It was on a Sunday afternoon in 1990 that I encountered my first cemetery mystery. A flatmate had taken me on a Sunday afternoon drive to a place I now know to be Farthing Downs near Coulsdon in Surrey. It is a local beauty spot with, at the time, one Victorian asylum on the other side of the valley and a group of Saxon burials and tumuli on its slopes. In the spring, drifts of bluebells cover the downs like small patches of sky, and the brightness of Happy Valley really hits you when you emerge from Devilsden Woods. The nearby Chaldon church would soon become one of my favourite places whenever I subsequently visited on urban exploring foraging. It’s in the middle of nowhere with no surrounding village but contains the oldest ‘doom’ painting in England. Its figures of angels and devils at the back of the congregation must have been a little worrying.
But I knew none of this at the time. We wandered about exploring with me taking photos of anything interesting or unusual. I was a lot fitter in those days and it didn’t worry me that the downs were 500ft up at that highest point. Then, as we passed what appeared to be a farm complex we passed a clearing near the top of the downs. It was a large area with cut grass and large stones all round its edges. There were names and ages on some of them but nothing else. But in its centre was a headless statue of a child on top of a large stone. I took my picture and as neither of us cared for the atmosphere of the place we moved on. But the picture and the site haunted me. Were these people or animals that had been buried there? But it was only when I, very recently took the photo out again, that I noticed that there was lettering on the stone beneath the angel. Unfortunately, it’s indecipherable.
Little did I know that, 15 years later, whilst exploring the derelict and very large asylum on the opposite slope of the valley, Cane Hill, that I would return to the Downs to try and find the angel again. But I’m not as fit as I was then and I had no idea where to even try to look.
It was the story behind the angel that intrigued me. And that’s what has always fascinated me about cemeteries. The stories behind the people buried there and why they’re there, sometimes many miles from home. Although many people see cemeteries as scary places full of dead people – it’s a cemetery, so yes it is full of dead people – it can also contain social history, interesting names for storytellers, wildlife including butterflies and symbols. The Victorian lost language of the dead which has become more important to me as I research. As a child I loved history and this interest in cemeteries has enabled me to continue with my interest.
I have been involved with one particular cemetery for over 25 years – Nunhead Cemetery which is one of London’s Magnificent 7 – after my father died in 1989. There was no place for me to visit and grieve and so Nunhead, and one angel in particular, fulfilled that function. I joined the Friends and began to help on the monthly FONC publications stall, then joined the committee and then became a tour guide. Firstly, leading a general tour and then a specialist tour on Symbols.
I have visited cemeteries all over the UK and abroad – Venice, Ground Zero, Norwich, Bury St Edmunds amongst others. The eeriest one was Calton Hill in Edinburgh on a very cold day. It looked abandoned and the empty buildings surrounding it had broken windows. I didn’t stay long. I had a scary experience in Greyfriars Kirk also in Edinburgh but that’s another story.
But I have always wondered about the headless angel on Farthing Downs………………..
Photo and text copyright Carole Tyrrell