In The Wake of the Spirit: A Dawn Walk Around Abney Park Cemetery
This is a piece written as my final submission for my Creative Practice module. It is a piece of 'creative non-fiction' that uses methodologies learned in the class (archival research, walking in place) to weave together a narrative that combines my personal experiences with information about the history of the place, with a bit of fun.
Since moving to Stoke Newington Abney Park Cemetery has become one of my most frequented places and probably my favourite place in London, so I knew that I wanted to write a piece about it. It might get a bit whimsical in places, but I like it.
At 4.45am on Sunday May 1st I stand just inside the gates of historic Abney Park Cemetery as a member of a small group allowed early entry for the National Dawn Chorus. While most of those in attendance are there to drink in the remarkably diverse birdsong on offer amidst the park’s dense foliage, that is only a secondary concern for me.
With gravestones reaching back almost two centuries, the majority of the worn stone tributes in daylight are cracked, moss-stained and faded. However, in the faint glow of dawn’s breaking, the rows and rows of headstones become hauntingly luminous and from them you might just catch a glimpse of the spirits coming out of their resting place for a brief excursion. The vociferous calls of the birds – the liquid trill of the robins, the locomotive huff of the chiff chaff, the mechanical gnawing of the woodpecker – don’t fail to rouse the thousands who “fell asleep in Jesus” from their resting places each morning; yet rarely is the public given access to the grounds to witness it. My intention is to use the early morning dimness to convene with the spirits of the cemetery, to coax them into my consciousness and to see the graveyard as they see it.
There is one particular spirit I hope to meet; that of Reverend Thomas Burgess Barker, the Abney Park Cemetery Company’s nonconformist Chaplain of the mid-19th century. In 1869 Barker published the book Abney Park Cemetery: A Complete Descriptive Guide To Every Part of This Beautiful Depository Of The Dead. The love for his company’s grounds resounds from every page, and he gives his own personal walking tour of the cemetery, picking out many of the most striking memorials. At the time of his writing, Abney played host to roughly 50,000 passed souls. Being the main burial site for families in Finsbury, Tower Hamlets, Tottenham and other North-Eastern regions of London, the population of Abney reached 200,000 over the course of the following century, and in the 1970s new interments were officially ceased. The insertion of these thousands of plots was carried out haphazardly and irreverently, and coupled with the mismanagement of the grounds through the mid-20th century the result is a chaotic and densely overgrown woodland. Newer burials encroach carelessly on the walkways, meaning the 19th century graves are further back from the paths, jutting out at all angles from the denser growth; cracked, faded and thickly wreathed in green and brown plant matter.
Taking the Reverend’s walking tour as described in his book, and attempting to pick out his most treasured stoneworks is as difficult a scavenger hunt as one could imagine; but cutting through the vegetation to discover some of these centuries-aged shrines still standing is a satisfyingly sacred experience. My hope for this dawn excursion is to meld minds with the spirit of Barker, so that he might see Abney as it is now, and that he might be able to give me a deeper view into what it was in his time.
Just inside of the historic gates, the alien orange glow of the streetlights and the rumbling of the traffic are too incongruous with his existence to make a good connection with him, but I can sense him lurking just beyond the bend of the main drive. It is probably for the best that he can’t come right to the gates; the faded graffiti on the storied Egyptian pillars might give him enough of a shock to send him fleeing back to the ether – and I’m sure there are many more sobering developments for him yet to come on our shared experience dawn tour of Abney.
We follow the main drive round the bend into the heart of the woodland, and once shrouded from the modernity of the city street I make the connection I had hoped for. Barker’s spirit is incorporeal and fleeting, but the silver glow intermittently catching the corner of my eyes amidst the dark wood assures me of his presence, and I feel an understanding flow between us in our shared love of the area we traverse.
Following the path around the northerly edge of the cemetery, the rest of the group looks upwards to catch glimpses of the winged beings making the cacophonous trilling above us, but I keep my eyes mainly below the branches, discerning the silver glow of the Reverend’s movements and feelings. Upon accepting my vision of our surroundings, the first reaction from his roused consciousness is utter dismay and confusion. In the introduction to his book Reverend Barker wrote of “the evidences of great care and attention which have been bestowed upon the general arrangement, and the daily efforts of the Company to keep [the park] in a state of perfection and beauty,” - but now the direct opposite is true. The ‘roads’ he once walked are now cracked and uneven walkways at best, the thinner pathways are more akin to jungle trails, and many of his most beloved memorials are utterly unreachable without a scythe in hand and determination in mind.
With some effort I attempt to share with him my belief that the untidy nature of the space is now the overwhelming attraction of it. When Hackney Council took charge of the cemetery on January 8, 1979, it was with the intention of opening it up as a public space for perambulation and reflection – something for which it has become greatly treasured by those in the know, who continue the tradition of great writers like Daniel Defoe and Isaac Watts who have previously used this resource. The ability to completely cut oneself off from the rush of the Capital is an all too rare experience, especially in the modern day metropolis. The value of this rarity is not underestimated; the thirty acre space has only two entrances, and the council has refused to add to them in their time in charge. This allows the space to remain specially secluded and underpopulated, even in the middle of summer.
