Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Interred Intelligence

Just off one of the busier roads on the outskirts of Cambridge there's a little burial ground. To get there you walk down a gravelled lane and soon you see a rather undistinguished little Victorian chapel that you first glimpse through the ivy-clad trees and bushes.

Not the kind of place you'd expect anyone of note to be buried then. But you'd be wrong. This is the final resting place of many of the finest minds of the last 150 years, including no less than three Nobel Prize winners and innumerable professors and academics.

These graves tell the recent history of Cambridge University and include many people of other faiths, many of no faith at all and also several women who have made their mark on the intellectual development of the world.

Tucked away, appropriately enough, in a distant, dark shadowy corner is the grave of John Couch Adams, the astronomer who first suspected the existence of the planet Uranus. He is unique in that he also has another memorial in Westminster Abbey.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Perhaps the grave which attracts most visitors is that of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was pronounced as a genius by Bertrand Russell no less, though I'm not sure that anyone else understood what he was on about; that's what Wittgenstein himself believed anyway. Typically of the man, the slab on his grave just bears his name and dates, the bare facts which he could be sure were irrefutable.    

The many admirers who visit the grave rather mess up the stark simplicity of the stone by leaving flowers and other tokens.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
There are several descendants of Charles Darwin interred here including the poet Frances Cornford. Never heard of her? Here's one of her odd but appealing poems.....

The Guitarist Tunes Up

With what attentive courtesy he bent

Over his instrument;
Not as a lordly conqueror who could
Command both wire and wood,
But as a man with a loved woman might,
Inquiring with delight
What slight essential things she had to say
Before they started, he and she, to play.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
If you are old enough you may recall the name of John Bascombe Lock, the writer of Mathematics text books. They were certainly still in use when I went to school. His grave however seems rather forgotten and neglected, though his books are still in print some 100 years after they were written. Here's what Rev J B Lock had to say:

A C Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury and himself became Master of Magdalene College. He is mainly remembered as the man who wrote the words of Land Of Hope And Glory. He was also famous in his day as a writer of ghost stories. Everything he did in life was successful: in death he is remembered by one of the ugliest tombstones I've ever set eyes on.

Amongst all these academic heavyweights we find George Smee, a mere solicitor. However, as if to make up for this, he and his wife lie beneath a memorial designed and carved by Jacob Epstein which ensures that their grave is not passed by.

We could go on searching for the monuments to Nobel Prize winners like the nuclear physicist Sir John Cockcroft, or Max Perutz, the molecular biologist. And countless classicists, astronomers, historians, diplomats, scientists, philosophers, poets.......as well as many less celebrated former citizens of Cambridge.

Or we might just wander back towards the chapel and take a quick peek inside the door....

It's now the studio of American-born lettering artist Eric Marland, some examples of whose work can be found in the burial ground, including another poem by Frances Cornford.

Take care.


  1. Love the little old graveyard! But a bit of a surprise there when we stepped into the chapel!

  2. That's the most interesting cemetery! I could spend hours there just reading all the headstones. Thanks for the tour.

  3. It would be a good place to explore . A yard full of so much cleverness. Its a shame that the graveyard isn't kept in a better order, although it sure has character.

  4. I love the way you poke about in strange and unusual places John nd bring us little treasures.

  5. Very interesting as always! Sent me on a google-wander for more information on that gravestone by Jacob Epstein; no joy. BUT...a similar search for more poetry by Frances Cornford led me to the woodcuts of her cousin Gwen Raverat!

  6. What an incredible graveyard you have there. Love seeing these stones and monuments, and these stories.

  7. Oh, I think that is a fine chapel and a beautiful place to be buried....I love a place like this.

  8. Beautiful place to be on rest at our last day...

  9. That photo - looking inside the chapel was not what I expected to see!

    Interesting post though, thank you.

    All the best Jan

  10. What a lovely little tour of this hidden delight! It's good that the chapel is being used and, assumedly, cared for. I thoroughly enjoyed our time together :)

  11. I'm feeling rather dull as I did not recognize a single one of those illustrious persons. It looks like a lovely, quiet and peaceful spot for ones bones to rest and the window over the door of the chapel is so pretty.

  12. Do you think that if you and I sneaked in some moonlit night, and took a sledge hammer to the Smee/Epstein memorial, anyone would notice?

  13. A very lovely quiet spot for all those frantically busy intelligent minds John :)


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).