As a ‘church crawler’, or someone who likes to poke about in churches and churchyards, I didn’t expect to find this finely carved pair of South American Indians in an Oxfordshire church. They decorate the monument dedicated to Edmund Harman (1509-1577) and his ‘faithful’ wife, Agnes.
The Indians have been identified as belonging to the Tupinamba tribe who, in the early 1500’s, lived at the mouth of the Amazon. They are assumed to be the earliest known representation of South American Indians in England. The Tupinamba tribe were known to be cannibals and the carvings are believed to be the work of a Dutch carver, Cornelis Bos. However, no-one’s quite sure whether they’re there. It has been assumed that they are a reference to Edmund Harman’s Brazilian trade interests. But perhaps Bos might have seen a similar design in the Spanish Netherlands and decided to ‘borrow’ it.
Edmund Harman was an influential man at Henry VIII’s court. In fact, he was one of Henry’s most important and trusted servants. From 1533-1547, he was the King’s personal barber and servant, a position that gave him enormous influence at court as he was so near to the King. I’m sure that he didn’t spend his time asking Henry VIII if he’d been anywhere nice for his holidays……he was probably too busy bending the King’s ear with promoting his friends business schemes. In 1538, Edmund had risen so high that he was included in a list of people at court who were:
‘…to be had in the King’s most benign remembrance…’
Benign it certainly was, as it meant that Edmund was granted several pieces of land in Oxfordshire as well as Burford Priory. He was also one of the 15 servants who made up the Privy Chamber and their job was to attend to every aspect of the King’s comfort.
In 1546, Edmund was one of the witnesses to Henry VIII’s will which was a very important document. According to the Burford church website,
He makes an appearance with his King in Holbein’s last painting which is kept at The Barber’s Hall in London. The artist has helpfully labelled all the assembled men and Edmund is at the front on the right hand side.
Edmund and Agnes had sixteen children (!) but only two of them, both girls, survived their parents. There are representations of them on the lower half of the monument.
According to the Burford church website, Edmund’s epitaph:
‘…..is considered to be an early example of a Post-Reformation epitaph as there is no mention of Purgatory or saying prayers for the dead man’s soul to ease his way out of it. Purgatory and other religious practices had all been swept away by Henry VIII’s determination to divorce Katherine of Aragon and set himself up as the Head of the new Church of England.’
It is a lovely monument with beautiful, crisp carving and a wonderful example of the stone carver’s skill. Sadly, despite all the expense and the effort lavished in creating the monument, Edmund and Agnes were buried in Taynton which is 7 miles away from Burford.
However, it stands as a memorial to a man who rose from humble beginnings, moved in powerful circles and brought the New World closer to home.
This was the inscription that made the most impression as it was so touching and heartfelt. It perfectly expressed the deceased’s belief, that although they had pre-deceased their partner, they believed that they would both wake again on Judgement Day and be reunited.
Its simplicity is what makes it stand out simple and yet I have no idea on which monument the inscription was despite looking through my photos from the day. But it made a powerful impression. In many ways it was more powerful than far more ornate monuments and tombs.
However, when the Penguin Book Cover Generator was doing the rounds on social media just prior to Christmas last year it provided inspiration for one book design.
When we can actually go out again, whenever that is, I’m coming back Burford – ready or not!
So what can you do with a ruined, vandalised building in the middle of a wood?
Hope that it falls down and solves the problem?
Forget about it, let nature take its course and make it into a romantic ruin?
Wait for someone else to finish the job and try and blow it up again?
Luckily for the Mausoleum, there were local people who cared about it and knew what a jewel they had in their midst. They were determined to save it. So in 2001, Gravesham Council took the bold step of buying it and Cobham wood from HM Government and, with funding from Union Railways, the Cobham Ashenbank Management Scheme or CAMS for short was formed. This included several stakeholders such as the National Trust and English Heritage and with a £6million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund they carried out the restoration. They were lucky that Wyatt’s original drawings still existed as well as James Wraight RIBA’s 1946 full drawing with measurements which were invaluable resources. In 2010 the project won at the Kent Design Awards and the National Trust took over in 2013. It must have been a real challenge to turn a ruin back into the glorious building that it is again. It opened to the public in April 2014.
It’s a remarkable building which has survived because local people appreciated its beauty and importance.
Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society commented:
‘That it’s a reminder of thwarted sepulchral ambition and episcopal control’
and it is an apt description in many ways. For a funerary symbol enthusiast like myself it was a fascinating structure to walk around it and see the various motifs of death. I was so glad that I made the effort to visit at last.
If you want to visit the Mausoleum then be prepared for a walk. You can come up through the Ransford Nature Reserve which is a lovely stroll, especially if the poppy field is in bloom. Continue walking up through it to the top of the hill and then follow the Darnley trail through the woods. I did manage to get lost on my return journey but kept following the rule of going down all the time. The alternative is to walk through Cobham village and onto Lodge Lane at the bottom and follow the directions on the map on the noticeboard.
However, I saw the Mausoleum on sunny days but on a darker, greyer day it could feel far more eerie and melancholic. A cold wind blowing around it would remind the casual passer-by that eternal rest can be a very, very long time. Perhaps that’s the effect that the Darnleys wanted to achieve.
But then who’s to say that maybe the ghosts of long dead Darnleys don’t drift up from the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene and take up their allotted space within the Mausoleum’s crypt? There’s enough room for 32 of them after all…….
Cobham Wood can feel like a haunted place. This is where the 19th century artist, Richard Dadd, murdered his father in a spot still known as Dadd’s Hole and so began his journey to a lifetime in Broadmoor. But before Mr Dadd gave into his murderous impulses, there was another place associated with death that sits alone in the woodland. Once intended as a grand and capacious building to house the dead of the Earls of Darnley, it was never used and, for a long time during the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was surrounded by piles of burnt out cars and motorbike scramblers. The hilltop location was ideal for these nocturnal sports.
But on 5 November 1980 someone went too far and lit a pile of tyres and petrol cans in an attempt to blow the mausoleum up. It brought down the chapel floor and the Mausoleum was open to the elements. But it survived.
However, it was a sorry sight in 2003 when it featured on BBC TV’s ‘Restoration’ programme as an appeal was launched for funds to restore it. However, the Mausoleum’s future looked bleak and even I thought that, due to its location, any restoration would be destroyed again. You can see how it looked at the time: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01mvbfj
But in June 2020 I made the pilgrimage through the poppy field of Ranscombe Nature Reserve and up through the woods to the Mausoleum. As I emerged from under the tree canopy I was amazed by the Mausoleum’s size. It is big, very big and was designed to hold 32 coffins in a lower crypt. It’s an extraordinary building and was originally sat at the highest point of the Darnley estate. It became an important feature of the landscape, almost an eyecatcher folly.
The Mausoleum is square in shape with a pyramid shaped roof, a dry moat and a vandal proof fence.
It’s Grade 1 listed and a rather unlovely door keeps it secure from unwelcome visitors. Just above it I could see one of the 4 lunettes or half-moon windows as the sun shone through the amber stained glass. This was a tantalising taste of what lay inside as the light shining through them is intended to create an ethereal light inside. But, alas, the building is closed to visitors at present due to COVID-19. The building is made of brick and faced with Portland stone. It can be seen as
‘a very grand classical temple that emphasised the Age of Enlightenment’s preoccupation with aclassical way of death’ according to the National Trust’s website.
It drips with symbols of death and remembrance. The square, circle and pyramid are classical motifs of eternity, the downturned torches indicate a life extinguished and there are 4 little sarcophagi on each corner. These were stone coffins designed to hold the dead and the word comes from the Greek for ‘flesh eater’. I was in my element as you can imagine.
But who built it and chose its location? It was the 4th Earl of Darnley who commissioned the fashionable and exacting architect, James Wyatt (1746-1813) to design the Mausoleum according to detailed instructions in the 3rd Earl’s will. The Earls of Darnley had always been buried in Westminster Abbey but after the 3rd Earl’s death in 1731 the Abbey was full. So the Mausoleum was to be the solution and would hold the coffins of the Earls and their family members. The 3rd Earl:
‘left detailed instructions in his will in which he clearly stated that he wanted a square stone building with a ‘prominent pyramid’ surrounded by a dry moat. He left £5000 or £10,000 if the first amount wasn’t sufficient.’ National Trust
The source of the pyramid might have come from the Earl’s Grand Tour when he may have seen the tomb of Caius Cestius in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. There is also a building with a pyramid roof in the background of a 1647 painting by Nicholas Poussin, ‘The Sacraments of Ordination’. He was a highly regarded painter in the 18th century and there were several paintings by him included in the sale of Cobham Hall.
