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An ostentation of solitariness: looking for the wilderness in Abney Park Cemetery

By Bridget Penney.

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‘a multitude of thick bushes and trees, affecting an ostentation of solitariness in the midst of worldly pleasures’
Michael Jermin: A Commentary on the Whole Booke of Ecclesiastes, 1639

‘On the introduction of trees and shrubs into cemeteries very much of their ornamental effect is dependent; but too many trees and shrubs impede the free circulation of the air and the drying effect of the sun, and therefore they ought to be introduced in moderation. They ought not, as we think, to be introduced in masses in the interior of the cemetery, nor in strips or belts round its margin, unless under very particular circumstances. Every mode of introducing trees and shrubs which is identical with that practiced in planting parks and pleasure-grounds is to be avoided, as tending to confound the character and expression of scenes which are, or ought to be, essentially distinct….Almost all the kinds should be evergreen and of dark foliage; because the variety produced by deciduous and flowering trees is not favourable to the expression either of solemnity or grandeur.’
John Claudius Loudon: The Principles of Landscape-Gardening and of Landscape-Architecture applied to the Laying out of Public Cemeteries, 1843

‘Close by [Clissold Park] is Abney Park Cemetery, which is now so crammed with corpses as to make it reasonable to indulge the hope that before long it will be closed as a burial place, only to be re-opened as a breathing space for the living. And as the distance which separates these two spaces is not great, let us indulge the further hope that it may be found possible to open a way between them to make them one park of not less than about a hundred acres.’
W.H. Hudson: Birds in London, 1898

‘These tensions between different appropriations of [Abney Park] are articulated around many different phenomena or issues. Thus, for example, middle-class incomers value Abney Park cemetery precisely because it is overgrown and four-fifths wild—a good place for a Gothic stroll. A very different view is taken by some working-class people (far more likely to have relatives buried in the place), who find the unknown and neglected appearance of the cemetery a mark of decay, and argue that it should definitely be tidied up.’
Patrick Wright: On Living in an Old Country, 1985

‘Since 1992, it has been managed as an historic landscape and managed wilderness by the A[bney] [Park] C[emetery] T[rust].’
parks and gardens.org/plants and people

On the zoned landscape map of the former cemetery drawn in 2006, zone 10, designated Abney Woodlands, covers most of the site to the north and west of the chapel. The key describes it as ‘Former wilderness and elm avenues of Abney Park and oak grove and rare exotics of arboretum cemetery period.’ Among the dense growth of ash, sycamore and hawthorns, the oak grove still flourishes and can be explored. The course of the elm avenues is easy to trace on the map and it’s clear, from early writings about the cemetery, that the alphabetically ordered arboretum, most of which has disappeared, was planted in a belt around the perimeter of the site. But where exactly might the wilderness have been?

In the section of Cemetery Interment (1840) where George Collison enumerates the types of soil which occur in the park, he writes, ‘In the upper portion of the estate, or that which has for its old description “the Wilderness”, after passing through the upper stratum, the excavator arrives at a fine sand, of the kind used for household purposes’. (CI p248) This confused me, because my perception from walking round the park is that it is basically flat, though the ground level is so uneven from the excavations, subsidence, fallen monuments and overgrowth it’s hard to tell, and I would have assumed from observing that the main road east of the site rises going north to Stamford Hill, that, if anything, the ground would be higher in the north part of the estate. But that was because I failed to think about the course of Hackney Brook, which originally formed the north and much of the eastern border of the estate. ‘An ancient brook, which bounds a portion of Abney Park, joins the Lea river near Old Ford’ (CI,p242 fn). So the ground is higher at the southern edge of the park, where Abney House was situated, and slopes almost imperceptibly down towards the buried river. This is borne out by Collison’s remarks about the sand, which would place the wilderness somewhere within the areas on the landscape map marked as Zone 4 ‘The Birch Heath’, and described on the Abney Park Cemetery Trust website as ‘the relic heathy soils near Church Street’. Heathland soil is sandy, acid and not very fertile; silver birch and bracken flourish here but it feels more open than the rest of the site.

