Grave Encounters: The UK's best heritage cemeteries and graveyards

By Sian Blewitt | 15 July 2016

Despite their macabre nature, cemeteries and graveyards offer a wealth of incredible architecture and captivating stories. Britain holds some of the oldest, and most spectacular in the world and are home to some of the world's most influential people. Whether you're a tombstone tourist or just morbidly curious, we've compiled a list of Britain's must-see graveyards


The Cross Bones Graveyard, The Borough and Bankside, London


Large brass gates covered in colourful ribbons.
The brass gates at Cross Bone Cemetery© Oonagh Shiel CC by 2.0
A somewhat overlooked treasure within the wealth of historic graveyards in London. Nestled in a quiet backstreet, the large rusty iron gates are adorned with ribbons, flowers and curious totems amid a large bronze plaque with the epitaph “RIP The Outcast Dead”.

Cross Bones is a pauper’s graveyard referred to in a 1598 survey as a burial ground for ‘single women’, commonly interpreted as a euphemism for the prostitutes who worked in the surrounding brothels.

These women, although permitted and regulated during their life time, were denied a Christian burial, and thus Cross Bones became their final resting place. The site is also believed to have been a plague pit by the 17th century, and was grossly overcrowded.

More than 60 percent of the skeletons found at Crossbones were those of children – likely victims of the plague or, more often than not, child prostitutes.

Grave to seek out: No graves are marked here, but in 2010 the BBC conducted a long investigation accompanied by a documentary about the lives of one of the woman excavated from the site, named “Cross Bones girl”.

It makes for a fascinating watch and read and is well worth researching if you’re interested in learning a little more about the women who are buried here.


Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey

Columbarium, Brookwood Cemetery Variety of mainly Victorian statuary
Columbarium, Brookwood Cemetery© Colin Smith, CC by SA 2.0
In its heyday, Brookwood was one of the largest cemeteries in the world and acted as London’s burial ground for the mass number of plague casualties during the 19th century.

Originally it was accessible by its own railway line and station, The London Necropolis station, next to Waterloo, but this was demolished after suffering substantial damage during World War II.

It later became a burial site for military personnel who had died in the London district. Among the 240,000 graves are the final resting places of Saxon King Edward the Martyr (who died in 978) and American-born painter John Singer Sargent (1925).

Grave to seek out: Edith Thompson (December 25 1893 – January 9 1923). Thompson was executed in 1923 for conspiring to kill her husband with her lover, Frederick Bywaters.

Her trial became a cause célèbre in British media, and almost a million members of the public signed a petition to repeal her death sentence. It is believed that she was pregnant at the time of her execution, and her executioner later committed suicide due to the guilt of killing the unborn baby.


Bunhill Fields, London

A tomb of John Rippon in Bunhill Fields covered in moss and leaves.
Grave of John Rippon in Bunhill Fields, London© StAnselm, CC BY-SA 3.0
Bunhill acted as a burial ground for plague victims in the 19th century; however, it later became a favoured place for non-conformists to choose as their final resting place.

Notable names include John Bunyan (died 1688), author of The Pilgrim's Progress; Daniel Defoe (died 1731), author of Robinson Crusoe; William Blake (died 1827), artist, poet, and mystic; Susanna Wesley (died 1742), known as the "Mother of Methodism".

Inside the grounds lies ‘Bone Hill’, a large hill compiled of deposits of dried human bones with a small layer of topsoil covering it.

Grave to seek out: Tomb of the Unitarians Theophilus Lindsey (died 1808), Elizabeth Rayner (died 1800) and Thomas Belsham (died 1829). This tomb is wonderfully inscribed and contains three friends who all spearheaded the formation of the Unitarian church in the 18th century.


Kensal Green, London

A long path with graves and tombs either side of it
Kensal Green Cemetery walkway© CC by SA 2.0
Kensal Green has gained notoriety for its prominence in popular culture throughout the centuries, as well as its large variety of wildlife.

Opened in 1833, it is immortalised in the lines of GK Chesterton’s poem “The Rolling English Road”, from his book The Flying Inn: “For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen; Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”

Its gothic design has also made it a popular backdrop for several movies, including The Theatre of Blood. The site holds the graves of famous individuals such as Military Surgeon James Barry, who was discovered to be a woman on her death in 1865

Grave to seek out: Andrew Ducrow (1793–1842). Ducrow was a British circus performer often deemed the “father of British circus equestrianism” for his introduction of horses into the circus.

He was an extremely popular entertainer during his life, and founded London’s first permanent circus, ‘Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre’ in Lambeth.

Unfortunately, the Amphitheatre succumbed to fire three times. After the third time, in 1841, Ducrow collapsed from a mental breakdown, dying shortly afterwards.

He is buried in the centre avenue at Kensal Green Cemetery in one of the most desirable burial plots. His tomb is one of the largest and most decorated tombs in the cemetery and combines Pagan, Greek and Egyption decoration.

