By a candle’s flickering flame  – a visit to Brompton catacombs July 2017

The Western catacomb which runs along the western wall of Brompton Cemetery which faces out onto the railway.
©Carole Tyrrell

Shadows move on the coffins and walls. Above you the glass orbs set into the high ceiling admit a little light into the depths but you prefer the intimate illumination of the flame.  It reflects on the brass fittings and the patterns of the nails on the coffin on the shelf beside you. Your loved one now rests eternally in Brompton catacombs as you sit by the head of the coffin in its space or lochulus.  Family news, world events: you talk to them as if they were alive with your voice the only sound in the silence. Then you open the book that you have brought with you at the bookmarked page, and then read the next chapter of what was their favourite novel.  It’s almost like having your own private mausoleum.

Finally, almost reluctantly, you close the book, after having marked next week’s chapter and pick up the candleholder.  As you walk towards the cast iron entrance gates, your footsteps echo behind you and the candle finally goes out as you open them.   The sun outside temporarily blinds you as you pull the gate closed and then lock it with your own key. The symbols of eternity and mortality on them remind you of the other world behind.  Then you ascend the flight of steps and return into Brompton Cemetery and the noisy world again.   You have been ‘communing with the dead’ as our guide, Nick, explained.

Brompton Cemetery isn’t holding an Open Day in 2017 due to the ongoing restoration project but, instead, on 15 July they held catacomb tours. These are not usually open and I haven’t visited these for some time so eagerly took up the opportunity. It was a drizzly day so it was good to be under cover. The catacombs have the most magnificent cast iron doors featuring snakes, downturned torches, an ouroboros and a winged hourglass – all symbols of mortality and eternity. You know that you are entering the realm of the dead once you step inside.

I have visited several catacombs located in large London cemeteries and what has always remained with me is the special and unique atmosphere that each one has: Kensal Green, Highgate, Brompton and the Valhalla that is West Norwood. One of Nunhead’s catacombs has now become the Anglican chapel crypt and is only open on certain days.

Catacombs never became popular in England and most of the coffin spaces available were destined to only have dust as an occupant. These are known as loculi or loculus in the singular. Even Highgate was unable to sell all theirs in the Egyptian Avenue and I would have thought that they would have been snapped up. However, there is reputed to be a cemetery in Cheshunt which is doing a roaring trade in selling them as they have an Italian and Greek community who view catacombs differently.

There is another set of catacombs under Brompton’s western colonnades with an identical set of doors on the other side of the circle but these have remained unused.  The other Western catacombs on the boundary side were never used and when reopened were crammed floor to ceiling with spoil which took a year to remove.

We were visiting the Eastern colonnade crypt and a flight of steps led to the iron doors.  As Nick said imagine six pallbearers carrying a coffin on their shoulders down them on a wet day.  The coffin would have been triple lined: wood, lead, wood so a heavy load indeed.  Brompton, unlike other catacombs, such as West Norwood or Kensal Green, didn’t have a chapel above the catacombs with a handy hydraulic catafalque to transport the coffin down into the darkness.

Nick indicated an interment in the first chamber behind the doors. This was sealed in with a plaque and epitaph dedicated to Captain Alexander Louis Ricardo of the Grenadier Guards.  For me, it was a reminder of the still unsolved Victorian Charles Bravo murder.  Captain Ricardo was Florence Bravo’s first husband who died young from alcoholism in Cologne. I noticed ferns growing from a family vault beneath him and wondered about damp as a perennial problem.

Lit candles had been placed on the coffin shelves to light our way which added to the ambience.  Victorians were fascinated with the idea of an afterlife and seances and mediums were big business. Sir William Crookes of the notorious Katie King case is also buried in Brompton.   Nick added the Victorians were a heady mix of hardheadiness and sentimentality.

 

The glass inserts that allowed some light into the catacomb have long gone and been bricked up.  Brompton’s original owners, The Westminster and West London Cemetery Company initially offered 4000 loculi for sale but of these only 700 were sold. So if you have a hankering for going underground they still have at least 3300 spaces available. Nick informed us that the last request for a catacomb space was in 1926.

 

English catacombs were based on the ones in Rome. Cremation was illegal until well into the 19th century so it was either under or over ground burial until then. Catacombs at Brompton were also called upon as a temporary mortuary when necessary. A visitor noticed that one coffin was just under the roof above four other coffins stacked on shelves and asked how the cemetery workers got it up there. Nick indicated the pulley blocks that they could have used to lift it up and manoeuvre it into place. Quite a feat.

 

Nick indicated the plumber’s diaper mark on the exposed side of one coffin which indicated that he had sealed it properly and there would be no leakages.  He also pointed out the wreaths, somewhat desiccated by now, that mourners often left by the coffins, and there was a small elegant urn containing ashes placed on a shelf next to one.

 

Our visit lasted 30 minutes and we filed out towards the light of the outside world again leaving Brompton’s catacomb’s incumbents to eternally sleep on.

 

The attractive colonnades of Brompton are above the catacombs and have plaques on their walls. These were to enable friends or other relatives without keys to pay their respects to the deceased at the plaque.  These are reputed to be affixed directly above the departed’s place within the chamber.

 

A word of caution for anyone considering visiting a catacomb for the first time: if you feel uncomfortable about seeing coffins, and a lot of people do, then don’t visit or think carefully about it first.

Please note:  Photography is not permitted in the Brompton catacombs.

©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell

 

 

 

The Lord of the Manor and the local ratcatcher lie equal in their eternal sleep under the traffic’s drone – a visit to St Leonard’s, Streatham

 

View of exterior St Leonard's Streatham. ©Carole Tyrrell
View of exterior St Leonard’s Streatham.
©Carole Tyrrell

The substantial church of St Leonards at Streatham could almost be seen as God’s’ traffic calming measure as it makes the drivers on the busy Streatham High Road inch past its walls.  But once inside St Leonards churchyard the noisy flow seems to fade to a hum and you can appreciate a church which has had a chapel on its site for over 1000 years.

I was on a guided tour organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and our guide was John Brown who had an obvious affection for St Leonards.

The first church was built in 1350 and the lowest part of its tower still stands.  St Leonards was then rebuilt in 1778 and altered again in 1831 when the nave was completely rebuilt and a crypt created.  During the 1860’s a chancel was added.  But, on 5 May 1975, disaster struck when a fire completely destroyed the interior.  It was then re-designed and St Leonard’s now has a whitewashed interior within its 19th century walls.  This has created a wonderful backdrop on which the surviving wall tablets and memorials are well displayed.  An inspiring blend of the ancient and new.

We began by exploring outside  and stopped to admire the tower which is known as Sir John Ward’s Tower .  According to John, it has the highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon  growing halfway up it. The tower is built from Surrey flint and is topped by a modern spire dating from the 1841.

The highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon on Sir John Ward's Tower, St Leonard's Streatham. ©Carole Tyrrell
The highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon on Sir John Ward’s Tower, St Leonard’s Streatham.
©Carole Tyrrell

The churchyard contains over 250 memorials  dating from the 18th century with the last burial in 1841. Part of the graveyard was  bombed during the 2nd World War and, as a result, has been landscaped to create a Garden of Remembrance.  John revealed that some of the burials had only had a wooden graveboard  which had long since disintegrated.

