, best known to people of my generation as the man who sung the theme tune to Dad’s Army, but to older generations known as a great vaudeville entertainer and comedian. Born by the name of Charles Reuben Weintrop in Whitechapel, his interest in performing stated at a young age as one of his first jobs at the tender age of ten was as a callboy at the Cambridge Music hall.
Wanting to explore the world, he walked from London to Southampton at the age of fourteen where he falsely claimed to be an electrician so he could get work aboard a ship, absconding when it docked at New York. Holding several jobs, he joined a Vaudeville show which toured the united states in 1914. Returning home to enlist as the Great War broke out, it was whilst he was serving in the Royal artillery that he met Sergeant major Flanagan, whose name he adapted into his stage name.
Pairing up with Chesney Allen, they became one of the greatest double acts in the country. During the war, their lighthearted songs often reflected the experiences of people living under war conditions, most notably, ‘Underneath the arches’. As a sidenote, his grandson Joe, also has a very popular Twitter account chronicling East end history.
Bernie Winters, who would regular perform with his brother Mike. Later he performed with his dog Schnorbitz and became a regular on game shows such as Give Us Clue where he would impersonate Bud Flanagan.
One of the most stirring things there is the Hall of Memory.
Split over three floors and opening in 1938-9 as a second columbarium, each wall has various nooks of differing sized filled with boxes and urns of cremated remains. Some have picture frames of the deceased and little tokens left by their families; a can of beer, a teddy bear, a lottery ticket – some of these items had been there for decades
In more recent times many legands have been cremated or remmebered here – Marc Bolan, Tubby Hayes, Keith Moon – but perhaps the best known is Amy Winehouse, who tragically died of alcohol poisoning just as she was beginning to sort herself out after a long history of inner demons and substance abuse. Here she is in Abney Park metaphorically buryinfg her heart in the stirring video for Back to Black:
Whilst I prefer an old fashioned Cemetery, Golders Green (with its vibrant colours of orange, yellow and red) provided a welcome setting to learn about people long passed and a place to relax and enjoy nature.