Friday, August 31, 2012

The Last Train to Brookwood

Normal blogging service will be resumed next week - until then, here's one from the vaults. Or should that be crypt?

My post last week, and Cara's subsequent post ('ghost trains' in a 'ghost station'! Fabulous!) set me thinking about other pieces of secret London, a subject which so fascinates me.

This one is deliciously macabre.

In early Victorian London, as the city made the transformation from big Georgian city to a vast metropolis, there was a pressing problem. Namely what to do with the ever growing and ceaseless numbers of dead, other than piling grave upon grave or digging vast communal pits. Small churchyards were teeming with bodies and a major public health risk was looming, as effluent from decomposing bodies oozed into wells and rivers. In their wisdom, the authorities decided to build a series of huge cemeteries, Highgate, Kensal Green and others; towering, sprawling atmospheric monuments to the dearly departed, worthy of a blog of their own (and in Kensal Green's case, they will get one very soon...)

However, my favourite of them all is Brookwood. It may not be as ornately gothic as Highgate - and there no Karl Marxes buried there to attract the tourist - nor boast the crumbling, fading beauty of Kensal Green, though it doesn't lack for either. The reason it's my firm favourite is that it sits 25 miles south west of central London. So, to transport the dead to their final resting place, they built a railway with the sole purpose of taking them and their mourning relatives and friends. And if that isn't perfect enough, with the dramatic flourish so beloved of the Victorians, they decided to call the service the London Necropolis Railway.

It is said that death is the great leveller, it comes to us all, rich or poor. Not on the Necropolis Railway was it. For a start there were two platforms at the terminus and cemetery: one for noncomformists, the other for Anglicans. There were also two classes of travel. Understandable, given the mores of the time, Victorian gentlemen and their grieving, demure ladyfolk would not wish to accompany their loved one on his or her last trip alongside riff-raff or hoi-polloi. They had their own waiting rooms, own carriages, different times to embark and disembark, to ensure they would never meet.

However, the passengers weren't the only ones who got a choice of club or coach. So did the dead. In fact, they had the choice of an extra class of travel (one-way, obviously) than the living. First class coffins were loaded on to a richly decorated carriage in full view of their mourners; second and third class were thrown onto a less garlanded carriage without anyone bar the few pall bearers present.

With all aboard, the air thick with steam and soot, the long dark train would pull slowly from the station and proceed at a stately speed for the 57 minute journey. At the cemetery, a service would take place, the coffins lowered into the ground, second and third class hurried back on board while first-class passengers got a chance for a leisurely promenade and few extra minutes paying respects, before it hurried back to London at a slightly faster speed minus it's stiff cargo.

The terminus was near Waterloo station, on Westminster Bridge Road. It was closed in 1941 after being heavily bombed, but the facade remains (and I love a remaining facade).

The track has long been taken up but a piece has been placed at the cemetery to mark the railway's existence, and visitors can be taken on a tour through through the grounds where the imprint of the tracks can still be seen, leading to the places where the platforms used to be.

Before anyone says it would make a great backdrop to a book - understandably so, in my mind it seems to have been created so someone could write a novel about it - I have to add that it already has. The delightfully named Basil Copper came first in 1980. Then a few years ago, Andrew Martin wrote a well-written and beautifully researched mystery set on the railway. A bit cosy for my tastes, but a cracking read nonetheless.

Though I can't help thinking there's still scope for a another crime novel to be set on the Necropolis Railway...



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