In A Guide to Abney Park Cemetery (2nd ed, 1994) Paul Joyce, writing about what the park might have looked like at the end of the seventeenth century, describes ‘a veritable wilderness of a shrubbery screening off the north side of Fleetwood gardens and, by its side, a shapely Cedar of Lebanon…’ (GAPC p23) The extent of the cedar’s canopy can be imagined from the elliptical path which is still named for it. If the wilderness had abutted it, then it would have been in what was described in 2006 as Zone 9 ‘Woodland Gardens (from Fleetwood Gardens)’. It might have stretched up to where the recently replanted Yew Walk cuts a straight line through to the way up to the chapel. Even by the park’s standards, this area is particularly jumbled and tangled. Perhaps the effect is intensified by the spronky young yews gradually overtopping the collapsing monuments. If you step off the path it becomes a struggle to make your way through. In late spring 2013, I tried to capture images in which the funerary elements had become effectively invisible among the foliage but my efforts were trumped by this photograph, taken by Kirsten Foster and tweeted by AbneyParkN16 on 30/04/2015.‘A peaceful country lane – in the middle of London. This is Abney Park.’ It was retweeted by others identifying it with their own experience of wandering through the cemetery.

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I’m going to take the easy way out and suggest that the physical location of the former wilderness isn’t actually that important. In the context of a mapped and clearly demarcated space, the use of the word ‘wilderness’ describes a human aspiration to a particular kind of experience. The seventeenth century garden wilderness, like the ‘managed wilderness’ which fills Abney Park today, embodies various ideas about people and nature, organised in a way that is no less deliberate for not being aggressively overt.

Jermin’s rather disapproving ‘ostentation of solitariness’ touches some relevant points about quite what people might be looking for in the wilderness. Ostentation and solitude should be mutually incompatible because if you’re physically alone there is no one around to show off to. Logically extended, this reaches a peak of absurdity with the living folly of the garden hermit whose whole job is to demonstrate the fact that he lives by himself: a far cry from what Jermin might have regarded as the unostentatiously solitary Desert Fathers, deliberately locating themselves so far beyond areas of settlement and cultivation that their privacy was unlikely to be disturbed. But where there is no ready access to vast tracts of uncultivated and uninhabited space, it can be difficult to be alone, when you would like to be, without someone seeing you. This may be why, ‘in the midst of worldly pleasures’ the wilderness of the English seventeenth century garden developed as a planned, and sometimes even as an enclosed, space. A brief article on the National Trust website describes them thus ‘Wildernesses, not exactly wild, but a woody place for intrigue and exercise.’

Like the French ‘bosquet’, from which it seems to have derived, the wilderness was a grouping of trees planted in a regular pattern to provide shade on hot summer days. But while the desired effect of the bosquet (a minimum of five identical trees, planted in a quincunx) was almost architectural and must have required a huge amount of maintenance, the wilderness, once in situ, tried to appear as if nature was being allowed to take its course. As a visual conceit it counterpointed the straight paths and parterres of the formal garden. Though its trees were planted in a regular pattern, one example would be concentric circles spoked by radiating lines, shrubs were then planted in between the trunks to obscure the design, creating stubs of paths and tricky random curves to ape natural forms. It may seem a long way from the bosquets arranged to alternate with squares of raked white sand graced by statues in a gigantic chessboard, but was probably closer in atmosphere to the ‘cabinets de verdure’ created at Versailles. Here bosquets, approached by a discreetly curving path, were planted within a larger wood. They provided solitude and privacy as well as shade. The remains of the ‘green cabinet’ in the wood at Newhailes, near Edinburgh, may offer a glimpse of this kind of experience. Accessed from the library’s French windows, it seems to represent a space in which the close coupling of natural and artificial heightens the awareness of thoughts and sensations evoked by both.

