Sunday, 22 May 2016

Mommy, what's a FONCadelic?

Man, I love the Nunhead Cemetery Open Day. What a great idea. A day out in a cemetery with live music, ice cream vans, and a bit of a history thrown in. Cemeteries aren't morbid. Well, literally they are. But in common parlance they're not. They're a shining example of humanity's altruism. What could be more altruistic than caring for a dead person? You know you can't get anything back. Good on you, people. You're alright.

Nunhead Cemetery itself is a short walk from my house. It's one of the 'magnificent seven'. The others are West Norwood, Tower Hamlets, Brompton, Abney Park, Kensal Green, and the most famous Highgate. They were built in Victorian times to alleviate overcrowding in the City of London.

The architect of Highgate was the fabulously named James Bunstone Bunning. His work proved so popular he was employed at Nunhead too. He did a good job. So much so that every year in May the FONC (Friends Of Nunhead Cemetery - who seem to enjoy a friendly rivalry with their Highgate brethren) put on one of these open days. If I can get down there I do.

The history lesson starts at the cemetery gates. There you'll see an upturned torch. The flame extinguished to represent a life cut short. The Victorians were big on this sort of symbolism and there's a stall inside the cemetery itself that explains it all for you.

I, fortuitously, arrived just in time for the tour. Led by a prominent member of FONC we strolled down avenues of buddleia, walnut, and beech. We saw damaged graves. Not damaged by vandalism but by World War II bombs. The Nazis weren't bombing graveyards. They were evil, not stupid. The destruction was caused either by missing the target, which would've been the nearby dockyards, or offloading unused bombs on their return.

Holding firm with the military theme we were shown a plot for 289 dead servicemen. FONC had pressured Southwark countil to provide this and had been successful. It was instructive, in these divisive times, to learn that all ranks were buried together. No hierarchy in the after-life, apparently.

Far more funding had gone in to the Commonwealth war graves. It seems our allies respect their war dead better than us. Most of the graves were those of Canadians but also represented were New Zealanders (including one Maori, see below), South Africans, and a sole Australian.

Next to this stands a monument to the boy scouts who died in the Leysdown tragedy. A group were taken from the inner city on a boat trip down the Thames but perished in a violent storm off the coast of Sheppey. Giles Gilbert Scott, more famous for Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station, and the iconic red telephone box, provided a monument for them. The cemetery fell into disrepair. The memorial more so. Eventually FONC stumped up for a new one. Have a look at it below and note the first child. An ancestor of a very famous footballer indeed. I think you can probably work out who.

We then visited the plots of a few Nunhead notables. Bryan Donkin found his fortune inventing a system for canning food so sailors wouldn't have to survive on dog biscuits. He was a friend of both Babbage and Brunel and one of several engineers buried here.

The two graves you see below belong to Vincent Figgins (foreground) and John Allan (background). Figgins was a typefacer from Peckham Rye. Typefacing was hard work in the old days. You didn't just click on a mouse but spent hours, days, sweating over it. He's buried with his son who died in Nice when Nice was still in Italy. John Allan's is the biggest grave in the entire cemetery. The show off was a ship owner from Whitby who moved to St.John's in Lewisham. It's modelled on the Payava tomb in Xanthos. Whatever that is.

Our guide, Ron, got most animated when waxing lyrical about the artistry behind the shaking hands engraved on the Mullins family monument. It's debatable if they represent a goodbye or a reunion. It's not in question that they're rather touching. Ron and the FONC have, so far unfruitfully, been canvassing heritage societies to get this grave listed.

Nearby stands another notable plot. A romanesque terracotta mausoleum to the Doulton family of Lambeth who later moved to Stoke-on-Trent and found even more notoriety in the pottery business. You may even own one of their plates.

The tour finished and I wandered down past the amazing views of St.Paul's. I saw woodcraft demonstrations, bug hunts, log stacks, and beetle loggeries. I resisted the temptation to have my photo taken with either an owl or a hawk. The falcon was not available for snaps. Camera shy?

There was a campaign to save Peckham's multi-storey car park and, by extension, Frank's Campari bar. Surely one of the best, if not the best, spot in London to enjoy a sundowner. I hope they succeed.

