Think of Brighton and you think of candy floss, sticky rock, pebble beaches, the Royal Pavilion, the Palace Pier, the i360 and maybe a dirty weekend!
But hidden away in the city’s hinterland you’ll find a peaceful little gem, away from the hustle and bustle of the day-trippers and screaming seagulls.
A walk among the dead in the middle of a pandemic may seem a strange and slightly macabre thing to do, but the Extra Mural Cemetery just off Brighton’s busy Lewes Road is an oasis of calm and tranquillity.
On a late autumn day bees buzz sleepily as they gather the last of the nectar from the creeping ivy.
Squirrels chitter and chatter, flicking their big bushy tails as they seek and bury the nuts and seeds that will see them through the winter.
Neighbourhood cats slink through the long grass while crows caw and cry in the bare branches overhead.
Originally a private burial ground this part of Woodvale Cemetery spreads over 16 rolling acres.
Dating from the 1850s, it’s packed with huge Victorian memorials to the great and the good, as well as family vaults and individual graves.
The difference between then and now is marked. Modern cemeteries feature small, neat markers, flowerbeds and well tended pathways.
The Victorians were into death in a big way with ornate statuary, huge gravestones and flowing script. The passing of a young child could be marked as grandly as that of a war hero.
The Extra Mural Cemetery in Brighton has markers to help you negotiate the Tomb Trail, taking a circular route around the site, full of narrow tree-lined alleys and wide sweeping paths.
But don’t feel restricted by the signposts, the cemetery is closed to new burials so as long as you respect the peace and quiet you’re unlikely to disturb grieving families as you wander.
You can order a print copy of a walker’s guide from the City Council (mine arrived a few days after our visit) but even without the leaflet it’s a fascinating place.
A little research before you go is always helpful but there are no world-famous people buried in this part of the grounds, so take your time and make your own discoveries.
One memorial you can’t miss is the giant tomb of John Urpeth Rastrick, a Civil Engineer responsible for overseeing the construction of the London to Brighton Railway. You can tell how much the Victorians revered railways by the size and style of John’s memorial – based on a railway turntable. It’s so big you have to treat it as a roundabout!
Scattered around the grounds are equally impressive vaults, catacombs and tombs nestled into the hillside, some in a state of disrepair, others well cared for.
Aldermen, soldiers, mayors and financiers are among those honoured with ornate monuments, funded by their well-to-do relatives and admirers.
But nestled among the showy stones are smaller memorials to the dear departed – children, families and youths cut down in their prime by war and disease. Even under the decay of the centuries, some inscriptions still stand out as clear as on the day they were first carved.
Fans of Dr Who will recognise the inspiration for those terrifying Weeping Angels on many a memorial, but here among the evergreens, they seem sweetly sad and unthreatening.
It’s not a gloomy place and as the setting sun slanted through the leaves and the chill of evening settled in my bones, we wandered away, feeling rested and refreshed in these uncertain times.
Who’s buried where?
Do you have a favourite cemetery walk or tomb trail?
Are you interested in finding out who’s buried near you?
Find a Grave UK is a useful resource. It’s free to register and you can search by location, a person’s name or other specific features.
How to get to Brighton Extra Mural cemetery
The entrance is off the Lewes Road in the north of the city. It’s accessible by bus (routes 2 and 5 pass nearby) and there is a limited amount of free parking near the chapels.
The grounds are open every day of the year.
October to March
Monday to Saturday: 9am to 4pm
Sunday and public holidays: 11am to 4pm
April to September
Monday to Saturday: 9am to 5.30pm
Sunday and public holidays: 11am to 5.30pm