Arnos Vale Cemetery – enjoy (and educate) yourself among the dead
Arnos Vale Cemetery – dead ringer or dead cert?
Arnos Vale – I’ve heard about it
I’ve always read about Arnos Vale either in local papers, news or through friends. But I’ve never made the time to go. That was until last summer.
A cemetery is certainly an unusual choice of place to visit, not least go for a walk. I always had an interest, or at least was drawn to death, gore and the macabre. The was until I watched seasons four and five of Game of Thrones where my interest slightly waned. What difference would going to a cemetery make?
So it was at that time that we’d decided to go. The weather was good at the time. It was near the end of the summer, so it was a great day to take a walk. “A walk?” I heard Ash say.
The good thing about Bristol is that everything is local to me, although this visit required the car as the public transport wasn’t reliable enough to get us from home to Arnos Vale. Parking was a little bit of a problem when we got there, but I managed to squeeze in very snugly between two Land Rovers. The cemetery thoroughfares were pretty much rammed full of cars. Either a lot of people had died recently or everyone had the same idea of coming for a walk.
Getting out of the car, at first I thought it looked like just any old cemetery. But after a second look around, I could see many grand, oversized and uniquely sculptured gaves. Which are unusual in this day and age.
You’ll be forgiven for thinking why I’m writing about as something as mundane and morbid such as a cemetery.
But this is more than just a burial place for Bristol’s dead. Any this is what I want to demonstrate to you.
Arnos Vale’s Discovery Trail
Trying to get to the bathroom in a cemetery can be a bit of a trek depending on where you park. If you park in the right place, you’re lucky. Park somewhere else and you face a dilemma. You either hold it in while you walk and try and find the place. Or you face the shame of going behind somewhere you hope won’t be desecrating somebody’s grave.
Luckily we had the resilience to find the bathroom in time.
A terrible feeling
Once the business was done, we carried on out into the cemetery. And stumbled along something called the Discovery Trail which sounded exciting. However the further we walked, the more horrified Ash’s face looked.
Another potentially long walk.
At the same time Ash had a terrible feeling overcome her as soon as we walked under the canopy of the woods. Maybe it was something she’d ate. But we carried on.
The centrepiece of Arnos Vale Cemetery is the Discovery Trail. It’s essentially a self-guided tour through the main cemetery where you can learn more about the history of the city of Bristol through the cemetery and its deceased inhabitants. And also admire the landscape and local environment.
Into the woods
The terrain in the wooded areas can be steep in some areas if you veer away from the beaten path.
Some areas are also overgrown and the ground uneven where the trees have taken over. Actually, a lot of the cemetery is overgrown in this area as a result of decades of neglect and decay. However for me, this adds to the place’s charm and character. While at the same time instils a sense of something sinister and other-worldly. Despite this, through the trail I saw glimmers of the cemetery’s past glory and heyday.
Looking at the size at some of the memorials, I was astonished but also in admiration of the lengths people would go to bury their dead.
There are a number of various obelisks we walked past along the trail. Including the tallest one in the cemetery. As well as the obelisks, there are other allusions to the amount of money that the Victorians were willing to spend on funerals and gravestones for their loved ones.
Take a look at this example below. The Matthews family spent the equivalent of £61,000 in today’s money on this memorial. To put it into context, this would have been the equivalent of 23 years of earnings for an unskilled labourer at the time. Perhaps an obscene amount of money today. And definitely not an amount that would be covered by my Sun Life Over 50 Life Insurance. If I had one.
The crematorium memorial is rather interesting. I’m sure it’s the biggest collection of plaques in a cemetery I’ve seen so far. The myriad colours of the plaques turned the walls into one big patchwork quilt.
My favourite part of the trail was going down to the crypt underneath an Anglican chapel. At this point we had come out of the woods. Ash still wasn’t feeling very good since we embarked on the trail. I asked if she was OK, but was insistent that she’d manage and carry on.
We then proceeded down to the crypt.
