What better way to escape summer heat, than to lose oneself in history for a few languid hours, sheltered by centuries-old trees and occasionally tangled in overgrown ivy. Amidst the veritable cornucopia of London’s lush green spaces are some unlikely constituents: cemeteries. The most beautiful of these are known as The Magnificent Seven, and I’ve made it my mission to explore them all.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery park, like its six sisters, was established in the Victorian era to ease overcrowding in small parish graveyards. It’s home to hundreds of thousands of bodies (around 350,000, to be specific), due to the popularity of public graves at the time of its establishment – some graves are said to be forty feet deep and contain dozens of people, many of them complete strangers.
Just 55 years after opening its gates, the twenty-seven-acre plot began to show signs of the neglect that would spur its descent into ruin.
Still, it remained functional well into the 1960s, surviving five bombings during the Second World War and eventually becoming an official Local Nature Reserve.
Though many tombstones have been destroyed or fell victim to the ravages of time, carving connoisseurs can still admire gorgeous reliefs of clasped hands, weeping angels and falling doves.
And while some urns draped with stone flower garlands, Latin crosses, broken columns and other ornate, moss-grown Victorian monuments still stand, they’re slowly disappearing beneath vines, roots and blooms.
Today, Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is habitat to numerous plant and animal species, some rare and endangered – more a burgeoning woodland than a place of final rest. Visitors can unwind amidst wildflower meadows, observe wildlife, or even acquire permission to responsibly forage the grounds for natural offerings like herbs, flowers, berries and mushrooms (for personal use only and adhering to guidelines, of course).
On a summer day, the chorus of birds and countless sun dapples dancing across melting limestone make it easy to forget the somber origins of Tower Hamlets. Life has overtaken this place of death completely, in some cases quite literally. Yet the crumbling monuments remind us: the two flow side by side, and they both belong.
Many more photos from my visit to Tower Hamlet Cemetery Park can be seen here.