Hidden Treasures of Arnos Vale – A Visitor’s Perspective

[NOTE: This post first appeared on arnosvale.org.uk as a guest article]

 

It is no secret that I love Arnos Vale. Since moving to Bristol, I have spent many days traipsing its winding paths, admiring the headstones and, of course, drinking its coffee. My social media is filled with images of mossy headstones and stone angels, and there are few events in the Spielman Centre that haven’t piqued my interest.

But, despite my frequent visits, each time I walk through the lanes, I am met with a new symbol, a new flower or a new artefact I had yet to notice. Arnos may well be a historical site, but it changes so drastically with the seasons, it would be foolish to think you knew the cemetery at all.

Arnos Vale is simultaneously a working cemetery, a heritage site, a habitat and a veritable art gallery of historical remembrance. To write a thorough guide to all that Arnos offers would probably take until my own death. So, before I dash to choose my own headstone, please enjoy a rather abridged guide to the hidden treasures of Bristol’s finest cemetery.

Many of us take shortcuts through cemeteries on our way to work or as a cut-through to the shops, which makes it so easy to skim over the sheer variety and beauty of headstones.

While Arnos has been accepting burials since its creation in 1837, many of its older interments are easy to spot, thanks to the elaborate memorial choices of the Victorian Era.

 

The Victorian interest in symbols and speaking without words particularly took root in the world of grave and monument ornamentation. Alongside names and dates, 19thcentury headstones are often topped by a carving – hands, flowers, birds etc., each possessing a hidden message of their own. There are hundreds to list, but a few popular symbols are –

  • Hands – These are one of the most varied carvings out there, each gesture symbolising something different about the deceased. A few variations are:
    • Shaking Hands represent a farewell to earthly life. Often these have distinguishable male and female (lacy/frilly) cuffs which may denote a spouse left behind.
    • Pointing upwards infers that the deceased has ascended to heaven.
    • Pointing down DOESN’T mean the opposite! This often represents a sudden death, the hand being that of God.
  • Ivy and/or Grapes – As ivy is evergreen and can continue to thrive on dead trees, it is a plant that has come to represent the immortal soul. Also, it was often used as a Victorian shorthand for friendship and remembrance.
  • Lilies – Much like hands, lilies have a plethora of meanings.
    • Lilies in general represent death and mourning.
    • Lily of the Valley, however, represents a return of happiness.
    • The Victorians loved using flowers as a means of expressing their emotions, (both positive and negative!) so lilies outside of the cemetery context can be tricky to decipher.
  • Butterflies – These delicate carvings, often accompanying a cut flower, represent resurrection. These are often found on memorials to the young and are particularly poignant.

 

It is such a thrill to walk through a cemetery or churchyard and feel as though you are privy to some secret insight into the past. I absolutely urge any visitors, especially those with families in tow, to take time to search for these symbols and decipher them along the way. Spotting pictures and imagining the stories behind the woodland burials is a healthy and creative way to engage with your surroundings and feel less detached from centuries of fascinating lives that are waiting to be rediscovered and reimagined.

Arnos has thousands of these symbols, intricately carved into headstones and tombs – however, larger Victorian monuments hold similar hidden meanings and are rather easier to spot from the paths!

There are some beautiful column memorials within Arnos Vale, a particularly clear example being visible just opposite the cloisters. This column, standing over 6 feet in height, looks as though a mason has cruelly chiselled it in two. However, a broken column represents a life cut short. Other columns closer to the Anglican Chapel feature broken columns with wreaths, which show victory over death.

Obelisks, huge tombs and angels often afforded the grieving family more space to memorialise the deceased and often feature whole paragraphs of achievements and addresses. These are often thought-provoking and, should you be inclined, easy to research further. As such huge monuments were incredibly costly in their day, the financial, political or historical status of the deceased means you are a mere click or two away from a wealth of information.

Should you not be feeling especially ‘outdoorsy’, Arnos’ buildings are filled with fascinating artefacts and exhibitions. The museum opposite the West Lodge is always worth a visit and the Anglican chapel is a beautifully serene structure that shines out as a love letter to conservation done right! However, it is in the depths of the Spielman Centre (accessible via the stairs in the Atrium) that a true hidden treasure is kept.

