Instead of spending money on things we didn’t need at Christmas, we decided to book a weekend away somewhere. Somewhere affordable but still capable of feeling like we’d been away. Planning even our low key wedding had already been unexpectedly expensive and surprisingly stressful. We chose Dublin, mainly because the flights were cheap and the city had a cemetery museum. As the trip grew closer I found myself becoming less and less excited. It became something else that I had to ‘do’ and get off my list. Much like writing this. I should have realised before the weekend away that something wasn’t quite right, but I figured I was just tired.
Our flight out was delayed. When we landed it was pouring with rain. Our bus into the city was crammed full of soggy, unhappy people. The city centre looked much like any other, as did our hotel. We ate dinner, tried a few pubs and went to bed. The stag party kept us up that night. The hen party took charge the following night.
The next day we walked out to Glasnevin Cemetery, from what I had read it sounded like the Irish Highgate, splendidly Victorian and architecturally impressive. We could have joined a tour at the last minute but I didn’t want to be with a big group of people. We wandered around on our own, choosing which way to turn at the end of each path. The gravestones looked much the same as any others to me. I tried to take a photo that showed just how large the cemetery was but it didn’t really work.
We found a tomb circle towards the rear of Glasnevin, which seemed neglected. Rubbish and graffitti had found it’s way there, perhaps it was not part of the tour so no one could be bothered to keep it tidy. We walked back to the visitor’s centre as there was a book I had decided to purchase. It wasn’t what I had imagined, so I chose another, mostly just to have bought something. I decided not to visit the cemetery museum either. I wasn’t disappointed, it was off my list now. Time to move on to the next thing ‘to do’.
We stopped for a pint at the neighbouring pub, called ‘The Gravediggers’. Real ale and cemeteries are two of my all time favourite things, but being the afternoon (and a Friday) there were only a handful of people in there and it felt very quiet. They had sold out of badges. We had two beers (not Guiness) and walked back into town. Off the list.
At Christ Church Cathedral we discovered a relic encased in what looked like stone and surrounded by metal rings. It was supposedly St Patrick’s heart, stolen in the not too distant past and then recovered. Now it was in a side chapel, under glass on a plinth. I took a picture, the small group of foreign tourists nearby seemingly unaware of what the case held. I had found a relic. Something else off the list.
The mummified cat and rat in the crypt made me smile, but then when I discovered they had been found inside the cathedral organ pipes, most likely having gotten stuck and died there, it made me sad. Tick, off the list.
The final stop on our spooky Dublin weekend was a trip round Kilmainham Gaol. It was a guided tour and our leader was very interesting, holding everyone’s attention throughout. This meant that no one talked, or even really took pictures, which made me very happy. I had not been looking forward to being with a tour group. The gaol, while not technically a cemetery, or even a resting place for anyone, did have memorial crosses in its grounds. Crosses to mark the places where prisoners had been shot by firing squad. I tried to spot any bullet holes but I couldn’t see any. I couldn’t feel any sadness coming from the grounds, or even anger. It was moving to hear about these men and women however, and the part that the gaol had played in Irish history, but there was still a huge part of me that just wanted to go home and crawl into bed.
When we did get home, I realised that the only time I really enjoyed myself, where I wasn’t feeling tense, stressed or distracted, was when we got caught in the rain between pubs one night. A torrential downpour forced us to run and shelter in the huge doorway of a bank. It was oddly fun. It was at that point I knew something wasn’t right. When doing things you usually love, and look forward to, and can’t get enough of, is no longer fun, then something is wrong. It turns out I had been so stressed in the preceeding months, and in turn so anxious to hide my stress and deal with everything on my own, that my brain had had enough and decided to power down. Sometimes in the middle of happiness, poor mental health still manages to climb onto your shoulders like an ironic weight.
Apologies for the rather depressing entry. Who knew a blog about cemeteries would get so, well, depressing? But sometimes it takes a depressing time to move you in the right direction. Here’s hoping.
