You might think a funeral director visiting a cemetery is a bit of a busman’s holiday.
But spending the afternoon in Tunbridge Wells Cemetery turned out to be both an education and really enjoyable. After a morning of violent storms, with my wellies safely tucked in the car boot, I took myself off to the borough cemetery.
For once, I wasn’t there to carry out a funeral. I was visiting an exhibition and the launch of the newly formed ‘Friends of Tunbridge Wells Cemetery at Hawkenbury’ Yes, it’s a bit of a mouthful – but there’s another, now disused, cemetery in Tunbridge Wells, which also has a Friends group.
So, I hear you asking, why would a cemetery need friends? The easy answer is two words of which I’m particularly fond: history and conservation.
The cemetery at Hawkenbury, like many others across the UK, houses a wealth of wonderful Victorian memorials. Highgate Cemetery in north London is one of the best-known, with Karl Marx; Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park provides London’s most urban woodland in the East End, with the help of a thriving and committed Friends group.
The Victorians really knew how to do death. Their memorials were huge and elaborate. The bigger the memorial the greater, the standing in the community of the one now lying beneath.
It’s sad that over the years families have died out or moved away and the deceased is no longer in anyone’s living memory. With nobody left to take care of the grave, gradually the memorial becomes less and less stable until it’s toppled by cemetery staff as a health and safety hazard.
Many of these old cemeteries are littered with toppled crosses and fallen angels. Friends’ groups aim to record the memorials and preserve some of the better examples, together with those of notable worthies who made significant contributions to the town.
Hidden behind high hedges, I found myriad treasures: sculpted and natural. Victorian sculptural art is only one of them. This little corner of Tunbridge Wells is a haven for wildlife.
Despite numerous work-related visits over the last 30 years, I had no idea that within a few yards of the chapel I might find rare and precious examples of native flora.Some of the photographs of very rare and exotic- looking fungi were jaw dropping.
Now I’m going to make it my business to visit the cemetery when I can take a leisurely stroll and seek out some of these wonders. Maybe I will find an orchid or the fabulous pink mushroom.