Without a City Wall

IMG_6653Many of my moments of deepest introspect have played out against a cemetery backdrop. While the initial draw was intrinsically gothic – a black-clad teen skulking between the stones of St Sepulchres on a solitary lunchbreak – over time it became something far more spiritual. After all, what is a graveyard if not the resting place of memories, sculpted into statuettes or set on simple slabs? What is a grave if not nature reclaiming recollection, as ivy creeps into inscriptions?

There is no fear in this. No, to me the cracked slabs and overgrown mounds of a tucked away churchyard speak of comfort beyond contemplation – and I have thrived amongst them. There were textbooks pored over beneath the bower of St Sepulchres. There were the moonlit strolls through St Cuthbert’s, a tonic to the wild nights that preceded them. There was the dark majesty of Olšanka, where we danced through the changing seasons of our first year together.

It only stands to reason that I find myself a less-than-final resting place in my new home. And on a foggy Sunday morning, with a top hat on my head and my two dearest adventurers at my side, I set out to do so.

IMG_6646Brighton’s Extra Mural cemetery is the stuff of dreams for the cheerfully macabre. Seemingly maintained with people such as myself in mind, the Victorian burial ground comes complete with a marked ‘tomb and nature trail’, and a charming walled picnic area. Delightfully derelict in some parts and carefully manicured in others, the sprawling necropolis is at once a historical monument and an active place of burial and cremation. While many monuments are proudly presented along the meandering pathways, many more are lost to layers of holly and ivy, subtly enticing passersby to delve into the undergrowth and discover their secrets.

Fortunately for us, we had a knowledgeable guide on our side who had done a fair bit of discovery on our behalf. Our introduction to this field of Victorian fancy was expertly accommodated by local guide and all-around dapper chap Nick Richmond. With a portfolio of walking tours ranging from the family-friendly (Palaces and Piers) to the eerie alternative (the Brighton After Dark Murder Tour), Nick is driven by a genuine passion for the stranger side of Sussex history – a passion that explains a lot about the dress code.

IMG_6674After all, this was no ordinary walking tour. This was an official meeting of Brighton’s Steampunk Society – a gaggle of multigenerational lovers of history, art, engineering and the bizarre corseted and tentacled intersection of the three. Top hats and brasswork abounded, and as the graveyard-goers gathered, passersby paused to take photos. Then all at once, we were off into the depths of a Victorian history much stranger than science fiction.

Over the 90-minute stroll through stunning sepulchres and blank-eyed angels that followed, Nick provided a commentary that covered all the bases, from a comprehensive history of denominational graveyard politics to an impassioned speech on how Alistair Crowley (cremated in the cemetery because his hometown of Hastings refused to have him) was a much-maligned war hero. Along the way we saw a smattering of appropriately steampunk details such as brass-plated depictions of alembics and a plinth shaped like a giant cog.

13901338_10153608260561432_1911057794232085398_nAs someone who normally shies away from guided tours, preferring to idly wander at my own pace and interpret things as I will, I was pleasantly surprised by how Nick’s gentle observations and witty asides enriched my experience of the graveyard and its contents. Far from a shuffling stream of tourist zombies, our group of fifteen felt like an unlikely crew of comrades.

The tour was concluded with a languid picnic in the rest garden as the sun finally made its presence known. The shared supper featured cream tea, gin and tonic, frankincense, nerf guns, casual elemental rituals, and stimulating discussion.

Stepping back onto bustling Lewes road was a bizarre dichotomy after such an immersive history lesson, but was nonetheless accompanied by a knowledge that I’d soon be back for more mist-wreathed meandering in this field of fading memories.

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