Ah, the perils of searching for symbols in old churchyards. I had to almost lie horizontally on the ground to take a photo of this one in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Pluckley, Kent. I was a little nervous that the headstone would fall on top of me but what a headline that would have made!
At the time I had no idea what it represented and just thought it looked interesting. In fact it wasn’t until much later when I’d had a chance to look at it properly that I realised the identity of the figure in the carving. I then wished that I’d also taken a photo of the epitaph.
It is in fact a depiction of Old Father Time. It’s a lovely example. As you can see he’s sitting with one hand holding a fearsome looking scythe with a bent and gnarled stem and the elbow of his other hand is resting on an hourglass. He is a very old man with a white beard, large angel wings on his back and is flanked on either side by two angel heads. What better symbol for a life that had ended?
So far I have only discovered a few other examples. There is a 17th century version on a tombstone in a Hendon churchyard and a huge, modern one again resting on an hourglass within Warzaw’s Powarzski cemetery. I can’t show them in this blog as one is on a stock images library and so not royalty free and I am awaiting permission to use the other image. However I found this one on Wikipedia but its location is not given.
We traditionally associate Old Father Time with the New Year celebrations. He is the representation of the outgoing Old Year welcoming in the New Year which is usually portrayed as a smiling baby. But Father Time has also been described as a gentler version of the Grim Reaper as they share the same accoutrements of a scythe and hourglass.
He is considered to be the personification of age and is related to the ancient Greek god Chronos and also the Roman god Saturn. Father Time’s ageing, worn out body is a reminder that time ultimately devours all things and that none can escape. The grains of sand in the hourglass count out not only his life but all lives. Although he has a long, white beard, a sign of age, it has been interpreted as a reclamation of purity and innocence. But, as the hourglass can be inverted, so can a new generation, the New Year, restore the source of physical vitality. However, time is not always destructive as it can also offer serenity and wisdom.
Cronos, from which chronology derives, was the ancient Greeks word for Time and the Romans knew him as Saturn. According to Wikipedia:
‘The ancient Greeks themselves began to confuse chronos, their word for time, with the agricultural god, Cronus, who had the attribute of a harvester’s sickle. The Romans equated Cronos with Saturn, who also had a sickle and was treated as an old man, often with a crutch. The wings and hourglass were early Renaissance additions.’
The Roman Chronos was originally an Italian corn god known as the Sower and a big festival known as the Saturnalia was held to celebrate the harvest. So there is a link between these ancient gods and Father Time in that they both symbolically harvest, or cut down the mature crops, to make way for the Spring’s new growth.
Father Time appears throughout many cultures and also in art, books and sculpture amongst others. In one of Hogarth’s later work, The Bathos, he appears lying down surrounded by his familiar objects, all now broken.
But in St Nicholas’ churchyard Old Father Time keeps an eternal watch over a life that has ended, resting on a still crisply carved hourglass. It is full, the scythe has harvested and so the endless cycle of life continues.
As I walked along the path to the church’s door I spotted the little angel, maybe a Christmas decoration, maybe a holiday souvenir, perched on top of a tombstone within the churchyard. Was she a warning? But I was nervous and excited at the same time. What awaited me inside? I put my hand on the church door. Would the Red Lady or the White Lady be ready to welcome me…….or would it be both of them? At last I could put it off no longer, pulled open the door and entered.
OK, I admit it. A friend dared me to visit the village of Pluckley which is in Kent and reputed to be haunted by up to 14 ghosts. ‘When will you ‘pluckley’ up the courage to visit?’ the wag quipped. So I accepted the challenge and set off on Easter Saturday.
However, Guinness World Records has stood down Pluckley’s claim to fame as the most haunted village in the UK. This is a shame as I always had visions of a solemn official from GWR turning up with a clipboard and pen to studiously record and tick off each phantom at their appointed location as if they appear to a timetable. Some of the purported ghosts include:
The spectre of the highwayman hid in a tree at the Pinnock
A phantom coach and horses has been seen in several locations around the village
The ghost of a Gypsy woman who drowned in a stream at the Pinnock
The sighting of the miller seen at Mill Hill
The hanging body of a schoolmaster in Dicky Buss’s Lane
A colonel who hanged himself in Park Wood
A man smothered by a wall of clay who drowned at the brickworks
The Lady of Rose Court, who is said to have poisoned herself in despair over a love triangle
St Nicholas church in the centre of the village is reputed to be haunted by two female ghosts: The White Lady and the Red Lady. The latter was supposed to be a great beauty who died 500 years ago and was preserved by her husband in a series of lead coffins and then ultimately in an oak chest. The Red Lady was supposedly a member of the local landowning family, the Derings, and is a sad wraith. She is said to haunt the churchyard searching for the unmarked grave of her still born son.
