Macabre Majesty: A visit to Brompton Cemetery

I first found Brompton Cemetery by accident. I had jumped off the tube a stop early in an effort to ramp up my step count (new year, new me), and that I did. But more importantly the detour initiated a love affair with a most astonishing pocket of London history.

Positioned between the exit of the West Brompton tube station and the Fulham Road, the site is a convenient cut-through for commuters and a haven for walkers, grave-stalkers, joggers and bloggers. At thirty-nine acres, even the adjacent Stanford Bridge Football Stadium dwarfs in comparison.

Grade I listed Brompton is one portion of the Magnificent Seven, a collection of historic London cemeteries opened in 1840. It is the only necropolis in the country to be owned by the Crown and managed by the Royal Parks on behalf of the nation.

During the early half of the 19th Century, a rapidly expanding London meant burial demands were increasing along with the associated health concerns. The Government sought to find a more dignified means of burial, thus the Magnificent Seven were conceived.*

It is a challenge to envisage the era when the cemetery was first imagined; when an expansive rural landscape stretched beyond the parameter walls, a far cry from the contemporary bustle and metallic skyline of today.

On passing through the arched southern entrance, I was struck by the length of the central avenue, which bisects the cemetery and lures the eye towards the distant pavilion chapel. Designed in 1837 by architect Benjamin Baud, the building was inspired by the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. During my first visit, the domed structure was barely visible under the fog and rudely interrupted by a defensive wall of construction fencing.

In front of the chapel are two curved flanks of colonnades forming tunnels and encircling a space similar to a Cathedral nave. Directly beneath the colonnades are the eerie catacombs. They were originally developed as an affordable alternative to aboveground burials, but I learnt that these catacombs were a bit of a financial flop, and of the many thousands of plots available; they only managed to flog 500.

I had tried (and failed) to get in touch with a Brompton official to arrange a tour of the Catacombs, so a sly peek through a gap in the corroding iron gates had to suffice. At an uncomfortable strain, it is just about possible to make out some cage-like shelves lined with stacks of crumbling coffins.

Above ground, a motley mix of memorials sit juxtaposed, ranging from ostentatious Catholicism to restrained Protestant plaques. Many of the smaller headstones have been almost entirely swallowed by the earth, plunging into anonymity with only a few inches clinging onto daylight.

The grave designs at Brompton span art movements across two centuries. Many offer beautifully intricate craftsmanship with rich symbolism and some (less gracious) examples of austere Brutalism. One colossal mausoleum is rumoured to double up as a fully functioning time machine, but I was unable to confirm the validity of this alleged Tardis.

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Brompton has been privy to fame both pre and post-mortem and used as the backdrop for a number of notable films. Graced by the likes of Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes), Pierce Brosnan (Golden Eye), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland) and the cringe-inducing scene in the film Johnny English, which sees Rowan Atkinson ambush a funeral in a grave misunderstanding concerning some crown jewels.

Many notable figures have been interred at Brompton including thirteen holders of the Victoria Cross, Chelsea Pensioners, hundreds of World War veterans, musicians, artists and poets. But there was one grave I was particularly keen on visiting. After spending around an hour scouring Google images and quizzing a few less frantic-looking members of the public, I finally located the gravesite of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement. She, alongside other activists, played a crucial role in attaining votes for women during the turn of the 20th century. Her cause was infamous for the use of controversial militant tactics to help to stir up new societal attitudes towards women.

I found her memorial immediately to the north side of Central Avenue, decorated with four bunches of wilting flowers, laid on some ill-looking grass. Just as I had taken a moment to silently express my gratitude for what she had done for my gender, I was startled by a soft Somerset accent:

“Ay thanks- I’ve been looking for that for ages!” a man said, delighted that my contemplative gaze had pointed him towards the object of his search. We both agreed that our expectations were of something more ceremonial, but her memorial is no more remarkable than that of her neighbours’.

Interestingly, it’s understood the cemetery may have inspired the characters of children’s author Beatrix Potter, once a local resident. Names such as Peter Rabbett and Jeremiah Fisher are believed to appear on the headstones in Brompton.

Though Brompton appears to be at maximum capacity, there is still a range of sought-after burial spots available for those with a well-lined purse (premium slots are valued on the hefty side of five-figures).

Aside from the diverse architectural delights, Brompton’s mature grounds are home to a variety of flora, fauna and numerous creatures. There are over sixty species of tree, 200 species of moth and butterfly, families of foxes, bats and rodents. I only managed to encounter a squirrel and a very vocal crow.

Veering off the immaculately maintained central avenue, other areas of the site have fallen into the writhing grips of dilapidation. Many graves are smothered in ivy or facing a suffocating death-by-bramble, yet somehow this contributes to its charm.

Brompton has struggled with funding in recent years but is finally being treated to a well-deserved face-lift through a National Lottery Grant. So be warned, if you decide to visit during the coming months, tranquility has the tendency to be shattered by large construction vehicles beeping and clanking as they undergo the process of resurrecting the structural decay.

Visiting a cemetery is always an ethereal experience, but particularly so with such densely populated surroundings. With much of historical London tweaked, commercialised and blasted out of original context to cater for touristic and corporate appeal, Brompton still radiates authenticity.

In a city like London, isolation can become a recurring theme. But somehow solitude doesn’t seem so solitary in the company of over 205,000 former-lives. So many careers, nationalities, soldiers, mantras, births and relationships; I have learnt more about these people from slabs of stone than I do every morning on the tube among the incarnate.

Brompton Cemetery is an essential spot for escapism, serenity or to satiate an appetite for macabre splendour (if that tickles you). And even despite the faint but regular whiffs of marijuana, my diversion was well worth the time.

*Other cemetaries in the Magnificent Seven are: Abney Park, Highgate East and West, Kensal Green, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets and West Norwood.