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.
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.
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.