In the 1850s the City of London had a burial problem. Too many churchyards, if not overflowing then heading that way, and unpleasant leakage reaching the water supply. They searched for a new mega-cemetery with room to expand and settled upon 200 acres of land between Wanstead Flats and Ilford. One side followed the Alders Brook, another followed the railway, and freshly landscaped avenues gave the site an elysian air. More than 30 City churchyards were cleared and the bodies reinterred here, with subsequent burials across the site bringing the estimated total to over one million. The City of London Cemetery remains one of Britain's largest and is still very much in use, as well as being a gorgeous site to wander round.
Only one entrance is open at present, the triple-arched gate on Aldersbrook Road, with limited parking and a volley of signs reminding you to be out by 5pm. Alongside are the cemetery offices, a watchful security presence and The Poppy Pantry, a cafe a with red remembrance vibe. The vast size of the cemetery supports a florist in the parade of shops outside and also a separate stall within offering a selection of blooms, baskets and assorted decorations. It's always someone's anniversary so they do a decent trade. Here I unexpectedly disturbed a fox scanning the many treats on display, possibly deducing that the robins on sticks weren't real before slinking off into a shrubbery.
It helps to know where you're going, given that this place is a quarter the size of the entire City of London, choosing whether to aim for the church, the crematorium or the wider avenues. You might have to dodge a few cars along the way, because it's fine for mourners to park close to their far-flung beloved, but I was unnerved to be passed by a bright orange dustcart with "recycling made easy" written on the side. And soon you're out into the rows and rows of unregimented graves, set amid perfectly maintained gardens because the City never does anything by halves.
The oldest graves are closest to the entrance, interspersed with fresher burials for the most efficient use of space. Further out the graves come in chronological clusters, say a whole bunch of 1997s or 2008s, with some rows reflecting a single winter month. Some fell asleep, some passed over. Some are held in loving memory, some in affectionate remembrance. Some were a beloved husband, some a dear mum and nan. Carl 'logged on' in 1964 and 'logged out' in 2010. Emily made it to 103 before dying on New Year's Eve. Our Little Angel was born asleep. The sense of walking amid a million life stories is immense.
Everything's been well-tended long-term by the cemetery staff, so there are none of the dangerous toppled slabs you might find in a typical Victorian cemetery. Cherubs and urns make an occasional appearance, but ostentatious memorials aren't just the preserve of the 19th century. Nine year-old Clive is remembered by a large granite heart atop a stepped plinth. Joe's giant cross sports his nickname, Pud, in a prominent position. A huge white marble slab is engraved with just the name Amos, while his dog sleeps at his feet. If you want to be remembered, pay more and shout louder.
In the centre of the cemetery is an extensive memorial garden, beautifully maintained, for the benefit of those who prefer scattering to burial. Some of its hedged-off zones look dazzling in the spring with hyacinths, cherry blossom and lawns liberally strewn with magnolia petals. Others only spring to life in summer when the roses bloom - so very many bushes, each with a little black plaque underneath commemorating Ruby, Dinky or whoever. Footballer Bobby Moore ended his days here blown to the winds, but don't expect to discover precisely where.
To find peace head for the farthest corners, which are rather further away than you might first imagine. In the eastern reaches my only company was a trio of mourners adding a helium balloon to a grave, an empty truck and the occasional passing train. In the northern corner a gardener was hard at work with a hose, then a whole load of nobody, then a grubby white van had been parked up so a man in boots and shorts could pay his respects. Many of the outer roads have litter bins spaced every few metres for the disposal of plastic wrapping and dead blooms, far more than the City of London usually provides.
What really jolted me were the graves so recent they were still surrounded by the floral tributes that accompanied the deceased in the hearse. Three adjacent holes had planks around them supporting sheets of hardboard in readiness for a coffin to be delivered imminently. Temporary wooden crosses displayed dates in 2021, or simply a serial number, and perhaps a photo of the smiling deceased. Teenager Kayjon was stabbed in Woolwich a few months ago but had only just been laid to rest. One of Grandad Tom's floral tributes featured his catchphrase 'Make Me A Cup Of Tea' stuck into what was supposed to be blue and white china, because funerals can be a bizarre thing.
At the heart of the site is a crematorium, a dual-chapelled affair with a honeycomb wall, looking very much like the best 1973 could deliver. It replaced an older Gothic confection which still has an unnerving black chimney on top. Elsewhere in the grounds are a lofty church, a ring of catacombs, a rhododendron roundabout and acres of avenues for you to explore, even if you've not come to pay your respects to anyone specific. Not for nothing is the entire site Grade I listed.
I walked out partly refreshed by the cemetery's springtime beauty but also jarred by my transient mortality, a feeling reinforced as Brian and his mourners passed in the opposite direction. It's a fabulous place to end up, but better seen outside the box.