Cobham Mausoleum & Toe Memorial

Yes you read correctly. A Toe Memorial.  An unusual marker by anyone’s standards.

We (myself and my equally darkly-fascinated chap) had a rare weekend free of other people’s birthday celebrations, work commitments or musical interludes. We decided to visit something spooky.

The Cobham Mausoleum is a National Trust property but is free to enter (donations welcome) and like any macabre gal, I love a mausoleum. This one was a little unusual however, in that it contained no bodies and never had done.

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After their family vaults had been filled in Westminster Abbey, the 3rd Earl of Darnley built his own in Cobham (or left instructions for someone else to do so in his will). No one is sure why, but the mausoleum was never consecrated so, despite it costing £9000 to build (around £1 million today), it never housed a single corpse. The volunteer guide on the day we visited suggested it might have been because the clergy objected to the design of the building itself, resembling an Egyptian pyramid rather than a more traditional churchly design.

Our guide was wonderfully chatty and clearly happy that people were taking the time to visit and enjoy the quirky building. It certainly stood out in the woodlands, in a clearing surrounded by trees and the occasional Highland cow (seriously). Despite not being home to anyone’s final resting place, the chapel above and crypt below were beautiful, as were the accoustics. In one of the coffin shelves I spotted some laminated information pages. The print wasn’t especially clear but I could make out a photo of a woodland gravestone. Not being able to take the pages away, I took photos of the directions with my phone and we set out to find the forest memorial.

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After walking a little further than I had imagined, and taking a couple of turnings at the wrong Yew tree, we spotted a large stone, broken and worn and partially hidden by forest. This was the Toe Memorial. The National Trust page about Cobham Mausoleum does not mention the memorial at all, and there is very little online about it. Apparently Edward Bligh, the 5th Earl of Darnley, chopped off his toe with an axe in 1835 while demonstrating how to cut a tree. I found this account on a local website – ‘Now I’ll show you how to cut a root in halves’ the Earl said, and he took the woodcutter’s axe, struck hard upon the root when the axe glided off and just caught the little toe of his foot and part of the next thro’ his boot. He started and said ‘I have just harmed myself, I fear! But it might have been worse and I ought to consider myself fortunate’. The next day he wrote to a friend saying : ‘ We are all well here, barring that I almost cut off a little toe with an axe yesterday : providentially it is a matter of no consequence, but might have been a serious accident.’

It may have been a minor accident but he contracted lockjaw as a consequence and died three days later. The memorial to his misfortune was erected by Lady Darnley and seems to have been mostly forgotten.

The mausoleum was very interesting, but the Toe Memorial, despite it’s minor stature and major state of disrepair, was by far the highlight. I love finding hidden things. If they are hidden in forests, so much the better.

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Hyde Park’s Pet Cemetery

I found out about Hyde Park’s best kept secret through an outdated blog post, which popped up after I searched for ‘interesting cemeteries london’, as I am wont to do on occasion. At the time the blog stated that the cemetery was not generally open to the public, but was accessible on the odd occasion. Like the privately owned, hidden church in my hometown of Norwich, I resigned myself to not ever being able to gain access to this spooky hidden gem. The cemetery wasn’t (and still isn’t) listed on the Hyde Park website as part of the history or memorials to visit. People had commented on the blogpost that they had never been inside but had been able to peek over the iron railings. I decided I would do this the next time I was in the area (which I never am because there are no pubs near that corner of Hyde Park).

About six months later I was browsing the events for Month of the Dead in London, planning suitable entertainment for my birthday, and discovered that the little cemetery was open for tours during the month of October. I immediately bought two tickets and knew I was going to have one of the best birthdays.

On the day the tour had to be edited due to bad weather. It had planned to include the memorial to animals in war and the spot of the Tyburn Tree (where hangings took place for over 650 years). We didn’t see either of these monuments, both odd in opposite ways, but I was assured that the pet cemetery would still be open. Our tour group was a wonderfully eclectic bunch – an American tourist, a gay couple, a young steampunk photographer (complete with high lace-up boots and googles on his hat) and then my tattooed friends and me. My friend told the tour guide it was my birthday (something I haven’t thought of doing since I was about eight years old) and she wished me happy birthday. When we reached the lodge, which houses the cemetery in its tiny garden, the guide said the birthday girl could unlock the gate. I think I was more excited than when I was eight.

