In London, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is not a western, but a ring of opulent cemeteries built in the 19th century—though it was given that name by architectural historian Hugh Meller in the 80s as a nod to the film. While many Londoners and visitors know of Highgate and Brompton cemeteries, there is one which is little different and less well known than the others: Abney Park.
Unlike some of the more famous of the seven, Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington is completely free to visit and is more overgrown and wild than some of the others, as it’s also a nature reserve, perfect for exploring.
Stoke Newington doesn’t have a tube, but it is on the Overground from Liverpool Street (about 30 minutes) or you can catch a bus. You can get either the 73 (from Victoria via Oxford St and Angel) or the 476 (From Euston) which both stop right outside.
History of Abney Park
The grim story behind the creation of Abney Park and the other graveyards of The Magnificent Seven is that in the early 1800s, London’s rapid population growth meant there was no more room in inner-city burial grounds. There was no more space to bury the dead, and bodies were piling up. Pretty horrible, right? Parliament later passed a bill in 1982 to encourage the establishment of new, private cemeteries and lo, within ten years, seven had been established.
On a lighter note, the site Abney Park sits on was formed from two estates of Fleetwood House and Abney House, the latter of which was the home of renowned non-conformist and hymn writer Isaac Watts. As a result, it became a prominent burial ground for dissenters—those who practice outside of the established church.
It was also laid out as an arboretum, with over 2,500 species of plants and trees including oaks, pines and thorns inside.
By the 1970s, the site had fallen into disrepair and was abandoned. Hackney Borough Council took it over, and the ramshackle nature remained which gives it the spooky, and charming atmosphere that lures people in today.
Things to encounter
As you make your way round, you’ll pass wonky, moss-covered graves and winding paths. But not all gravestones are lying in eerie decrepitude; there are plenty of fine examples of gothic opulence and tombs of the notable individuals interred within them. Famous people buried in Abney Park Cemetery include William And Catherine Booth (founders of the Salvation Army), infamous lion tamer Frank Bostock and Joanna Vassa (daughter of Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave and anti-slavery campaigner).
It has been used as a filming location including 90s film I Hired A Contract Killer, the Amy Winehouse video for Back to Black and more recently, it was a stand-in for Highgate Cemetery in The Walking Dead. The whole place is a gift for photographers and film crews, particularly the neo-Gothic chapel which soars high above the grounds, and has only recently been restored and is open for public use, after being shut for more than 30 years due to a fire.
As a nature reserve, it’s also great for spotting various wildlife, trees and plant species. The park is home to various bats, birds and butterflies as well as fungi like bright and brilliant Yellow Brain fungus that puffs itself up when wet. Which is cool.
You spot all of this stuff on at your own pace, but if you want to find out more secrets of the park and encounter more nature, join one of the monthly guided walks on the first Sunday of each month. Alternatively, you can download one of the Abney Rambles for an immersive audio guide to listen to as you make your way round.
Events and activities in Abney Park
There are lots of things to do besides walking. The volunteer-run park puts on a regular programme events. So if you fancy polishing up your craft skills with a bit of spoon whittling or stone carving, you’re in the right place (disclaimer, these activities are not the cheapest, around £50 a pop, but family tickets are £25, so having multiple whittlers is more cost-effective!).
Abney Park also hosts arts events, markets and lectures. For those brave enough for a spooky and nocturnal experience you can see things like Edgar Allen Poe (former Stoke Newington resident) inspired story performances, and theatrical renditions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. For those who are a little fainter of heart, there are music concerts too.
Best time to go
For more hidden London, try Forty Hall in Enfield.