Towards the end of the guided tour he’s giving me of Bradford’s Undercliffe Cemetery, Mark Davis puts down his camera (which he hasn’t done very often over the past two hours) and offers a few thought-provoking thoughts.
“The Victorians didn’t let death get in the way of social class,” he says. “The rich – the great and the good and the powerful, the Establishment who ran the city – are at the centre of this cemetery; the people who worked for them, who tramped the cobbles in their clogs and made Bradford great, are on the periphery in their cheap graves. Let’s go down here...”
We stumble over tree roots and dodge dangling branches. We pass weeping angels, doleful cherubs, broken columns, tumbled urns, symbols of grief at every turn. We pass Armitages and Ackroyds and Liversedges, and spot the graves of aldermen who have made their last speech, comedians who have told their last joke, and journalists who have written their last obituary before qualifying for one themselves.
As we go, Davis, a historian and photographer, points out some of the monuments that feature in his new book Necropolis, City of the Dead, a portrait of this astonishing Victorian Gothic cemetery – one of Britain’s finest – with its 23,000 graves. It was, he says, “the fashionable place to be seen in death”.
Davis, who will be leading an evening guided tour of Undercliffe during the Bradford Literature Festival later this month, has known the cemetery, high on its hill over the city, since childhood.
“As a kid, going past it in the car at night was really scary,” he says. “All those tall monuments and columns, like fingers reaching up from the graves.”
He has been back here at night over 30 or so photographic visits during the past five years: “I’ve photographed this place at two or three o’clock in the morning, and I’ve been the only living soul here.”
The night photographs, dramatically lit with statues and obelisks silhouetted against lurid skies, are some of the most evocative in the book, the latest of 11 which he has published. They include studies of crime in Victorian Bradford and long-closed lunatic asylums: Haworth-based Davis, who works as a property and wedding photographer, cheerfully admits a fascination with the darker side of life, “abandoned places” and 19th century social injustice. What makes his prolific output so surprising is that he has only been a photographer since 2008.
For many years, he lived at Tenby in South Wales, running a chain of mobile phone shops. “It was idyllic but I missed the grit up here,” he says. He put his house on the market and “they sent a kid round with a crappy little camera and he took some rubbish pictures, so I got a camera and took my own.” With “no training whatsoever”, a new career blossomed.
“Just look at the light on that tree,” he says suddenly and we stop next to the grave of Emma Wilkinson, who died in 1875, aged five. A holly tree is growing out of one corner of the plot, its roots spreading, as Davis says, “like tentacles”. He clicks the camera shutter.
He reckons he takes around 500 photographs on every trip, mostly in colour and many at dusk when the light is at its most atmospheric. Today the midday sunlight dapples the tree trunk and the stones; daffodils bloom among daisies and dandelions; the place rings with birdsong; and it’s all bright and open.
Other parts of the 26-acre cemetery, however, are overgrown, green with moss, wild with rosebay willowherb, with rampant brambles and ivy run riot, despite the valiant efforts of volunteers to keep the vegetation under control. “Part of the charm of the place is the areas that are desolate and dark, where Nature has dictated how it goes,” says Davis. “If it was too well-manicured, you’d lose that charm.”
Romantic wildness was not the Victorians’ vision of Undercliffe when it opened in 1854. “It was seen as not just as a place of burial, but as a place of recreation,” says Davis. “People would promenade like they did in Brighton. They’d picnic in here.”
At the top of the hill – geographically and socially - the well-maintained main avenue, spacious and gracious with its high-rise memorials, was duly named The Promenade. Designed for grand and solemn processions, it was the Champs-Elysees of Bradford mortality, a place to enjoy an elegant eternity.
“The people of Bradford said, ‘We’re going to build a city for ourselves where we can lie when we’re dead.’ So Undercliffe is like a replication of Bradford in death,” says Davis, who has traced the unmarked grave where seven of his own ancestors, including his great great grandparents, are buried. “In life the industrialists would compete with the size of their chimneys; in death they competed with the size of their monuments. People were buying immortality here.”
Nothing encapsulates such immortal longings better than the celebrated mausoleum of Alfred Illingworth, a worsted spinner and Liberal MP. It’s a pocket pseudo-Egyptian temple, its entrance guarded by rearing cobras and a pair of stone sphinxes, claws clenched, inscrutable – and apparently wearing Santa beards in Davis’ photograph, taken on a snowy winter day. The name over the entrance should by rights be Rameses or Seti, but no: Illingworth it is, in big, bold capitals.
In its rather camp way, it’s not typical of Undercliffe. “An incredible sadness hangs over this place,” says Davis. “If you spend half an hour looking at the stones, you see so much child mortality.”
We pause in front of the grave of stationmaster Robert Smith and his wife Harriet, who lost four young sons in one week in August 1888, and that of Charles Annison, who died in 1870, aged four and a half. The inscription reads:
“This lovely bud so young and fair
Call’d hence by early doom
Just came to show how sweet a flower
In paradise would bloom.”
The poignancy is somehow increased by the stonemason’s miscalculation. Having chiselled most of the poem, he left too little space for the long third line. “Flower” becomes “flowr”. The word, like the young boy’s life, was abbreviated.
We walk on, past an obelisk to William Mawson, “Architect of Bradford”. A greening medallion shows him turning his balding, curly-bearded head away from the city he helped design. Past a monument with an artist’s easel and palette carved in stone. Past a memorial to a First World War casualty, a remembrance cross with a faded paper poppy propped on it. Past a statue of a woman whose downcast face never catches the sun.
Past paupers’ graves, with perhaps 15 people in them, and Quaker graves, “all the stones laid flat; no man more important than any other”. Past a statue of a sleeping woman cuddling a baby child; someone has left half-a-dozen daffodils alongside them.
We read the inscriptions to these people who “passed from earthly life”. One is “gone but not forgotten”; another’s “end was peace”. Another “heard the voice of Jesus say: ‘Come unto me and rest.’”
Undercliffe, run as a registered charity, is not, however, just a museum of Victorian mortality. Around 30 burials are still staged every year. Among the more recent was that of the Keighley and Bradford MP Bob Cryer in 1994.
That was shortly before my last visit here, on a blustery, bitterly cold December day. It hadn’t got properly light by midday, as I read the memorials to Abraham Lumb-Pickles, Caleb Leach and Oastler Smith, Frank Moulds and Henry Humble. Another memorial had been “erected to perpetuate the memory of...” and I couldn’t quite make out the name.
The water was frozen in the jam jars of chrysanths on the graves, and the magpies clattered. It was chillingly bleak. Unlike this warm spring visit 20 years later with Mark Davis. “On a sunny day like today it’s very pleasant here,” he says. “But try it at two o’clock in the morning on a stormy night. I’m not a believer in ghosts, but I’ve sometimes felt I’ve had company.”
• Necropolis, City of the Dead, Amberley, £15.99. Mark Davis’ tour is on Wednesday, May 20 at 8pm. £6 charge. Details at www.bradfordliteraturefestival.co.uk. Undercliffe Cemetery Charity: 01274 642276, www.undercliffecemetery.co.uk.