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The key was reassuringly old. A hefty, iron skeleton key which turned satisfyingly in the lock of the metal gate. It crossed my mind more than once how it might feel to take the key home, knowing I could visit the little graveyard whenever I wanted. The metal gate and railings that surrounded the miniature garden of rest had been covered in cane matting, presumably to prevent people seeing in from the pavement outside. We walked a few steps of the path along side the lodge and the rows of little headstones greeted us as the garden opened. The sun had come out at some point and made the cemetery perfect for photos. It was clear to see why only small groups were allowed, there wasn’t enough room to move between the stones for more than a handful of careful people.

The cemetery was clearly popular in it’s time, as wee markers stood up against one another, with some marking more than one pet’s passing. I took photos of my favourites, most likely with a stupd grin on my face, as I couldn’t believe I’d actually managed to get inside. Smut and Microbe were two that made me smile, as well as Tim (I love it when people give pets human names. It’s not as amusing the other way round though). Only in a pet cemetery could you find markers with ‘Scum’ and ‘Danger’ written on them. There was also a pet rabbit, a very fat cat and possibly a crocodile buried there. I could have spent a long time reading each headstone, but eventually we had to leave. I wondered who lived in or used the lodge and if it ever came up for sale…

After the Pet Cemetery, which was going to be hard to top, we visited the crematorium where Bram Stoker rests. After discovering which part of the large and winding building his casket was in, we discovered it was ‘closed for maintenance’. I think it was closed because it was the week before Halloween and they predicted vandalism. I just wanted to say hi and let him wish me a happy birthday. We saw Marc Bolan’s memorial, and then got lost in the japanese garden of rest. After finding our way out of the garden and into a taxi, we had drinks in a couple of supposedly haunted pubs in nearby Hampstead. We didn’t see any ghosts, or hear any of Black Bess’ hoof clops, but we had some nice beers and some suitably spooky cupcakes.

I’ve already been sent suggestions for next years birthday gravecrawl.

Vienna – Royal Crypts & Relics

I’ve been to Vienna twice now, not specifically to see macabre things but they inevitably become part of my holidays.

My first trip to the Austrian capital was to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. It was surprisingly awesome, unsurprisingly camp and a lot of fun. I hadn’t even considered being able to do anything remotely spooky, as the people I was travelling with weren’t really into that. However on a slightly rainy day during our brief stay, when everyone else was doing a walking tour or visiting the zoo, one of my party (my brother) informed me that Vienna was home to Europe’s largest cemetery. Luckily for me he likes history and doing anything where the numbers of people around will be minimal. We caught the tram out to the cemetery as, like the majority of large burial places, it was on the outskirts. We were greeted by impressive white stone gates and a huge open space divided into different nominations and religions. Opposite the gates there was a stonemason specialising in headstones, which was handy.

We walked around as much of the cemetery as we could (it was too big for us to cover the whole site in the short time we had), saw Beethoven’s resting place and spotted some scene-appropriate crows atop the larger memorials. Before we left we visited the small funeral museum, where I saw a genuine coffin bell for the first time (I’ve been trying to buy one ever since) as well as a Lego funeral cortege (which I’ve also been looking for). As the Lego wasn’t for sale, I settled for a wooden coffin keyring with the name of the museum on and a souvenir postcard and map. The rest of my first stay in Vienna revolved around waving flags at Eurovision and drinking every time Azerbaijan scored a point.

My second visit didn’t involve a multi-national, multi-glitter balled singing competition so my time was free to spend hunting out relics and dead royalty. Luckily Vienna has a lot of these.

Even without doing lots of research, the average relic hunter can wander into a Catholic church in mainland Europe and find a piece of a saint. Sometimes the saint’s hand, heart or scalp are locked in gilded boxes by the altar but many are in the small chapels at the sides of the main aisle. They are often easy to miss, or to dismiss as something else entirely as they can be small fragments of bone, scraps of fabric or vials of blood. Even complete saints are often walked passed unnoticed by those not looking out for them. The full saint, complete with skin in places, that I discovered in St Peter’s Church (Peterskirsche) was one such relic.

