The tools of the trade refer to those used by the sexton in his duties as maintaining the local churchyard. The word ‘sexton’ is derived from the Latin word ‘sepeliarus’ which roughly translates as ‘the custodian of sacred objects’. He or she is an officer of the church, a member of the congregation and is also in charge of maintaining the church buildings.
The sexton’s tools can include:·
A spade or shovel·
A turf cutter which is recognisable by its triangular blade·
These can often be depicted either on their own or crossed and are reminders of mortality as they are connected with the dead. I used to think that they only appeared on the headstones or memorials of gravediggers but this hasn’t proved to be the case. Instead they appear to be a form of memento mori and a reminder of the viewer’s ultimate destination. There are variations as in this one on the headstone of Ann Baker in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks. In this combination of symbols, a coffin takes centre stage as it appears to either be rising ominously out of the ground or is being deposited into it.
The epitaph states that she was the wife of Stephen Baker and there is a headstone with that name on it nearby. There is a nicely carved skull on it and I wondered if, as Ann’s symbols are larger and appear to be professionally carved, that perhaps the family had gone up in the world.
This fine example comes from St Peter’s, Falstone, Northumberland and contains several key mortality motifs. A spade or shovel , an open book, perhaps the Bible or a prayer book, a skull and crossbones and a winged angel above.
This example of a skull with a tool amongst other motifs comes from the churchyard of Rochester Cathedral in Kent.
I have found two other magnificent examples in Edinburgh and Northumberland churchyards but am awaiting permission from the bloggers to be able to use them.
However, sextons have another claim to fame as they also appear in literature and plays. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1, the two gravediggers who are digging Ophelia’s grave debate whether she should have a Christian burial as she is a suicide. Later in the same scene, a sexton unearths Yorick’s skull giving rise to one of Hamlet’s most famous lines:
‘Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.’
Several famous rock singers have worked as grave diggers including Joe Strummer, Dave Vanian of the Damned and Tom Petty . However, the claim that Rod Stewart was one is only an urban myth.
Charles Dicken featured a sexton, Gabriel Grub, in a ghost story that appeared in The Pickwick Papers called ‘The Goblin and the Sexton’. Gabriel is not a happy man. On Christmas Eve, he walks along Coffin Lane to the churchyard to finish digging a grave which is to be used the next day. Along the way he takes out his ill temper on a boy singing a Christmas carol and then meets the Goblin sitting cross legged on a headstone. This Christmas night will change Gabriel’s life forever. According to the Victorian web this story was Dickens’ version of Rip Van Winkle and is an example of ‘a curmudgeon chastised.’
It seems appropriate that sexton’s tools should feature so prominently in some churchyards. After all, he or she is the last person to take care of your body after death; whether you are buried or your ashes are deposited there and also the preservation of your memorial.
It has been an eventful summer for me, to say the least. I moved house again for various reasons and now live in Rochester, Kent. For those of you that don’t know it, it’s a town associated with Charles Dickens and is on the banks of the River Medway.
But I have also been busy researching 18th century memento mori’s in Kent churchyards, both around Sevenoaks and Rochester. It was quite surprising to see the differences in carvings from church to church and parish to parish. They started out as naïve, almost crude, motifs and then professional stonemasons became involved. In the churchyard of St Peter & St Paul church in Tonbridge there were still 2 tombstones dating back to medieval times. A blog post on my research, or I prefer to call it, poking about in churches and churchyards, is forthcoming as is Symbol of the Month amongst others.
So although shadowsflyaway has been quiet over August I’ve been gearing up for the autumn.
To whet your appetite for the Memento mori post here is one from the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul in Seal, Kent which is almost like a piece of Folk Art in my opinion…
Locals are mourning the loss of a beloved tree which has stood at the centre of Highgate Cemetery for nearly 200 years.
The majestic Cedar of Lebanon has been in the middle of the site’s west side since its inception in the 1830s, bearing witness to hundreds of burials in that time.
Despite best efforts to keep it alive, the mighty cedar has been condemned by tree surgeons, amid fears it could collapse.
The decision was eventually made to cut it down, in what one trustee compared to the feeling of losing a “much-loved relative”.
Dr Ian Dungavell, chief executive of the Friends of Highgate Trust, told the Standard: “It was a bit like switching off the life system on a much-loved relative. This tree has seen so much.”
