IT’S hot and we are walking to York Cemetery – the best place in York. Oh, others will champion the Minster or wherever, but those places can look after themselves. The cemetery needs its supporters.
Two warm miles take us to Micklegate Bar, where we climb the steps to the Bar walls. From there we follow a lofty clockwise loop, pausing to admire houses too expensive for our pocket. “No gardens,” says my wife, who needs somewhere to stretch her green fingers.
Dropping down, we walk behind the Barbican and reach York Cemetery. We are here for a choir concert in the restored chapel, a star building loved by those in the know, but arrive early enough to walk around some of the 24 acres. It’s huge and beautiful, this place, a garden just the right side of rampant. In high summer, everything is bursting and many of the graves are lost in greenery.
York Cemetery was opened in 1837 to compete with parish churchyards full to bursting and with no space for further burials. That’s why some churchyards in the city are higher than the street, as soil had to be imported to raise the level and create further accommodation.
The York Health of Towns Association met on June 10, 1847, and heard of woeful overcrowding in the city. Freshly dug graves were said to fill with “loathsome mire” while fragments of human remains rose to the surface. In a moment of memorable horror, the meeting heard how a hungry dog had discovered a human leg bone “and bore it away in triumph to his lair, where he doubtless would feast on the putrefying remnants of mortality”.
You cannot visit a graveyard without being reminded of rotting flesh, but mostly you are reminded of lives lived and lost; long lives, short lives and those in between, but all gone.
The gruesome episode of the dog is recalled in the late Hugh Murray’s book This Garden of Death, which offers the fullest possible history of what is now a Grade II listed landscape and one of only two privately owned Victorian cemeteries in the UK.
The council ordered other graveyards to shut in 1854. York Cemetery expanded to its present size in the 1940s, but business fell away in the 1960s and the cemetery went into liquidation in 1979. The graveyard became overgrown and the beautiful chapel suffered at the hands of vandals and was so derelict the roof fell in.
In the 1980s, the York Cemetery Trust was formed and became the new owners, working with the help of the Friends of York Cemetery, a charity registered in 1988. The chapel has since been splendidly restored, and that’s where we’re heading to see Soon Amore sing after our stroll.
We sit on a bench facing the high wall at the perimeter of the original Victorian cemetery, at a point where many of the graves commemorate young people, and drain the water bottle. I love this place for its beauty, its sense of being barely contained – and for its stories, for a cemetery is a repository of stories.
The middle of my three Rounder Brothers novels – known only to the dedicated few – was inspired by the cemetery, and a character borrows a name from a gravestone. I spot again that name: Moses Moody chiselled in stone, but re-chipped for my purposes to Moses Mundy.
The book is called Felicity’s Gate, named after an entrance now shut, and at the launch held in the chapel, Felicity introduced herself to me – which was a pleasant surprise: I had no idea the woman who christened a gate, and then my crime novel, still lived here at that time.
Anyway, off we wander, going to the top of the cemetery, where you could be in the middle of nowhere, and where the sunshine dapples between the trees. We pass the young orchard where fruit trees can be planted in remembrance – and what better way to be remembered than by an apple? – and then we slowly walk to the chapel for a concert that is lovely and eclectic, with music from Sting’s Fields Of Gold and Elbow’s One Day Like This, to Old Man River, alongside Polish river music by Henryk Gorecki and poetry readings.
After the concert, and after a chat, we retrace our route around the Bar walls to Micklegate, where we drop down and wait for our bus beside the Bar Convent.
All human life seems to congregate at that bus stop. Last week after seeing Baby Driver at City Screen, a woman speaking to her husband revealed much about their lives. We left knowing an awful lot about them, whereas they left knowing nothing about us.
This time the company includes a very lively little girl who is nosily indignant about the lies told by the electronic timetable. She can’t understand how five minutes can last so long, drop to four, and then return to five. It can take years to master bus time, a time conundrum worthy of Jodi Whittaker in her new role as Doctor Who.
Propped against the convent wall, a man sways and talks to himself. All human life and all that.