As part of the #SummerinBristol celebrations Keri was invited along to an Arnos Vale Cemetery Tour.
Regular readers will know I love a good walking tour. I usually book myself on one whenever I visit a new city for the first time, as it’s a great way to learn about its history and people.
I also feel strongly that it shouldn’t be considered morbid to take a stroll through a cemetery or graveyard. These places are so peaceful, and beautiful in their own right, with their wildflowers and ivy winding around elegant sculptures and statues designed to remember those who came before us.
Rather than shying away from such spots we should be bringing life to them by walking around and enjoying them – maybe even stopping in a sunny spot for lunch on a bench. This is a way to celebrate the lives of those buried there and help their stories live on, and I’ve not seen anywhere do this as well as Arnos Vale Cemetery.
This national heritage site can be found in the heart of Bristol, and is made up of 45 acres of Victorian garden and woodland. They welcome visitors with open arms, and the site even includes a lovely little café, which has become renowned for its amazing cakes. Buildings in the cemetery are used to hosts conferences, naming days, yoga and pilates classes and there’s a pretty spot for weddings. Yes, you can have your wedding in a cemetery!
Volunteers at the cemetery also offer a huge number of different tours, covering topics like ‘Marvellous Medicine’ and ‘Murder, Mayhem and Mystery’ through to ‘Morbid Curiosity and the ‘classic’ tour, which I recently went along to.
An Arnos Vale Cemetery tour
The cemetery was established in 1837, with the first burial in 1839, so our tour covered almost 200 years of history. Our guide, Alan, was brilliant; so passionate and knowledgeable about the cemetery and the people buried here. He was also hilarious, coming out with the funniest stories. For example, many of the graves can hold up to five family members and in some spots a wife is buried, then her husband – who had remarried – so his second wife later gets popped on top. He said they call this a husband sandwich!
I don’t want to give away too much of the tour, but I thought I’d tell you a little about some of the people we learnt about.
People that have stuck with me include Carmen Beckford MBE, one of the Windrush generation who made Bristol her home. I learnt that Carmen was known as the ‘Carnival Queen’ as she was one of the founders of the city’s now famous St Paul’s Carnival, and spent her life working hard to improve race relations in the city.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy
Then there was Raja Ram Mohan Roy who unsurprisingly has one of the most impressive memorials. The Raja played an important role in social reform in India, fighting to bring an end to child marriage and Sati. This is an old Hindu act of widows sacrificing themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands.
He came to the UK to fight for government to put through a reform bill outlawing these acts but unfortunately caught meningitis while in the UK and died. Originally he was buried in the garden of the small house he’d been living in, but when too many people began coming to pay their respects he was moved to Arnos Vale, where he was given this impressive mausoleum.
I loved finding out that every year, around the anniversary of his death a special commemoration takes place celebrating the Raja’s life. The Mayor of Bristol is joined by the UK’s Indian High Commissioner, and prayers are sang, wreaths laid and stories shared. I’d love to pop along and see this for myself.
Alan also likes to personalise the tours whenever he can and when he found out we lived near Chippenham he was eager to point out the grave of Roland Brotherhood, who spent much of his life in the town after helping his friend Isambard Kingdom Brunel build the Great Western Railway. Fun fact – he and his wife had 14 children and he loved cricket so much that he made up a family cricket team which would play other towns in the area!
The last lady that especially stuck with me was Jackie and her bench. Alan told me about a young lady that visited the cemetery one day with a terminal illness – she’d come to plan her own funeral. The thing was, she hated worms so didn’t want to end up in the ground. She decided to have a bench placed in the cemetery, hollow out the left leg and have her ashes popped in. Why the left leg? Well that’s the side she sleeps she said! Oh and the right side’s hollowed out so her husband can join her later.
She chose the sunniest spot in the cemetery and told staff to ask people to come and sit with her from time to time and have a chat as she always loved to talk. Bittersweet, but so lovely.
There really is so much to see and learn about at the cemetery, and some beautiful memorials that also deserve a mention. This includes the cemetery’s war memorial, but something that hit me more profoundly was the small and simple memorial to stillborn babies.
Alan told us that in the 50s, 60s and 70s some women would bring their stillborn babies to the cemetery. The groundskeeper would take them and bury them all together in his private garden as a sign of respect, giving the women somewhere to come and mourn their children, albeit unmarked. In recent years Sands – the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society – has put up a memorial on this spot, and it’s still a special spot that people come to today.
Sure, a cemetery can be a place of sadness and loss, but on my tour I also spent a lot of time intrigued, excited and happy. I laughed at some of the gruesome and shocking stories and admired the hard work that had gone into some of the most amazing tombs, mausoleums, memorials and stones.
Arnos Vale is a lovely place to visit and I’d highly recommend taking one of the many, many tours on offer! You can find out more about what’s happening throughout the year by visiting their events listing.
Have, or would you, take a cemetery tour? What are your thoughts on them?