WhenI was young, I used to make tombstones to hang on the Christmas tree.
A strange pinch-faced anxious child, they were my playthings. For me, death was part of life.
And so it was, this very afternoon, when I turned off the road to Pirbright in Surrey, England, into a veritable city of the dead.
I did this by accident. I was on my way to attempt to persuade the owner of the cemetery to let me take photographs. But I turned in too early and found myself in this deserted, and yet most crowded, of cities.
The London Necropolis.
It has passed into legend, yet not even my railway buff of a husband knew that the tall building outside Waterloo Station was used to provide a one-way ticket for coffins, away from The Big Smoke and into the countryside.
The station, situated near Westminster Bridge Road, was called London Necropolis Station. This is its second incarnation; its first was demolished for redevelopment at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Necropolis, for those not versed in Greek, means City Of The Dead. And when London’s dead became too much for it, not only were seven huge cemeteries opened up on the outskirts of London, but the deceased were also offered the chance to commute to Surrey as their final resting place.
It was a pragmatic scheme. The London Necropolis And National Mausoleum Company was formed in 1849: the first train running the 25 miles out to Brookwood Cemetery left on November 13th 1854. The allocation of land was vast. Five hundred acres were landscaped, but 2,200 acres of heathland were purchased from Lord Onslow.
Mourners would purchase tickets for themselves; and one for the coffin.
Trains ran once a day when funerals were scheduled to take place, bringing deceased and mourners down the London and South Western Railway line until it reached Brookwood, a small village in Surrey.
And then, extraordinarily, the train would continue on its own line, to two more stations, situated in the cemetery, specifically for the dead and their attendants.
South Station served the Anglican community and its chapel: North Station, the non-conformists.
It has never ceased serving the city, though the tracks were taken up between 1947-8.
I don’t think anything can prepare you for this place. For unlike Highgate and Kensal Green and the bustling London cemeteries, not a living soul stirred here in this Metroland for the dead on a Tuesday afternoon.
I steered the old merc down lush emerald tombstone-lined avenues filled with mature trees, through impossibly green English glades bathed in dappled sunlight, past guiding angels, tiny mausoleums and great standing crosses and classical monuments, inscribed in a veritable Babel of languages. It had the eclectic baggage of so many world views living close to each other. Latvian, Serbian, Ismaeli, military, civilian. St Alban’s, Holborn has a section all its own for parishioners, to this day.
All human death was there.
The London Necropolis possesses a peace close to stasis: the grass was clipped and the roads neatly labelled. And not a living soul in sight.
It has been designed as a series of vistas; views one could glimpse and take comfort in, from beneath the black gauze of one’s mourning garb.It was serene, and it was unsettling. Undercurrents and eddies were everywhere though not a blade of grass moved.
But it is a working cemetery, and working cemeteries must be discreet. Not only was I unable to take photographs, but I could not even walk through the London Necropolis Graveyard in case my finger inadvertently slipped in the vicinity of the shutter.
I got in the car.
And like Orpheus: I resolved not to look back.
While the internet makes it difficult to tell, I suspect I owe much of this information to author John M Clarke, who has spent decades researching and writing on Brookwood Cemetery and the London Metropolis Railway. You can buy his books through the cemetery website here.