A cemetery that’s licensed for weddings? I mean, yes – churches are often surrounded by graveyards, so that the newly matched emerge to the sight of the long dispatched, but marrying in a municipal burial ground?
Arnos Vale is the place, a high walled Victorian cemetery not far from the centre of town, just along from the station and slap bang on an always busy arterial road which at this point is home to a selection of tattoo joints and massage parlours. You can see why I was a stranger to the place.
But the other Sunday, I was up early, the sun was shining and so I thought I may as well go and see what there was to see. From the website I gleaned that, in a nutshell, Arnos Vale was a privately owned ‘garden cemetery’, inspired by the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, which served the city well for over 150 years but by the end of the 1990s it fortunes were failing and its gates were closed. To prevent the site being levelled and redeveloped, in 2003 Bristol City Council took over the 45 acre site and handed it over to a charitable trust as custodians. (Have a look at their website for more info https://arnosvale.org.uk/discover/heritage/friends-history-arnos-vale/ )
I have to say that I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. It’s still a working graveyard, albeit no longer a crematorium, so my first impressions were of neat rows of highly polished granite headstones, many graves adorned with flowers.
I’m ambivalent about cemeteries; I’m drawn to them by a fascination with the inscriptions and the monumental masonry but at the same time I’m reluctant to draw too close to such sites of sadness. The recent graves, still tended by those who are left to mourn and leave mementos, have about them an almost tangible miasma of grief and, for me, to linger amongst them is to intrude upon another’s loss.
So I moved swiftly past these newer interments near the entrance to the cemetery and turned off onto a winding path that led up a steep hillside. Here the stones mark the now forgotten, so long departed that nature is reclaiming their space. Time, tree roots and subsidence have rearranged the once precise plans to the extent that it feels more of a woodland than a graveyard, the odd headstone rising out of the wildness while the others sink gently back to earth.
There was barely a living soul about and yet it did not feel remotely spooky being alone amidst the graves. Instead it was all rather beautiful and comforting. It was oddly quiet too. The noise of the city on the other side of the wall faded into the background as the rustle of the leaves and the calls of the birds took over.
As the morning went on, others were drawn in – an exhausted looking young mother pushing a finally sleeping baby in a pushchair, another with excitable children and dog racing through the woods. By the time I got back down to the café housed in part of a striking modern glass extension to one of the mortuary chapels, the place was busy.
And as a place to get married I can see it now. Either in the contemporary extension or up on the hillside where a large rustic shelter, attractive in its simplicity, stands in a clearing to offer a setting for a woodland wedding. A bit dark and dank for me in October but it would be magical in midsummer.