Nunhead Cemetery is one of London's Magnificent Seven, a ring of private burial grounds established around the edge of the capital in the 1830s. Highgate's the best known, Kensal Green's the largest, and Nunhead's possibly the quietest. Located between Peckham and Brockley, its 50 acres are deeply wooded, and rather lovely. It wasn't meant to be this way. The cemetery went bankrupt in 1969 and a deep decline ensued, with gravestones toppling and the undergrowth bearing up. Along came The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, not a moment too soon, and in 2001 the place was restored enough to be reopened. The gates are opened daily, and on the last Sunday of the month the Friends run a guided walking tour. But once a year they really push the boat out and host an Open Day, with stalls and tours and the opportunity to delve inside parts not usually accessible. And that was yesterday.
At Nunhead, all paths lead to the Anglican Chapel. It stands at the top of the main avenue leading up from Linden Grove, thin and tall with a pair of narrow spires rising to the sky. The chapel roof fell in a while back, so normally the front gates are locked, but yesterday they were flung open and a wheelchair ramp installed. It was busy inside too, especially when the musicians were performing. I missed the Dulwich Ukulele Club, but enjoyed the dulcet tones of the Nunhead Community Choir. Most carried their song words in book form or on clipboards, but I noticed a couple reading from iPads, or equivalent, and swishing through to the next page of the manuscript as the song progressed. Lucky it wasn't raining.
One Open Day special was the offer to don a hard hat and climb the "very narrow, steep and dark" spiral staircase to the roof of the tower, but I passed on that. Instead I joined the hourly tour to the crypt, which is very rarely open, with access down a slope round the back. We weren't quite sure what we'd be entering as the volunteer guided pushed open the doors and warned us about the big step down. It was very dark inside, but we spotted the trapdoor in the ceiling through which coffins were lowered, and then we spotted the coffins. There are 76 shelves down here, stacked like the sorting boxes in a post office, and most contain the remains of a dead Victorian. Not all the boxes have survived in this dank vault, some have rotted or collapsed, while others were vandalised in the 1970s and the bones had to be put back in mixed-body plastic sacks.
The 40 stalls were busy, or at least some of them were. Anyone offering face painting did well, as did the local history societies and gardening guilds. Other tables garnered less interest, but that's obscure well-meaning volunteers for you. Beekeepers and woodcarvers were present, and a lady chiselling letters in stone, and a group with a petition trying to save a nearby pub from developers. A small child thrust an out-of-date copy of The War Cry into my hand, while the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society didn't have to try that hard to unload some free leaflets. I fancied a jam scone from the temporary cafe, indeed the entire table of cakes and sponges looked proper homemade gorgeous, but the queue was extreme so I decided to pass.
Obviously the best things to do when visiting one of the Magnificent Seven is to walk around the cemetery. Paths curve round the perimeter and through the centre, some narrow, some broader, but all shadowed by verdant tree cover. Gravestones emerge from the wilderness at peculiar angles, with a few bluebells inbetween at this time of year. On one bank a small boy called Bertie posed with a dandelion clock for his Dad's smartphone, close to a headstone in loving memory of his namesake who died a century ago. Up at the mausoleum, if you found it, was a curated art exhibition based on the Seven Heavenly Virtues. They did the Sins last year, in case you're wondering. You've probably also unconsciously misjudged the mausoleum's size, it's more like a garden shed, but beautifully decorated on the outside. Pop back any weekend this month to see inside for yourself, or visit any time to enjoy the peace of this urban retreat.