There had been a recent piece in the Fortean Times ‘It happened to me’ section from a visitor to the church who claimed that he’d found a hostile atmosphere and heard sibilant whispering. A blogger online discovered that none of her photos of the church or churchyard had been recorded by her camera. ‘The church is eerie’ said one friend who had visited it and another commented that the whole village had ‘an atmosphere’. ‘Oo-er!’ I thought, ’would there be an entire company of ghosts awaiting my arrival?’
It was a gloriously sunny, warm day as I walked the mile or so from the station up to the village. Fields of bright yellow rape were almost luminous. I saw my first Peacock butterfly of 2019 as it obligingly posed on a dandelion head and the local sheep bleated in welcome. Or perhaps it was a warning…
Then I encountered my first ghost hunters of the day as a car stopped with an eager looking family inside. The driver asked for directions to the church. I pointed in its direction and they drove off. Later I saw them driving out of the village again looking somewhat disappointed. As I said earlier ghosts don’t appear to order.
In fact Pluckley was teeming with small groups of ghost hunters walking up and down the High Street or briefly visiting St Nicholas looking hopeful. Some drove off quickly as obviously they had been unable to find a spectre with which to pose for a selfie. The village’s other claim to fame is that it was used as the backdrop to ITV’s The Darling Buds of May and I could see why. It’s just ‘perfick.’
St Nicholas was easy to find and it’s a real picture postcard church with a candle snuffer spire. It features on the village sign.
There may have been a church on the site since Saxon times and Pluckley is recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Pluchelei’. In the 13th century there was a stone church in place and there have been many alterations and repairs right up to the present day. The Derings have their own side chapel and there are brasses set into the floor that record various family members.
They lived at the grand house of Surrenden Dering from the 1500’s until 1928. The house was demolished in 1957 after a fire and part of some of its wood after the fire was used to create the oak cover for the font.
Inside, the church was bustling but not with eager spectres anticipating my arrival. Instead it was a group of flower arrangers placing elaborate arrangements around the church. I should have guessed that the church would be busy over the Easter weekend as the female organist began to practice. The interior of St Nicholas is small and plain with the Dering Chapel on one side. But no ghosts unless they were masquerading as the helpers, or hiding in one of their pockets. Another ghost hunting family popped their heads in and then quietly closed the door.
But no, I didn’t feel anything at all other-worldly
I decided to explore the churchyard which had a fine collection of 19th century headstones and some precariously leaning older ones. They were weighed down by moss and age and any inscriptions or symbols are now lost unless recorded elsewhere. I had to photograph one interesting symbol almost lying down on the grass as the headstone was almost horizontal.
On the other side of the churchyard was an apple orchard, just beginning to blossom, and attracting butterflies and enthusiastic bees. A small rug of multi-coloured primroses were beside a grave with a beehive on the headstone. ‘The local beekeeper?’ I thought and in a corner of the churchyard was a small plot bordered by iron railings on which there was a fulsome epitaph.
After buying postcards in the local shop to prove that I had actually been there and stoutly resisting the temptation to have a cold lager shandy in the Black Horse I retraced my steps to the station.
So is Pluckley the most haunted village in Britain? Does anything or anyone lie in wait in St Nicholas Church? Were the flower arrangers or one of their number ghosts?
The jury’s still out on whether Pluckley deserves its title but on another day in another season, perhaps when St Nicholas is not so busy, it could all be so different. Maybe if I visited during the dark season on a chill autumnal day with perhaps with the chilly fingers of mist wreathing the trees… A forgotten scarecrow blown by a wind that makes it creak and turn towards me in an empty field and the marauding groups of spook seekers are all at home watching their Most Haunted Live DVDs. This time when I enter St Nicholas it’s changed.
The shadows are longer, it feels claustrophobic and I know, by the prickling of my spine that I’m not alone…… I can only hope that this is my chance at last to meet the wonderful people in the dark..
