The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A short walk through Welford Road Cemetery, Leicester

One of the hidden heritage gems of the UK in my opinion are graveyards and cemeteries, particularly those pre-World War I when the fashion was, for those who could afford them, grand and ostentatious memorials.  I am often seen as morbid for having a fascination with such places of death but for me, memorials tell us far more about the life of those in the past, as well as about the change in funeral customs for instance.  Unlike the history books, graveyards etc are also places where you can see the names of ordinary people and although this is often restricted to just their name, age and relatives, occasionally memorials contain more information to tell us about the lives of those buried beneath us.  There is a wealth of social history here which is recognised by the number of Friends and volunteer groups who protect and care for these important sites.

Welford Road Cemetery in Leicester is very close to the University, in fact the entrance gate on the west side (if the North entrance is the one on Welford Road) faces the main University campus on University Road.  My MA dissertation focused on how cemeteries are used as public heritage sites so I was already familiar with the Cemetery before I even considered moving to Leicester.  There are guided tours, which I can recommend as a way of learning more about Leicester as well as those who are buried in the Cemetery, and a guide book called 'Grave Matters: A Walk through Welford Road Cemetery Leicester' by Max Wade-Matthews, published in 1992 by Heart of Albion Press.


Cemeteries are also havens for wildlife and can make pleasant places for walks. Although in the past they tended to be managed on the same scale as parks, the collapse of the private cemetery companies left many in the hands of unsympathetic Local Authorities leading to either wholesale demolition or willful neglect. Whilst neglect lends the cemetery a mournful atmosphere in keeping with the Victorian fantasy, it does not feel very safe to be in a wilderness of ivy and trees.  Welford Road Cemetery is thus perfect because it is very open, mostly grass, with tree-lined walks on the fringes.  It is a working cemetery still, with a visitor centre for those who are interested in finding out about the history of the site and how it has changed over the years.

I took a walk on Saturday afternoon through the Cemetery (on my way to Morrisons supermarket); it was bitterly cold and grey and my hand almost froze taking photographs.  In historic cemeteries it is tempting to only take photos of the most important memorials, however I tried to take a mixture so that I could get a feel of the Cemetery in its entirety rather than simply its 'best bits.'  Below are some of those photographs, with a short commentary, which I hope will encourage you, if you are in Leicester, to visit this fascinating site, if only to enjoy a quiet walk in the heart of the bustling city.

One of the most striking memorials in the Cemetery is a tall, decorative Celtic cross dedicated to Benjamin Sutton.  The book 'Grave Matters' tells me that Sutton made a lot of money on the Stock Exchange and, having no family, he left all of it in trust to Leicester Infirmary to help destitute persons to 'be able to start afresh in the world' (p20).


The bulk of the Cemetery is scattered with the memorials of more 'ordinary' Leicester citizens.  Memorials such as these were often chosen from enormous pattern books in the 19th century and a complicated symbolic language was developed in order for families to express their grief at the passing of their relatives and friends.

I had to go 'off the beaten track' to find this fine memorial, unfortunately the inscription was too eroded to read who it belonged to.  That is another interesting thing in cemeteries, the type of material used to make memorials.  Before the advent of the canals and railways, local stone was mainly used.  With the development of faster, more reliable means of transport different stone could be imported from all over the world.

Angelic sculptures are found all over cemeteries and Welford Road is no exception.  This is a particularly fine one I think - unusually the angel is placed at ground level, most of the ones I have seen have been on a plinth.  It gives the memorial a very intimate feel.


The 'curse' of Health and Safety - despite the fact that very few people are killed in graveyards and cemeteries each year, memorials that are presumed to be in danger of collapse have had to be taken down.  I can understand the reasons why but it is irritating that they cannot make them more secure instead whilst retaining the shape of the memorial - I guess they would argue that it would be too expensive.

Occasionally you come across a quirky memorial; quite a few memorials in Welford Road are inlaid with metal inserts.  I was surprised to see that quite a few remain, as these are often stolen.  I used to volunteer for the Friends group at Sheffield General Cemetery and I remember being told that bits of stolen memorials were quite often sold as garden ornaments.


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