Saturday, 21 July 2012

Bunhill Fields - honouring literary giants in an oasis of calm

In an uncompromisingly solid and practical City landscape, Bunhill Fields Burial Ground is an unlikely but welcoming oasis of green and tranquility for harried Londoners. It may sound odd to recommend a picnic in a graveyard, but I do; the obvious history of the trees and the tombstones seems to make time pass more slowly, and perhaps make our earthly troubles seem less severe - and where better to contemplate the vagaries of life than lying on soft, sun-dappled grass underneath an ancient oak?

'Bunhill' Fields comes from 'bone hill'; around 1550 this was a marshy stretch of fields outside the old City wall owned by St Paul's and they dumped the contents of an old charnel-house here during a clean-up. Apparently so many bones were bought here that it raised the level of the ground - hence 'bone hill'.

In 1665 it was set up as a burial ground for dissenters - those Protestants opposed to state interference in matters of religion and who as a result were refused the right to hold public office, attend certain universities - or be buried on consecrated ground. Bunhill Fields became a popular resting place for non-conformists including such literary giants as Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim's Progress) and visionary poet and artist William Blake.

'To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower . . . '

When I visited I was charmed and moved to find Blake's gravestone adorned with small gifts and tokens from visitors: flowers, trinkets, beads, shells and coins. If you go at lunchtime on August 12th (the anniversary of Blake's death) you can join members of the Blake Society and commemorate his life by reading from his work and then repair to the local pub for further discussions. Check their website for details:

Cramped and disorderly, Bunhill Fields is a striking image of what London's graveyards would have looked like in the seventeenth century. Now a carefully maintained Grade 1 listed park, you can download a useful little map from here:

Remembering Blake's words:

'A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent'

Be nice to each other,

Girl About Town xx

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