Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Book review: The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott

This book opens with the author, Andrew Stott, observing one of London’s most eccentric sights – the annual memorial service to Joseph Grimaldi held in Holy Trinity Church, Dalston, and attended by dozens of clowns in full regalia.  But who was Joseph Grimaldi?  Born in 1778, he was the first son of Joseph Giuseppe Grimaldi, better known as “the Signor”, an entertainer with a violent, unpredictable streak and an unhealthy obsession with death.

The Signor wished his son to follow in his footsteps onto the stage, and young Joe made his theatre debut as a toddler.  He had a wretched childhood, as the Signor was a domineering and abusive parent, regularly beating Joe (even on stage) and forcing him to train and work for long hours.  Stott shows us the dark side of theatre in this period – the many children working in theatres not only had to work long hours in poor and dangerous conditions, but many were also abused – verbally, physically and sexually.  With this atmosphere of exploitation and violence, it is easy to see why Joe later chose to keep his own son away from the theatre until he was in his late teens.

After the Signor’s death, Joe became the main breadwinner for his family and Stott documents the difficult path Joe took to eventual stardom, eventually making the pantomime role of Clown his own – he expanded the role from a simple buffoon to the clown character that we recognise today, complete with face paint and brightly coloured hair.

Sadly, despite his success on the stage, Joe’s personal life was filled with tragedy, mental illness and disability.  Stott does not seek to retrospectively diagnose Joe with any specific illnesses, but mentions the bouts of melancholy that often struck – ironically – at the times of Joe’s greatest successes.  The physical demands of Joe’s pantomime roles also took their toll, causing him to age prematurely and spend his final years as a cripple.  Stott identifies the contrast between Joe’s stage persona and his personal life as the birth of the idea of the tragic clown.

Stott’s biography not only tells us Joe’s story but also immerses the reader in the colourful, chaotic world of the theatre in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  As well as enlightening the reader about pantomime in this period (which was quite different from the pantomimes performed today), Stott includes takes of bankrupt theatre owners, vengeful set builders and a colourful array of actors, singers and acrobats and their exploits.  At times, however, it feels as though this narrative can overwhelm Joe’s story.  Many of the anecdotes are interesting and sometimes hilarious, but at times it can feel difficult to keep up with all the names, theatres and incidents that are described in detail and that are often unrelated to Joe’s life.

This is a minor quibble, however.  The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi is a fascinating biography, one that will appeal to fans of theatre history and comedy, and even just those interested in the history of London in general.

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, by Andrew McConnell Scott, Canongate Books

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A rather unusual eulogy on a gravestone in Fulham

The churchyard at All Saints, Fulham deserves an entire blogpost to itself - it's the resting place of many Bishops of London, in their elaborate tombs, and also contains many crumbling and wonderfully morbid 18th Century headstones decorated with skulls and hourglasses.  It's also the location for the scene in the classic horror film The Omen, where Patrick Troughton's priest is impaled by a lightning rod during a storm.

The grave of Isabella and Joseph Murr

However, whilst exploring this wonderful and incredibly interesting graveyard I came across a headstone that I felt deserved a little blog post of its own.  In many ways it is quite unremarkable - a tall headstone from the early nineteenth century, inscribed with the name of Isabella Murr, a local woman who died in 1829.  Her grieving husband Joseph provided a eulogy that was inscribed on the stone.

Ye who possess the greatest charms of life
A tender friend - a kind indulgent wife
Oh learn their worth! In her beneath this stone
These pleasing attributes together shone
Was not true happiness with them combin'd?
Ask the spoiled being she has left behind

We do not know when the "spoiled being", Joseph Murr, died - the only words on the bottom half of the gravestone are as follows:

Presumably Joseph, or whoever chose this inscription, had a sense of humour.  It's a rare thing to find in a graveyard, but I am sure that in the 200 years since this stone was placed here, this inscription has raised a few laughs. 

