A Fine and Private Place

Some of you may noticed I’ve hijacked the title from one of the fantasy/uncanny masters, Peter Beagle. It originally pertains to one of his most amazing novels, which also remains one of my favourite books to this day. The reason why I’ve shamelessly signposted this blog update like this is because it’s going to be all about a place that reminded me a lot of Beagle’s book. I’m talking about Brompton Cemetery in London, which I recently got a chance to visit.

I went there on an April day with very unstable weather, so it was rainy and sunny by turns – by all means, a very inspiring kind of weather. It freshened the air and enlivened the nature, so all the trees and plants were very green among the very grey tombstones.

(I inserted a cut because this post is very image-heavy. There’s even a video in there. I don’t want to risk my whole blog crashing because of that. So please click on if you want to see more of a taphophile’s ecstatic experience in a London cemetery.)

The first burials in the Brompton Cemetery took place in the late nineteenth-century, so I noticed plenty of beautiful effigies and epitaphs written precisely in accordance with the rules at the time. I wasn’t really allowed to roam about freely, as I might have wished; there were signs pointing out how some of the tombs and memorials were unstable, so it was best to keep to the safe footpaths, they said. (Of course, I didn’t entirely stick to their advice for safety, what taphophile would have? But I didn’t really feel like hugging the bones of some century old corpse, either.)

Below is an effigy I couldn’t help but repeatedly dub ‘Adonis’. He was just so handsome, I took repeated close-up shots of his face. Couldn’t help myself, really.

At some point, when the rain got really heavy and it had become too difficult to take pictures, I ran for shelter to this columbarium. There, I sat down and picnicked on Oreo biscuits, while enjoying the almost otherworldly quietness and serenity. It really was a beautiful day.

In this photo you can actually see the raindrops.

And this is some video footage I shot from where I was sitting. It was all very beautiful, so I felt like I had to somehow immortalise some of that atmosphere. My camera isn’t the very best, and I’m not the very best of camerawomen (you can actually see my hand a couple of times in the short video, as I was inexpertly trying to shelter the lens from the rain), but there it is – an approximation of what it was all like.

Now this was a memorial I found absolutely strange. A cenotaph with four separate figures marking each of its four corners – and all four figures were carefully decapitated! I was shocked and I’m still wondering who exactly would want to do this and why.

On one side of the cenotaph there was this inscription: This monument was erected by public subscription by the warm friends and admirers of Robert Coombes, champion sculler of the Thames and Tyne.// J.W. Barrett, chairman/ F. Chandler, vice-chairman// committee/ A. Wentzell, G. Hipkins, C.H. (?) Maxwell, Nat Rolls Sen, C.L. (?) Wilcox.

A very informative Wikipedia article about this Robert Coombes tells us that the scullery champion died insane and in penury and was indeed buried at the expense of his friends. About the monument, the same article tells that:

The figures represent four champions of the Thames : first, Robert Coombes, in his rowing costume, holding a broken scull; second, Tom Cole, of Chelsea, wearing Doggett’s Coat and Badge, with the peculiar pineapple button ; third, James Messenger, of Kingston, with the coat and badge of the Thames National Regatta; fourth, Harry Kelley, of Putney, an athlete in rowing costume.

So why would anyone care to deface these guys?

Then there was this footpath which had been claimed, almost in its entirety, by pigeons. I have no idea what made them all crowd on the same spot. It was a slightly sinister view.

Also, there were several regions of the cemetery, fairly clearly delineated, where there were only children’s graves. That, and only that. It was probably the most fascinating part of the cemetery, but also the most heartbreaking. Entire fields of tiny tombstones, stretching on and on…

The battered effigy of an angel on the tombstone of an old child’s grave. No dates or names were discernible any longer.

Finally, some traditional shots with the raven, à la master Edgar Allan Poe.

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