Visit to Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol, Saturday 17th November 2013

Report by Bernice Lashbrook

On Saturday 17 November, 10 members visited Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol. They joined a 'Taster' Tour which, although only able to take in a small fraction of the Dissenters' section of the 45 acres which the Cemetery covers, was both informative and enjoyable. Under the guidance of the knowledgeable Tour Leader we were introduced to the stories of some of those interred. A majority of the burial sites visible to us were quite enormous and very ornate - it seemed that no expense had been spared in creating memorials! We got the distinct impression that each member of Victorian Society sought to create something bigger and better than before especially on the higher plateaus of the Cemetery. The trees had not been cultivated and so the memorials of those interred in these higher areas could be seen from miles away!

Land for the Cemetery was purchased in 1836 by a group of businessmen and the site was opened in 1837; further areas of land were purchased later. As our Guide said "business was slow at first" but as the other Cemeteries in the area became full, more burials started to take place from around 1854 onwards. We were shown the Anglican and Non-Conformist Chapels both constructed in the magnificent style complete with resplendent columns. Heritage Lottery Funding and other grants/donations enabled renovation work to be carried out on both buildings a few years back and they are in regular use for varied activities. In the basement of the Non-Conformist Chapel are the remains of the former Crematorium (opened in 1874 and closed in 1986 when the lease was lost due to lack of use). We were advised that 'Open Days' had to be organised before the Crematorium was commissioned. This was in order to illustrate the benefits of cremation since Victorian society at that time was deeply suspicious of this practice and thought it un-Godly.

By the mid 1980's the Cemetery was falling into such neglect that it was threatened with an uncertain future. Wrangling over ownership of the land took place (too lengthy to describe here) and subsequently Bristol Council issued a Compulsory Purchase Order and it was sold for one pound. In 1987 the 'Friends' of Arnos Vale Cemetery was formed. In recent years a Charitable Trust has been created and the two organisations work in partnership to continue the work of renovating the Cemetery in phased stages.

Following the tour we were able to meet Juliette Randall the Chairman of the Trustees. We were able to share experiences and to gain some insight into how they have handled various issues over the years. Although both our Cemeteries are entirely different; theirs is still an active Cemetery and ours is closed and they have buildings which they can utilise for financial benefit, we still had a great deal in common in various areas. The visit had been very worthwhile and enjoyable although we had only seen a very small part of this extraordinary place.

Pictures by Andy Slocombe