At this time of year, as the leaves are falling from the trees and the air turns crisp, I like to wave goodbye to Autumn with a visit to Brighton’s “city of the dead” – also officially known as Woodvale Cemetery – a mind-blowing 70-acre cemetery complex in the centre of the city.
I like to come here especially to walk around the Extra Mural Cemetery, an atmospheric Victorian burial ground with a haunting air, and so beautifully overgrown with mossy paths lined with wonky, ivy-covered gravestones. Let’s go for a stroll…
It opened in 1850 and is the oldest part of the giant cemetery complex which has expanded over time. What’s incredible is that despite how big this place is, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter another soul on a wander around, except perhaps the odd person using it as a shortcut into town, leaving flowers on a loved-one’s grave or the gardeners. In these quiet, deserted grounds, it’s easy to completely forget that you are in the middle of a busy city.
An interesting way to explore the Victorian part of it is by following the ‘tomb trail’. This starts at the left of the Extra Mural Cemetery chapel – you’ll see the signs and yellow arrows on markers. It immediately takes you up narrow steps and along winding overgrown pathways, covered in crunchy autumn leaves past all those perfectly weathered graves I was talking about earlier.
This part of the cemetery was built at the city’s economic peak, and most of it is filled with elaborate and decorative Victorian crypts, tombs, graves and mausoleums commissioned by wealthy families of politicians, performers, aristocrats, soldiers and business owners.
Residents from history buried here include members of the Tamplins brewing family, the Cox family who owed Cox’s Pill Factory where Lewes Road Sainsbury’s now is, Mr Smith Hannington, founder of the old Hanningtons department store… to name a few, although I wasn’t sure where to find them as I’d left my leaflet at home.
One grave I was able to recognise is this one below that belongs to John Frederick Ginnett, a circus master buried beneath a white marble drum with a Tony standing over the showman’s hat, scarf and gloves.
The other I know about is poignant in that it belongs to an eight-year-old boy called Thomas Malcolm Sabine Highflyer, who was rescued from an African slave ship in 1866. I’ve a blog post planned but until then, you can read more about his heartbreaking incredible story here.
The trail winds its way up into the newer part of the cemetery where burials still take place, and you’ll find a wildflower meadow and blossom trees blooming beautifully in spring.
It ends where you started, near the cemetery picnic garden where you can ponder the meaning of life over a sandwich.
For more Brighton secrets, see my book Secret Brighton: An Unusual Guide.