Bunhill Fields, a leafy graveyard in London’s financial district, is a welcome patch of green among looming concrete and glass. The final resting place of colourful characters including William Blake and Daniel Defoe, its peaceful atmosphere counteracts the urban urgency all around.
Every morning stern-faced office workers stream along its central path, two unbroken ribbons heading east and west. I imagine the effigy of John Bunyan, recumbent on his tomb, turning to observe them as they scurry past. I fancy that the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, known for his skilful rendering of human foibles and desires, would be delighted to have found the perfect spot to continue his studies of London life.
Active from the late 17th century until 1854, burials have long ceased on this site. So I was quite surprised when I recently encountered a team of workmen digging around the graves. I asked one what was happening and he told me that Bone Hill, its original name, is a former marsh. Many of the tombs are subsiding—he pointed to one that had collapsed—but are now being shored up and cleaned. Errant vegetation is being removed and water jets are targeting years of city grime. Beautiful carvings and inscriptions are appearing in glowing white stone.
It’s great that such care is being lavished on a place that could have been left behind in the scramble to build office towers. And it’s fascinating to watch as every week more of the monuments return to glowing health.
Now, some newly-buffed tombs are even starting to look rather stark. But I’m sure it won’t be long before nature begins to reassert itself. Because while I’m delighted to see this memorial ground of notable non-conformists being properly nurtured, atmosphere is important, too. And for that you need a scattering of wayward ivy and ferns peeking out among the stones.