Staff at the cemetery had started to notice fungus on the tree, which has survived a lightning strike and deep winters throughout its life.
Experts were called in, who said that large sections were beyond saving.
Dr Dungavell said they “did not want to believe” the report but took the decision to trust the experts.
One tree surgeon involved in cutting the Cedar down even visited the site to bid farewell to the tree before work commenced to remove it.
Meanwhile, volunteers were invited to visit and to witness it in its final days before it was felled.
“For any tree it’s upsetting if its been around for that period of time,” said Dr Dungavell, referencing the other longstanding trees at the site.
“It’s hard not to anthropomorphise them, to think, ‘what have they seen?'”
Sheldon Goodman, a tour guide and curator of the Cemetery Club website, also expressed his sadness at the situation.
“I’m a cemetery lover so the precedence this tree had is amplified in me, but knowing it’s fate, although unavoidable and necessary, doesn’t dispel that a little bit of London’s history is dying with it. You watch from the sidelines, powerless to do anything,” he told the Standard.
“Seeing the circle without the Lebanon would be like seeing Pisa without the tower, or Sydney without the bridge. The architecture becomes a nonsense without it.”
Mr Goodman said the Cedar deserved recognition as a famous tree of London, as he felt it was somewhat a “hidden secret”.
“It’s a guardian that has fallen on its sword and it’s silently watched over the fortunes of the cemetery for so many years; to see it succumb to disease and a climate it hadn’t really evolved for is such a shame,” he said.
The Cedar of Lebanon is based above the Lebanon Catacombs, which contain a number of burials in lead-lined coffins.
It is described as being like a “giant bonsai”, due to its unique placement and was part of the site when the land was part of Ashurst House, which was sold in 1830.
Dr Dungavell said a collapse would have been “horrific”, if branches had fell and smashed into them.
As well as being a constant presence in the cemetery and viewed by thousands of visitors in person, the tree has also been seen on screen.
Most recently it featured in the film Hampstead, with Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson sharing a picnic underneath its towering branches.
The west side of the cemetery is the site of hundreds of burials, including the private tomb of late music star George Michael.
Each side of the cemetery attracts thousands of visitors each year, with large numbers visiting the east side to see the final resting place of philosopher Karl Marx.
There’s no Symbol of the Month this month as it’s shadowsflyaway’s 4th birthday!
Yes, it’s been 4 years since I started this blog and it’s been a joy to share my enthusiasm for symbols and other cemetery related stories with you.
I thought that I might have exhausted the supply of symbols on which to write about but no I always find a new one and undoubtedly there are still more out there waiting for me.
I always look forward to exploring a new cemetery or churchyard as there’s often a new gem for me to discover. Recently I have been poking about in medieval Kent churches and discovered a devil’s doorway, windows with eyes and a fine selection of 17th and 18th century names in a list of churchyard burials. Sadly, I don’t think that Beardsel, Chariot or Sundial are going to rediscovered but you never know…..and also some of the finest memento mori.
But mostly I’ve enjoyed letting the dead speak to me through the symbols they chose to have as their lasting message to the world.
This photo was taken in the churchyard of St Peter & St Paul in Seal, Kent. The view from the back of the churchyard looks out onto the North Downs and it was literally a view to die for (sorry couldn’t resist that one)
So let’s drink a toast, mine’s a lemon and lime flavoured water, and let’s see where we go in shadowsflyaway’s 5th year!
I hadn’t visited Brookwood Cemetery for over 20 years and remembered it being sprawling, vast and with large empty sections. It was the largest cemetery in the world at the time of the creation of the Necropolis Railway and, at 500 acres, is still the largest in Europe. Under azure skies during the 2018 hot spell we alighted at Brookwood station and found that the entrance into the cemetery was closed.
So we took a longer route into the cemetery and wended our way through the village The pub that had been by the station when I last visited was now offices. I always thought that it should have been called The Coffin’s Rest but it was probably something a lot less amusing. The cemetery was once privately owned but is now in the safe keeping of Woking Council. Its first burial was the still born twins of a Mrs Hore who lie in an unmarked grave. There is an actors section not far from the train station and amongst Brookwood’s permanent residents are Evelyn De Morgan, painter John Singer Sargent, novelist Rebecca West and more recently, the architect of the Olympic Velodrome Zena Hadid. After walking through undergrowth we came upon the War Graves section of Brookwood.