Arnos-Vale-Woodland-Burial-Hidden-Treasures

In a large glass-topped case lies Arnos Vale’s own ‘Immortelle’, a curious painted plaster wreath of flowers which was uncovered during conservation efforts in recent years. ‘Immortelles’, from the French word for ‘everlasting’, were popular grave decorations from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down. For a piece that spent around a century under a protective blanket of soil and moss, Arnos’ example is a stunning treat for the eyes.

Keeping our thoughts on subterranean treats, it would be foolish not to spend a little time on Arnos Vale’s famous nocturnal inhabitants, bats!

Bat walks throughout the year are fantastic experiences for all ages – they help nurture a love for nature and conservation, but also dispel any silly myths about one of Britain’s most endangered and beautiful native species.

To end on a lighter note, it is no surprise that Arnos Vale is incredibly popular as a unique wedding venue and forest school. Its peaceful woodland setting, wildflowers, birds and nocturnal creatures offer an idyllic moment of quiet clarity from the city’s roar.

Arnos has a wonderful variety of British trees, from high, swaying poplars to mighty pines, many housing tawny owls, buzzards and song birds whose calls carry across the cemeteries’ 45 acres!

While operating as a habitat for larger animals such as badgers, there are several examples of micro habitats within its grounds – a simple wall leading from the war graves by Soldiers’ Corner may at first seem little more than a structural or architectural feature. However, the bricks and foliage offer an ideal habitat for smaller animals, such as reptiles like slow worms and common lizards.

To walk the Victorian cobbled path (just down from the top lodge) while holding a handrail, crafted from Arnos’ own Ash saplings shows a considered approach to conservation that many heritage sites can only hope to mimic.

I won’t spoil any more of Arnos’ secrets for you, but be sure to find some of your own during your next visit. And if you spy me lurking between the graves, hunting for a butterfly or carved hand, don’t worry, you’ll be doing the same before you know it!

Elizabeth Siddal – The Exhumed Muse

The 11th February marks the 157th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. While not exactly a household name, she is an icon, a muse, an artist and a beautifully tragic figure of the Victorian art world. Similarly, while the 157thanniversary of anything isn’t cause for great celebration, it is a welcome chance to introduce Lizzie to a new audience.

Like most women with an over-dramatic bent, I have had an affinity for Pre-Raphaelite muses since my teens. Lizzie Siddal with her flame-red hair and tragic life, became an icon of my own. Her life was fraught with turmoil, betrayal and beautiful art; she was celebrated as a model and is immortalised in some of the world’s most famous artworks.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais
Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais

Elizabeth Siddal was ‘discovered’ in her youth by the artist Walter Deverell, who saw her working as a shop girl in a milliner’s. In 1850 Deverell went on to paint her as Viola in Twelfth Night, however she was quickly accosted by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, with whom she sat for several seminal works. Through her association with the group, she is most commonly known because of her depiction of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Famously, while sitting for Ophelia in an iron bath, the candles warming the water extinguished. While Millais was too engrossed in his work to notice, Lizzie was too dedicated to complain, and as a result of her silence, she developed pneumonia and lay close to death for several weeks.

 

Siddal has long been a tragic, romantic figure due to her association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a pre-Raphaelite artist, poet, and philanderer. Their relationship was intense, dramatic and troubled; they were involved on and off for over a decade, before they finally married. Following the trauma and depression following a stillbirth, Lizzie’s addiction to the opiate Laudanum spiralled and she died in 1862, aged just 32.

siddal-photo-vh1

Lizzie was buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Rossetti family plot. She shares her resting place with Dante Rossetti’s parents, sister Christina and several other family members.

 

Dante, wracked with guilt and sadness, buried Lizzie alongside the only manuscript of his poems, tucked into her auburn hair. This was supposedly a last sign of devotion from her straying husband, an apology for what trauma he may have caused and that the finest of his works would lay with her, and her alone, for all eternity.

However, Lizzie’s undisturbed sleep only lasted for several years, before Rossetti’s ego came knocking. His unpublished works troubled him and, under cover of lamp light, Lizzie was exhumed. Rumour spread that when her coffin was opened, it was filled with her endless, flowing red hair that had continued to grow after her death.

