We have all been on a lot of walks this year, strolling through parks and bowling along blustery beaches, but there is one kind of tranquil space on all our doorsteps that you may not have considered for a daytime amble.
Every town and city is peppered with burial places big and small, and even villages will have at least one carefully tended churchyard teeming with the sounds of nature and thrumming with the weight of history.
Yet many will be put off walking through the gates (particularly given the last dreadful year) assuming these burial grounds to be places of doom and depression, sadness lingering in the air above the mossy stones. But to dismiss cemeteries like this sells them far too short, and also strengthens the idea that death is something to be feared and shunned.
Actually, these resting places can be life-affirming. Take a short stroll among the headstones on a sunny day and the joy of nature will buzz, tweet and rustle at you from every angle. Untamed bulbs will burst through the grass, while trees watch on, steadily strengthening as the generations pass.
And then there are the graves themselves, the names, dates and epitaphs all hinting at the untold stories of those that lie there. In the hush of any cemetery you will be treated to a potted history lesson, the dates on the headstones standing as markers of past events such as world wars or local disasters. The names are also chronological clues, indicating the fashionable monikers of the day, some enduring through the generations, others belonging to the past.
Photo: Chris Arthur-Collins
Whether it’s in the famous sites in London, such as Highgate Cemetery (resting place of Karl Marx and George Eliot) or the simplest village churchyard, gatherings of graves are a treasure trove for those interested in history. You can find anyone from famous names to prominent local families, but it is often the tombs of the ordinary and unknown that hold the most fascination.
Above all, in our cemeteries you will find a precious kind of peace. That’s partly due to the absence of traffic, but it’s also because there is an air of reflection and respect, reminding walkers of the gift of life as well as the poignancy of death. Far from being somewhere to be avoided, perhaps these places can bring a special kind of comfort, especially in all the chaos of recent times.
Here are some of our favourite burial areas to take a stroll in, along with others which have been suggested to us. Please feel free to add your own in the comments below.
One of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ garden cemeteries of London, Abney Park in Stoke Newington is an urban wilderness. There is free public access to the park throughout the year so everyone can enjoy the oasis of peace and greenery with a fascinating history. A series of self-guided audio walking tours is available on their website covering diverse subjects such as Symbolism, Heritage and Wildlife, and Thoughts on Mourning.
Photo: Abney Park Website
The Graveyard of St Enodoc Church is the resting place of the poet laureate Sir John Betjeman. Situated above the stunning Daymer Bay beach in Trebetherick, Cornwall, this graveyard mixes history and tranquillity with an incredible location. Well worth a visit if you live nearby or are visiting Cornwall on holiday.
Photo: The Cornwall Guide
A calming space in busy East London, The City of London Cemetery is home to 500,000 graves including 1966 World Cup hero Bobby Moore, and has been a place of calm for many local residents during the past year of lockdown.
Photo: City of London Website
St Martha’s Church in Surrey offers stunning views across the Surrey Hills and, lying just off the North Downs Way near Guildford, it is criss-crossed by walking paths.
Photo: John Miller
Woodland burial sites can be deeply peaceful places to stroll. Granville's Wood, part of the wider Walton Wood in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, is accessible on foot at any time and is a wonderful haven for nature lovers. In late spring, it becomes carpeted with bluebells.
Photo: The Woodland Burial Co
In Glasgow, the 46-acre Sighthill Cemetery, which has panoramic views from its hilltop setting, is described as ‘calming and full of life’, by one visitor who has enjoyed watching deer dancing around the headstones.
Photo: Discover Glasgow
A note on etiquette: When walking through any cemetery or burial ground, keep to paths and avoid touching gravestones or standing on top of burial places. Keeps dogs on a lead (if they area allowed at all) and be respectful of those tending graves or mourning loved ones.