Friday 21 November 2014

Grave Stones and Bird Stones

Yesterday I took a stroll through a cemetery, though my main purpose was not to look at or photograph the graves or even the autumn foliage. Looking at the photos you might think I was in some sequestered country churchyard tucked away amongst narrow lanes and woodland. But no, this is just off of Mill Road, the most densely built-up part of Cambridge, where every street is crowded with endless Victorian terraced housing, almost all of them standing right beside the road with no front gardens or street-side trees.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the town's churchyards were full and the various parishes got together to look for land for a new cemetery. They eventually found land outside the town on Mill Road, which was then in open country. Within forty years it was completely surrounded by housing as the town expanded as a result of the coming of the railway to Cambridge. Half a century later the burial ground was full and the only burials that took place were in family plots which were already in existence.

What to do with a disused cemetery? Although some graves are well cared for there are others that have been neglected. This has made the place ideal for wildlife; a little oasis amongst all the brick and tarmac. It's also a public space for people to wander - with dogs, with baby-buggies and, yes, with cameras.

It's also recently become a place for public artwork to be exhibited in the intriguing form of sculptures created by Gordon Young, an internationally-known artist. His seven "Bird Stones" celebrate the species that occur regularly on the site - Blackbird, Song Thrush, House Sparrow, Goldfinch, Crow, Robin and Collared Dove. These stones (one of which is made of wood, as you can see above) are inscribed with poetry, Biblical quotations and attempts to convey the birds' songs phonetically. And it was these artworks that lured me into the cemetery this week.

Rather than detract from the beauty of the gravestones they seem to re-direct the eye to the earlier carvings.

Some of the stones are heavy with Victorian symbolism and sentimentality, though many are in need of a little love and care. I was pleased to see that quite a lot of restoration work has been taking place around the site and three women, a dog and a wheelbarrow were busily engaged in planting spring bulbs.

A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark 
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

R S Thomas

The cemetery once had a rather grand chapel in the Gothic style designed by George Gilbert Scott, one of the leading church architects of his day. However good an architect he may have been the building began to fall down before it was 100 years old and it was decided that demolishing it was the only option.

Recently the site of the chapel was investigated and it was found that the foundations are still in place and in good condition. There is talk of excavating them so they can become a feature of the central area of the cemetery, which at present is a rather blank space.

The cemetery is used as an educational resource by local schools and there are several trails exploring war graves, wildlife and other aspects of the site.

One moment they perch to crane and peer
Then like children in a game they spur
Each other into flight, bouncing
Like raindrops, chinking like beads,
Weightless as wind-blown leaves.

They never seem to feed but to exist
On air in air, translucent,
Ubiquitous as dreams, sparks
In perpetual motion without origin
Or aim.

The atmosphere records
Their passage as a flash
Of jewels then
Like spirits they move on.

by Damaris West

I was very taken with this memorial standing in an isolated and wooded corner, unseen by all but the most inquisitive visitor. But clouds were gathering and the light was dimming, so I made my way back out into the hustle and bustle of Mill Road and the evening rush hour.

Take care.


  1. Crumbs. There is certainly something poignant about your penultimate photo - presumably the statue represents Mary, but it's quite arresting. I don't get the new artwork - though I remember the RS Thomas poem from school, and love its imagery. Cemeteries have a fascination - possibly morbid, of course; yet there's life there too, in the stories behind each stone. A wonderful tour - beautifully photographed as always. Thanks, John. Now it's time for a beer.

  2. Modern sculptures in old graveyards - it works very well! I hope this wonderful idea catches on. And thank you for the poem by R S Thomas, one of my favourites.

  3. What a beautiful and interesting place. I was trying to twist my head sideways to read the Blackbird poem--then scrolled down and found you had kindly typed it in full.
    Old gravestones have a lot to say about the customs and mindsets of the time they were put up.

  4. Lovely combination of old and new, and nice pix!

  5. A beautiful old cemetery. and old tombstones are interesting.
    True lovely images.

  6. How fascinating - a place I would like to visit. I think the sculptures work well against the older grave stones and it is good to know that the whole cemetery is well used in many different ways. Thank you for sharing your visit with us:)

  7. Hi John - lovely photos and descriptive pieces ... what fun having modern sculpture in the cemetery and allowing the public space to become just that ... I love that the sculptures and their inscriptions represent species regularly appearing in the parkland. A great idea - especially bringing the school children in ... to find the trails and see the art, while the graves will take us into another time ...

    A great read and in the middle of Cambridge ... life developed rapidly in the middle of the 1800s didn't it .. cheers Hilary

  8. Marvelous photos and a beautiful cemetery John. I like the sculptures also. I do love old cemeteries with their ancient headstones and the Autumn foliage is wonderful. Always a pleasure to visit here.

  9. I love walking through old cemeteries and reading the gravestones. So much history! The proximity of this cemetery to the city buildings reminds me of the time I was in Boston and was amazed to see gravestones right next to huge buildings in the middle of downtown. Great photos and story.

  10. It looks like a very interesting place. You took some great photographs.

  11. At this stage of my life I don't like to go to graveyards all that much. I get to looking at the dates, do the math and the end result is too scary close for comfort.

  12. What a beautiful place to rest, eternally Love the poems.

  13. It's been a long time since I walked through a cemetery. I like the co-mingling of art and headstones, and it's a wonderful thing that wildlife have returned. It's that beautiful circle of life.

  14. Thank you for the visit, I always find old graveyards fascinating.

  15. I agree with robin andrea, above, that the cemetery with wildlife present is a beautiful circle of life. I rather like the worn look of it all. Also the idea of using the cemetery for educational purposes is terrific. -- barbara

  16. Poetry, art, nature, music, people loved and remembered, and new people embracing it all. A special space.

  17. I found some European old cemeteries can be a place to meditate and reflect. (I feel scared to be alone at the old graveyards in my country even in the daytime.) It looks like an oasis right behind the busy street. Old gravestones, sculptures, trees, grasses, and autumn foliage…everything looks in harmony and beautiful in your photos.


  18. What a beautiful resurrection of a cemetery for reflection by the living. I think the blackbird poem is especially perfect. I like that the sculptures are so natural and follow the shapes of the tombstones to fit in and not grab all the attention.

  19. Beautiful churchyard photographs John - they always photograph best in Autumn I think, when the leaves go so well with the grey of the stone. That RS Thomas poem is one of my favourites.

  20. Beautiful color contrasts--gravestones and fall colors. Never thought of it before, but using the cemetery as a teaching resource, museum for art, and nature center is perfect.

  21. What a very fascinating cemetery to explore so close to a built up area John. How exciting about the chapel foundations, I so hope they do excavate, it would make an excellent feature and the perfect spot for people like me (and you I suspect) to use our imaginations about how it must have been way back then.

  22. What a wonderful idea to put some appropriate artwork in an old cemetery. Sometimes these old cemeteries look so lonely and forlorn, so it is nice to see some new 'life' being injected into it and the inquisitive looking at the stones once again.

  23. That was a very interesting and thoughtful post. It was nice to see that the cemetery is being restored and that modern art is included. At the same time it was very fitting to see the autumn foliage all over the place. Somehow it all fitted together.

  24. What a lovely tour--thanks for letting me tag along. Do keep up posted on any changes.

  25. John, today you have a fine mix of contemporary art and old gravestones, finely photographed. I don't see a hint of this being in the middle of a city.

  26. It's indeed a surprise that this cemetery is in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Cambridge. The poem "A Blackbird Singing" touched my heart. Thank you for including it with this post.


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