The garden wilderness, like a maze, offered the thrill of getting lost in a confined space. However, unlike in a maze, where dead ends exist to mislead and frustrate the wanderer in their quest for a single central goal, doglegs and blind alleys were the raison d’etre of the garden wilderness and would often be furnished with a seat where the walker could enjoy solitude and shade ‘…and the more these Walks are turned, the greater Pleasure they will afford.’ (Philip Miller, Gardener’s Dictionary 1735)

Unlike the wilderness, the maze doesn’t offer privacy. Though its hedges should be too high to peer over, the maze itself is frequently overlooked from an upper window of the nearby house or even an observation tower at its centre. A degree of supervision exercised over those in the maze could be seen as contributing to their safety and well-being – if they get irretrievably lost then an outside agent can re-orientate them – but it also discourages the romantic encounter or philosophical daydreaming. Entrants into the maze share a sole purpose; it is a restless space where anxiety levels can spike at the prospect of failure or encountering another person similarly lost and confined. Whereas the wilderness is entered, either alone or in company, by those seeking nothing more tangible than a state of mind. Wanderers can think and dream in a carefully neglected approximation of nature, recharging their batteries before re-emerging into the more open terrain of the world beyond.

That a genuinely affecting experience of ‘wilderness’ can be had in a pocket-sized space may be suggested by a parallel experience which Isaac Watts describes in his Discourse VI ‘The Vain Refuge of Sinners; or, a Meditation on the Rocks near Tunbridge-Wells’ 1729. ‘When I see such awful appearances in nature, huge and lofty rocks hanging over my head, and at every step of my approach they seem to nod upon me with overwhelming ruin when my curiosity searches far into their hollow clefts, their dark and deep caverns of solitude and desolation, methinks while I stand amongst them I can hardly think myself in safety, and at best they give a sort of solemn and dreadful delight’. His characterisation of High Rocks – a spectacular, but not really very high, sandstone outcrop that was already in his time a well-established tourist attraction – as approaching the sublime may surprise anyone who knows the place. Yet considering that except for his visits to the Kent spa, he rarely left the environs of London, spending much of his time at the Abney houses in Hertfordshire and Stoke Newington, these ‘huge and lofty rocks’ would have been the nearest thing to mountains that he had ever seen.

James Branwhite French, author of Walks in Abney Park the cemetery’s third guidebook, published in 1883, refers to the park as ‘Dr Watts’ peripatetic study’. The conjunction of walking and thinking is well-established, even over-familiar. Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, written in 1748, the year of Isaac Watts’ death, describes the process of walking ‘when I leave my head entirely free and let my ideas follow their bent without resistance and without trouble.’

Though today his name is familiar, if at all, as the author of hymns and even that is most likely to be refracted through the prism of Lewis Carroll’s parodies ‘How doth the little Crocodile’ and ‘Tis the voice of the Lobster’ in Alice in Wonderland, Watts had, in his lifetime, a considerable reputation as a logician. His 1724 work Logic or the Right use of Reason went through twenty editions and remained a standard textbook at Oxford for over a hundred years – which might be regarded as ironic when it’s considered that, until the University Reform Act of 1854, Watts, as a dissenter unwilling to conform to the Church of England, would have been barred from studying there. Later in the nineteenth century C.S. Peirce referred to Watts’ Logic as ‘far superior to the treatises now used in colleges, being the production of a man distinguished for good sense.’

Watts’ style is clear and easy enough for beginners to follow. He constantly emphasises the usefulness of logic as a way for the individual to make sense of and regulate his own conduct to the pattern of a pious man and a good citizen – though he is careful to distinguish between these roles and doesn’t rule out the possibility of being one without the other. Although little given to speculation about the world – as far as he is concerned, all is the result of, and ultimately refers back to, the perfect wisdom of the Creator – he is intensely interested in how the human brain endeavours to understand it. In The Brain Book he describes the brain as ‘this well-furnished repository’ filled with ‘correspondent traces or signatures’ of ‘millions of words and phrases, if taken together with all the various senses of them’ plus ‘millions of ideas of things, human or divine’ and ‘the pictures, the images, the colours and the sounds…little less than infinite’.