While this is a biological impossibility, the image caught hold in the public imagination and only helped to increase her post-mortem longevity in popular culture.

 

Rossetti’s poems and sonnets were all later published. A large chunk of sonnets under the title ‘The House of Life’, which is often argued to be his greatest written work, if a little erotic for Victorian sensibilities.

When Rossetti himself died in 1882, he was buried in Birchington-on-Sea in Kent and Lizzie was free from any further disturbance.

2012 Photograph of Lizzie's Grave
2012 Photograph of Lizzie’s Grave

In 2012 I took a long-overdue trip to Lizzie’s final resting place at Highgate Cemetery where her grave, now off the beaten path, covered with dead leaves, was only accessible by special request of the tour guide. Nonetheless, to see her name in stone and to be able to pay tribute to a life cut short was worth the train fare alone.

 

Elizabeth Siddal’s life is so fascinating and varied that I implore you to read some of the following links to learn more about her. While a tragic figure, primarily defined by the male gaze, she was an artist and a writer in her own right and deserves to be more widely appreciated.

_______________

 

[Should you wish to visit Elizabeth’s grave – Old Highgate is now too overgrown and brittle for visitors to enter unattended, but tours are frequent and many of Highgate’s highlights are offered. But the urge to run off unsupervised, like a naughty morbid toddler is almost crippling.]

 

LINKS:

 

http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/

 

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/elizabeth-eleanor-siddal-494

 

http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com(Primarily concerning Fanny Cornforth, but is an excellent resource and Kirstie’s books are great reads.)

Gravedigging 101

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This week on ‘Burials and Beyond’, how to dispose of a body.

As much as I’d delight in upholding such a click-bait-y introduction, clarification is – sadly – imminent. Unless you’re inclined to murder and subsequent concealment, any deceased individual will pass through a chain of death professionals before they meet their final resting place. In this journey from death to internment and decay, we can be inclined to consider only hospital staff and funeral directors as sole ‘handlers’. However, they are integral pieces in the wider death jigsaw puzzle. I’d like to give a quick overview of a much-overlooked piece in the death and burial chain, that of the gravedigger.

As a Brit, I live in a country of ever-increasing cremation. In 1960, cremation to burial rates were 34.70%, whereas in 2015, they had risen dramatically to 75.44%.  Understandably, there are cultural and religious concerns to take into account in any burial practise, but overall, cremation is firmly the preferred method of ‘burial’ for citizens of the United Kingdom.

For those of us who choose to have our deceased buried, whether for reasons of religion or tradition, our thoughts often only extend as far as the funeral director, and not beyond. Subsequently, many consider the journey of our dead less and less. We buy a package, perhaps view the body, attend the service and return home. However, should you choose to have your deceased buried, gravediggers are an integral piece of the journey we frequently overlook. To help with my post, Dan, a very patient former gravedigger, agreed to answer my barrage of questions.

We know gravediggers exist, but our mental images of the profession are often warped by Victorian grotesques, or folk-take depictions of hunched sextons, busying themselves in remote churchyards. As delightfully gothic as these images may be, they are far from the contemporary truth. Should you live in a city, you can be sure there is a team of full-time, fully trained gravediggers waiting to bury your dead.

Digging a grave is far more complex than ‘dig a hole, chuck Nanna in, fill it up, pub, golden.’ Funeral Directors are frequently seen as the main ‘body burier’, but in reality, they are far more of a middle-man, providing guidance and comfort. So, how does a gravedigger go about burying your corpse?

Firstly, there will be an allocated plot within the cemetery – this may be a pre-purchased plot in prime position (with a prime price tag), or a regular plot assigned by the cemetery. Once the gravedigger has seen the plot, they’ll be able to estimate the time needed to dig the hole. Typically, there is nothing simple or constant about digging a hole. The gravedigger will know the ground; soft clay will take less time than very rocky earth etc. Believe it or not, some graves may take half a day to dig by hand, whereas another plot 200 metres away may take three day’s solid work with a mechanical digger and hydraulic hammer.

