Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death by drinking cold small beer
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye're hot drink strong or not at all
'In front of Winchester Cathedral is a lawn with a sparse scattering of old gravestones across it. One in particular catches your attention - it stands up the straightest and gleams the whitest. The writing upon it is actually visible. You suspect that this is a more recent gravestone than the others, which lean at precarious angles and appear neglected and unreadable. You walk towards it, to discover the date on it, and this is how you learn that you've come across something special.
The date is 1764, so it's not a new grave at all. There is a story written upon the stone. It's a morality tale. The central character is Thomas Thetcher, an unfortunate 26 year old soldier who, it turns out, has died from a fever that came about when he drank 'small beer when hot'. And you wonder - what is small beer? What was hot? The beer or the day? The stone carries on to present a short poem about the follies of drinking anything other than strong alcohol on hot days (so that clears those questions up somewhat) and then details the various times the stone has been restored - a total of 3, with the most recent being in 1966. No wonder it looks better than it's neighbours, who lie anonymous and forgotten.
Google does not say much about Thomas Thetcher. When I come across something that seems interesting, the first thing I do is Google it. In this case, it turns out that the tombstone is pretty well known but the man was not. Bill W, author of Alcoholics Anonymous (1938) recounted his discovery of the stone in the book that motivated the modern AA movement. So, the story is inspiring, but who knows what actually happened? 'Small beer' is a name for weak beer, which was popular in medieval times. Could it be that he drank hot beer that had become contaminated by bacteria, which the alcohol content was not sufficient to kill? I can't help but wonder if Thomas Thetcher would have been okay had he opted for gin that day instead.
I checked out the hashtag #thomasthetcher on Instagram, to see if anyone else had noticed this most unusual gravestone. They had. My results list showed a handful of photos of people posing with the gravestone at different times of the day, during different seasons. One photo even utilised the hashtag #12steps, maybe to show that they had made a pilgrimage to the stone, in order to draw inspiration for their own personal journey. It seems that Thomas Thetcher is a bit of a legend, even if we know nothing else about him other than that he met his downfall by drinking a really inadequate beverage.
All photos Copyright Christina Owen 2016.
An unexpected find in a mysterious and rural location
Driving along a silent road through the woods on the south shore of Loch Ness, I screeched the car to a halt - here was a graveyard, sitting silent next to the Loch in the half dark. I've been in a lot of grave yards and this one appeared particularly spooky. But I went in to look around anyway. I didn't know anything about this grave yard but, certain that it would have a story, I took photos. The light soon failed and I left, to drive back to the bright lights and comfort of my hotel up the road at Foyers. But I went back the next morning to watch the sun shining over the Loch, and this graveyard sitting quietly by, holding onto it's secrets as the Loch would silently hold onto it's myths of monsters.
It turns out of course that the Boleskine Burial Ground DOES have a story. As I knew it would. Usually, what I would do upon finding something like this would be to use my phone to Google it, to see what's going on. Unfortunately, my phone service out there in the middle of nowhere was zero. I reluctantly left, knowing that there was bound to be something awesome that I was missing.
This is what I missed:- sitting somewhere up on the hill above the graveyard and presumably on the other side of the road is Boleskine House, an old house, built in 1760, shrouded in mystery and odd goings on. It was owned by a magician during the 19th century and until recently by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. There was also a church near the graveyard, which was medieval and disappeared a long time ago. The only thing remaining to mark it's location is a mort house, which I didn't see.
The gravestones in the cemetery, as one might imagine, are very old, mostly covered in moss, and some are completely unreadable. The dates on them range from A Long Time Ago to A Very Long Time Ago, with some more recent ones thrown in for good measure. The oddest thing about this graveyard was a grave showing something I have never before seen in a cemetery - a grave bearing people's names and dates of birth, but not their date of death. Meaning, presumably, that the grave is ready for them when they do choose to depart this life. Usually if somebody had a family plot, there would be space left on the stone for them but their name would not be added until they actually died. This was new to me and demonstrated a level of preparedness that was rather impressive. I took a photo of it but don't feel quite comfortable about posting it. I guess seeing the names of people who appear to be still alive on a gravestone isn't quite right somehow.
Having said that, I do like the idea of being able to view my name on a gravestone before I need to use it, just to be sure it looks nice.
