14th Century · 21st Century · Spitalfields

A medieval charnel house below the streets of Spitalfields

Today, Spitalfields often feels like something of a battleground between the area’s rich and varied heritage and the seemingly unstoppable march of gentrification and redevelopment.  Located on the north-eastern edge of the City of London, in recent decades it has been transformed from a mostly working-class district that was home to textile producers and a large fruit and vegetable market to a hub for high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants.  It was the construction of a new office block in 1999 that led to the rediscovery of a medieval charnel house – the oldest building in Spitalfields – which had lain undiscovered for around 300 years.  Fortunately, the discovery generated enough interest that the office developers chose to incorporate the building’s remains into the new development, and today a glass panel allows the charnel house to be viewed from street level, while a flight of stairs leads down to the ruins themselves, which can be seen behind glass.  This little building gives the visitor a rare glimpse into medieval Spitalfields which was home not to market buildings or office blocks but to a hospital and an extensive burial ground.

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19th Century · Pinner

A very strange grave in a suburban churchyard: Pinner’s ‘floating coffin’

One of the joys of graveyard exploration is the discovery of unusual graves and memorials – those with eccentric designs or strange stories attached to them.  The imposing monument we’re looking at today, which towers above its neighbours in a pretty churchyard in the suburb of Pinner, definitely ranks as one of the strangest in Greater London – both for its design, and for the stories told about it.

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18th Century · Edinburgh

Memento Mori: symbols of death in St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh

If you follow a flight of steps down from Edinburgh’s busy Princes Street you’ll find a church, largely hidden by trees and surrounded by an extensive burial ground.  This is St Cuthbert’s Kirk, a site with a history going back many centuries.  The kirkyard at St Cuthbert’s is home to some exceptional examples of funerary architecture, imposing memorials and beautifully-carved headstones that give the visitor an insight both into the way Edinburgh’s residents of the past viewed and commemorated death, and the exceptional skill of the people who designed and crafted the memorials.

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13th Century · 16th Century · 17th Century · 18th Century · Great Mitton

Knights, Jacobites and a rebellious duchess: the effigies of All Hallows, Great Mitton

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.

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19th Century · 20th Century · West Norwood

West Norwood: the first Gothic Revival cemetery

West Norwood, which opened as the South Metropolitan Cemetery in 1837, is one of London’s most spectacular cemeteries, its grand tombs and monuments laid out along landscaped paths and mature trees.  Of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries that opened on London’s outskirts in the early Victorian period, West Norwood was arguably the most sought-after of them all as a burial place, with its beautiful location on a south London hillside.  The wealth of many of those interred there is reflected by the beautiful memorials raised in their memory.

Mausoleum of Alexander Berens, a wealthy linen draper and seller of luxury goods

We’ve already visited the Greek Orthodox enclave within West Norwood, but now it’s time to explore the rest of the cemetery and the plethora of historic and interesting graves that can be found there. Continue reading “West Norwood: the first Gothic Revival cemetery”

19th Century · Bamburgh · Farne Islands

Remembering Grace Darling: heroine and Victorian media sensation

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.

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19th Century · Chiswick

Two artists and their beautiful tomb in a Chiswick churchyard

Chiswick Old Burial Ground is a large extension to the old churchyard at St Nicholas, Chiswick, close to the River Thames in west London.  The Georgian graves clustered closest to the church (including the grand tomb of the artist William Hogarth) give way to Victorian and more modest headstones, filling a site that’s just under 7 acres in size.  Unlike some of London’s larger Victorian cemeteries, most of the memorials here are fairly modest in scale and ornamentation, made from stone or occasionally marble.  But one incongrous memorial catches the eye, despite being tucked away near the cemetery’s northern boundary wall: a striking copper tomb turned green by the passing of the years, which marks the burial place of two artists.

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