“ The site of the Cemetery was, previously, a rather grand Georgian estate complete with stately house which has long since disappeared. At one time it was planned to build Bristol Zoo on the site. However, the Zoo was finally located in Clifton and the developers of the day chose the site for their Cemetery. Arnos Vale Cemetery was designed by a group of local architects in the style of a Greek Necropolis, using trees and plants noted in classical legend. Situated on a steep hillside, similar to a Greek amphitheatre, it was planned as an Arcadian landscape. Its terraces were not only visually attractive, but significantly innovative. The 45-acres site today is of considerable ecological importance, having progressed from mediaeval countryside through Georgian estate to Victorian Cemetery without the use of chemical pesticides or insecticides in any significant amounts. There is very little urban land in the British Isles which can match that claim. „
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Were anyone to suggest that a Sunday afternoon might be passed in the company of tens of thousands of dead people, Id probably not be overly enthusiastic about doing so. Nonetheless, in the face of a very hot weekend, and a need to do something other than sit indoors and moan, thats exactly what I did. And a wonderful, wonderful, hidden secret was mine to discover.
Arnos Vale Cemetery is located in Bristol, just off the A4 to Bath some three or four miles out of the city centre. Its easily spotted, with its large, majestic gateway entrance and its very accessible too. Buses run past very regularly in both directions and stop literally outside. Vehicular access is permitted and is free, but parking is fairly limited and if ever the place became busy, this would probably be a problem. Either side of the main entrance are two gatehouses, one of which is currently covered in scaffolding and plastic, as restoration work is underway / awaiting funding. The other gatehouse has been partly renovated and now houses a massive collection of books of remembrance, signed and tended by loved ones of the many inhabitants of the cemetery.
Arnos Vale Cemetery dates back to the 1800s and was once Bristols largest and busiest burial ground. Incredibly, in the early nineteenth century, cemeteries were extremely lucrative financially, with companies set up to cater for outbreaks of diseases such as cholera. The cemetery occupies a fantastic location, creeping backwards from the road, initially up a gentle incline and then upwards onto the steep incline that rises up the hill towards Totterdown. The hillside areas are densely wooded, with masses and masses of graves occupying positions of varying stability. The flat area towards the entrance is much tidier, and much more formal, with two gardens of remembrance a large war memorial and a number of grade 2 listed buildings in various states of disrepair. The entire site occupies a surface area of some 45 acres in total and its not until you actually start to explore the site that you realise how much lies behind that imposing gateway.
A group of local architects designed the cemetery in the style of a Greek necropolis, using both architecture and trees and plants to create the desired effect. As you make your way into the cemetery, the effect is staggering and quite unlike anything that you are likely to see elsewhere. Here on the outskirts of a bustling city centre is a hidden oasis of terraces, memorials and chapels that are reminiscent of the Greek countryside and yet here you are in the South West of England. The East Lodge (currently covered in protective scaffolding) is beautifully styled, with four impressive columns and could literally have come straight out of the Greek islands. The West chapel (used for some time as a crematorium) occupies an imposing position at the west corner of the site and has now been restored to provide facilities for refreshments, events and exhibitions. The East chapel is perhaps the most imposing structure, partly due to its elevated location, but also because of its impressive proportions and dominant bell tower. Even now, in a state of terrible disrepair, it is easy to imagine the building occupied with mourners as a grand funeral procession wound its way up to the main entrance.
Not surprisingly, the cemetery is full of history and secrets. Several famous people associated with the region were laid to rest here, and as you wander through the crypts and tombs local people will find many names that now rest on street signs or above building entrances. The cemetery is incredibly peaceful, in spite of its location along a fairly busy road, once inside, the outside world seems to drift away and its easy to become lost in quiet contemplation and thought. So many lives are remembered here and in such a respectful manner that its easy to become quite absorbed in the historical significance of what you might find round the next corner. The scale and beauty of many of the monuments is quite staggering, with intricate, ornate stonework and enormous, decorative items that would never be seen or recreated today. (A link from the Friends of Arnos Vale website provides a brief but quite fascinating insight into the meaning behind the many effigies used in such places and is well worth a browse before or after you visit the site.)
As you wander away from the gardens of remembrance, the trees start to provide a welcome shady retreat and a number of different footpaths guide you into the darker recesses of the site. Footpaths into the hillside are fairly steep, and in some places quite narrow, but children will love the labyrinths of steps, paths and places to hide as adults take a little more time to take in their surroundings. It is quite difficult to walk around the site without doubling back on yourself as there is no real tour or fixed route but I quite liked this. With few other visitors to rub shoulders with, it was quite nice simply to wander round and see whats what for myself. The site is recognised as a heaven for many rare species of plants, birds and flowers and regular nature tours are offered at the site for those with a passion for such things. Even to the layman (such as I) the geographical / ecological significance of the site is quite evident, as the vegetation rapidly changes with obvious differences in soil and elevation. In the middle of summer, the place is absolutely abundant with butterflies and wild flowers and the calm and tranquillity is quite intoxicating.
The tragedy of Arnos Vale is the terrible neglect suffered by parts of the site, evident to anyone game enough to explore the various nooks and crannies. Logistically, the concept of maintaining any kind of cemetery on such a steep hillside would always have been very difficult and the state of decay is often quite staggering. Huge crypts and monuments seem to be literally sliding down the hill. Those that have already fallen remain broken and overgrown with brambles and foliage. The sheer volume of graves is quite incredible and such are the changes in the landscape that some tombs have sunken, with only a glimpse of stonework to indicate what lies beneath. More shockingly, vandalism has also been an enormous problem on the site, with little / poor security and an abundance of local vandals to scrawl over the monuments and trash the graves. I simply cant acknowledge anyones ability to do such things. As a child I would have found such a place absolutely amazing to run around and hide in.
Worse still, are legal complications. As the site was initially owned privately, the owners were theoretically able to sell the site to developers and in 1987 the current owners planned to do just this. In 1998, with the loss of their cremation licence, they threatened to close the gates forever, a situation only avoided by a group of local people who agreed to open and close the gates to the public themselves. In 2003, after much wrangling, the local city council was finally able to make a compulsory purchase order, acquired the site and stopped any plans for redevelopment. The site is now tended by a group named The Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery, with various fund raising schemes in hand to help restore the site. An appearance on the BBC2 show Restoration raised public awareness and although the site did not win funding from the programme, in 2005 the site was awarded nearly £5 million of lottery money to help with the restoration programme.
Work is now underway in various parts of the site although not as exhaustively as I would have imagined for £5million but many parts of the site remain perilous. Sections of the hillside are fenced off and visitors are warned to pay heed to these signs. Clearly some of the stonework weighs an awful lot and you wouldnt want it to come crashing down on you. Yet, in spite of the sites problems, Arnos Vale remains very impressive indeed. We happily spent a couple of hours wandering round and anyone interested in local history, architecture or nature would easily do the same. Indeed, with tens of thousands of people buried or cremated here, its quite likely that many readers of this review will trace some of their descendants back to this resting place.
I thought that Arnos cemetery was glorious. In spite of the perception that such a place might be sad or to be avoided, I would actively encourage people to come to the site. Its so beautiful, so original, and so unusual that you just cant fail to fall in love with it. Arnos Vale is a true refuge from the modern world, and should be maintained and cherished so that many, many more generations can enjoy its many pleasures.