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.

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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.