It had been booked for a while, months actually, but I still didn’t believe it was happening until I got in the car. That’s when I started to panic a little. I don’t like to get excited about things until they’re actually happening, having been let down a lot, so when we paid for flights to Bucharest to visit Transylvania, I tried to stay calm.
My fella and I had talked about booking a little holiday for autumn (cheaper, no school children) and he had suggested Transylvania, and why not go over Halloween? It made perfect sense and we could visit ‘Dracula’s’ Castle on the 31st too. We even booked our tour in advance to make sure. I researched spooky things to see and he found some decent looking bars where we might not get stared at (boy, we were wrong). I tried not to get too excited. It was months away.
Finally, in late October, we arrived at our hotel in Bucharest, the plan being to spend a few days in the capital city, then get the train to Brasov for a few days doing castle tours and Halloween things. I had asked in advance if we could upgrade our room, but only if they had a specific one available. This being a boutique hotel each room was different. They were able to upgrade us to my chosen room. The Gothic Room. It was pretty special. Unfortunately Bucharest was not. The city centre was awash with ‘Irish’ pubs, dance clubs and strip bars, some which pounded music until 6am. 7am on Saturday. We found a rock pub ‘Private Hell’ which played music we liked but even here, as with most of Bucharest, people stared at us a lot. It was odd. And we’re not even that odd.
Sightseeing wise Vlad’s palace was undergoing major maintenance, so we couldn’t even see the outside. The church – Biserica Sfantul Anton – in the palace grounds was beautiful however, and contained a relic, of St Anthony I believe. A piece of his bone was displayed in a guilt case at the altar and people waited to see, pray and place their forehead on the case.
Around the back of the church there was a memorial area where people placed candles to pray for loved ones. We saw them at a few of the larger churches and eventually worked out that one side of the area was for the living, while the other was for the dead. Considering the gold and opulence inside the churches, the memorial areas looked like pigeon hutches. It seemed a shame worshippers couldn’t light candles inside.
We also visited the famous Bellu Cemetery, but this wasn’t quite as imagined either. In all my years of visiting cemeteries, I have never been to one at the same time as a service. When we arrived at the 54 acre ‘cultural attraction’ there were a few teenage goths hanging around. It turned out that they were part of a larger group of teenagers attending a burial. As more and more people arrived carrying flowers we felt more and more uncomfortable and decided that instead of standing completely still out of respect, we would walk in the opposite direction.
While keeping our eyes open incase we should accidentally disturb the mourners, we tried to see some of the reportedly amazing memorials and mausoleums. After a few minutes a security guard approached. We didn’t understand what he said but he clearly (but politely) made it clear there was no photography allowed and then pointed to his shoulders. We put our cameras away and I guessed at the rest and put my jacket back on to cover my shoulders. It was so hot and we felt so awkward, even though we were the other side of the cemetery to the service, we decided to leave. I normally feel a mix of excitement and peace after seeing a beautiful old cemetery, but I just felt a mix of guilt and disappointment.
We did manage to find the sorcerers arm though, which went a long way to making Bucharest not completely disappointing. A mummified, sorcerer’s arm. In a box. Genuinely. The Zlatari Church it was in was very unassuming, especially because the huge bank opposite looked like a palace. In a box, at the altar, was the relic I had at the top of my list, but there was a queue of ladies waiting to kiss the box and place their forehead on it. I sat quietly and patiently at the front until everyone there for religious reasons had been and gone, then I stepped towards it. It looked like a monkey’s paw. Withered with tight dark brown skin, it didn’t look real. It was covered with glass but there was a hole cut over the hand, with a gilt ring edging it. It was then I realised what the ladies had been actually kissing.
The legend goes that the arm belonged to a powerful sorcerer Ciprian, who was asked to bewitch a Christian woman for a pagan man who desired her. This woman, Justina, was too strong in her beliefs to be bewitched and her strength convinced Ciprian to convert to Christianity and renounce the Devil. Apparently. Information about St Ciprian is so scant however, that the Roman Catholic religion has actually removed him from their official list, but some Orthodox churches still celebrate him. People pray to him to remove curses and charms, despite him renouncing his sorcery ways.