Aside from the obvious crypt tombs, we also noticed opposite there was a gated area. This contained a bric-a-brac type collections of old memorials, gravestones, plaques and other religious/angelic sculptures.
Once we found ourselves at the back of the crypt, Ash’s feelings became more intense. At the same time I felt some dark, discomforting feelings come over myself.
There was a shiver along my spine.
I was so spooked out than I ran out of the crypt, slightly shaking.
Was there something we couldn’t see among us? Were we possessed? Was I possessed? Was Ash possessed? I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits or anything like that. But if YOU are, you have been warned!
Arnos Vale is where you go when you’re dead, right?
But there’s an irony to this place. You can also get married here. In either of the chapels. I wasn’t able to take any photos of the wedding venues themselves. But despite the morbid setting, the chapels seem like beautiful venues to take your wedding vows and enjoy celebrating your special day with close friends and family. Whether you’d like a chilly winter wedding or a wedding where everyone is comfortable in the summer or something a little bit different, you might want to consider Arnos Vale as a wedding venue.
Arnos Vale Tours
Unfortunately, when it came to the day, it had to be the day when no tours were operating. What I can tell you is that Arnos Vale Cemetery holds a variety of tours throughout the year. And the tours are befitting of the context and setting they are held in. Tours such as murder mysteries, morbid curiosities and even short rambling tours.
For us history lovers, Arnos Vale holds a full cemetery tour. Where you can trace the history of Arnos Vale and take in some of the cemetery’s more interesting graves and sculptures. There are other specific tours which focus on the various memorials, sculptures, symbols and their meaning. You can also take a tour which focuses specifically on some of Bristol’s most notable residents who helped put the city on the map.
Arnos Vale operates tours throughout the year, reflective of the seasons. These are also dependent on the weather. So if I was to give you some advice you – be prepared for a disappointment if the weather turns.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy – Arnos Vale’s most famous resident?
Along our walk, we came across what in my opinion is one of the most elaborate and beautiful graves/memorials in Arnos Vale. The mausoleum of Indian reformer Raja Rammohun Roy – also known as the ‘Founder of Modern India’.
Roy was influential in the fields of politics, public administration, education and religion. He was known for his part in abolishing the practices of sati and child marriage in India. His influence still continues to be felt that as recently as 2004, he was ranked number 10 in the BBC’s poll of the Greatest Bengali of all time.
Roy died in Bristol in 1833. He was buried initially in Stapleton village, but was relocated in 1843 to the new cemetery at Arnos Vale. The mausoleum was designed by William Prinsep, and is a copy of an Indian tomb (chhatri). An annual commemoration is held at the tomb. This is attended by Unitarians, the Lord Mayor of Bristol and the Indian High Commissioner plus members of the community who remember his work.
Roy’s mausoleum is now a Grade II listed monument and considered a Bristol landmark.
Arnos Vale’s history
Arnos Vale opened in 1837. Designed in the style of a Greek Necropolis by Charles Underwood, it very quickly became the most fashionable place to be buried in Bristol.
There are four notable buildings in the Cemetery – two Entrance Lodges and two Mortuary Chapels (Anglican and Non-conformist) – all listed Grade II buildings. It is only the high quality of the building materials used on these that saved them from decay. Especially as maintenance stopped on them in the 1980s and 1990s.
The cemetery was created at a time when the old parish graveyards of Bristol had become overcrowded, and also health hazards. This was also a reflection of what was happening in cities across Britain at the time. Mainly due to huge increases in city populations during the Industrial Revolution. It was then that the newly set up Bristol General Cemetery Company put forward plans for a new style cemetery that would be spacious and filled with sunlight, fresh air, trees and shrubbery.
It was also the time of the Victorian movement to modernise Britain’s cities by providing them with clean water supplies, efficient sewerage systems and other sanitary services. Things we see as normal today.
Arnos Vale’s residents
Many great social reformers such as George Muller and Raja Rammohun Roy can be found resting in the cemetery. As are the great Bristolian families who provided the population with much needed work. You can even find the graves of ordinary folk such as survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Even a police officer murdered while trying to protect a donkey from abuse by its owner.