St Leonards was a very fashionable church during the 18th and 19th centuries and, as a result, a chapel of ease dedicated to All Saints was built in a nearby road. Alas, even God was expected to adhere to the rigid class system of the time as the local gentry worshipped at St Leonards and their servants would attend their own service at All Saints.  Dr Johnson and James Boswell are known to have visited the church.  This may be one of the reasons that there are several prominent local people buried in the churchyard.  John pointed out some of the more illustrious tombs;  Merian Drew, the lord of the manor and his daughter Jane Agnes Fisher, George Pratt of Pratts Department store in Streatham and  the Colthurst family member who had owned Coutts bank.

William Dyce, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and polymath, lies under a broken cross.  He designed the florin coin and was a much in demand portrait painter.  Amongst his many achievements were the frescoes in the robing room of the House of Lords although they remain unfinished. He also painted another celebrated fresco for the House of Lords, ‘The Baptism of Ethelbert’.    My own favourite of his paintings is ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858’ with its haunting, melancholy atmosphere and muted colour palette.     He was also a churchwarden at St Leonards and was responsible for designing the chancel in 1863.  Dyce’s ‘Madonna and Child’ of 1827 featured on the Royal Mail 2007 Christmas stamps.   Robert Garrard, the royal jeweller s also lies here and there was a  flat, plain slab on the grave of one of novelist Trollope’s nephews  who was the owner of the building firm, Trollope and Colls. I also admired the small sculptures of angels on the Montefiore monument. There were also several tombstones dating back to the 1700’s with a scattering of skull and crossbones.

A large monument had been made from the wonder material of the 19th century, Coade Stone.  A Mrs Coade, invented it but for a long time the recipe was lost.   However it and the techniques for producing the stone have now been rediscovered and a new range of Coade sculptures are currently available.

We then followed John inside to admire two 17th century imposing and magnificent monuments in the porch.  The striking Massingberde memorial commemorates a London merchant and Treasurer of the East India Company who died in 1653.  The two figures facing each other symbolise the triumph of life over death. The dramatic Howland monument   was erected by a grieving widow, Elizabeth, to her husband John who died in 1686 and features a brooding skull and several cherubs.

The Thrale memorial tablet by John Flaxman - reputedly drawn from the life. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The Thrale memorial tablet by John Flaxman – reputedly drawn from the life.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

At the top of the chancel by the altar were the Thrale monuments. These were to Henry Thrale and his mother-in-law, Mrs Salusbury.  Henry, who is also commemorated by the nearby Thrale Road, was a wealthy brewer and MP.  He and his wife, Hester, entertained the well -known movers and shakers of the day including Dr Johnson and James Boswell. There were two epitaphs written in Latin by Dr Johnson and a beautiful  tablet by John Flaxman is set into the wall.  It has  three female figures on it which were reputedly carved from the life. One of them is Sophia Hoare.  John Flaxman (1726-1803) was a prolific sculptor of funerary monuments, mainly in the Classical style, and his work can be seen in Westminster Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral as well as many churches.

The mutilated statue of Sir John Ward. St Leonard's Streatham ©Carole Tyrrell
The mutilated statue of Sir John Ward. St Leonard’s Streatham
©Carole Tyrrell

A somewhat dog eared and damaged figure lies on top of what looks like a table tomb.  This is what’s left of an effigy of Sir John Ward in his armour.  Colin Fenn of FOWNC has compiled a list of helpful notes to accompany the reconstruction drawing of it and estimates the figure as dating from 1350-1380.    Sir John fought with the Black Prince at Crecy and, in the modern Streatham stained glass window, he appears holding a model of the first, 14th century chapel that he built.  The rest of the window records the history of Streatham and St Leonard’s and is well worth seeing.  It’s by John Hayward as all the stained glass within St Leonard’s.

There are more  intriguing memorials in the Chapel of Unity and  John drew our attention to Edward Tylney’s. He was the Master of Revels, under Queen Elizabeth 1 and King James 1, and who put on plays and other entertainments for the Court.  He was renowned for being vain and had the memorial created during his lifetime which is why there is a blank space for the date of his death in 1610. But there is another version in which the mason was so relieved at Tylney’s passing that he omitted to add the date of his death.   Nearby is William Lynne’s affectionate tribute to  his wife, Rebecca which dates from Cromwell’s reign. Part of it reads: ‘

 ‘Should I ten thousand yeares enjoy my life I could not praise enough so good a wife.’

The oldest inscription, dated 1390, was below the altar and is a small brass plate which asks for prayers for the repose of a long past rector, John Elsefield.

Then we descended the spiral staircase to the crypt.  This was an unexpected surprise. Although not as extensive as West Norwood or Kensal Green it was still impressive and atmospheric with incumbents in their loculi.

Loculus which is Latin for ‘little place”, plural loculi, is ‘an architectural compartment or niche that houses a body, as in a catacomb, mausoleum or other place of entombment’  Wikipedia

The crypt is laid out with 2 corridors and the gated individual family vaults lead off them.  Some contained entire families including the Thrales.  John showed us one in which the loculus had been bricked up as the occupant had been buried in only a shroud.  This was Mr Costa, a silk merchant, who left instructions that every pauper who carried his coffin was to be given a guinea.  Needless to say, his coffin was carried by many poor men and so his wealth was redistributed.  Only the undertaker was left empty-handed.  There’s also two earls who ended up down there whilst visiting Streatham but I don’t think that the two events are connected.

 

 

 

The crypt was rebuilt in 1831 and was used as an air raid shelter during the 2nd World War during which time an experiment was carried out to determine the depth of the charnel pit under the flagstone floor. The measure went down as far as it would go which was 20ft but the pit extended far below that.   More recently it became the home of a local tramp called Black Tommy who had his mail delivered there.  One wonders with whom the postmen would have left large packages when Mr Tommy was out.

Tombstone of the local ratcatcher St Leonard's Streatham ©Carole Tyrrell
Tombstone of the local ratcatcher St Leonard’s Streatham
©Carole Tyrrell

As a finale, John showed us the substantial headstone of the local ratcatcher which proved that he was certainly busy, successful and appreciated.   Sadly, the epitaph appears to have completely vanished.  Afterwards a couple of us strolled about the churchyard reading the fine epitaphs on several  memorials.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

Our grateful thanks to John Brown for his knowledge and enthusiasm, St Leonard’s, and Cathy Mercer of FONC for organising the visit.

http://www.stleonard-streatham.org.uk/church.html

http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn_07/articles/wrig_09.html  baptism of ethelbert

http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artist.php?artistid=120 – portrait of William Dyce

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loculus_(architecture)

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rapunzel’s Retreat – Severndroog Castle, a hero’s memorial

 

View of Castle when derelict and boarded up in 2008 copyright Carole Tyrrell
View of Castle when derelict and boarded up in 2008
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Severndroog Castle hides teasingly behind its cover of ancient trees but it can be seen from miles around if you know where to look.  It perches on its hilltop, looking down and over the suburbs and landmarks below as it has done since 1784.   But it’s not a proper castle.  Instead Severndroog is one of the largest memorials to a single person ever created and is a much loved local landmark.