As the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society says:
‘Pyramids were rare in in English Georgian architecture and made their first appearance at Castle Howard;….Wyatt and Darnley trying to recreate the solemn grandeur of the ancients…’ Masusolus
Another source of inspiration may have been the famous tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. He died in 353BC and such was the fame of his tomb that his name became synonymous with all subsequent stately tombs. As a result they became known as mausoleums.
The Darnleys lived at nearby Cobham Hall so the Mausoleum it would have been handy to have your loved ones nearby for eternity. Of course you may have been looking at it and wondering when you might be joining them. In 1786, at its completion, the Mausoleum cost, in total, £9000 which in today’s money is £1million. It is a lavish building with a marvellous interior from photos I have seen.
Wyatt’s designs were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783 and a modified design completed in 1786. However, it was George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) who supervised the work as Wyatt was renowned for having a bad reputation in erecting his own work. After completion, Humphry Repton (1752-1818), considered to be the last great landscape designer of the 18th century spent the next 30 years designing the landscapes around Cobham Hall for the 4th Earl.
But the Mausoleum was never consecrated and so couldn’t be used for its intended purpose. According to Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society,
‘the Bishop of Rochester was disapproving of buildings in secular sites and refused to consecrate a building that so brazenly evoked pagan arcadia.’
Repton himself suggested that it be converted to a viewing platform so that it could be put to some use and the views would have been amazing but it didn’t happen.
But instead of being laid out in the Mausoleum as intended the Earls of Darnley have been interred in the vaults and churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Cobham village. There is a fine display of their memorials at the rear of the church and in the churchyard.
The Darnleys income came from a 25,000 acre estate in County Meath, Ireland. However their fortunes declined and in 1957 they sold Cobham Hall. After the arson attack there were many suggestions and schemes for the Mausoleum’s future. A developer bought it, intending to convert it into a residence but went bankrupt. He was presumably hoping to find a buyer who liked seclusion and could find a use for 32 coffin spaces in a crypt. The building passed into the hands of the official Receiver and HM Government became its new owner. The 4th Earl’s creation’s future looked bleak, its interior blackened from the arson attack and covered in graffiti and surrounded by a rusty junkyard.
The cawing of rooks in the bare trees kept me company as I walked towards St Mildred’s in Nurfield, just outside Meopham. It was a dark, wet, overcast day and St Mildred’s huddled surrounded by fields at the end of Church Lane. In fact, it’s known as ‘The Little Church in the Field’.
Kent has many of these picturesque churches and I hoped to discover more symbols or interesting headstones in the churchyard. Coronavirus was snapping at my heels and I knew that all churches would soon be closed.
On the horizon of one field outside the churchyard I could see the bright yellow traces of a future rapeseed crop but the other field, alongside it, was still ploughed earth. The bare trees tried to stretch up to the sky on the other side of it. I’ve always loved these in winter as you can really see the shape of the tree and the delicate pattern of branches and twigs.
St Mildred’s was closed but the church door was protected, or hidden, by four tall yew tree sentinels. A pot of purple pansies beside it were a splash of colour on such a grey day.
Despite the damp weather there were large patches of Spring flowers; Violets, both purple and white covered parts of the churchyard, together with smaller groups of Lesser Celandine which is one of the seven signs of Spring. Daffodils shuddered in the wind and a group of them huddled together for warmth by headstones. But I was determined and found the symbol of a closed book on one grave to a man who had died young. The oldest headstone was now unreadable and was decorated with tiny pom-pom shapes of a lichen. An imposing Celtic Cross was dedicated to a priest. The bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine had closed themselves up and who could blame them? Primroses kept their heads down but in one corner of the churchyard there were indications of living residents. These were of the four legged kind who had dug deep holes and left pungent evidence…..
Nurstead was described 700 years ago as ‘a poor little parish with a church.’ St Mildred’s was originally a Saxon church and made of wood. The current flint structure dates from the 14th century and the guide leaflet says ’that together with the 14th century hall of nearby Nurstead Court it is the only surviving part of the Manor as it existed in 1349.’
Meopham is pronounced Meppham and it’s more of a hamlet than a village. But it does possess another, larger church at the other end of it. This is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and appears on the village green town sign. St John’s was open and I gratefully sheltered inside glad of the respite from the weather.
