Mill Road Cemetery: A resting place, a wildlife refuge and community fulcrum

Lockdown has seen me taking local walks in places that I would have never thought to explore (or even walk to) previously. This week, an appointment in town left me with time to kill in Cambridge itself and, as I was studying the map, I realised that there was a large green space that I knew nothing about, just north of Mill Road (my favourite shopping street). It turned out to be a cemetery, but as I read the website and found its connection to the Botanical Gardens I decided it was time to visit.

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Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge

Mill Road Cemetery lies pretty much in the middle of Cambridge. It has a slightly wild, abandoned appearance, but this is deliberate. The looseness of maintenance has created a special refuge for wildlife in, what is otherwise, a densely populated urban area. Having started life as a college cricket pitch surrounded by fields, the ~10-acre plot was purchased to cope with an increasing demand for burial grounds in Cambridge, as the town expanded dramatically during the Industrial Revolution. However, since the cemetery was closed to new burials (~1949), it has evolved to into a tranquil, but active community hub, a listed (Grade II) memorial site and wildlife haven.

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The layout uses short paths from a central chapel space to connect with an outer meandering perimeter path.

The cemetery was designed by Andrew Murray (first Curator of the new Botanic Gardens) in 1847 and there are certainly aspects in common with the Botanics’ layout. Pockets of mature trees, which were indicated on his plans, still persist, including plantings of pine, yew, beech, ash, sycamore and holly. (See Tree Trail)

SemSemi-pleached lime avenue leading to Mill Road Cemetery entrance

The Lime Avenue leading to the Lodge and entrance.

An avenue of lime trees (planted in 1874) leads to the Lodge and main entrance. Arrival therefore has a suitably somber and decorous feel about it. You are hushed and humbled even before you see all the grave stones and monuments. As shown in the photo, the trees are cut back in a semi-pleached form each year.

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Outline of the demolished chapel is marked in stone.

Sadly, the gothic chapel (built by George Gilbert Scott in 1858), that was the central focus for burials in the cemetery, was deemed unsafe in 1954 after fire damage took its toll on its structure. It was demolished and is now marked in outline only.

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This central space is a popular place to sit.

Nevertheless, with all paths converging on this area, it is a popular place to sit and read or chat.

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Wildness is encouraged, but managed and is balanced with careful maintenance of the graves.

Away from the formal paths a certain wildness is encouraged, although balanced with a respectful maintenance for the graves. The aim is to keep the current proportions of scrub, bramble, trees and grassland. Over 40 different bird species and 23 of the UK’s butterflies have been recorded on the site, including some quite unusual species, such as the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly. The area has therefore been classified as a City Wildlife Site and this in turn places a legal duty on the council to conserve its biodiversity.

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A series of bird stone sculptures, by Gordon Young, have been placed throughout the grounds.

The cemetery is a remarkably peaceful oasis in contrast to its busy urban surroundings. Bird song (particularly black birds while I was there) noticeably counters the background hum of traffic. In fact, its prominent bird population has been celebrated with a series of ‘Song Bird’ stone sculptures created by Gordon Young and spaced between the graves. This, along with other ‘trails’, encourages deeper exploration of the grounds and furthers community involvement.

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Mill Road Cemetery has become a place of quiet beauty, memories and history.

Mill Road Cemetery has become a wonderful place of quiet beauty, memories, history and life. It is definitely worth a visit.

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About Frogend_dweller

Living in the damp middle of nowhere
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23 Responses to Mill Road Cemetery: A resting place, a wildlife refuge and community fulcrum

  1. Chloris says:

    I never knew about this place. What a little oasis and how lovely that is kept as a haven for wildlife.

  2. Never knew about this place either despite knowing Mill Road. Cambridge is sooooo beautiful, doesn’t surprise me that’s there’s another special place among all its treasures.

    • Yes, you are right about hidden treasures in Cambridge. You have to keep your ears, eyes and mind open to discover them. It helps to talk to local friends on Zoom too. It’s amazing what you can find out!

      • It’s funny how lockdown and/or travel restrictions have the upside of encouraging us to explore more locally. I’m discovering new things about Belgium all the time, it’s nice. 🙂

  3. Eliza Waters says:

    Spaces like this are so precious. I love that it is semi-wild and not clipped and shorn.
    Our first house we bought in a small city in ’86 was across the street from a large Victorian period cemetery. It had a newer section, but we looked upon the older massive oaks, maples and beech. It saw few visitors and we used it like a park. It was a marvelous retreat from suburban life.

    • That was fortunate! While it is absolutely great to see new wildlife reserves etc being created, there is something special about the atmosphere mature trees and a little wildness bestows.

  4. shoreacres says:

    I know there is a group in Britain that dedicates itself to the restoration and maintenance of cemeteries as bits of natural habitat. I’d be surprised if they weren’t involved, at least tangentially. It’s a beautiful spot: inviting on several levels. I’d sure enjoying a visit there!

    • I am sure that you are right about being aware of the organisation https://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk/. Mill Road Cemetery is currently maintained by Cambridge City Council, but individual parishes retain ownership of their areas in the grounds (there are 13 marked out). There is also ‘Friends of’ group that helps too. It is certainly a credit to the whole team and I very much enjoyed my visit.

  5. Sue says:

    What a beautiful spot to meander along and enjoy the scenes and wildlife, and interesting graves and sculptures to admire as well. I’d love to visit one day!

  6. susurrus says:

    We were in Cambridge a few years ago and I’d have loved to have seen this, but didn’t know it existed. I liked the look of the sculpture in the picture with the curved, crocus-lined path and my sweetheart would have loved the lime avenue.

  7. How nice to see this cemetery offering more than just a resting place and a good use it is for walking and observing nature. Here in my town we have the Wildwood Cemetery that is a bird watcher’s destination as well as a peaceful spot for quiet moments to contemplate life and death as well as other concerns.

  8. Cathy says:

    So nice to find a spot like that in the middle of the city. Serene and full of stories we shall never know. 🙂

  9. Cathy says:

    What a delightful space, and great forethought by whoever manages it (who does?). Love the sculptures

    • That’s what I thought too. It is an achievement to strike the right balance between reverence, protection, wildlife and community, but they certainly appear to have done it. The sculptures are the icing on the cake really and success in tying various threads together.

  10. This is so beautiful! Thank you for taking us all on this restful walk with you. I love the balance of wild and managed.

  11. P.S. I shared a link to your post here on my private FB page for my friends to enjoy. I’m sure they will love it. Thanks again!

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