Scenes of tragic road traffic accidents are very often turned into temporary shrines – loved ones of the unfortunate individual killed leave flowers and other tributes at the site. Sometimes, these little shrines are maintained for years – in my hometown of Preston I still often go past a regularly replenished floral tribute at a set of traffic lights where a lady was killed in an accident in 2004. One such shrine in south west London has become a permanent fixture and a place of pilgrimage for fans of man it commemorates, the musician Marc Bolan, most famously the frontman of glam rock band T. Rex, who was killed in a car crash on Queen’s Ride in Barnes in 1977.
Today, there are speed humps on Queen’s Ride, a relatively quiet road close to the South Circular which rises to a blind summit on a railway bridge. On 16th September 1977, Marc Bolan was a passenger when the purple Mini driven by his girlfriend Gloria Jones lost control and crashed, hitting a steel fence and a tree. Marc was killed instantly, just two weeks short of his thirtieth birthday. His death shocked the music world and caused a great outpouring of grief from his fans.
Marc Bolan had shot to fame in the early 1970s at the frontman of T. Rex. T. Rex had originally been called Tyrannosaurus Rex, and had been a part of the underground hippy folk scene in the late 1960s, but T. Rex – with its more electric sound – heralded the beginning the glam rock era. Marc Bolan was well known for his flambuoyant costumes, wearing top hats, bright colours, feather boas and glitter on stage.
The site of the accident on Queen’s Ride immediately became a place for fans to lay tributes to Marc. Decorations were left on the sycamore tree involved in the crash, and the tree has remained a focal point for tributes ever since. Sadly, it is believed that the tree is now dying.
The site remained an unofficial shrine to Bolan for many years, with fans continuing to visit and leave messages, flowers and trinkets at the site where their idol died. By the mid-1990s, the site was in a poor condition and the tree was badly damaged and in danger of falling after two decades of being decorated by fans. In order to better maintain the shrine, the T-Rex Action Group was formed. The purpose of the group was solely to look after the site of Bolan’s death and in 1999 they were granted ownership of the land in perpetuity, giving them full responsibility for the tree and the general upkeep of the rest of the site. Since taking over full responsibility for the site, TAG has made the site safer by installing the flight of steps pictured below and works hard to ensure that no further damage is inflicted on the “Bolan Tree”.
In 1997, the memorial stone pictured above was unveiled close to the crash site. It was donated by the Performing Right Society and at first glance looks as though it is marking a grave. Marc Bolan was cremated after his death and has no grave site, so it seems natural that his fans would look to another place associated with his death to commemorate him and set up a permanent memorial. The features of the rock shrine give Marc’s fans a focal point in the same way that a grave would – look at how the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde in Paris continue to attract visitors wishing to see the final resting place of their heroes. Marc Bolan’s rock shrine fulfils the same purpose, but outside the rules and constraints of a graveyard it has developed its own unique look and style.
The tributes left year on year by fans show the impact Marc Bolan and his music made on people’s lives. A notice board near the tree is covered in pictures and messages, many of them faded and blurred by rain and the passage of time. Fans have left Christmas cards, drawings and decorations, giving the memorial a deeply personal angle that is often lost in more formal settings. It is quite moving to read the messages and poems left by fans who have travelled from all over the world to visit the shrine. One plaque was left by a visitor from Zimbabwe; another message was left by a fan from Ecuador.
A beautiful bronze bust was unveiled by Marc’s son Rolan in 2002, to mark the 25th anniversary of Marc’s untimely death. Many of those associated with T. Rex were present at this ceremony, including former bandmates Mickey Finn and Paul Fenton. The bust, created by sculptor Jean Robillard, was entirely funded by TAG member Fee Warner. When I visited the rock shrine, the bronze bust was decorated with a bright pink feather boa – a tribute to Marc’s on-stage costumes. Other items left by fans at the shrine include swans – a reference to the song “Ride a White Swan” – glitter, and wizards and other pagan-inspired items, which Bolan often referred to in his songs and poems.
Traditionally, shrines have often been places with religious or spiritual significance, and they can be found all around the world. In Britain, a shrine might be the tomb of a saint, the site of a martyr’s death or where they had lived, a place associated with the Virgin Mary (most famously Walsingham) or a holy well. In the Islamic world, particularly in the Shia tradition, tombs of saints and holy men are venerated. Shinto shrines in Japan do not contain graves, as death is seen as unclean in the Shinto tradition, but instead contain sacred objects that are the focal points for prayers. What all shrines have in common is that they are spaces set aside for reflection, prayer or remembrance.
In 2007, the site was officially recognised by the English Tourist Board when it was included in their “England Rocks” guide to sites of rock ‘n’ roll importance. This recognition was undoubtedly down to the site’s continued use as a shrine and memorial, as without the decorations it would be a completely nondescript site. The commitment of Marc Bolan’s fans to keep his memory alive has allowed the site of a tragedy to become a site of modern-day pilgrimage and a lasting memorial to one of Britain’s most talented musicians.
Marc Bolan’s rock shrine is a short walk along Queen’s Ride from Barnes Station. Do be careful when crossing the road as the blind summit of the railway bridge can conceal oncoming traffic.
References and further reading
TAG’s Marc Bolan and T. Rex site http://www.tag.mercurymoon.co.uk/welcome-2.html
Bolan fans mark anniversary, BBC News, 13th September 2002 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/2255083.stm
Rock star shrines: from the Bolan tree to the Burning Love Suite, The Guardian, 23rd January 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jan/25/rock-star-shrines-johnny-cash