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Hill of Bones: the story of Bunhill Fields

Originally a stretch of open land to the north of the City of London, Bunhill Fields got its name from its use as a burial ground during the Saxon period and a macabre event that took place in the mid-sixteenth century.  Cartloads of bones from the charnel house at St Paul's Cathedral were transported out of the city and dumped in such large quantities that they formed a hill of bones, with a thin layer of soil covering the mound.  This "Bone Hill" was large enough to accomodate three windmills on top, which were presumably installed to make the most of the elevated ground.

The charnel house at St Paul's had been used since the 13th Century to store old bones disturbed by later burials.  During this period the concept of purgatory had become an official part of Church doctrine and it became acceptable to disinter human remains when no flesh remained on the skeleton, as it was believed that the soul only remained with the body as long as there was flesh on the bones (cremation was not authorised for Christians at this time).  This had a useful practical application as old graves could be reused for new burials, freeing up space in churchyards. The dry bones removed from old graves were then stored in charnel houses and this practice continued in Britain until the Reformation.  After the Reformation, the use of charnel houses was seen as Popish so most of them were demolished and their contents removed, which helps to explain why the human remains were removed from St Paul's and taken to Bunhill Fields.

In 1665, a century or so after the Bone Hill was created, Bunhill Fields was given authorisation to be used as a plague pit.  Thousands were dying of plague in London and the rural location of Bunhill Fields, only a short distance north of the city, made it an idea location for mass burials.  However, it is unclear whether the site was ever used as a plague pit.  It is also unclear what became of the bones from the charnel house of St Paul's.  The land passed into private hands in the 1660s and burials began in what was referred to as "Tindal's Burial Ground" after Mr Tindal, who had taken over the lease of the land.  As the burial ground was not associated with an Anglican church, it became popular with Nonconformists - those Christians who did not belong to the Church of England.  A separate burial ground for Quakers was also opened close to Bunhill Fields in 1661 - sadly today very little of it remains due to severe bomb damage during the Second World War.

Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries Bunhill Fields became the major burial ground for London's Nonconformists.  Robert Southey, a 19th century poet, described it as "the Campo Santo of the Dissenters" as so many influential Nonconformists and their families were laid to rest there.  Isaac Watts, a celebrated hymnwriter, is buried in Bunhill Fields, as is preacher and pamphleteer Richard Price, and Thomas Newcomen, a preacher and early developer of steam engines.  The mother of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, is also buried in Bunhill Fields, as is a grandson of Oliver Cromwell and the grandfather of JRR Tolkien.  The most prominent memorials today are of the famous literary figures of Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and William Blake.

Daniel Defoe (yep, two blog posts in the same week featuring the same bloke) is most famous for writing the novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but during a prolific career also produced a great deal of pamphlets and non-fiction as well as his famous, pioneering novels.  It is thought that when he died in 1731, Defoe was on the run from his creditors.  In 1870, the imposing obelisk memorial to Defoe (pictured above) was unveiled.  It was funded by an appeal in the weekly newspaper Christian World.

John Bunyan, author of the famous allegorical novel The Pilgrim's Progress, also has an impressive memorial at Bunhill Fields.  Bunyan was a popular preacher, and found himself imprisoned twice for illegally preaching in the years when it was still against the law to belong to a church other than the official Church of England.  The Pilgrim's Progress, which was probably written during his periods of imprisonment, was published in 1678 and has never been out of print since.  His impressive memorial, featuring a carved effigy of Bunyan and images representing scenes from The Pilgrim's Progress, dates from 1862.

William Blake was an artist and poet, who spent most of his life in London.  During his lifetime he was considered to be mad, but today he is regarded as one of Britain's greatest artists and poets, and his work continues to have a considerable influence on popular culture.  One of his most enduringly famous works is And did those feet in ancient time, which was adapted into the popular hymn "Jerusalem".  It is uncertain exactly where Blake's grave lies, as gravestones were moved around when the site was remodelled in the 1960s.  None were present when I visited Bunhill Fields to take photographs for this blog post, but Blake's grave is often adorned with trinkets and flowers left by his fans.

In 1853, Bunhill Fields was deemed to be full, having received around 120,000 burials since the 1660s.  Around this time, churchyards and older burial grounds were being closed and large, suburban cemeteries were being planned and laid out.  The last burial in Bunhill Fields took place in January 1854.

