Britain’s brainiest cemetery needs a bit of help


The lack of support from the University of Cambridge and its member colleges to various city and civic functions & schemes is something I’ve long moaned about, but the state of the resting place of many of its famous sons and daughters reflects a deeper, cultural malaise.

It was Castle Hill Open Day today – a day of fun stuff put together by Kettles Yard, The Museum of Cambridge and the Churches at Castle amongst others. I did wonder why the roads had not been closed off for the day.

Which made me wonder whether Extinction Rebellion might have something to say about this for next year’s event. Given the county council’s recent climate emergency resolution, I expect the decision for 2020 to be fully reconsidered. Personally I’d have the streets at the crossroads by the Museum of Cambridge & St Giles’ Church closed for the day.

Cemetery-hunting – and noticing the completion of a very ugly building

Histon Road Cemetery was on the list of places but the Ascension Parish Burial Ground around the corner (sort of) was not. It also meant jumping on the Citi6 bus (I’m making the most of my membership of the Cambridge Area Bus Users Group!) to head to a place once known as ‘mount pleasant’.

280404 Mount Pleasant Roman Town

…and I guess back in the day it had quite a nice building at the top of it. Not a palace, but not a monstrosity either. But then post-WWII someone came up with the idea of replacing it with something that made the site more ‘Mount Ugly‘… and then recently a new set of developers came in and succeeded in making the site even more bland than its predecessor.


When the councillors looked at the plans for the above, they were not impressed.

…which given their ultimate approval for the scheme shows how screwed up the planning system is. In fact, even one of Cambridge’s biggest developers/land owners, Grosvenor Estates is complaining about lack of public trust in the planning system!

Which makes me want to respond with:

“U. G. L. Y. Architecture I don’t like – it’s ugly! It’s – it’s ugly!” (to the tune of this horror from the millennium).

Interestingly, I’d stumble across the early consultations for the future of Shire Hall at the Castle Hill Open Day – where architectural quality and design were up for discussion.

The Histon non-conformist massiv


I wandered into the cemetery having got to the right place. This is one of the main resting places for the Victorian and early 20thC non-conformists in Cambridge.

“Ah – antidisestablishmentarians again?”

No – these were the disestablishmentarians who wanted to disestablish the Church of England and also remove the religious discrimination that the University of Cambridge once had back in the early 19th Century. We had some proper squabbles over this back in the day.

Many of the people resting permanently in the cemetery (see some of them here) won’t be familiar to lots of people, but they were huge names for their time in civic life. One of them was this chap.


Herbert George Whibley – leader of the Cambridge Liberal Party. You can read about him here. It’s easy to forget but there were more than a few nonconformist preachers who also went into party politics – such as Dr Alex Wood for Labour.

Ascension Parish – the brainiest cemetery in Britain


So wearing my permanent frown and a dodgy camera angle making me look balding in the bright but white-cloudy daylight, I made my way through to where Horace and Ida Darwin rest.

I was surprised to see the site so overgrown

So if you’re interested and are reading this before 20 July 2019, do go along to the next working party to give them a hand.

If you want to find out more about Sir Horace Darwin – Mayor of Cambridge 1896-97, head to the Cambridge Museum of Technology where they have an exhibition.

One real treasure for me was discovering that Lady Caroline Jebb – aunt of Save the Children founders Dorothy Buxton and Eglantyne Jebb – had her ashes returned from the USA to be buried alongside her husband, former MP for Cambridge University Sir Richard Jebb.


One of the most politically significant speeches Sir Richard Jebb MP made as the member for Cambridge University was his call for Votes for Women. I’ve transcribed it here.

180817 Richard Jebb Caroline Jebb Wedding.jpg

Above – Caroline and Richard Jebb in a biography written by her great niece Mary Reed Bobbitt. Caroline Jebb was one of the most socially influential women in late-19th Century/early 20th Century Cambridge. Bobbit’s book that I discuss in this post gives us an insight into this incredible woman – the first of several American women who would have a big impact on Cambridge – followed by another niece, Maud Darwin in the early 20thC, Lella Secor Florence in 1920s Cambridge, all the way through to the present day with Anne Bailey of Form the Future.

The state of Sir Arthur Eddington’s grave

The Eddington development in North West Cambridge has been much-reported in the education and architectural media, with the cost of the development reported to be as much as £1billion. So you’d have thought that the University of Cambridge and the colleges and institutes that Sir Arthur Eddington is associated with, would have taken a little bit more care and attention when looking after his grave – not least giving support to the hard working, hard pressed group of mainly volunteers that have the task of maintaining the cemetery.