I draw Barker’s attention to the houses that border the northern wall, with their large windows that peer into the dense foliage of the park. They sell for prices almost unfathomable in my lifetime, and simply non-existent in his. It is due to their view of this natural wonder, incomparable among the surrounding urban sprawl, that they can command these values.
Reverend Barker seems reluctant to accept my vision of Abney Cemetery as we continue on. He rushes beyond the nearest, more recent headstones, deep into the overgrowth, to attempt to seek out lost graves, but in his ethereal form he cannot pull away the weeds and crawlers to uncover the inscriptions beneath. I cannot follow him into the growth on this occasion for fear of cracking too many branches and scaring away the surrounding birds, and with them our spiritual connection. I assure him that I have thoroughly explored the grounds with his book as a guide, and that further on there are still several of his beloved monuments intact.
With some encouragement I guide him through the dirt trails to the family plot of Henry Dunkley, and it is pleasing to both of us that this monument still stands resolute and resplendent, fittingly marking the final resting spot of a once renowned cemetery mason and sculptor. The nearby grave of Elijah Moore of Wapping sticks up like a sharp tooth through the dense vines completely surrounding it, lionising the life that it commemorates. Barker’s pleasure at these sights is bittersweet; nearby he can see in his own mind the dozens more graves that used to stand proud and true in this area, but in my version they have now been completely lost to the encroachment of time.
The group of walkers pauses frequently to look and listen for the birds around, and I use that time to try to convey to my spirit companion the beauty to be found amidst the destruction. I ensure him that while the headstones may have vanished, the spirits they celebrated are still integrally part of the Abney experience. The majority of the 19th century graves have now been lost under collapsed trees, trodden down into the dirt by playful schoolchildren or simply worn and faded to dust. Reverend Barker laments losing some areas to dereliction by way of insurmountable overflow of plants, but I counter him by pointing out that these areas may not be reachable to humans, but they are the happy domain of spiders, insects, foxes and more. This time-inflicted destruction doesn’t mean that they are lost forever, but that they have become part of the greater whole of Abney’s environment. Many of the oldest family vaults have become the bases of the proudest and strongest trees in the forest. The obsessive pristineness in which Abney was kept in Barker’s day is now long abandoned, but the symbiotic relationship between the stones and their environment is an exquisite work of Mother Nature’s hand, wrought over generations.
Examples of this unity between man and nature abound throughout. One of Barker’s old highlights, the white marble vault of Thomas Robinson Esq., is rustically stained by mould, features regal green leaves cascading down all sides, and sits picturesquely in the shelter of the skeletal Italian Hybrid Black Poplar clawing over it. Along Road C the relatively uniform tombs lining both uneven banks are moss-covered and so filled with non-human life that you feel as though your procession between them is being watched by Earthly agents; pensive and peaceful. When we come across the family vault of Mr. Robert James Henry, I show him that it has cracked and decayed so significantly that the hollow inside has now become the residence of a nest of birds. In every square inch of the place there is evidence of former life giving birth and subsistence to millions more of God’s creatures, and I ask him what could be more holy than that?
Eventually we reach the point at which I am most anxious about my companion’s reaction: the chapel that stands in the centre of the grounds. The building was the jewel where Reverend Barker was honoured to give worship regularly, bathed in the glow of the sun through the stained glass windows, and admired the singular architecture. Now the building is gutted. Not a single shard of glass remains in any of the portholes, the brickwork is crumbling, and the whole structure is guarded by graffiti-covered barriers blocking entry. It takes a moment for Barker to believe that this is truly the same building. That it could have been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair is unspeakable to him. I encourage him by assuring him that the chapel is still much beloved, even in this state. A 1980 report by the Hackney Society on the parks and open spaces on offer in the borough claimed that “the chapel… makes a definite contribution to the atmosphere of the cemetery,” and I could not agree more. He goes where I cannot go, into the church itself, which has become the domain of owls and bats, and then he begins to accept its fate. He begins to understand that much like the other memorabilia of the past that still lie in some sorry state within Abney, it has become the basis for a new form of life and natural worship.
Finally we turn our back on the chapel and look southwards down Dr. Watts’ Walk. Where in Barker’s time there were catacombs filled with older remains, there now stands a bigger and brighter memorial. The large white marble stage stands in honour of those Stoke Newington dwellers that were taken by the two World Wars. At first he is uncomprehending of the scale of the devastation, but eventually he sees. We stand in silent mourning of those lost in these cataclysmic events that occurred between our two lifetimes. It is a tableau of dignified beauty; the pink blossoms leaning over the memorial give the space a rare shock of colour, and the song thrush sitting in the bows overhead even holds its tongue as a mark of respect.
Naturally, we agree to part at this moment. The sun has now risen and even the birds have quietened in anticipation of the waking of the human world. I catch the silver form flitting off past the statue of Dr. Watts towards its resting place. I hear sirens of the street breaking the peace of the park, and I know it is time for me to reconvene with the living.