For much of the 19th century onwards, Arnos Vale had pretty much a monopoly on burials in Bristol. So it’s no surprise you’ll find the graves of most of Bristol’s leading Victorian citizens, industrialists, philanthropists, scientists and soldiers, and countless others. Having the monopoly on burials, the cemetery became very popular. So popular, that by the turn of the 20th century, nearby pastureland had to be purchased in order to expand its area.
Your social status during these times would have also determined the location and size of your gravestone or memorial. The higher your status, then the more elaborate your memorial would have been, and the higher up the cemetery your plot would have been.
However, by the early 20th century, the cemetery started to fill to capacity. By this time, the city of Bristol had grown to encircle Arnos Vale. With nowhere to expand, the cemetery introduced the west of England’s first crematorium in 1929.
As the 20th century progressed, living standards increased, which meant fewer burials. At the same time cremations became the more popular option. All this together with more modern cremation facilities meant a dwindling income for the cemetery, and less money to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of Arnos Vale. Vandalism also took hold during the second half of the 20th century.
As a result, many of the cemetery’s memorials fell victim to vandalism and disrepair. Worse still, much of the cemetery became overgrown with invasive trees and weeds.
The last straw came in 1998 when Arnos Vale lost its crematorium licence and the owners decided to close the cemetery and close its gates for good. By the time the cemetery’s owners stopped trading in the 1980s, Arnos Vale had taken in more than 300,000 people for burial.
But all was not lost.
A small group of volunteers soon after took over the responsibility of the cemetery. Over time and much legal wrangling, ownership of the cemetery was passed on to the city council. Afterwards, a restoration programme for the site was established with Bristol City Council managing the project.
A building restoration programme started in 2008, being completed in November 2009.
The East lodge is now used as the visitors reception and a gift shop.
The Anglican chapel has been restored to its previous glory and is now used for different functions such as funerals, concerts, and weddings.
The Non-conformist chapel has been converted into an education centre which has been remodelled to include cafe and bathroom facilities. Burials still continue to be performed here and cremated remains can be scattered in the nearby gardens.
The West Lodge was refurbished using funds from the Heritage Lottery Foundation (HLF) as well as through other donations.
Despite all the restoration done so far, there is still some way to go. With some buildings still on the English Heritage Heritage at Risk Register.
Today, Arnos Vale is run by a charitable trust, which depends on public donations and its army of volunteers.
Art & Culture of Arnos Vale
Arnos Vale is well known (obviously) for being a haven of the dead (I mean, what cemetery wouldn’t be?). However, the cemetery is also a haven of celebration of the living, and of life.
There are all sorts of community events happening regularly on an almost daily basis. From arts and crafts showcases, fairs and exhibitions, to special talks and film and cinema showings. There are a wide range of events that bring the local community together which cater to varying tastes and interests. You just need to pick an event and turn up on the day!
On the day, we came across a photography exhibition taking place. On this occasion, showcasing a local photographer’s work in and around the cemetery. Unfortunately no photos were allowed here – you’ll just have to take my word for it!
We weren’t able to experience everything that Arnos Vale has to offer on that day – probably just unlucky with the timings. However, we found the cemetery was a place of relaxation and contemplation – as well as a place of learning.
My favourite part was walking along the leisurely Discovery Trail. Not just for the walk itself, but the walk through history. Looking at the various graves and memorials gave me a great insight into the social and physical history of Bristol. It shows how Bristol was, and still is a city of contrasts.
If you were rich and wealthy, you would have the best memorials and positions in the cemetery. If you were poor, you’d be a forgotten person – pretty much the same for any society in the world. And the only people who would fight your side were those rich people who had the moral decency to. You can still see this in action today.
However, looking at the memorials of this great cemetery does give me hope. That there is still some good in people. That one day no person will be disadvantaged. Or forgotten.
It may be too much of an ideal in this day and age, but an ideal we can all strive to achieve.