The church on the sign – St John the Evangelist
Inside it was peaceful and St Johns had some interesting features. There was a very decorative wooden pulpit attributed to Grinling Gibbons and dated 1632 and the colourful and beautiful tiles decorating the chancel. They were uncredited in the guidebook. There was also a window containing fragments of medieval glass which have been dated to 1346. Curling hazel branches had been placed on windowsills and I wondered if it was in honour of Branch Sunday. Outside in the churchyard I explored and my shoes soon became soaking wet. A bonfire had been lit in an adjoining garden and the combination of that and the gloomy weather made it feel more like November. The Millais painting, ‘Autumn Leaves’, with its melancholy atmosphere sprang to mind. A patch of primroses cuddled up to each other in a drift of fallen leaves and the Lesser Celandine flowers had closed themselves in response to the rain. A lone dog violet stood in defiantly in the middle of them. It was time to go home.
But when I returned two days on the Saturday it was under sunny blue skies. St Mildred’s was now open and despite the wind that made the daffodils blow this way and that I noticed that the Spring flowers seemed to have colour again. The crisp white blossom of blackthorn foamed in one corner as did the Wild Cherry blossom on the other side of the churchyard. Late snowdrops nodded in the wind as I entered the church. The interior was very plain and simple with large ledger stones providing the nave flooring. The bare fields now looked as if they were impatiently waiting for the forthcoming crop to burst forth. I had hoped to see a March hare but no such luck. The headstones were bathed in the golden glow of the sun and the bright flowers of Lesser Celandine lifted their heads upwards and basked.
These were dedicated to past residents, the Edmeades, of nearby Nurstead Court, and dated back to the 17th century. They are actually buried in the vaults beneath the stones. A squint could be seen in the West Tower and the slow, regular ticking of the church clock was the only sound. St Mildred and her stag featured in the window above the altar and an ancient piscina was decorated with wheat ears and grapes. A reference to a farming community? The wind howled round the little church as it had done for centuries, as if trying one last time to blow it down, but it still stood.
In contrast St Johns was closed but the bright sunshine revealed several headstones that I had missed. I’m not quite sure what this figure represents but he does seem to be pointing to the small skull in the corner.
This is on the headstone dedicated to
‘Hannah, wife of Joseph Munn the elder Feb 15th 1715 in either the 34 or 54 year of her age.’
Mr Munn is buried beside in a separate grave with his second wife but not with such an intriguing symbol.
Also this naive head or skull on one headstone.
The sticky buds on a venerable Horse Chestnut tree at the entrance reminded me that despite the horrible weather we’ve had over the last couple of months Mother Nature was just getting on with it as she studded and carpeted churchyards with the bright colours of Spring flowers and blossom.
Sadly, my poking about in churchyards has had to be put on hold this Spring due to the virus. However I did manage to visit two Kent churches just before the lockdown and I will blog about this on a future post. One churchyard was awash with symbols!
I hope that you are keeping well and safe during these strange times. Life has taken on a surreal quality for some of us as others, keyworkers, keep things going and risk their lives. Will things return to normal afterwards or will we not take so much for granted again? Who knows.
On windy nights, the derelict and romantic ruin that is Crawford Priory is reputed to have a familiar visitor. A wandering spirit walks through the estate which she once owned accompanied by a retinue of the per animals that she knew and loved. This is the ghost of Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford who is rumoured to walk the grounds when the wind is high.
Is she keeping a watch on the crumbling building or her crypt which is a mile away. Or does she see the Priory as it once was with its fine furnishings and decoration and a butler opening the front door to visitors as she, smiling, descends the sweeping staircase to meet them?
Deep in the Fife countryside lies the shell of a derelict, once grand country house. For over 25 years it has been abandoned to nature which is fast obscuring it from memory and the world. Ivy and saplings have thrust their way through broken windows and doors and a fire in 1995 was the final indignity. In 1997 its current owner applied to have it demolished but it may just eventually fall down by itself.
The cawing of crows or the wind whistling around what’s left of the Gothic styled Crawford Priory are the only sounds that the casual visitor will hear now.
However, it was never actually a priory and no religious order ever lived there. But the name went with the romantic Gothic touches such as the pointed windows and the battlements and so it became one.
