Early Morning Amongst the Graves of St. Alfege Park, Greenwich, a set on Flickr.
St. Alfege Park, in Greenwich, in south east London, is part of the former churchyard of St. Alfege Church, the 18th century church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built on the site of two previous churches dedicated to St. Alfege, who was Archbishop of Canterbury when he was murdered, by Danish raiders who had kidnapped him, on April 19, 1012 AD.
Explaining its history, London Gardens Online provides the following description: “When the original churchyard became full an additional area of land was acquired in 1803 and consecrated as a new burial ground. This in turn became overcrowded by 1853 and the two churchyards and church crypt were then closed for burial, having taken almost 45,000 burials. In 1889 a Church Faculty transferred management and maintenance of the burial land to the local authority, the Greenwich District Board of Works. The churchyard extension to the west, which contained the old mortuary building, was laid out as a recreation ground and opened in 1889. The design and layout of the garden was undertaken by Fanny Wilkinson, landscape gardener of the MPGA [the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association].”
The park is accessed through a doorway in Church Passage, which runs beside the church, and although it is only two hundred years old, and has been a municipal park for over a hundred years, it is a powerful place, its old gravestones adding immeasurable atmosphere to a space that is an oasis of calm in an otherwise busy urban environment.
That distinction was less apparent just after 8 am on a Friday morning in November, when I visited, but at any time of the day or night the park — because of its intimations of mortality — is a place removed from normal life. In case anyone is wondering, I was in Greenwich so early in the day because, with the help of a friend, I was liberating my bike from where it had been locked up overnight after my key snapped in the lock.
Since I first stumbled on St. Alfege Park many years ago, I have always found it to be a particularly special, almost secret place in Greenwich, which somehow eludes the majority of tourists, and the only unpleasantness that I recall in its recent history was in September 2011, when its custodians, the Friends of St. Alfege Park, got rather carried away with their attempts to civilise an overgrown corner of the former churchyard, and ended up attracting widespread outrage, not just from the local media and bloggers, but also from the Daily Mirror, which led to a profuse apology.
What happened was that between 25 and 30 headstones were broken up by a Community Payback team working on behalf of the Friends of St. Alfege Park. The secretary, Johanna Taylor, and another remember of the group, Suzanne Miller, issued a statement, in which they explained, “The Friends of the Park greatly regret our part in this distressing occurrence. In the process of tidying a neglected area of the park, the Community Payback team were asked to remove nettles and other plants that had invaded the ground and adjoining gravestones along a short stretch of perimeter wall at the east end of the park … We believe that the intention was to move any stones that had to be disturbed to a storage area in front of the Old Mortuary building, and that when some were damaged by attempts to remove the plants it proved impossible to carry them and they were broken up. In the event, and for reasons we do not know, they were all broken up.”
They added, “We greatly regret this, and we hope to work with the council and local community to look at appropriate ways to reuse the broken stones, for example, by creating a memorial garden.Although each of these 25 or 30 stones is a part of the history of Greenwich, well over 400 similar gravestones are similarly propped against the parks perimeter walls. We consider that they are all important and of great local interest, though many of those remaining are also illegible and crumbling and they no longer mark actual graves, having been moved from their original positions decades ago.”
I hope you enjoy the photos — the 64th set in my ongoing project to photograph the whole of London by bike. See here for the previous set of photos taken in Greenwich immediately before and after this set, and see here and here for the previous two sets of autumn photos taken around south east London (including Greenwich). There’s one more autumn set from south east London to come (out of the many sets of autumn photos I’ve taken in my neighbourhood), and then I’ll be making some older, sunnier photos available, of other parts of London, from the huge backlog of unpublished photos I’ve been building up over the last five months.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, David J. Clarke wrote:
Always good to start the day with reflections on mortality and the fleeting nature of existence. There must be quite a few parks in London that were formerly graveyards. I ate my lunch in one (the last time I visited) while the worms ate theirs.
Curious about the eponymous saint? Here is a link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%86lfheah_of_Canterbury
Thanks, David. Very good to hear from you. Ever since I discovered the story of St. Alfege, many years ago, I’ve never been able to look at the centre of Greenwich in quite the same way as before. There must, of course, have been many horrible deaths in Greenwich in the 1000 years since – of poor people starved to death, whose lives have been forgotten, no doubt – but there’s a powerful poignancy to Alfege’s story, perhaps amplified by Hawksmoor’s architecture.
David J. Clarke wrote:
Love the history. England has some spectacular churches oozing history. I particularly enjoyed visiting St.Wystan’s in Repton. There is a beautiful stained glass representation of Ælfflæd daughter of King Ceolwulf I of Mercia. The crypt below was the resting place of the kings of Mercia. And this is where in 873 the Danes fortified the church and left behind a mass grave containing 250. Barbarians at the gates – same as it ever was!
Yes, perhaps only the weapons of choice change with the passage of time, David. It feels like the Tories – related to the landowners, royalty, the Normans – are waging war on the ordinary people of Britain, who they regard, essentially, as sub-human.
David J. Clarke wrote:
We must remember not to sink to the level of dehumanizing those we oppose … it is too easy to become the thing we despise and lifting each other out of the morass is what is important. There are some who are arguably sociopaths but most are just victims of indoctrination coupled with an archaic system that has entrenched privilege in many subtle and perverse forms. Ultimately there is no separation we are all human together. If we are to be saved it is either together or not at all. How to inspire people instead of putting them down is what this struggle is all about. The pictures that you post are in many ways emblematic of this potential. Thank you.
I am honoured, David. Thank you. And your message about not sinking to the level of those we oppose is very powerful, and thought-provoking.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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