Walking round London pt4: Clissold Park to Springfield Park
The interaction of religion, architecture, people and place as noticed during a 120km capital circumnavigation
Leaving Clissold Park between the refurbished Paradise House and the last stretch of the New River, we find ourselves on Stoke Newington Church Street. A model of nominative excellence, it’s a street in Stoke Newington that features not one but two churches… sort of.
Hidden on the left behind Clissold House is the only surviving Elizabethan church in London. Dating from 1563, it was enlarged in 1829 by Sir Charles Barry Of Houses Of Parliament Fame; but by the 1850s even this expansion couldn’t keep pace with the burgeoning local population, especially with the congregation swollen by Londoners travelling to hear Thomas Jackson preach.
Evidently a man of action, Jackson offered the site of the rectory and garden for the building of a new church; apparently not short of ambition, for an architect he hired Sir George Gilbert Scott — he of the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras and the Albert Memorial. (Although £17,000 was raised by voluntary contributions, the building cost was too steep for a steeple, which was added 32 years later.) Inspired by Barry’s mate Augustus Pugin, Scott went typically Goth.
Speaking of feared Germanic invaders, both churches took Luftwaffe whacks in the Blitz; the Old Church was quickly restored (and is now an arts centre), although it took until the second Elizabeth’s coronation year to repair the newer building.
Stoke Newington was attracting nonconformists long before the nose-ring and hipster-beard brigades. Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe, a Presbyterian dissenter whose seditious pamphlets saw him placed in the pillory under Queen Anne’s crackdown, lived here and is name-checked by a road and a pub. And further down Church Street — past a place I once did a gig, a ludicrously overpopular butcher’s and an opportunist grocer smilingly requesting a fiver for an ice cream — is a non-denominational repository containing 200,000 people of various religious convictions: Abney Park Cemetery.
When Morrissey, before he lost his mind, warbled about meeting at the Cemetry [sic] Gates, some saw it as typical morose outsiderism: why visit a place dedicated to death? But the best resting grounds counterintuitively make the visitor happier. Abney Park is one of the finest examples.
For a start, it was laid out as an arboretum: 2,500 varieties of plants, including trees alphabetically arranged around the perimeter. As a place of nature, it is beautiful. Entering from the street’s bustle, you are quickly enveloped in nature, walking between centuries-old graves: soon you notice the paired headstones of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth.
Everywhere you feel the warm revivifying force of nature, not so much red in tooth and claw as green in bush and leaf. Some might call it overgrown, but with mature trees winding around the graves, it’s the opposite of those manicured military cemeteries which strive to sanitise death, to tidy mortality. Here there’s no overbearing formal or classical approach minimising you and your loved ones in The Grand Scheme Of Things. Life goes on, and the fauna appreciates the food — as did I with my ice cream. And it helps with the atmospherics: come at the right time of the gloaming and you might spy pipistrelle bats swooping around like extras from Scooby-Doo.
After the aesthetics, the ethics. Because Abney House belonged to non-conformist hymn writer Isaac Watts, it rapidly became the main burial ground for dissenters — those who practiced their religions outside the strict codes laid down by moralising mortals.
Avowedly non-denominational, Abney Park was the first major European cemetery to eschew the separation of graves along religious lines — ending a preposterous corpse-based sectarianism. The “end user” did not have to be consecrated, unless it was desired. These people helped you meet your maker in the way you wished. At a time when the capital’s extrapolating population was causing such a burial boom that Parliament had to pass a bill to encourage new private cemeteries — creating the ring of Victorian megaboneyards later dubbed The Magnificent Seven by architectural historian Hugh Meller — such broadmindedness helped to loosen the churches’ stranglehold on the public right to inter their loved ones.
Its founding stone laid in 1840 on the day Abney Park opened for its terminal business, the gorgeous grade II-listed Gothic centrepiece is Europe’s oldest surviving non-denominational chapel. It’s the only surviving public building designed by William Hosking, the first professor of architecture at Kings College, and quite the controversial figure in his day. Using London Yellow Stock brick and wrought Bath Stone facings, Hosking used Romanesque and Neoclassical features to soften the overall Gothic style so dominant in Christian architecture.
Hosking carefully designed the chapel to avoid bias toward one or other denomination. Its plan is cruciform but the arms are of equal length internally, extended on one axis by a covered entrance for a horse and carriage. Resolutely unconsecrated, it is a funerary chapel, not a place of worship dedicated to one conception of a higher power. And it’s all the stronger conceptually for its inclusivity.
Sadly it’s not in the best nick: boarded off, awaiting funds, but that can happen. Time and again when walking around London or indeed any town or city we find buildings that have been venerated, neglected, rediscovered and restored.
Forking right at the chapel, ambling down a beautiful easterly decline, I pass a couple of young men bearing a trio of hints that they’ve got a gig later on: guitar cases, lager cans and what I assume to be fashionable haircuts. It’s also a sign that we’re nearing a main road, the A10 — the road to Cambridge and King’s Lynn, known to the Romans as Ermine Street but here following the local fuss-free trend as Stoke Newington High Street.
Thusly exiting the cemetery, you realise you came in through the back door: this is the grand entrance, the Abney Park Temple Lodges. Designed in the then-voguish Egyptian Revival style — the hieroglyphics on the floor plaque translate to “The great gate of the mortal part of man” — it presents an unusually open face to the public, welcoming all to enjoy the area.
In return, not all welcomed the style. Augustus Pugin, who had designed much of the Palace of Westminster including Big Ben’s clock tower and was thus a man clearly not averse to frill, felt moved to mock it via the publication of an “Attempt at a Comical Caricature of the New General Cemetery for All Denominations”, the mid-19th century version of a subtweet. (Within a decade Pugin himself would require interment, having ended up in Bedlam mental hospital and eventually succumbed to what some modern analysts suspect was hyperthyroidism and the after-effects of teenage syphilis.)
It’s intriguing to consider at a distance how politicised was the architecture of death, with huge new cemeteries popping up around London. Besides Abney Park’s Egyptian revivalism and non-denominationalism, the designs of other necropolises were said to reflect the political leanings of their directors: Kensal Green’s neoclassical style clearly indicated Whig sympathies in opposition to the Tory/high-church preference for Gothic. This stuff may seem petty now but then it was literally iconoclastic.
Crossing the High Street, we climb Cazenove Road , presumably named for the family of Huguenot financiers who had fled France for Geneva to avoid religious persecution but later switched to the City of London for reasons more mercantile. The synonymous stockbroker firm, widely believed to be used by the Queen, later advised Margaret Thatcher’s government on 1980s privatisations.
The most visibly Muslim area on the walk thus far, Cazenove Road has been the site of the Sunni mosque Masjid-e-Quba since 1978. There are signs above doors, different dress codes wafting about, a solo song of praise drifting through an open window.
Two streets of pollarded trees later and about to enter Springfield Park, we’re wandering past the Tayyibah Girls’ School (founded in 1992 with a student cohort of four). Here’s an immaculately-dressed Jewish man resplendent in his shtreimel, a magnificent round furry hat resembling the result of a rabbit breeding with a cake box. He passes a Muslim man dressed equally impressively in his kurta, and neither reaches out to smite the other. In a town and a country which has a long history of religious pluralism, perhaps we can all just bump along. Perhaps we usually do.
Coming up next:To the river
The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the East quarter (Royal Albert Docks to Crystal Palace) will take place on Sat 26 May, the South quarter (Crystal Palace to Richmond) on Sat 9 June, the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) on Sat 7 July.