But, after walking up Shooters Hill, following the sign post and following the paths bordered by verdant hedges and a field you may start wondering where the Castle is.  And then as you round the path’s curve the Castle begins to slowly, almost reluctantly, come into view.  The only sound is birdsong or perhaps a dog walker calling to their dogs and you’re in the midst of one of the oldest woodlands in London.

The Castle nestles within Oxleas Wood which is reputed to be 8,000 years old and you’re aware that the outside world has retreated completely. In 2004, ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, was performed nearby in the woods on a lovely summer’s evening. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, even Jabberwocky, appeared and disappeared before our very eyes as they led us through the dark forest.

 

Severndroog almost belongs in Alice. It’s dainty, a fairy tale creation of a castle. A triangular building with hexagonal turrets at each corner, it was designed by the architect, Richard Jupp who was known for creating light houses.  It stands 63 feet or 19 metres high and has been compared to Horace Walpole’s magnificent Strawberry Hill as they shared similar decorative features.  These include circular windows and decorative ceilings.  The battlements and turrets are why Severndroog is called a castle, although it was never designed to be a fortification. Instead it was originally a summerhouse and a memorial. It was known as Lady James’s Folly after the woman who had it built in 1784.

 

She was the widow of Sir William James of the East India Company who defeated pirates and captured the brigand castle of  Suvarndurg, hence Severndroog, an island fortress of the Maratha Empire on India’s West Coast between Mumbai and Goa in 1755. . A plaque over the entrance to the Castle commemorates this although it’s not that easy to read now. He died of a stroke on his daughter’s wedding day in 1783 presumably after receiving the bill..

Plaque commemorating Sr William James victory in India. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Plaque commemorating Sr William James victory in India.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

Lady James filled the first floor of the Castle with mementos of him and would sit amongst his swords, armour and clothes to remember him.  If you look up at the doorway of one of the oddly proportioned rooms you may see some very decorative original Georgian artwork.  Now the room is used for weddings but was empty when I last visited and you could still see the dumb waiter from the Castle’s days as a tea room set into its floor. Locals could still recall enjoying a cuppa and then spending a penny to climb the spiral staircase to the roof.

Lady James bought the highest land in Eltham and reputedly had the Castle constructed within sight of her own house.  It stands at least 40ft further above sea level than the cross on top of St Paul’s Cathedral. From Severndroog’s roof you can, on a clear day, see 20 miles in all directions and across 7 counties over the treetops in 360°.  As a result of this advantageous vantage point, Severndroog was used as a radar station and air raid lookout during the Second World. A barrage balloon floated above the Castle during the war and, due to the leafy covering of trees, it might still be there.  However, there have been pirates aboard Severndroog but manning illegal radio stations from a turret.

 

Lady James died in 1798 and the Castle passed through various owners. But there’s always been plans for it. In 1847 there was a proposal to build a 10,000 catacomb cemetery in terraces on the site and in 1922 the London County Council bought it and opened the first tea room.  Eventually in 1986, it became the property of Greenwich Council who boarded it up and left it.  Vandalised and abandoned, in 2002, the council suggested that it be leased to a property developer to be converted to dull offices. No doubt the shopping centre was next. A preservation trust was formed, the Castle appeared on BBC’s Restoration and slowly the Castle came back to life.

 

 

I first visited the Castle when it was still boarded up.  It completely enchanted me as soon as I saw it.  I only knew that it was a folly but nothing of its history and how it came to be built.  I remember thinking that it would have been perfect for Rapunzel with its tall walls and turrets.  I revisited it during the heavy snows of 2010 when its dark walls stood out starkly against the bare trees and branches and the surrounding white.  On both visits it seemed like a secret castle, my own personal one.  The spectacular view over the rose garden below its slopes is breathtaking as the suburban sprawl stretches into the distance.

View over rose garden below the Castle as suburbia stretches on into the distance. copyright Carole Tyrrell
View over rose garden below the Castle as suburbia stretches on into the distance.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

 

In June 2016 I revisited the Castle after its restoration and renovations.  It had re-opened on 20 July 2014 with a new ground floor tea room and the rooms had been spruced up.   I re-climbed the 86 steps of the spiral staircase to the roof to admire the view once again.  The Millennium Wheel on the horizon, the 02 on my right hand side with the Thames snaking past it and the view just stretched on and on.  Below us was the tree canopy as parakeets swooped and screeched amongst the branches.

 

Severndroog is one of my favourite places in London and I would love to live there. Imagine climbing the spiral staircase every day to lob missiles at any marauding property developers or letting down my newly acquired hair extensions to allow friends to climb up to the roof to admire the view.    As I climbed down the staircase again I thought how pleased Lady James would be that the Castle is still there, still being used and admired and preserving her husband’s memory and her vision.

 

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless stated otherwise.

 

http://londonist.com/2015/05/a-trip-to-londons-least-known-castle

http://www.severndroogcastle.org.uk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severndroog_Castle

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/yourlondon/restoration/restoration_2004/severndroog_castle.shtml

(this page contains local people’s memories of the Castle and show what a well-loved building it has always been.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lasting memorial to a remarkable woman – Mary Seton Watts and Compton cemetery – Part 2 of a visit to Compton, UK

 

Autumn view over the churchyard showing the cloisters from the road oustide. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Autumn view over the churchyard showing the cloisters from the road oustide.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The golden autumn sunshine of the last afternoon had created long shadows and bathed the leaves on the trees in gold.   It was one of those autumn days on which you’re glad to be outdoors to make the most of the last golden days before the dark season sets in. Once you’ve gorged yourself on the beautiful Watts Chapel, make sure that you have left yourself enough time to explore the churchyard.  This is a tranquil place which was created by Mary Watts and Compton Parish Council and has gorgeous views over the surrounding countryside from the cloister at the top of the hill. From the road outside we could see the cloister and several of the terracotta memorials, two of which are Grade II listed.  The Wattses erected the picturesque oak lych gate at the entrance in 1897.  Mary Watts’ terracotta wellhead, encircled by a yew hedge, is along the left hand path.  This was designed in 1906 and also Grade II listed.    There are inscriptions on its top sides; ‘ the lord god planted a garden eastward in eden and a river went out of eden to water the garden.’

Mary Watts and the Parish Council laid out the cemetery which is also known as the Watts cemetery, in 1895-8.  It’s Grade II listed and was created as the old Compton churchyard was completely full.  At an 1894 meeting of the Parish Council it was proposed to buy land from the nearby Loseley estate and the Council agreed to raise a sum of £1300 from the poor rate of the parish for the purpose of ‘providing and laying out a Burial ground and building the necessary Chapel or Chapels thereon.’   Mary Watts wrote to the Council a year later, offering to build a cemetery chapel, with her husband’s financial help and inspiration.  Evergreens were planted which included cedars and yews and Mary planted the Irish yews. The graveyard and chapel were consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester on 1 July 1898.   It was extended in 1950 and a garden of remembrance was added in 1959.  The Parish Council still own and manage the cemetery.

