Monday, November 27, 2017

Woodland Graveyard

I'm not sure whether I'm just becoming more Goth as I get older, but I've developed a bit of a penchant for old graveyards and cemeteries. I've always thought they were extremely beautiful, and they're also havens for wildlife. They appeal to my attraction to the places that seem in between worlds. One of the biggest and most beautiful cemeteries in Bristol is Arnos Vale Cemetery, which I'd been meaning to go to for ages after passing it fairly frequently and catching peeks of the Victorian splendor inside. Of course, I chose to go alone, a couple of hours before they closed, on one of the mistiest, gloomiest days of the year. At least it was atmospheric, I guess?

Arnos Vale is a huge Victorian garden cemetery, inspired by Pere-Lachaise and classical Greece, and opened in 1839. It was always intended to be picturesque, a beautiful city for the dead. It covers 45 acres and is the resting place of over 300,000 people. After starting to fall into disrepair in the 1980s, it closed as a privately owned cemetery in 1998, although it continued to be opened to the public by volunteers. It is now owned by the council and managed by a trust and volunteers as a space for the public to visit. Burials and the scattering of cremated remains continue in the maintained part of the cemetery, but large parts of the cemetery have effectively been given over to nature, and have become areas of hauntingly beautiful woodland.

Because I visited shortly before closing time on a weekday, the cemetery was almost empty. Once I got into the wooded area there was little sign of human existence, although I did see a cat lounging on a tomb. It was softly quiet, all sound insulated by trees and fallen leaves, aside from the occasional calls of the birds.

With the pale graves rising from between the trees, it felt distinctly otherworldly. The deeper into the woods I went, the more it felt like I was stepping into an alternate dimension or time frame, or slipping into the pages of a dark fairy tale. I half expected Baba Yaga to fly past in her mortar and pestle. At one point I thought I heard footsteps behind me. As I turned around with my heart thudding, I realised it was just a squirrel, dropping berries from an overhanging tree. I was strangely relieved when the sound of a distant chainsaw broke the silence, revealing that somewhere there was still mundane human activity.

I think contemplative moments in old cemeteries are a necessary and good reminder of our own mortality, and of the importance of really embracing life while we have it. I can find the newer sections of cemeteries saddening, the death still too recent and raw, knowing that people who still live around me are carrying that loss with them. But the older, overgrown graveyards, while eerie, never seem sorrowful to me.

In this woodland cemetery, there was so much life among the graves, so many plants and trees, birds and animals going about their business. Nature had completely taken over, even toppling some of the older tombstones, or smothering them with such thick ivy that the names were illegible, covered by a blanket of leaves. Maybe it's odd, but I find something in that surprisingly comforting.

Left to its own devices, nature takes everything back, using the energy of the dead to grow new leaves and roots, climbing over the extravagant enshrinement of people long forgotten. Life goes on, and all is transitory. Besides, the beauty of this place, and others like it, lies in the contrasts and contradictions. Life from death. Man-made and natural. Opulence and decay. There's something intriguing and inspiring in that.

Coupled with the incredible artistry of the mostly Victorian graves, it makes me want to return for longer, with a sketchbook. Although perhaps next time I'll take a friend, just to ensure I don't disappear into an alternate realm between the trees.


  1. Polly I utterly loved this post! The whimsical nature made it so wonderful to read! Utterly adore the photos as well-wonderful post doll xxx

  2. What a lovely graveyard! I love the idea of someone stepping into another realm there, and the pictures are beautiful.

  3. What a beautiful place! I love old cemeteries!