After this, a few bars, Romanian sausages and hotel cats, we caught the train to Brasov for the second half of our adventure. The station had no platform, as the rails are not electrified, but it also meant it was three feet from the ground up to the door. A few men tried to take my bags, which I declined, or to sell me English magazines (mostly National Geographic which confused me). After finding our seats we were pleased to see the £6 upgrade to first class for our 3 hour journey had been worth it. The big red reclining armchair style seats, albeit still in hardwearing train seat fabric, were comfy and spacious and the tray tables were huge. We had coat hooks, plug sockets and curtains. Not what I was expecting from the outside of the train. A conductor walked with ease through the rocking train carrying a tray of hot black coffee in plastic vending machine cups, not seeming to care whether anyone bought one or not, followed by another carrying a shopping basket with crisps and snacks.
Almost as soon as we escaped the outskirts of Bucharest the landscape became breathtaking. In a ‘Carpathian mountains that I’ve seen in the movies’ kind of way. The towns we went through looked just like I had imagined. Dogs and chickens in the yard and Bavarian looking lodges and turrets and solitary old ladies in headscarves sat by the road. Memorials on top of mountainsides and no one speaking English. It was immediately much more what we had wanted. And Brasov itself was no different.
The town had a more historic feel to it. People stared much less (if at all) and we immediately felt more at home. We were grateful to ourselves that we had planned our visit to finish at Brasov rather than the capital city. We had part of a day before Halloween to explore Brasov (we mainly explored pubs) and got an earlyish night. On the morning of the 31st of October I changed my outfit three times and we left our apartment to meet our tour guide. After being put with two different guides we were finally introduced to our third, and correct, guide. Our group was small and cosmopolitan. Two French ladies, an American couple, one quiet lady from Mexico and us.
We visited Bran Castle first and were overwhelmed at how busy it was. Our guide explained that it was a special time for schools to visit historic places and that was why there were so many children. We shuffled from room to room trying to hear our guide as hoardes of pre-teens swarmed around us. We got some amazing pictures and I spent the whole time grinning but the castle was not as expected, more small country home inside, than grand medieval castle. I bought a toy bat, a bat bookmark and some local artwork. Of a bat. Despite the school children it was already shaping up to be the best day.
We went on to a fort, which was being prepared for a film shooting so parts of it were being covered up (like the safety hand railings), then onto a Bavarian stately home and then Peles Castle (which I later discovered was used as the setting for a nauseating film ‘A Christmas Prince‘). We finished by eating schnitzel and cold potatoes at a very Bavarian ale house, surrounded by woods and a bear ontop of a fountain.
After our tour guide dropped us off we headed home for a quick refresh and change of clothes (despite it being almost November the temperatures were in the mid twenties). It was now dark and we were thinking about where to spend our Halloween night, not fancying any nightclubs or fancy dress parties. My fella Niki suggested we walk passed the Black Church, a tourist attraction just off the town square, to see if it was lit up at night. As we rounded the corner to the main door there were two slightly drunk chaps having a chat and holding a takeaway. I stared at the opening times to see if we could go into the church the next day, then up at the roof. The takeaway chaps wandered off and I began to say something about would I die if someone dropped something off the roof onto me and as I turned around Niki was kneeling down. And holding out a ring. He said ‘Lauren will you marry me?’ in the most serious voice I’ve ever heard him use.
I found that I had to go down to the ground too suddenly, and that I had started crying. He asked if that meant yes and I nodded. The rest of the evening involves no spooky things, just large drinks, calls home and relief. And tears. Lots of tears.
I’m not sure if anything I write after this can follow that. We did go inside the Black Church, it was very English and therefore familiar and slightly disappointing. I saw a ‘Heroes Cemetery’ filled with small, sad and very moving gravestones to those lost in war. An old Romanian lady blessed us as we left the small, bright chuch next door. The cable car was closed. There were poor children selling used books table to table and a lot of cute dogs. None of this mattered very much to me.
Bucharest was disappointing, Brasov was everything we had hoped and more.
And I got the gothest, spookiest proposal story in the history of the world.