It was brightly painted in pastel hues when it was first erected, but these have faded over time.  


Royal Burial Ground, Frogmore

A very large white mausoleum with a statue in front of it.
The spectacular Mausoleum of Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert in the grounds of Frogmore House© Gill Hicks
The burial ground for the Royal Family, The Royal Burial Ground in Berkshire was consecrated in 1928. Among the grounds is the Frogmore Mausoleum, which was ordered to be erected for Prince Albert four days after his death.

Queen Victoria, devastated by the death of her beloved husband, built the monument to be a shared resting place for them both.

Grave to seek out: Prince William of Gloucester (December 18 1941 – August 28 1972) was a grandson of King George V of the United Kingdom. William died at the age of 30 in a plane crash in front of 30,000 spectators.

Prince Charles, his cousin, had a very close relationship with him and named his son, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, after him.


St Mary Magdalene Churchyard - East Ham

A graveyard with a norman church in the background.
East Ham: Church of St Mary Magdalene, near to Beckton, Newham© Adrian Pingstone
St Mary Magdalene Church in East Ham is the oldest Norman Church in London, built in 1137. Incredibly, it still has weekly use and a nine-and-a-half acre woodland surrounding it - one of the largest in London.

The church was closed for burials in 1947 and its disuse allowed wildlife to flourish, culminating in its opening as a formal nature reserve in 1983. The churchyard is still relatively overgrown and contains a memorial for two of the crew of the RMS titanic.

Grave to seek out: 18th century antiquarian and friend of Isaac Newton William Stukeley is buried here.

Stukeley was the first man to survey and record Stonehenge and is widely regarded as the most important of the early forerunners of the discipline of archaeology" for his habit of going out personally to examine and explore ancient sites.


Arnos Vale, Bristol

A graveyard in autumn, with a large tomb in the center
Arnos Vale Cemetery - Tomb of Raja Rammohun Roy (with Canopy)© CC BY-SA 3.0
Inspired by the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Arnos Vale was opened in 1839 under the reign of Queen Victoria.

The cemetery embodies a classic Greece ethos. Inside are the graves of most of Bristol’s leading Victorian citizens including Indian social reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Among the grand architecture, Arnos Vale has a spectacular selection of Grade II-listed buildings, which make fascinating viewing.

Grave to seek out: Harry Blanshard Wood (June 21 1882 – August 15 1924). Wood was a decorated war hero who received the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

He is well remembered for putting himself on the front line for his troops during World War I, and his efforts are well worth researching. He died from shock after suffering bad mental health following his wartime experiences.


Necropolis, Glasgow

A photo of a grey statue of a man in a graveyard
The monument to Charles Tennant in Glasgow Necropolis© Postdlf from w
Glasgow’s well-known Necropolis hosts monuments designed by major architects and sculptors of the time, including Alexander Thomson, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and JT Rochead, which has given it its status as a feat of architectural brilliance.

The site attracts hundreds of visitors each year to view the diversity and intricacy of many of the tombs, which range from Parisian to Greek styles.

The Necropolis is also subject to a complex conspiracy theory which states its 37-acre landscape is a large metaphor for Freemasonry, and symbols of this secret group can be found scattered throughout the site.

Grave to seek out: Charles Tennant (May 3 1768 – October 1 1838). Tennant was a Scottish chemist and Industrialist who discovered and patented bleaching powder.

He built one of the largest and most successful chemical plants of his time and the business is still active today. Tennant is also known for his controversial liberal views and his work on Scottish social reform.

His tomb, which has a seated marble figure of him on top, is a popular attraction at the cemetery. 


Nunhead Cemetery

A photo of a large grey church
© Paul Farmer, geograph.org.uk
Nunhead Cemetery is one of London’s least visited Magnificent Seven Cemeteries in London. Consecrated in 1840 with an Anglican chapel, its first burial was of Charles Abbott, a grocer from Ipswich who died at the age of 101.

Despite its macabre nature, Nunhead Cemetery is probably one of the most beautiful in the UK, with Victorian sculpture intertwining with tranquil wilderness since its abandonment in the mid-20th century. Today, a voluntary group works hard to maintain the cemetery from the ravages of nature, but its 52-acre plot makes this a massive job.

The areas that have yet to be restored make for an eerie and visually fascinating adventure.

Grave to seek out: Calvin G Simpson (1958-1990). Simpson was an actor, most famous for his appearance in British drama The Bill in 1989.

His headstone is a favourite among visitors, bearing a large comedy and tragedy green theatre mask with the inscription “a rare actor” underneath.


Eyam Parish Church, Peak District

A church surrounded by tombstones in the foreground
Eyam Church, in the centre of the 'Plague Village'© Alan Fleming
Opened in 1665, Eyam began as a humble gathering place for the community. But the transportation of a damp linen cloth from London for a local tailor brought with it plague-carrying fleas, and sent the entire village into chaos.

