Philips Park Cemetery features very regularly in my Instagram stories and post as part of my Reverse Commute. But I actually spend a lot more time there than just for walking. While many feel that cemeteries are a morbid place to spend time, I think differently. For me, they offer a sanctuary in urban areas. A place to ponder and wander while enjoying a wide array of wildlife. They are also incredible places for learning about an area. About the history, the people and the heritage. Philips Park Cemetery is one of those places for me. And a handy walk when I need to get away from my computer, but not venture far from home.
A City Cemetery
Philips Park Cemetery is in the district of Newton Heath and Mile Platting. On all but the Philips Park side, it is pretty industrial. With warehouses, an old abbatoir and the Manchester City football stadium located around it. Yet, despite these busy industries and chocker through roads, you could be anywhere once in the grounds. In the last eight months, I have lucky to enjoy seeing an owl, a deer and the resident cemetery cat. OK, so the cat might not be the most exciting to see (for some!) but it goes to show the little lives revolving around the graves.
Discovering Local History
From the many cemeteries that I have visited over the years, I have realised that they are a place for learning. The layout of cemeteries can help you understand the development of the area and the distibution of wealth by the style and location of the headstones to the church or cathedral. In many of the larger cemeteries, there will be information points, which I highly recommend hunting out. They will fill you with information and, if like me, a drive to find out more after the visit.
Philips Park Cemetery was the first municipal cemtery in Manchester and was opened in 1866. In it’s day, it was home to four chapels. Church of England, Catholic, Dissenters and Jewish. Although many of them are now marked with gardens or memorials, you will find the sad ruins of the Anglican Mortuary Chapel. It has fallen into a terrible state in the thirteen years I have lived in the area, but I hope that one day it will be restored and used for communty projects. But that is a whole other blog post!
I guess you can’t have somewhere as old as Philips Park Cemetery without having something rather gruesome to add to the life story. Don’t worry, there are no pictures, but it might make you cringe a little.
In 1872, Manchester experienced the worst flood of it’s time. There was a months worth of rainfall in two days, which wreaked chaos on the water levels in the River Medlock. If you have ever been to Philips Park after a good storm and seen the water in the now managed waterways, you can imagine what it was like in the 1800s. Leaving a flooded path of destruction behind it, including washing away bridges, taking land into waterways and carrying machines away from the Clayton Vale Printworks, it reached the cemetery.
By the time the water reached Philips Park Cemetery, it had increased in volume and power, which broke through the thick stone walls lining the Roman Catholic section of the cemetery. With such force, it began washing coffins into the water, breaking them down with the strength of the current. With such destruction, it is not known how many bodies were disturbed by the flood, but over fifty bodies were recovered. I believe from some articles, that corpses were seen moving along the water, with cemtery staff grappling to bring them back in. It must have been an horrific experience to say the least! You can read more about that in a great PDF from the Medlock Valley and City Council.
For comparisson, this is how it looks on an average day.
A quiet walk
The nice thing about a city cemetery is the stillness. It naturally offeres a place for reflection and mindfulness as you weave through the paths and take moment on one of the seats. We are so lucky with Philips Park Cemetery, that they have a wonderful staff team, fantastic Friends of Philips Park Cemetery group and really friendly visitors too. This all adds up to a beautifully maintained (Green Flag, in fact) space to enjoy.
Often in the hustle and bustle of cities, it is nice to step off the beaten path, away from the crowds. While this is not centrally placed in Manchester, it is a mere 2 miles away, to the East. It is easily accessed by a walk along either the Ashton Canal (closest) or the Rochdale Canal from the city centre. Both of which are their own kind of sanctuary and adventure. Having spaces like Philips Park Cemetery, gives you somewhere to get away from your desk or four walls. Something which is really important at the time of my writing this (the second Covid lockdown). You simply have to enjoy the space for what it is. I think of cemeteries as more of a space for remembering and reflection rather than grieving and mourning. They are open spaces, inclusive to everyone. No matter where you are from or what you do with your time.
If you don’t live near Philips Park Cemetery, I really encourage you to find somewhere more local to you. It needn’t be big either. Tiny cemeteries sometimes have the most interesting past.
I have realised that I haven’t written about many of the cemeteries that I have visited. Sometimes it takes a while for the words to flow in order to do them justice. I have written up my experience of Łódź Jewish Cemetery in Poland, which was an incredible space where nature was taking ownership of the land again. A fantastic place to spend a few hours.