You never know what little gems you might find in a country churchyard and I discovered one while exploring in Staplehurst. All Saints has a commanding hilltop position and looks down on pretty half-timbered houses. Since 1100 it has stood on this site and has several ancient features such as the remain s of an anchorite’s cell..
The churchyard was far larger than I expected and led to a more modern section at the back of the church. But as I explored the older part of the churchyard I turned around and came face to face with this unusual symbol on a white headstone.
It’s dedicated to Alice Stone, wife of James Stone of Sheerness. There is no date of birth recorded but she died on 5 February 1787 aged 27. Alice may have died in childbirth which was a frequent cause of death for women in past eras or maybe she was a victim of an epidemic. We’ll never know. However, there is some barely legible lettering above the inscription which I have been unable to sufficiently enhance in order to read it so this may well warrant a second visit.
The scene at the top of the tombstone is almost like a miniature Doom painting. My interpretation of it is that it’s Judgement Day and the deceased has awoken from their eternal slumber. They appear to be in a burial chamber and lying on a ledge or on a shelf within a vault. They have partly cast off their burial clothes and appear to be slightly decayed. Ribs are visible and the head appears skull-like.
But where are they destined to go next? What will be their fate?
There’s only the choice of two final destinations for them – Heaven or Hell which are depicted on either side of the figure.
On the right hand side is a magnificently winged demon, or The Devil himself, standing over a grinning skeleton whose crown has fallen from his head. The crown is a very significant symbol in that it can indicate the passage from the earthly life into the divine and I have written it about in a previous Symbol of the Month. The demonic figure appears to be holding what looks like a besom or maybe it is a three pronged fork or even a large arrow. Although there are no flames, here the Devil is triumphant in his domain.
On the left-hand side, an angel appears to be floating within clouds while blowing a large trumpet in the direction of the newly awoken deceased. Underneath the angel is a brick house with an entrance or a small narrow gateway (I have to say the entrance does resemble a fireplace). I interpret this as being a depiction of God’s House and there are numerous references to it within the Bible such as Matthew 7:13-15:
‘Enter through the narrow gate,
For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,
And many enter through it’
And also in Genesis 28: 16-17:
‘When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought,
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
It was difficult to find a specific Biblical verse that mentioned the Devil and Hell but I did find a reference in Matthew 10:28 :
‘And fear not them which kill the body,
But are not able to kill the soul:
But rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’
(King James Version)
I am not a particularly religious person but the parishioners of All Saints at the time would have recognised the quotations.
The scene would have been a prompt to the passing viewer or mourner to live their lives in a righteous manner or face the alternative for eternity. It’s very dramatic and, as Alice died at an early age, this reminder would have very pertinent at a time when the average life expectancy was far lower.
So far I have not been able to find out more about Alice or James but for now she rests within part of the quintessential English country churchyard. She’s amongst ancient stones, some protected or obscured by mosses and lichens, and the bright wildflowers of late Spring. However, I would like to know more about her and what may have inspired the little scene on her headstone.
On my previous spring saunters I’ve wandered through two of London’s large, sprawling cemeteries; Kensal Green and West Norwood but this year I thought I’d stay nearer to home. St Nicholas is my local church and within walking distance of my home. It’s in a prominent position in the town as it’s at the top of the hill and opposite the entrance to Knole Park, another local landmark. One of its most famous Rectors was the preacher and poet, John Donne, who was in post from 1616 until 1631 and is commemorated with a metal plate on the pavement outside. Every time I visit its churchyard I find something new and at a time when Nature is beginning to awaken again what better excuse did I need?
The present building’s shape dates from the 13th century and in fact the present nave dates from 1270. It replaces an earlier church. The north aisle was added in 1320 and the chancel south aisle and tower around 1450. There have been many later alterations but the basic 15th century structure and style remains. In 1995 excavations took place to create more meeting rooms in what may have been the crypt. The interior of the church has some monuments dedicated to prominent local families.
But it’s the churchyard that fascinated me. Intertwined with plain Victorian headstones are some wonderful examples of 18th century tombstones adorned with memento mori. A couple are naively executed but others are finely carved with the wonderful 18th century calligraphy accompanying them.
The Spring sunlight illuminated the thick patches of moss and lichens that had carefully draped itself over the monuments and memorials. It made the subtle hues and shades really stand out; the combination of green and gold or browns seemed to gleam amongst more subtle hints.
Some of the lichens looked as if someone had taken a paintbrush loaded with colour and then dabbed it onto the stones. Moss has the effect of softening the edges of stones and letters and, where it replaces letters completely, gives a more organic feel to the epitaph.
