Where nature meets 18,000 souls: Visit Norwich’s ‘city within a city’ - the historic Rosary Cemetery

Angelic host: One of the poignant monuments, this angel was put up in memory of Gertrude Alice Hubba

Angelic host: One of the poignant monuments, this angel was put up in memory of Gertrude Alice Hubbard, who died aged just 27 on June 14 1918. - Credit: Archant

It's a quiet spot for a lunchtime walk. It's a nature haven, where the 'crawk-crawk' of jays mingles with the leaf-scattering urgency of squirrels. It's a necropolis, a city of the dead, where more than 18,000 Norwich people from all backgrounds have their final resting place.

It's a quiet spot for a lunchtime walk. It's a nature haven, where the 'crawk-crawk' of jays mingles with the leaf-scattering urgency of squirrels. It's a necropolis, a city of the dead, where more than 18,000 Norwich people from all backgrounds have their final resting place.

The Rosary Cemetery is all these and more, for it is a place of genuine history-making importance in itself, not just where history-makers who shaped a city and its country lie buried.

Back in the early nineteenth century Norwich was struggling to keep itself within its medieval boundaries. Eventually, the pressure became too much, and the city overflowed its walls as speculators began to put up street after street.

And what the living faced, the dead did too. Norwich's medieval churchyards were - literally - at bursting point, with the accumulation of the departed over centuries leaving the ground surfaces of these little slices of God's Acre ever higher and higher.


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Retired minister Thomas Drummond could see the time had come for a change. But the need for a new burial ground outside the city walls was much more than a matter of space. As a former nonconformist minister, he had seen how those people who refused to follow the Anglican established church could be discriminated against - even in death.

And so, in 1821 the Rosary opened, as the first non-denominational cemetery in the whole of England. Poignantly, the first burial there was the Rev Thomas' own wife Ann. Thomas was to join her 31 years later.

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The cemetery took several years to become popular, but by the time the Victorian period was at its height it had become a place where the families of the great and the good were as happy to see their loved ones laid to rest as any of the more ordinary folk.

The original five-acre hilly site which once looked out over fields and had only the clatter of horse-drawn traffic on the Thorpe road for company is now accompanied by the constant thrum of modern motorised traffic from the nearby streets or the clatter of the trains drawing into Thorpe station.

What were once fields have been replaced by the functional shapes of factory units and depots, and the iron and steel of the railway age. Some of the most poignant memorials at the Rosary are to the latter: victims of the 1874 Thorpe Rail Disaster are laid to rest here.

Information boards by some of the more notable graves give an fascinating insight into lives lived to the full or cruelly cut short by fate. The boards also tell the stories of some of the rare species which exist here too, Nature taking its chance to perpetually colonise and expand.

Tombs and gravestones in the cemetery's oldest parts are often covered in a tumbledown mass of ivy and other plants. Some of these species are so rare they live only in places like this. One of these gravestones might even host - as one of its 'contemporaries' does in a certain mid-Norfolk churchyard - a lichen so rare that even giant pandas are more plentiful.

More than 40 species of birds have been seen here (on my very first visit I was treated to the sight of a pair of woodpeckers) plus deer, foxes, bats and squirrels.

Amid death, then, there's life. Lots and lots of it, and almost 200 years after its creation, the Rosary Cemetery lives on, a place where Nature and Man co-exist in a symbiotic and ever-changing relationship.

The original five acres have long been extended, and their mature tree-shaded paths are an oasis of peace and contemplation. It's a place to ponder on life's big questions - or put those to one side and smile at the scurrying squirrels.

Writing in the EDP in 2009, Dick Meadows described the Rosary as 'quite the prettiest and most perfect place in all Norwich.' He's not wrong.

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