If I wanted to be flippant I could have subtitled this post ‘The Tracks of my tears’ as 1, and a group of members of The Dracula Society, enjoyed a guided tour along the fragments of the Necropolis Railway in deepest Surrey. Our guide, John Clarke, had given a fascinating talk on the Railway after discovering the abandoned North station buildings at Brookwood in the 1970’s.
The Necropolis Railway was commonly known as The Stiffs Express and ran from a dedicated platform at Waterloo station to Brookwood station or Necropolis Junction as it was originally known. It was created by Victorian enterprise and entrepreneurship in 1854 as its owners eagerly anticipated a lucrative trade from transporting up to 10,000 bodies a year to the new Brookwood Cemetery. This was approximately 23 miles out of London and was envisaged as relieving the pressure on overcrowded city churchyards. The Railway had two stations; North and South. One was for Anglicans and the other was for Non-Conformists which was basically anyone who wasn’t an Anglican.
The Victorian class system was rigidly enforced on the Railway even in death. Charles Blomfield, the Bishop of London, declared that it was completely unacceptable for the families of people from different social classes, living or dead, to be forced to share the same train on the journey to the cemetery. After all, no-one wanted people who had led ‘decent and wholesome’ lives to be placed in the hearse car beside those who had led ‘less moral’ lives. You might think that once someone’s dead what does it matter…..
The Railway wasn’t cheap. Here are the fares with their modern equivalent:
1st class 6s = £92
2nd class 3s 6d = £23
3rd class 2s 6d = £12
Coffin tickets were priced for 1st/2nd/3rd class according to the type of funeral booked.
A train left Waterloo at 11.40am and there was a return one to Waterloo at 3.30pm so mourners could be out in the countryside most of the day. This meant that, unless the funeral was on a Sunday, a working person would have to lose a day’s pay. However refreshments were available at both stations and consisted of home cooked ham sandwiches and fairy cakes. At the talk, Mr Clarke revealed that there had been a sign over the counter announcing ‘Spirits served here.’ There were only two accidents during its 90 years of existence and neither involved fatalities.
But the anticipated trade didn’t take off. Instead of 10,000 burials per year it was at best roughly 2000 and by the 1930’s the train journeys had tailed off to 1 or 2 a week. It was the Luftwaffe that finally killed off the Necropolis Railway and it closed forever on 11 May 1941. After the end of Second World War its surviving parts were sold off as office space.
But we still found its traces around Waterloo. On Westminster Bridge Road the magnificent booking hall still stands with most of the original features intact although the London Necropolis Railway sign has long since gone. The booking hall dates from 1902 and used to be the HQ of the British Haemophilia Society but is now the offices of a Maritime broker.
Then we walked up Lower Marsh and into Hercules Street to see what remained of one of the 3rd class platforms. These were meant for working people and, as we looked along the underneath of the platform from ground level, someone in our group pointed out the metal posts on the pavement beneath. These were inscribed with the word ‘LIFE’ whereas the platform up above had been concerned with Death. A hotel is now in place of where the cortege dramatically swept through Waterloo station as they entered.
The Railway was revived in 2017 by the London Dungeon as a Halloween attraction called The Death Express.
Then onto Brookwood Cemetery which I had last visited 20 years ago. I was looking forward to seeing if it had changed….
Part 2 Brookwood Cemetery, its link with the Omen and a last surprise.
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..