During the middle of the 19th Century, London’s burial sites had a much-needed revamp and rebrand.
Out went graveyards – small and grim churchyard plots in residential areas – and in came cemeteries, pretty landscaped sites in more salubrious suburban settings.
But with London’s continual growth, these were eventually swallowed by the city and several were abandoned to time and nature.
Luckily most have now been restored, and their Gothic splendour and wild urbanity make wonderful places to visit.
So with the pandemic still restricting our travel options and activities right now, why not take a socially distant stroll and explore their fascinating history?
We take a look at some of the best ones below…
Best for ornate tombs and architecture: Kensal Green Cemetery
Between the 18th and 19th centuries, London’s population quadrupled, cemeteries were overflowing and contamination and disease were common.
So in 1832 Parliament took the cue from the Père Lachaise in Paris and encouraged privately run graveyards. Eight were founded, one closed, but those remaining are now known as the Magnificent Seven.
The first to open was Kensal Green in 1833 –the only one still run privately. It’s the biggest and has 65,000 graves in 72 acres with 140 listed buildings and monuments.
Notable burials include Victorian engineers Isambard Kingdom Brunel and father Marc as well as King George III’s children. Freddie Mercury, Gary Rhodes, and Alan Rickman were cremated there.
Kensal Green boasts beautifully ornate Gothic and classical tombs and architecture, and its two wildlife conservation areas make it a pleasant place to visit.
Nearest station: Kensal Green, Bakerloo and Overground
Best for notable burials: Highgate Cemetery
With tens of thousands of Gothic graves spread over 37 atmospheric acres, Highgate is one of the world’s most famous cemeteries.
Attracting 100,000 visitors a year, its list of notable burials include socialist philosopher Karl Marx, author George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), and more recently singer George Michael.
Highgate is in fact two cemeteries – next to each other, but distinctly different. The West Cemetery opened first in 1839 and is the prettier one, with tombs rolling up a hillside culminating in Egyptian-style mausoleums.
The East, opened in 1855, is bigger and busier. It’s where Marx is buried, his tomb a huge tourist attraction. Ironically his ideological antithesis, liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer, is buried just opposite, so the spot is fantastically dubbed Marx and Spencer corner.
George Michael is buried in a family plot in the West, unmarked to enable relatives to mourn in peace. But it doesn’t deter his many fans from searching for it.
In the 1970s, a media sensation around a vampire haunting the cemetery led to garlic and cross-carrying mobs breaking in at the, er, dead of night, and opening mausoleums to drive stakes into corpses.
This led to numerous horror movies being filmed there and is also the reason for the wild garlic now growing (great for making pesto, I was told). Entry £10 adults for both West and East, £4.50 for East.
Nearest station: Archway, Northern Line
Best for history: Bunhill Fields
Situated just north of the old city walls, Bunhill is London’s most historic cemetery. Despite its diminutive size, it’s the final resting place for 123,000 souls, including authors Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan and poet William Blake.
It’s believed to have been a burial site since Saxon times, but its name is said to derive from 1549 when 1,000 cartloads of bones were deposited upon the then flat moor from St Paul’s Cathedral, which were covered in soil to create a “bone hill” and capped with a windmill. A century later, The Church of England designated the land as a burial site for Plague victims in 1665, but never used it – and, more importantly, never consecrated it.
This meant it became the most popular final resting place for nonconformist Protestants and other religions.
Nowadays it is a pleasant park at the heart of London, next to the City district. Prior to our modern day plague, it would be full of office workers on their breaks.
Memorials for Defoe and Blake are on the path to the pleasant green at the rear.
Nearest station: Old Street, Northern Line
Best setting: Nunhead Cemetery
Highgate’s southern sister was built by the same London Cemetery Company a year later in 1840 after seeing there was money to be made in death.
Set on a hillside overlooking London facing north, the surrounding leafy neighbourhood of rolling red-brick terraces feels further from the city centre than it really is.
Its once sweeping views (still visible from the entrance) made it a recreational spot for Georgian-era residents of nearby Peckham before trees were planted and it became a cemetery. Nowadays it’s still loved by locals, but more because the tumbledown tombs have been swamped by the pretty woodlands, and is now 13318890more like a nature reserve than a burial site.
Jack the Ripper suspect Thomas Cutbush is believed to be buried there after dying in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, but the family plot is lost in brambles and ivy.
From a bench at the summit you can enjoy some beautiful views of St Paul’s Cathedral through the treetops.
Nearest station: Nunhead, mainline train (from Victoria or Blackfriars)
Best for wild beauty: Abney Park Cemetery
Hackney’s Abney Park is beautifully wild with tombs and gravestones left abandoned and askew amid the shadowy woodlands.
Its 31 acres were laid out as an exotic arboretum by the famous Victorian horticulturalists, the Loddiges family, and the now grand old trees provide homes for bats and owls, rare insects and fungi.
Opened in 1840 as a burial site for nonconformists, it was popular with the stars of the stage. Scores of Victorian comedians, actors and performers are buried here.
The central Gothic non-denominational chapel is the oldest surviving in Europe.
The cemetery went into administration in the 1970s and was abandoned until the Borough of Hackney took ownership in the 80s. During that time it fell into disrepair, but that also allowed the wild atmosphere to develop.
Forlorn yet pretty, it’s a fascinating place to visit – especially if combined with a stroll along the stylish streets of North East London’s Stoke Newington.
Nearest station: Stoke Newington, Overground
Best hidden gem: Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
Unlike the prestigious locations of the other cemeteries, Tower Hamlets is hidden behind the terraces and train lines of Bow in East London.
But at the same time it’s one of the most beautiful. Its 27 acres of once newly planted trees are now feral woodlands, with the gravestones ravaged by time and reclaimed by nature.
While the other Magnificent Seven cemeteries catered for the affluent and the aspirational, Tower Hamlets Cemetery was founded in 1841 for locals of the then deprived East End. Many families couldn’t afford to buy plots, so they were buried in public graves.
Due to the proximity of the London Docklands, it was also the final resting place of many sailors who drowned at sea, as well as those who died in the World Wars.
The cemetery itself suffered heavy collateral damage when the Luftwaffe targeted the nearby docks and City of London during the Blitz, with both its chapels destroyed.
You have to go into the woods before you see any graves, then they’re hidden by trees and camouflaged by moss, giving it a fairy-tale feel.
Nearest stations: Mile End and Bow Road, Central, District and Hammersmith & City lines.
Have you been to any of these – or are there any other beautiful cemeteries you’ve walked through? Let us know in the comments below.