An ancient cemetery in the heart of Greenwich Park

Not far from the famous Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park is a field that was once a large cemetery.  Today, all that remains are a few modest mounds that mark where the burials took place, and it’s unlikely that most people who walk past them, or sit on them, have any idea what they are.  This is perhaps not surprising, as this old burial ground is over 1,000 years old.

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The Major Oak: capturing the imagination for centuries

Oak trees loom large in English history.  From the sacred oak groves of pre-Roman Britons and the oak wands used by Druids to the oak tree that sheltered the future King Charles II as he escaped from the forces of Oliver Cromwell and the countless oaks used to construct England’s proud navies and merchant ships, this tree – perhaps more than any other – is seen as the national tree of England.  Many individual oaks up and down the country are revered and protected for their age, their size and shape or the stories attached to them.  The oak we’re looking at today is famous not just for its huge size and distinctive shape, but also for its link to that most famous of English legends, Robin Hood.

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Strawberry Hill: the eccentric house that inspired the Gothic Revival

Among the smart suburban homes of Twickenham is a very strange house.  Gleaming white walls, battlements, Gothic pinnacles and a round tower stand out against more restrained neighbours. Strawberry Hill House, home of the eccentric man of letters Horace Walpole during the second half of the 18th Century, is arguably the birthplace not only of the Gothic revival, but also of the Gothic novel.   I visited Strawberry Hill on a very gloomy Saturday afternoon, which didn’t really do the house’s bright white walls justice, but the house had only reopened a few weeks earlier after an extensive restoration and despite the grey weather the house was clean and jewel-bright – and quite possibly one of the oddest homes I’ve ever visited.

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The final resting place of the Bishops of London

I’ve lost count of the number of times I walked past this church and its burial ground before finally stopping to explore it.  All Saints, Fulham, is situated close to the River Thames, and is the twin to the more famous church on the other side of Putney Bridge – St Mary the Virgin, Putney.  St Mary’s was the home of the Putney Debates, a series of discussions amongst members of the Parliamentarian New Model Army, in 1647.  But All Saints also has an interesting history, and has a churchyard full of fascinating graves – including the tombs of many of the Bishops of London.

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Pye Corner: Flames, poltergeists and bodysnatchers

Pye Corner, the site where the Great Fire of London famously came to an end in 1666, has a long and grisly history of which the Great Fire is only one chapter.  Accounts of the Great Fire tell us that the Fire began at a bakery in Pudding Lane and ended three days later (having consumed 13,000 houses and 87 churches) at Pye Corner.  Christopher Wren’s towering Monument to the Great Fire of London is close to Pudding Lane, but where is Pye Corner?

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Rèilig Odhrain, the ancient cemetery on the edge of the world

Today, the tiny Scottish island of Iona is not the easiest of places to get to.  It’s a long drive across the Isle of Mull to Fionnphort from the main ferry link with the Scottish mainland at Craignure.  However, in the past Iona was the centre of Christianity in the region, as well as being a site of political significance.  Travelling by boat, it was easier to reach than its geographical isolation suggests.

I visited the island on a mild September day, after a long drive from the eastern coast of Mull.  The sea was clear and calm and made for a smooth passage on the short ferry trip from Fionnphort; later on a pod of dolphins could be seen in the Sound of Iona.  It is a peaceful place, with beaches of white sand and outcrops of pink granite.  Since the 7th Century it has been a place of pilgrimage, and it continues to welcome thousands of visitors every year.

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Skulls, astrologers and the sands of time: a Georgian graveyard in South West London

One of the best things about living in London is the great potential for discovering wonderful places completely by accident. In this instance, I was required to go to Mortlake to pick up a parcel from the sorting office that had been too big to fit through my letterbox.  Whilst walking up Mortlake High Street my eye was caught by some worn old gravestones peeping out through bushes and shrubs.

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Beautiful carved headstone in Bow

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This beautiful carved headstone caught my eye from across the road when I was walking along Bow Road in east London.  Bow Church – or to give it its proper name, St Mary and Holy Trinity, Stratford Bow – is today marooned on an island in the middle of a busy road and the churchyard is railed off.  There are a number of old tomb stones in the churchyard, which has been a designated public garden since 1894.  The church, founded as a chapel of ease in 1311, is the only surviving medieval building in Bow.

The headstone is quite worn and mossy so I was unable to read the inscription on it, but the carving depicts what appears to be an angel taking the hand of a dying person, who is being comforted by a woman.  I’ve never seen an image like it on a gravestone before – it’s beautiful and poignant.  The quality of the carving is very fine – the folds in the fabrics worn by the figures are realistic and a great deal of detail, such as the angel’s hand, still survives today.  Whoever commissioned the headstone must have paid a lot of money for it.

Considering the damage inflicted on Bow Church during the Second World War, this lovely old headstone is a stunning survivor.