If you visit as many cemeteries and churchyards as I do, you’ll soon notice that there will be several monuments and memorials that are carved to resemble a rock or a group of smaller rocks to form one large rock. They are skilfully created and the casual Victorian cemetery visitor would have recognised the reference.
The Rock is an overtly religious symbol and is often surmounted by another symbol. An angel looking somewhat precarious on top as above, a cross, an anchor and even a pair of bronze eagles on top of the one below. Although sadly only the talons remain clutching on for eternity. This is the Loeffler monument in London’s Brompton Cemetery. (You may have to zoom into see the talons but they are there).
There are numerous references to rocks in the Bible in which both Christ and God are referred to as being ‘the rock’ to the faithful. It symbolises steadfastness, firmness and stability. It’s also seen as providing a firm foundation for faith and for life. This is echoed in the Parable of the 2 Builders in Matthew 7:21-28 in which the wise builder digs deep and lays the foundations on a rock whereas the foolish one builds on what he thinks is level ground but which crumbles and falls and is swept away by floods. In the Old Testament, God is also referred to as
‘ the Lord, My Rock and my Redeemer’
in which he is seen as a support, something to lean on and rely upon. Indeed, rather like a rock. In fact, the disciple, Peter’s name means ‘rock’ in Greek as it is ‘Petros.’ And the Hebrew word for ‘rock’ is ‘Eben’ which again means also indicates firmness, stability and faithfulness. There are too many examples in the Bible for me to quote here but these are just a few:
In Samuel 22.2 it is said that:
‘Our Lord our God
You are my mighty rock, my fortress, my protector.
You are the rock where I am safe.
You are my shield, my powerful weapon, and my place of shelter.’
And also Psalms 62.6:
‘He only is my rock and my salvation: he is my defence; I shall not be moved’
King James Version
There is also the classic Christian hymn, ‘Rock of Ages’ which again symbolises the eternal support of God.
Although I am not particularly religious, I do acknowledge that many of the symbols that the Victorians used came originally from the Bible. Religion was very important to them and the Bible, or the Good Book would have been a constant source of inspiration for epitaphs and symbols. I have had a Sunday School education and can see where Biblical references can be found.
However, other cultures also revere the unchanging, eternal quality of stone or rock and in China it is seen as a symbol of longevity. Also in Japan, rock gardens are places for visitors to meditate and achieve a sense of Zen.
So, the Rock is a powerful symbol of faith, trust and steadfastness, both for the deceased and the bereaved.
Death’s Garden Revisited is out now! 40 beautifully curated essays on the relationship that people have with cemeteries and what attracts them. Profusely illustrated with 80 lovely photographs as well as a gorgeous cover! But it’s not just a good looking book – it’s also entertaining and thought provoking. I am a self confessed taphophile or cemetery lover and this book will explain why they fascinate so many people. (and I have an essay within it!)
The opportunity I had been waiting for – to actually see the inside of the of the Mausoleum – had finally presented itself!
Down in darkest Kent they hold Heritage Open Days over 2 weekends in September. This year was the first time I had experienced a full on version – so much to choose from! Climbing a 15th century church tower, despite being scared of heights and having two people in separate queues at separate venues hinting darkly and saying ’You’ve heard the stories about St Bart’s Hospital…’ I had read about them in a book on haunted Rochester but they said no more despite my prompting. It’s now being developed into luxury flats…..oo-er!
But the Darnley was finally open even if it was just for a couple of weekends. Sweet horse chestnuts were already dispersing their bounty as I walked up the slope from Kitchen Field, through the woods and onto the track that led to Mausoleum. Little spiny green covers protecting the nut inside like tiny hedgehogs. Then I encountered a herd of large Highland Cattle in Cobham Woods which surround the Mausoleum. They were all gathered under a spreading tree and had very large horns. We regarded each other for a moment and then decided neither was a threat to the other.
As on previous visits, I was still surprised by the size of the building. It’s protected by a vandal proof railing and I felt very privileged as I climbed the front steps and greeted the two rangers at the top. I turned around. The view was incredible and stretched on over to Essex. It’s on William’s Hill which is one of the highest points locally and I could see why it was suggested that it could become a viewing platform when it couldn’t be used for the purpose for which it was intended. Somewhere in the greenery and trees was Repton’s Seat. Humphrey Repton was the landscape designer and the seat was created so that he could sit and look at the Mausoleum. It’s out there somewhere in the woods….
