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A Shadow Over Bunhill Fields

February 4, 2016
by the gentle author

The Sick Rose by William Blake

Last year, Islington Council rejected an application for an eleven storey development in City Rd that would overshadow Bunhill Fields, the seventeenth century Dissenters’ burial ground that is the last resting place of William Blake, Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and 120,000 other Londoners. The burial ground is a Grade I Registered Park & Garden of Special Historic Interest, and has seventy-five listed tombs within its boundary.

Subsequently, the Mayor of London called in the application to determine it himself at a hearing which takes place at City Hall this Monday 8th February. Disappointingly, Boris Johnson has decided all cases in favour of the developer over the past eight years, which makes next week’s outcome look predetermined. Read more about this case here

Novelist Sarah Winman & Photographer Patricia Niven visited Bunhill Fields to create this feature

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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At Bow Cemetery

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23 Responses leave one →
  1. February 4, 2016

    I can’t understand why Boris is allowed to continue in his office although he is evidently corrupt and ruled by greed. Why can nobody stop him? He is abusing his office and his power and wiping his feet on democracy. Thanks for the lovely photos of Bunhill Fields. Valerie

  2. February 4, 2016

    When will Boris be out of office?!

    Also, that little black pipe in the middle looks Elizabethan, the other two Victorian. Pipe bowls got bigger as tobacco got less rare and expensive. I read recently that at in their heydey there were 500 clay pipe makers in London.

  3. February 4, 2016

    Tom the gardener seems very likable. I hope he doesn’t have to spend his working days in the shade.
    Was watching Boris on the news last night. Doesn’t think Cameron’s deal on Europe has gone far enough. I imagine Boris would completely do away with any legislation, European or otherwise, that gets in the way of his urban and political plans. He plays the role of harmless buffoon with consumate ease but really he’s deadset on unrestrained free market planning to the detriment of culture, history and, perhaps worst of all, community.
    I once watched him on telly once singing the praises of patrician Roman senators. I fancy that is how he sees himself.

  4. Lori Newcomb permalink
    February 4, 2016

    I visited the Mayor’s website but did not see any avenue for public comment other than attending the Monday hearing. Readers, what can I, as an overseas lover of Bunhill Fields, do to help protest this insulting development?

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    February 4, 2016

    If (when) BoJo gives the go-ahead, that will screw the view from “The Artillery Arms” won’t it?
    Sat in there a few times, contemplating the green space opposite.
    The man’s a disgrace

  6. February 4, 2016

    Lovely post – thank you! Anything we can do ?

  7. February 4, 2016

    What a beautiful post. My silk-weaving ancestors are buried there.

  8. February 4, 2016

    As a writer I concur what has been written here. Thanks to Gentle author, Tom, Sarah and Patricia. Lovely seasonal delights, lots of powerful presence here. I would not like the site to be in a permanent shadow ‘so to speak’. I understand office workers bring their lunch here that’s nice for them. John

  9. Dianne Mitchell permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Please please don’t let this happen. Bunhill Fields is a beautiful, historic place. Whenever I visit London I go there to visit the graves of some of the most famous and beloved authors in the English language. How can these shadows be cast on the grave of Daniel Defoe?

  10. February 4, 2016

    Creative story, fine photographs!

    Love & Peace

  11. Ros permalink
    February 4, 2016

    will Boris show any sensitivity this time?? Fear Boris and sensitivity just don’t go together. It’s such an insult that he’s been in the Mayoral post for almost a year after being elected an MP. He clearly doesn’t think either job is worth more than his part time presence, though part time allows him to wreak havoc in spades. “O Rose thou art sick’ is apposite indeed! Bunhill Fields is one of my favourite places, and casting a giant shadow over it will affect not only the view but the ecostructure.

  12. February 4, 2016

    A lovely piece, I intend to visit when I’m next in London. It seems incredible that one selfish man can have the power to.alter parts of London unchallenged.

