37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Friday 1 January 2016
Often referred to as the ‘Bristol Necropolis,’ the Arnos Vale Cemetery was first opened to interments in 1839. It was a time when elaborate burial grounds were in vogue; Highgate Cemetery for example, the third of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven,’ was opened in the very same year.
As had been the case in Victorian London prior to the commission of its seven new cemeteries, Bristol was then suffering from overcrowding in its parochial graveyards. These were set to become a health hazard, and so the Bristol General Cemetery Company bought up land that lay outside the city limits, near the village of Brislington.
For inspiration Bristol looked to London’s Kensal Green Cemetery, as well as the older Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; clear comparisons can be drawn from the appearance of neoclassical architecture, pillared chapels and bold, stone obelisks. The landscaping and dense tree line of this 45-acre site, meanwhile, echoes the atmosphere of London’s more rustic cemeteries – of Kensal Green and Brompton, with their shrubs and trailing undergrowth.
It is said that the first body to be buried at Arnos Vale was that of Mary Breillat, the wife of the entrepreneur who had provided Bristol with gas-powered streetlights. Over the following decades the necropolis would fill at a rapid rate, with families of all classes and backgrounds committing their loved ones to earth in these pleasant, green and tree-shaded plots.
Some of the more notable names to be found inscribed at Arnos Vale include the Indian reformist Rajah Rammohun Roy, 19th century philanthropist Joseph Williams and the educationalist Mary Carpenter. It became the resting place of soldiers and scientists, poets, industrialists, merchants and artists.
By the turn of the 20th century the graves here numbered into the tens of thousands, and as the cemetery began to approach capacity the directors had a crematorium built on the grounds – the first crematorium in South West England. This ensured a steady flow of trade for the cemetery, while slowing its inevitable saturation.
The Arnos Vale Cemetery Company wouldn’t cease trading until the 1980s, when the site finally reached a critical situation; the cemetery was filled to its limits and with no new interments, had lost the income with which to maintain the graves. This period saw a notable decline in the upkeep of the necropolis, and the weeds were permitted to take irrevocable hold over its stones and mausolea.
By 1987, the cemetery had reached such an unfortunate state that the site’s owner, local businessman Tony Towner, began looking into the possibility of clearing areas of the plot to sell for commercial development.
Thankfully this was met by widespread indignation in the local community, largely stirred up with a campaign by the Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery group. In time they would earn support and publicity enough to have the cemetery placed under protection; and in 2003 the Arnos Vale Cemetery became the property of Bristol City Council, with a charitable trust founded to help fund the necessary maintenance and repairs.
The Bristol Necropolis would finally be treated to a well-earned renovation, in time for a grand reopening in April 2010. A project running to a total cost of £5.4 million saw extensive repair work conducted on the Anglican chapel, the elaborate front gates, and the colossal task of landscaping in the wake of the cemetery’s numerous subsidences.
As with any such project there was a delicate balance to be observed; renovating pedestrian routes and preventing further damage, whilst maintaining the lingering sense of romantic decay so richly evoked by this crumbling necropolis.
Accordingly, many regions of the plot were undisturbed by the work, while the roads through the cemetery were resurfaced to allow improved access. The main path – connecting the entrance on Bath Road to Cemetery Road at the top end of the site – was renamed ‘Richard Smith Road’; in honour of the lead campaigner responsible for saving the cemetery from repurposing in the 1980s.
These days the Bristol Necropolis is estimated to contain more than 300,000 graves. In terms of atmosphere and architectural charm, it matches any of the great Victorian burial grounds; elegantly carved stones amidst bold, neoclassical forms, gothic arches, benevolent angels and proud obelisks. The grounds contain a total of 25 listed monuments.
Arnos Vale offers something more than just graves, however; those years of neglect may have taken their toll upon its stones and sarcophagi, yet they’ve given something in return. The sense of decay is more than palpable here. Stones lie on their side where the earth has subsided, cherubs search for lost limbs in the sprawling undergrowth. But rather than macabre, rather than a gruesome sense of sacred soil disturbed, the Bristol Necropolis enjoys an air of profound peace; of vines and creepers that embrace the stones, of mortal bones rejoined with mother nature.
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