At the heart of Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, standing close to the banks of the River Ribble and overlooking Pendle Hill, is the church of All Hallows, Great Mitton. Within its walls is a remarkable collection of effigy graves, dating from the 16th to early 18th Centuries, all commemorating members of a local family whose fates were intertwined with some of the major political and religious upheavals of those centuries. Their elaborate graves also reflect the changing fashions both in clothing and in funerary architecture from the Tudor period through to the Stuart and early Georgian periods.
Although the Northumberland village of Bamburgh is dominated by the fortress that has stood on its cliffs since the 7th Century, one figure who looms large in the area’s history is not a king or a warrior, but an ordinary woman whose act of bravery in 1838 made her internationally famous. Grace Horsley Darling’s role in the rescue of sailors from the wrecked vessel Forfarshire in September 1838 was widely covered by the media both in Britain and further afield, and led to an outpouring of donations, gifts and even offers of marriage. The veneration of Grace Darling was not unlike the cults that grew up around many medieval saints, with souvenirs featuring her likeness being sold, items belonging to her and her family put on display or up for sale, and songs and poems being written about Grace and her deeds. Despite her untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 26, Grace remained a well-known figure, celebrated for her bravery and her Christian values. The fame of Grace Darling provides a fascinating insight into the way that the 19th Century media helped to create modern-day heroes, and how Grace’s character reflected the period’s idea of the virtuous woman.
The fenland town of King’s Lynn has a long history, and unsurprisingly a few dark tales have been remembered and passed on through generations of townspeople over the years. Once a thriving port and a member of the prestigious medieval Hanseatic League, King’s Lynn (known as Lynn to locals) retains many of its historic buildings. One such building, an unassuming 17th Century cottage huddled close to the churchyard of St Nicholas’ chapel, is known as the “Exorcist’s house.”
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.
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.
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.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m especially interested in particularly old and unusual graves, and the subject of today’s post definitely falls into that category. On the windswept Lancashire coast, six graves carved into solid rock have survived for over 1,000 years, remarkable survivors at an ancient site where it is thought that pilgrims came to venerate St Patrick in the Anglo-Saxon period. These are the rock-cut tombs of Heysham, some of the finest relics of early Christianity to be found in the north west of England.
St Mary’s Church in Beverley, East Yorkshire, would probably be more well-known were it not for the famous and imposing Gothic Minster that also graces the town. Even when compared to that grand building – which houses the shrine of St John of Beverley – St Mary’s Church is still impressive: it is one of the largest parish churches in Britain, a Grade I listed building, and has been in existence since the 12th Century, although the main fabric of the church dates from later than that. It is a truly beautiful example of medieval Gothic architecture. It was while exploring the church’s beautiful exterior, taking in the many carvings and details in the stonework, that I came across an intriguing memorial.
As a native of Lancashire, I always return to my hometown of Preston to visit my family at Christmas, and one bright Sunday morning I visited the nearby village of Ribchester, probably best known as an old Roman fort. I often visited this place as a child, as there was (and still is) an excellent children’s playground there. We would also inevitably visit the ruins of the Roman bath house, which were not fenced off and to a small child presented an exciting labyrinth of tumbled stones and low walls to clamber over. In Roman times, Ribchester was called Bremetenacum Veteranorum – a possible translation of this is “the hilltop settlement of the veterans.” Some ruins of the fort, including the bath house and granaries, can still be seen today, and many buildings in the village are built with reused Roman stones and columns.