This is a Halloween special. A walk through Arnos vale the largest cemetery in Bristol. There are over 45,000 graves and monuments spread over 45 acres and over 300,000 people are remembered here.
This week our history walk took us to Brislington close to the ITV west television studio. We had come to celebrate the end of October by visiting a necropolis.
First some background, Bristol was expanding rapidly in the 19th century. For centuries the city’s population was between 10,000 and 20,000 people but by the 1830’s it had risen to over 100,000. The dead were usually buried in the graveyard of the local parish church. However these were running out of space and in 1832 there was a crisis when there was a large cholera epidemic.
In 1836 the newly formed Bristol general cemetery company proposed buying a site well away from the centre of the city. At that time the most fashionable cemetery in Europe was Pere-Lachaise in Paris. Garden cemeteries had also opened in Kensal Green and Highgate in London.
Bristol architect Charles Underwood designed the main buildings using classical themes. The cemetery was divided into two sections each with its own chapel. The Anglican chapel is on higher ground and more lavish and the Anglican section is on consecrated ground. The section for Baptists, Methodists and other dissenters is unconsecrated and their chapel is elegant but simpler.
A major attraction for rich Victorians was that there was plenty of space for elaborate monuments. Until the 18th century graves were usually marked with a simple stone or cross. The 19th century saw a fashion for all things classical particularly among protestants who rejected crosses as being too catholic. We had fun spotting:
obelisks, reflecting the craze for all things Egyptian after the Napoleonic wars,
Celtic crosses the circle symbolises eternal life
Urns Romans used urns to store the ashes of their loved ones
Broken Columns a life cut short
as well as anchors, books, butterflies, flowers, birds and angels.
This unusual tomb was erected to the memory of Rajah Rammohun Roy one of the founders of modern Hinduism who died on a visit to Bristol.
Although much of the cemetery is overgrown the common wealth war grave commission maintains several sections of the cemetery and these are immaculate. This section is for casualties who died of injuries after returning to Bristol.
The designers of Arnos vale wanted to provide an arcadian landscape. The site has a dramatic amphitheatre shape with views over the city. Originally they planted evergreen trees such as cedars, pine and cyprus to signify eternal life. However over the years the original cemetery has become overgrown lending it a sort of gothic charm. It is also an important wildlife corridor for a variety of animals.
The first cremation took place at Arnos vale in 1928 and visitors to the café might be startled when going down stairs to use the toilet to find one of the original furnaces on display but thankfully no longer in use.
Although it might seem to be a strange place to go for a snack Arnos vale cemetery has a very good café serving homemade cakes and light lunches. If you want to wander round the graveyard or spot unusual wildlife I advise wearing a good pair of walking shoes as paths can be steep and slippery. There is limited parking but good public transport. When we visited it was half term but I was still surprised at the number of families with children who were spending the afternoon in the grave yard. Local schools had also contributed to a day of the dead exhibition.
It is also used as a unique wedding venue and a place to stage theatrical events. The next production being Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. To find out more Arnos vale