  13. Catharine Arnold permalink
    February 4, 2016

    What a beautiful article, you really capture the flavour of Bunhill Fields at this unforgiving time of year. I loved the photographs. Greatly alarmed at the Plans of Boris. Is there no stopping him?

  14. Peter Holford permalink
    February 4, 2016

    I thought vandalism was a criminal offence. But it would seem that the bigger the action of vandalism and the more powerful the exponent the less likely that they will be prosecuted. Johnson is a symptom of a corrupt system where the balances and checks have been dismantled to allow authoritarianism. It is vital that Londoners elect somebody who values democracy above their own self-importance and self-aggrandisement.

  15. Margaret Grover permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Oh to have Bunhill Fields to walk amongst the beauty, history and peace, instead of getting into
    a boiling car and facing a 40C day after visiting one’s frail parent -as happens here in Perth Western Australia.

    Another wonderful piece of London history that must be preserved for future walkers, historians – anyone with a heart.
    What is going on – this can never be replaced Boris!

  16. Georgina Briody permalink
    February 5, 2016

    Along with my dear friend, Maggie Grover, in Perth I too hope this part of London will be saved. It is said as Mayor of London, our city has thrived under Boris. At what cost? Boris has no regard for our wonderful history, I am still mourning the loss of the Fruit & Wool Exchange, breaks my heart when I pass the site.

    God willing when my friend comes over from Perth, we will still be able to walk through Bunhill Fields.

  17. Lori Newcomb permalink
    February 5, 2016

    How can I contact the Mayor or City Hall?

    In writing:

    If you wish to contact the Mayor or someone in City Hall, the quickest and easiest way to ensure that we receive your correspondence is to use our online enquiry form to ensure a full and accurate response.

    The Mayor’s correspondence is managed by the Public Liaison Unit, who will either respond to your query directly or ensure that it is sent to the appropriate team within City Hall for a response.
    On the telephone:

    If you wish to reach a particular officer in City Hall you should phone the switchboard at 020 7983 4000.

    The Mayor’s Public Liaison Team are also available to take your telephone calls Monday – Friday from 9 am to 5 pm at 020 7983 4100. You should be aware that we may ask you to e-mail us with any detailed information so that it can be processed by the correct team.

  18. John Daltrey permalink
    February 5, 2016

    What will Boris Johnson be remembered for? Nothing but destruction of areas and buildings and communities that are so much more valuable and important than the edifices that he allows to be built that only make more wealthy a few already incredibly wealthy people. With the transport system we have in London and the suburbs there is no need for these ugly massive tower blocks which destroy the character of so many historic parts of central London. These apartments can only be bought by the very wealthy creating a ghetto for the very rich. Perhaps that is what he wants. So much destruction by this pathetic yet arrogant man. He must have some very good friends in the property development world

  19. February 6, 2016

    i’ve visited it many times. it’s a pity that it’s going to be messed up.

  20. February 12, 2016

    I was very sad but not surprised by the Mayor’s decision to overrule Islington Council and permit development of the site next to Bunhill Fields. Can nothing be done to protect the burial ground which is of national importance and contains several listed buildings.

  21. Lorraine permalink
    February 16, 2016

    I am so disappointed. How can he get away with this? The burial ground is Grade 1 listed??!!

    I concur with the comments raised above – is he driven solely by greed? Local residents will not get a look in with these new homes – my family come from here. It makes me very sad that areas of our heritage are being systematically ruined by needless skyscrapers for the very wealthy. Have you seen the cost to rent around here?

  22. Sheryl Humphrey permalink
    February 19, 2016

    Thank you for this virtual visit for those of us who are unlikely ever to be able to go in person. Here is the link to a petition I signed. I hope it’s not too late to stop the project, but even if it is, I like that there is an online record of protest.

  23. November 15, 2020

    Blimey! reading the comments from 2016 about Bojo and where we are now!! it makes you wonder how things work in the corridors of power to ave propulsed him to PM.

    just looked up Bunhill Fields today as we paid a visit to the spot on Thursday in the footsteps of George Fox and early quakers.

    it would be good to be able to walk across the graves sometime. Will look out for the gardner.

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