The fast train out of Paddington soon gets up speed on its way to Bristol, Cardiff and the West. In twenty minutes it will be in Reading. In the first few minutes few passengers will look up at the mess of motorways, gasometers and tube lines. Which is a shame .
For after a couple of miles where the main line briefly kisses the Grand Union Canal is Kensal Green ,the first(1833) of London’s Magnificent Seven Victorian cemeteries. Here is a necropolis which would have made the long grieving Empress proud. And of particular interest to those railway passengers ,it is here the man who built the Great Western Railway, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is buried. Along with his father, sons and even two great grand daughters who have joined him in the last thirty years. So flat is the GWR that it is called Brunel’s billiard table.
While in keeping with the Anglican revival of the times many of the tombs are staggering, magnificent and eye wateringly ostentatious, Brunel’s tomb is a simple white slab of marble. All around minarets of death, temples of grief, angels and archangels compete for attention but my eyes were only for this great hero. Who can forget his picture, in his top hat and cigar in front of the chains of the Great Eastern,the giant steam liner he also built. The confidence,swagger and achievement of his generation, is all in that one shot.(see link)
Elsewhere at Kensal Green lie Thackeray,Rattigan amd Wilkie Collins. But it was not them but the massive tomb to Princess Sophie the youngest of George III’s twelve children which caught my eye. She never married but had a love affair and child with a courtier, was rumoured to have had relations with her brother Cumberland and eventually was taken for an expensive ride. Her large tomb by the cloistered Anglican chapel bears the message “Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
One of London’s delightful secrets worth an hour of anyone’s time. Unlike Paris , London’s historic cemeteries are not profiled as tourist musts. Another of the Magnificent Seven is Tower Hamlets. This has not been used for burials since 1966. Now it serves as nature reserve,around 10000 school children visit each year. So it is wonderfully wild and overgrown, 50 year old trees dominate. This cemetery catered for the East End so it doesn’t not have the grandeur of Brompton, Highgate, Norwood or Kensal but has the wild, unkempt, ivy clad, ashes to ashes feel which cemeteries get when nature and the tombs go into that last embrace. Many who died in the blitz were placed in common graves here.Of the 300,000 graves only 30 are still attended by relatives.
While there, almost alone, a fox eyeballed me as if to say,who are you and why are you here? Whose asking? This was the East End,Putney rules do not apply. I made my excuses and left.