In the darkest corner of what must be the most dilapidated cemetery in London, a small mound rises to a height of about three feet. At its centre is a chestnut tree, beside which stands the stone figure of a woman, dressed in classical robes and conspicuously headless. Tall, white-flowering weeds have proliferated in the fortnight since my last visit, competing for attention with the empty fag packets and crushed cans of cider that litter the ground.
This, according to the plaque below me, was once the “favourite retirement of the late Isaac Watts” – the poet and hymnographer who wrote the words to “Joy to the World” and hundreds of other songs of praise. Watts lived in these grounds, in Abney Park, Stoke Newington, from 1736 until his death 12 years later at the age of 74. It wasn’t always a wild space, with weeds and tree roots upending gravestones; and I doubt that the grotto my partner and I chanced upon a minute or so away was always strewn with used condoms.
Abney Park opened as a non-denominational burial ground in 1840 and was one of the “magnificent seven” cemeteries of London, established to help alleviate overcrowding in local parishes. Almost 200,000 people are buried here; so many that, by the early 20th century, the phrase “to go to Abney Park” was slang for “to die”.
But death has no dominion over this cemetery. It is teeming with life, from its 2,500 trees and shrubs to the woodland birds that dart chaotically across my path. Close to the chapel, now boarded up for repair, we pass an old beam tree. A sign at its root explains that though fires have been set against it – and even in its hollow – it “continues to grow and, each June, produces large, white, foxglove-like flower panicles”.
The writer Bridget Penney, who is working on a project about the park, tells me that it’s “a very privileged space. People are able to draw a whole range of experiences from it and take what feels most relevant to them.” She’s right – I’ve seen boozers boozing, people walking their dogs, children kicking a punctured football around. Amy Winehouse shot a music video here (“Back to Black”) and made it look like a place of high drama; I come here to drink tea. And it’s a popular cruising area – apparently, there’s even an audio guide for this.
Walking towards the Egyptian-style exit, we see a pile of flowers, some of them arranged to spell out the words “our nan” and “sister”. There are so many flowers that I can’t see the grave or gravestone; only a plastic name tag tells me that the deceased was “Aunt Joyce”. It’s a reminder that, as Penney told me earlier, “Burials still occasionally take place here.”
Nearby are the small marble graves of Tom and David Durnan, who died in 1993 and 2002, respectively. Above them is a laminated piece of paper. It reads: “Please stop stealing my flowers. You are upsetting me very badly. I am David and Tom’s mum, Margaret.”