Sunday, 12 January 2014

A visit to Arnos Vale in Bristol.

It was a lightbulb moment when I realised that there was another of those Victorian cemeteries just "up the street" as it were. Arnos Vale (aka Arno's Vale) is about an hour away by 1st Great Western. I had used this particular train between Southampton and Salisbury and it continues on its journey to Cardiff via Bristol Temple Mead Station.  I can't just head off to these places without a reason, and my reason this time around was the 507 military graves in the cemetery, See, a reason can always be found, although the weather is the deciding factor. We have been having rain for quite some time, but last week it showed signs of clearing so I made tentative plans for the 11th. 

The weather played along and just after 7.30 I was on the train. Arriving just over an hour later at the glorious Temple Mead Station.  Its a bit of a hodge podge of a building though, but that cathedral like roof just leaves me gawking


The cemetery is about 20 minutes away by foot and I set off at my usual brisk pace, arriving with my heart in my mouth just in case it was closed. I was also clutching at my pocket just in case I lost the train ticket. 

Arnos Vale is a massive cemetery, with hills and paths and overgrown woodlands that are daunting. Strangely enough there were no mausoleums, although there is a crypt under the Anglican chapel. The military graves are scattered between a Crematorium plaque, Soldiers Corner plot/screen wall, and what is known as "Sailors corner". There are also a lot of familiar white headstones scattered amongst the graves, and many are what we know as "private memorials". My wandering eye could not help but take in the statues and obelisks and strange headstones with the long lines of names and dates. 

Soldiers Corner Plot 
It is difficult to quantify a place like this because it changes as you explore. The area near the front gate is really well tended and recognisable as a cemetery, but as you penetrate deeper into it, and towards the back area then you realise how big the cemetery really is and how overgrown parts of it are. 


I ended up picking my way through the undergrowth photographing individual graves, slowly working my way towards what is known as "Sailors Corner". 


It was strange coming across this immaculate piece of lawn with its naval burials, while all around it are the graves of the people who lived and died in the city. During the war the city and docks were bombed and many of the casualties from the bombing were probably buried all around me if I knew what to look for. However, it is hard enough trying to find a white rectangular military headstone, all the time trying not to fall over or get entangled in the many plants that all seem to have thorns!

At this point I deviated from the burial plot and walked in the road, assuming that I would be able to rejoin the burial area lower down. but that did not happen and I ended up heading down the path towards the chapels and bottom lodges. There was a lot of mud around too, so at times taking a short cut would have been disastrous.  Looking through a gap in the shrubbery I could see the cemetery far below me. 


It was while heading towards this space when I got really downhearted by what I was seeing. Amongst the trees there were these obelisks, erected as a monument to somebody who has now been dead over 100 years. Some of them were huge too, massive stone spikes that were now just like some strange ruin of an alien civilisation. 


The amount of money that was spent on some of these headstones/statues was incredible, and a place like this was considered to be "fashionable" at the time, I don't think that anybody who was pondering having a monolith erected, ever considered that just one day down the line this place would be an overgrown tangle, with their fancy memorial slowly decaying and becoming increasingly unstable and illegible. It was a very depressing thought, and one that I had never really felt so much in any of the other "garden cemeteries" I had visited before in London.

Like so many other cemeteries there is an Anglican and a "dissenters/non conformist" chapel, and they are both magnificent classical buildings, and in a really good condition too. 

The Anglican Chapel
The crypt is under this chapel, but was not open to see. The other chapel is used as an exhibition space and I did not really investigate it as there seemed to be a private function on the go. 

My first circumnavigation complete, I now started my second, this time concentrating more on the artistic and aesthetic side of the cemetery which has been interesting me a lot more than ever before. The rent was paid, I had photographed about 130 individual CWGC graves as well as the plaques and screen wall. Now it was time to enjoy myself. 


There are not too many statues of interest here, although there were some really beautiful ones that I had not seen before. Probably the most visually impressive tomb of all was that of Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadoor, yet it no longer holds the remains of the person it was built for in 1843. It was one of the earlier buildings in the cemetery which was established in 1837. 


