Friday, January 16, 2009
A cemetery is not a place in which you want to get lost--and certainly not on a dull sunless day! So I did feel quite edgy at Brompton Cemetery this morning as I examined the grave stones and admired the sculpted statuary. I had first heard about Brompton Cemetery from Bill Bryson's video version of his famous travel book called Notes From a Small Island and when I passed by its gates while in a bus, a few weeks ago, I decided that I would explore it when I could.
As it turned out, the cemetery was deserted. But for a few dog-walkers and cyclists who studiously ignored the signs posted everywhere that said "No Cyclists", there was no one around. The sun was conspicuous by its absence and while I was in the cemetery between the two gates that flank Brompton and Old Brompton Roads, it actually started to spritz--thankfully this spray lasted only a few minutes.
Brompton Cemetery, designed by Benjamin Baud, is one of the finest Victorian cemeteries in the UK. Several well-known Londoners are buried here such as the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and there are walking tours given by "The Friends of Brompton Cemetery", twice a month on Saturdays. The grounds are laid out in a formal style and there is a chapel, built in Neo-Classical design, in the center that is surrounded by private family tombs. Though it is still a working cemetery, most of the burials were carried out from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
What I found most interesting is the fact that Beatrix Potter is said to have taken the names of many of her animal characters from tombstones in the cemetery as she lived in a nearby complex called The Boltons. Without a map it was impossible for me to find the prominent Victorians buried here, so you can imagine how delighted I was to discover that when I paused to take a picture of a particularly well designed gravestone of an artillery officer who died in World War I, I found myself bang in front of a tombstone of a certain Mr. Nutkins! Other characters in Potter's work, such as Mr. McGregor, Tod and Jeremiah Fisher also have namesakes in these burial grounds. Though this is hardly the kind of venue that might be considered a tourist site, I found myself enjoying the peacefulness of my surroundings and it was hard to believe that I was in the midst of Earl's Court in the bustling village of Kensington.
It is easy to understand why Potter was inspired by this space for in the absence of human beings, there were a large number of furred and feathered friends keeping me company. Fat squirrels with bushy tails followed me everywhere, pink (yes, pink) pigeons were perched on angelic gravestones and I even saw a raven right besides a grave that had been freshly decorated with a bouquet of very brightly colored flowers.
And talking about flowers, I was so delighted to come upon my first ever snowdrops, the tiny little white flowers whose drooping heads are so-called because they bloom even in the midst of blankets of snow. In the United States, these flowers are rarely seen (I have certainly never seen them except in pictures). When I found them ringing the periphery of a gravestone, I gasped, then bent down closely to examine them before I took pictures to immortalize this moment. Snowdrops are also said to be Nature's first sign of the arrival of spring and if that be true, then it won't be long before other more colorful flowers will bloom everywhere.
It wasn't long before I caught a bus that brought me to Trafalgar Square where I spent the afternoon examining the work of Dutch painters of the 17th century including Rembrandt. I took a much-needed rest at the computers where I have been trying to find the locations of the paintings cataloged and explained by Homan Potterton in his Guide to the National Gallery. When I finished this task, I started my exploration through the galleries and was especially struck by the work of Franz Hals and Vermeer. And, of course, I paused for a very long time to admire my favorite painting in the entire gallery--Pieter de Hooch's Courtyard of a House in Deflt. Though this is only a small painting, I find it exquisite in its portayal of detail. The ordinary life of middle-class Dutchwomen during the 19th century is so evocative that it never fails to hold me spellbound every time I feast my eyes on it.
By 5 pm, London was draped in a dark shroud and it was time to get back on the bus home. I paused at Foyle's, perhaps London's most famous bookshop, on Shaftesbury Avenue and browsed through some of their current titles, then stopped off at Sainsburys to buy a few groceries, before I made my way home to write this blog.
I am still waking in the wee hours of the morning (4. 10 am today) but I forced myself to return to sleep and then awoke at 5. 45 am only to discover that I still did not have Internet connectivity. I was on the phone with an Indian call center assistant who called himself 'John', who informed me that my connection was rather weak and that I should call again after 8 am. This time, I spoke to an assistant with an Afro-French accent who apologized and told me that the technicians at Virgin Media are aware of my problems and will try to fix them as soon as possible. Since it was still early in the day I sat down to tackle my Scotland scrapbook and by 9.30 am, all my pictures were mounted in my album. Now all that's left is captioning of the photos and I will be done.
I then turned to the designing of my South Asian Civilization course as an independent study module and had a great deal of fun working out challenging assignments for the 2 students who will take my class through occasional tutorials and a monthly 'lecture' style meeting. This took me over an hour to accomplish, so that by the time I went in for my shower it was past noon. I only got out of the house today about 12. 45 pm which left me with only four hours of daylight to play with. That's when it occurred to me that a visit to Brompton Cemetery might be the best thing to do--and off I went!
It was a rather unusual way to spend an afternoon but I have no regrets. Now all I have to do is visit the other famous London cemetery, Highgate, and that I shall do when it gets a little warmer.