A mile away near Lady Mary’s Wood lies an equally ruinous crypt dedicated to the Priory’s creator and the last of her line, Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford. From urban explorers websites, the last great recorders and finders of the abandoned, the crypt is in no better state than the Priory. Its door is now bricked up although a hole has been made in it and the crypt is falling in on itself. The pet cemetery is rumoured to be still there but I haven’t seen any photos of that while researching this article.
To add to the romance of the place there is also a belief that the pale wraith of Lady Mary drifts across the site as she gathers her pet animals around her. She had the crypt built so that she would always have a good view of the Priory even in death.
I am indebted to a Facebook friend who lives in Scotland with her family. They like to go out and explore the local countryside and share their photos and adventures online. They have been kind enough to give me permission to use their photos to illustrate this article. Crawford Priory was a real gem as it’s the sort of place that I would like to explore myself.
Crawford Priory was originally merely a hunting lodge built by the Earl of Crawford in 1756 and then completely remodelled in the then fashionable style in the early 1800’s. Lady Mary employed well known architects of the time to create it. She died in 1833 and was known as a reclusive, religious woman. The pet cemetery was also created by her to remind her of her favourite animals. They flocked to her and she was frequently attended by tame foxes, birds, dogs, cats and even a pet deer. However, I have been unable to find any images of Lady Mary but she must have been formidable as well as kind. There is a tombstone near the outer wall of the Priory dedicated to a pet deer which is what caught my attention and intrigued me enough to research further.
Lady Mary lived alone, except for her servants, and administered a large country estate as well as the Priory. This included limestone kilns, coal mines and farms amongst other business interests. This was remarkable in the 19th century for a woman alone.
This keen business sense and her managerial abilities led to Lady Mary being regarded as odd and her obituary, according to alex cochrane’s blog, considered her eccentricities as
‘lean’d to the virtue’s side for the cause of humanity .’’
Also, according to adcochrane, a distant relative of the family, quotes from one of Lady Mary#s letters on his blog, in which she says:
‘this hall is raised under bad and awful auspices ‘
and then goes onto to describe how her dog:
‘howled in the most dreadful manner in the next room to the new building…yet in spite of its cries would not leave the dining-room’
It sounds like a page from a Gothic novel as the heroine eats her dinner at a candle-lit dining table while her dog howls and the wind picks up speed around the battlements.
Lady Mary left generous bequests to the local poor, friends, servants and her animals. The Priory then came into the possession of the Earls of Glasgow and the Cochranes The photos on adcochrane’s blog and now in the possession of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (rcahms for short) reveal how lavishly decorated The Priory’s interior was:
‘The grand hall was magnificently decorated with fan vaulting and hanging pendants; suits of armour stood under canopied gothic niches; medieval style stained glass lit the hall. The drawing room and morning room opened off a rib vaulted chamber decorated with gargoyles, both with gothic fireplaces inlayed with coloured marbles. The principal staircase…was decorated with gilded armorial panels and armorial stained glass of the Earls of Glasgow.” adcochrane
ADcochrane also goes onto recall that
‘The grand bedroom was hung with panels of wallpaper depicting the life of Psyche from the ancient Latin story by Apuleius.’
He adds that in 1990 a lot of the internal decoration was still there but now it’s all gone. Even the sweeping staircase has finally collapsed. To see archive photos of the Priory in its glamorous heyday please visit his blog:
Eventually the Priory became just too expensive to maintain like many country houses. They usually required a retinue of servants to maintain them and after the Second World War these were in short supply. Adcochrane adds that both his godfather and cousin remembered exploring huge unused rooms and clambering about dusty piles of trunks.
In the 1960’s the Prior needed an expensive and major restoration but this never happened. No use has been found for it since and so it was left to lie empty until it fell into its current state.
If Lady Mary does walk in her wood and the Priory grounds then one hopes that she sees the Priory as it was and not how it is now.
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…
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..
The priest’s sermon has made you feel a little drowsy as you sit in your pew. Then, as your eyelids begin to droop, suddenly you can smell burning and hear crackling flames….faint screams as well and devilish chuckling interspersed with angels singing…..there’s a sudden warmth behind your back and when you turn around, you’re confronted with gleeful demons faces on the whitewashed wall. Is one turning round and beckoning to you? Instantly you’re wide awake again with a nudge from your mother to sit up straight and you turn to face the priest again. But you can still hear the flames and the laughter…..
