Romancing the stones: urban geology

Cemetery geology featured

Story and photos by Scott Engering.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, as a geologist and photographer, I set out to further explore local ‘urban geology’, Burngreave Cemetery being a particular highlight.

Chapel main gates.
Main gates at the entrance to Burngreave Cemetery and Chapel.

Entering by the main gates, the Grade II Listed twin chapels are the most impressive that I have seen in Sheffield and, together with the lodges and gates, were built 1860-61 using local sandstone to a design by Flockton and Son.

What struck me most was the unusually large number of stone carvings, including crowned heads and angels on the window surrounds, wolf like gargoyles and various winged beasts high on the tower.

Walking up the path from the chapels, I noted that the remnants of the ancient oak woodlands of Burngreave contain numerous traditional Victorian headstones, made from slabs of the Brincliffe Edge Rock, which had a great reputation for its quality. After 150 years, most are still in excellent condition and there are many fine examples of letter cuttings, with many calligraphic styles and shallow relief sculptural work.

Continuing up the path towards the war memorial the cemetery is laid out along a vale set between ridges of steeply tilted sandstone, which although not forming rocky outcrops, form the distinct topography between Burngreave and Wincobank.

The Cross of Sacrifice and the screen wall behind it are made in Portland stone from Dorset, as are the ten Commonwealth War Grave Commission Special Memorial headstones in front of it, commemorating those casualties of WWII buried in unmarked graves. Regimental insignia provide excellent examples of the monumental mason’s art and were originally hand cut, although when the inscriptions have become too weathered to read, their replacements are now made by machines.

When first learning photography in London 30 years ago, I used to visit cemeteries like this to use the angels and other figurative sculpture, carved in white Carrara marble, to hone my practical skills and I still get inspiration from them today.

I couldn’t finish a brief account of my visit to Burngreave Cemetery without emphasising that, like Sheffield General Cemetery, it is a valuable educational resource for teaching the basics of geology. Although this fascinating science has diminished within the National Curriculum examples of sandstone, limestone, granite, marble and slate, composed of the principal rock forming minerals, can easily be found. This wonderful cemetery could easily form the basis of a field trip on a hot summer’s day.

Burngreave Cemetery twin chapels

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