The graveyard feels like a much older cemetery and a real part of the community.  It was created from local materials and local people with Mary Watts as part of the Compton Potters Guild. As with the Watts Chapel it’s in the Arts and Crafts style that was popular at the time.  Mary was fully involved with the churchyard as, from September 1896, she sat on the Parish Council sub-committee that was responsible for the graveyard together with the rector of St Nicholas, H H Gillett, the Loseley landowner William More-Molyneux and Mr Andrews, estate steward at Limnerslease, the Wattses nearby home.  It was landscaped in the Romantic style with winding paths and the choice of trees was designed to inspire feelings of mourning and contemplation.

Another view of the cloisters, Compton churchyard. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Another view of the cloisters, Compton churchyard.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The cloister was added in 1907.  It keeps to a similar Italianate theme as the Chapel.  Again, it’s also Grade II listed and has been compared to the loggia in Postmens Park.  This was G F Watts, Mary’s husband, memorial to self-sacrifice near St Paul’s in the City of London.    There is a memorial to G F Watts on the cloister wall with a small recumbent statue of ‘Signor’ as Mary called him flanked by two seated cherubs. Mary’s memorial tablet is also there.

We didn’t have enough time to find the two Grade II listed memorials; one to Margery Gillett, the Rector’s wife and the other to a novelist, Julian Russell Sturgis(1848 – 1904).   We also didn’t find the Huxley family grave either as the author of 1932’s Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s, ashes are interred with his parents.  We did find some m

 

A lovely Art Norveau memorial.  There is a very similar on in Golders Green Crematorium's cloisters. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A lovely Art Norveau memorial. There is a very similar on in Golders Green Crematorium’s cloisters.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

 

The churchyard is still open for burials and we did find one recent terracotta memorial dating from 2012.

A modern terracotta memorial in Compton churchyard copyright Carole Tyrrell
A modern terracotta memorial in Compton churchyard
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The Chapel and churchyard are the result of one woman’s vision and determination to create a lasting memorial to her husband and to give something lasting to the community.  I was full of admiration for Mary Seton Watts as she has left a lasting tribute to Signor and to herself.  A significant artist in her right, she was obviously extremely capable, talented and a born organiser.  Thanks to her and to Signor, there is a unique place in the Surrey hills for which she will always be remembered.

© text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References:

Watts Chapel; An Arts & Crafts Memorial, Veronica Gould & Joanna Howse, Books for Dillons, published 2 October 1993  (NB: This may be out of print but the Gallery may still have a few copies)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watts_Cemetery_Chapel

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1417498

 

 

 

 

 

A unique gem in the Surrey hills – The Watts Memorial Chapel – Part 1 of a visit to Compton, UK

Exterior View of Compton Chapel in autumn. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Exterior View of Compton Chapel in autumn.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

On a Surrey hillside near Guildford, hidden behind tall Irish yews, nestles a secret jewel of the Arts and Crafts movement.  It’s a short walk from the Watts Gallery along a busy road with no proper pavement so be careful but it will be worth it.  This leads you to Compton churchyard.   Walk in under the lychgate and climb the twisting, winding path that leads you up through the trees to a building that looks as though it belongs in Italy instead of England.  Unique is an often over-used word but here it’s the only one that adequately describes the beautiful structure before you.  It’s the exceptional  and intriguing Watts Memorial Chapel.

The Grade 1 listed chapel is best viewed on a sunny day when its terracotta walls turn to orange and the dazzling reliefs, figures and symbols on the frieze around its exterior become three dimensional. Walk around the outside of the chapel and marvel at the sumptuous combination of Celtic,  Art Nouveau and Romanesque patterns and styles. The calm faces of angels look down surrounded by stylised animals, birds and labyrinths.

Section of exterior frieze around Chapel. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Section of exterior frieze around Chapel.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is a building created by love and faith. The metal cross on the imposing Romanesque entrance door was inspired by one on Iona. The pillars on each side contain the letters ‘I AM’ symbolising God as creator guarding a kneeling, reading man surrounded by animals and insects. In many ways this doorway reminds me of the entrance to the little terracotta mausoleum at Nunhead  Cemetery . A carved border of angels’ faces looks down at you, as your eyes are drawn up to the Garment of Praise above them. This resembles an embroidered wall hanging but in clay, depicting angels blowing trumpets,  phoenixes and birds.

Entering the chapel, after ensuring that neither of the ginger and white cemetery cats, obviously art lovers, haven’t followed you in, is like going into darkness from light.  I’d seen the cats on previous visits but on my trip in October 2015 they were nowhere to be seen.  Take time for your eyes to adjust.  Pale faces suspended in the shadows watch you. Then suddenly the light through the tall narrow windows begins to illuminate the glittering, swirling ‘glorified wallpaper.’ All around the dome’s walls are lifesize pairs of angels in red and green, either staring towards or away from you.   The ones facing you are angels of light and the ones looking away are angels of darkness. Symbolic medallions around them intertwine with the sinuous Art Nouveau whiplash and golden tendrils of the Tree of Life. The upraised arms of the angels direct your eyes to the dome’s roof and to the 100 cherubs’ faces on the crosspieces, the four larger angels on each of the corbels and finally the sun in the roof’s centre.

interior view of Watts Chapel showing one of the Celtic inspired Angels of light. copyright Carole Tyrrell
interior view of Watts Chapel showing one of the Celtic inspired Angels of light.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

The gilded terracotta altar is opposite the entrance.

 

Incredibly, the Watts Chapel was created by an amateur.  Mary Watts, the devoted second wife of the Victorian painter, George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), designed the entire building without any prior experience.  It must be one of the very few 19th century buildings designed by a woman. Mary dedicated  it to:

the loving memory of all who find rest near its walls, and for the comfort and help of those to whom the sorrow of separation remains“.

She  formed the Compton Potters Guild with local villagers and they assisted with the carvings and gesso decorations. A coachman modelled the angels’ faces above the entrance. Even the local children each painted a leaf, a flower or fruit on the interior walls. She also saw the Guild as a way of keeping the locals occupied and away from bad influences such as drink. The chapel was her husband, G F Watts’, gift to the village of Compton.   He was also known as Signor and financed the building  by painting commissioned portraits.

The Chapel was begun in 1895 and the gesso interior painting was completed in 1904. The Archbishop of Canterbury attended the consecration ceremony, together with Signor, amongst others. The Watts  lived at ‘Limnerslease’ which was near the churchyard and it was from their grounds that the clay to build the chapel came.  Burne- Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, somewhat unkindly, renamed the house ‘Dauber’s Den’ which reveals how G F Watts was viewed by some of his contemporaries.   The Gallery has had a refurbishment and Watts’  paintings now have interpretation boards and are better displayed with additional sculptures.

However, although G F Watts was a celebrated painter in his day he has fallen out of favour as have other artists of his time. He was notorious for marrying the actress Ellen Terry who was just 17 to his 47 and it barely lasted a year. Mary was his second wife and 36 years his junior. She was an inventive and accomplished artist in her own right and devoted herself to her husband and his memory. Signor painted Society portraits and subjects taken from mythology such as ‘Clytie’ and moral, storytelling pictures. But he was also an important precursor of Symbolism with such work as ‘The Sower of the Systems’. 2004 was his centenary year and he was commemorated with an exhibition at the nearby Watts Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

However the Watts Chapel isn’t for everyone. Some may find it too overpowering in its use of symbols and extravagant decoration and others may see it as an indulgent folly. But to me it’s a uniquely spiritual building. Mrs Watts used many sources for her creation including the Book of Kells and Egyptian sphinxes, and I find it fascinating to discover the symbols used and decipher their meaning or simply just enjoy them.

