The graveyard shift
A walk in a cemetery: Creepy? Contemplative? Or a soul-stirring mix?
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.”