In Logic Watts distinguishes between ‘judgements’ and ‘propositions’. ‘Judgements’ take place in the mind and don’t have to be expressed in words whereas ‘propositions’ have to be presented in communicable form. Watts alerts his readers to the vital importance of expressing themselves clearly and the dangers of being deceived by those who better understand the power of language to hide as well as communicate intentions. He points out how entirely the meaning of words is affected by the context in which they occur; also how liable meanings are to shift over time.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that he favours simple and immediately familiar images to get his message across. He frequently cites Locke and was evidently convinced of the role of associations in forming ideas. Yet the interplay of multiple associations and impressions in the brain was, as already noted, impossible to predict. Watts had good reason to be aware of this. He had suffered a serious mental breakdown in 1712, about which he wrote
‘Oh, ‘tis all confusion!
If I but close my eyes, strange images
In thousand forms and thousand colours rise–
Stars, rainbows, moons, green dragons, bears and ghosts.’
In Logic Watts suggests that the brain assembles fantastical creatures out of elements it is already familiar with, but in the case of dragons that would hardly be necessary. Images of dragons abounded in early eighteenth century London – on the City coat of arms and in chapbooks detailing the adventures of dragon-slaying heroes like Sir Guy of Warwick or St George. Within living memory, ‘a natural dragon’ and ‘dragon egg’ had been on display at Tradescant’s museum. Plenty of pubs were called ‘The Green Dragon’: in 1702 there was one not far from Abney Park on Stoke Newington High Street. It kept this name until 1801 when it was bought by Richard Payne and rebuilt as the ‘Rochester Castle’. Its appearance today suggests that it was subsequently rebuilt, or very extensively remodelled, about a hundred years later. After a brief period as ‘The Tanner’s Hall’, in 1983 it became the third pub to be opened by the fledging J.D.Wetherspoon chain and the name ‘Rochester Castle’ was restored. So it is, in some sense, still possible to drink on the site of the ‘Green Dragon’ today.

Watts concludes that ‘Our imagination is nothing else but the various appearances of our sensible ideas in the brain, where the soul frequently works in uniting, disjoining, multiplying, magnifying, diminishing, and altering the several shapes, colours, sounds, motions, words, and things, that have been communicated to us by the outward organs of sense. It is no wonder, therefore, if fancy leads us into many mistakes, for it is but sense at second hand. Whatever is strongly impressed upon the imagination some persons believe to be true.’

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‘To come across [Abney Park] unexpectedly is rather like coming across a ruined monastery or outcrop of rain forest in the middle of a great city….Today it is in places something of a forlorn, overgrown, entangled forest, used by dog-walkers and those with a Gothic turn of mind only.’
Ken Worpole: Last Landscapes, 2003

‘It is magical this place, if a little strange….Trees and bushes have grown over the graves – a few of which are still tended by loved ones but mostly they are become beautiful moss covered artifacts. Several trails are well used and well maintained by the council, and the entrance from Stoke Newington high street is edged with impressive gates that open to a path bordered with lushous green grass.
There are many other trails, social trails, that are kept open through the passage of visitors. These lead in asymetrical directions, easily confusing the uninitiated.’
Gottiges7 on qype.co.uk, 10/07/2008

‘The winding paths takes you into such dense green spaces that you almost believe London no longer exists.’
Jeremy Worman, published in Pen Pusher, November 2008

‘Despite the dominance of vegetation left to its own devices and the feeling of having entered the setting of a horror movie or a magical maze, Abney Park is a park – no need to illegally climb fences, there’s a park map at the entrance, a visitor centre, officially labelled paths and botanically labelled trees. And people behave like they’re in a park – meeting up and having picnics (on the tombs, it should be added, which makes you look for pointy teeth…)’
nutsaboutplants.wordpress.com 23/08/2009

‘You don’t know if you are wandering around an overgrown cemetery or a forest that has gravestones within it.’
londonsquire.wordpress.com May 2010

‘Countless trees, bushes, weeds, flowers and vines wrap themselves around the sculptures and tombs so that you feel as though you are in an enchanted forest. You could spend hours exploring the large number of intricate paths.’
mymetropole.wordpress.com 12/06/2010

‘It is a huge space, covering 32 acres of space, surrounded on all sides by fairly built-up areas, and there is a real feeling of wilderness in some parts, where small paths pick their way between tumble-down tombs.’
tired of london tired of life.com 05/07/2010