A spreading horse chestnut tree was laden with sticky buds already beginning to burst into leaf. ‘How many years has it stood near the church door marking the seasons and years?’ I thought.
A chaffinch called loudly for its mate from the closed part of the churchyard. I had explored this in October and seen its large carpet of prickly sweet chestnuts as a fox had turned tail and run back to where it had come from. There has been a piece of bone abandoned on top of a flat headstone and I hoped that the fox had brought it in from a nearby butchers rubbish bin…….now alas this part of the churchyard is closed due to Health and Safety as it’s so overgrown. On this visit I disturbed a fluffy ginger and white cat who soon fled in the same direction as the fox.
Three large patches of snowdrops clustered protectively around the base of a tree, their pristine heads nodding in the breeze as if deep in conversation. Primroses had begun to stud the grass and I saw my first ever cowslip amid headstones.
The tiny bright blue flowers of Speedwell blossomed beside a small tombstone and a red-tailed bee, one of the first signs of Spring, buzzed along the top of the grass. Dog violets, a much underrated flowers in my opinion, frothed plentifully beside the iron entrance gate.
Nearby, was not so much a carpet of Spring flowers, but more of a small rug of them. More Primroses, the bright yellow of Lesser Celandine, another harbinger of Spring, and more dog violets all combined to make a wonderful collection of green, yellow and purple.
There are some remarkable epitaphs in St Nicholas churchyard and this one which has now been incorporated into the fabric of the church caught my attention.
The epitaph reads:
To the Memory
of John Braithwaite Chief Coachman
to his Grace Lionel Duke of Dorset
He died by an unfortunate fall from
Ye coach near Riverhead in this parish.
His loss was greatly lamented
and by none more than
by his Lord and Master
to whom he was a most just and faithful servant
This sad accident happened
on the first day of July in
the year of our Lord 1723
With the Caring for God’s Acre project which is linked with the bio diversity recording site, irecord, biodiversity within cemeteries is being examined more closely. They are real havens for wildlife especially in big cities as they are an invaluable green space that’s accessible to everyone. I’ve always enjoyed exploring cemeteries partly for this reason whether it be standing waist high in wild flowers on a hot July day in the meadow at Kensal Green cemetery or counting butterflies along the side paths leading to the Courtoy Mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery.
Sadly the Spring sunshine was replaced by April showers but Mother Nature ignored this and kept bursting forth regardless. I’m already looking forward to my summer saunter within St Nicholas.
I have always loved the magnificent Lily Cross in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham as it’s such a bold and well carved one. It’s also one of the largest memorials with the churchyard and is dedicated to a prominent local family, the Goodharts. There is a poignant epitaph as well.
The Lily Cross is in the form of a Celtic Cross with the four arms of the Cross each ending in a lily flower.
Lilies have always had a special and long significance with death. In the 19th century their pungent, heady aroma was purportedly used to disguise the smell of the recently deceased’s body when it was the custom to have them rest at home prior to the funeral. But the lily has also been seen as a representation of the soul’s return to innocence after death.
This is because of the lily’s strong associations with purity and innocence and with its colour of pure white it’s especially linked with the Virgin Mary. Hence its other name the Madonna Lily. In Christian Art, the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are often depicted as holding a lily.
But there are other variants on the Lily Cross and these are:
The Flore Cross
The Patonce Cross
The Fleur de Lys Cross
These are more stylised versions of the Lily Cross. In the Flore or Fleury Cross the arms end in a representation of flower petals and usually a lily. They often have three points at the end of each arm which represent three petals which is the version that I have usually seen without realising it. A variation may be two points or horns or crowns but I haven’t seen this variation yet.
The Patonce Cross is any form of cross which has expanded end in which each arm ends in floriated points like the Flore or Fleury Crosses. In heraldry, the three petals represent faith, wisdom and chivalry and the four arms of the cross spread these to the four corners of the world. As a Christian Cross, the three petals represent the Trinity and the total of twelve petals symbolise the Apostles.
According to seiyaku.com, it’s claimed that the term Patonce is derived from the French word for the paw of an ounce or Snow Leopard. However it looks nothing like the paw print of a leopard but has been interpreted as the French being whimsical or romantic.
