Rubbing Shoulders With The Living: A Great Day Out At Nunhead Open Day
I have a leaflet in front of me about The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. They gave it to me when I visited their stall at Nunhead Open Day on Saturday. It costs £2 a year to join and I’m going to sign up right after I write this post. The leaflet says ‘Nunhead Cemetery is unique and it’s future is of importance to the whole community’. I would argue that it has 6 grand old Victorian brothers and sisters and actually, in London it isn’t quite unique. But it’s rare – rare to find a tranquil green space like this in London – one that’s so quiet. I wrote in a previous post that Nunhead feels almost forgotten, and it’s hidden away in a far-flung corner of south east London. A lot of people commented on the post, saying ‘it’s not hidden or difficult to find! I love it and I go there all the time!’ And that sums Nunhead up nicely. To the people who know of it’s presence in our modern world, it is much beloved. As it should be, for it is truly Magnificent and even though 6 other Magnificent cemeteries exist in London, this one belongs to the south east bit of it, and in my part of the capital, there really is nothing else like it.
Every year the Friends throw open the gates to the public – in a manner of speaking. The gates are always open. But on this day, the gates are REALLY thrown open. You can go into the normally fenced off Anglican chapel, you can tour the crypts, which are also usually closed to the Everyman and his dog. I even found that Nunhead’s one mausoleum, which I have peered into so many times (it’s empty) was open and I could *gasp* go in it! There was an art exhibition in there, something to do with animals during World War I. On the shelves where coffins used to be stood plastic cows and elephants. It was rather bizarre, but fun.
Animals in the mausoleum
Opposite, a woman was sitting on a tomb in a picnic chair. Her belongings and the things she had for sale were spread around her, on the neighbouring tombs. She didn’t appear to realise she was using people’s graves as a pop-up shop and I wondered what the inhabitants of the tombs would think. They might have liked it. There was something sort of exciting about the living and the dead existing together like this, if only for an afternoon.
A colourful mat on a gravestone.
I hadn’t been to Nunhead Open Day before and I wasn’t prepared for how busy it was. Every time I have been to this, the second largest of the Magnificent Seven, it was quiet and sparsely populated by humans (and dogs). Today it was HEAVING. What a sight to see! The main walkway looked like Main Street at Disneyland. How wonderful to see members of the community enjoying the cemetery and supporting local charities and small businesses. Stalls lined the path – The East Surrey Badger Protection Society, Camberwell Gardens Guild, Nunhead Art Trail, the WI to name but a few.
I stopped at Mike Elliot’s bee stand and although I was disappointed to learn that he hadn’t brought any bees with him, we spoke about the difference between bumble and honey bees for a few minutes. Book stalls were everywhere. This pleased my Dad, who I was with. He had brought his own carrier bag in anticipation of second-hand book Paradise. Plant stands, more local charities, a refreshment stand and picnic area which saw crowds of people having lunch and chatting, clustered around the Scottish Political Martyrs monument.
Up a side path and into a clearing and here was a tent full of falcons and owls! For a small donation you could have your photo taken with one of the birds. I have always wanted to take falconry lessons, so getting to put on the Big Glove and let a Tawny Owl hoot gently on the end of my arm was a treat indeed.
Old style undertaker carriages and even a rock n roll Cadillac drawing up to sit on display just over the way from a flock of magnificent jet black horses…this day had everything.
I wandered around the inside of the chapel, for the first time, drinking everything in, exploring all the corners of it as a crowd crammed in to hear a choir sing Moon River. Everything was so alive! What a novelty to see a cemetery burst with so much vitality.
Nunhead doesn’t get as much attention as some of the bigger players in the Victorian cemetery world, like Highgate or Brompton. But today it got plenty and I think it was pleased.
Busier than Florida
Keep an eye on the FONC web site for details of upcoming events and next year’s Open Day!
All photographs by Christina Owen May 2016
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