Symonds Street Cemetery

Tuesday 21 September 2021 – Auckland.

Warning; this post contains rare positivity.

It is (hopefully) our last full day at the ‘modern loft style apartment’, all being well we should be moving into our new flat tomorrow. I cannot wait to leave these neighbours behind. [Edit – We have moved.] I took the opportunity of our (hopefully) last day here to walk through the nearby Symonds Street Cemetery and take some photos. It was supposed to be overcast and showery but naturally the sun was shining most of the time I was out, unusually that actually worked for me. Here is the positive bit; I was really pleased with my photos, I liked just about all of them and was surprised at how good that made me feel when I started the edit process. A rare treat. Yay for me!

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Symonds Street was the first European cemetery in Auckland, opening in 1842. It was only open for burials for 44 short years, closing in 1886 when the larger Waikumete Cemetery opened out west. As you can see from this image, there was not a lot to Auckland in 1842.

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It is now run by the council and is a grade 1 listed site, though the council have invested very little into the place and it is largely run down. Other than what you see walking along the main roads, it’s in a sad state of repair. The sad state of repair is in its way quite beautiful and possibly deliberate. Most of the cemetery is buried (excuse the pun) down the side of a steep gully in regenerating bush and the graves are overgrown by trees and weeds; fallen down, pushed down, broken down and collapsed. An apt warning for the rest of city centre, maybe. And like the city centre itself the cemetery is dominated by the sound and fumes of cars and trucks, a motorway cuts the cemetery off from the Catholic church.

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It is a hangout for drunks and druggies, for illicit sex, a home for the homeless and a place for the local goths and occultists to congregate at night. It is a scruffy edgeland in the centre of a city. I liked it.

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The cemetery was divided along sectarian lines with Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, Wesleyan and Jewish sections. The Catholic, Jewish and Presbyterian sections are on the well managed, tidy open side, bordered by Symonds St, K’ Rd and the motorway. I started my walk here. The photographically interesting Wesleyan and Anglican section is on the other side of Symonds Street and drops down, quite steeply in parts, into the bush clad Grafton Gully.

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When the motorway was constructed in the 1960s, the cemetery was cut off from the Catholic church, with more than 4100, mostly Catholic bodies needing to be re-interred. Old photos of the church show a steeple, which no longer exists and I wonder what happened to it.

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I popped out of the cemetery on to the bike/pedestrian path that runs alongside the motorway and used that to cross under a lockdown quiet Symonds St. I expected there to be a way back in from the bike path but there was nothing there, I walked down as far as Grafton Bridge, then back up again and jumped the fence at a point where I could see the muddy stone path through the trees.

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The first thing I saw were these two helmets, one still attached to the locking mechanism of the scooter, but not the rest of the scooter. On the assumption I wasn’t going to come across any illicit or aggressive meetings (I didn’t, but I was conscious that there are people living here). I knew I was going to enjoy taking photos.

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There are a few official trails in here, they don’t go down as far as the small, almost dry stream at the bottom of the gully, though there are numerous bike and shoe made trails down there. I know this used to be an unofficial urban mountain bike spot a few years ago and wonder if it still is. There would be some interesting riding here, the gully is quite steep on this side, and you can see where gravestones have slipped. I was wondering if any bones would be sticking out of the soil; I would be a bit freaked out if I came across a hand grasping for the air. I didn’t look hard.

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The path took me back underneath Grafton Bridge.

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The bridge was built between 1908 and 1910 to replace an old suspended cable pedestrian bridge that was closed when it was discovered it was dangerously unsafe. On completion the new bridge was the largest bridge of its type anywhere in the world. It remains, in my view, one of Auckland’s best bridges.

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As well as looking down and into the scrub for interesting looking grave stones I also kept my eye on what was going on above, hunting for images of the foliage and the light filtering through the leaves and boughs. The trees did not disappoint. There are some lovely Californian black oak trees scattered throughout the cemetery and I had a few attempts at getting a strong image, though none really made the cut. The further down into the gully and the protection of the trees the more the birdsong stood out over the roar of the traffic, even the limited number of vehicles out in lockdown were enough to create a constant rumble. Focusing on the birds and the trees I could almost, but not quite, wish away the sounds of the city.

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I meandered around under the tree line for a few more minutes, stopping to take photos here and there. Rounding a corner I almost walked into a youngish man sitting on a rock looking at his phone, we both got a fright. It felt like he was just there escaping for quiet from the nearby student accommodation, though he could have been there for a more nefarious reason. It is that sort of place. I was taking this photo a couple of minutes later when he sauntered past me, still looking at his phone.

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There are a few headstones that have been well looked after, repaired or replaced, cleaned and de-mossed over the years, some more recently than others, most are in a poor state though. I like the mix, and I liked knowing that someone at some point cared enough to pay money or attention to a departed ancestor.

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The path eventually took me from out of the trees, back under a slightly overcast sky, and a lower ISO setting. I wandered around the open, top section of the cemetery, taking a few final pictures. While I this part of the cemetery was interesting I enjoyed being in the messy bush area much more. This was the only adorned head stone I came across all morning, which surprised me somewhat, the plastic flowers faded by the sun. I really like this picture.

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I finished my walk at the grave of William Hobson, the first Governor General of New Zealand and one of the British signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi.

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As I said at the start of this post, it was a good day, I really enjoyed the cemetery, being under the trees in a small section of scrubby bush and taking photos, there are not many day time things I like to do more.

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