Abney Park Cemetery, London


Green Space of the Month - February 2004
Abney Park Cemetery - Hackney, London

Abney Park Cemetery in London's East End is remarkable in that it is at once a nature reserve and a recreational facility for Hackney's incredibly diverse communities – at the last count 224 languages were spoken in the borough.

One of only two non-conformist cemeteries in London and one of the oldest garden cemeteries in the capital, Abney Park is Hackney's first Local Nature Reserve, consisting of 13 hectares of woodland, important for its ecology and its architecture. It is also classified as a nature reserve of metropolitan importance and as such figures highly in the Local Biodiversity Action Plan.

High profile events attract visitors from many of the ethnic communities in the neighbourhood, and culturally relevant activities are helping to secure the engagement of two significant local communities – the Orthodox Jewish and Turkish communities.

When Abney Park Cemetery was first established in Victorian times, two and a half thousand new trees were planted, including many from the late, great Lodiges arboretum of Mare Street. Over the years it has become a home and vital habitat to numerous species of butterflies, bats and other mammals.

Back then, attitudes to death were more accommodating, of necessity since death was very much a part of life in a way it's hard for us to imagine now. Families would come to picnic at their loved-ones' gravesides.

These days the cemetery is `open access', and is treated by the council as a park, with the gates opening each morning and closing at dusk. As well as being a place for families to come - regularly or intermittently - to tend graves, it also attracts workers in their lunch-break, occasional street drinkers, walkers and various tourists. Abney Park is part of the Capital Ring of cemeteries and as such is used extensively by Ramblers. Health walks have also been organised here for users of the Stamford Hill Health Centre. There have been problems at times, with walkers and other users feeling unsafe or unhappy due to the usual issues of loitering, cruising, litter, dogs and so on, but some of these have been gently displaced by positive activities in recent times.

The cemetery is managed by Abney Park Cemetery Trust, established in 1991, who delegate to a small staff team, including Kirsty Peterkin, who is employed by English Nature as a Community Liaison Officer for Hackney's Wildspace! Scheme. Kirsty has a background in arts and crafts, and used to come to Abney Park Cemetery to enjoy the peace and quiet and to draw. She has worked for most of the museums in Hackney so she has a good feel for the heritage element of the work. It also means she is used to having to do lots of fundraising!

Summer Fun

The highlight of the year at Abney Park Cemetery, and the main way people can get involved, is the annual Open Day, which usually takes place towards the end of the school summer holidays. Kirsty spends the whole of each summer working with children to create banners and sculptures to decorate the space. In the run-up to the event, she spends six months fundraising, and often does not know until the last minute whether or not her grant applications have been successful. They always lose money on open events, but Kirsty insists it's worth it to get 3,500 people through. Previous open day themes have included the Queen's Jubilee, when they planted golden trees and plants; celebrating 10 years as a nature reserve; and last year the event had a heritage theme – it was a Victorian Day. Environmental organisations run stalls and take advantage of the opportunity to reach out to the many ethnic communities who get involved. Workshops run throughout the day in the children's garden and environment centre, covering nature discovery, ugly bugs craft workshop, and green woodworking skills for all ages.

A vast array of multicultural talent is displayed during Open Day, including: a Djembe group; Klezmer Klub; Hackney Singers; St Paul's Steiner School instrumental group; Beskydy Balkany Band; Bengali singing, harmonium and tabla with Akash Sultan and Raju; Alan Wilkinson and the Headstones marching band; Rushmore school steel band; a Ceilidh; Chinese songs in Cantonese and Mandarin; Turkish Saz group; a Vietnamese music trio; London Jewish Male Voice Choir; a Samba Band; a puppet show and an assortment of buskers.

Specialist guides offer walks around the cemetery on themes such as the natural history of Abney Park, wildflowers and herbs and – picture this – the British Music Hall Society costume and song guided tour. Many well known music hall artistes are buried here, among a number of notables from the Jewish community, such as xxx physician to Queen Victoria. Of course the real value in these events is revealed in chance encounters between cultures, such as the moment when the Orthodox Jewish community groups spontaneously joined in with the music hall repertoire which has been remembered and passed down through the generations in their families. Walks have also been organised with a Turkish interpreter, highlighting features relevant to the substantial Turkish community of Hackney. The group have planted a Turkey Oak and it is hoped that they will return regularly to tend it.

Kirsty is building up a social history of Abney Park from the stories told by her many visitors, and there are plans to publish these in the form of a colourful booklet. The cemetery has a host of international connections. One of my favourite stories concerns a group of teenagers from a Welsh village, brought to Hackney by Monsignor Bruce Kent to tend the grave of their compatriot, the great peacemaker Henry Richard.

Activities for everyone

Abney Park Education Service offers a programme of activities for primary and secondary groups across science, geography, history, citizenship and art. Schools groups are monitored for ethnicity and the majority or children are non-white (rendering the idea of `ethnic minorities' problematic in this context).

The on-site classroom is available for use by family and community groups as well as schools. Tailored sessions can be shaped for different ages, abilities and needs, and nature trails around the site address themes such as literacy, navigation skills, using the five senses, and discovery treasure hunts. There is an after school environment club for local children, with the Wildlife Trust. Training courses for working skills in horticulture, woodworking, conservation and recycling, including women-only courses and pupil referrals, aim to lead students into work placements, for instance as park rangers.

Volunteer Days during the winter focus on conservation. Action has been co-ordinated by Friends of Abney Park Cemetery since the early 1980s to clear and restore footpaths, rebuild the front wall using donated bricks, and to clear the bog garden. Although the events, education and volunteering activities are well attended, recruiting people to serve as trustees is always a challenge.

Plans for the Future

There are existing plans afoot to restore the wonderful gothic chapel, which stands at the heart of the cemetery, and the boundary wall. The project would take four years, entailing teaching traditional stone masonry skills to local people. The building would become a flexible space, probably including toilets, a workshop and possibly a café, in order to help Abney Park move towards being self-financing. The improvements would be environmentally sustainable, using solar panels on the high pitched roof. The Trustees are busy drawing up detailed plans and hope that the Heritage Lottery Fund will support them.

For further information feel free to drop in at the Visitor Centre on Stoke Newington High Street at any time during the week.