One of the best-known Roman structures that still exists outside of Rome itself is the long defensive wall that snakes from the Solway Firth to Newcastle across the north of England: Hadrian’s Wall. Just south of the wall, in Northumberland, the remains of a Roman fort are being uncovered. Vindolanda’s story is ever-evolving: each summer a team of archaeologists and volunteers uncover more of the fort, discovering buried structures and artefacts that continue to enrich our knowledge of this amazing site. The most precious of all things found at Vindolanda – miraculously preserved due to the damp nature of much of the site – are the little wooden tablets with their written accounts of life on the Roman Empire’s northernmost frontier.
Although the 19th Century is the most notorious period for desperate overcrowding in the churchyards and burial grounds of London, the problem of finding enough space to bury the city’s dead was not a new one. As London grew both in population and size during the 18th Century, little room was set aside for cemeteries and the garden we are visiting today is the first example of Anglican churches being forced to locate their burial grounds in far away from the churches themselves. Today, St George’s Gardens in Bloomsbury is very much a part of central London, but when the two burial grounds that were later landscaped into this pleasant park were first opened, they were surrounded by fields.
The word “necropolis” is incredibly evocative – it is somehow a far more atmospheric term for a burial ground than “graveyard” or “cemetery.” The word derives from the Ancient Greek term nekropolis (νεκρόπολις), which translates as “city of the dead.” Rather fittingly, given the origins of the term necropolis, today we are visiting the Greek Necropolis, a small but dramatic section of West Norwood Cemetery in south London – a Greek Orthodox cemetery that contains the highest concentration of listed funerary monuments anywhere in Britain.
There are so many fascinating old churches in London – however, St Leonard’s in Shoreditch is the first church where I’ve been greeted by a cat. Schrödinger, who was featured in an article on Spitalfields Life earlier this year, is a former stray who now lives at the church. The handsome black and white fellow seemed to spot me as soon as I arrived with my camera, and trotted into the church to wait for me to open the door to let him in.
Schrödinger the cat waits outside the church doors
Not too far from where musician Jim Morrison is buried in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery stands an imposing monument that often gets overlooked by those set on finding Morrison’s memorial. It stands much taller than the graves around it, and on each corner winged skulls leer down at passers-by. It’s a superb monument, full of interesting details and rich imagery, and the man it commemorates lived a fascinating life.
The tiny village of Dunwich clings to the edge of the Suffolk coast and is in many ways a pretty but unremarkable place, a sleepy settlement a long way from any large towns. There’s a beach, a place to buy ice cream, a little museum, a pleasant old pub that draws visitors from miles around. But in the grounds of its Victorian church, and in a field on the edge of the villages, are ruins that suggest a more propserous past. Two impressive archways welcome the motorist into Dunwich, a sign between them proclaiming that they are a part of Greyfriars, Dunwich’s medieval friary. The ruins of this Franciscan friary are some of the final remaining relics of what was once a thriving and significant port – an ancient settlement that today is sometimes dubbed “Britain’s Atlantis” due to most of its medieval fabric now lying beneath the North Sea.
The heart of London is full of strange old places with unusual names and odd stories, but there is one place that for a very long time was not a true part of London at all. Ely Place, just to the north of Holborn Circus, was until relatively recently considered to be a part of Cambridgeshire. For centuries, it was an enclave – an area of land physically located in the City of London but not under its jurisdiction. Instead, it was privately owned by the Bishops of Ely, and even today the street has its own gatehouse and beadles.