In a bid to stop the plague spreading to other communities, the village decided to isolate themselves. With the community struggling to cope with the number of deaths and the mason long dead, many victims carved their own tomb stones before succumbing to the plague.

Their self-sacrifice is remembered annually and the village itself is a popular tourist attraction. Among the gravestones in this sombre site is the family of Mrs Hancock, who buried her husband and six children in a space of eight days.

Grave to seek out: Catherine Mompesson (died 1666). Catherine’s tomb is gated in the churchyard and is usually doused in flowers.

She was the wife of the village’s rector William, who cared for the village during its isolation. William begged Catherine to leave him and stay in Yorkshire so that she would survive, but she refused to leave his side.

She later succumbed to the plague in 1666.


St Pancras Old Church, London

Gravestones are buried in a spherical cluster around an ash tree.
The Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Church Churchyard © David Edgar
St Pancras Old Church’s churchyard is a site steeped in legend. The age of the church and its yard has been debated for centuries, and the general consensus heralds it as one of Europe’s most ancient sites of Christian worship, dating to the early 4th century and a site for prayer and meditation since 314AD.

Its churchyard houses the tombs of many notable people, including the composer Johann Christian Bach. John Soane’s self-designed tomb - now Grade-II listed - sits here too, and is cited as part of the inspiration behind the design of the iconic red telephone box by Giles Gilbert Scott.

However, what this renowned site is most famous for is The Hardy Tree. While in charge of excavating the site in the 1860’s, a young Thomas Hardy rearranged tombstones in a tight cluster around an ash tree.

Grave to seek out: Burdett Coutts Memorial. A magnificent monument which lists all the names of graves that have been lost during the redevelopment of the surrounding area.

Among them is Chevalier d’Eon, a transgender spy who successfully infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia by presenting himself as a woman.


Iona Abbey,  Scotland

A large weathered Celtic cross with the sea in the background.
St Martin's cross, Iona Abbey© Akela
Iona has some of the oldest tomb stones recorded in its churchyard. Among them, the Scottish king murdered by Macbeth in 1140 is reputed to be buried here, along with 47 Scottish kings and saints.

Many of the intricately-carved tomb stones on display have beautiful Celtic designs, and the abbey has its own museum dedicated to its rich heritage. By the roadside, the church yard also has a 1,200-year-old cross, which stands exactly where it was originally erected and is very weathered.

The site is a fantastic insight into early Scottish Christianity, with spectacular views.

Grave to seek out: Ancient preserved grave slabs in the Iona Abbey Museum. Many of the oldest grave slabs have been removed and are presented in the museum to protect them from the elements; however, these are the most fantastic.

Many of them depict intricate carvings of kings and their full bodies, decorated in Celtic design. They are wonderfully unique and well worth a visit.


St Mary’s Church, Whitby

Whitby Cemetery and Church Yard atop a hill with a view of the town behind it.
Whitby Cemetery © CC by SA 2.0
St Mary’s Church has Norman origins and its original structure was built in 1110, making it a historical gem on its own. Its churchyard, however, is the inspiration and eventual setting for Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ novel.

A quick visit to the cemetery shows why. It is set on a gradual slope with surrounding valleys and sea. The cemetery has been subject to recent controversy: the cliff side has begun to erode and slip, spilling human remains onto the pathways below.

Grave to seek out: Mr and Mrs Huntrodd. This magnificent couple have a day of the year dedicated to them.

They were born on the same day of the week, month and year (September 19th 1600), had 12 children, and died on their 80th birthdays (19th September 1980) – within five hours of each other.


Highgate Cemetery

a photo of an arched entranceway with pillars overgrown with ivy
Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Cemetery, Highgate Cemetery © Public Domain
Highgate Cemetery in London is no doubt the most beautiful and most famous cemetery in the UK. Its overgrown, shattered ruins and maze of ivy-cloaked tombs could lead anyone to easily lose a day exploring.

Split into East and West, the cemetery is still in use today and houses memorials to Karl Marx, George Eliot and Douglas Adams on the east side. Vandalism and souvenir hunters have led to the West side being closed to the public, unless on an accompanied tour.

Tours of the West side are highly recommended, as this section contains the most impressive architectural tombs in London, including the Egyptian Avenue. The catacombs and chapels enclosed in the secretive west side are outstanding, and an absolute must-see.

Grave to seek out: Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005). A renowned pop artist, Caulfield’s work is exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery.

His headstone is a noteworthy monument, with huge laser cut letters spelling ‘D E A D’ on a large slab of granite.

What are your favourite sites around the country? Are there any we've missed out? Leave a comment below.

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I'd like to point out a typo in the St Mary's Whitby entry. If Mr and Mrs Huntrodd had indeed been born on September 19th 1600 and died on 19th September 1980, they would have been 380 years old, not 80 as stated. Please correct this oversight.
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