To die for

For centuries the churchyard of St John’s was sufficient to accommodate the dead of Cardiff, a town with a population of less than 2,000. But as numbers multiplied in the 19th century both the churchyard and the graveyards of Cardiff’s Nonconformist chapels filled to capacity. The first municipal cemetery, opened in Adamsdown in 1848, proved far too small and was full up within eight years. A major plot of land was required, with room for later expansion, so the council purchased 12 hectares (30 acres) of farmland from the Lewis dynasty in a tranche bordered by Allensbank Road to the east, Fairoak Road to the west and the Nant Wedal brook to the north and Cathays Cemetery opened for business in 1859.

Further purchases in 1878 and 1898 soon increased the Cemetery by another 20 hectares (50 acres) northwards. In 1871 the Rhymney Railway’s direct line into Cardiff was built in a cutting along the Cemetery’s eastern flank and then in 1888 the Taff Vale Railway’s Roath Branch mineral line was built along the course of the Nant Wedal, dividing the Cemetery in half. The Eastern Avenue dual-carriageway replaced the Roath Branch in 1971 and the University Hospital opened opposite the Cemetery’s Allensbank Road entrance in the same year. Despite being surrounded by clattering trains, wailing ambulances and thundering traffic, the fabulous necropolis containing over half a million permanently silenced Cardiffians, the 3rd largest Victorian cemetery in the UK after London’s Brookwood and Nunhead, is still an oasis of tranquillity. And on sunny summer weekday mornings, when I’ve got a couple of hours to kill, there’s no place in town I prefer to be.

Cathays Cemetery map

Cathays Cemetery map

I mooch around the spiralling pathways (configured in a heart shape only visible from the air), drift through the marvellous arboretum of evergreen and deciduous trees and examine the plethora of absorbing monuments. Entering through the original main gates on Fairoak Road one is greeted by a pair of 1859 chapels by Robert Thomas (1820-1883) and Thomas Waring (1825-1891). On the left is the Nonconformist chapel and on the right the Anglican chapel, linked in a five-part composition by an octagonal spire between gabled porte cochères wide enough for hearses. Allowed to fall to rack and ruin over the years, the chapels were at last repaired and made weatherproof in 2009. Catholics once had their own chapel further into the Cemetery, also built in 1859, but that was demolished in 1986; its position was next to the Celtic Cross memorial to the Irish Famine of 1845-1849, unveiled in 1999.

It’s quite possible to get lost amid the forest of trees, of which the yews, horse chestnuts, cedars, larches, pines, oaks, limes, hollies and monkey puzzles are outstanding. The Cemetery’s first Head Gardener William Timms (1824-1867), who learnt horticulture in Lord Bute’s Cathays nursery, was responsible for much of the planting.

The countless memorials, from the futile grandiosity of the rich and powerful still trying to assert their social rank post-mortem, to the pathetic twig crosses of the poor, provide a sobering perspective on human transience. All the high-rollers of Cardiff history are here: men like shipping magnates William Reardon Smith (1856-1935), William Seager (1862-1941) and John Cory (1823-1891); the latter’s Tory MP son, Mr Coryton, Herbert Cory (1857-1933); guiltily philanthropic coal baron William Thomas (1867-1945); William “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” Tatem (1868-1942); shipbuilder John Batchelor (1820-1883), the ‘friend of freedom’ covered in pigeon droppings in the Hayes who made the mistake of crossing the Butes; and Solomon Andrews (1835-1908), the ultimate self-made man with interests in everything from omnibuses to quack medicines. Two of the most visited graves are those of Cardiff boxing legends Jim Driscoll (1880-1925), whose gloves used to be displayed in a glass bowl until nicked in the 1950’s, and Jack Petersen (1911-1990), whose inscription uses the alternative spelling of his surname, Peterson.

Most immaculately maintained are the war graves, each marked by the standard small white headstone provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There are only around 500 in the whole Cemetery because the majority of Cardiff’s WW1 casualties lie somewhere in northern France while hundreds of WW2 memorials were destroyed at the height of the conflict in 1943 when the Cemetery took a direct hit from a German bomb aiming for the Roath Branch railway. Bones were hurled like missiles into Allensbank Road, to be pounced on and gnawed to the marrow by scavenging neighbourhood dogs in a scene out of a nightmare.

Because of Eastern Avenue the northern half of the Cemetery is only accessible from a separate entrance further up Allensbank Road: an underpass or footbridge presumably being beyond the wit of city planners. Here, much altered, Wedal Farm and its outbuildings are used as the Cemetery depot. Less densely planted, this section is where I like to bask undisturbed, and perhaps contemplate the bizarre symbols we deluded homo sapiens choose to mark our passing from this Vale of Tears: pagan urns, wreaths, broken columns, upside-down torches, grieving women in Roman robes and obelisks are as numerous as the crosses and angels of monotheistic Christianity. Vegetation slowly strangles them all, roots topple the monuments, inscriptions fade to invisibility, a weird stone junkyard amasses and, at last, we are all equal.

Cathays Cemetery ceased opening new graves in 1986. Nowadays most people prefer to be incinerated in the corporation crematorium at Thornhill, opened in 1952. But existing graves can still be used by family members and it’s my intention to take advantage of that right and push up the daisies snugly cwtched up with my Nan in plot EG 429.