Too early for Campari I took a milky, to the point of anaemic, tea and a strawberry jam scone. It was Alan Bennett enough as it was but if I hadn't been beaten to the last slice of sponge cake I'd probably be writing this in the voice of Thora Hird.

Ambling up to the Anglican chapel I passed stalls for Greenpeace, Family Search, Friends of Nunhead reservoir, Global Justice Now, Surrey badger protection society, the Salvation Army, Honor Oak Women's Institute, Camberwell Gardens Guild, and various other London cemeteries friends group.

All very worthy - in the best sense of the word. I barely had time to vote for The Lavender Hill Mob as the film to be shown on Peckham Rye this summer (good friends of mine lived on Lavender Hill, I'm biased) before joining a tree ID walk. A tree ID walk. Fucking hell. All my birthdays had come at once.

It didn't disappoint. The young studious guy running it was a font of arboreal knowledge. I wanted him to be my friend. I might even stalk him. He's bound to appreciate that tree based joke.

He's part of a group who focus on maintaining what's left of the Great North Wood. It used to spread from New Cross down to Croydon but now only parts of it are left. For reasons which, even if you've never been to London, are pretty obvious. I signed up to their mailing list so, hopefully, I'll be bending your ears about further London woodland adventures. Few people move to London for a sense of community but if you want it it's there.

The first tree we 'identified' was a lime. The leaves are hairless and heart-shaped. They're good for bees who, as we all know, have had a tough time of it lately. Apparently you can make 'calming' tea from the leaves. It was very popular during the war. Not popular enough.

The London plane was a nobbly old bastard. A hybrid, like the lime, it was imported from Spain in the sixteenth century. The popularity in London is due to its resistance to pollution. It not only remains disaffected by it but also sucks it up and saves other trees in the bargain. Taking one for the team there.

I found out many things I didn't know before but best of all was that some trees are gendered. Holly trees can be sexually identified as easily as a horny dog. The females produce the red berries and the males the prickly leaves and the pollen. Which is tree spunk basically. The way they grow is good for both birds and moths. That's because they're one of a handful of native evergreens and provide cover for the little woodland wallies.

Spotted laurel is more problematic (well, we've all had problems with that). It shades out the ground flora and, worse still, you can't make tea from it because it's got cyanide in its leaves.Very much the bad guy of the whole tree scene!

Whilst on leaves, ashes are damned confusing. Their leaves consist of what look like several leaves. Individually they're known as leaflets. They're in the same family as olives and their wood was used to make spears. Possibly because the Latin name, Fraxinus excelsior, is so blimmin' cool.

We rushed past maples, plums (or damsels, your choice), cow parsley (loads of it, compound leafed like aforementioned ash), and snowberry. We stopped for a while at the turkey oak. Its lobes more sawtoothed than its English brother. It was originally imported from central Europe and debate rages amongst tree huggers as to whether or not it would've reached here under its own steam anyway.

The trees were coming thick and fast now. Hello hawthorn. Chin up cherry laurel. Nice to meet you Norway maple. High five to the hollyoak. Let's ponder, briefly, the elder though. The sambucus nigra. Used, as its Latin name suggests, to make sambuca. I had to get the fuck out of that place but not before learning it's also used to make wine and to stiff up Harry Potter's wand. Dirty little wizard. Folklorically, you can burn elder to either summon the devil or protect you from him. I just get Daniel Radcliffe to stand on my balcony and shake his wand. Seems to work. Not had a devil round in the last two years.

Our guide, who wasn't making anywhere near as many smutty jokes as I am, showed us a veteran oak. Oaks and hornbeams (with their sinewy barks) made up the bulk of the Great North Wood. Caterpillars feed on them and then tits feed on the caterpillars (or moths, same thing).

The last tree was the humble horse chestnut. I never knew they'd been introduced from the Balkans.

My conkers were well and truly marinated so, pausing to take a photo of the tempting tome below, I eschewed ubiquitous ukuleles in the rainy chapel and popped to the pub. Crystal Palace were in their first cup final for 26 years and I wasn't missing that.

I'll be back in Nunhead Cemetery one day. Maybe permanently.


  1. I was at the open day as well. Never seen so many living people there. It's usually mostly empty when I go (which I sort of like). My photos are here if you want a look

  2. Oops. Only just seen this comment. Link doesn't seem to be working at the moment but thanks for writing and I hope you enjoyed the open day.