Rosary Cemetery

Just before I left Norwich, and on a weekend when I didn’t have a major hangover, I decided to take a walk to the Rosary Cemetery. It was a grey, drizzly day. The kind of day that looks miserable, unless you like walking around cemeteries, in which case it is perfect.

 

The Rosary Cemetery was the first non-denominational cemetery in the United Kingdom, but was still founded by a minister, albeit a non-conformist one. Norwich has never been a city to do things the same way as everyone else. Even when it comes to our dead.

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The Rosary Cemetery, off Rosary Road, is a beautiful space, even more so with mist made by the rain when I visited. Despite the non-demoninational nature of the graveyard, a flint chapel marks the entrance, complete with carriage archway, making the slightly rambling grounds feel a little more grand. It was designed by prominent Norwich architect Edward Boardman, who also worked on the gaol and hospital. The cemetery is spread over different levels with steps and mounds to climb and corners to hide in. It feels like a secret garden among the headstones.

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Although the wikipedia page mentions surgeons, novelists, artists and war heroes among the notable graves, it leaves out Jeremiah Colman, part of the Colman’s dynasty (known only now for mustard) who’s funeral stopped traffic in Norwich and turned out over a thousand Norwich folk to mourn his passing. The Colman’s, still a name hugely associated with the Fine City of Norwich, were reportedly staunch non-conformists, so it is no surprise that their memorial is here. The most interesting memorial for me however, is the one of John Barker. His memorial was interesting in itself, but his life, and death, were also unusual. A bust on a plinth, with gothic pillars and canopy, standing tall among other, more modest, headstones it is hard not to spot. The inscription not only tells of his life but also, uncommonly, of how he died. Mr Barker was a ‘steam circus proprietor’ as detailed on his stone. Following in his father’s footsteps John Barker was a travelling showman, but despite being successful in his trade, as evidenced by the grandure of his memorial and the clothes his bust is dressed in, he was well respected by the circus community thanks to his efforts to help less fortunate members. He was also Vice-President of the Van-Dwellers Association. Next to his grand marker is that of Charles Thurston, ‘Amusement Caterer’ and part of Thurston Fairs which still tour England today.

John Barker died doing the thing he loved. While he was setting up a ‘circular railway’ ride at Norwich Cattlemarket to entertain the crowds, he was crushed between two carts, suffering multiple greivous injuries. He was reportedly dead before he reached the Norfolk and Norwich hospital. As another prominent figure in the city, his funeral brought around a thousand mourners.

Despite being tucked away in a rambling cemetery just outside the city centre, John Barker’s unusual grave remains one of my favourite discoveries. Actually, that is exactly why it is one of my favourites.

 

 

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When visiting friends and I ask where the nearest graveyard is, I’m still surprised when they look at me like I’m nuts. Sometimes I forget that not everyone understands my interest in cemeteries and some of my friends don’t know that I visit them for fun (meant in the most respectful way possible).

During a recent visit to Manchester, to get really drunk at the citys Beer Festival with some old friends I’d known since I lived and worked up there, I thought I would check out what Manchester had to offer, memorial-wise.

Our friends’ south-of-the-city location had a lot to do with the cemetery I chose to visit, as we were tired and hungover and I didn’t want to push my luck asking my fella to take a massive detour on the way home so I could wander through the headstones. The smell of the rain (it never stops raining in Manchester) and the particular kind of quiet that only cemeteries have all helped calm my hangover.

Manchester’s Southern Cemetery opened in 1879 and is the largest municipal cemetery in the UK. I loved the fact it was open from dawn until dusk every day, the idea of someone having the keys to the cemetery gates, getting up before daybreak each day to open them, made me smile.

There were a few ‘famous’ people buried at the Southern Cemetery but I don’t know football or the industrial revolution so there was really only one person I wanted to visit and two other memorials that caught my attention – both for very different reasons.

20180128_122716.jpgPhilanthropist John Rylands’ memorial was like a huge base of statue, as if smaller tiers were waiting to be put on top of it. I wanted to stand on it and pose like an award statuette (but would never do of course). It was so clean and simple, it really stood out.

