‘For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.’
Today we are a mere ten minutes walk from our house but feel like we might have taken a stroll down a country lane, except for the screech of a train every other minute and glimpses of a distant crane atop the skeleton of a new build. Even the looming ironwork of the local gasometer only signifies the coming of the modern age for the Victorians, having been part of the landscape since 1845. Apart from the scurry of a squirrel and the rustle of the leaves from a disturbed bird, we are very much alone. The sun is glorious (really the only adjective) - is it brighter in the winter months because it’s lower? I remember only broad sheets of blinding white sunlight from my childhood in the far North of Queensland, but this is golden and warming and basking.
Wandering along, the headstones, graves and crypts are a motley lot. Some lie lopsided, having sunk into the damp soil, some have been lovingly replaced and the marble stands tall and new, even though their resident has ‘fallen asleep’ over one hundred years ago, and then others have been worn bare. Every so often we pass a large family crypt of ‘notable people’ – aristocrats, philosophers, authors, doctors, engineers…. Decorated with ornate statues and motifs. And dotted all over, are the shiny new ones, black granite with gold lettering, complete with photographs, nicknames and faux flowers.
The cemetery was the first of the "Magnificent Seven" garden-style cemeteries in London and I am struck by the majestic oaks, already bare, giant chestnuts and plane trees whose leaves, yet to fall, are a startling yellow. I have read that Wilkie Collins and Harold Pinter are both buried here, (amid so many other ‘notables’) but in this cityscape of headstones I am at a loss where to find them.
We come to the Anglican Chapel, a grand neo-classical listed building that sits on the peak of a small rise. Shafts of light shine between the colonnades creating symmetrical shadows across the terrace. We tentatively walk through, unsure what we will find, but there is no one around and when we come to a set of grand doors, they are sealed shut. Plaster peals from the cornicing and again we feel like we are exploring the ruins of bygone grandeur. Except that one can still be buried in the catacombs beneath. Something has been pinned to the large green doors. Up close, I read that it is an advertisement from the Friends of Kensal Green Society, ‘Tours Offered’, £7.50, every first and third Sunday of the winter months.
The cemetery is famously mentioned in GK Chesterton’s poem ‘The Rolling English Road’ from his novel, The Flying Inn, 1914.
I laugh to think how many a night had already ended up in [the] Paradise where good news was heard and fine things were seen... and many surely had their version of paradise, but we never went via Kensal Green cemetery (thankfully).
The Rolling English Road
by GK Chesterton from the novel The Flying Inn, 1914
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.
His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.
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.