After the cemetery's closure, Bunhill Fields was designated as a public park and underwent some remodelling in the late 1860s.  Some memorials were removed and many were restored or relocated.  The main centre for Nonconformist burials shifted to Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, one of the new cemeteries that made up London's "Magnificent Seven".  Charles Reed, a directer of Abney Park, was also involved with the preservation of Bunhill Fields and its conversaion to a public garden.

Bunhill Fields as we see it today is a postwar creation - heavy bombing during the Second World War prompted major landscaping work and the northern part of the burial ground was cleared of its memorials, leaving a large grassy area lined with benches, which is popular with workers on their lunchbreaks.  The areas containing tightly packed gravestones were fenced off to protect the monuments, and many new trees were planted.  Today, the City of London Corporation is making effors to improve the biodiversity of the area by encouraging wildlife and wild flowers to thrive in the burial ground.  The peace and the abundance of plant and animal life make a contrast with the office blocks and busy roads nearby.

In 2011, Bunhill Fields was designated as a Grade I listed cemetery, affording it special protection.  In addition to this, 75 individual monuments are also Grade II listed, and Bunyan and Defoe's memorials are Grade II* listed.  Due to the large number of Nonconformist burials on the site, most of the gravestones are fairly plain and austere, and many of them have become worn and illegible over the years.  The gravestones are huddled much closer together in Bunhill Fields which gives it a different feel to big Victorian cemeteries such as Abney Park or Kensal Rise, which were intended from the beginning to serve as parks as well as burial grounds.  Bunhill Fields is quite a unique spot - and it is quite mind-boggling to think that 120,000 people are buried on such a small site.

Bunhill Fields is located between City Road and Bunhill Row in London EC1 (the nearest tube stations are Moorgate and Old Street), and it is open all year round.  Information about guided tours and access to the fenced-off areas can be found at http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/city-gardens/visitor-information/Pages/Bunhill-Fields.aspx

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Great Storm of 1703: Eyewitness accounts of the worst storm in England's history

On Monday 28th October 2013, much of southern England woke to howling winds, uprooted trees,  damaged buildings and transport chaos.  The St Jude storm (28th October is the feast day of St Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases) had been forecast, and warnings about its destructive nature widely distributed.  News programmes on the television showed the area of low pressure heading towards the UK, fire brigades used Twitter to give people advice on avoiding damage and loss during the storm, and the hashtag #ukstorm was born.  As the storm blew through and left a trail of fallen trees and damaged property in its wake, the internet buzzed with pictures of damage, eyewitness accounts and updates on travel disruption.  A number of people were tragically killed in England and mainland Europe and parts of the transport network were brought to a near standstill.

BBC News homepage, 28th October 2013, showing a wide range of multimedia coverage and analysis of the St Jude storm.
In 1703, the people of England did not have such sophisticated methods of forecasting bad weather or of quickly informing the general public of the danger they faced.  And the storm that first hit the British Isles on 24th November 1703 was quite possibly worst ever recorded on these shores, causing enormous death and destruction both on land and at sea - it was estimated that one fifth of the sailors in the Queen's Navy were drowned in the storm.  The storm raged for about a week, reaching a ferocious peak on the night of the 28th/29th November, demolishing buildings, uprooting trees and sinking ships.  Thousands of people died and the Eddystone Lighthouse was swept away. Unsurpringly, in the aftermath of the storm a number of special newspapers and publications appeared carrying information and eyewitness accounts of the storm, making the disaster "national news" in a way that we would recognise today.

The most famous piece of work dealing with the storm - described as "the first substantial work of modern journalism" (source) - was The Storm by Daniel Defoe.  Today, Defoe is most famous for his fictional creation, Robinson Crusoe, but during his lifetime he was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction.  The Storm, published in the summer of 1704, was compiled with the help of the eyewitness accounts of members of the public - an early attempt at crowdsourcing, one could argue.  In the immediate aftermath of the storm Defoe placed advertisements asking for people to send him reports of the storm from their local area.  Around sixty of the accounts Defoe received were subsequently incorporated into the book - providing us with a unique insight into this natural disaster.