Chaldon’s Doom painting, or mural as the church prefers to call it, is reputed to be the oldest in England and has been dated to at least the 12th century. It’s believed to be the work of an anonymous artist monk. Until the 17th century it taught the local parishioners which was the right path to follow if you wanted to be going upwards to eternal bliss instead of down to hell for endless torment. The mural’s official title, according to the church’s website is The Purgatorial Ladder, or Ladder of Souls, with the Seven Deadly Sins. However tastes and doctrines change and after the Reformation many of England’s Dooms were whitewashed over. It was felt by zealous reformers that they didn’t follow strict Bible doctrine and were also considered to be ‘Popish’.
But Dooms have a habit of re-surfacing and so it was with the Chaldon Doom. In 1869, the then Rector, Reverend Henry Shepherd was having the church walls prepared for whitewashing when he suddenly noticed signs of colour and halted the work. The mural was then cleaned and preserved. There was a further conservation in 1989 by the Conservator and Director of the Canterbury Wall Paintings Workshop.
According to the painted church website, Dooms were the most commonly painted subject in the Middle Ages. Dooms were often placed on a church’s west wall as a reminder to parishioners as they were leaving the church. But, as at Chaldon, they were also on the back wall or at the front on the chancel arch as at St Thomas’s Salisbury. The Chaldon mural has the disturbing effect of constantly looking over your shoulder when you turn your back on it…..
The Chaldon Doom is large and measures 17ft x 11ft and stands out against the plain white washed walls. It’s painted entirely in red whereas other Dooms are in full colour. However it’s the only image in England of the Ladder of Salvation although it’s common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It’s behind the pews and would have been a constant reminder to the parishioners to be thinking of the afterlife. A medieval congregation would have been illiterate and the Doom would have resembled a picture book or public information film on what could happen to sinners in eternity. They needed to prepare for the Final Judgement and, due to a shorter lifespan, the afterlife was much more to the forefront of the medieval mind than ours. A Doom is a traditional English term for a pictorial rendition of the Last Judgement or Doomsday which is the moment when Christ decides the eternal destination of human souls. This is because the Church was very concerned with how to portray the afterlife in a visual way that could be easily understood. After all a picture is worth a 1000 words…
There are roughly 40 surviving Dooms in Britain but in the 1880’s over 100 were recorded. They can often combine several themes: the parable of the sheep and the goats, assorted Biblical prophecies and other medieval traditions. The Chaldon mural uses the Seven Deadly Sins.
There’s only two choices for the dead as they arise from their graves to go up to Heaven and sitting around on clouds playing harps or down to Hell and the eternal flames. However Purgatory was also uppermost in the medieval mind as people believed that, prior to going to Heaven, a soul would have to spend time there before going up to Heaven. Chaldon’s Ladder represents Purgatory.
To interpret the Chaldon Doom and its crowded canvas you need to begin at the lower right of the painting and look for the serpent in the tree of life which is a metaphor for the fall of man. This is a rough guide from a Chaldon church pamphlet and imagine the priest using it to preach to his flock:
Two demons hold up a bridge of spikes over which dishonest tradesmen have to cross. These include a blacksmith, spinner, potter and mason who are all missing essential tools. The cheating milkman is about to climb the ladder with a brimming bowl of milk due to having given short measure in life.
Then we come onto the 7 Deadly Sins:
Avarice: A moneylender sits in flames as two demons hold him upright. He’s blind and money pours from his mouth. He has to count it all as it flows into his pouch.
Envy: There are two figures on the right hand side of the moneylender. One of them has longer hair than the other.
Lust: On the moneylender’s left hand side are two figures embracing.
On the left hand side of the ladder a demon plucks souls from the ladder of salvation.
Pride: A woman is beside a demon as a devil wolf gnaws at her hands. This could indicate either pride in her hands or that she fed her pets too well in life while ignoring the starving.
Anger: Above the woman two figures fight over a hunting horn. Two demons throw what are considered to be murderers into a cauldron.
Gluttony: A drunken pilgrim lies at the feet of a demon. He’s sold his cloak or badge of office in order to buy wine.
Sloth: At the far left 3 women dawdle.
A cloud bisects the picture to form a cross and the foot of the Ladder is the symbol of life. The Archangel Michael is weighing the good and bad deeds as the Devil slyly has a hand on the scales trying to weigh it down with bad deeds as he holds a rope dragging souls to hell. A penitent tries to point out to St Michael what the Devil is up to. The 3 Marys are being led to Heaven by an angel as another one above them helps a remorseful thief ascend to the Pearly Gates.
