London: Abney Park Cemetery Tour

Happy almost Halloween everyone! I have more posts from the US coming up, but since I’ve managed to keep the spooky theme going for the whole of October, I couldn’t resist posting about a cemetery tour I went on recently first. Over the years, I have managed to visit almost all of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries (garden cemeteries built during the Victorian era in what were at the time suburban locations as a way to accommodate the growing number of London’s dead that could no longer fit in central London’s churchyards). The only ones I had yet to see were Abney Park and Kensal Green, so when I saw that Abney Park was offering a special Halloween tour, I jumped at the chance. Even though it meant going all the way out to Stoke Newington, which is quite a trek from Southwest London.

 

Our tour was due to start at 3, but we got to Stokey (as the cool people call it) a bit early so I could grab some cake from a local bakery and get a few photos of the cemetery before the tour started. The cemetery is quite near to Stoke Newington Overground station, so is easier to access than some of the Magnificent Seven (looking at you, Tower Hamlets). The tour cost around £13, which ended up being more like £15 once Eventbrite fees were added in, but the description did say we would have mulled apple juice, soul cakes, and bones of the dead to end the tour, which was honestly one of the main reasons I booked on. It also meant I had to miss a London Month of the Dead event that I had accidentally booked for the same day, but I’ve been to a few of those and they’re always slightly disappointing, so it wasn’t a major loss, though I wasn’t pleased that they refused to refund our money even though we contacted them more than two weeks ahead of time to say we couldn’t make it. It was a sold out event, and I’m sure they could have resold our tickets to someone on the waiting list rather than have them go to waste (but that’s a complaint for another time, I’ve got plenty of others for today!).

 

Initial impressions of the cemetery were good. Although obviously overgrown and in a state of disrepair, like all of the Magnificent Seven, it wasn’t as bad as Tower Hamlets (can you tell that is my least favourite of the seven?) – in fact, in terms of atmosphere, I’d rank it up there with Brompton and Highgate, though the condition was a bit worse than either of those. However, the tour itself seemed a little disorganised when we arrived. It wasn’t clear who would be leading it, and there were various staff members standing about, but only one had the guest list and she kept disappearing inside, so you had to catch her to get your name checked off. They also abruptly decided we would all walk to the chapel to begin the tour right after Marcus had gone in to find a toilet, so I had to awkwardly wait around for him to come back (fortunately, the group didn’t move very fast, so they were easy to find). Instead of having treats at the end, apparently we would start the tour with them, which was fine with me as I was starving (I got the aforementioned cake to take home, so I hadn’t eaten since breakfast).

 

The chapel itself was quite a neat design, although there were no modern conveniences like heat or light. In fact, there was nothing in the interior except a set of folding chairs and a whole lot of ladybugs flying around, which kept landing on people (I started thinking of them as death beetles, and was glad none landed on me). However, it is the only one of the Magnificent Seven to only have a non-denominational chapel (most of the others started with an Anglican one, and then added one for dissenters (anyone who wasn’t Anglican)), and it was cool in every sense of the word, so the mulled apple juice was much appreciated! I liked that the default drink was nonalcoholic, because they serve this revolting hot gin punch at London Month of the Dead events. There were no soul cakes, but there were cookie-esque things that were meant to be ossi dei morti, but according to the woman who baked them, they had all run together, so were just broken into chunks. No matter, as they tasted delicious, like the crunchy brown edges of sugar cookies.

Once we were all settled in, the woman giving the tour appeared, and this is where things started to get disappointing. Not because she was bad at public speaking or anything like that, but because my expectations for these events are clearly unrealistically high. Because I’m really fascinated by certain subjects (Halloween, crime and punishment, medical history, the macabre), I tend to know a lot about them, so if I attend a talk by someone who doesn’t really know their stuff, I end up disappointed, and that’s exactly what happened here. She had clearly done some research, but she was working towards a MA in Victorian history rather than anything directly related to Halloween, so these subjects were not necessarily her forte. Really it’s my own fault for booking on, because I know this will happen every time. She started off by giving a brief history of Halloween, which seemed to be taken almost verbatim from David J Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday (I know because I own it, and just happened to be re-reading it in the lead up to Halloween). So I suppose this was interesting for people who don’t know much about Halloween, but I don’t know if those type of people would have attended an event like this in the first place. I would so much have rather heard about the history of the cemetery, which seemed to have been much more the tour guide’s speciality, but she touched on it only briefly.

Once she’d finished with Halloween history, we headed out into the cemetery to visit the graves of five Victorians buried there who she thought fitted into the Halloween theme. This sounded much more promising, but unfortunately also turned out to be not what I was hoping for. For one thing, almost all the actual graves of the people were located in the overgrown inaccessible parts of the cemetery, so we didn’t even get to look at them! For another thing, some of the facts she was giving us contained glaring omissions, or were just plain wrong. She mentioned the Bloody Code, and described it as coming about because “people cared about property more than people”. Fair enough, but that’s painting an incomplete picture. It was also tied in to the lack of a police force and the need for punishments to be severe enough to act as a deterrent (not defending the Bloody Code, because it was a horrible thing, just saying it was more complex than she made it sound). The primary reason it was gradually revoked in the 19th century was because Britain had established an effective police force and alternative means of punishment, such as transportation, by that point, not because property had become any less important!