The Fleur-de-Lys Cross has similarities to both the Fleurie and Patonce Crosses in that it has liliform ends to the arms of the cross as they do. But these represent barbed fighting spears which are used in French heraldry. The entire cross is a very stylised lily that has heraldic associations especially in France where it was traditionally connected with royalty. When Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne as Emperor he was reputed to have presented him with a blue banner emblazoned with a golden fleur de lys. However, after the French Revolution the fleur de lys was less obviously associated with royalty. Edward II is said to have used it in his coat of arms to emphasise his claim to the French throne. Iwww.senyaku.com it’s claimed that this cross has been adopted by modern sub cultures such as the Goth movement who know it as the Gothic cross and New Agers who call it the Lotus Cross.
But a brief word on the cross as symbol. It wasn’t always the primary emblem of Christianity and in fact, it wasn’t adopted until after the 2nd century. Prior to this it was the fish symbol, the ichthys, that was used by early Christians to identify fellow believers and often appears carved or written on their tombs.
In Christianity, the cross represents the Crucifixion and is a sign of Christ and faith.
But the cross also appears throughout many cultures and civilisations in several forms. The cross of Horus, or the ankh, was used by the ancient Egyptians and, as it was often held in the hand of a god or powerful person, it’s a symbol of power.
The swastika was another ancient form of the cross. But is now unfortunately associated with death and destruction due to its adoption by the Nazis. But originally it was seen as a sign of good fortune and came from the East as these two examples show:
However, even for Christians, there were uncomfortable connotations to the cross. For centuries, it had been used as a method of punishment, not only for early Christians, but also for wrongdoers such as criminals. However, its adoption as the central symbol of the Christian symbol is attributed to a dream of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in AD 320. In this he decided to abandon the Roman pagan gods and pray to the Christian god. According to Douglas Keister:
‘During a midnight prayer Constantine gazed towards the heavens and saw a group of star that looked like a huge, glowing luminous cross. After he fell asleep, Constantine had a dream in which he saw Christ holding the same symbol and instructing Constantine to affix it to his standards. He defeated Maxentius. As a result he had the emblem applied to all of his standards and emblems’
When I began researching this post, even I had no idea of how many variants there were on the Lily Cross or, indeed, on crosses in general. It makes a stroll through a churchyard or cemetery even more intriguing now that I can spot the subtle differences between the various types. Although I have often seen lilies carved on headstones and memorials I have yet to see one as lovely as the St George’s Lily Cross.
This month’s symbol is the Church Bell and was inspired by the three bells that I saw on a Mr Judd’s headstone in St Michael’s churchyard, Betchworth, Surrey. It must be an ex-bellringer I thought and sure enough the epitaph stated that Mr Judd was:
‘ for 36 years Captain of the Bellringers at this Church.’
The central bell on the three appeared to be ringing but was it a specific peal? A secret message to other bellringers?
I then found another similar headstone in Beckenham Cemetery which was dedicated to Henry Robert Taylor but with no further information on it. This time all three bells appeared to be static.
So I contacted The Central Council of Church Bellringers (yes it does exist) to find out if they could shed light on the bells. Firstly, they were very interested in my photos as these are rare memorials and they didn’t know that they existed. One of their members, a retired Captain of Bellringers and historian, was kind enough to reply and said that the Taylor headstone was probably the grave of a bellringer which was close to the door of the bell ringing chamber. He added that the bells depicted were inaccurate for English church bell ringing and thought that it might be a standard pattern designed to fit a printed headstone.
However, with the Judd headstone in Betchworth he thought that the bells were a much better representation of a church bell hung for ‘change ringing’.
The churchwarden at St Michael;s, Bernard Hawkins, was kind enough to reply to my questions and said that the Judd tombstone was originally dedicated to Clara Judd by eventually William Henry (Bill) was added to the inscription. He also confirmed that Bill is buried close to the door of the church’s bell-tower. In 1910, Canon Sanders paid tribute to his astonishing 36 years as Captain of the Bellringers by saying that’…the whole parish owes a debt of gratitude.’ And here he is:
Change ringing is an English form of bell ringing and if you wish to know more there is a link in the references and further reading section.
These two headstones and the bellringing references made me think of the links between church bells, the rituals of the church and death. The most obvious one is ringing the ‘death toll.’ which appears in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71:
‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Than you should hear the surly, sullen bell,
Give warning to the world that I am fed
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell.’
There is also the often quoted final lines from John Donne’s 1624 Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:
‘Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee’.
