London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries are famous for their ornate mausoleums, famous inhabitants and their sheer size. Recently I visited one of the least visited of the Magnificent Seven, Nunhead Cemetery, to see for myself what made these cemeteries so appealing for visitors to London, and found a place that had almost entirely been reclaimed by nature.
The Magnificent Seven cemeteries were opened in the 1800s due to overcrowding in the parish churches located within the capital. As the city’s population exploded, London’s parish churches were teeming with bodies, which, combined with the issues over sewerage, exacerbated the issue. Taking inspiration from Paris’s own large cemeteries, enormous, purpose-built cemeteries were constructed in Victorian times in London’s suburbs to alleviate the issue.
Nunhead Cemetery in particular is located only a short walk from the rail station, and while it still bears the all the hallmarks of a traditional cemetery, today it is a registered local nature reserve. After the cemetery was closed for burials, it slowly fell into disrepair for several decades, and nature took over. While a local group (Friends of Nunhead Cemetery) has conserved important buildings such as the chapel and the large mausoleums, nature has been allowed to gradually reclaim most of the burials.
The cemetery is popular for runners, dog walkers and history fanatics, and whereas the other Magnificent Seven cemeteries have walking tours and guided walks, visitors are free to explore Nunhead at their own leisure and pace.
In all honesty I had mixed feelings when visiting; would wandering around a cemetery be a little too morbid, or even insulting to the memory of those who died? But seeing how green everything was, and the abundance of wildlife such as birds and hedgehogs that have made their home there, turning the cemetery into a nature reserve gives the area a new lease of life and allows people to visit and learn about those who are buried in Nunhead Cemetery. In a way, it is a nice tribute to ensure that those who were buried there hundreds of years ago are not forgotten.