Anyway, the five people she discussed were William Calcroft, one of Britain’s most prolific and brutal executioners; a member of the Mather family who was distantly related to Cotton Mather, chosen for Cotton Mather’s role in the Salem Witchcraft Trials (the connection was tenuous at best, as was her grasp of medical history. She mentioned how Cotton Mather was interested in inoculation, which he was, but then went on to imply that he and Edward Jenner were contemporaries who were influenced by each other’s ideas, which was not the case at all! Mather died years before Jenner was born, and though Jenner was influenced by inoculation, Britain and America had independently adopted inoculation at almost exactly the same time, and the practice was popularised in Britain by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Can you tell I can go on about this sort of thing all day?); a famous aeronaut and astrologer named George Graham; and finally a father and daughter who practised stage magic. The father was known as the “Wizard of the South,” and there was another odd moment where she seemed to say that Houdini and the Wizard knew each other, even though Houdini was born 15 years after the Wizard died. There was a lot of jumbling of timelines). Even though I obviously had some issues with some of her research (or lack thereof), I am at least polite enough to keep my mouth shut whilst someone is delivering a talk. Not so her friend, a self-described historian, who stood in front and kept interrupting to add bits in (but not make necessary corrections). It was just obnoxious after a while.

Honestly, I did enjoy the overall experience more than I’m probably making it sound like I did. The mulled cloudy apple juice and cookies were delicious (and the very nice cemetery volunteers were waiting for us at the end of the tour with more mulled juice, which was much appreciated), and the cemetery itself was great, I just wish the tour guide had bothered to do a bit more research and maybe picked graves we could actually see! I hope I’m not coming down too harsh – I just get annoyed sometimes because this is exactly the sort of thing I would like to do, but have never really been given a chance to do so, so it irks me when I see people who have had the opportunity not use it to the fullest of their abilities! I also think that if someone is talking about a subject I know about myself, and saying things I know are wrong, it makes it difficult for me to trust what they say on subjects I know nothing about, like George Graham. I enjoyed getting to see Abney Park, but I would have liked more of the focus to be on the cemetery itself, which I think would have let our guide play to her strengths – I think she would have been great under the right circumstances, this just clearly wasn’t her choice of subject. Still, not a bad thing to do pre-Halloween, and certainly better than London Month of the Dead’s horrible hot lemon gin would have been. I’ll be spending Halloween night watching all of my favourite films (Hocus Pocus, Braindead, etc) and vintage Treehouses of Horror, and maybe I’ll even get some trick or treaters this year, now that we’ve moved into an actual house! Hope your Halloween is just as spooky as you want it to be (even if that’s not very)!

18 comments

  1. I do love a good walk around a cemetery, but I’ve never been on a tour of one! Sounds intriguing, but as you found, could also be disappointing. Hocus Pocus is also my Halloween movie of choice 🙂

    1. I’ve been on plenty of perfectly lovely cemetery tours – I think the problem here was that there was a focus on Halloween that felt forced, rather than a focus on the cemetery itself, which I’m sure has a fascinating history!

  2. Well aren’t you tough to please?!😉😊
    I get you – the tour could have been so much better with decent preparation geared toward the cemetery itself. Sad that it wasn’t. I do hope to do a tour like that yourself someday. I’m sure it would be fascinating – you can sign me up.

    1. I know, I know, I’m a total pain in the ass! It’s tough having high standards – I’m so often disappointed! I’m my own worst critic though, so if I did ever give a tour, it probably wouldn’t live up to my own expectations.

  3. I love your commentary – always makes me laugh. I am totally with you on this one. I love learning new things and seeing new places, so I always have high hopes for these kind of tours. Unfortunately, I’m usually disappointed – I either know more than the guides, or the talk isn’t really about what they advertised. Still, hope springs eternal, and the occasional program that exceeds expectations makes it all worth while… I’ll definitely have to add some of these cemeteries to my to do list. I love an overgrown Victorian cemetery. I’ve been to Highgate, but none of the others. Happy Halloween!! PS I thought I commented earlier, but I don’t see it on the page. If it suddenly turns up from the ether, please feel free to delete one!

    1. I didn’t get an earlier comment from you, so maybe it ended up in spam or something. My experience of talks also tends to be that they’re usually not as advertised, but like you, I still keep going on the off chance I find a good one. I don’t know why places can’t just be honest about what will be delivered in the first place though. I spend a whole lot of time at work managing expectations, and I don’t know why other people can’t do the same! I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.

    1. The Necropolis is in great shape compared to the Magnificent Seven. I’m not sure why they allow them to become such a mess, as many of them still do burials so you would think they’d have the income for some kind of maintenance. Marcus’s grandmother is in Highgate, and he has to regularly go there to clean the grave so it doesn’t get completely overgrown and covered in mud.

  4. Like the sound of visiting the cemeteries, had no idea about Londons Magnificent Seven. Not a fan of organised tours even though you do tend to get a lot more info from them. Sounds like your tour guides were a little challenging however.

    1. I’m not a fan of most organised tours either, and this is why! Sometimes it’s the only way to get in somewhere though, so I have to suck it up and bear it (that wasn’t the case with Abney Park, but a tour was the only way I was able to see the pet cemetery in Hyde Park).

    1. Highgate is a good cemetery too. I’ve been to the East Cemetery a lot because my partner’s grandmother is buried there, so he has a family pass that gets us in for free. I’ve never been to the West Cemetery though as it is only open for guided tours. It’s the only one of the Magnificent Seven that charges an admission fee; the rest are free to visit.

      1. Ohhh that’s good to know – I thought the east one was free and you only had to pay for the west one because of the tour. I find it kind of strange that you have to pay. It’s definitely something I’d like to do anyway.

      2. You have to pay for both, but the East Cemetery is only 4 quid because there is no tour. West Cemetery is 12 quid and you can only pre-book on weekdays. It is weird that they charge admission in a cemetery with no tour, especially given that their upkeep is not the best (though it is better than the other Magnificent Seven cemeteries). My partner always brings cleaning supplies when he goes because his grandmother’s grave ends up completely covered in mud and grass and stuff between visits.

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