The Watts Gallery sells an excellent book on the meaning of the carvings and the chapel’s background, if you wish to explore further. They also have further examples of the work of the Potters Guild which finally closed in the 1950’s and their works are now collectors items.  West Norwood cemetery has a piece on a grave.  However, the Gallery does sell modern reproductions and had some on display on my visit in 2015.  There is also an excellent tea shop at the gallery.

 NB: Please remember that the chapel is also a parish building and may be in use on some days.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Reference:

Watts Chapel; An Arts & Crafts Memorial, Veronica Gould & Joanna Howse, Books for Dillons, published 2 October 1993  (NB: This may be out of print but the Gallery may still have a few copies)

http://compton-surrey.co.uk/watts-chapel/4518411494

Part 2 – A lasting memorial to a remarkable woman – Mary Seton Watts and Compton Cemetery.

 

 

 

An afternoon with the dead and famous – Part 2 of a visit to Golders Green – the crematorium

 

The front entrance to the crematorium. Built in the style of a Northern Italian monastery. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The front entrance to the crematorium. Built in the style of a Northern Italian monastery.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Spring was in the air at last as we gathered in the West Memorial Court to await our guide, Eric Willis. We were in extremely good company as we were surrounded by  Marc Bolan, Bernie Winters, Hughie Green, Norman Vaughan, Ronnie Scott and Keith Moon amongst others.   Sadly it was only their memorial plaques that were there. But it was like a trip down memory lane as you had to be of a certain vintage to remember some of them.

I had been expecting a drab, municipal building but the Crematorium is built in the style of a Northern Italian Lombardic monastery in warm red brick.  It looks out onto Hoop Lane and its semi detached houses and if you didn’t know what it was you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a large church.  Its tall campanile tower actually houses the crematorium  chimney.  The impressive cloisters, 240 feet in length,  are also filled with the memorials of the great and good.

The Crematorium is the oldest in London opened in 1902, 17 years after cremation was legalised and in response to a growing demand for cremations. Although the crematorium was completed in 1939, buildings were added whenever money became available. The land had been purchased for £6000 and the architect, Sir Ernest George, also designed Claridges Hotel in Mayfair.  It’s still privately run and, to date, has conducted over 328,052 cremations  with the ashes of 100,000 people scattered over the dispersal lawn in the grounds. It’s estimated that 2000+ creations take place there every year. The Crematorium  is Grade II listed with 3 columbariums, 3 chapels and a and Hall of Memory. All religions are welcome and as we were shown the Jewish shrine I spotted a small altar to an Indian deity.

A little shrine to an India deity in the cloisters.  copyright Carole Tyrrell
A little shrine to an India deity in the cloisters.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

However, the crematorium is also secular which means that the service and music are the decision of the friends and family of the deceased.  It also caters for atheists with a ‘communists corner’ where the ashes of numerous ex-communists are held.

The word columbarium comes from the Latin for dovecot or niche for sepulchural urn. The West and East Columbariums are built in the form of towers and had the appearance inside of a reading room with urns deposited on the shelves instead of books. They stretched up to the ceiling. But each one told their own story.  Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, had a plain and simple urn. But the ornate urns to two victims from the Titanic disaster were especially poignant as their grandchildren had recently visited due to the recent centenary.  In the East Columbarium, Eric revealed that he places every moth or butterfly that was trapped and died inside the columbarium very neatly under Captain Thomas B Hanham RN’s  impressive bust.

In the Ernest George Columbarium Eric showed us the ballerina Anna Pavlova’s urn in a small alcove.  It was flanked by a ceramic swan and a a ballet dancer.  Sadly her ballet shoes had also been on display but had recently been stolen and so, as a result, security had had to be tightened. And then we moved onto Sigmund Freud’s magnificent and large Grecian urn on top of a matching column surrounded by flowers. Please note that since my visit  Freud’s beautiful urn has been smashed.  I don’t think that it was a Freudian slip.

Afterwards we visited the West chapel which can seat 200 people and had a beautiful marble plaque to the Maharajah of Cooch Bahar and his family.  Eric then led us into the crematorium itself to see the business of reducing the dead to ashes with the staff patiently answering our questions and dispelling various myths about the process.

The 12 acres of grounds are beautifully kept and the crocus lawn in Spring is renowned. Sadly, we had just missed this splendid sight and, despite an exhaustive and informative tour, we ran out of time to explore them. Instead we admired the ornamental lily pond by the Victoria Cross memorial on which 2 mallard ducks paddled near the tea rooms. There are 14 holders of the Victoria Cross who are commemorated on the memorial who have been cremated at Golders Green.  We didn’t see the Marc Bolan Society’s gift of a bench with white swans as armrests.  They gather on 16 September every year to remember the singer and cosmic elf’s death in 1977. We also missed seeing the bronze statue, called ‘Into the Silent Land’ of a young girl being lifted heavenwards by a mysterious draped figure.  Apparently, at its previous site within the grounds, it had scared a staff member so much as it loomed out of the morning mists, it had had to be moved elsewhere in the grounds.  Eric showed us photos of the statue from his own collection together with some of his own paintings and his affection for the Crematorium was obvious.

Golders Green is well worth a visit or two  as there is so much to see and appreciate. My thanks to the very knowledgeable  and entertaining Eric Willis, and Golders Green Crematorium for their hospitality.  Even if we were, at times, reduced to celebrity spotting  as famous names leapt out at us at every turn.

I visited the Crematorium in 2013 and although I’ve always intended to return as there was still much to see such as the mausolea including the Philipson Family mausoleum designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and the second pond but haven’t managed it yet.  Well worth a trip if you’re in London.

Copyright text and photos Carole Tyrrell

References:

http://crematorium.eu/golders_green_crematorium.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/famous-names-whose-final-stop-was-golders-green-crematorium-1921813.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golders_Green_Crematorium

A morning with Marx and Spencer – A visit to Highgate Cemetery April 2014

Domino the Highgate cat - the first inhabitant of the Cemetery that we saw. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Domino the Highgate cat.  This is his kingdom.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The first inhabitant of the West side of Highgate Cemetery to greet us was Domino, the cemetery cat, a white and black cat with an enviable domain in which to explore. He was also very vociferous and seemed to think that he would be leading our tour.

I’ve always found the West side to be very romantic and intriguing and last visited it in the 1990’s so a return visit was long overdue. I visited it this time with the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. There is a connection between Highgate and Nunhead Cemetery in that they were both owned by the same cemetery company, the London Cemetery Company.   Highgate closed in 1975 and the Friends of Highgate Cemetery subsequently took over.

Dr Ian Dungevell  welcomed us and then John Shepperd, the current Chairman,  took over as tour leader  with Peter bringing up the rear.   The West side was looking its best with patches of bluebells and luxuriantly growing wild garlic.  The latter reminded me of the rumours of the Highgate vampire during the 1970’s and wondered if that was the reason for its abundance..