The second unusual memorial was the polar opposite. I didn’t note the name of the person it remembered, I don’t think it was anyone the public would have known, but no one visiting a grave nearby would be able to miss it. A lifesize statue of an angel sat on a memorial stone, on its’ own plinth, looking downwards at sleeping cherubs. The angel was holding stone roses and the folds in her dress were almost moving. This impressive statue was not what caught my eye however. It was the sleeping stone dog, on a pillow plinth, complete with collar, lead and food dish and its’ own plaque that made me look twice. I’d never seen anything like this (and I’ve been to a pet cemetery). It took my third look at this unique memorial before I noticed the tiny headstone to the left of it, bearing only a last name, no date or RIP.

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It took us a while to find the grave I had wanted to see. I am hopeless at reading maps and while my Mr is better, even he found the huge park difficult to negotiate. We did eventually discover the simple, shiny black headstone that marked the grave of record label owner Tony Wilson.

I have different reactions when finally being at the grave of someone that I’ve been hoping to see. I was moved almost to tears when I accidentally found John Peel’s grave, complete with a bottle of red wine. It warmed my heart to see Douglas Adams’ grave, covered in pens and pencils that fans of his writing had left. I felt genuinely sad inside when I made the trip across London, and searched seemingly every inch of every columbarium for his urn, only to find that Bram Stoker’s particular wing was supposedly closed for restoration work.

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Tony Wilson’s marker was straightforward, rather like the inside of a book cover, with only the bare details printed. In sentimental contrast there were tiny animal figurines, glass vases and a hand bell left on the plinth surrounding it. I don’t know what I expected but it seemed fitting and wrong at the same time. I guess that’s what comes from knowing someone because of the things they’ve done or people they’re associated with rather than actually knowing them.

As we drove home and the rain eased, I wondered how on earth I was going to make visiting a cemetery with a hangover into a blog entry. I decided to let my head clear and the Lucozade kick in before I considered it any further.

My First Ossuary – St Leonard’s Church, Hythe

There are many firsts in life that should be celebrated and this was one of mine. Others mark occasions with champagne or presents. I celebrated visiting my first ossuary with some chips and a souvenir fridge magnet.

I tried to visit an ossuary in Portugal a few years ago, but the little church it was reputedly in was never open. I tried three times on different days, at different times, but the doors were always locked. So when I discovered that Britain’s largest and apparently best preserved ossuary was a short drive away from home in Hythe, it wasn’t long before we were taking a drive to the coast to see the piles of bones. 20170820_150034.jpg

As we walked up the path towards the ossuary entrance, I barely noticed St Leonard’s church above it, I was too excited by the handmade and wonky ‘To The Crypt‘ sign, which pointed down towards some steps. There were already a number of people inside as we handed the volunteer on the door a small entrance fee. The crypt was small and dusty, with vaulted ceilings. Considering the fact that it is the largest of its kind in the country I was surprised and gladdened by the low key displays. No fancy screens or modern lighting, just piles of bones the way they had been for years. There were some low level cabinets with particular specimens in, but nothing that detracted from the atmosphere of the crypt. Rows of lower jaw bones were laid out with a hand painted sign asking visitors not to touch. There was even a visitors book (what people used before TripAdvisor kids) where people had left lovely comments about their visit.

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There had been many theories about the residents of the crypt, but the one most favour now is that the 2,000 or so people are merely former residents of Hythe. Even the two skulls that past historians thought were of dwarves turned out to be from children. While the history of the place was interesting, I just enjoyed being there and being confronted with a wall of skulls. It was also interesting to see other people’s reactions to the place, mostly wonder and awe. I spotted a small collection of souvenirs, all brilliantly old school and reasonably priced. I nearly came away with a branded purse to wear round your neck, but settled for a fridge magnet. After the crypt we took a walk around the cemetery above ground, in lovely bright sunshine. We popped into St Leonard’s Church as well but after the wall of skulls there wasn’t much to impress. Then we went for a walk along the seafront and got some chips, making this a day full of my favourite things.

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.

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.

Capuchin Church relic

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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