‘[I]t’s a peculiar sort of neglect…the seemingly uncontrolled vegetation doesn’t spill over onto the paths; there is no litter; mysteriously stranded stones are carefully stacked in rows. Like many wild places it’s the product of a particular form of human intervention.
the dabbler.co.uk January 2011

‘Also – foraging. I’ve made elderflower champagne, nettle soup and beer, and wild garlic things, all gathered from the park. You get an interesting reaction when you tell people that’s where dinner came from.’
James Bridle, email to BP, 9/02/2012

‘Everything is covered in green and slightly overcrowded. Love all the little pathways you can discover. Let’s get lost shall we?’
Ashley V. on yelp.co.uk 22/05/12

‘As we walked up the path towards the mound, we saw a mother with a pushchair, two toddlers and somewhere a dog, which they were trying to find. Although we were talking as we walked up the path I don’t think the woman knew we were there because she gasped and jumped as she turned to see us just behind her. Also, although on our first visit, my boyfriend claimed not to notice any tension about the place, this time his imagination was going off on all kinds of morbid tangents, partly inspired by the clumps of long black hair which we kept finding along the paths. There is now some graffiti on the wall surrounding the mound, I think it says A Change is Coming followed by an encircled R – all in green paint. I don’t think I can see this in the photo you sent me. There was also a dead mouse or rat on the mound, lying on its back, probably caught by a fox or something, its rib cage was exposed. There was also a lot of litter around which somehow adds to the creepiness, maybe because you wonder what people were doing there or because it conflicts with any desire to find the place idyllic (and so less threatening) perhaps. The mound – or mount is certainly mysterious – you can’t help but wonder what is underneath it.’
Zoe Taylor, email to BP, 14/09/2012

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‘Came to Sir John Hartropp’s to be tutor to his son at Newington, October 15, 1696’.
Watts’ Diary, quoted in Cemetery Interment p 216.

In Watts’ time the mound was an island. Beyond the giant Cedar of Lebanon, Fleetwood gardens, the wilderness and the ‘straggling orchard’ the north and eastern borders of the park were delineated by Hackney Brook. Culverted in the 1860s, it still flows underground on the far side of the cemetery wall. On the other side of the brook was the heronry and open country. I’ve only ever seen herons fishing, solitary and perfectly still, at the side of a river, one leg tucked up, the neck crooked back into a spray of feathers, but apparently they form sociable nesting groups, building huge nests near the tops of substantial trees to which they return year after year. The view from Dr. Watts’ mound of these birds, standing one-legged and perfectly still on their huge nests in the trees on the other side of the wall, is hard to imagine. To the north it looks over back gardens with patches of lawn, flowerbeds, kids’ toys lying around and lines of washing; looking east, a parade of shops is barely visible through the trees. The herons have moved up to the reservoirs, fifteen minutes walk to the north.

How did Watts reach his island? A permanent bridge would have detracted from the charm of its isolation. If the inner course of Hackney Brook were narrow enough he might have jumped across but that’s as hard to reconcile with him being a small frail and increasingly elderly man as his dragging a heavy plank into place to form a temporary link. Maybe a stepping-stone, which would also act as a gauge of the brook’s flow. In a dry summer it might hardly be needed, but at other times the brook would be swollen with rain, submerging the stone and rendering the island accessible only with difficulty or not at all.

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May 1840: One of George Childs’ beautiful drawings for Cemetery Interment shows the approach to Dr Watts’ mound. At the points where the cemetery wall curves abruptly outwards to enclose the former island, two brickwork pillars reinforce the sense it is a place set slightly apart. The horse chestnut tree that adorns the mound is surrounded by a bench in rustic style, providing a convenient place for visitors to consider the life and legacy of Dr Watts or simply lose themselves in thought. Everything looks bigger than it is today; the wall appears well over head height and the mound, raised on a kind of platform, is almost on a level with its top. The tablet commemorating Watts is rectangular and much larger than the one eventually installed.
Although Collison writes about the cemetery as a place for solitary meditation among the trees and tombs, no single figures occur in George Childs’ drawings. His image of Dr Watts’ mound features a respectably-dressed couple strolling down the winding path that is still the main way of approach. Their shadows, middling in length, fall to the east, so the time is mid-afternoon. The man wears a dark frock coat and a stovepipe hat, the woman a bonnet and a light-coloured shawl draping her whole body. His right arm sweeps a theatrical gesture towards the mound in front of them.

