Since we needed a car to go cherry picking anyway, we rented one for the entire week and I took a bit of time off work so we could do some things that were actually fun (unlike cherry picking). I have to admit that I was tempted by the Grayson Perry exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath, which I was fully intending on visiting before Covid happened, but I ultimately decided that was farther than I wanted to go in a day as it meant I would definitely have to use a public toilet at some point, and I am still not keen (I did admittedly have to use one at the orchard where we went cherry picking, but I didn’t see anyone else using them, and they came fully equipped with cleaning supplies which I availed myself of before and after, so it’s not quite the same as a heavily-used public toilet in a city would be. Still not ready for that!). So we settled on doing a few walks within an hour’s drive instead, because although I am definitely more of a city woman at heart (saying that makes me think of the I Love Lucy where Lucy tries to scare off Cousin Ernie by dressing up as a “wicked city woman”), this pandemic has forced me to embrace the countryside due to it being blissfully free of other people. One of these walks was in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, which I have wanted to visit for ages, and this provided the perfect opportunity.
Brookwood Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Western Europe, and also contains a separate CWGC-run cemetery, which is impressive in itself, but the main reason I wanted to visit was because Brookwood was once the home of the Necropolis Railway, which I am endlessly fascinated by (it’s just so perfectly gothy Victorian). If you’re a regular reader, I’m sure you’ve heard me mention London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, which were opened in the 1830s and 1840s as garden cemeteries in what were then the outskirts of London, in an attempt to solve the problem of London’s overcrowded burial grounds. However, after all the burial grounds within the City of London were closed in 1852, the authorities were worried there still wasn’t enough room in the cemeteries around London to accommodate future burials, and the London Necropolis Company was established to find a solution. They decided to start a massive cemetery (at one time the largest in the world) in Surrey, and transport bodies there from London by railway. Although demand was never quite as high as the company anticipated, the railway opened in 1854 and successfully ran until 1941, when part of the line was bombed, and the company decided not to rebuild the railway as it was no longer economically viable in the age of the automobile. In the years the railway was operational, the trains ran from a special station in London Waterloo to two different stations within the cemetery – one for Anglicans, and one for Non-Conformists – and the trains were divided into first, second, and third class carriages, just like a normal train. This wasn’t only because class distinctions persisted even after death (though they definitely did), but because the trains also carried mourners who were snobbier about that sort of thing than a corpse would be. The trains would depart from London at 11:35 am, and leave Brookwood at 2:30 pm (the journey took anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour throughout the railway’s history). Mourners were sold return trips, whilst the corpse only had to buy a single fare.
There is absolutely nothing about this that I don’t find amazing. I’ve only seen photos of the exterior of the trains (when I attended a lecture on the subject at the Frederick W. Paine Funeral Museum in Kingston a couple of years ago, which probably merits a post of its own someday) but I bet the interiors were a masterwork of gothic elegance. Travelling by rail feels like a very sophisticated way to have a funeral, though I guess you wouldn’t be able to enjoy it yourself. The second Necropolis Waterloo station, which opened in 1902, is still standing (the earlier one was demolished), although it obviously doesn’t house the railway today, and I know roughly where it is (I’ve almost certainly walked past without realising), so I will definitely go investigate when I feel more comfortable with using public transport again (I don’t want to end up the guest of honour on a Necropolis train just yet). Sadly, neither of the stations in Brookwood are still standing – the North Station was demolished in the 1960s, and the South Station survived as a snack bar until the 1970s, when it was destroyed by fire (I know the idea of a snack bar in a cemetery might sound weird, but as someone who visits a lot of cemeteries, I honestly think it’s a nice idea, provided people weren’t just throwing their rubbish all over the place. Cemeteries shouldn’t be scary to people; they should be seen as a lovely place to enjoy nature and visit your dead relatives) – so other than the old platforms, which we didn’t manage to find, there isn’t a whole lot relating to the railway itself to see, but it is still a really big cemetery with plenty of Victorian gravestones, so I wanted to have a look.
You can actually still travel by train if you’re so inclined, but it is with notoriously unreliable South Western Railway, rather than what I assume was the punctual Necropolis service, and you’d be going to Brookwood Station in the nearby village of Brookwood rather than the cemetery itself, but since we had the car to use, and the whole point was to avoid public transport, we drove. There is still a North and South Cemetery, though those now have lots of small divisions, including Catholic sections, a Muslim section, an Oddfellows burial ground, and most intriguingly of all, a Zoroastrian section (intriguing because I thought one of the key tenets of Zoroastrianism was sky burials, and there didn’t seem to be an area for that here (though there was a natural burial section elsewhere, which I assume means being buried without a coffin or grave marker rather than just having your body left in a field), but they did have some splendid mausoleums, as you can see below left). There is also quite a large military cemetery for WWII soldiers, including an American cemetery (it was a bit surreal to see the American flag flying proudly over it in the middle of the Surrey countryside).
Because people are still actively buried here, it was more well-kept than the Magnificent Seven, but there were still quite a few overgrown and neglected areas, which is a shame (I actually quite enjoy the aesthetics of the overgrown sections, but I feel bad for the people buried there with broken tombstones that never get replaced). I do wish there were still more things relating to the Necropolis Railway, because despite attending the lecture and reading all I’ve been able to find on it, I still want to know more. Marcus did manage to find a sign stating that the site where the South Station used to stand is now a monastery, but they don’t really want people walking back there, so we didn’t investigate further. During normal (non-Covid) times, they run tours tracing the route of the railway through the cemetery, so I am definitely keen on attending one of those in the future, especially if it allows you to access areas of the cemetery the public isn’t normally allowed in.
There are a handful of famous people buried here, including John Singer Sargent, Robert Knox, and William De Morgan, but the only one I really wanted to see was Edith Thompson, who was hanged in 1923 after her lover, Frederick Bywaters, killed her husband Percy. There was nothing to implicate Edith in the murder, other than the fact she was having an affair with Bywaters and had mentioned that she wished her husband would die in some of her letters to him, but apparently that was enough for the jury, who sentenced her to death. Even though she is still mentioned on signs within in the cemetery, when I googled it to try to find the exact location of her grave, I found out that Edith was exhumed and moved to City of London cemetery in 2018 to be buried with her parents in accordance with her wishes, so good for Edith, but bad news for people hoping to see her grave here (and also weird considering what I said earlier about the burial grounds within the City of London closing in 1852. I guess they must have relaxed the rules at some point).
Although it wasn’t the most impressive cemetery I’ve ever seen, and I was disappointed that there wasn’t really anything relating to the railway left (I knew there wasn’t much going in, but I was at least hoping the platforms would be a bit easier to find), it is still a large cemetery with some interesting monuments and gorgeous sequoia trees (supposedly the first to be planted in Britain), so it was worth visiting, not least because it was somewhere quiet where we didn’t have to worry about people not social distancing! (I’m sure they must still hold funeral services here, but there were none on the day of our visit, and aside from a handful of other visitors who were easy to avoid, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.)