Defoe had witnessed the effects of the storm in London and the surrounding area, but later chapters reproduced letters from members of the public describing the destruction and extraordinary events in their own areas.  Interestingly, a large number of the letters Defoe chose to print were from clergymen or other individuals closely connected with the Church - perhaps the reasoning behind this was that such people were seen to be trustworthy and truthful in their accounts of the storm.

Three gentlemen in Stowmarket, Suffolk, describe in meticulous detail the fine church spire that had been destroyed by the storm, noting its impressive proportions before its destruction and providing an equally detailed description of the damage it sustained.  Mr Joseph Ralton describes what appears to be a tornado, a "spout" in the air, in Berkshire, and mentions the discovery of a man believed to have been "knocked down" by the spout and injured.  Other accounts describe the loss of orchards, crops and livestock - all of which must have had a terrible impact on the affected communities.

The St Jude storm of 2013 has been dubbed "Stormageddon" by some on the internet, mostly due to the level of coverage it received, but this moniker might have been better suited to the events of 1703.  An undertone of supersition and fear of God's judgement runs through many of the accounts, and indeed Defoe chose to include the following quote from the Book of Nahum on the front page of The Storm: "The Lord hath his way in the Whirlwind, and in the Storm, and the Clouds are the dust of his Feet."  Phrases such as "it pleased God to preserve her" are common both in the letters and in Defoe's prose.

However, Defoe also went to great lengths to research possible explanations for the storm - the eighteenth centry did, after all, usher in the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rational and scientific thought above religion and superstition.  Defoe's work does not succeed in separating religious explanations from scientific ones, but is more an attempt to figure out why and how God would create such a tempest.  The first two chapters of The Storm attempt to explain how storms form, with quotes from "philosophers" (as scientists were then referred to), with an emphasis on previous research that attempted to explain why the British Isles were particularly prone to violent storms.

Defoe's conclusion is ultimately religious in tone, rather than scientific.  "From this I draw only this conclusion, that the winds are a part of the works of God by nature, in which he has been pleased to communicate less of demonstration to us than in other cases; that the particulars more directly lead us to speculations, and refer us to infinite power more than the other parts of nature does."  Although barometers for measuring atmospheric pressure existed at this time - Defoe himself owned one and refers to it in The Storm - science had not yet been able to provide a full explanation of why and how such a powerful and destructive storm had formed.   In the absence of such knowledge, it is understandable that the storm was described as an act of God rather than a meteorological event.

Another written source of eyewitness accounts, An Exact Relation of the Late Dreadful Tempest, was printed in London in 1704 and was "Faithfully collected by an Ingenious Hand, to preserve the Memory of so Terrible a Judgment."  Unlike Defoe's work, this publication does not name its sources (even the author is anonymous), and it is possible that it may have been compiled from earlier news sheets printed in the more immediate aftermath of the storm.  It provides a particularly detailed - and often gruesome - account of the damage wrought in London during the storm, using dramatic language and making frequent references to the wrath of God.  It is a wonderful example of early sensational journalism.

"It was observed by several, that it was mixt with Lightning; and the extraordinary Rumbling, and Noise which was heard in the Air, with the violent Blasts, and Gusts of Wind, resembled the fall and rushing down of Waters with great Impetuosity."

The dramatic escape of Queen Anne and members of her household is recounted, along with a detailed description of the damage to St James' Palace and other buildings around St James' Park, Whitehall and Westminster.  Part of the Tower of London, "which had been very remarkable ever since the Days of King William II", was blown down.  Several hundred boats were damaged, sunk or blown ashore in the area around the Pool of London ( the area immediately downstream from London Bridge), with many people being drowned.

Many Londoners were killed in the storm - from this account it appears that collapsing chimneys and walls were the most common cause of death and serious injury.  Mr Mias, a distiller living near Piccadilly, and his maidservant were killed by a falling chimney, as were two boys sheltering near Hatton Garden.  A number of other people, including a priest and his wife, narrowly escaped the same fate.

