I wrote this piece as my final essay for Dark Mountain’s Finding the Words When the Story is Over writing workshop, which took place in March 2021. I submitted it to several literary journals but no one wanted it, so the editor of this website decided to publish it now. As the second coming of the apocalypse makes everything close in again, maybe there is comfort in deep time.
I arrive at the large, wrought-iron gate of Nunhead Cemetery as dusk is falling in a gentle hush. Half an hour before a March sunset, the evening has started to drag its feet a little, and a deep azure is settling over a line of oaks whose bare branches climb like witch’s fingers into the sky.
When the lockdown started, people wanted out of London. According to a report by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence, 700,000 foreign-born residents left the city during the pandemic, and this figure doesn’t even account for the huge number of Londoners who migrated out of the city to live out lockdown in greener, more spacious places elsewhere in Britain.
Those of us who stayed became ghosts wandering the leaf-blown streets of an apocalypse. We began looking for the pockets of wildness in our groomed suburban brickrow prisons. A moment of birdsong on a park bench. The busywork of spiders in the back garden. Muddy pathways through an overgrown cemetery.
There are four cemeteries within walking distance of my South London flat: Camberwell Old Cemetery, Camberwell New Cemetery, Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, and Nunhead. Together these hold far more green space than the parklands nearby, and they quickly became havens for we the pandemic-stayers. Lycra-clag joggers huffing past stone memorials overgrown with centuries of ivy. Friends meeting for a cheeky, socially distanced coffee-walk. A dad pushing an empty pram behind a toddler in flower-patterned wellies wobbling past half-broken gravestones.
Over the months, cemeteries began reducing their opening hours. Some closed altogether, as crowds of nature-desperate visitors rose with the death tolls. No one could hold a funeral, but everyone went to the cemetery. Temporary signs appeared:
This is an area
for quiet reflection
Please be respectful
to those who have
lost loved ones
while you visit the
I set out tonight not sure if it will be open. It is the cusp of spring, and three days before the one-year anniversary of our first lockdown. Daily exercise is now the only escape from the ongoing orders to stay at home. I stroll down my terraced street and over a graffiti-covered railway bridge, to Nunhead’s east gate. It’s open. There is a posted winter closing time of 4pm, though it’s now creeping towards six. A recently printed A4 paper is taped up:
If you find yourself locked in, please call this number.
Along with the likes of Highgate and Brompton, Nunhead is one of the ‘magnificent seven’ Victorian cemeteries that were built in a ring around London. In the 1840s when it opened, Nunhead was just a tiny, rural hamlet surrounded by fields. The churchyards in the City of London were filling up, and space was needed for the dead. And so Nunhead Cemetery was portioned out upon a high hill four miles south of the Thames.
I tentatively wander in, up a large dirt path that cuts through a section of shiny, modern graves that stand like bollards atop trimmed lawn. A second pathway splits off to the right, into a dense midnight of trees. It’s the first clear evening in a week, and days of rain have turned the path into a series of muddy lakes enveloped by giant oak, alder and chestnut. Headstones with carved weeping angels are veiled by tangles of ivy. Names and dates obscured by parakeet-green moss.
It grows darker and as I walk farther from the gate, it pulls at my mind like a magnet. Would it be scarier to be locked in or locked out?
The farther along I go, the muddier the path becomes until the small, dark lakes are too deep and the dense sludge sucks at my shoes. It seems a wild mud and is dotted here and there with lost feathers. Space and time are stretched in layers: the airsong of past and present; soil-rich, cold oxygen in my nostrils; a full bladder begging for home. My body uncertain if it is present, or elsewhere, or a spectre floating in from modern armageddon. The trees, with their sentient roots climbing below bone, talking the ancient language – a forest of time wrapping in.
Time doesn’t seem to stop so much as swirl, leaving me unable to move off from the thickness of the mire. But slowly, the swirling subsides and the siren song of the gate begins to call. What time is it now? How long have I stood here? Long enough for trees to grow from the bodies of the Londoners that came before?
After 12 months of lockdown alone, phoning a stranger for rescue would be far more disarming than spending a night among the dead. Retracing a careful route through the mud lakes, I make my way back to the main path, where the trees give way to open sky.
It is nearly dark now, and there is a group of walkers whose chatter jangles like church bells through the thick, cobalt air.
The gate closes at six! they shout to a jogger heading in. But there’s a hole in the fence up top, if you know where it is.
I follow them to the exit and stop at the edge, where the cemetery’s shadow meets the tangerine glow of sodium lamps on the street outside. A moth flutters onto my shoulder – my life is dependent on its pollen; its life dependent on this darkness.
Yes, the gate may close. And we may be locked in. But we will find our way out.