I was working on a couple of Nomad film screenings in Brompton Cemetery recently. I’d never been there before. It’s an extraordinary place.
From the north, you walk off Old Brompton Road through a stone arch onto a wide avenue stretching into the distance. A line of old trees flank either side and beyond them, amidst the unkempt undergrowth, are the graves – a forest of lopsided stone crosses, weathered headstones and the odd small mausoleum, darkened by time.
It is very peaceful. The main avenue is used by cyclists and commuters but off the beaten track it’s mostly the breeze and busy squirrels. The sound of Chelsea traffic soon fades and disappears as the epitaphs and names of the dead draw you in. Names like Horace Lot, “The dearly loved elder son of Lot and Elizabeth Brass who died 19 Nov 1896 aged 16 years”. Who was Horace? What was his story? How did he die?...
In the heady, adrenalin fuelled onrush of London here is a place of stillness. You forget yourself for a second as the enigmatic histories of the cemetery’s occupants gather you in and envelop you. There is an air of dignified, respectful neglect about the place. The tilting graves and toppling gravestones announce themselves through overgrown grass, as though nature and the deceased have been purposefully allowed to merge into one.
Visitors come from far and wide. Two Japanese ladies emerged from a path in the back of a black cab – and I later learned that the cemetery indeed has Japanese graves. And a man with no English walked the length of the avenue, barely pausing at our hazard tape, in search of a Russian grave. He found it near our screen, stood briefly with bowed head, then briskly departed.
Some visits appear to be more spontaneous. On our second night in the cemetery, two men without tickets – one young, one older – forced their way in. I got the call on the radio, jumped on my bike and made for the direction they were heading in. They were easy to spot because (like me) they were wearing hi-vis. As I approached, the young man shooed me away with agitation. He was standing by a grave set away from the path. The older man came over, apologising; he told me, with a beer-induced slur, that they were visiting the young man’s mother and they would be gone very soon.
We showed Alien on the first night, Pan’s Labyrinth on the second. Both portray, in their own devastatingly literal and metaphorical way, the terror that lurks in the shadows. But once the show was over and we had finished the packdown and it was the last few crew heading back up the long avenue in the deep gloom, the shadows of Brompton Cemetery seemed less than terrifying. All that lurked within them were the gently swaying trees, the curious young foxes sniffing around for food, and the enigmatic histories of the departed.