I entered the upper chamber or chapel. It was dark inside although the open door and the stained glass windows, or lunettes, above gave the alcoves shadows and an ethereal light. A very tall tablet was in front of me with the Lord’s Prayer inscribed on it. Burn marks from the attempt to blow the building up on Bonfire Night 1990 could still be seen in places on the brick faced Portland stone. I thought that it might have Tardis like properties and be on larger on the inside than it was outside but no. The atmosphere was solemn; this was very much a place of death and perhaps unrealised hopes.
A National Trust sign perched on the floor pointed out the problems with the Mausoleum in that condensation was building up in the lunette arches due, possibly, to its design.
‘It was thought that the windows were originally intended to have air gaps to allow the natural circulation of air. So, ventilation was being introduced into the outer windows so that they continue to protect but also allow air to circulate within the 12m high dome which was also being given a lime wash.’
Then I returned down the central steps, went around the side of the Mausoleum to the back. A small flight of stairs took me down into what was originally envisaged to be the burial chamber beneath the chapel. This was where the Earls of Darnley were supposed to eternally rest once the Mausoleum was consecrated. But, alas, it was never to be and the 24 loculi, or Latin for ‘small spaces’, have always been vacant. Above the main loculi are smaller ones which were intended for children and indicates the mortality rate in Georgian England. The coffins of the Earls of Darnley and their families would have been large and heavy. This was because they had to be lead lined to stop the body fluids from seeping out.
It was whitewashed and plain and facing me was an apse, or recess, which contained a table on which it was intended that the coffins would sit. It was a quiet, solemn and dignified space. As I stood there looking around, a small family entered. The father soon waxed lyrical to the ranger about what he and his mates had got up to at the Mausoleum when it was a mysterious, vandalised building in the middle of thick woods. I overheard him saying that they had slept in the loculi and believed that if you walked around it 7 times then you would die. He obviously hadn’t as he was very much alive, but it was interesting to hear him talk about it as 7 is a sacred number. One of the rangers upstairs had commented that visitors were telling them about swinging off ropes on the sides of the building and generally causing mayhem. It would really have attracted bored teenagers: an abandoned building that was associated with death. Although, under the circumstances, it was probably better that the Earls had been interred in the vaults of St Mary Magdalene church in Cobham with their memorials set outside against the back wall of the church and not in the Mausoleum. Who know what might have happened to them. But I felt that it was a much loved building and that the locals were proud of its metamorphosis from ruin to elegant Georgian monument and landmark.
It was the 3rd Earl of Darnley whose will had provided the funds for building the mausoleum. Previous Earls had been buried in Westminster Abbey but their vaults were full. So, he wanted them to be interred near their ancestral seat at nearby Cobham Hall. The most fashionable architect of the day, James Wyatt, was engaged and it cost £9000 or £1million in today’s money. But no Earl or member of his family was ever laid to rest there as Wyatt had made the Mausoleum replete with pagan symbols: the pyramid roof, the square, the circle and sarcophagi at each corner. As a result, the Bishop of Rochester refused to consecrate it amid comments on ‘pagan arcadia.’
Feeling fit, despite my 90 minute walk to the Mausoleum from Cuxton station, I decided to carry on to Cobham village. I encountered the cattle again although some had melted into the trees and then I walked on. And on. And on. It was farther than I remembered although I spotted a detectorist in a field along the way going about his business. And like most villages I have wandered through, the pubs outnumbered the shops. Another Dickens association with a pub called The Leather Bottle which, according to their website, was ‘Charles Dickens favourite ale house in Cobham and a portrait of him adorns the pub sign. It features in ‘the Pickwick Papers’ and yes, I knew I was in Dickens country again.
The church has a commanding position within the village and more about it and its unrivalled collection of medieval brasses in a future post. It was well worth the walk!
On my way back from the village and the church, as I come into sight of the Mausoleum, the rangers waved and I climbed the steps again for a last look. The late afternoon sun shone through the lunettes and created a lovely reflection on one of the chapel’s walls.
As I walked back down to Cuxton rail station and feeling relieved that it would all be downhill, I reflected that this might be the only opportunity I would have to see inside the Mausoleum. The National Trust appear to be closing some of their properties and Owletts on the other side of Cobham is already closed.
But this was such a wonderful way to spend a sunny September Sunday and although I was tempted, I resisted the urge to walk around it 7 times……..