There are legends about the graveyard. Supposedly there is a tunnel that links Boleskine House to the graveyard. The story goes that the graveyard is also a hangout for witches. But these sorts of stories and superstitions exist about burial sites all over Scotland so who knows? There is something very Macbeth about Boleskine and Loch Ness though, and standing in the graveyard in the half dark, overlooking the most mysterious Loch in all of Scotland, I could well believe it - and half expected to see a coven of witches loom out of the darkness!
The next morning, when the sky was clear and the sun was up, I felt much less creeped out to be walking around the small space taking everything in. Many of the stones bore the same set of surnames - there were maybe 2 or 3 traditional Scottish names that cropped up often. It does follow that this being a very rural area, many generations and offshoots of the same family would end up here.
The magician who owned Boleskine was Aleister Crowley, a famous occultist who moved to the area in 1900, aged 25. He took up the house hoping to have a quiet place to practice cultish stuff - it is said that he did numerous things whilst at Boleskine, including summoning the devil and holding the black mass. Fun stuff. He was described by a fellow cult member as 'an unspeakably mad person' so I think we can be fairly certain that he wasn't the best neighbour to have. Luckily, living out there in the wilderness meant that he could get up to his strange deeds undisturbed, although he admitted to sending housemaids fleeing and workmen insane through conjuring various spirits and demons.
As I wrote the above, I found myself wondering aloud why Jimmy Page would want to buy a property which such a haunting past. My boyfriend Dan, who is a walking music trivia encyclopaedia, overheard and said 'well, Jimmy Page was into the occult, wasn't he?' Yes he was. A fan of Aleister Crowley, he bought Boleskine House in 1970.
As for the graveyard, nowadays it's managed by the Highland Council and cared for by the South Loch Ness Heritage Group, who have been busy tidying it up and mapping it to record all the known graves, as these records just don't exist.
I knew someone had recently been there, looking after the pretty little burial ground as it was full of freshly cut grass clumps, most of which came home with me on my shoes! But standing here in this clearing in the middle of nowhere, next to the silent waters of the largest body of fresh water in the UK, it was easy to imagine that I was the only one who had ever, ever stumbled upon this mysterious site.
All photographs © Christina Owen 2016.
A visit to a hidden Dead Space in South London
This was my thought process: I have wanted to go to Crossbones for years and now here is my chance. It's a very sunny day and I hear there's a garden there now, as well as the gate full of ribbons. I'm not really sure why the gate full of ribbons is there - I think it has something to do with remembering outcasts and paupers and every forgotten person, and so I resolve to look it up - but for now I will just go there and see what there is to see. This is how every cemetery/dead space visit begins. I am not always completely sure exactly what I am going to find, but a combination of curiosity and research will see me through.
I look it up on Google Maps because I am sure I will get lost. I end up walking through the grounds of Guy's Hospital - I stop at Sainsbury's Local with all the doctors and nurses in multicoloured scrubs to get lunch. The Guy's site is all gleaming and shiny because bits of it have recently been done up. Everything here is modern. I keep walking and turn the corner into a neighbourhood pock-marked with poverty - grubby council estates that do not go with the image of SE1 that Southwark Council would probably like you to see. Then I think I am lost, so I get out my phone again but then I see a skull and crossbones on a wall, and a covered wooden walkway that leads into...where? It looks green and spacious. I walk inside and ask if it is free, and the volunteers say it is, and I emerge into greenery and take a seat under a tree. And now I am here - this is Crossbones - this is where thousands of whores and paupers are buried, right under my feet, right now. But there are no gravestones here.
Crossbones closed as a burial ground in 1853. Things were moving on and times were changing - overcrowded inner city burial grounds had been foregone in favour of lavish garden cemeteries outside of the city centre and here, in this part of London once known as 'The Mint', with the poorest and most deprived slums right on the doorstep of this burial ground, around 15,000 people had been 'laid to rest'. Burials on top of burials, over decades upon decades and centuries upon centuries. It's unknown exactly when Crossbones was established, but there are records showing that it was acquired as a burial site around 1769. A dig in the 1990's uncovered this very thing - people buried on top of people buried on top of people. Complete chaos. Women and children and babies and foetuses. Once the graveyard closed, the land was apparently sold off as a building site and right from that time there were protests to keep it from being built on. The land was unconsecrated then and it's unconsecrated now. Meaning that there's nothing stopped it from being sold on and used for the next thing. Except for the people that keep on protesting, century after century. Right now, the garden exists. But it's in the last year of it's 3 year lease, and the land is owned by Transport for London. Who knows what will happen to it next?