Elijah and Enoch are also going upwards to bliss on the right of the ladder as an angel holds up a scroll of their good deeds. Above them another of the heavenly host hold up a scroll which says ‘open ye the gates that the righteous may enter.’
On the far right the Lord is mesmerizing the Devil with his cross while welcoming Old Testament characters into Heaven and finally above the ladder is the demi figure of Christ in the act of benediction.
He has the sun on his right hand side and the moon on the left.
Chaldon church is near Coulsdon in Surrey and its correct name is St Peters & St Pauls.
It’s a lovely picture, postcard church with a candle snuffer tower but it’s in the middle of nowhere except for a scattering of nearby houses. There’s no village attached to it and it’s on the notorious Ditches Lane which leads off Farthing Downs. This can be a lonely road for walkers as there are no houses along it until you reach the church. Chaldon church is rumoured to have been built on a pagan site and there has been a church here since 1086 AD. Its foundations have been dated back to 727AD. I find it strange that such a magnificent and dramatic mural was located in such an out of the way place. It really took me by surprise when I first saw it as it’s so in your face. But as I turned away from it I thought I heard devilish sniggering and wondered what it must have look like under flickering candlelight.
There are other Doom paintings to be seen in England and these are:
South Leigh, Checkendon and Coombe – Oxfordshire
Stratford upon Avon, Worcs (this is in glass)
York Minster (a crypt carving)
St Thomas’s church, Salisbury
I have seen the one in Salisbury and was really impressed. It’s in full colour and is over the chancel arch to greet worshippers. Christ sits on a rainbow at the centre of the chancel arch with the godly rising from their graves with angels whereas on the left the sinners are being helped by demons to go down below. This again was whitewashed over and then re appeared. Here are a small selection of images from it:
It was the striking monochrome photo that made me stop to look at this memorial on a day trip to Hastings this month. I’d admired the brand new pier and then wandered along the beach to the fishermen’s section commonly known as the Stade.
The photo was of a man whose tough outdoor life showed in his face and had obviously been a Hastings fisherman. He’d earned his livelihood from the sea in both calm and storm tossed waters with his boat as his only protection as it sailed its course, gulls shrieking overhead for any rejected catch. And then returning to the pebbled Stade at sunrise to offload the catch which would be sold at the Fishmarket later that day.
Beard died aged 68 and may have ended his days as ‘the boy on shore’ which meant that he was no longer able to go out on the boats but, instead, helped bring them ashore or sorted out the catch and nets. He looked quite a character in his photo and I felt that it really captured him.
Hastings fishermen have had the right to use the Stade free of charge for over 800 years. In fact, Stade comes from the Saxon for ‘landing place.’ There are usually 25 boats on the beach and it’s the largest beach launched fishing fleet in Britain. There’s always gulls here looking for any titbits and amidst the pebbles are the usual paraphernalia of fishing; nets, ropes and cuttlefish cages. Near the promenade and the Fishermen’s Museum are the unique tall, black tarred Grade II listed sheds used for storage. The boats have to be hauled from the sea after each trip so cannot be longer than 10 metres and care only able to travel a few miles. This makes for an ecologically friendly method of fishing.
But ask any fisherman and he’ll tell that, with quotas and costs, it’s becoming more and more difficult to make a living from the sea. In Hastings, there’s also the clash between an old established working community which occupies a large section of valuable land in the Old Town and property developers. The fishermen strongly opposed the building of the new Jerwood Gallery on part of the Stade. In fact, ‘No Jerwood’ was the message on one fisherman’s shed.
However, I couldn’t find out much about Beard apart from a brief obituary in the Hastings Observer dated 3 June 2016. It merely said that he’d died peacefully at home on 15 May 2016 and donations were to be given to either the RNLI or Cats Protection. Under the online condolences was one from a breakdown recovery service who described him as
‘a very jolly, helpful man who will be missed by the people who knew him…heartfelt condolences and sympathy to all the family.’
So he had a family and was obviously well liked but Beard may have been one of a vanishing breed. The photo that caught my attention made me wonder about Beard and his life. Memorial benches can often feel very anonymous as there’s usually only a small plaque with a few details but Beard’s photo gave you the man as well.