Abney Park: Stoke Newington’s Dead Centre of Dissent

Leading a running tour through Abney Park cemetery

“There’s no point complaining,” says Dave, any time you ask him how he is. And indeed, he doesn’t complain; though he has been known to have the occasional rant about the state of the country or the management of this or that.

But like the other volunteers, slashing steadily at the undergrowth that has been allowed over the decades to slowly envelop many of the tombstones at historic Abney Park cemetery, he just gets on with it. Expertly twisting a fork to convert a huge unwieldy pile of chopped vegetation into a neat bundle that can be discreetly disposed of, he gives away a youth spent far from London, in a rural setting where technology meant nothing and practicality was all.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, a small group troops through the Egyptian Revival-style gates of the resting place of so Stoke Newington rebels. Unconsecrated, this is where many of the dissenters and non-conformists that collected here were laid to rest; perhaps finding a peace denied to them in a life spent swimming against the establishment tide.

From Salvation Army founders to writers and Blitz victims, Mother Nature does her best to obscure stones which tell the story of ‘The Village That Changed the World’.

Abney Park was one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries which dot London, and the first to incorporate an arboretum. But, for the trust which tends it these days, it’s an uphill task fighting back the ivy, bushes and trees that try to turn back the clock a couple of centuries or so, to a pre-Industrial Revolution era – when this area was mostly fields.

Dave doesn’t complain, but then he doesn’t get overexcited either. Taking in the dozen or so tombstones we’ve cleared that morning – the vegetation here can be surprisingly dense – I express the sense of satisfaction that comes with working among nature and seeing the results of your labour clearly laid out before you.

“Indeed,” says Dave. I turn and walk away, happy with our merry band and Dave’s simple statement of accord. There’s an intake of breath behind me: “Only another 31 acres to go and we’re done.”

Abney Park needs you! Sessions run Tue/Thu 9.30-12 then 1-2 if you fancy staying on. It’s a fascinating place and a worthy project. Volunteering buys you karma points and makes you feel good! Click here.

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