Haunt Bristol recently sat down with Janine Marriott, Public Engagement Manager and Doctoral Researcher at Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust. Janine told us about how the Cemetery has managed through lockdown, its attraction for visitors and the events programme that Arnos Vale has in store for the remainder of the year and beyond.

Arnos Vale in the summer, looking from the East Lodge

Image - Buffy Jones

Welcome back to Haunt Bristol, Janine. Arnos Vale is one of the finest Victorian burial grounds in the country, and it’s also renowned for its varied and fascinating events programme. It’s been a challenging year or two for public engagement, but you’ve still curated a series of fascinating online talks.

How did you find adapting to lockdowns and other restrictions? Have you engaged new audiences?

It has been a real learning curve for us. As a small charity, half the staff including me were furloughed. This meant when I did return, I had a lot of catching up to do. 

Obviously when restrictions were in place, we couldn’t welcome visitors in the same way, but we absolutely wanted to engage them. So, I put out some emails to see if any of our wonderful supporters from the academic community and beyond were willing to speak as part of our programme and we had an absolutely wonderful response.

We’ve had a range of talks on all sorts of themes including vampires, cremation, LGBTQ+ stories, Agatha Christie, death studies, 19th century funerals and grave symbolism. The online talks series has been so successful that we plan to carry on until at least December. Then we hope to have a hybrid programmed on onsite and online talks in 2022. 

We’re pleased to say we got local, national and international audiences for our talks, and many of them were new to Arnos Vale. We’ve had people zooming in from Australia, American and Portugal, to name just a few places.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy memorial monument at Arnos Vale Cemetery

Image - Raja Ram Mohan Roy memorial monument

For you, what are some of the Cemetery’s most notable memorials? Do the majority of them date from the nineteenth century?

Arnos Vale Cemetery is still a working cemetery and we have burials and scatterings up to the present day, so we have a wide range. Our most famous memorial is Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his monument evokes famous Indian memorials like the Taj Mahal.  He is regarded as one of the Fathers of Modern India. 

In total we have 25 listed memorials in the landscape, most of which are noted for their sculptural excellence or unique symbolism but the grave of Mary Carpenter, famous Bristolian is listed due to the person in it. As a grave it is very simple and discreet, which fitted with her Unitarian faith. Most of the listed memorials on site are from the 19th century.

Our amazing dramatic landscape is also a big draw for visitors. It is grade 2* listed and regarded as one of the most important cemetery landscapes in the picturesque style. This blog explains how it came to be so beautiful.

Mary Carpenter's gravestone at Arnos Vale Cemetery

Image - Mary Carpenter's gravestone, credit David Gurney

Arnos Vale has some 20,000 burial plots and 300,000 people buried on the site – do you still find new, fascinating gravestones and stories after all your years of working at the Cemetery? What has your own research unearthed?

I am constantly discovering new and interesting graves as I wander the landscape and our wonderful research volunteers highlight new finds too. My favourite latest find is Robin Winter-Smith a stuntman who is buried on site, after he sadly died when he tried to jump 30 Rolls Royces.

The Cemetery is incredibly popular with visitors. What is it about the site that makes it so attractive to the public, beyond it being a place of memorialisation and remembrance? We hear there’s great wildlife…

The cemetery has so many attractions and our visitors come for so many reasons. Obviously some come to pay their respects, and others are part of our amazing volunteer team who look after the landscape, the visitors and undertake research. People come for tours, talks, exercise classes or for fresh air and just to wander.

Many do come due to the stunning landscape. Arnos Vale Cemetery was the first great Garden Cemetery in the South West so it was planted with a range of beautiful trees and shrubs over 150 years ago. Many of these trees are still in the landscape and are a fantastic habitat for all sorts of flora and fauna. We’re proud to have three different species of bat on site, pipistrelle, soprano pipistrelle and lesser horseshoe bat, some of which roost beneath our lodges in a secret tunnel.

We’re also home to several types of raptor, tawny owls, sparrowhawks and buzzards, which use the different trees and dense landscape to hunt and roost. The cemetery boasts lots of plants, some of which are only found in Bristol, and it has three different habitat zones – woodland, scrubland and grassland – making it a fantastic part of Bristol’s green corridor.

Gravestones and trees at Arnos Vale Cemetery

Image - Arnos Vale gravestones, credit Oliver Jordan

Now that restrictions have eased (at time of writing), are you offering private guided walks of the Cemetery once more?

We are indeed offering private and public guided walks again. As our walks are all outdoors, visitors can feel safe. Our popular public tours were on hold due to the pandemic but we are delighted that we are going to be able to get it started with public tours again in September. Upcoming talks and events are listed on the website.

What’s in store in your events programme for the rest of the year that you can recommend for Haunt readers?

I’m really excited for our speaker Lorraine Evan’s talk ‘I’m Not Dead! The Perils of Premature Burial’ on the 20 October. We are just lining up a couple of other talks on medieval death, bats and body snatching and they will come up on the website soon as all the details are confirmed.

We will also have a carol concert on the 18 December in our beautiful Anglican Chapel. The tickets always sell out fast for this, so I advise grabbing them as soon as they are announced.

We are just planning our October events and expect our ‘Murder, Mayhem and Mystery’ and ‘Morbid Curiosity’ night tours will be in the programme. For families, we will be holding craft sessions during the October half term and on 31 October, we will have storytellers Time and Tide telling Grave tales around the fire.

Thank you for joining us, Janine. We really appreciate it.

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Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust
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Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust

Step into a secret world and discover 45 green acres where the history of Bristol is told in a leafy and tranquil setting.