Bradford Undercliffe Cemetery

Steven Schofield, January 2021

Photo of Undercliffe Cemetery courtesy of Judy White

I’ve had a strong affection for the Undercliffe area of Bradford, ever since moving in with a friend after a difficult break-up in my late twenties. I was introduced to Jude during a party at my new home. She smiled at me and, as in all the best romantic novels, my heart literally skipped a beat. For reasons, even today, that I can’t quite fathom, she agreed to meet up and 35 years later we are still living in Undercliffe and have two wonderful, grown-up children.

When Joel, our eldest, was born, I came back from the hospital on such an emotional high that I couldn’t sleep. There was only one place to go for a midnight walk and that was Undercliffe Cemetery, despite the date, Friday 13th and a full moon! Climbing the steps from the main entrance and walking the long, wide pathways, led me to the panoramic view of Bradford, the moon hanging in the sky and the city’s corridors of red and yellow lights shimmering below in the cold, night air.

The cemetery is a Victorian architectural treasure, standing proudly at the top of the long hill spiralling out east from the city. Any real historical reference to the district only begins with the Civil War, when parliamentary forces in Bradford successfully repelled an attack by a much larger, royalist army that had been encamped in Undercliffe fields. (A reminder, also, that before the industrial revolution and the expansion of the city, Bradford was an important agricultural area, particularly for dairy products.)

A wide, central promenade splits the cemetery in half, with an extraordinary range of monuments and gravestones, reflecting the class divisions of emerging, Northern capitalism. The largest family plots of the mill owners and wool merchants dominate the skyline, followed by the more modest, middle-class graves, to the sporadic outcrops of small, austere, grey slabs with the barest of epitaphs for the poor.

Given the historical and architectural significance of the cemetery it beggars belief that, by the early 1980s, it had fallen into neglect and disrepair. The council would not accept any responsibility for the cemetery’s maintenance, declaring it too costly. Disgracefully, it was sold for a pittance to a property developer who immediately began to demolish buildings, including the chapel, and asset-stripped the ironworks for scrap. Local people, outraged by this architectural vandalism pressurised the council into declaring the cemetery a conservation area as the first stage in purchasing the site. A voluntary organisation, the Undercliffe Cemetery Charity was established, with funds to restore the cemetery. 

Over the years, through steady and painstaking work by a dedicated group of volunteers, the graves and pathways have been gradually reclaimed. For me it has been important, even vital, as a sanctuary for quiet reflection because of on going health problems. Shortly after moving to Bradford, I contracted TB in what was a small outbreak originating in a city-centre pub. Although the drug treatment was successful and I live an active life, my immune system has been damaged, leading to recurrences of flu-like symptoms and periods of severe tiredness that seem to be triggered by chemical pollutants. The cemetery became a sort of refuge where I could rest-up and do short walks as I recovered.

I have a route that takes me around my favourite sites, including the Quaker graveyard – nearly a hundred, slightly raised but flat, rectangular stones that, in its simplicity, stands in stark contrast to the baroque ostentation of the monuments nearby. At the other end of the cemetery is the grave of Bob Cryer, a stalwart Labour MP – a good place to stop and look out over the view of Bradford and reflect on the importance of the city for the Labour movement, including, of course, the founding of the Independent Labour Party. Lastly, on my way back home is the grave of the Chief Druid. It appeals to my sense of irony that a pagan religion, whose believers probably carried out human sacrifice, had been absorbed into polite, Victorian society as a respectable, Christian charity.

The cemetery has also been used as an atmospheric, film location, most famously in a scene from the classic 60’s comedy Billy Liar, starring Tom Courtenay and, recently, in the TV series, Peaky Blinders. It was also the natural choice for a video that I made of one of my own compositions, ‘In Memoriam’. This is an anti-war song that essentially asks for a memorial to all the civilians killed in imperialist wars of aggression, such as the Iraqi invasion. Together with members of the Peace Artistes street band, we filmed a procession through the cemetery, ending the song by laying a rose at the base of the tallest monument.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, there has been an added dimension that I could never have anticipated. Lock-down was unprecedented, foremost as a medical emergency that would take a terrible toll in severe illness and death, but indirectly, as a form of environmental experiment, unprecedented in advanced, industrial economies. Over the first three to four weeks of lockdown in March/April 2020, there was virtually no traffic, nor aircraft flights. My walk with Jude through the cemetery became almost a daily event, accompanied only by a birdsong chorus of extraordinary beauty and clarity. 

For me it was a revelation to stand over a city that was devoid of the steady, background drone of cars and lorries echoing up and across the hills. There was also a quality and freshness to the air that was palpable, and a sense of well-being invigorated by the wonderful, sunny weather that stretched out for weeks on end. This was a strange mix of emotions – knowing that an awful disease was taking its grim toll, especially across the poorer areas of the city, but also a sense of revelation and even, celebration of the beauty of nature, and the potential to improve the quality of urban life without toxic pollution and noise.

It is nearly a year since the first Covid-19 cases were identified and the death toll has now reached 100,000, a terrible indictment of a government whose incompetence is only matched by its corruption. In contrast to the stunning weather of last March, my last walk through the cemetery in mid-January 2021 was after a period of heavy snow covering the paths and headstones, adding to a mood of melancholia. The roads are choked with traffic and the white trails of aircraft fumes are disfiguring the skies. Looking down on the city, I can’t help but feel that it is one giant, capitalist machine whose main function is to pump out vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, leading to irreversible climate change and long-term health problems, leaving poorer communities vulnerable to further, Covid-like pandemics.

Those precious few weeks in the Spring of 2020 gave me the dispensation to imagine a green and healthy Bradford, not as the accidental outcome of a terrible, medical emergency, but as a result of conscious planning that eliminated carbon emissions and constructed energy-efficient, social housing as a key programme in the fight against poverty and disease. In other words, the belief in a radical alternative to economic and social injustice, on the same scale and ambition that stimulated the founders of the ILP.

A contemporary philosopher poses this challenge – are we good ancestors? How will our children and grandchildren judge us in the context of Covid-19 and the climate emergency? Did we make a difference, or at least, attempt to make a difference? Looking out over Bradford from Undercliffe Cemetery is probably as fine a place to contemplate those questions as any on the planet.

Links

Bradford in the Civil War *

History of Undercliffe Cemetery *

In Memoriam *

Steve has a background in economic research with a particular interest in arms conversion and local alternatives to globalised capitalism. He also runs a blog, stevenschofield.co.uk * with articles on economics and links to his music. His latest publication is ‘The Billionaire Games’ (Jan, 2021), a satire in the tradition of Jonathon Swift’s, ‘Modest Proposal’ and is available on Amazon Books.

*The Editor of placesandculturaltraces.com is not responsible for the content of these external sites.