Also included is a disturbing account of an infant crushed by a falling chimney while its parents, only a yard or so away, watched in horror.  "From hence we may observe, That even Innocency, in a general Calamity, suffers with the Guilty; and the poor Babe is destroyed by Stroke of Divine Vengeance, whilst the sinful Parents are permitted to stretch out their Lives to a longer Date."  Such comments reinforced the belief that the storm was an act of God.

Not all of the incidents are quite so harrowing, though.  "An Accident, worthy of remembrance, happened to one Mr. Hempson, lying next the Roof in Bell-Savage Inn, near Ludgate-hill; the same being blown down, he was carried to the Ground without any hurt; and, as he declares, knew nothing of the Storm, till he found himself lying on his Bed in the open Street. How extraordinary an Accident was this! And how ought that Gentleman to contemplate and weigh with himself the eminent Danger the Hand of Heaven has preserved him from, when nothing but Death was to be expected!"

These documents provide a valuable insight not just into the events of the storm itself, but also into the fears and superstitions of the people affected by the disaster, and how they attempted to explain such a horrific event, adding a fascinating social history angle to one of the worst natural disasters ever to befall the British Isles.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

The lonesome grave of a travelling labourer

As a native of Lancashire, I returned to my hometown of Preston to visit my family at Christmas, and on a bright Sunday morning I visited the nearby village of Ribchester, probably best known as an old Roman fort.  I often visited this place as a child, as there was (and still is) an excellent children's playground there.  We would also inevitably visit the ruins of the Roman bath house, which were not fenced off and to a small child presented an exciting labyrinth of tumbled stones and low walls to clamber over.  In Roman times, Ribchester was called Bremetenacum Veteranorum - a possible translation of this is "the hilltop settlement of the veterans."  Some ruins of the fort, including the bath house and granaries, can still be seen today, and many buildings in the village have reused Roman stones and columns.

Ruins of Ribchester's Roman granaries, close to the church of St Wilfrid
Ribchester is home to the church of St Wilfrid, an ancient church believed to have been founded by St Wilfrid himself in the 7th Century.  St Wilfrid, Bishop of Ripon and Archbishop of York, travelled extensively across the north of England, founding churches and monasteries.  It is possible that a church already existed when St Wilfrid came to Ribchester, but it is thought that St Wilfrid founded the first stone church on the site.  This building was subsquently improved and enlarged between the 11th and 16th centuries.

St Wilfrid's is surrounded by a large churchyard, which contains a number of gravestones surviving from pre-Victorian times.  It was while exploring and photographing this churchyard, making the most of the beautiful winter sunlight, that I came across an old headstone standing apart from the others.

At first glimpse, it's a fairly ordinary 18th Century headstone.  However, when I crouched down to dechiper the inscription, I found that it told rather a sad and poignant story.

Here lieth the body of
Thos. Greenwod who
died May 24 1776
In ye 52 year of his age
Honest, industrious
seeming still content
Nor did repine(?) at what
he underwent
His transient life was 
with hard labour fill'd
And working in a
makle(?)pit was kill'd.

So, who was this man?  Parish records show that a "Thos. Greenwood" of Dilworth (a nearby township, now part of the village of Longridge) was buried at St Wilfrid's on 26th May 1776.  Parish records show a Thomas Greenwood, son of another Thomas Greenwood, was baptised in Colne - close to Pendle Hill on the other side of the Ribble Valley - on 13th September 1724.  There is no way of telling if this is the same Thomas Greenwood as the one buried at Ribchester but the dates of the records seem to match up fairly well, if we assume that "in ye 52 year of his age" means that Thomas was 51 when he died.

Records show that Greenwood was a common name in the Ribchester area at the time of Thomas' death, so it is possible that Thomas had relatives in the parish of St Wilfrid's.  As an itinerant worker it is unlikely that Thomas was a wealthy man, so it is likely that his headstone was paid for by others, perhaps relatives or friends from Ribchester.  Certainly the little rhyme on his headstone suggests that he was held in some regard, the eulogy painting him as a noble, tragic figure.

