The Great Necropolis

When people talk about London cemeteries, they always mention Highgate. They may well come up with Abney Park, too, or Bunhill Fields. But very often, they forget the best one of all.

Brookwood cemetery lies just to the south-west of London: close to Pirbright – home of the last foot and mouth outbreak, for those inclined to remember that sort of thing.

It was opened in 1854, consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester, and was known as the London Necropolis: at the time, it was the largest cemetery in the world. It may since have lost that title, but it remains the largest in the UK, and one of the biggest in Europe.

So important was it, and so large, that it even had its own railway, and two stations within the grounds (one for Non-Conformists, one for Anglicans). And just as the mourners travelled in class-segregated carriages, so too did the dead. Yes, they did. Should you choose to bury Great-Uncle Francis at Brookwood, you could board the train to the funeral safe in the knowledge that he would not – even in death – be rubbing coffin-nails with the hoi-polloi. They’d be safely stowed in Third Class. The trains ran from a special terminus at Waterloo – although as road traffic increased through the 1920s and 1930s, the trains ran less regularly, and the service was discontinued altogether after the terminus was hit by a bomb during the 1941 Blitz. It’s still there, of course – but the platforms, waiting rooms and mortuary (naturally) are long-gone.

Brookwood itself is a strange sort of place. It has several avenues of giant sequoia, and dotted among them – seemingly at random – are graves, mausolea, tombs, memorials… you name it. Everyone from Edward the Martyr to Dennis Wheatley can be found here, taking in the illustrator of Rupert the Bear and Edith Thompson along the way. It was also the initial resting place of Dodi Al Fayed, before his body was moved to the family estate.

Hidden away in all this, there’s a monastery: that’s where you’ll find the Brotherhood of St Edward, along with the small Orthodox church and shrine. I know this area of the cemetery well: it’s where my grandparents are buried.

It’s a peculiar place, Brookwood – even by graveyard standards. It has none of the cosmopolitan glamour of, say Père Lachaise, nor the gothic marvel of Highgate, with its Egyptian Walk or Circle of Lebanon. What it does have is peace, and a sense that to end up here might not be the very worst thing in the world.

Sure, you most likely won’t get to travel there in the style you once might have, but you can’t hold that against it. And in the meantime, if you’re ever in the area, you could do worse than to spend a drizzly winter Saturday afternoon taking a stroll in the grounds.

Look in on the family; tell them I sent you. Who knows – maybe they’ll give you a tour…..

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4 comments

  1. I went to film school in Fulham Broadway and used to film a lot in Bromyard cemetary. I’ve never been to Brookwood, but it looks awesome I shall take a trip next time I’m down. I’d like to see Wheatley’s grave.

    1. You’ll need a map! Interestingly, there have been reports of “evidence of rituals” held at Wheatley’s grave over the years. Rumour also has it that every Halloween there are figures in dark robes seen wandering round the site, and likewise, rumour is keen to connect the two…

  2. I’ve been to Brookwood, odd place. Part of it pristine, part gothic angels peering through young woodland, part newly prepared fields, part tumbledown mausoleums. There’s a nature reserve there too, and hordes of green woodpeckers, which seems appropriate, aren’t they meant to be psychpomps? Guides for the recently departed spirit? The place is worth a visit anyway.

    1. Absolutely. I’ve always thought it feels like cemeteries ought to feel – although maybe that’s at least in part because I’ve known it since I was 11. There’s something about the way you can just ramble around it, though: it’s very appealing. Last time I was there, I came across this enormous mausoleum dedicated to an entire family – several generations of them. The saddest thing was that it looked like only one of them was missing: he died in the trenches (I think) in WW1, and his body was never recovered.

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