Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, London

Thursday 9 January 2020. It was lovely to be in London, but it also meant that the Handels’ wonderful holiday was drawing to a close. The previous day, our first full day in the city of Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and now the Shard, we had, among other activities, visited the site of Marshalsea debtors’ prison, of Dickens’s Little Dorrit infamy, in Southwark, having been inspired to do so after listening to a radio adaptation of the book while driving in Wiltshire. Today, again in pursuit of the unusual, we set out to visit the historic Bunhill Fields Burial Ground on City Road, near Old Street station, whose famous denizens include John Bunyan, a 17th-century preacher and writer best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress; Daniel Defoe, a late-17th/early-18th-century writer whose most famous work is Robinson Crusoe; and visionary 18th-century artist and poet William Blake. I particularly wanted to see William Blake, whose watercolours at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) I greatly admired when resident in London 25 years previously. From our rental house near Blackheath we walked down to Lewisham station, caught the train to London Bridge, and from there the tube to Old Street station. The cemetery is only 200 metres south of the station along City Road. Like the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome, Bunhill Fields is a garden of peace and (relative) quiet in a busy part of London. Deriving its name from ‘bone hill’, the burial ground was established in 1665, and as it was never consecrated it became popular with nonconformists (non-Anglican Protestants) such as John Bunyan. Upon arrival we immediately sought out the aforementioned trio, then spent time looking at other tombstones; those of anonymous folk were just as interesting as those of personages such as Isaac Watts, a composer of hymns, or Thomas Bayes, a mathematician known for his law of probability, or Susanna Wesley, mother of John Wesley, whose theology gave rise to Methodism (and whose chapel over the road we would soon visit). Curiously, William Blake has a headstone and a gravestone some 20 metres apart. After his headstone (not the original, but one dating from 1927, the centenary of his death, and inclusive of his wife, Catherine) was moved in the 1960s to its current location near Daniel Defoe, the original site was lost, and only rediscovered in 2006. In 2018 a new gravestone was laid over the rediscovered site. As we wandered around, businesspeople, office workers and sundry others walked through the cemetery from Bunhill Row to City Road and vice versa. People were also sitting on the benches drinking coffee or enjoying the sun. When we had finished in the burial ground, Mrs Handel was keen to visit John Wesley’s Chapel, the ‘Mother Church of World Methodism’, across from Bunhill Fields on City Road. It is an impressive building, with a handsome, light-filled interior, friendly staff, and a quaint little museum in its crypt. John Wesley’s house is next door. Gentlemen, do not fail to visit the church’s original Victorian gents’ toilets, complete with Crapper’s cisterns and pull-chains. Priceless.

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