21. The Magnificent Seven: London's Beautiful Crypts

“You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”

No, not spaghetti westerns: London historian Hugh Meller used the phrase ‘the magnificent seven’ for the first time in 1981 to refer to the group of large Victorian cemeteries established between 1832 and 1841 to deal with the problem of overflowing graveyards in inner London.

Closed to new burials for the most part, these spaces are havens of peace and tranquillity and are wonderful spots for those with an interest in urban wildlife. Visit any one of them and you will find gently decaying mausoleums to the great and the good of Victorian society jostling for space with the ivy-covered tombstones of the more common London folk. Notable features include:

  • The Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon in Highgate’s West Cemetery are the closest thing to a 1970s Hammer Horror film set you’re ever likely to see. The likes of Karl Marx, novelist Beryl Bainbridge and pop impresario Malcom McLaren are interred in the East Cemetery.

  • Abney Park’s huge war memorial, commemorating the men of Stoke Newington who lost their lives in both world wars, sits over the now sealed catacombs. Another type of soldier is also commemorated here – founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, is buried near the cemetery’s side entrance.

  • Nunhead Cemetery’s chapel is absolutely beautiful, despite the fact that it no longer has a roof. Scots might consider paying their respects at the obelisk dedicated to the 18th century Scottish martyrs, who gave their lives for the cause of democracy.

  • West Norwood contains a cemetery within a cemetery – the Greek necropolis contains 19 listed buildings within its boundaries and even has a scaled-down Parthenon. Nearer the entrance foodies may pay their respects – Victorian cook Mrs Beaton and Mr Tate (of Tate & Lyle sugar) can be found here.

As well as these four, you can also take a stroll around Tower Hamlets Cemetery in the east (behind Mile End tube station), Brompton Cemetery in the west and Kensal Green Cemetery in the London Borough of Brent. If you’re of a nervous disposition pop a bulb of garlic in one pocket and sprinkle some salt in the another before your visit, just to be on the safe side…

Author: The Londoneer

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