Even on a seemingly ‘normal’ holiday, there is always something macabre, haunted or mummified to be found, sometimes when you least expect it.
I had never been to any part of Italy before but I knew that the likelihood of relics was high, Italy being predominantly Catholic. During my time in Stresa, on Lake Maggiore, I saw three full beatified saints, as well as a hidden mountainside church with electric Madonna and a tiny island cemetery. For a four day holiday, it was pretty amazing. Relic-wise.
As usual I’d researched the area – I hate the thought of going home only to discover I’ve missed a saint or cemetery because I didn’t look hard enough – and found a few Catholic churches within walking distance of our hotel, one of which talked about a martyred baby. On the main strip along the lakes edge, the Parish church of Stresa was no challenge to find and the body was lit inside the display case.
St Vitaliano was a ten month old baby, killed by the Romans during their persecution of the Christians and interred in the catacombs of San Callisto. It is not clear why this particular child was determined to be a saint, but the body was removed from its resting place and given as a present by Pope Gregory XVI to Madam Bolongaro in 1833 who kept it in her private chapel, before donating it to the Parish of Stresa. Every year, for more than a hundred years, the little saint is remembered at the church on the same day, although it is not clear whether the local children still carry the relic through the streets as they were rumoured to do in the 1800s. The church website does not make it clear what the child is the saint of, but the saints prayer compares Vitaliano to the baby Jesus so it is likely to be babies or infants.
During my travels I’ve seen some unusual things, and read about far more, but tiny Vitaliano was unusual even for me. For one, saints are usually adults, sometimes even the elderly, who have devoted their life to God, demonstrating their place as a saint through a lifetime of holy deeds. Those who are martyred are usually sainted because they chose to die rather than forsake Jesus. This child did not make the choice of religion over life. The second remarkable thing about Vitaliano is that their body was not actually on display. It was a porcelain representation that depicted the child as a cherub, round faced and pale with locks of golden curls. I wondered if this was more disturbing than if the body itself had been in the case, rather than under it.
A more impressive, and oddly less weird, relic was under the altar on nearby Isola Bella, an island almost completely given over to a huge grand house and garden. The house (actually a palace) was breathtaking and the gardens, complete with albino peacocks, were gorgeous, even in the rain, but San Vittore church had my attention first. I had already spotted the church on the lakefront as we approached by boat and once inside I peered into the side aisles for signs of a relic. As it happens their relic was under the central altar.
A full skeleton, dressed in pale blue and gold, his crowned skull resting on a satin pillow and holding what looked like feathers, he was quite impressive. I took a photo of what I assumed was some information about him, all in Italian, which I planned to translate when I got home. I discovered later that the placard described the remains of a saint that were little more than dust, kept under the main altar in an urn. This saint, San Vittore, the church’s patron, had been beheaded in 286 AD, which sparked countless churches in his name. There was no mention, however, of the full relic actually on display. After an evening searching the web I am still to find out who the full corpse was, much to my disappointment.
There are three islands off the coast of Stresa, two have historical houses and impressive gardens which attract tourists. People actually live on the third island, which means that people also die on it. We visited Isola Pescatori at my request because it housed the Piccolo Cemetery, a tiny Fisherman’s cemetery in the centre of the island. The cemetery is very small, perhaps ten meters square, with two miniature mausoleums and some cosy headstones, wall plaques and a palm tree.
Many of the people buried there are fishermen, with a number of stones reading ‘disperso in mare’ and while the church it is attached to is still very much in use, I would be surprised if the graveyard was still accepting new residents. According to Wikipedia the population of the island is only 25, but even so the cemetery was full. It was tucked down an alley, behind the church and surrounded by walls. If there was room for a bench it would have been a peaceful place to sit and feel completely alone on the island.
The following day we stayed on land (mostly) as we got a cable car up the mountain behind Stresa. Well, two cable cars and a ski lift. By the time we got to the top we couldn’t see the town and there was almost no sign of life. Except for a derelict restaurant, a quiet cafe and a small church, of course. Needing no encouragement my chap readily agreed to investigate the mountain-top church, in the hopes of finding something remarkable. Or at least something saintly. We found only a beautiful and serene church, rather modern compared to the previous we’d visited. It was my first time seeing a Madonna with a light up halo though, so I decided that was a win.
