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BURRITOS & BURIAL GROUNDS
It never ceases to amaze me that some of the best and most interesting finds are those that are under your very nose. I had been working in the City of London for around two months and was yet to venture much beyond the triangle of train station, office and the various eateries that cater to the lunchtime office crowd. However, on my way to the local Tesco Express a chance encounter with a more tenured and adventurous colleague changed all that.
When I ran into him, he was contentedly clutching a massive-looking burrito wrapped in a small, blue plastic bag, and when I quizzed him on its origin, he enthusiastically gave me directions to Whitecross Market, the route to which intriguingly required me to "cut through the graveyard".
Following his well described cues, I soon found myself walking through the unexpected City oasis that is Bunhill Fields Burial Ground. It is, perhaps, a little strange to describe a graveyard as an "oasis" of any kind, but given that such leafy patches of greenery are few and far between in the concrete and steel City jungle, that's precisely what it is.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The area has been a burial site for over a thousand years and the name "Bunhill" is thought to derive from the rather morbid-sounding "Bone Hill". Apparently, cartloads of human remains were relocated here in the 16th Century after the charnel house at St Paul's Cathedral was cleared out to make room for new inhabitants.
Hmm. I am not selling this to you yet am I?
In any case, according to the official literature (which is available on-site) by the time the site officially closed for burials in 1854, over 120,000 people had been buried in its confines. Bunhill's future was secured as a protected site when Parliament declared it an "Open Space" for the use of the general public. It has since been maintained by the City of London, and, bizarrely, was accorded the status of a Grade II listed "building".
What makes Bunhill slightly more interesting than any old graveyard is that some of the most celebrated and famous Non-Conformists are buried there. For those not up on their church history, the Non-Conformists consisted of Protestant, non Church of England denominations (such as Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians) who, well, didn't conform.
They were a diverse bunch with a penchant for revolutionary and controversial ideas that didn't sit well with conservative types. Given that John Wesley's Chapel, which also houses the Museum of Methodism, is directly across City Road, I suppose it's hardly surprising that so many of them ended up at Bunhill.
Notable "residents" of Bunhill include 17th century preacher John Bunyan, author of "The Pilgrim's Progress", 18th century writer Daniel Defoe, who counts "Robinson Crusoe" and "Moll Flanders" amongst his more celebrated works, artist and poet William Blake, and a few minor scions of the Cromwell family.
As you pass through its imposing gates, the hustle and bustle of the City Road slowly fades behind you. It doesn't really make sense - it's not as if you are particularly far removed from the road, it's just that psychologically, finding yourself in the green-canopied interior, with dappled sunlight dancing across ancient stone in bright weather, your brain seems to shut out the cacophony of man made sounds beyond Bunhill's boundaries, replacing it with a palpable aura of calm and quiet.
Closely spaced, dark green painted iron railings hem you in to the paved central path that leads between City Road and Bunhill Row until you get to the "Gardener's Hut", where a cross walk offers options both left and right. The left side offers a small, open enclosure with a number of wooden benches, allowing visitors to keep the squat but impressive tomb of John Bunyan company while devouring their Pret a Manger sandwiches and Starbucks coffees. The tomb itself is relatively unremarkable, with a wrought iron railing around it and a worn stone effigy decorating the top.
Taking the right hand path will lead you to Defoe's monument - a grandiose obelisk -alongside which you will find the more modest marker indicating that Blake and his beloved wife lie somewhere in an unmarked grave nearby. Every time I have visited, this simple memorial has been, touchingly, decorated with flowers. Combined with the shade of a nearby tree, it gives this little corner of Bunhill a dignified and somewhat romantic air.
Beyond these two celebrated resting places is an open field, lined with benches, which make a perfect quiet spot for enjoying an outdoor lunch, a spot of reading, or rather more incongruously, a few choice tunes on your iPod. However, given the scarcity of grass in the area, you need to get there early on good weather days if you don't wish to slum it on a patch of grass.
It never gets loud in Bunhill, no matter how many people are about. Conversations are invariably hushed, there are, obviously, no ball games, and even sun worshippers tend to stay away, possibly in subconscious deference to the dead buried in their droves nearby, but more likely because the canopy of ancient trees filters out the strongest of the sun's rays, keeping the place cool and inviting, especially in the worst of the summer heat.
If you are entering or leaving by the City Road entrance, it's worth taking a moment to read the gold lettering carved into the stone pillars on either side of the gate and at various intervals between the fences - they provide a snapshot in time of Bunhill's history, having been erected and dedicated when the site was enclosed in the 19th century.
TOURS & WALKS
The majority of the graveyard is inaccessible for most of the day, cloistered away behind its fences, but those of a more curious bent can visit between 13:00 and 15:00 during the week, when an attendant is on hand at the Gardener's Hut to grant access. Visits outside of those hours are possible, but only by appointment (details below). You will find information boards at each of the entrances, providing a potted history and a map of where the most famous graves are located.
An information leaflet, map and tour details are readily available from a weatherproof Perspex holder at the Hut. If you prefer a chaperone, the City Guides provide a one-hour guided tour of Bunhill on Wednesdays at 12:30. It's a turn up and go service that costs £6 per person, but is only available between April and September - no advance booking is required.
Group tours are available on request (see details below). Incidentally, the graves are not the only "attraction" - Bunhill is a designated "Site of Importance for Nature Conservation" providing a much needed haven for local wildlife (especially birds) as well as a diverse spread of trees, flowers, mosses, ferns and lichens.
The main entrance is on City Road and is about an equidistant ten minute walk from both Old Street Station (Northern Line and Overground) and Liverpool Street Station (Central, Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City Lines, as well as a host of rail and bus services). As mentioned, John Wesley's Chapel is across the street, as is a Tesco Express, Starbucks, and an EAT coffee shop if you're feeling peckish.
There is no getting away from the fact that Bunhill is a graveyard - a nice atmospheric graveyard - but a graveyard nonetheless. What sets it apart is its location, its atmosphere, its "residents" and its palpable sense of history. Although its probably not worth a trip on its own, if you happen to be in the area and are looking for a nice quiet corner to rest your own weary bones, catch up on some reading, or enjoy some time away from the hustle and bustle, you could do far worse than Bunhill.
Bunhill Fields Burial Ground
City Road - Islington
Website here: http://tinyurl.com/deo5nd
Maintained by The City Gardens Office
65 London Wall
London EC2 5TU
Tel: 020 7374 4127
October to March
Weekdays from 7:30 to 16:00
Weekends and Bank Holidays from 9.30 to 16.00pm
April to September
Weekdays from 7.30 to 19:00
Weekends and Bank Holidays from 9.30 to 19:00pm
© Hishyeness 2010