Originally the East and West sides were two separate cemeteries and the LCC had its own brickworks. The West side opened in May 1839 and the East in 1855 with its first burial in 1860. John revealed that there had been public complaints about the boisterous cheering at shareholders meetings as it was feared that they were profiting from death. Apparently the Magnificent 7 London cemeteries is a misnomer as there were originally 8. Meath Gardens in E3 was once Victoria Park Cemetery but was closed in 1885 due to its poor state and became a public park.  Its last burial was in 1876 having opened in 1842.

The imposing Anglican chapel on the West side still has its hydraulic lift and a tunnel under the road. It was rumoured that, after leaving the Dissenters chapel, hearses could go in two directions; the left hand path was for paupers and the other side was for the better off.  Like Nunhead, Highgate also had its own nursery, greenhouses and was originally landscaped. However, with its increasing popularity resulting in up to 30 burials a day, it was said that being buried in Highgate was like being buried in Piccadilly Circus.

John indicated the grave of the first resident, Elizabeth Jackson, who was interred in 1839 and paid 3 guineas. He reminded us that the views from Highgate at that time would have stretched to the South Downs as it’s on a hill.  It cost £2.10s to be buried there at a time when a working man was lucky to earn £1 a week.  Local residents had keys to the cemetery which became their personal park.

Alexander Litvinenko - a modern interpretation of the broken column symbol. copyright Carole Tyrrell

Alexander Litvinenko – a modern interpretation of the broken column symbol.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The largest vault is that of Gen Sir Loftus Otway which can hold up to 30 coffins and was vandalised during the cemetery’s closure.  It currently holds 15.  The Russian dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, who died from  poisoning is here and John pointed out that his tombstone is a modern adaptation of the Victorian broken column which indicated that the head, or support, of the family has died.

We all admired the celebrated Egyptian Avenue which capitalised on the 1820’s taste for all thing Egyptian after the first expeditions there. John explained that originally it had a roof which had made it very gloomy but it was considered to be a prestigious place for an eternal sleep. But it took 50 years to sell all 16 vaults as, with other Egyptian symbols like obelisks, it was viewed as pagan and so unpopular.  The Avenue is now roofless and is a much lighter place especially in the Spring sunshine.

The Egyptian Avenue - one of Highgate's highlights. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The Egyptian Avenue – one of Highgate’s highlights.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

However, on a Highgate Open day I nearly fell off the top of the Avenue.  I had lost my bearings and was walking along and suddenly realised where I was just as I was about to take more steps forward.  Although I might fancy being buried in Highgate I wasn’t intending to become part of it quite so soon!

Another view of the Circle of Lebanon. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Another view of the Circle of Lebanon.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The Circle of Lebanon, named after the beautiful Cedar of Lebanon on top if it, was another highlight. The tree came from a local, long vanished, house, Ashurst and no-one knows its exact age.  It is a lovely and magnificent centrepiece.  We also saw Radclyffe Hall’s vault which always has flowers . She wrote ‘‘The Well of Loneliness’ which was declared obscene due to its portrayal of a same sex relationship. However, Virginia Woolf, asserted that it was boring and gave it up.

Another inner view of the Circle of Lebanon showing the columbarium. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Another inner view of the Circle of Lebanon showing the columbarium.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

At the highest point on the West side stands the Beer Mausoleum. Fifteen feet high, it had been closed for years until 1993 when it was reopened.  Unfortunately the door wouldn’t budge due to roughly 2 and half feet of bird droppings and so this had to be cleared before anyone could actually get inside.  This really is a showpiece memorial.  No expense was spared on it and it would have cost £5million in today’s money.  It was built by Julius Beer who made money from selling cotton bonds. These were to be repaid when the Confederates won the US Civil War so they weren’t a good investment. The mausoleum’s walls are lined with Italian marble and the ceiling is gilded and painted.  It was dedicated to Ada, Beer’s daughter who died aged 8.   The beautiful sculpture on the back wall is of an angel and a small girl whose face is modelled from Ada’s death mask. One of the sculptors who worked on the Albert memorial , Henry Dew Armstead, worked on the mausoleum. However, it doesn’t contain any bodies as they were originally in the vault below which was vandalised during the cemetery’s closure.  The Beer family have died out.

One of the best loved of all of Highgate’s many memorials is that of Nero, the sleeping Wombwell lion. George Wombwell was a zookeeper who, in 1810, owned a giraffe and a kangaroo amongst others which must have seemed very exotic to 19th century Londoners.  Children used to ride on Nero’s back and Wombwell’s travelling circus was in business until the First World War. However, some of his extended family didn’t fare so well with nature as his niece was killed by a tiger and his nephew was trampled to death by an elephant.

Nero, the lovely Wombwell lion - lions are a symbol of fortitude and bravery. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Nero, the lovely Wombwell lion – lions are a symbol of fortitude and bravery.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

Another highlight of our tour was the catacombs.  I hadn’t know that Highgate had any and these are on ground level. There are 825 spaces with 60 remaining. They were in use until the early 20th century.  Originally whitewashed, Charles Dickens had his young daughter placed there before removing her saying that it was too gloomy.  John added that coffins  are placed feet first into a  catacomb space or loculi so that visitors can talk to the head of the deceased and not their feet.

The Highgate catacombs - I hadn't realised that there were any there until this visit. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The Highgate catacombs – I hadn’t realised that there were any there until this visit.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Animals have always been popular in cemeteries and John took us to the grave of Tom Sayers complete with a life size sculpture of his bull mastiff, Lion, keeping watch. Sayers was a Victorian boxer or pugilist. He was the English champion and originally hailed from Pimlico, a slum are of Brighton.  At Sayers’ funeral, Lion, wearing a black ruff, sat in the carriage behind the hearse which emphasised  that the dog had been more faithful than the wife. Lion was sold for £2 at the auction of Sayers belongings after his death. One hopes that he had a happy and long life.  The restored Acheler horse stood guard under a spreading horse chestnut tree and the sleeping angel on a bed of stone clouds slumbered on.

Tom Sayers the 19th century boxer and his faithful dog Lion.. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Tom Sayers the 19th century boxer and his faithful dog Lion..
copyright Carole Tyrrell

There are still burials taking place here and we saw novelist, Beryl Bainbridge’s, grave on our back to the entrance. Domino ignored us as he continued on his prowl and vanished into the ivy..

Then, after tea and excellent home-made biscuits, we crossed the road to the East side.   It is where most modern burials take place and it was busy with 21st century Londoners following the custom of Victorians by promenading in the cemetery on a Sunday afternoon.  Near the entrance John pointed out the monument to one of the Great Train Robbers, Bruce Reynolds, which was erected on the 50th anniversary of the event. It features a death mask of Reynolds between two columns with the phrases , ‘This is it.’ And ‘C’est la vie’.  The former was the one that Reynolds used to alert the rest of the gang that the robbery was on and the latter was the one used by Reynolds arresting officer.   Another death mask was on Malcolm McLaren’s grave so perhaps this is the start of a new fashion in funerary architecture.

