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Summer At Bow Cemetery

June 15, 2020
by the gentle author

At least once each Summer, I direct my steps eastwards from Spitalfields along the Mile End Rd towards Bow Cemetery, one of the “Magnificent Seven” created by act of Parliament in 1832 as the growing population of London overcrowded the small parish churchyards. Extending to twenty-seven acres and planned on an industrial scale, “The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery” as it was formally called, opened in 1841 and within the first half century alone around a quarter of a million were buried here.

Although it is the tombstones and monuments that present a striking display today, most of the occupants of this cemetery were residents of the East End whose families could not afford a funeral or a plot. They were buried in mass public graves containing as many as forty bodies of random souls interred together for eternity. By the end of the nineteenth century the site was already overgrown, though burials continued until it was closed in 1966.

Where death once held dominion, nature has reclaimed the territory and a magnificent broadleaf forest has grown, bringing luxuriant growth that is alive with wildlife. Now the tombstones and monuments stand among leaf mould in deep woods, garlanded with ivy and surrounded by wildflowers. Tombstones and undergrowth make one of the most lyrical contrasts I can think of – there is a beautiful aesthetic manifest in the grim austerity of the stones ameliorated by vigorous plant life. But more than this, to see the symbols of death physically overwhelmed by extravagant new growth touches the human spirit. It is both humbling and uplifting at the same time. It is the triumph of life. Nature has returned and brought more than sixteen species of butterflies with her.

This is the emotive spectacle that leads me here, turning right at Mile End tube station and hurrying down Southern Grove, increasing my pace with rising expectation, until I walk through the cemetery gates and I am transported into the green world that awaits. At once, I turn right into Sanctuary Wood, stepping off the track to walk into a tall stand of ivy-clad sycamores, upon a carpet of leaves that is shaded by the forest canopy more than twenty metres overhead and illuminated by narrow shafts of sunlight descending. It is sublime. Come here to see the bluebells in Spring or the foxgloves in Summer. Come at any time of the year to find yourself in another landscape. Just like the forest in Richard Jefferies’ novel “After London,” the trees have regrown to remind us what this land was once like, long ago before our predecessors ever came here.

Over time, the tombstones have weathered and worn, and some have turned green, entirely harmonious with their overgrown environment, as if they sprouted and grew like toadstools. The natural stillness of the forest possesses greater resonance between cemetery walls and the deep green shadows of the woodland seem deeper too. There was almost no-one alive to be seen on the morning of my visit, apart from two police officers on horseback passing through, keeping the peace that is as deep as the grave.

Just as time mediates grief and grants us perspective, nature also encompasses the dead, enfolding them all, as it has done here in a green forest. These are the people who made East London, who laid the roads, built the houses and created the foundations of the city we inhabit. The countless thousands who were here before us, walking the streets we know, attending the same schools, even living in some of the same houses we live in today. The majority of those people are here now in Bow Cemetery. As you walk around, names catch your eye, Cornelius aged just two years, or Eliza or Louise or Emma, or Caleb who enjoyed a happy life, all over a hundred years ago. None ever dreamed a forest would grow over their head, where people would come to walk one day to discover their stones in a woodland glade. It is a vision of paradise above, fulfilled within the confines of the cemetery itself.

As I made my progress through the forest of tombstones, I heard a mysterious noise, a click-clack echoing through the trees. Then I came upon a clearing at the very heart of the cemetery and discovered the origin of the sound. It was a solitary juggler practicing his art among the graves, in a patch of sunlight. There is no purpose to juggling than that of delight, the attunement of human reflexes to create a joyful effect. It was a startling image to discover, and seeing it here in the deep woods – where so many fellow Londoners are buried – made my heart leap. In the vast wooded cemetery there was just me, the numberless dead and the juggler.

Find out more at Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

You may also like to read about

The Variety Artistes of Abney Park Cemetery

At St Pancras Old Churchyard

24 Responses leave one →
  1. Sue Stamp permalink
    June 15, 2020

    Good morning Gentle Author, I just wanted to say how very moving and beautiful your post and images of Bow Cemetery are this morning. I will approach my day in a more thoughtful and contemplative way having read it. Thank you.

  2. June 15, 2020

    Words cannot express how much I love
    your stories.

