The opening line is unashamed clickbait, but it’s true – Bunhill Fields is a gem of London’s history.
It is part-burial site, part-park and part-monument. It is like a microcosm of the things we antipodeans-cum-Brits find charming about the UK; a messy mix of history, faith and flora.
The City of London estimate that it is home to some 120,000 human remains. Its role as a formal burial site dates back over 350 years, but with bone disposal likely occurring much earlier, to our friendly Saxons. It may have even been a plague pit at one point.
This makes Bunhill (or ‘bone hill’) Fields really rather old and really rather interesting.
The final burials on the site took place at roughly the same time that my own home town – now a city of 4.8 million people – was still being established.
Unconsecrated land, the site was popular as a burial site for non-conformists – believers who practiced their protestant faith out of communion with the Church of England. We can find John Bunyan, of Pilgrim’s Progress fame, resting here, along with Daniel Defoe and William Blake. The grave of Dame Mary Page has an enigmatic inscription alluding to her final years: “In 67 months she was tap’d [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.”
After the closure of the fields to new burials, and further damage from the Blitz, parts of the area were converted to an open park. At least one local vagrant lawyer (yours truly) is known to eat lunch there.
It is a magnificent place to watch the seasons pass. The site provides respite from summer, with the tree canopy providing peaceful cover. Autumn shows the very best of London colours, blanketing every surface.
In winter, the headstones complement the reality of British winter; bare trees, cold winds and a slight sense that all hope has left the world. But all that sets us up beautifully to find that the very best has been saved for spring. One can walk through the fields every day throughout Spring to discover that something has changed overnight. The daffodils will poke up, followed by an array of different flowers, ever-changing, with the greenery forming back to life.
Bunhill Fields is a joy and well worth the visit. More than once. Every day, even. You might even run into a vagrant lawyer.
PS: It’s got a great pub just outside.