‘There on a green and flowery mount
Our weary souls shall sit.’
Watts, Hymns, Bk 1, Hymn 53
In Cemetery Interment George Collison details the engineering works necessitated by the site’s transformation into a cemetery in 1840. The inner course of Hackney Brook and the ornamental pond behind Fleetwood House were drained and ceased to exist. Additionally five and a half miles of drains, (CI p 252) were constructed under the main pathways. This was to ensure the burials did not contaminate the water table and pose a risk to the health of those living nearby. As some of the graves were constructed as brick vaults over twenty feet deep to accommodate three or four successive burials with six foot of earth on top of each one, the importance of guaranteeing the site free-draining to a considerable depth was vital.
Collison explains that building the boundary wall that edged the newly de-islanded mound necessitated the removal of a circle of horse-chestnut trees ‘overgrown and crowded upon each other.’ Only the ‘beautiful chestnut’ ‘planted on the crown of the mound’ was left. (CI p211-12) Collison comments that ‘the tree on the summit has evidently been one of more than common interest from the circumstance, vulgar and inexcusable as it is, of the initials of numerous visitors being cut upon its bark.’ (CI p212) This tree was regarded as a physical and sentimental link to Isaac Watts. Visitors describe it as being planted by his hands and providing the shade in which he sat to compose his hymns. Given that he was associated with the site for over fifty years, there is an outside chance both statements are true. For the narrative about Watts the directors of the cemetery company wished to promote, that sufficed.
Collison goes on to assert that ‘A stone slab, with a copy of the epitaph inscribed on Dr Watts’ tomb, in Bunhill Fields, is placed upon [the mound].’ (CI p214). I very much doubt this slab, inscribed with Watts’ self-penned epitaph referring to his ‘fifty years of feeble labour in the gospels’ was ever actually installed. Mrs Hall, who visited Abney Park in 1842 and 1848 to research an article on Watts, (and elsewhere refers to Watts’ epitaph in Bunhill Fields as ‘an index to his humility’ (Pilgrimages to English Shrines, 1854, p242) only mentions ‘the tablet which records the love of Isaac Watts for that which in his time was lovely and solitary’(PTES, p241). Certainly the plaque described by Thomas Burgess Barker in 1869 with its simple text ‘This Mount was a favourite retirement of Isaac Watts, D.D.’ sounds identical with what is there today.

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The Mound was reconstructed in 1993 as part of a Horticultural Training Programme. The sweet, or Spanish, chestnut tree growing there now was probably planted then. ‘Because chestnuts do not germinate freely in Britain, few sweet-chestnut trees are genuinely wild.’ (Reader’s Digest Field Guide to the Trees and Shrubs of Britain.) Its large, narrow, toothed leaves grow alternately rather than in the ‘hand’ formation of the more familiar horse-chestnut. There are already quite a few sets of initials carved into its bark. In the immediate vicinity of the mound, massive, beautiful horse-chestnut trees shade the path.

The 175th anniversary of Abney Park Cemetery’s opening is on 20 May this year. That is also the day that Hackney Council will take back the management of the land from the Trust. The Trust will still have a key role in all areas of outreach, education and events but wants to celebrate the anniversary and its 23-year stewardship with a range of entertainment for all tastes and ages over a week of exciting events.’

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHERS

Thanks to everyone whose impressions of Abney Park are quoted in the text. The photograph ‘A peaceful country lane’ was taken by and is copyright Kirsten Foster. All other photographs by Bridget Penney.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Bridget Penney is the author of Index (2008), due to be reprinted by Book Works later this year. Other texts about Abney Park have appeared in 3:AM, Snow 3, and Field Report 2014.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 10th, 2015.