According to the War Graves information board:
‘Brookwood has the largest section of Commonwealth war graves in the UK. It contains over 5000 Commonwealth war graves as well as 800 war graves of other nationalities.’
As we walked through the different sections with their lines of dazzling white crosses we all felt a real sense of how it must feel to see endless lines of them in France and Belgium.
‘The military cemetery was established just after the end of the First World War and then extended after the Second World War. It has the Cross of Sacrifice designed by Blomfield and Lutyens Stone of Remembrance as seen in European military cemeteries.
There are also two memorials; the 1914-18 on which is recorded 260 service personnel whose graves are unknown and also the 1939-1945 which records over 3400 men and women of the Commonwealth and forces who dies at sea, in raids on Occupied Europe and also special agents who lost their lives in enemy territory.’
We walked through the American, Canadian and RAF sections and saw that the Chelsea Pensioners were also represented. In fact it was in the American section that the final scenes of the original Omen were filmed. In the distance we could hear gunfire which was presumably from nearby Pirbright army barracks and added to to the scene.
After leaving the military section, a path called Pine Walk led us through the Muslim burial section. A Muslim has to be buried within 24 hours and when I’d last visited there had only been a handful of memorials. Now it is a large, rambling section and Zena Hadid is interred here. Minarets and domes held sway here instead of crosses, solemn angels and doves. However, It was plain to see from one grave that the incumbent was a fan of a certain sport.
By the entrance from the station there is a preserved piece of the original track and Mr Clarke explained that the original rail station was named Necropolis Junction. Then we set off to follow the Railway’s tracks.
The North station buildings are now long gone although a small sign saying Railway Walk marks the spot. The area is fenced off and was sold off to a group that specialised in above ground burials. But the platform edge could still be seen through the chain-link fencing.
We then continued the scenic walk along the avenue of towering redwoods for which the cemetery is rightly celebrated. The shade was very welcome and flitting butterflies accompanied us.. I saw one of the largest Comma butterflies I’ve ever seen gratefully basking on a tall, thick Redwood tree trunk before summoning up the energy to fly on. Butterflies were everywhere and often air dancing in pairs. A member of the party briefly saw a rabbit hopping across a path and into bushes. I said ‘You know you’re in the country now.’
Instead of the vast empty spaces that I recalled, there are now several religions and sects that have taken over vacant sub-plots and so you will find Catholic, Zorastrian, Muslim and Persian sects nestling next to a Swedish religion’s permanent religions amongst others. A far cry from the Victorian view of never shall they meet even in death from the Bishop of London in the 19th century.
Eventually the large rambling Victorian South station chapel buildings came into view. The station buildings fell prey to arsonists in the 1970’s and were subsequently demolished. But the platform has been left in place and a small yew hedge marks what was once the track bed. The station chapel and mortuary chapel are now the home of the Brotherhood of St Edward. This is a sect which has an Orthodox background and when I last visited had had a healthy number of young members. However, times change and now there are only 4.
We were very fortunate as an elderly Brother, dressed in Orthodox style costume, came out to invite us inside and to show us round their chapel which had been converted from what was the old mortuary chapel. There is a small museum on Brookwood and the Railway housed under the stairs. The chapel interior was far more ornate than I remembered and the Brother indicated the side benches which were in place of pews. They weren’t designed to sit on but rather to perch on. He explained that they usually stand or prostrate themselves during services. Paintings of icons lined the walls and he explained that modern day icon painters used acrylic paints instead of egg tempura as it was cheaper. The Brothers produce beeswax candles which they sell from their chapel.
I glanced over at the adjacent building as we entered the chapel as I could see the lawn where ,on a Brookwood Open Day during the 1990’s, I had bought marzipan chocolate covered coffins from Jean Pateman of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery.
Under the unforgiving sun, we all met at the lodge by the main entrance and enjoyed some welcome shade under trees as well as tea and biscuits. But I noticed a group gathering around something on the ground. Another Brookwood surprise. It was the novelist, Dennis Wheatley’s, memorial tablet. The Prince of Thriller Writers as the inscription read.
If you are planning to visit Brookwood allow at least a day to get round it and you may be alone for most of it. There is a Brookwood Society group : https://www.tbcs.org.uk/ and they hold monthly guided tours. If you come by train and the cemetery entrance is closed then ensure that you have directions from the station to the main entrance. Brookwood is impressive and well worth the trip!
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..
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.