St Nicholas Rest Garden

The most lovely space in the centre of town, a haven from the bustle, a world of its own. Bob Young and, below, Amanda Ogilvie look at the wonder of St Nick’s Rest Garden  

Opposite St Nicholas Church on the other side of Dyke Road is a handsome Grade II listed archway. If you push through one of the heavy green gates beneath it, you’ll find yourself in a spacious and delightfully leafy park. Even though this space has always been open to the public, it’s one of central Brighton’s largely unknown and hidden places.

This is the St Nicholas Rest Garden. It was the third of the burial grounds associated with the old parish church, the earlier ones being the Churchyard itself and the ‘new’ northern burial ground (now the children’s playground). When these two cemeteries were full, land was acquired on the west side of Dyke Road and the eminent Brighton architect Amon Henry Wilds drew up a scheme for its layout.

Wilds proposed a long row of 23 burial vaults on the northern edge, an entrance gatehouse in the form of a small fortified castle and, most intriguingly of all, a ‘burial pyramid’ with room for several thousand coffins. In the end only 14 of the vaults were built, the entrance gate was simplified, and nothing more was heard of the pyramid!

Burials started in the Rest Garden in the early 1840s but stopped in 1854 when new public health regulations designed to control cholera came into force. In the 1940s, the central area was cleared of its memorials by the Council and the displaced tombstones were used to line the perimeter of the space. Fortunately some of the more splendid of the big ‘box’ tombs were left undisturbed in their original positions.

Before any tombstone was moved, Council staff meticulously recorded the wording of the inscription. A record of these can found via the Brighton Mortiquarian website. There also you can find the life stories of some of the more extraordinary ‘residents’ of the Rest Garden. Here are a few:

Sir Richard Phillips (1767-1840) whose massive box tomb is just inside the gates devised and published class materials for schools (part of his ‘pioneering system of education’) and wrote many very important books — or so he claimed! If you read the inscription on his tomb you’ll see that he was also an absolutely exemplary family man. Do take all of this with a pinch of salt though because Sir Richard concocted the wording of the inscription himself.

Baroness Erskine (d.1851) and her aunt Rachel Bond are buried in a splendid ‘tabletop’ tomb beneath the tree next to the Tierney family vault. The carved stone decorations along the top edge and the sides of the tomb are very beautiful.

One of the most eminent of all the people in the Rest Garden is Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850). He was President of the Royal Academy of Arts and a top-ranking portrait painter. The aristocracy and even Royalty were amongst his clients. As such he could have been interred in Westminster Abbey but chose instead to be buried in the leafy surroundings of the Rest Garden.

As well as all the history there is a terrace with roses, lavender, flowering borders, and an olive tree — together with a splendid sea view. 

The Brighton Mortiquarian is at Select “Recording Our Deceased” for access to the inscription records and Mortiquaria to reach masses of information about named people.

Not many people know this, but the Rest Garden is owned by the incumbent of St Nicholas of Myra, Brighton – aka the vicar of St Nick’s, so this remarkable place is, in effect, the vicar’s garden held in trust for the parish.  

Thank the Lord. Maintenance of this closed burial ground is still the responsibility of Brighton & Hove City Council as are the other two green spaces around the church. But in a strange twist, closed burial grounds remain subject to ecclesiastical law – which means that to do anything, permission is required from the Diocese of Chichester.

Only one of the 14 burial vaults has an opening door, today used to store equipment for the cheery band of volunteer gardeners who work to keep the space as lovely as it is. Bear them in mind when your dogs are doing what dogs do, and be grateful that the vicar is a dog lover. For years animals were forbidden to come through those remarkable, heavy gates.  

The Rest Garden even has its own angel – a local who takes his nightly stroll with a litter picker, removing debris as he walks.  One balmy sunny evening, wearing a straw hat, our hero was approached by someone who asked if he was the vicar. To which he replied ‘No – but I know a man who is!’

How different this little-known hideaway must be to Wilds’ original idea – used daily by dog walkers, garden lovers, people in need of a peaceful green space in the middle
of this fantastic, mad, busy city.  And the occasional tent.

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