I headed back along the path towards where I had been before, but via a different route, this time taking an earlier fork in the road and discovering a whole section that I had missed, and it's many CWGC graves too, so it was back to rent paying for me. This area was quite heavily overgrown and I struggled to move between graves and finding enough space to get back far enough to take a pic. But, if you are photographing war graves it is worth considering that conditions on the Western Front during WW1 were thousands of times worse than I was experiencing now.



It was time to move onwards, and I eventually found out how to access the Roman Catholic cemetery next door to Arnos Vale. There were a number of  CWGC burials here too, and I struggled to find the graves I was after that were not in the small plot. This one I will definitely have to return to so that I can  gravehunt it properly.


It is quite a steep climb though, and in parts the footing was treacherous, and I was not in a mood to tumble down that hill. The screen wall and plot was close to the bottom of the cem, but looking back I missed quite a few individual private memorials within this cemetery


Just over the road from Arnos Vale is the churchyard of St Mary's Redcliffe, and that held 18 CWGC graves. But the lower part of this cemetery is in a deplorable condition and it seems as there is a dispute over the continued existence of the cemetery. 



It was a find I did not expect to make though, but quite a large space. I don't know where the original church is, although I did spot a large church on my way to Arnos Vale, but it was atop a hill and I did not like the look of the climb. Maybe next time?

Conclusions:

The front gate lodges
Arnos Vale is a magnificent old lady, and very different to the similar cemeteries that I saw amongst the magnificent 7 in London. It did not have as much of the visible ostentatious mausoleums and statues, and there are a lot of ordinary people buried there, although it could be that a lot of the Victorian era graves are still hidden in the undergrowth. There are quite a few areas that are really just a mass of trees and bush, and there are the occasional headstones visible amongst them. Possibly the only way to find out is to wait and see whether they ever get to clear that area, 


From a war grave perspective I am still missing at least 100 graves, so that is a good reason to return. Besides there is a lot to see in Bristol that I only really peeked at. From here I went to the docks to see the SS Great Britain, although that is for a future blogpost. I was semi satisfied with my accomplishments, and the winter light was very interesting to photograph in. The sun was always low on the horizon and it made for some very nice light, but it also made for some very difficult viewing.  Irrespective though, I will be back some day, just watch this space.

Postscript, April 2016.
In October 2015 I returned to Arnos Vale, Holy Souls and St Mary Redcliffe cemeteries. I still had all of those missing CWGC graves to find and after an intensive hunt was able to whittle the total down to roughly 90 graves outstanding at Arnos Vale,  2 at St mary Redcliffe and 4 at Holy Souls. I was also able to visit the church associated with St Mary Redcliffe, and it was magnificent. I will return to Bristol one day. I just must find the inclination. 

Visiting the SS Great Britain.

Bristol held one more attraction for me, and that was yet another preserved ship: Brunel's SS Great Britain. There is no doubt in my mind that Brunel was an engineer that could do almost anything. He was ahead of his time and his vision seemed to encompass anything that needed doing. Ships was just one task he applied himself to with a passion, and the Great Britain is one of his finest creations.  I am not qualified to expound on the history of this grand old lady from a different age, I just tell it like I see it.  I suggest a visit to the Wikipedia page for the history thereof.


Berthed at the the drydock in the Great Western Drydock in Bristol, she is back in the place where she was created, and she is a stunning example of shipbuilding the way it was back then. I took the walk to her after my sojourn at Arnos Vale, although I did not really realise how far away she was from the cemetery. It did mean a long walk along the banks of the Avon, and a detour through the docks, which was a good thing because I discovered a whole new place to shipwatch.


The Great Britain was still quite a walk from where I entered the docks, but eventually I spotted her, resting in her dry dock, far from the place where she nearly ended her days. The fact that she still survives is a testament to her design and construction, and of course the fact that she was seemingly forgotten so was reasonably untouched by the destructive hand of the scrap merchants.  Her return to the UK was a triumph in itself, and today she is an extremely popular member of the preserved fleet that is resident in this country. 

Entrance to the vessel is via the top deck, which are wide and relatively unencumbered for a ship that boasted sails and an engine! 


I did find the surplus of skylights quite odd, but their reason for being there would only come about when I went below. There are three decks to explore: the Weather (top) Deck, Promenade Deck, and finally Saloon Deck.  The Promenade Deck did not feature a promenade deck as they are associated with cruise ships and TransAtlantic liners, instead it was more of an internal space where people strolled up and down and tried to escape the incredibly small cabins that were found on this deck. 