The nature of Thomas' death seems clear - he died in what we'd now call a workplace accident.  But where was he working?  The word on the bottom line of the gravestone is unfamiliar - M-A(?)-T/K-L-E pit.  "Pit" is a good place to start.  There is a long history of quarrying in the Ribble Valley and East Lancashire - in the nineteenth century stone was quarried in large amounts at Longridge Fell, with Longridge stone being used to build - amongst others - the docks at Liverpool and town halls in Preston and Lancaster.  Quarrying also took place in Clitheroe and Rossendale, and at other sites further afield in Lancashire.  Perhaps the mysterious pit where Thomas met his death was some kind of quarry.  If he lived at Dilworth at the time of his death he may have been working on nearby Longridge Fell.

The "transient life with hard labour fill'd" that Thomas led is another pointer that could suggest that some of his work at least involved quarrying.  Before the Industrial Revolution quarrying in Lancashire was carried out on a relatively small scale, with most stone being quarried to meet local demand.  This "on-demand" feature of quarrying would probably have created a situation where quarry workers would travel around the area, moving to where the work was and moving on when a job was finished.  Was this how Thomas lived his life, moving between quarrying jobs in rural Lancashire?

Another possiblilty is that Thomas was a miner - another tough, physical occupation.  The ambiguous word on the gravestone may be an old spelling of metal.  Lead mining took place in East Lancashire in the 18th Century, on a small scale (source).  It was never particularly succcessful.  Perhaps Thomas was involved in one of those ventures, and died in a mining accident.

All of this is speculation, of course. How much can we really know about a person, when scant records only tell us when they were baptised and when they were buried?  It is possible that no other written records of Thomas Greenwood exist or survive.  The only thing we know definite is the record of his burial at St Wilfrid's.  The Thomas Greenwood baptised in Colne in 1724 may have been someone else altogether - we just don't know.

Interestingly this is one of the few older gravestones that remains in the churchyard.  If at some point  old gravestones were removed (this is likely, as old graves were often reused), it's possible that Thomas' gravestone was kept because of its poignant, rhyming eulogy.  The older part of the churchyard, seen behind Thomas' grave in the photograph above, has few gravestones compared to the Victorian and later sections.

It's humbling to think that if this headstone with its rhyming eulogy had never been created, or had been disposed of, Thomas Greenwood would be completely forgotten, anonymous bones in an unmarked grave.  Research and speculation paints a vague but poignant story of a hard life and a sad death.  The presence of the gravestone points to the likelihood that someone cared enough about Thomas to erect a memorial and write a eulogy.  The continued existence of the gravestone suggests that at some stage, someone might have been moved enough by the story it told to leave it in place.

An ordinary gravestone: the stories it can tell, or inspire.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

"The largest and oldest museum in Reykjavik" - Hólavallagarður cemetery

A number of posts I've written for this blog so far have focused on graveyards, particularly the grand Victorian graveyards of London (at the time of writing, I have photographs of Highgate, Brompton and Kensal Green cemeteries waiting to have blog posts written around them).  However, the graveyard featured in this post lies 1,000 miles from London, on a quiet hillside in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

Unlike Britain, Iceland has no long history of cities as we would recognise them.  Settled by the Vikings in the late 9th Century, Iceland has always had a small population (today it is around 300,000) and settlements tended to be small.  Reykjavik has long been settled - today, one can visit the remains of a 10th Century longhouse discovered during demolition works in the 20th Century - but it only began life as a town in the mid-18th Century.  The oldest buildings in the city are on Aðalstræti ("main street"), close to where the Viking longhouse is situated. 

It was close to Aðalstræti that Reykjavik's main graveyard was situated for around 800 years.  Now a slightly gloomy paved square surrounded by hotels, museums and coffee shops, this ancient burial ground was called Víkurgarður.  It is thought that a church was situated in this area since around the year 1000, when the Icelandic people converted to Christianity.

In 1838, however, the tiny burial ground at Víkurgarður was closed and a new, larger burial ground at nearby Suðurgata was consecrated, called Hólavallagarður. The Icelandic people had an interesting tradition around burial grounds - there was a folk belief that the first person to be buried in a graveyard would not rot, but would become the graveyard's "guardian", watching over the people subsequently buried there.  At Hólavallagarður this "guardian" is Guðrún Oddsdóttir, wife of a local magistrate.

The view from Hólavallagarður - the grey spire is that of Hallgrimskirkja

The name "Hólavallagarður" simply means "garden on a hill" - the photograph above shows the view over the city from the cemetery.  The first time I came across this cemetery was on my first full day in Reykjavik, whilst walking out of the city centre towards the National Museum of Iceland.  It was a damp, gloomy November day and there was no-one else around.  I visited again a few days later, after the snow had fallen, on an equally quiet and peaceful day (although it was a great deal colder!).

There are many trees in Hólavallagarður

My initial impression of Hólavallagarður was of a rather dark, heavily forested space.  The many trees in the graveyard, mostly birch and rowan, were planted in the early 20th Century.  They give the graveyard a natural - if slightly claustrophobic - feel, and I imagine that on a sunny day in spring or summer Hólavallagarður looks and smells completely alive despite the condition of its residents.  The trees also make Hólavallagarður rather distinctive, as trees are not a particularly commonn sight in Iceland, particularly outside of Reykjavik.  Iceland was once heavily forested, but deforestation and soil erosion caused by human activity after settlement in the 9th Century means that only a tiny percentage of the country is now forested.

Hólavallagarður's plots had all been bought by 1932, although many graves date from much later than this.  It struck me whilst exploring the cemetery how untouched by war and vandalism it is - in London's big cemeteries one sees signs everywhere of decay, vandalism, and the scars of Second World War air raids and ill thought out "modernisation" schemes by councils after the original cemetery companies sold up.  In contrast, Hólavallagarður was well-kept and clean.  The metal railings surrounding gravestones had not been stolen for scrap metal or for making weapons during wartime.  It looked as though it has never been neglected.  Dozens of redwings hopped and flew between the headstones and trees, shy birds that took off every time I pointed my camera in their direction.

Having spent a great deal of time exploring and photographing Victorian cemeteries and graves in London, I spotted some symbols and fashions similar to those popular in Victorian Britain.  The grave pictured below shows an upturned, extinguished torch, a common signifier of death in 19th Century funerary imagery.  This particular grave could also be a "broken column" grave, signifying that the man buried there was the head of the family.

The graves at Hólavallagarður are less grand, less ostenatious than some of those from the same period in Britain.  This may partly be down to the fact that until relatively recently, Iceland was a poor country, only gaining its high standard of living after indpendence from Denmark in 1944.  The modest, simple graves have a quiet dignity about them.  Some of them, such as the one pictured below, reflect the green, organic nature of their surroundings.

As well as being home to many trees, Hólavallagarður is full of mosses and lichens.  The air in Reykjavik is incredibly clean, providing ideal conditions for lichens to grow.  Many of the graves are "fenced off" by stone walls or metal railings, leaving narrow, winding walkways covered in leaves and moss.  Even before the snow came I had to watch my footing as I walked between graves, mindful of how slippery it was under foot.

The livid green of the moss and the brightly coloured lichens lifted some of the gloom from this otherwise very grey, wintery space.

Uphill from the cemetery's main entrance stands an elegant little structure, a beautiful red and white bell tower.

As well as the numerous living birds flitting around the cemetery, Hólavallagarður also has many birds on its memorials.  On gravestones, birds can be interpreted as symbols of peace, or (particularly if they are doves) messengers from God.

Hólavallagarður is unique among cemeteries of a similar age - unlike other large urban cemeteries in Europe it has been untouched by war, vandalism and neglect, giving it a feel of peace and continuity not found in other 19th Century cemeteries.  Art historian Björn Th. Björnsson has described it as "the largest and oldest museum in Reykjavik", a place where "a living exhibition and history opens itself to anyone who can read the hand of the sculptor and discern from symbols and types of font the thoughts and deeds of the dead."  Reykjavik is a wonderful place to visit, and Hólavallagarður is a lovely, peaceful spot to while away a couple of hours wandering around the old graves.

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