The grave­yard shift

A walk in a ceme­tery: Creepy? Con­tem­pla­tive? Or a soul-stir­ring mix?

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WO R D S : J E NNY WALTE R S

It’s not ghoul­ish to walk ceme­ter­ies...

S TEP INTO A church­yard on an au­tumn af­ter­noon and wind your way among the head­stones. Some are blotched gold with lichen, some en­gulfed by ivy, some weath­ered by the pass­ing years, some tipped askew. Maybe you pause to read a stranger’s epi­taph and spend that mo­ment think­ing about their life. It can be poignant, peace­ful, mov­ing.

Nearly ev­ery vil­lage you find on a coun­try walk will have a church­yard, also called God’s Acres. Each one is a sanc­tu­ary for the wild things, its grass, flow­ers, trees and stones un­touched by plough and pes­ti­cide. The Church of Eng­land alone owns 10,000 which to­gether equal the size of a small na­tional park. Not ev­ery­where had con­se­crated ground though, and those in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties would carry their dead over miles of wild land to give them a proper burial. Known as corpse roads or cof­fin trails, you can still trace th­ese routes through the hills, like the one from Mardale on Haweswa­ter in the Lake Dis­trict, over to Swin­dale Head and on to Shap.

At least 10,000 souls are thought to be buried in an aver­age church­yard. It’s why the ground of­ten rises up around the build­ing, al­though the north side tends to be emp­tier be­cause its dark shad­ows lure demons. In the 19th cen­tury, the small church­yards of Lon­don were un­able to cope with the vol­ume of corpses, and seven large ceme­ter­ies were es­tab­lished around the city. Col­lec­tively called the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven, High­gate in north Lon­don is the best known. Over 170,000 peo­ple have been buried across the 37 acres of its two sites, East and West, since it was ded­i­cated in 1839, in­clud­ing politi­cians, ac­tors, artists and writ­ers like Karl Marx, Ge­orge Eliot, Dou­glas Adams, Bob Hoskins and Lu­cian Freud. To­day, paths maze through a jum­bled phan­tas­mago­ria of stones and tombs and stat­ues, many with a Vic­to­rian gothic flare, and all tightly twined with plants.

But there are grisly grave­yard tales too. A ram­ble through the York­shire Wolds will take you to the re­mains of the lost vil­lage of Whar­ram Percy, where the dead were mu­ti­lated be­fore burial to stop them ris­ing to walk again as zom­bies. Else­where, graves were robbed. Med­i­cal schools paid hand­somely for ca­dav­ers to dis­sect and vil­lains took to dig­ging up fresh­buried bod­ies. Fam­i­lies soon started to guard their loved one’s graves, build­ing mort­safes and ceme­tery watch­tow­ers, and in Ed­in­burgh one in­fa­mous pair, Burke and Hare, turned to mur­der. Caught in 1828 af­ter killing 16 peo­ple, Hare es­caped, but Burke was hanged and (look away if you’re squea­mish) pub­licly dis­sected, be­fore his skin was used to cover books, one of which is at the city’s Sur­geons’ Hall Mu­seum.

Some of those buried at Ed­in­burgh’s Greyfri­ars Kirk­yard are now known around the globe. Walk here – as J.K. Rowl­ing did – and you’ll dis­cover a McGon­a­gall like her Hog­warts pro­fes­sor (this one, Wil­liam, is widely re­garded as the worst poet in his­tory) and a Thomas Rid­dell, who Harry Pot­ter fans will know as one of the most ter­ri­fy­ing char­ac­ters to ever stalk the pages of a book: Lord Volde­mort. You might want to pack basilisk fangs and a wand in your ruck­sack… just in case.

WALK HERE: Down­load your free Whar­ram Percy and Mardale’s Old Corpse Road routes at www.lfto.com/bonus­routes. At High­gate, there’s a £4 en­trance fee to the East Ceme­tery and guided tours only in the West Ceme­tery ( www.high­gate­ceme­tery.org). Greyfri­ars is free ( www.greyfri­arskirk.com).

“paths maze through a jum­bled ph ant as­magori a of stones, tombs and st at­ues, many with a Vic­tori an gothic flare, and all tightly twi ned with plants.”

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