We’d crammed so much in (I also did some normal tourist type things while I was there, as well as drinking wine much too early in the day) I’d almost resigned myself to not crossing off the last destination on my wishlist. Thankfully I have a partner who won’t let me give in that easily and we caught a different boat all the way across the lake to the far side. One of the first places I’d jotted down when researching Stresa was Santa Catarina, a monastery built into the cliff face, too picturesque to be real it looked like something from a fantasy film.
It was a bright sunny day, great for a boat trip, but when we arrived my heart sank as we discovered the monastery closed between 1 and 2pm. Our boat had dropped us at the jetty at 12.40pm. I nearly gave up right there but was dragged out of my sulk with a ‘let’s have a quick look anyway shall we?’ from my chap. Others must have done their research as only a handful of people had gotten off the boat with us, and even fewer were trying to look around the monastery. Up several sets of stone steps and along a cliff side corridor there was a secluded garden courtyard and an unassuming church door. The church itself was quite small, humble and dimly lit, with frescos on the ceiling and wooden pews, no ostentatious Bishop’s heads in gold and silver here. My fella, on the other side of the chapel, shot me a look, one we have honed from countless visits to churches and cathedrals that says ‘get over here, I’ve found something!’ without making a sound. I rounded a pillar and saw the most impressive relic so far. It looked like a monk, dressed in a plain white cloth gown with hood, laid chest height in a glass coffin with a wooden frame. No crown, no satin pillow, no gilt legs or jewelled torso. He was amazingly preserved, considering he lived in the 12th century.
His name was Alberto Besozzi and he was apparently a greedy man, trading or selling anything to make money. Local rumour said he sold his soul to the devil to make him richer. The legend says that he nearly died in a storm while out on his boat, but he asked God to save him and in a flash his boat was illuminated in the darkness and he ran aground on the rocks. Alberto built the chapel, now housed inside Santa Caterina monastery, in the cliff where God saved him from the sea, and spent his remaining days a pious and worshipful hermit.
Entrance to the monastery was free, so when I took a photograph of Alberto I left a few coins to thank him for making my holiday and for reminding me to explore everything, no matter how little time you have.
We decided to go to Dubrovnik because it came highly recommended by friends for its history and coastal location, and we could afford to go. No one told us that the Croatian city also held one of the largest collections of relics that we would likely ever see.
After an initial walk around the walled Old Town, some seafood and very welcome cold beers, we researched all the things we wanted to do. None of them involved Game of Thrones or Star Wars (both of which have used Dubrovnik as a backdrop on countless occasions) but most involved architecture and cemeteries. I used to just look for the nearest or most impressive cemetery when going abroad, but after the breathtaking Reliqaury Treasury I now thoroughly research relics too.
Our holiday apartment was on a hill above the centre of Dubrovnik’s Old Town and there were a number of interesting sights along the walk to the city walls. The first was Boninovo Cemtery, one of the largest in Dubrovnik with nearly 2000 graves covering a multitude of religions. It seems that the cemetery was initially founded by the Jewish community in the early 1800s, and subsequently other religions followed suit, acquiring space of their own at Boninovo. The mix of religions – Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish – as well as the evolving styles, meant that the sprawling cemetery was infitinitely interesting. The cemetery seemed to be laid out rather like an old mansion, eccentrically built and forever extended. Every gate we went through or edge we reached seemingly revealed another part of the cemetery, in a different style and of a different age. There was an underground columbarium, simple mausoleums with beautifully rusted gates and endless white stone markers. By one road entrance to the cemetery, there was a florist who also sold a variety of memorial candles, the kind that come in religious designs made of red plastic. I’d only ever seen these for sale at Highgate Cemetery (and in their gift shop) so I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful to buy one knowing I was just going to take it home rather than place it on a grave. We walked passed the shop twice a day for a week and on the last day I bought myself a beautiful heart-shaped one. The florist didn’t seem to mind at all.