Although only the ‘death toll’ is used today, originally there were three tolls that were rung and they denoted different stages of death. I am indebted to the headstonesymbols.co.uk blog for this:
‘There was superstition that evil spirits would gather around a dying person, trying to catch the departing soul. To give the soul a chance of ascending to heaven, church bells were rung at the time of death to frighten away these demonic forces. It was even added to the rules of the early Church of England that:
…when any is passing out of this Life, a Bell shall be Tolled, and the Minister shall not then slack to do his last Duty. And after the Parties Death (if it so fall out) there shall be rung no more than one short Peal, and one other before the Burial, and one other after the Burial.
Church of England Canon law; 1604
The Passing Bell
The first ringing to indicate an impending death was called the “Passing Bell“. This was to alert the priest that he was needed to perform the Last Rights.
The Death Knell
A “Death Knell” was rung immediately after the death. This was a slow solemn peal and each strike or teller identified the sex and age of the deceased. In small communities they would know from this who had passed and who’s souls to pray for.
From the number of strokes being formerly regulated according to circumstances, the hearers might determine the sex and social condition of the dying or dead person. Thus the bell was tolled twice for a woman and thrice for a man. If for a clergyman, as many times as he had orders, and, at the conclusion, a peal on all the bells to distinguish the quality of the person for whom the people are to put up their prayers. In the North of England, are yet rung nine knells for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child.
Old Church Lore by William Andrews
Lych or Corpse Bell
The last bell, the Lych or Corpse bell would be rang at the funeral, and is the only one that survives today.’
The Funeral Toll was also rung as the procession approached the church and was known as ‘ringing home the dead’.
The Dead Bell
However, in Scotland and parts of Northern England, a hand bell was rung which was known as the dead bell. This was used with deaths and funerals until the 19th century. The dead bells were rung for two reasons; to protect the newly deceased from evil spirits and to also seek prayers for the dead person’s soul. These ‘dead bells’ are often carved on monuments and tombstones in Scotland and Northern England. There are two men ringing dead bells on the Bayeux Tapestry at the funeral of Edward the Confessor:
But there are also superstitions and beliefs concerned with church bells particularly during the medieval period. They were thought to have special protective powers to drive away evil spirits for example and were often baptised. After all, most people know of the Houses of Parliament’s world famous Great Bell in its clock house, Big Ben. The Catholic church still has a blessing for new bells in which they’re given the power to protect those who hear it, repel storms and triumph over evil.
There are also several legends concerning bells that have ended up underwater either due to cliff erosion, a reservoir or hidden in lakes. They are reputed to ring from their watery graves at dead of night and Simon Marsden, the celebrated photographer, mentions them in in his books.
Bells have always been an intrinsic part of church life whether ringing to denote the end of a life or jubilantly pealing at the beginning of a new life in marriage. They have been held in reverence and also awe due to their supposedly magical powers. Even today, they sometimes have names and are seen as part of the community. Both the Betchworth and Beckenham headstones record a connection between man and bell that has lasted for centuries.
Pottering about cemeteries, burial grounds and graveyards as I do while undertaking research can often lead to unexpected discoveries. As I search for symbols and epitaphs, and the occasional wildlife, I often find unusual names recorded on headstones and memorials, They’re often names that you don’t see every day and so, if you’re a writer like myself, cemeteries can often provide inspiration for naming characters especially if it’s a historical piece.
So here is a small selection from St Mary’s churchyard, Riverhead, near Sevenoaks, Kent that I saw earlier in February 2019 on a lovely Spring like day, Crocuses and snowdrops clustered around the headstones and seeing a name like Mercy Bellchambers on a headstone felt really appropriate. Now that’s a name really crying out to be used in a historical novel…..
Due to a major mistake by my internet provider I have been offline for over two weeks but shadowsflyaway is back again!
Animals increasingly appear on modern memorials and I’ve often wondered if they are a totem for the deceased or maybe they just like them or maybe they had a pet. Cats are very common and I’ve seen them either in 2D carved on a headstone or in 3D form as a small statue.
But this one is unusual as it’s very personal, almost in a code, and is on a memorial stone in Brompton Cemetery’s Garden of Remembrance. Most memorial stones are small and people use calligraphy or a very small motif due to the limited size. The family name isn’t stated on this stone and the images are almost playful.
