Death in Peckham

Death in Peckham


Despite its name Nunhead is not some rocky headland on the Cumberland coast,its the junior sister to Peckham in SE London. It is here the Victorians built one  of their Magnificent Seven cemeteries.   Few famous graves are among the half a million buried,but the 52 acre site has over the last thirty years gone from being literally a vandalised tip to being a much loved , cared for open space.  Here the Heritage Lottery Fund has been brilliantly spent. Now , only one small corner is still in the burial business,the rest is nature trails or wilderness.

I celebrated  yesterday’s summer sunshine with a visit. Nunhead itself a dull urban hamlet with more than its share of alcoholics. But the cemetry!

Through the grand entrance up a delightful avenue of lime trees  to the grand and gutted Anglican chapel. Arsonists struck in   in 1970 and now the gothic hulk stands Mr Rochester like on the hill presiding over the necropolis that was. As in the other Victorian celebrations of death the combination of decaying monuments and triumphant nature works . Their dialectic is a surreal metaphor for life and death.

My visit gave me another part of London’s great jig saw. The Leysdown Tragedy.  1912 had seen the war between Britain and Germany getting closer, the Titanic disaster and Scot’s ill fated arrival at the South Pole. That same summer a group of 24 scouts and their masters set off from Wapping to the Isle of Sheppey for a summer camp.

Tragedy struck, a violent storm hit their boat, capsized and nine young lads drowned. Churchill never slow to see public relations opportunity sent a destroyer to pick up the dead. The nation a hundred years before Princess Diana showed its softer side. 100,000 visited the  corpses in St Johns, one million lined the streets as the union jacked, horse drawn hearses were taken to Nunhead.(see link)

Gilbert Scott built the memorial. One of the boys was a great uncle of David Beckham. The story comes interestingly up to date. In l969 the bronze statue was stolen and 1992 the brilliant Friends of Nunhead replaced it with a fine marble monument. On it is a ring of dots with one in the middle. As all scouters  know, created with stones this is a major symbol in scouts tracking games. Gone Home. Close by  an 18 year old Canadian soldier’s grave,31/7/16, states “How many hopes lie buried here.”

Pointless death did not start or sadly finish in Manchester last night.

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