When people find out that I’ve written a book about the best graves in Britain, the first thing they ask is how I went about choosing them. “Very carefully!”
It took four years and thousands of miles to research and write Finding the Plot. Indeed I spent so much time in graveyards that I invented a word for it – “graving”. I do not think this is macabre in the least as I find them oasis of calm, not to mention repositories of history, whimsy, fashion and folklore. I went all over Britain to get the right mix of people, places, monuments and accomplishments. As part of all of that I have developed a theory as to why so many people end up buried in the wrong place, which I share regularly at literary festival events.
I wanted my 100 to be a real mix of people and places. Here were the criteria I set myself:
I would say about one-third of my graves I chose just for the people and the story of their lives. Take, for instance, George Symons is the man who invented the rain gauge and, therefore, modern meteorology (he is the man who made it possible to say “since records began”). He doesn’t have a very showy grave at Kensal Green Cemetery in London, though it is made of slate from the rainiest bit of England in the Lake District, and that means it is very rainy indeed there, but I think he should be a national hero.
I couldn’t believe it when I stumbled across the grave of a Victorian shipping magnate called Frederick Leyland in Brompton Cemetery (I had gone to see Emmeline Pankhurst who, interestingly, lists herself as “wife of…” on her epitaph). His grave is more like a jewel-box, an amazingly intricate metalwork design of flowers and lilies with a fish-scale roof. It turns out it is by Edward Burne-Jones. It should be in a museum but instead it’s in the Brompton in West London where anyone can see it just by strolling by.
I must admit that I had no idea until this book what a funambulist was but now I can reveal that it is a tightrope walker and the most famous one of all was Blondin (real name: Jean Francois Gravelet) who invented walking across Niagara Falls. The man was amazing: he actually used to stop and cook an omelette with a little stove on his rope! Plus he roped in (ha ha) his daughter and took her up there in a pram. I found an amazing account of one of his shows by Charles Dickens. His grave is in Kensal Green.
One of my very favourite graves is in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and it belongs to a man named Daniel Lambert who, when he died, was displaying himself as a “curiosity of the world” because he was 51 stone! Needless to say, they had to demolish a wall to get his coffin out of the room that he died in.
On a hillside near Eyam in Derbyshire, there is a little circle of seven graves. This is the Hancock family and all the graves were dug by Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her husband and then all her children, not to mention the neighbours, who were some of the last to die in the “plague village” which, after the disease arrived in the village, carried by fleas in a bolt of cloth, decided the only moral thing to do was to cut itself off from the world. It wouldn’t happen today.
I have a soft spot for them and have included Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen (and her sister Cassandra), Mary Shelley and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And that’s only the start…
I blame Florence Nightingale. When I discovered that she had an owl named Athena and that Athena even had her own biography, written by Florence’s sister whose name was Parthenope, and that the owl was stuffed and on display at St Thomas’s hospital in London, I couldn’t resist. And then there was Byron’s dog and Wellington’s horse…
So there were my criteria. Do feel free to check out my Finding the Plot facebook page (link below) or to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org with any ideas you may for the best grave in Britain. You never know, there could be another volume.