“Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode, The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road… My friends we will not go again or ape an ancient rage, Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age. But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth, And see undrugged in evening light the Decent Inn of Death; For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”
– From “The Rolling Road” by GK Chesterton
In December of 2000 I visited the UK for the first time with my husband, Andis. During our trip we were determined to see one of London’s spectacular old cemeteries and we decided to visit Kensal Green. We chose Kensal Green for three reasons:
1. It wasn’t as popular as the well known Highgate Cemetery so we assumed it would be empty of people & a great spot to take lots of photos.
2. It contained the remains of some of the most fascinating figures from the Romantic era such as writer and political radical Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron’s closest friend John Hobhouse as well as Byron’s wife Annabella Milbanke and Charles Babbage who was Byron’s daughter Ada’s companion and the inventor of the Analytical Engine. As well as painter John William Waterhouse and writer Wilkie Collins among others.
3. It has an ossuary.
On the day we were scheduled to go the sky turned a nasty shade of gray and spilled buckets of icy rain down on London. I was not going to let that stop me so I put on some industrial strength clothing, wore two jackets and grabbed the umbrella along with my 35mm camera before heading for the tube station. The trip to Kensal Green took about two hours because we got a little lost trying to find our way there (a common occurrence in London). As we reached the cemetery gates the sky began to clear a bit and the downpour stopped. What luck I thought! And then I took a good look around the cemetery…
Kensal Green is old. Very old. Almost 180 years old to be exact. And it’s suffering from serious decay and neglect. On the day we visited the grounds were saturated from the rain storms which had been hitting London on and off for weeks and you could see many graves that had been filled up with water now spilling their ancient muddy contents everywhere. The faint scent of rot and mildew filled the air. The necropolis was also vast and the grounds seemed to stretch out forever in the gloomy light. Realizing that we needed a little help, we headed to the small office to see if they were open and might be able to offer us some directions. Andis spoke to one of the helpful caretakers who offered us a copy of a crude hand drawn map and some important advice, “Stick to the roads and paths!” The area had grown dangerous over the years and the recent storms just added to the problems. She also mentioned that the catacombs were only open to the public on certain days of the year when special tours occurred. Unfortunately today was not one of those days so I wasn’t going to be able to see the ossuary, but I wasn’t going to let that get me down. There were plenty of incredible things to see on the cemetery grounds.
We heading in the direction of Leigh Hunt’s permanent resting place and began our exploration of Kensal Green. Signs such as “DANGER – COLLAPSING GRAVES AND STONEWORK” were everywhere but I decided to ignore them. I was determined to get some good photos no matter what the dangers might be. Besides the caretakers, we were virtually alone in the place but as we began to wander into dangerous areas we saw a haunting figure in black coming towards us. It turned out to be an old Scottish priest with a heavy accent carrying a large camera around his neck. He was a friendly man but he looked a bit lost and tired. He mentioned that he had been exploring Kensal Green for the past week and still hadn’t seen it all or found the graves that he was seeking. We discussed the dangers of roaming the place in the rain and wished each other luck before going our own way again. And as he waved goodbye he warned us once again to, “Stick to the roads and paths!” To say we weren’t a little disturbed by his words would be a lie. We were. But again, I was determined to get some good photos so I conveniently put his warnings, as well as the caretakers, out of my mind as I headed out into the soggy cemetery.
I started to move quickly because every ten minutes or so a few drops of rain would fall from the sky and I was sure we’d be caught in another downpour at any moment. Before long I was wandering off the roadways and paths while going my own way as I heard Andis saying behind me,”Be careful and watch where you’re walking!” Well, I wasn’t watching where I was walking. Soon I was dirty and mud soaked but I didn’t really take notice. I was too busy looking through the camera lens trying to get a good shot of the incredible scenery as well as trying to locate the graves I was especially interested in paying my respects to. As I made my way up a grassy saturated hillside I slipped. My foot went down deep and taking a good look around me I suddenly realized that I was knee deep in grave mud.
I couldn’t free my foot so I called to Andis for help but I couldn’t see him anywhere. Surrounding me were old damp graves erupting from the swell of water. The smell of ancient rot and mildew suddenly seemed stronger and I couldn’t seem to shake the voice of the priest warning us about the dangers in the area. As I struggled to pull my leg out of the thick muck I was struck by the fact that I was truly experiencing a scene straight out of one my favorite horror films. I expected a rotting zombie corpse to suddenly grab hold of my leg at any moment and pull me deeper into the ground as it gurgled out the word, “Brains!” I quickly came to the conclusion that zombies must had already gotten a hold of the priest, which is why we hadn’t seen him again or anyone else for the past few hours. I also suspected that the zombies had gotten Andis. A scream began to rise in my throat but at that moment my foot suddenly started to come loose and I heard Andis making his way towards me saying, “Move slowly, very slowly! You’re surrounded by collapsing graves!”
When Andis finally reached me he could see the look of panic on my face and knew exactly what was running through my mind. Thankfully I had come to my senses and we both burst out laughing and decided to continue our exploration of Kensal Green. I should mention here that I’m an independent person who often goes her own way without thinking things through properly and I think Andis might have gotten a small kick out of seeing me suffering the results of ignoring all the warning signs around me. But without one word of condemnation he helped me off the crumbling hillside.
We continued to explore the old cemetery for another hour or so but unfortunately we couldn’t find all the graves we were looking for and it was beginning to get dark. We both thought we had experienced enough horror film-like moments for the day so we decided to make our way back towards the main gates. Once there we realized we couldn’t possibly get back on the tube in the condition we were in. We were both covered in mud, dead leaves and the dust of a few ancient Londoners so we asked the caretaker if we could clean up in the office. She was surprised by our appearance so I had to confess that I had ventured off the path and had a minor accident. She seemed to get a laugh out of it (dumb Americans!) and pointed us to the bathroom. I spent 10 minutes in there trying to get cleaned up but I was still dirty when we finally left. I was rewarded for my exploits with a terrible cold which almost put me out of commission for the last two days of our trip and stuck with me for almost two weeks once we returned home to the states (I called it the “London Black Phlegm Flu” and it occasionally returns in the winter transforming me into a hacking beast and reminding me of my trip to Kensal Green). Would I do it again? You bet I would! It was one of the most memorable days of my UK trip and I wouldn’t change a thing. I also think I got some decent photos out of it all too.
When I returned home I discovered that Kensal Green had been used as a location for some great movies including two Richard Burton films, Look Back in Anger (1959) and Villain (1971) as well as two great horror films, Theater of Blood (1973) and Afraid of the Dark (1991). I’m particularly fond of Theater of Blood and I’ve written about the film before so I thought I’d share some of my photos of Kensal Green, which was used to great effect in the movie. They even re-created one of the cemetery’s most well-known tombs for the final resting place of Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), which is visited by his daughter (Diana Rigg) in the film. It’s also the spot where my favorite scene in the movie takes place involving actor Dennis Price and a runaway carriage. If you enjoy pitch black horror comedies Theater of Blood is well worth a look. More of my thoughts on the film can be found here.