So, with the plot known, you…still can’t begin digging. Before shovel meets earth, the gravedigger needs to know the exact size and shape of the coffin (coffins taking precedence over caskets in the UK) as such a wide variety of styles require a wide variety of holes. If the details passed on from the funeral director are incorrect or dramatically change, the gravedigger has no choice but to quickly take a shovel to the graveside and re-size the hole in front of the grieving funeral party themselves. As a very tolerant gravedigger recounted ‘a beetroot complexion and trying not to fall into a grave while trying to jam in a coffin is not a good look.’

Having painfully foregone all temptations to make poor jokes as to the importance of size, now we must consider the equal importance of depth. If a grave is for one person, the gravedigger will typically dig to a depth of 4 ft. Most commonly, graves are dug for two internments, which will be around 6 to 6.5 ft deep. As my patient gravedigger recalls ‘there is nothing more annoying than digging out a rock hard grave for two people, only to be told on the day it was only for one.’

Similarly, multiple internments or family plots have their perils ‘If you get a grave for four people, you’ve got to get your miners hat on and take the caged canary with you! Being twelve foot down in a narrow grave is really very scary, and a ladder is a must!’ 

In terms of practicality, before the coffin enters the ground the amount of earth leaving and returning to the hole must be considered – if none was removed from the pile of earth, there will be a large mound left once the grave is filled in. If too much is taken, you’ve got a trough-shaped problem on your hands.

While digging, all graves are supported by wooden boards to try to prevent the earth falling in on the gravedigger themselves, but sometimes a collapse is imminent (see picture). Normally, such a collapse is little more than an irritant as the gravedigger may be free from harm, but the entire collapse must be re-structured and made safe before digging can continue.

Another perpetual pain is that of water intrusion. If a grave reaches a natural spring and fills with water, or if there is a particularly heavy downpour, the grave can fill with water… fast. So, how to solve such a problem with the funeral party gnashing at your heels.

Gravedigger Dan says ‘…you keep a pump running right up until the hearse pulls up, chuck a bag of dry leaves or straw down in the grave and whisper in the director’s ear “hurry the fuck up!”…’.

He continues, ‘I have been standing there and watched a coffin seem to be rising from the grave. Again, you can’t help but turn beetroot-faced when people are looking at you in horror…’

Similarly, gravediggers are no strangers to workplace mishaps. The webs (the straps used to lower a coffin) may snap, should they be in poor condition (a rare, but embarrassing hazard), and the coffin may tumble into the hole before the funeral party. Should the webs snap from a great height, there’s a good chance the lid will pop off too, unveiling Nanna’s wizened face to the world. Further to this, it is a rare, but not unseen site to see one of the funeral party fall in to the grave and break a bone or two of their own.

Depending on cultural and personal demonstrations of grief, wilful flinging of oneself into the grave is slightly more common than such an unintended tumble.

Through talking to Dan, he particularly emphasised that the greatest hindrance in the smooth burial of the deceased was the carelessness of other visitors to the cemetery. He has seen impatient people beeping their car horns at hearses as they both slowly enter the cemetery gates and others loudly cleaning and tending graves beside an ongoing service. He has seen cars driven into headstones and has had a careers-worth of abuse thrown his way from grieving families.

So, the coffin is in, the funeral party has gone, time to bury the dead. This is done by hand and is usually straight forwards… providing no rubble is being used, which may smash through the coffin when thrown in. Then back-filling picks up at double-speed to hide the exposed deceased!

Once the grave is filled in, with a little mound on top to accommodate the earth sinking (when everything settles, this should give the grave a level ground), the gravediggers then arrange the flowers that had been put to one side, remove any sign of their presence and leave at last.

Finally, cultural differences. Most cemeteries will be aware of different burial and funeral traditions and will subsequently accommodate or have measures in place for such rituals. Some cultures like to back-fill the grave themselves (which is a nice little break for the gravediggers!), others enjoy a graveside picnic and others may require water beside the grave so they can wash their own feet and the deceased themselves.

Gravediggers may be a rather ‘unseen’ profession, but their importance cannot be over-stated. It also cannot be over-stated how much crap they must withstand from us, the grieving public, So, next time you’re in need of their services, why not tip them? Or simply say a few words of thanks. Chances are, we’ll all need their services eventually!

 

 

Further Reading:

http://www.cremation.org.uk/constitution-and-annual-reports