Malcolm Mclaren - note the death mask. copyright Carole tyrrell
Malcolm Mclaren – note the death mask.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

But the East side’s most famous incumbent is undoubtedly Karl Marx.  An enormous bust of the man sits staring out from on top of his column.  It’s a place of pilgrimage for worldwide communists but has suffered for it.  Poor Karl, he’s been blown up and daubed in blue paint but still stares serenely, if a little forbiddingly, from his plinth. Originally he and his family were buried a short distance away but were moved to their present location and their headstone incorporated in Karl’s monument.

The father of Communism - Karl Marx - a very imposing bust and memorial. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The father of Communism – Karl Marx – a very imposing bust and memorial.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Nearby lies Herbert Spencer who was a prominent right-winger and coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’.   And so that little corner is known as Marx and Spencer.  Another close neighbour is Gloria Jones,  creator of the Notting Hill Carnival.   George Eliot is not far away and so the great and good jostle with the less well-known and there are too many to list.  Alas, the wallabies have gone elsewhere.   My favourite epitaph was pllaywright, Anthony Shaffer’s which simply read’ Grand Artificer of Mysteries.’

It was a fascinating tour and we left wishing that we had more time to explore both sides of Highgate Cemetery. And below is a gallery of some of the other memorials

we saw on our visit.

 

First published in Friends of Nunhead Cemetery News,

Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell

My Ba-Ba Never Forgotten, Never Replaced – A visit to Hyde Park Pet Cemetery

Alongside the busy Bayswater Road, on the way down from Marble Arch, there is a secret place behind one of the gate lodges. It’s protected by an iron railing and thick hedges and the casual passer-by wouldn’t know what lies behind them. But this is a special place where 300 much loved pets sleep in an eternal slumber. Curio, Ruby Heart, Prince and Ba-Ba are just some of the names of the family pets that are commemorated on the Lilliputian tombstones. This is the tiny Victorian Hyde Park Pet Cemetery.

The first view of the cemetery
300 little burials copyrights Carole Tyrrell

It was a burial space for the local residents and their beloved animals It’s mainly dogs that are buried here as they often fell victim to the Park’s horse riders hooves. However, there are also three small monkeys as well as several cats and birds. The first burial, Cherry, a Maltese terrier, was in 1881. Cherry belonged to the Lewis-Berned family who lived nearby. They were frequent visitors to the Park and knew Mr Winbridge, the lodge gatekeeper. Mr and Mrs Lewis-Berned approached him after Cherry had died of old age and enquired if Cherry could be buried in what was his back garden at the lodge. He and his employer agreed and Cherry’s tombstone reads ‘Poor Cherry. Died April 26 1881.’ Word must have got round as, before long, other local families were also having their deceased pets interred in the lodge’s back garden and it soon became an unofficial pets cemetery. There is even a royal dog there. This is a Yorkshire terrier which belonged to the wife of HRH Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge, who lived in Mayfair. ‘Poor Prince’ was crushed under a carriage wheel and actually died in the Lodge. The subsequent burial was recorded in the Duke’s diary on 29th June 1882 and made Prince the second incumbent in the cemetery. In contrast, there were also low-lifes in there and I am indebted to the London-In-Sight blog for the background information on a police dog, Topper, who is buried within the cemetery. He was obviously a dog with attitude and was described as being: ‘insufferably vulgar, a snob of the lowest kind and most contemptible, a bad strain in him which seems to have run through very line of his character.’ He died of over-eating. I have to admit that I would have liked to have met Topper to see if he lived up to his description. When you first enter by the side gate the first thing that really impresses you is how many of them there are in the little garden and how poignant some of the epitaphs on the small headstones are. Who has owned a pet, loved it dearly, and not wanted to commemorate its life and passing like other family members? The little plots are arranged in rows, each with an area bordered by rope edge tiles to allow the families to place flowers if they wished.

View2
A smaller group nearer the Bayswater Road side copyright Carole Tyrrell

We visited the cemetery as part of a tour arranged by London Month of the Dead and had roughly thirty mins inside which didn’t leave much time to explore the epitaphs. I can only show a few of them here. But it was a good introduction to the cemetery. So next time we may book an hour long tour. We didn’t find Cherry’s grave despite looking for it. . One of our guides did point out that at the time of the first burials the average expectancy of a working man was forty or less.

Lodgeview
View towards Victoria Lodge copyright Carole Tyrrell

The gate was locked behind us as the little residents slumbered on. Access is limited for obvious reasons and needs to be booked via The Royal parks website; http://www.royalparks.org.uk. Tickets cost £50 +VAT  for a visit lasting one hour  for up to 6 people. Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell

Sources and further reading:

Barking Blondes – Will you book a grave plot for your dog? The Independent blogs  18/01/14

Fun London Tours – The Victorian Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park, 20/10/11

London-In-Sight blog, The Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park, 06/10/10

Below is a selection of the epitaphs

The dark secret of an English field – a visit to Amersham Part 2

2935
An Amersham barley field with a sinister secret? copyright Carole Tyrrell

The late afternoon sun shone down on us as we crossed the huge field of barley towards the Amersham Martyrs monument. We would never have known that it was there except for a knowledgeable member of our party who led the way. Butterflies were still fluttering about; a large white and the first meadow brown of the summer accompanied us we followed the path though the rustling crop.

amershammartyrs

The Amersham memorial is a tall, grey, granite obelisk behind a tall hedge which faces out towards the village and church below. It’s surrounded by tall box hedges and the field. It’s a reminder of past religious differences.

The memorial is to commemorate the six Martyrs, local men. who were burned at the stake in 1521. Their crime was wanting to read the Bible in English, amongst other ambitions, and their cruel deaths were meant to deter others. The six were burned high above Amersham so that the flames and smoke would be visible to all in the village below as a warning. The daughter of one of the Martyrs and the children of another were forced to light their fires.

The inscription on the monument reads –

“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument seven Protestants, six men and one woman were burned to death at the stake. They died for the principles of religious liberty,
for the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures and to worship God according to their consciences as revealed through God’s Holy Word. Their names shall live for ever”

The list of Martyrs is then displayed.

On the left hand side of the memorial are displayed the names of 4 more Martyrs who were burned, or, as in one case, strangled elsewhere.

Amersham3
The names of the Amersham men killed elsewhere. copyright Carole Tyrrell

The monument was erected in 1931 by The Protestant Alliance who still exist today.

Amersham1
The Protestant Alliance who erected the monument. copyright Carole Tyrrell

They maintain two other Martyr monuments: Smithfield erected in 1870 and Norwich which was erected in 1994.
Suburbia lies behind the memorial area and I wondered if there had ever been any echoes of these brutal killings. Suddenly the field which had seemed so idyllic on that hot summer’s day seemed to have long shadows and I wondered to myself if I would like to be here alone on a dark, cold night.

Robert MacFarlane recently wrote an article on the eeriness of the English countryside for The Guardian Books section and it seemed to express this mood and feeling completely. Despite its rural charms, the English countryside has its own atmosphere, a ‘folk-horror’ and who hasn’t had that unsettling feeling of dread when in the midst of a dark wood or on a lonely road late at night. I once went exploring in the midst of the Wiltshire landscape near Salisbury and wandered up to a Stone Age hillfort. We had a map and instructions for the return journey but I got lost. I couldn’t explain it but the countryside around it looked different when we were on the other side of the fort. Eventually we found our way back to the road and got home but we heard later that other visitors to the site had also got lost. I’ve visited the fort again since and never had that experience again. To read the article follow this link:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/10/eeriness-english-countryside-robert-macfarlane

For further reading: http://www.amersham.org.uk/martyrsmemorial/index.htm

Our visit to Amersham was fascinating and proves that you can never predict what jewels you might find in a country church and what secrets you might uncover.

