England’s cities and countryside are rich in historical landmarks and areas of national significance. Many of us might tend to think of a castle or cathedral when we think of a heritage site, but some of the richest histories and fascinating stories can be found in graveyards. We think it’s time to start seeing cemeteries as the peaceful havens and historical treasure troves they are.
While any burial or memorial ground will be home to a plethora of unique and intriguing tales about the lives of the people who were laid to rest there, these 12 sites are some of the most outstandingly beautiful, unusual and historically important in the country.
Hidden down a back street south of the River Thames, not far from sights like the Shard and Shakespeare’s Globe, is the Cross Bones Graveyard. It was the overcrowded final resting place of many of the sex workers, known as the ‘Winchester Geese’, who inhabited the medevial city of London. They were buried here in unconsecrated ground because churches forbade them being laid to rest on their grounds. Thousands of paupers and outcasts continued to be buried here until the mid-19th century. Now it is a haunting shrine to ‘the outcast dead’, and has inspired artists and writers such as John Constable.
The largest cemetery in western Europe, the Brookwood Cemetery stretches over a huge park, which is Grade I listed thanks to its heritage and natural beauty. Also known as the London Necropolis, Brookwood is the sight of many notable graves and is home to many unusual plant and tree species. Part of the site is also dedicated to the UK’s largest Commonwealth war and military cemetery, commemorating over 5000 members of the Commonwealth armed forces who died during the two world wars.
Located in Islington, the history of the burial site at Bunhill Fields stretches back many centuries. Now it is a leafy green enclave scattered with headstones in the midst of busy London. Traditionally, the graveyard was used by nonconformist Protestants, and the graves of notable figures such as the Romantic poet William Blake and Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe can be found there.
The St Mary Magdalene Church in East Ham is the oldest Norman church in London, and its churchyard the largest in Britain. The church still has a vibrant congregation, and its churchyard and burial ground is a nature reserve enjoyed by local residents and visitors alike. Walking trails wind in between the graves and volunteers use traditional hedge-laying and landscaping techniques to maintain the reserve’s connection to its heritage.
Arnos Vale cemetery was established in the Victorian era to accommodate Bristol’s demand for burial space as it expanded during the industrial revolution. Arnos Vale is a garden cemetery, inspired by the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and its vast grounds provide a haven for plants and wildlife. It is dotted with Grade II listed buildings which exemplify the neoclassical architectural style popular in the Victorian era.
For over 100 years, this cemetery was the primary burial ground for those who passed away in the town of Biggleswade. This cemetery was opened in 1869 following two cholera outbreaks which killed many people in 19th century England, increasing the need to make space for more graves in Bedfordshire. A Gothic Revival style chapel overlooks the headstones. A number of military graves can also be found here, with 17 from World War I and 2 from World War II.
The Eyam Parish Church was the centre of a remarkable story relating to the plague in the 17th century. When the disease reached the village in 1666, Eyam completely cut itself off from the world in order to prevent it spreading. 30% of the population died, among them the wife of the rector of the church, who is buried in the graveyard.
This cemetery was established in the Victorian era due to meet the demands of the two 19th century cholera epidemics. One of the headstones in this Hertfordshire graveyard belongs to Mary Angela Dickens, the granddaughter of Charles Dickens. There are also many unmarked graves believed to belong to children, the poor and workhouse residents. Now, the Countryside Management Service is working to make the cemetery a wildlife haven.
This 900 year old Norman church is the oldest building in the Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby, situated on the East Cliff. Its graveyard inspired the setting for Bram Stoker’s famous horror novel Dracula. In 2012 and 2013, St Mary’s Church and its graveyard received media attention following two land-slips caused by a broken drainage system and torrential rain, which left some graves exposed. Human bones even fell into the street which runs along the bottom of the cliff on which the site is perched.
The rapid population growth in 19th century London didn’t just mean there were more living people in the city, more people were also dying and needed to be buried. Therefore, public cemeteries such as this one in Highgate were opened. The chapels and buildings were inspired by the popular Gothic and neoclassical architectural styles of the time. 19th century philosopher Karl Marx is famously buried at Highgate.
Bradford’s Undercliffe Cemetery is home to numerous extraordinary 19th century graves, belonging to the famous and powerful of the city. Six monuments are listed, including an Egyptian inspired mausoleum and two large obelisks. Undercliffe is also the resting place of many ordinary workers who endured overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions and gruelling, poorly paid work in local mills.
Located in Stoke Newington in East London, the cemetery at Abney Park was designed as an arboretum with 2000 different species of plants. It’s now managed as an urban wilderness, with efforts split between conserving its wildlife and its monuments, including a Grade II listed memorial commemorating local victims of the Blitz.
I wanted to thank Memorials of Distinction for providing a very efficient, professional and friendly service which was also extremely quick. My Mother & Father’s memorial was booked and then the lockdown occurred and even through this the Headstone was still erected the company strived to get any outstanding orders finalised before everything shut – your crew also kindly took photographs of the memorial so we could see it or though could not visit at that time and this little extra touch made a huge difference. The memorial is just as ordered and a fitting tribute to my parents.
Ann J. Sent by email: 16/06/2020
I would just like to say a massive thank you to everyone, especially to the stonemason! We are absolutely delighted with our sons headstone. We’ve waited such a long time to purchase it, but we are thrilled with it! The detail that’s gone into it is just incredible.
Thank you to everyone that I spoke to along the way, everyone was always so helpful and the communication was brilliant. I will not hesitate to recommend you to anyone!
Natalie L. Sent by email: 02/02/2018
What a lovely service they provide. Friendly staff on the phone and the stone was perfect. Thank you so much.
I cannot recommend them enough.
Josephine P. Google Review: 05/11/2020
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