You can get a sense from the lighting and shading just how overgrown this part is.

“Maybe this cemetery is supposed to be like this?”

Maybe it is. But compared with the Histon Road Cemetery that I was at earlier in the day, and also the Mill Road Cemetery that I regularly pass through (I used to be scared of graveyards because of church tales of ghosts but now find them quite peaceful places. Also dragons beat zombies every time. So there.

Actually, it’s wrong to compare the Ascension burial ground with those of Histon Road and Mill Road. The latter two are by two of Cambridge’s busiest roads and are also popular walking through-routes in their part of town. That human movement alone helps keep more people aware of it, tread back some of the vegetation, and help with maintenance. As the map below shows, Ascension isn’t a thru-route.

190713 Ascension Burial Ground Map

It has a popular thru-route next to it, but as this BBC article from 2010 states, the ground is so hidden that blink and you’ll miss it.

Castle Hill Open Day

We have a hill but not a castle. There’s much I could add to the WikiP article on Cambridge Castle but in the grand scheme of things, the castle that we used to have is no longer there. Various colleges ran off with the stone.

“You mean there was a stone castle there?”


Yep. ***Give us back our castle stones you scoundrels!!!***

I also asked county council officers to make the set of images that the above board is part of, available prominently online.

As part of the open day, on the green in front of Castle Mound a number of organisations had gazebos and meet-the-public sessions, including the Museum of Zoology, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and some early consultations on what Brookgate are going to do with their 40 year lease of Shire Hall. So my pitch to the consultants representing Brookgate (no one from the firm seemed to be there) was to support the creation of a boutique hotel using the existing main building, and to expand the Museum of Cambridge on the site as I wrote here.

Not all university outreach staff had visited our civic museums

They told me the biggest barrier in their opinion was having to pay on entry to the Museum of Cambridge, the Cambridge Museum of Technology, and the Computing Museum. In my opinion, the limited size of the Museum of Cambridge is a huge barrier, while decent transport (and public transport for that matter) access are two massive barriers for the latter two. Personally I’d like to see the inductions for new staff and volunteers of Cambridge University’s museums to include visits to local museums in Cambridge outside of their remit. That would help reduce the communications and understandings gaps between the two sectors.

Not being supported by University of Cambridge’s Museum’s Service means that those museums are run on a shoe string. I went off on one back in late 2017 when I found out the Museum of Cambridge was at a risk of closure. And was in hospital with a suspected heart attack a few days later. Not something I want to repeat.

The culture change that I would like to see in Cambridge is one where the University of Cambridge and its member institutions adopt a new value where *the whole of the city of Cambridge matters to their institution – not just its members or even just its very senior members*. It’s something I’ve mentioned before, but the presentation given by the Anderson Group on the prospects of a new urban country park east of Mill Road at the East Romsey Lakes (the flooded quarry) really nailed the point home about one of Cambridge University’s most prominent colleges not playing its part as a land owner for the benefit of the whole city. The City Council, the Anderson Group (who are the project lead – see here) and Peterhouse Cambridge – the oldest college in Cambridge University, are the main land owners.

Unpleasantly surprised to hear Peterhouse has not been nearly as co-operative as it could have been.

With a corporate value that the whole city mattered, Peterhouse might have prioritised getting this site back into safe public use rather than the annual game of cat-and-mouse trying to keep trespassers out of the site especially in summer months.

So again, I call on the University of Cambridge (of which this academic year I have been a member through and its member colleges & institutions to adopt a new corporate value of one where the whole of Cambridge City matters, not just the university and its members.


3 thoughts on “Britain’s brainiest cemetery needs a bit of help

  1. With reference to the Ascention burial ground may I suggest that the place is a joy to behold, a haven for wildlife and the last thing it needs is someone with a strimmer mulching the vegetation. If you don’t like the state it’s in stay away. There are many of us that consider it in all its wildness a hidden gem.

  2. Still on the subject of the Ascention burial ground I am suprised that you make so much of the Darwin’s. Their grave stones and wall plaque make enough fuss of themselves without encouragement from anyone else. In my opinion the real star of the cemetery is Wittgenstein, a simple flat stone often with small tributes of flowers laid on it. It’s not hard to find as it’s on the map.

  3. What makes me laugh about Wittgenstein’s is the tributes of pork pies (which he apparently used to take to the cinema and eat during films), toy ladders (something I would presumably understand if I read him) and on one occasion a closely-spaced paling of empty champagne bottles.

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