[Update, 4th October 2016: I haven’t visited the cemetery for the best part of 2 years now, and the last time I drove past, a few days ago, I didn’t see much evidence of it still being there. I do hope it is, but will need to investigate again soon. ]
Close to the Haldon Belvedere (an 18th century 3 sided tower) and the Haldon Forest Park visitor centre is a peaceful, rather beautiful, patch of land, now fenced off with barbed wire and gated with a heavy lock. No-one is meant to stray onto this ground these days, but there is evidence people do, sometimes. Not willingly to break the law, but to pay their respects to old friends.
Aside from the late Chips Barber’s book Around & About the Haldon Hills – Revisited and a couple of blog entries, there appears to be little information about the pet cemetery. It is not marked on the OS Explorer map, nor mentioned in the information leaflets at the visitor centre. Barber’s book suggests that the first graves were dug here shortly after the second world war, and comments that this is not an ideal place to dig, given that layers of flint go down several feet. There is deep shade here, but one side of the site is close to the main access road through the hills, and another lies on the right hand edge of an old quarry; it is not that difficult to find, but goes mostly unnoticed, which I think is a good thing. The edge nearest the quarry is a fairly risky place to walk: a drop down into the quarry is a possibility if you’re not paying attention to where you put your feet, and lying randomly around you are loose pieces of barbed wire, presumably left over from that needed for the fence construction. On my first visit here last Autumn I managed to get myself entangled in the stuff and have 2 scars on my leg where it tore through my trousers and into my flesh.
The majority of the pet graves (they are mostly dog graves, as far as I can tell) are now in a fairly final state of deterioration. I saw at least one cross that had fallen out of the site and down into the quarry. Much has crumbled or rotted away, but there are odd plaques dotted around, which your eyes struggle to make out in the all-enveloping shade.
Barber’s book has several illustrations showing some very elaborate graves from times gone by – there is no obvious sign of these now from the fence line. The majority of my plaque images here were taken with a long lens, and only through this could my eyes make out what was written on them – but not always. There are a few little plots marking the extent of the animals’ graves, still intact because they are made of plastic, from lawn edger kits sold in garden centres. There are hand made crosses and plaques, some roughly crafted and written, and others done with real skill and care, probably professionally made. Occasionally you will still see fresh flowers.
On the road side of the plot there is little to see except for a Forestry Commission notice explaining why the cemetery can no longer be used (Health and Safety). I believe this was posted in 2001, and we have to assume that there have been no further burials at this place since then.
From this point, anyone wanting to see more will need to loop around from the road side and head into the overgrown woodlands until a locked gate is reached.
At the gate, quite out of sight of the road, there is silence and much shade from some wonderful old beech trees; this is a very restful place. Ahead are several small graves, still in fairly good order. I noted that one grave, for Oliver, had fresh flowers on both of my visits – chrysanthemums in the autumn, tulips in the summer. I find this rather affecting: the majority of graves that are still in some way intact in this place date from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, but even if Oliver’s burial was as late as 2001, it is clear that someone is still devoted to his memory 13 years later – but possibly for much longer. The messages themselves are equally affecting: “Beloved Jessie”, “Only a heartbeat away”, “Our Judy”, “Look after him”, “In memory of a dear cat”, and perhaps my favourite, “Sammy, 1984-1994 and Sally, 1984-1996 – our friends together again”.
After my latest visit I walked back to the roadside, and watched the low evening sunlight lend a warm glow to the trees just below the site of the cemetery. All was well and everything was at rest. Having been a dog lover all of my life, I can quite understand the devotion of these remaining people who still visit their pets’ final resting places. It matches perfectly the simple and total devotion a dog (and probably a cat too!) lavishes on its owner. A few minutes before finishing this blog our Cocker Spaniel, Penny, walked over to me and placed her front paws and head on my leg, looked into my eyes and slowly wagged her tail. I know that when Penny’s time comes, I will be utterly bereft, but that we will find a place that was special to her. It will not be here.
[August 2020 update: we lost our beautiful Penny to heart disease on 4th July 2017. Her ashes were scattered in a very watery place where she always loved to play and swim, and no, I’m certainly not over losing her yet.]