About me – how I became a Graveyard Girl


Scan as on film camera. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Scan as on film camera.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

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 was 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 am now  a tour guide at Brompton Cemetery again specialising in Symbols and am also  part of the Volunteer team in the new Visitors Centre.

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


17 thoughts on “About me – how I became a Graveyard Girl

    1. Dear Andrea
      Good to hear from you! I am happy for you to post ‘The Square and the Compass in your e-newsletter. I would be grateful if you could email me a copy of it for my records if possible. Your site looked very interesting – thanks for the link.
      Many thanks and best wishes Carole


      1. Dear Andrea

        Thank you so much for sending me the Association’s September e-letter. It was fascinating reading – there’s certainly a lot going on!

        I loved the cover photo because, as you know, we have the Angels of Death over hereon 18th century tombstones but in a different style.

        I totally agreed with the comment on page 13 under Massachusetts Archaeology Month that

        ‘burial grounds are outdoor museums, accessible and open to all.’

        How true that is! I have found interesting name sand stories and met fascinating people since discovering them.

        Now I know where your organisation is I will definitely be stopping by.

        Thanks again,

        Best wishes



  1. Hello Carole

    I hope you don’t mind me contacting you….

    I wondered if you could point me in the right direction to location the Gates for “Netherne Cemetery” although I do live locally I’ve not been able to find the actual gates…

    Take Care


    1. Hi Steve
      Good to hear from you. If you go up Woodplace Lane from the Coulsdon end, go right to the end where it forks. On the left hand side there is Park Lane. On the left hand side on the corner of Woodplace Lane and Park Lane is a large field. Look across it from its entrance and you’ll see a group of tall chestnut trees. Walk around the border of the field or across it if there’s no crops there towards the trees. When you reach them the ground dips but there’s a small path to the gates. There are no signs to the cemetery at all – I think the locals like to keep it quiet. Let me know how you get on and what you find. I visited in August last year but with the winter die-off you might see more. Loved the photos on your Facebook page. Best wishes.


      1. Hi Steve
        Just liked your page – if you need any more help on Netherne’s location let me know. I got lost last year and wandered around for a while until I remembered the field!
        Good luck!


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