    Thank you,


  3. June 15, 2020

    One of my all time favourite spaces in London. Tisbury and I used to meet Bernie, Sue and Ken every morning with their dogs Jasper, Daffy and Quinn. Ken still manages the Cemetery I believe. He was so passionate about this space. We would all litter pick every morning. Taking the evidence of parties and human lack of respect away so it was always spotless and perfect for the next visitor. Ken never seemed to tire of this constant battle with litter. And neither did we. This was 10 years ago now.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 15, 2020

    I always find cemeteries very peaceful and soothing spaces, especially when they are a green oasis in the middle of an urban setting.

    It is vitally important that the Bow cemetery remains such a wonderful nature reserve for the East End, and that it is not spoilt by the proposed high rise developments to the south which could overshadow the area, and badly damage the environment.

  5. Simon Scott permalink
    June 15, 2020

    The triumph of life is a wonderful term

  6. Claire D permalink
    June 15, 2020

    How lovely and peaceful it looks after all the agitation.

  7. June 15, 2020

    Gentle Author you captured the essence of the cemetery beautifully it is a magical place in tower hamlets to walk and reflect

  8. June 15, 2020

    What a beautiful posting to open this morning – moving and uplifting. Thank you.

  9. June 15, 2020

    What a splendid place. And what a beautiful description. Wonderful pictures. Thank you.

  10. Richard Jory permalink
    June 15, 2020

    The joy of getting lost.

  11. June 15, 2020

    Again one more wonderful posting! Thanks to the GA.

    Love & Peace

  12. June 15, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for your pastoral reflections on the serenity of Bow Cemetery. Especially appreciated in the midst of the turmoil and social unrest on both sides of the pond.

  13. Linda Granfield permalink
    June 15, 2020

    You’ve described and photographed a splendid “Cathedral” that rivals those of stone.

    On second thought, many ‘stones’ are indeed part of the construction.

    Thank you for this quiet moment.

  14. Mary permalink
    June 15, 2020

    A beautiful and completive posting.
    I enjoy the peace of overgrown cemeteries and the thought that all those burials have created the lush plantlife. I would love to think that my ashes will one day help create a magnificent tree.

  15. June 15, 2020

    Thank you for bringing a calm, serene, oasis of calm to my morning.
    Long may this continue to be the resting place of so many who have gone before us…..including my much loved uncle Harry. A real East End character and a real gentleman.

  16. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 15, 2020

    As always in circumstances like this, I’m reminded of the late Terry Pratchett, who said: “Cemetaries are for the living”

  17. June 15, 2020

    Thank you. I so enjoy walking through old cemeteries and soaking up the atmosphere. In these difficult times so soothing.

  18. June 15, 2020

    Thank You for these Beautiful Pictures. They are Very Sad but need to Keep.??????

  19. Jonathan van Halbert permalink
    June 16, 2020

    My, how I would love to walk in your Gentle Footsteps through the streets of London…

  20. June 16, 2020

    Several members of my family are buried (somewhere) here. I visited it last year whilst researching a book and found it the most extraordinary place. I did not find it sad – moving, yes, but the sense of peace, of sanctuary and of contemplation were uplifting. Lovely piece and wonderful photos too, thank you.

  21. David Antscherl permalink
    June 18, 2020

    Yoru essay reminded me of a visit to Nunhead Cemetery a few years ago while visiting family in London. Your essay evoked the feelings I had as we walked the gravel path up the hill to the summit. The juxtaposition of vigorous life and memento mori was striking. Even more striking was the sight of two young women coming down the path toward us; one wheeling an infant in a pram and the other heavily pregnant. A perfect picture.

  22. Rosemary Bennett permalink
    June 19, 2020

    Love these articles, I come from Norfolk and have returned there, but my husband used to live in Beds Rd as a child and played in the cemetery just after the war. Reminds me of the Wild Norfolk woods I lived surrounded by – keep up the good work. Hope they don’t decide to build on this vital green lung

  23. July 2, 2020

    a fitting tribute to a real east end gem.

    thank you g.a.

  24. marilyn Robinson permalink
    July 9, 2020

    Thank you so much, Gentle Author.

    As a small child, I lived in Treby St, which is just across the road from the cemetery.
    When I was just five years old my father died of lung cancer in 1961, his wish was to be buried in view of the entrance gates, he showed my mum the spot where he wanted to be laid to rest.

    Having read about the cemetery in a beautiful and interesting way, on my next visit to my father’s grave, I will take time to look around the cemetery with a different vision.

    Thank s a million !!

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