If you were planning places to visit in London, would you consider a cemetery? Probably not – they belong to the dead. They’re also great sources of history, culture, nature and architecture for the living.
London is full of traditional cemeteries and other not so conventional ‘dead spaces’ – abandoned places, or sites no longer used for their original purpose. London is one huge graveyard, which is vastly more interesting than it is gross, we promise.
Here are some of my favourite ‘dead spaces’ in London. Visit them immediately; they are teeming with life.
1. Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
The Magnificent Seven garden cemeteries of London were built in response to overcrowding of burials in the early 19th Century. Churchyards were full to the point where body parts were sticking up above ground and disease was rife. Something had to be done.
The cemeteries originally opened far outside the city boundaries, but urban sprawl has seen to it that you can now reach all of them using a zones 1-3 Oyster Card. My favourite of the Seven is Tower Hamlets, which is also a nature reserve. Right by Mile End Station and the busy A11, it’s a peaceful walk in the woods among old gravestones. Many an East End legend ended up there.
I can’t stop returning to this macabre and tranquil place, and when I do I always feel a million miles away from the madness of Central London.
2. Crossbones Graveyard
Crossbones in Southwark is the site of a graveyard where ‘the outcast dead’ – medieval prostitutes and paupers – were buried. From a gate covered in ribbons, this makeshift shrine grew into a lovely park, run by volunteers and funded by donations. The short lease means that soon the site could be home new flats, but thousands of bodies are still buried just under the surface of the tarmac, which is why all the flower beds within the garden are raised.
I visited on a wonderfully sunny September day. Among the trees and flowers, a handful of young professionals ate their lunch in relative peace, even as trains loudly rumbled into London Bridge station nearby. The Shard and the Walkie Talkie buildings look down on it, and in a city well used to being built up, a slice of open space here is as welcome as it is unexpected.
The volunteers lamented that even today no priest or bishop will consecrate (make sacred) the land, meaning this ‘dead space’ might soon be gone. The garden of remembrance is free to visit,open Monday to Friday, 12-3pm. The ribbon-covered gates on Redcross Way, SE1 are always accessible.
3. The Skateboard Graveyard
Near the overhang on the South Bank that plays host to handfuls of skaters, an oft missed graveyard sits on one of the plinths below the Hungerford Bridge. If you look over the side, you’ll see a scattering of broken skateboards that have been cast off the bridge once they’ve reached the end of their lives.
Staring down at this bizarre sight as everyone else pointed their cameras at the view of the river towards St Paul’s, I marvelled at the ability to throw a heavy board and land it on the plinth rather than in the grey water. I was the only one looking at it.
Granted, it used to appear more extraordinary, before Westminster City Council came along in 2014 and cleared the plinth completely. This was especially upsetting, as the boards were being left as a mark of respect for a young skateboarder who was mugged, murdered and thrown from one of London’s bridges in 1999. Not to be deterred, skaters have carried on the tradition and started building up the collection again.
As I looked about on this particular day, I could also see that some thoughtful, if grubby tributes of skater jeans and the odd trainer had also been chucked at different parts of the bridge and were now hanging like flags. This is a different – and special – kind of memorial, largely ignored by the living Londoners passing overhead.
4. The London Necropolis Railway
On Westminster Bridge Road in SE1, there’s a little known dead space; not exactly a tourist attraction, but well worth the trip.
There was once a train line dedicated to shipping the dead out of London, from Waterloo to Brookwood cemetery in Surrey. At that time it was the biggest cemetery in the world. If you can find Westminster Bridge House, you’ve found the station that this ghostliest of ghost trains departed from. Now a set of offices, the traditional looking tiles that often denote a Tube station are still visible. The train ran from 1854 until 1941, when much of the station was destroyed during an air raid.
If you travel the 25 miles to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, parts of the old station there are still visible too. I haven’t been to Brookwood yet, but it’s on my list. I just have to get a look at the ‘end of the line’ for London’s Victorian dead.
It’s very easy for parts of the past to become hidden or lost. Maybe the reason I love these ‘dead spaces’ so much is because I like to find them again.
Christina Owen is an anxious person who writes about imperfect travelling, (less sunsets in Bali, more running over armadillos in Missouri) cemeteries and gin – a winning combination – on her blog Rainbow Roadtrip. She also takes photos of brightly coloured stuff. When at home, she never sleeps because her cat keeps her up all night. Follow her on Instagram: irisjonesography