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Britain's brainiest cemetery

Gravestones in Cambridge's Ascension Burial Ground

The Ascension Burial Ground might have more IQ interred in one acre than any other in the world, writes Cambridge University history teacher Dr Mark Goldie.

It's one of Cambridge's best kept secrets - scarcely known to local people, let alone the thousands who visit the city each year.

Perhaps it's best kept that way, to preserve its special charm and peacefulness.

A galaxy of talent lies buried here, in a little city of the distinguished dead. The story of academic life, of the birth of whole new disciplines since Victorian times, can be told through those who have their resting place here.

Far and away the most sought-out grave is that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

Students come to pay homage. Singer-songwriter Patti Smith turned up recently. Her Polaroid of the grave is part of the recent exhibition of 250 of her favourite things, on show in Paris.

The grave of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's grave is particularly unassuming
But Ludwig's grave is hard to find. It's a simple flat stone, with only his name and dates.

In death, as in life, he refused to utter more than the verifiable. Such a contrast to the pompous CVs and florid sentiments that fill the nearby gravestones of forgotten Victorian dons.

At the last count, there are three Nobel prizewinners here, seven members of the Order of Merit, and over sixty who have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: engineers, biologists, classicists, historians, poets, philosophers.

There's two sons and a granddaughter of Charles Darwin; the author who wrote the words for Land of Hope and Glory; and the astronomer who discovered (or, rather, predicted the existence of) the planet Neptune.

Sir John Cockcroft split the atom in 1932, in the heyday of the great Cavendish Physics Lab, which produced a dozen Nobels. Later he became first Master of Churchill College - named for the great wartime leader who knew how to use science in war.

Every religion... and none

Another grave in the burial site is that of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the first person to identify the existence of vitamins, back in 1912.

Sir Arthur Eddington, portrayed in the 2007 BBC drama Einstein and Eddington by David Tennant, was the astrophysicist who made the crucial observations of a solar eclipse that confirmed Einstein's Theory of Relativity. There's a sprinkling of astronomers here, because of the nearby university Observatory.

It's not just the individuals who fascinate. Collectively, they trace the great revolution that began in Victorian times and produced the modern university.

Ascension Parish Burial Site entrance sign
Prestigious company: The cemetery boasts three Nobel prizewinners
There were three parts to that revolution: science, secularisation, and women. Laboratory science took off, and suddenly large labs went up: Sir Horace Darwin was crucial here, as an expert scientific instrument maker.

Cambridge ceased to be an Anglican enclave, and began admitting people of every religion and none - there are plenty of non-believers in this parish cemetery.

I especially like the story of Charlotte Scott, pioneer woman student, who shocked the university in 1880 by performing outstandingly in the mathematics exams. Shockingly, it took decades before she could collect her rightful degree.

I needed to clear away moss to prevent her grave disappearing. Maybe it's an apt omen that the grave of the founder of the modern study of economics, Alfred Marshall, has also all but disappeared.


The ivy that creeps up Celtic crosses adds to the charm, but it's difficult to get the right balance between conservation and retaining the air of Gothic seclusion.

The graveyard belongs to the Church of England - the parish of the Ascension - but, as so often, the church struggles to find the wherewithal to look after its historic fabric.

A Friends of the Ascension Burial Ground is being launched. This little necropolis is not officially part of Cambridge University, but it lies in the heartland of the university's development zone.

It would be great if the university looked to its visionary ancestors and supported this place.

Grave of Charles Darwin's son, Horace
The final resting place of Charles Darwin's son, Horace
The university has now included the Burial Ground in its Open Cambridge scheme which each year throws open to visitors dozens of labs, colleges, historic buildings, and gardens.

The fabric matters for another reason. Many of the headstones are fine examples of the letter cutter's art. They include at least one stone designed by sculptor Eric Gill.

Appropriately enough, the former chapel is now the studio of American-born letter cutter Eric Marland, who trained with Gill's pupil David Kindersley.

It's Eric who willy-nilly is the daily custodian of this atmospheric place, and visitors wander in to watch him at work.

I can't resist one more: Sir James Frazer, who practically invented modern anthropology, though without leaving his college desk.

His "fieldwork" was a trawl of the world's literature on ritual, folk religion, and superstition.

He pulverised traditional Christian belief by showing parallels between Christian and pagan myths. Frazer's book, The Golden Bough, has never been out of print. Oddly, perhaps, it is always to be found in New Age bookshops.

The burial site is just one of the many places of interest in the Open Cambridge scheme of tours, talks and open access this weekend.

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