I was lucky enough to meet the widow of the man commemorated on the plaque. She is Maria Kacandes-Kamil and the mommy cat represented her. The two her cats were her daughters and the camel depicted her husband, Steven, who died in 2011. The significance of the camel is a reference
to the family name (you may have guessed it already) which is Kamil. Also note that the mommy cat, Maria, is pointing at the camel to possibly denote the marital bond.
It was lovely to find a modern memorial which had a touch of humour as well as being very personal.
How many casual passer-bys like myself would have guessed the significance of the animals?
For years a romantic ruined church fascinated me whenever I saw it from the bus as we sped along Grand Depot Road in Woolwich. There seemed to be no reason for it to be there, standing quietly under spreading trees with an unlovely corrugated roof over part of it and no sign nearby. Sometimes I could see what I thought was a large mural at the very back of it and always meant to get off and have a closer look. Then the bus would move on and I would forget about it again.
So it wasn’t until 2017, on an Open House weekend, that I finally visited it and discovered what makes this church, or what’s left of it, unique. The mural was actually a mosaic and one of the glittering, restored mosaics which is assumed to have been made by a famous workshop in Venice. They are the survivors of an interior which was once richly decorated with them. But why are they here in SE18?
The marching feet of the parade ground may have now become the marching feet of commuters on their way to the DLR but there’s still many reminders of Woolwich’s military past to be found. The church’s official name is St George’s Garrison Church and it was built to serve the Royal Artillery. Once an important and landmark building that could hold 1700 people inside, it didn’t always sit in solitude. When it was originally built in 1862-63 in the Italian-Romanesque style it was part of the Royal Artillery barracks with the parade ground before it.
St George’s was built as many other garrison churches, hospitals and barracks in response to the outcry about soldiers living conditions after the Crimean War of 1853-1856 and to improve the ‘moral wellbeing’ of the soldiers.
However, St George’s decline began in the First World War when it was bombed and its rose window destroyed. But, on 13 July 1944, a flying bomb started a fire that gutted the interior. During the 1950’s there were suggestions about it being rebuilt but these came to nothing. The widening of the Grand Depot Road in the 1960’s finally separated St George’s from the parade ground and it has sat marooned ever since.
The upper levels were demolished during the 1970’s and the church became a memorial garden. This is when the functional corrugated roof was placed over the mosaics. The Royal Artillery moved to Wiltshire in 2007 and so they will forever be apart.
The corrugated roof has been replaced by a much more attractive canopy. However The Friends of St George’s Trust information leaflet warns visitors:
‘not to stand beyond the altar, the apse and to be ‘careful of fragile/falling fabric as you explore the sanctuary and chapel.’
That sounded scary but I was careful as I didn’t want to become one of the residents of the memorial garden just yet.
But it was the large central mosaic of St George and the Dragon that attracted me. I’ve always been fascinated by mosaics and have seen many in cemeteries. After years of glimpsing it from a bus it was wonderful to be able to see it close up and to admire the quality of its workmanship. According to the Friends of St George’s Trust website:
‘the mosaics are thought to be based on the Roman and Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. St George and the Dragon and those around the chancel arches are assumed to have been made in Antonio Salviati’s workshops in Venice.’
But who is Antonio Salviati? The St George and Dragon mosaic form the centrepiece of the impressive Victoria Cross memorial behind the altar. This was funded by subscriptions in 1915 with no expense spared. The importance of this monument, dedicated to the 62 Royal Artillery men who received the prestigious VC, is emphasised by the fact that they went to one of the 19th century’s leading Italian glassmakers to create it.
Antonio Salviati (1816-1890) is considered to be one of the leading figures in 19th century glassmaking. Originally a lawyer, he became involved in the restoration of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. This led to him becoming interested in glassmaking and establishing his own factory. Salviati also re-established the island of Murano, near Venice, as a major centre of glassmaking and it still has that reputation today. He also created a European interest in brightly coloured pieces of Italian glass as decorative objects. Salviati’s factory soon began receiving commissions from France and England and it’s credited with creating the mosaic glass on the altar glass of Westminster Abbey and part of the Albert Memorial. There are also other surviving works in many churches and cathedrals in the UK.
Restoration work on St George’s mosaics was carried out in 2015 and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Although some of the tesserae from the mosaic – these are the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other material used in its the construction – are missing, the conservators made the decision not to replace them
The chancel mosaics feature birds and vines. The lovely peacocks are appropriate symbols of immortality and rebirth and vines for abundance and as reminders of Christ and his followers. (see Symbol of the Month – the vine for more information.) There are also phoenixes which are traditionally associated with rising from a raging fire and are an ancient symbol of Christian resurrection. It felt appropriate as St George’s is a remarkable survivor of Woolwich’s military past and has risen again. But it’s still a building at risk.