The church has impressive, gilt statues and beautiful painted domes – most visitors to the church are looking up at the images of saints above them, rather than down by their feet where the actual saint lies in repose. St Benedictus was given to the church by the Pope to Cardinal Sigismund Count Kollonitsch and he lies on his side, with one hand to his face, in a fine white suit with golden lace. His dress has cut-outs showing his rib cage and boney feet. Despite his elegant clothing (and the fact he is a full skeleton wearing a crown) most people walked right passed his unlit display case.

It is difficult to find information about St Benedictus. I managed to find out who he wasn’t, rather than who he was. He is not the famous St Benedict who founded the Benedictine Monks (he’s interred in a monastery in Italy). He is supposedly a Christian martyr but regardless of his heritage he is the most impressive single relic I’ve ever seen.

The photo below is from the church’s website. My photo was very dark and while I don’t follow any religion I respect other religions enough not to use a flash in a church full of people. There was another saint on the opposite side of the church (St Donatus) but being two weeks before Christmas and a weekend, the church was full of worshipers and tourists, so I couldn’t get close to St Benedict’s relic-mate and the church website doesn’t picture him at all.

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The macabre highlight of my second visit to Vienna was undoubtedly the Hasburg Tomb however. Large and unusually modern-looking (well, modern by crypt standards) the Kapuzinergruft was marble floored, darkly lit and severe in its design. The more modern sarcophagi were simple, almost Soviet in style, with seemingly little sentiment given to the person who lay inside.

My shoes squeaked as I walked from room to room and the sign advising me that the ‘sarcophaguses’ were alarmed made me feel like reaching over the iron railing to sneak a touch of the cold metal coffins. I didn’t of course. One of the final rooms held a gigantic double sarcophagus with skulls, lions and battle armour surrounding it and statues of the occupants lying on top as if waking from a nap. I had to get a photo of myself next to it to give an idea of scale (see above). This was the resting place of Franz Stephan and Maria Theresia, Emperor and Empress of Austria. Maria had 16 children – a feat in itself, but she was also crowned thanks to her father organising a ‘Pragmatic Sanction’ ensuring his daughters could be heirs to the throne. Even though he had decreed the sanction, she still had a fight on her hands to inherit, but inherit she did.

Throughout the crypt there were also tiny sarcophagi for children, some for babies who hadn’t lived a year, but even these were unrelenting in their utilitarian design.

 

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Before entering the main crypt there was a display case showing various altar pieces, candle holders and gilt frames. The largest frame, standing about three feet high, had pieces of bone wrapped in gold-edged fabric and the top of a skull on show as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The only information about the display was written in Austrian so I have no idea who the pieces of skeleton belong to or where the piece came from.

 

 

After wandering around the many rooms in the crypt, we emerged above ground and I insisted on going into the church above it (as I do with most churches in the hope of finding a new relic). The Capuchin Church was much like many others I had visited – wooden pews, impressive altar, a few tourists looking about and a few people praying – and a glass screen with doors in to allow visitors to look into the main church without entering fully (perhaps when there were ceremonies taking place). There was a lady stood, eyes closed, holding shopping bags with her arms by her sides, in this in between section. She seemed to be in a trance and barely moving, not facing the altar but towards the side of the church. We were careful not to disturb her as we walked around to and through the glass door.

We walked down the main aisle and into one of the side chapels and, as I had come to expect from most decent-sized catholic churches, I found a skull on display. It was difficult to get a picture through the glass to begin with and my British politeness also means I have to wait until no one is looking before I take a picture. After the other tourists had moved to a different part of the church I began to focus my camera and got a couple of shots before a monk in brown robes emerged from a small wooden door nearby. He didn’t seem to notice me, but my camera phone was hastily put away regardless.

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Any information available about the relics was either too small to read or in Austrian (or both) so I was none the wiser about which saintly skull was behind the glass. As we left, the lady was still in her trance, in the same position. The monk busied himself around her and seemed not to take much notice of her either. It struck me as strange that someone would choose to feel moved at that spot, by the entrance and exit, rather than take a seat in a pew or side chapel. Then it occurred to me that she probably didn’t choose the spot at all. I wonder how long she stayed there.

During my time in Vienna I saw a lot of beautiful corpses and deathly history, but there were still crypts I discovered too late in my trip to visit and I still haven’t made it inside the main cathedral of St Stephen. I think my next visit will be in the summer though, as Vienna has rained on me unapologetically each time I’ve been.

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