‘A Cemetery tour? Good grief, that’s a bit morbid isn’t it?’
‘I can’t stand Cemeteries. They’re too creepy. They’re all depressing and horrible!’
For the longest time, Cemeteries have suffered from an image crisis that seems peculiarly confined to the UK – travel to the continent and see how the relationship between the living and the dead differs from here. Whether the Cemetery be overgrown, and its monuments slowly drowning in a sea of Ivy and Laurel, or neatly manicured to the point the headstones resemble little soldiers on military parade, beneath your feet lay people who have lived, loved, laughed and cried!
Brompton Cemetery, within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is no exception. When I was researching the tour, I was stunned to see how many people who ended up being buried there influenced our culture in ways still relevant today.
The Royal Mail, children’s books, South Kensington, a type of teapot – that’s not a list there: they were all projects of one man by the name of Sir Henry Cole, who’s right hand man happened to be his pet dog, a terrier called Tycho. Tycho was so beloved that Cole had him (and his successor, ‘Jim’) buried within the walls of his most famous accomplishment, the Victoria and Albert Museum on Cromwell Road.
Then there’s the weathered but striking memorial to Blanche Roosevelt, the daughter of the Senator for Wisconsin. Incredibly gifted musically, she trained in Paris and was the first American singer to perform Italian Opera. Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, was so enchanted with her vocal performance that he drafted her into HMS Pinafore as Josephine, created the role of Mabel in Pirates of Penzance especially for her.
Sir John Fowler of Forth Bridge fame is here alongside his sons, as is Tim Rose, whose gruff voice had him compared to Rod Stewart and Ray Charles and Tim Hetherington, a British photojournalist whose work in highlighting the horrors of the Afghan War had the people of Libya rename its biggest square after him.
And let’s not forget, when places like Brompton were new, they not only offered a pleasant place for the dead to be placed, but also gave the living an open space to enjoy the outdoors. These places were never intended to be morbid: they were to celebrate and recognize lives – and hopefully my walk will show you this and some of the fascinating people that reside there.