There are pieces of the church on site such as the capitals to two of the broken columns. These feature winged lions and winged griffins. I walked around the memorial garden and thought how lucky we were that its mosaics had survived for us to still enjoy.
St George’s remains consecrated and holds 4 services each year. It’s now open on Sundays and you can admire the newly installed iron entrance gates. Archive photos show what an imposing building it once was but imagine it when newly built as the sun shone through the rose window illuminating the beautifully decorated interior making St George and the Dragon dazzle.
This month’s symbol is the Mourning Woman who is derived from Classicism and its association with ancient Greece and Rome. I would hesitate before describing their presence in Victorian cemeteries and churchyards as a monstrous regiment but they have mostly been on duty for over a hundred years. They patiently watch over and grieve for the departed. An eternal mourner, often with a veil covering her head and swathed in flowing robes, she keeps vigil.
The Mourning Woman can be a free standing statue on top of a monument or plinth looking sorrowfully down on the viewer. She can also be in the form of a 3D relief weeping over an urn containing the beloved’s ashes as in these examples:
At West Norwood cemetery there is this example of one resting on a lifesize cross (I hate to say it but whenever I see her I’m always reminded of the George Formby song ‘I’m Leaning on a lamp post…etc.).
Classicism held sway when London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries were created. The anti-Catholic movement from the Georgian era was still a major influence with the cry ‘No Popery!’ loudly shouted. So no crosses, no statues of Jesus or any angels were permitted. Instead the clear cool lines of the ancient world were used as well as some of their traditions.
Mourning women were one of these as women played an integral part in the funerary ritual in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In the latter they were paid professional mourners as the more mourners there were at a funeral the more wealthy and prestigious the departed had been in life. In the funeral procession which took place prior to the cremation the professional mourning women, who were not part of the deceased’s family, would loudly wail, rip out their hair and also scratch their faces in mourning according to contemporary records. It was felt that women could more easily express emotions as it was unacceptable for a man to weep in public.
There are several Biblical references to the mourning women. They are mentioned in Amos 5:16, Chronicles 35:25 and also in Jeremiah 9:17 as below
Thus saith the LORD of hosts,
Consider ye, and call for the mourning women,
that they may come;
and send for cunning women, that they may come: King James Bible
The reference to ‘cunning’ women means ‘skilled’ women.
They would often weep noisily and copiously spilling their tears into vessels known as tear catchers or lachrimosa. At the recent excellent Museum of Docklands exhibition, The Roman Dead, there were some on display. They were small glass vessels and were placed in tombs, presumably overflowing, after the funeral was complete. Again, if many tears were collected, it signified that the deceased was held in high esteem and those crying the most would receive a higher payment.
Incidentally the tear catchers became fashionable again in the 19th century with the Victorian cult of death. But this time the bottles had special stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate and when they did the mourning period would be over. There is also a Biblical association with the practice of collecting tears in bottles in Psalms 56:8:
Thou tellest my wanderings:
put thou my tears into thy bottle:
are they not in thy book?
King James Bible
In ancient Greece it was again women who prepared the body and then laid it out ready for viewing on the second day.
Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood round the bier, the chief mourner, either mother or wife, was at the head, and others behind. This part of the funeral rites wasthe prothesis. Women led the mourning by chanting dirges, tearing at their hair and clothing, and striking their torso, particularly their breasts.
Here is a 6th century depiction of ancient Greek professional mourning women in full flow:
So for centuries women have been associated with, and played a major part, in the funerary process which may have been one of the reasons for the Mourning Woman appearing in cemeteries.
I feel that these women could be seen as a forerunner of the winged angels that flew into cemeteries towards the end of the 19th century. Both of them were guardians of the dead protecting them for eternity.
To end on, here is an lovely example that I unexpectedly discovered while on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the ‘secret’ graveyard behind St Nicholas’s church in Sevenoaks. She stands, surrounded by back gardens, and is a particularly elegant version. The memorial beneath her feet is dedicated to Elizabeth Dick and was erected by her sorrowing husband.
Sleep well for eternity Elizabeth and all those guarded by the mourning women.