Ten years ago, the council were struggling to maintain Cathays cemetery, with very few visitors and the chapel buildings falling in to disrepair. The Catholic chapel had already been knocked down in the 1980s due to safety reasons, and it looked like the two Protestant chapels were soon to follow. It was difficult to justify investment at the site as there was limited local support.
Step in the Friends of Cathays Cemetery! The group showed huge amounts of dedication to the cause, and the restoration of the two remaining chapels at the entrance to the cemetery is nearing completion with new roofs and floors installed, plus disabled access. The Friends Group and the Cardiff Bereavement Services have been working together to ensure the full benefits of this green space are realised by the people of Cardiff, and visitors to the city. The reasons for low visitor numbers has been addressed through guided tours and site information, to help visitors to navigate the large site.
Questions the tour can answer…
- How did a man find a cold gravestone nestled in his still warm bed, after he luckily got up to go to the loo in the middle of the night?
- How did Victorian stone masons align enormous granite boxes on top of plinths and still make it sit perfectly square?
- How can one man, Samuel Chivers, occupy two completely separate plots in the cemetery?
Cathays Cemetery is the third largest Victorian cemetery in the UK. The entrance gates open to a set of chapels; the one on the left for the Non-Conformists and the one of the right for Episcopalian denominations. The chapels had been cordoned off for many years, which saddened the heart when you walked past the cemetery. The new roofs look superb, and it makes the place feel like we are celebrating those that are buried here, rather than ignoring them.
Walking around the cemetery, the overall feeling I felt was one of adventure, and intrigue, as well as peace. There were interesting stories everywhere, each stone explaining a family, or groups of friends. The concept of a requirement to summarise lives in to symbols and a few words. The mature trees and hedges created hidden vistas, so you always want to turn the next corner and go and explore away from the path. The stories on the gravestones can be heart breaking, such as the gravestone of Louisa Maud Evans, shown in the photos above, that describes her death. It is also the unwritten words that can make you think. What was a 14 and a half year old girl doing in a hot air balloon? She was working, as she had been working for the last six years of her life.
The symbology and the craftsmanship in the Victorian cemetery shows a skilled stone masonry craft that has developed from nothing in Cardiff to match the huge increase in the number of residents, and has since declined again. The gravestones of the newer occupants of the cemetery reflect the far simpler, modern styles and are now all imported. All graves are private property, and so their continued maintenance is to be funded by the family. The only maintenance that can be done by the council and the friends group is of the grounds and buildings. Some of the headstones have collapsed and lie broken, but the majority are beautifully maintained. The War Graves Commission graves are replaced regularly to ensure that the memory endures, and proud relatives and friends will be able to locate the grave they are looking for.
The trees and wildflower grasslands provide a superb wildlife habitat, stretching over much of the 110 acres. Along with the superb Heritage Trail, there is a Tree Trail to highlight the huge range of large urban trees on the site. The cemetery is filled with butterflies and bees, and the birdsong creates a sense of tranquility. As the site has moved from one of utility, to one of nature conservation, the site has added a further reason to return to the grounds again and again. The site now changes through the seasons more than it would have done in the past, as the wildflower meadows develop through the summer, flower, seed and then get cut down.
Cathays Cemetery was created 40 years before Roath Park, and was designed to be the walking location of choice for the city. The benefits we get from visiting cemeteries are different from those of parks. By reading gravestones, we learn what matters in life. The head stone may hint at a career choice, but the majority celebrate relationships, rather than achievements at work. We learn that life is short, death is inevitable, and daily worries are inconsequential. It also makes you consider the sentence you’d like on your headstone to summarise your life. And what your loved ones would choose for you instead…
All the information about the trails can be found in the information booth at the entrance on Fairoak Road.
The Friends of Cathays Cemetery have an active schedule of work days, talks and walks, including a Tuesday morning Health Walk.
The new chapels will also be open as part of Open Doors Cardiff, in September 2014. This will be an opportunity to view the work which has been done this year to make the listed buildings habitable again. Stick around, and there will be a guided walk immediately afterwards of the ‘New’ cemetery, on Allensbank Road, on Sunday 21st September 2014.
Please contact the Friends of Cathays Cemetery website for more information.
And answers to the questions above?
Hints… WW2 bomb, rock salt or ice, and an amputated leg preceding its owner by 34 years! You’ll have to take the self-guided tour to find out more… and there are so many more good stories!