Imagine being poor and living in the 19th Century, and knowing that when you died, you couldn't afford a private burial and so would be thrown in an unmarked, common grave, like the one at Crossbones. Knowing you would be forgotten and one day you might be built on, and your remains, instead of being marked with a nice cross and allowed to rest in peace and silence away from the noise and bustle of the city, would play host to a modern block of flats that will be rented out to young professionals who have no idea what this land was once used for. Or that a train line might run through here, in which case you'll probably be disturbed and dug up. This actually happened in the early 1990's, when the eastern part of the site was dug up to make way for the Jubilee Line.
I am now standing in this beautiful garden, trying to imagine the people buried under my feet, and I can't, because it is so bright and sunny, and there are living humans having their lunch in relative peace and harmony. It doesn't SEEM like a cemetery here. It doesn't feel like one. It feels ALIVE. But then, don't all cemeteries feel alive? It's part of what I love about them. And this garden has been put here so that we might Remember, whilst having a green space that promotes community. It has trees and flowers and bees and a little pond, and it also has placards and wall art, explaining via poetry and song the story of Crossbones, the story of what came before this garden. So that you can learn and relax, remember and look forward, all at once. This garden is a Good Thing. It should stay.
I am bewildered, so I ask one of the volunteers about the land. The lady I speak to is obviously passionate about the cause. 'Why can't they just consecrate the land?' I ask her. 'There are too many politics' she tells me. Apparently, even today, nobody will do it. 'Consecrate' means to 'make sacred' and it's what a priest or bishop does to a piece of land where burials have or are due to take place - so that the land will be holy and protected. If this land could be consecrated - and it should be - then nobody could build on it. It seems so easy. Maybe it is - but this is a prime spot. The empty plot next door has just been given the nod by the new major of London for flats. Will this plot be next?
All of London is a graveyard. People are buried everywhere and every time a new rail tunnel is dug, more bodies fall out and into the new tunnels and it becomes more and more apparent that at one time or another, there was no stone in London unturned. In a city where the death rate often outstripped the birth rate, all those people had to be laid to rest SOMEWHERE. But THIS place has a huge following. The volunteer tells me about a woman who comes here every day to sit and drink gin, and where she has finished the bottle she leaves it as an offering. There are vigils at the gates on the 23rd of every month. Every Halloween, a procession takes place and people light candles and remember the outcasts buried here. The story of Crossbones resonates with people. After all, so many of us can relate to the idea of being an 'outcast'. Most of us have been outcast from something at some point in our lives. So many of us know what it's like not to fit in.
After I have walked around and around the garden, trying to soak in how it feels to be here, and after I have sat in peace under the tree for half an hour to read my book, I walk out and go round the corner to the gates. Before the garden was here, the gates were here. They are covered in a spontaneous shrine - thousands of ribbons and messages and trinkets tied to the gates - all left here for the 'outcast dead'. And here is all the evidence you need that people relate to the idea of being outcasts. People have tied photographs of their friends and family members who have died. Some had committed suicide. Others have written messages for the living. Someone has left a photo of their cat.
This graveyard has obviously captured the imaginations of so many. It deserves to be left alone doesn't it? But this is a city that once again, is overcrowded. Nothing is apparently sacred anymore. City-wide, local authorities are beginning to suggest that their cemeteries are opened up to new burials even though they are full. Let's open up the graves and put more bodies in there. Let's pile them on top of one another. Let's not waste an ounce of space. Really, nothing has changed since the middle ages. And so Crossbones probably won't survive. So go now, while you can. And when you go, leave a message in the visitors books so that the volunteers have prove that the garden is used and loved, that it is important, that it should stay. It's open 12-3pm, Monday to Saturday.
Click the links throughout this post to learn more about Crossbones and the history of the area.
All photographs © Christina Owen 2016.
The correct word for a cemetery enthusiast is a 'taphophile' and I used to think I was the only one. Now I know that there are others out there who find cemeteries to be peaceful and fascinating places. This section of the blog is called 'The Cemetery Diaries' and it covers traditional cemeteries as well as dead spaces of all kinds, which are found everywhere, all the time. The past is never too far away, and these dead spaces are often more alive than you'd think. Check back here for a record of all things Cemetery and my adventures in finding life and blazing colour in the most unlikely of places.