At Bunhill Fields
“After five hundred and forty-two stories, it is my pleasure to welcome Sarah Winman to take over for a week in celebration of the publication of her debut novel When God was a Rabbit on Thursday 3rd March. Sarah is an outstanding new talent in British fiction, and I can happily recommend her writing to you in the knowledge that you are in safe hands until my return on Monday 7th March” – the Gentle Author
As I walk through the familiar black metal gates, the moss on the headstones looks vivid green in the dull, wet gloom of February light. The sodden earth, fragrant and rich, is punctuated by thick clusters of daffodil stems – that precious moment when spring meets at the boundary of winter, the moment when we sigh, knowing the worst has passed, the short days have passed, and we, like nature, head towards the light.
I have always come to Bunhill Fields, since my early days of living in the City of London. But about three years ago I made a pact to come here every day for a year – my antidote to my father’s rampaging illness and those days spent on hospital wards – my need to understand the cyclical nature of life. And walking through these black iron gates, the markers of lives and stories past on either side, I breathe in the constancy and honesty of nature.
Over that year, I watched this small space adapt and change with the seasons. I went sometimes simply to listen out for the delicate drilling of a woodpecker. I watched the fig tree, once energised by encroaching spring and gloriously laden in the sweetness of summer, wilt heavily as autumn whispered across its branches, as its leaves drooped like shoulders, before falling to a frosty floor. I noted the multiple textures of light – the late evening buttery light of a summer day, the metallic light of a frost-covered morning, when my misted breath led me over to the graves of Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, and to the uniquely cherished grave of William Blake, where trinkets and offerings and earrings and flowers lay beside, in front of, and on top – all in tribute and memory to a poet, artist and visionary, a man who continues to touch lives, and never more so than in this great City of ours.
“To see the world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour – This is what sums up Blake for me,” says Tom the Gardener, as he joins me on a bench for a quiet chat.
Tom has worked in Bunhill Fields for the last ten years, and he talks about the environment with passion, pride and wit – qualities all the best Irish storytellers share.
“You know this is supposed to be the most haunted graveyard in London. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I know people who have. Lots of women with big hats suddenly emerging,” he says, wryly smiling. “I love this place. I love the peace and tranquillity and because I am surrounded by history. I know it’s a graveyard but it’s all about people and their stories. All these histories add to what little knowledge we have.
The graves here are very simple, as you can see. Nonconformists are buried here so the stones are not really elaborate. These men and women were free thinkers, radical thinkers, seeking liberty away from church and government. Look over there,” says Tom, “the grave of Thomas Bayes. Statisticians from all over the world come to the grave to honour the man’s theories of probability.
Bunhill – Bonehill – This place is also known as God’s Acre because of the amount of preachers buried here. Lots of Americans make a pilgrimage here – Wesleyans, Baptists, Methodists. They all try and convert me!”
We wander through the stones. We pass thick layers of moss blanketing tombs like table cloths, and fox dens dug deep by the sides, their entrances curtained by hanging roots and an occasional spider’s web.
“I find lots of clay pipes in the dirt the foxes excavate, oysters too: the poor man’s food. I haven’t found anything Anglo Saxon yet. One day,” he says, with a glint in his eye.
“One of my favourite graves is over here – the grave of Thomas Miller – it has carved cherubs and skulls, and the face of the cherub really stands out” And as we approach, I can see that it does – the face peers through the dingy gloom like the serene face of a child, and I wonder if a moment like this has enhanced imagination and brought the realm of improbable into the realm of the real.
“The skulls too have an eerie feel,” continues Tom. “Skulls in the early eighteenth century were the symbol of mortality. This is another favourite,” he says, and leads me over to a grey slate stone – that of the departed Wheatlys from Ave Maria Lane – a carved tale featuring a globe, a cross, an anchor, and the words ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “People lived with death all the time then, early death, children’s deaths, they walked hand in hand with it. There was an acceptance of it. Not like today. We’re so scared of it,” he says, and his voice trails off into the fading light.
And we sit silently once again, as the City stills. There is no hush of breeze to stir the bare branches of the old plane trees, so self-consciously naked. And I look over the lawn as tufts of newly-seeded grass take hold, and the crocuses erupt in shuddering yellows and mauves: new life amidst this gentle setting of earthly departure, and I feel all is well. And all is just so.
A squirrel poses by a puddle before taking a drink. The sound of a faint siren draws us back to the present. Tom leans over towards me.
“Apparently Churchill came here during the war. A bomb had dropped just over there and the trees were on fire and he was fighting the flames with his hat…”
The stories continue.
Tom the Gardener.
Upon the wall in Tom’s hut.
The fox den under a tomb.
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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