"It's beautiful period one bed, with lovely views across the cemetery" said the oily estate agent, whose jib I didn’t quite like the cut of. "Did you just say cemetery?" I said, horrified, as I peered out of the window into the night darkness. I was learning the hard way; estate agents always leave the worst till last. My heart was set on buying a flat in Kensal Green, but I had failed to realise a sticky point. The area was packed with period houses and two bed conversions but only a handful of one beds (in my budget) resided opposite the cemetery. I recalled the time I stayed with my friend Gypsy’s parents who lived in Freshford, near Bath in a cottage located in the church’s graveyard. Needless to say I didn't sleep a wink! "Funny thing is I did a viewing the other day about 6pm and I could hear people calling out - they'd been locked in the cemetery by accident," he went on. That was it, I’d heard quite enough, it was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Kensal green cemetery and I would not be bed fellows, no spooky noises going bump in the night or ghoulish stories for me. That was back in 2007 and my father talked some sense into me, I waited he was right) and bought a two bed flat (he was right again) in a different area in four years later.
Having walked past the cemetery many times since those flat hunting days, curiosity got the better of me. I decided to put all those old fears to bed and attend the tour (run by Friends of Kensal Green cemetery), for what has to be one of the most unusual ways to spend a Sunday afternoon in London. After all, it seems a shame that everyone visits its more high profile sister Highgate cemetery.
Inspired by a visit to Paris’ famous cemetery Père –Lachaise, The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green was built in 1833. Known as the first in the magnificent seven - a ring of seven garden cemeteries built in rural areas on the outskirts of London. They conducted burials in a hygienic manner and addressed the demands of overcrowding in inner city cemeteries. The Neo- Classical design of the cemetery was pitched as an exclusive place to be buried and many of the buildings and monuments are listed. Little wonder, that so many esteemed Victorian authors, playwrights, engineers (Brunel) and even three HRH's are even buried here.
Walking round the cemetery gives you a sense of just how much religion meant to The Victorians. The importance of whether you were buried in The Anglican or Dissenter’s area seems so irrelevant today in modern, multicultural London. But if you are not religious, go for the sculpture alone and you will not be disappointed. It reminds me of Pompeii, an outdoor museum of crumbling marble and Victorian funereal symbolism.
The broken column; the symbol of a life cut short, too early.
It is also an incredibly tranquil place, where you can find peace in the birdsong and rejoice in having a rare corner of London largely to yourself. In true British style, the tour even finishes with a cup of tea and biscuits served by other dedicated volunteers, which was thoroughly welcome on a cold February afternoon. The rest of my enthusiastic group jumped at the chance to see one final look at the catacombs like rats up a drain pipe. Whilst I wimped out and sipped my tea in the Dissenter’s chapel, deeming the catacombs one step too far for a delicate soul like myself. Wrap up warm if visiting during winter as the tour last two hours, There is no need to book; just turn up on the first and third Sunday of the month at the Anglican chapel and check the Friends’ website for further information. The various gates shut at different times, so make sure you don't get locked in- don’t say I didn’t warn you!