There was another cemetery, almost the polar opposite of Boninovo, we found by accident while talking a walk to the Capuchin monastery and an abandoned pub. After some research I believe it was a Home Guard cemetery, but it didn’t seem like it was still in use. It was very small, with creaking gates and long grass. There was one, large monument opposite the gates against the wall. I have no idea what it said. It does not appear on google maps and for most taphohiles would not hold much interest, but I like finding places I wasn’t looking for. The cats that sat on the gravestones did not seem peterbed by us being there.
The day after this chance find came another, but in every way more spectacular. As I’ve mentioned before, I go into every Catholic church and cathedral I come across in the hopes of finding a relic. I find the idea of displaying someone’s bones or blood as a kind of talisman in the name of Christianity, fascinating. We were wandering around the Old Town, probably trying to find a hidden bar we’d read about on Tripadvisor, when I saw what I thought was a simple church with its door open. It turned out to be a cathedral, but the outside was giving nothing away. We almost missed what was inside too, as it was covered in scaffolding and plastic sheets. As we walked around Dubrovnik Cathedral, my eyes keen for a relic, I spotted pressed medallions in one of the side altars. They were under glass and seemed to show guilded legs. Recognising these as saintly medals for followers to wear, I began looking for the leg in question. There was some laminated information pinned to a column nearby, thankfully in English, which showed the Holy Treasury, including legs, torsos and heads. It also described its location in the cathedral, which I would have missed. An unassuming lady behind a small table was taking an entrance fee, the handwritten sign did not exactly promote the Treasury, and we followed her gestures to go through the plastic sheeting. An automatic light lit up the small side room as we entered revealing a floor to ceiling collection of saintly body parts. I was in awe.
Behind a plastic screen there were gold guilt legs, arms, craniums, whole torsos, enough to make up several complete bodies. Carved wooden boxes held scraps of cloth and bone and other things too small or dusty to see. There were reportedly pieces of the cross and baby Jesus’ swaddling cloth among the collection. We stood there for several minutes just trying to take it all in. With the protective screen so close to the entrance door it was difficult to get a good view of everything and being a well behaved tourist I adhered to the sign that said ‘no photography’. Thankfully no other visitors came in while I was craning and crawling around to see as much as possible. The only photo I took was one of me outside the cathedral grinning like a loon (above), it really was one of the highlights of the trip and my spooky little life. I’ve included a photo from the Atlas Obscura however, as descriptions do not do it justice. It was odd though, that a room filled with saintly parts didn’t feel moving in anyway, other than the shock at seeing so many in one place. It was almost as if the more there were, the less rare and special they seemed. It was still amazing.
We took the obligatory island boat trip (well worth it) and were rewarded with remote chapels and untouched cemeteries. On Kolocep Island, we discovered a small cemetery and a tiny church, Crkvica sv. Nikole na groblju, which only opens one day a year – All Saints Day, the day after Halloween. It being September all I could do was peek inside and imagine what it looked like.
The only let down on this holiday, macabre sightseeing-wise, was that we didn’t make it to the haunted island. Nobody lives on the island of Daksa and locals refuse to go there after the massacre in 1944. According to reports, and forensic investigations, suspected Nazi sympathisers in Dubrovnik were rounded up and taken to Daksa to be shot and left to rot where they fell. They had no trial and their families were warned not to ask questions or risk the same fate. They have since been buried and a memorial raised. On our boat trip to the other, inhabited islands, we asked one of our crewmen about the possibility of going to Daksa. He simply said no boats went there, and the only way to get there was to swim as there was nowhere for a boat to moor because of the rocks. He said he had swum out there but seemed reluctant to say much more. We saw it from our boat but got no closer to my dismay.
I have no doubt that I will go back to Dubrovnik. Apart from the amazing seafood and breathtaking views, there are relics I have yet to discover and, more importantly, a haunted island I have yet to set foot on.
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.
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.
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.
When I’m 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.
Philanthropist 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.