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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Nevertheless, with all paths converging on this area, it is a popular place to sit and read or chat.
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.
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.
Mill Road Cemetery has become a wonderful place of quiet beauty, memories, history and life. It is definitely worth a visit.