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St Nicholas Church Gardens, Brighton

The gardens occupy 3ha at the centre of Brighton. They consist of the churchyard around the twelfth-century church of St Nicholas and two adjacent burial grounds closed in the nineteenth century, now known as the Rest Garden and the Children’s Garden. They are very popular public open space surrounded by a large and very diverse community.

There is a high density of burials, but in the 1940s and 1960s most of the memorials were moved to the edges. Thus although there are grassy open spaces, potential uses are limited. Nevertheless, by careful examination of burial records it has been possible to find locations for a play area and a community garden. We developed other proposals that make maximum use of the features of the site, such as extending the hard surfaces around the church as a performance and meeting place.

The grander monuments were left in place during the clearance. As a result, historical accounts and interpretation have centred on anecdotes about the individuals commemorated. Nevertheless, it has been possible to piece together broader historical themes from photographs, engravings and local authority records. The church was restored and enlarged in the nineteenth century and these changes were related to those in the burial grounds.

One of the major features of the grounds is a listed group of vaults built out from the adjacent hillside. They are faced with mock medieval features in artificial stone which is now rapidly decaying. We worked with the city council to identify realistic conservation objectives.

The gardens have attracted vandalism, anti-social behaviour, crime and fear of crime largely because there are limited through routes. Several paths lead to dead ends or serve no purpose following changes to the surrounding townscape. We worked with the council on the design of safe routes and exits.

Client – Brighton and Hove City Council

  1. The vaults and the terrace above them are major features of the gardens and unlike those in most cemeteries are intact and without vandalism
  2. One of the three burial grounds is the rest garden, designed as a garden cemetery in the 1840s. The removal of the ordinary gravestones in the 1940s brought this original character back
  3. Removal of the ordinary gravestones means that the nineteenth-century garden cemetery character was restored
  4. When the burial ground was first promoted, the promotional drawing included a mock Tudor gatehouse taken from an unsuccessful proposal for Kensal Green cemetery and a burial pyramid copying Thomas Willson’s proposal for one for five million bodies on Primrose Hill in London
  5. This view taken from the church tower shows the Rest Garden in its early years
  6. When the churchyard was cleared in the 1960s the monuments of particular quality and historical interest like this one for Amon Wilds were retained. The original fences were removed but had to be replaced with unsatisfactory modern ones