During a civilized Sunday out in Eyam the decision was made to come back home via Chesterfield, namely Spital Cemetery. Spital Cemetery was something that had occupied our minds for a number of months, and for good reason. The old Church within the Cemetery grounds is for sale, and we have long dreamed of living in a Church, restoring it to its former glory, saving the building and worshipping its beauty. But due to timing, finances etc, my partner and I had agreed that a visit would be a bad idea and risk us falling in love with the place. Yet against out better judgement we found ourselves rolling through the gates in my Morris Minor and parking at the bottom of an embankment peppered with graves.
First impressions were of a sprawling hillside with two quite distinct personalities. To the right is a neat, compact modern style cemetery, with tidy rows of small grave stones, all relatively new and shiny, adorned with flowers, ornaments and the like. To the left however, upon the rising hill towering lofty trees and a ragged meadow of grass stretch out across the bank, with graves and monuments protruding forth every now and then, some temptingly hidden from view by the rippling hillside. The left had a far wilder, more ancient temptation, and its winding paths create a certain intrigue to dig a little deeper. So I did ...
Picking my way up the hillside, I realised all manner of wild flowers, trees and wildlife have almost claimed the cemetery for their own, with Ivy slowly eating gravestones with its grip of greenery, tree roots erupting mercilessly through stone and a carpet of pine needles and autumn leaves lingering on to join those below. The afternoon sunshine filtered through the trees in mottled drabs, falling on graves and wildflowers, then proceeding to dance with the wind. It quickly became apparent what a tranquil, idyllic space the Cemetery is, with the dead silent as ever in their eternal rest.
At the crown of the hill, surrounded by a whole host of graves was the Church. At first it emerged between the trees, peaking out in faint glimpses, until it rose proud and bold in a clearing. Its Gothic Revival style is my preferred architectural aesthetic for Churches, and I was hugely impressed by the grotesques adorning its humble facade. Carved stone faces peered for from the edges of windowsills, each one entirely unique, and Medieval inspired monsters loomed in guttering, jutting out harsh against the sky. The roof would once have been a work of art with its pattern of fishscale tiles, but many years have passed and patching up and essential repairs to save the building from decay have given it a quilt like quality still hinting at its former glory. The Church was certainly larger than photos had me believe, and its exquisite details and honest personality make it a charming little gem.
Many of the monuments and graces close to the Church were large and must have been a grand sight to behold at one time, their slow decay and faded magnificence has a kind of romantic charm which reminded me of Highgate Cemetery, having a similar mixture of wildness and faded beauty.
Spital Cemetery's similarities with Highgate are no mere coincidence. Many Victorian cemeteries like this were most probably modelled on Highgate and the Magnificent Seven (which in turn was modeled on Pere Lachaise) and the concept of a picturesque cemetery. From 1852 onwards many Burial Acts were passed reforming the rites and laws of death in Victorian Britain. Severe overcrowding in inner city Churchyards was causing a public health hazard, and two cholera epedemics and tens of thousands of deaths had bought burial and safe internment of remains to the forefront of public concern. In 1857, the same year Spttal Cemetery opened, a national system of public cemeteries was established and Burial Boards were formed to manage and maintain the new Cemeteries. Cemeteries became a planned park-like space, where you could mourn, be remembered and set your place in history for eternity.
Spital Cemetery is a truly beautiful, special slice of Victorian Cemetery, and I envy, and commend the lucky soul who may one day get to save Spital Church and call its rolling hill home.