Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery Celebrate 25 Years
David Clensy joins the Friends of Arnos Vale as they celebrate 25 years of supporting the historic cemetery
AFTER its multi-million pound restoration, Arnos Vale Cemetery has not looked this good since its Victorian heyday. But as the scores of volunteers who support the historic 19th century necropolis gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Friends of Arnos Vale yesterday, they shared memories of the dark days in which the group was formed.
It is hard to believe now that Arnos Vale Cemetery once faced destruction, but 25 years ago an ominous threat loomed over the Bath Road site in the form of local businessman Tony Towner, who then owned the land and had plans to exhume the bodies and clear the graves to make way for a housing development.
The businessman called for Bristolians to "dig up their dead" if they wanted to preserve their ancestors' remains.Following a public outcry – led by the Post – a "friends" group was formed to try to protect the cemetery – the Association for the Preservation of Arnos Vale Cemetery (APAC), which later evolved into the Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery in 1998.
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Joyce Smith, 68, of Downend, was one of the founder members of the organisation – she went on to be awarded an MBE, together with her late husband Richard, for their services to the cemetery.
"My father had only been buried at the cemetery for five years when Mr Towner revealed his plans to exhume all the graves to make way for housing. I certainly didn't want to see that happen to my father," she said.
"So when we read in the paper about a public meeting being organised in opposition, I went along to it with my mother. Two hundred people turned up – so many that the vicar of Holy Trinity allowed us to leave the church hall and relocate to the church itself."
Arthur Usher, 92, a fellow founder member recalled: "At the end of the meeting somebody said, 'I think we should do something about this', and it suddenly all went quiet.
"So I stood up and said, 'OK, I think we should start a pressure group to fight for the cemetery. Who's with me?' Then slowly hands began to rise in the air. That's how the Association for the Preservation of Arnos Vale Cemetery was born. "
Stephen Barrow, chair of the Friends of Arnos Vale, said: "We have certainly come a long way in those 25 years, and today has been all about celebrating the achievements we have made in that quarter of a century.
"We have had displays, talks and even been leading a series of walks around the cemetery to highlight the various projects that stand out as our landmark achievements over the years.
"The Friends of Arnos Vale plays an important role in the daily life of the cemetery, now more than ever – with volunteers doing everything from running the shop to maintaining the pathways and leading guided tours around the site."
Lori Streich, chair of the Arnos Vale Trust, the charity which now runs the cemetery, added: "We are always looking for new people to join the Friends of Arnos Vale. At our height we had more than 500 members, and now it's only around 400.
"But people shouldn't think that the work of the Friends was completed with the compulsory purchase of the cemetery in 2003. The Friends do a lot in terms of volunteering to help with the upkeep of the cemetery, as well as raising the much needed funds to maintain and keep the cemetery going on a day-to-day basis."
One man with plenty of memories of life at Arnos Vale is Howard Utting, 69, who was born at the cemetery, and spent the first 30 years of his life living in a cottage among the grave stones.
His late father Alfred was a live-in groundsman at the cemetery, as was his mother and her father before her – his parents met, courted and raised their family at Arnos Vale.
"It was certainly in the blood," Howard says. "My father's father, William Utting, was superintendent at the cemetery, and his father before him, Edward, my great great grandfather was also a groundsman here."
So unsurprisingly, for Howard the cemetery still feels like home.
"It was a wonderful place to spend your childhood," he said. "It was a magical place to ride around on your bike. It also taught me a great philosophy, a live-for-the-moment way of looking at life, because with all those graves, you were constantly reminded that one day that was where you were heading too."
"But it also taught me how to deal with people – you had to know how to talk to grieving people, my mother and father taught me that, and that's something I'm still comfortable with today."
Howard still volunteers for the Friends of Arnos Vale every Friday.
"I do a bit of gardening here each week," he said. "It's a reminder of just how important this cemetery is to the people of Bristol.
"Only last Friday I was approached by a lady who was looking for the grave of the stillborn baby boy she had lost 49 years ago. In those days the children were taken from the mother and buried quietly, so she had no idea where his little grave was.
"But because I've spent my life here, I was able to reassure her that he would have been given a proper burial in a lovely white wooden coffin with a proper brass name plaque. I was even able to look up his name in the records and take her to the exact place where he was buried all those years ago."
Lori Streich added: "It's really not a museum, although there are important historical graves here. Arnos Vale is still very much a working cemetery, and it is an important place for Bristolians, which is why the battle to save it from destruction 25 years ago was so very important."
Do you have memories of the dark period in Arnos Vale Cemetery's history when it was under threat of destruction? Send your memories to the Post at email@example.com or by mail to Letters Editor, The Post, 1 Temple Way, Bristol BS99 7HD.