Monday, 9 May 2011

The Necropolis Express

We went back to Woking today to visit the cemetery at Brookwood. It’s a peculiar place. It's in the deepest planes of Surrey, yet its residents are exclusively the dead of London. In the 1850s, various laws were put into place to ban people from burying their dead in the over-crowded, and un-hygienic churchyards in the City. New cemeteries were opened on the fringes of London, in places like Highgate and Stoke Newington, but the biggest of all was set up on a 2,000-acre plot, 30 miles to the West of the city. The Victorians, rather sensibly, built a trainline which went there from Waterloo station. This enabled coffins and relatives of the dead to take a train direct to the cemetery. It arrived at 10am, and left again in the mid-afternoon after the relatives had been served refreshments in the cafe, which even had a licensed bar, complete with a sign which read; “we have spirits”!


Rather poetically/ hauntingly/ bizarrely/ Victorian-like (delete as appropriate) the trainline was called the Necropolis Express or the Black Line. It was bombed in the second world war, and never rebuilt, but the dead of various London City wards continue to be buried alongside their forefathers. Brookwood was the biggest cemetery in the world, but is now simply the largest in Europe. We’re told that since 1854, over 235,000 people have been buried there.

Rather oddly, Brookwood also became the resting place of the bones of King Edward the Martyr, who was King of England until his murder in about 979AD; a ridiculously long time ago. Many consider him to be the least important King of England, but he is a Saint, and a group of four Eastern Orthodox monks still live in a quiet little corner of the cemetery, saying prayers to his memory, making candles and keeping a beautiful garden, which includes the former platform of the Necropolis Express. They were extremely friendly, and welcomed us into their monastery with open arms, showing us a little DVD about their lives and the Necropolis Express and going some way towards renewing my faith in religion.

Unlike most cemeteries, however, you’re not really encouraged to simply wander around. We had to be given permits for our visit, and were asked a great many questions in the site office. It is a working graveyard, and I don’t suppose many tourists find themselves simply passing by, so they weren't really equipped to deal with three Londoners who'd turned up with a picnic and a mean-looking camera.

There were, however, many wonderful inscriptions on the stones, three of which really stood out:

“...and we laughed, and laughed and laughed”

“To our one and only mother, who worked too hard, loved too much and died too soon”

And a tribute to a Navy man, who was photographed on the gravestone standing proudly in his uniform, which simply red:

“You weathered the storm, reached harbour safely. Horizon is peaceful. Ahoy!”

I was joined on today’s trip by Marinella and Nathan, who were perfect companions, and the weather, once again, was glorious.

Nathan and Marinella picnic in a glade

Pepys spent the morning 350 years ago with his wife and the workmen in his house. Elizabeth was in agony – no doubt as a result of the tooth she’d just had ripped out, but also from her “old pain.” She had the most terrible trouble down below which reoccurred sporadically. Pepys was worried that she'd never be able to convalesce in a house filled with dust and dirt. Nevertheless, he left her to it, and went to Whitehall to meet Lord Sandwich, and do some business, which went incredibly well. He was so pleased with his handiwork that he called in on his friend, the composer William Child, whom he took to the Swan Tavern on King Street, and treated to a tankard of white wine and sugar! Euwghh! On his way home, he called in at The Wardrobe; the house where the Sandwiches were now officially residing. He found Lady Jemima all by herself and stayed for an unofficial tour of the newly refurbished house. He was impressed. He continued home, describing the final leg of his journey as “a dirty and dark walk...” No drought in 1661, then?

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