I have always loved visiting graveyards and the opportunity to combine drawing and walking around and between some London sites at the particularly important time of year for visiting the dead was irresistible. Organised by the social drawing group The Drawing Exchange the purpose was to create drawings to go on the Shrine to Dissent displayed at the Day of the Dead Festival at the Bargehouse, at Oxo Tower Wharf.
On All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en) I joined the group at Bunhill Fields, in the City of London, known as the Campo Santo of English dissent because of its use as a burial ground by nonconformists, radicals and dissenters, including John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake.
We did collaborative drawings to start off with inspired by a reading of one of Blake’s London poems, followed by our interpretation of his visions of angels in trees.
We planned to walk across the city from this ancient burial site to another on the south side of the Thames in Southwark, Crossbones Graveyard. ‘Bunhill’ derives from ‘bonehill’ and Crossbones is equally literally named.
Although only a short distance the contrasts in between our ancient sites were extraordinary. A few minutes from the leafy quiet of Bunhill Fields we had to pass through the dark glittering canyons of some of the newest sites in the City.
After crossing London Wall, the Roman heart of the city, and past a plaque to the house where Thomas More lived we walked by Bow Church and crossed Watling Street, with views of St Paul’s Cathedral.
From Southwark Bridge we see both the Globe, taking us back to Shakespearean times, and the Oxo Tower, and another glittering recent addition, The Shard
We reach Crossbones in the dark. A medieval burial site for outcasts, peopled by paupers and prostitutes, the gates have become a pilgrimage destination.
It is appropriate that we are here on Hallowe’en as from 1998 to 2010 a ritual drama was conducted here on that day, with an Altar to the Ancestors, on which mementos and food were placed, in a very similar way to the Day of the Dead rituals.
The next day, All Hallows, All Saints’ Day, we have an assignment at Highgate Cemetery, one of my old haunts, although I have to admit to not having been in the East cemetery since they started charging for entrance. I have just looked through the railings when I pass (frequently) and have seen it gradually being cleared and made more accessible. It is a revelation and I am amazed at how many new graves we find too.
After paying our respects to Karl Marx, and especially on this occasion to Claudia Jones, a female political activist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, buried next to Marx, we search out other dissenters. There are several other political radicals with a view of Marx, but other types of dissidents can also be found in Highgate.
There are signs of people leaving offerings and visiting relatives and as dusk falls the paths are lit by candles. Night falls over the cemetery with a lurid sky.
All Souls’ Day and the final part of my Days of the Dead odyssey to follow shortly.