It is worth remembering that ships like this did not have air conditioning, and probably no running water in the cabins. Ventilation would be almost minimal, although it is possible that a porthole could be opened depending on what deck you were on and what the weather was like outside. Ablutions would be "down the hall", and any entertainment was usually provided by the passengers themselves. The concept of stabilisers did not exist, the passengers were at the mercy of the sea just like the crew, although they may have had more superior accommodation to the fo'c'stle where the deck crew usually were bunked.

Voyages were long, cramped and uncomfortable. But a ship like the Great Britain was probably light years ahead of her competitors, and she was no tub either, but a well found vessel, albeit one that seems to have had a chequered career.



The skylights in the image above are directly underneath the skylights on the deck above so that light could penetrate the gloom below. It is really an effective method of providing light, although I wonder how watertight they were? This is the Promenade Deck and it has the large windowed stern at the far end.


Rising up into this deck area is the engine room, and this is a fascinating space in itself. The machinery occupying the space is massive. It occupys 3 decks and weighs in at 340 tons. There are 4 cylinders in 2 sets, each at a 33 degree angle in a V shape.


These drive a wooden toothed chain wheel just over 18 feet in diameter which turns another wheel on the shaft via a set of chains. The Great Britain used the same principle as a bicycle! The engine really has to be seen to be believed, quietly turning but never going anywhere.

From what I have read the engine in the ship now is actually a full scale working model built with lighter and more modern materials.
Apparently her original engines were replaced by better ones (as the technology improved) and naturally there would be the benefit of more efficiency with less expenditure of money. However, the reliance on sails still existed, and while she was built as a steam ship with sail power available, she later changed to a sailing ship with an auxiliary engine. She also had the unique ability to retract her propeller when not in use and when running on sail.

I was also able to catch a glimpse at "steerage" dormitory style accommodation, and it is frightening to think of being cooped up in this area on a long voyage.


Another area of interest was what I expect you would call the first class dining saloon, and it is quite a large space, although the decor doesn't really do much for me. I do not know what was behind those ornate doors though,. although I do know one was the gents!


Right in the bow of the ship was a large open area that was probably used at one point for cargo and probably crews quarters. Its a dark area and I don't know how original it is, but it does give a good indication of the internal lines of the ship.


The ship is not afloat, and rests on keelblocks in the dry dock. Parts of her hull plating are rusted through, and there is a sophisticated humidifying system in place in the dry dock. to keep her hull stabilised. The fact is that iron rusts, and this ship is over 160 years old, and spent many years neglected and unused and semi derelict, it is inevitable that she is not in a pristine condition, in fact she is really a very tired old ship, but also a very handsome tired old ship.


Parts off the hull plating have rusted through and these have not been replaced, but you can get an idea of the fragility of the hull if you really take the time to have a look.

The part that interested me was in the dry dock itself, the ship is surrounded by glass panels and water flows across the panels giving the impression that she is afloat. For some reason this seems to work much better than what they did with the Cutty Sark which is more like a giant goldfish bowl.


Bear in mind that each of those rivets was put in by hand..... and many of the hull plating has a curvature to it. And did I mention it is over 160 years old? Seeing a ship from this angle is always fascinating because it is here that you really get a sense of scale (and how small you are compared to it). The propeller is a replica of Brunels 6 bladed design which is remarkably similar in performance to modern 6 bladed screws.


This propeller shape also features on a memorial to the engineer in Portsmouth.






Two dehumidifying machines (one inside the ship and one in the drydock), help keep the humidity at bay, without them the Great Britain would be living on borrowed time. A comprehensive history of the vessel is also available at the website dedicated to the engineer who was such a forward thinker and whose work still exists in so many forms today. Sadly, yet another of his ships "The Great Eastern"  would ultimately cause the death of her designer on 11 September 1859. He is buried in Kensall Green Cemetery in London.

There is still so much to say about the ship and what I saw, it is always difficult trying to do justice to a vessel such as this in a blog, the ship is always better seen and experienced up close and personal. I know she was very different to what I expected, and I would have loved to have explored much more, but time was catching me and I still had to get to the station for my train. I will return to her one day, preferably in summer when the days are longer, and hopefully this time will know what to look for.

More images: