The Brompton Cemetery Conservation Project is nearing completion. We got an in depth look at the challenges, triumphs and stunning restoration that earned a 2018 Museum + Heritage Award.
I’m walking through Brompton Cemetery in South West London. It’s a mild May afternoon but there’s just been ten minutes of heavy rain. Now the birds are singing again and there’s a green glow over everything from the leaves of the trees lining the avenue between the chapel and the North Lodge.
I’ve got a meeting with Nigel Thorne, Brompton’s Project Manager who has overseen the restoration of the Grade I listed cemetery landscape. As I near the chapel a fox crosses a few metres in front of me, looking around before darting towards the catacombs. A murder of crows arranged atop the grey gravestones eye me as I walk past. There are squirrels in every direction, it’s full of life.
In Nigel’s office we start by looking over some photos that show the before and after of the Yorkstone and Portland stone chapel floor. Like everything else in Brompton Cemetery, there’s a story behind that.
The chapel floor
“When I first arrived on the project I was told that the chapel had a poured concrete floor” says Nigel. “It was under a horrible slime green carpet and when we checked, that appeared to be the case. We got a team in to remove a duct that ran across the chapel floor, their remit was to angle grind right across it.”
Rather than removing just the section they needed to, the team took up the entire carpet. They discovered a layer of linoleum from the 1960s that had first looked like concrete. On further inspection, the lino had been stuck over a beautiful radial patterned floor that aligned with the chapel columns and upper dome .
“I was away at the time but got a call at 6am saying ‘I really don’t think you want us to angle grind this floor.’ It was thanks to the open communication we had with everyone working on the project. That’s not always the case, which sounds weird, but contractors will often follow specification without questioning. Every contractor on the site took ownership of the project, it was brilliant.”
Of course expecting to simply lay a new carpet and then having to completely restore a floor came with challenges too. Seven bespoke stone slabs had to be sourced from a quarry when some of the old stones crumbled after being lifted out. It extended the length of the project but remarkably didn’t increase the cost.
“Initially we thought we might have to go back to the Heritage Lottery Fund with a request for more money. But because everyone was working together, we were able to make savings elsewhere and reinvest so we didn’t incur any additional costs.”
The Yorkstone and Portland stone floor of the chapel was discovered during the project and was carefully restored
Repairing the repairs
Some of the flagstones at the chapel’s main entrances had sunk. Instead of lifting them out and filling underneath, someone had hammered away at the top of the sunken stones, poured in a levelling compound, and then stuck the lino on top before laying the carpet. These careless repairs from the 1960s and 70s were evident all over the cemetery and had done more damage than good.
“I just think that people didn’t understand how to refurbish heritage of this nature” says Nigel. “When we inspected the antique glass on the chapel roof we found that the steel glazing bars had been pieced together with strong duct tape. And where that had failed, even stronger and wider duct tape had been used!
“It had been put on in such a way that water had collected beneath it and was rusting the steel support bars. We came up with an innovative solution of using a special resin in the areas affected by the rust. When it dried it was as strong as steel.
“We had to order seven huge pieces of glass from a foundry that was about to stop producing it. We now have the original glazing bars still up on that roof, with a 21st century intervention that allows them to remain.”
The original bars are still in place on the chapel roof and will last long into the future.
Planning for the future
It’s not just the cemetery that’s been preserved for the future. The skilled craftsmen that have worked on the glass, stone, timber and metal have been encouraged to pass on their knowledge by taking on apprentices.
“Making sure these valuable skills are passed down to the next generation was a key part of the project. We’ve also tried really hard to keep the public informed about what’s going on. Not just so that they know why parts of the cemetery have been closed, but also so they can appreciate what a special piece of heritage Brompton is.”
The meeting comes to an end. So what is Nigel most proud of about the project? His eyes light up. “Definitely the team. If I think back now, this could have gone very wrong if those relationships hadn’t worked all the way down the line. Nothing I’ve worked on has given me as much pleasure to see how well you can do something with the right people involved.”
As I walk back through the cemetery I notice a whole new set of details. I’m aware of the thin piece of hand crafted timber that sits between the layers of lead in the chapel roof; the fight won to have the elegant wheelchair ramps either side the chapel entrance; the lining protecting the tops of the ancient walls that looks just like lead (but is a lot less likely to be prized off in the night).
I reach the new public café and visitor centre, attached symmetrically to the Grade II listed North Lodge and welcoming visitors with their views all the way down the avenue. I realise we didn’t even start to discuss the personal stories behind the 35,000 gravestones and monuments. I can’t wait to come back to find out more.
We’ve got an exciting program of events to celebrate the restoration of the cemetery. Come along and get involved, or just stop by for a cup of tea.