by CARRIE O’GRADY
Newcomers and visitors to the Stoke Newington area often feel they’ve stumbled upon something special when they wander into Abney Park cemetery.
“What a find!” they exclaim. But in fact, most of them will have seen it before: on the BBC’s Autumnwatch, in a fashion shoot, or on the TV series Waking the Dead. It’s through this very graveyard that Amy Winehouse treads a troubled track, her odds are stacked, in Back to Black.
The site’s pop-culture credits pale into insignificance, however, next to its historical importance.
John Baldock has the facts at his fingertips: “Abney Park was opened on May 20th, 1840, as a non-denominational cemetery and an arboretum of 1,000 trees, which was inspired by George Loddiges, a local Hackney nurseryman.
“The cemetery looks vastly different now to how it was, although the combination of biodiversity and heritage is still very prevalent.”
He estimates that there are about 200,000 people buried there.
“There’s no specific class, just non- conformist – i.e., not Church of England,” he says. That’s evident from the giant monuments facing the Church Street entrance, commemorating William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and his wife Catherine.
“Some larger monuments are a sign of affluence, and most have various meanings,” Baldock points out. “For instance, a broken column means ‘a life cut short’, a sudden death. Wreaths symbolise eternal life. Clasped hands refer to ‘a life together’.”
Another well-loved sculpture is the white lion that sprawls across the grave of Frank C Bostock. “Known as ‘The Animal King’, he travelled the world with his entourage of animals,” says Baldock. “He had a Giraffe House on Yoakley Road. We also have Britain’s first female aeronauts, Margaret Graham. With her husband, she made and flew her own hot-air balloons over the skies of London and beyond.”
If you’d like to find out more about that history, the Abney Park Trust offers many opportunities. John Baldock leads a historical walk there on the first Sunday of every month at 2pm.
“We also have walks which focus on Abney’s biodiversity, and on themes such as radicals, women and certain individuals. We have some talks and walks on William Hone, who fought against government censorship, on the 1st and 8th October,” he says. Theatre groups put on open-air shows within the gates during the warmer months, and there’s an outdoor camp for young people aged 8-14 which runs during the school holidays, called In The Sticks.
Mind you, it’s not all fun and games at Abney Park. It’s been said that an unexploded WWII bomb lies buried somewhere within the grounds. There are rumours, too, that the tasty-looking mushrooms you might see there are bursting with arsenic, thanks to the Victorians’ unwholesome custom of embalming their corpses. And that’s before we even start on the ghost stories. Can all this be true? Probably not, but it’s enough to add an enjoyable shiver to your stroll among the sarcophagi…