©texts and photos Carole Tyrrell

A weeping cherub and brief lives – St Mary’s, Amersham, 4/7/2015 Part 1

This was a visit organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery in 2015.

The path through the field towards Amersham copyright Carole Tyrrell
The path through the field towards Amersham
copyright Carole Tyrrell

We could see St Mary’s church below the hill as we skirted the outside of the huge field of barley.  Red kites wheeled above our heads and a skylark sang to accompany us.  Butterflies; tortoiseshells, meadow browns and gate keeper, led our way to Amersham on a hot July day. On the way we passed St Mary’s Graveyard in old Amersham where the last woman to be hanged in England, Ruth Ellis, is rumoured to lie, buried in and unmarked grave.  A pair of banded demoiselle dragonflies danced on the air over the small stream nearby, their wings glittering in the sun like tiny jewels.

St Mary's church under a lovely blue sky. copyright Carole Tyrrell
St Mary’s church under a lovely blue sky.
copyright Carole Tyrrell
An interesting iron memorial within St Mary's churchyard copyright Carole Tyrrell
An interesting iron memorial within St Mary’s churchyard
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

St Mary’s is the church that featured in the film ‘4 Weddings and a Funeral’ and we briefly explored its surrounding churchyard and interesting monuments.   There has been a church on the site since 1140 with many historical features  such as  the medieval font  and a 17th century Flemish stained glass window.

‘ In about 1620, the Drake family (distant cousins of Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Drake) bought the town and its estates. They remain patrons of the Parish to this day, many of their younger sons serving as Rector over the centuries. In 1870, Rector Edward Drake persuaded his brother the Squire to reorder and restore St Mary’s to something like its mediaeval interior layout. It was also at this point that the church was clad in flint.’  http://stmaryschurchamersham.com/history

Our guide had the memorable name of Howard Hughes and he led us through the chancel with its large memorials. One was to a 14 year old boy, Henry Curwen Workington, who died in Amersham in 1636 and another featured 2 lifesize sculptures of a married couple who didn’t look very happy.  There was also a wall memorial with a bust of man which, within the frame, made him look as if he was in a Punch and Judy tent.

The Henry Curwen Workington memorial copyright Carole Tyrrell
The Henry Curwen Workington memorial
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

Memorial, chancel, St Marys copyright Carole Tyrrell
Memorial, chancel, St Marys
copyright Carole Tyrrell
Memorial, St Marys chancel copyright Carole Tyrrell
Memorial, St Marys chancel
copyright Carole Tyrrell

But the Drake chapel, once a vestry, was our destination.  It was an unexpected jewel.     The room is light and airy and lined with fascinating and poignant  memorials.  It’s normally closed,  but Howard opened it especially for us and for a lover of symbols , like myself it was a wonderful feast.  The Drake family had South London connections due to the land they owned and several  or our local road names bear witness such as Drakefell and Shardeloes.  In the 18th century they added Tyrwhitt in order to inherit lands.

The Drake Chapel was converted into a monument room in 1728 with the interment of Mountague Garrard Drake as there was insufficient space to accommodate him and his memorial.   Mountague was laid to rest in the vaults below and Peter Scheneermakers carved his lavish  and flamboyant  memorial carved  which was erected at the then huge cost of 500 guineas.  The tomb features a lifesize reclining statue of himself, we presumed,  with 2 winged cherubs.

Elizabeth, his son’s wife,  who died at 32 in 1757, monument  faced him.  In a carved panel she is praying with her six surviving children with two other deceased children who may be represented by a weeping cherub beneath.

A carved panel from Elizabeth's memorial. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A carved panel from Elizabeth’s memorial.
copyright Carole Tyrrell
The weeping cherub on Elizabeth's memorial. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The weeping cherub on Elizabeth’s memorial.
copyright Carole Tyrrell
The weeping cherub. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The weeping cherub.
copyright Carole Tyrrell
Elizabeth's memorial in full. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Elizabeth’s memorial in full.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Another epitaph to a young wife said simply that: she had left behind 2 infant daughters and ‘Her circle of life tho’ small was complete

It seemed appropriate that in; this Waterloo bi-centennial year that there was a Waterloo veteran, William Tyrwhitt-Drake, who was commemorated.

A memorial to a Waterloo veteran copyright Carole Tyrrell
A memorial to a Waterloo veteran
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Note the laurel wreaths suspended from his sword indicating victory, eternity and immortality. He also has his helmet carved onto it.

Howard kindly showed us an unusual  monumental brass to John Drake, a child who died aged 4 in 1623, with a moving epitaph:

Had he liv’d to be a man

This inch had grown but to a span

Now is he past all fear of pain

It were fine to with him here again

View but the way by which we all come

Thought by he’s best that’s first home.

The poignant brass memorial to a child. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The poignant brass memorial to a child.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Howard had been inspired to read our Symbols guide on the FONC website and pointed out downturned torches and also the pelican and her babies.  She strikes her breast  with her beak to allow the young to feed on her blood to prevent starvation and this is a symbol of Jesus giving his life to his followers.

Two interesting symbols on this memorial. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Two interesting symbols on this memorial.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

There is an elegant turn and, to the right hand side, a pelican feeding her babies.

On the 16 year old Elizabeth Drake’s memorial is a hen and her chicks which was a more unusual one.

A mourning woman copyright Carole Tyrrell
Elizabeth Drake’s memorial with mourning woman and hen
copyright Carole Tyrrell

There was also a magnificently carved weeping willow, a dove with an olive branch and poppies.    On William Drake’s memorial was an exquisitely carved mourning woman with the signature John Bacon Jnr.  We wondered if this was the same John Bacon who worked on St Pauls Cathedral.

A mourning woman attributed to John Bacon. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A mourning woman attributed to John Bacon.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The memorials took us through the centuries from the 18th to the 20th and they became smaller and plainer as we did.  The Drakes and  Drake-Tyrwhitts could afford the best sculptors. Interments in the Room continued until the death of Thomas Tyrwhitt-Drake .  In 1811 the room was enlarged and doubled  in size.  Interments into the vault continued until the early 20th century.

Several of the FONC party climbed the narrow and dark stairs to  the top of the church tower to admire the views of the surrounding countryside before we thanked Howard and continued on our visit.

‘The Drake Chapel, containing many memorials to the family is one of the finest examples of its kind in the county, second only to that of the Dukes of Bedford in Chenies Church and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.. It is open on Sunday mornings after the 10.15am service, or by appointment via the Parish Office.’ http://stmaryschurchamersham.com/history

Originally published in Friends of Nunhead News, 2015

Part 2 to follow in which you find out why there is a monument to the Amersham Martyrs in the corner of an English field………

An Amersham barley field with a sinister secret? copyright Carole Tyrrell
An Amersham barley field with a sinister secret?
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell