What a strange long trip it’s been as a member of the legendary ‘60’s band, The Grateful Dead, once said and it could apply so well to 2020.
At this time last year I suspect that hardly any of us were prepared for COVID and its devastating effects. Who could have predicted what was to come?
But here we are.
Still trying to make sense of it all and how our lives have changed.
But, when exploring cemeteries and churchyards, you often discover evidence of previous epidemics such as cholera or the Spanish flu. For example, Joseph Bonomi’s headstone in London’s Brompton Cemetery is inscribed with the names of 4 of his children who died of whooping cough in one week.
During this pandemic people have turned to cemeteries and churchyards as quiet places in which to exercise or just sit and enjoy the fine Spring weather and the reduced carbon emissions.
The angel on this year’s card comes from Brompton Cemetery and she often wears a coat of ivy.
I hope no-one thought that Shadowsflyaway was running out of steam with no Symbol of the Month last month for the first time in five years since this blog began. In October, I had teething troubles with an unexpected update from WordPress but that has resolved itself. But this time it’s the effects of lockdown, and travel restrictions and a lack of funds.
However, there are still so many stories to discover and share with you. I love the thrill of finding an undiscovered gem hidden under tendrils of ivy or beneath the spreading yew tree that has sheltered it for centuries.
I would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a brighter 2021.
In case you were wondering why there hasn’t been much activity on shadowsflyaway recently, it’s because WordPress has had an upgrade. I apparently now have a website instead of a blog.
This wasn’t something that I had anticipated but they have upgraded or updated me so here we are. I’m trying to work out where everything is at the moment. But I’ll get there and be posting away before long.
The angel up above is a male angel which is unusual in Victorian cemeteries. He is in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. If you think he look scary or a little creepy without his head, I have seen archive photos of him with a head and, believe me, he doesn’t look any less unnerving!
This month’s Symbol of the Month is later than planned due to the Coronavirus snapping at my heels. I was determined to have a Spring saunter through three local churches while I still could. They have now all inevitably closed.
I hope all of you can stay well during this difficult time.
It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that angels fluttered into large Victorian cemeteries and there is undoubtedly a story to be written as to how they changed sex once they had perched themselves on top of monuments. There is a hierarchy of angels and they can be identified by what they hold in their hands; a sword, shield, a book or, in this case, a trumpet. The angel holding a trumpet is the one that features as this month’s Symbol.
I have seen several examples and this one comes from West Norwood Cemetery. It’s on the headstone dedicated to Edward who died aged only 13 years. As the epitaph states,
THE ONLY SON
E. du Bois Esq
BARRISTER OF LAW’
I’ve always considered it to be a very striking, almost 3D image, with the detail on the angels wings, clothes and the clouds that surround her. It depicts an angel blowing on a trumpet with a Biblical quotation surrounding her. The angelic figure is definitely a woman. and it’s always intrigued me how angels which are traditionally male in the Bible became pretty, pensive young women when they appeared in cemeteries and churchyards. The quotation reads:
THE LAST TRUMPET (words unreadable)………
ALL SHALL RAISE AGAIN
In this case, the angel trumpeter on this headstone is a representation of the Last Judgement Day as she is the herald of the resurrection.
There are many references to angels blowing trumpets in the Bible and their association with the dead rising on the Day of Resurrection. For example in Corinthians 15:32, it says:
‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,
At the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound, and the
Dead will be raised imperishable,
And we shall be changed.’
There are also references in the Book of Revelation and Matthew 24:32.
However, it is the archangel, Gabriel, who is most associated with blowing a trumpet to announce the resurrection of the dead and images of this began to appear in the 14th century. There is a very stern and definitely male angel figure holding a trumpet at the entrance to Queen Victoria’s mausoleum at Frogmore. There is also a geometric figure known as Gabriel’s horn or Torricelli’s trumpet. It has infinite surface area but finite volume. According to Wikipedia:
‘The name refers to the Abrahamic tradition identifying the archangel Gabriel as the angel who blows the horn to announce Judgment Day, associating the divine, or infinite, with the finite. The properties of this figure were first studied by Italian physicist and mathematician Evangelista Torricelli in the 17th century.’
Angels appear in most religions and it’s appropriate that one of the most well-known is associated with communication. In fact angels are usually seen as messengers as the word ‘angel’ is derived from the Greek word, ‘angelos’, which means ‘messengers.’ They also appear in Islam as the word for messenger, Mala’ika, is the Islamic term for angel. The Koran, like the Bible, also has references to angels especially Djibril or Gabriel nd Mikhail or Michael. According to Douglas Keister:
‘Angels appeared to grow wings in a 5th century mosaic in Rome. After all they are seen as messengers between heaven and earth.’
Gabriel is is also associated with the Annunciation. He is, with his trumpet blowing, an obvious choice for announcing the departure of a soul and its arrival in Heaven.
I have seen an example of an angel blowing a trumpet in Tower Hamlets Cemetery and this lovely example comes from St Mary’s Catholic cemetery which nestles next to its larger neighbour, Kensal Green. She is on top of the Abreu monument.
While exploring Kent churchyards prior to the Coronavirus outbreak I found 17th headstones with angel heads on them with trumpets surrounding them. In this one the trumpets are crossed like long bones beneath the angel head.
So, in many ways this is a very ancient symbol which has come down through the centuries as a message of comfort to those left behind. The one dedicated to Edward du Bois has an epitaph that expresses his father’s grief as well as his anger at his son’s untimely death.
As I walked along the path to the church’s door I spotted the little angel, maybe a Christmas decoration, maybe a holiday souvenir, perched on top of a tombstone within the churchyard. Was she a warning? But I was nervous and excited at the same time. What awaited me inside? I put my hand on the church door. Would the Red Lady or the White Lady be ready to welcome me…….or would it be both of them? At last I could put it off no longer, pulled open the door and entered.
OK, I admit it. A friend dared me to visit the village of Pluckley which is in Kent and reputed to be haunted by up to 14 ghosts. ‘When will you ‘pluckley’ up the courage to visit?’ the wag quipped. So I accepted the challenge and set off on Easter Saturday.
However, Guinness World Records has stood down Pluckley’s claim to fame as the most haunted village in the UK. This is a shame as I always had visions of a solemn official from GWR turning up with a clipboard and pen to studiously record and tick off each phantom at their appointed location as if they appear to a timetable. Some of the purported ghosts include:
The spectre of the highwayman hid in a tree at the Pinnock
A phantom coach and horses has been seen in several locations around the village
The ghost of a Gypsy woman who drowned in a stream at the Pinnock
The sighting of the miller seen at Mill Hill
The hanging body of a schoolmaster in Dicky Buss’s Lane
A colonel who hanged himself in Park Wood
A man smothered by a wall of clay who drowned at the brickworks
The Lady of Rose Court, who is said to have poisoned herself in despair over a love triangle
St Nicholas church in the centre of the village is reputed to be haunted by two female ghosts: The White Lady and the Red Lady. The latter was supposed to be a great beauty who died 500 years ago and was preserved by her husband in a series of lead coffins and then ultimately in an oak chest. The Red Lady was supposedly a member of the local landowning family, the Derings, and is a sad wraith. She is said to haunt the churchyard searching for the unmarked grave of her still born son.
There had been a recent piece in the Fortean Times ‘It happened to me’ section from a visitor to the church who claimed that he’d found a hostile atmosphere and heard sibilant whispering. A blogger online discovered that none of her photos of the church or churchyard had been recorded by her camera. ‘The church is eerie’ said one friend who had visited it and another commented that the whole village had ‘an atmosphere’. ‘Oo-er!’ I thought, ’would there be an entire company of ghosts awaiting my arrival?’
It was a gloriously sunny, warm day as I walked the mile or so from the station up to the village. Fields of bright yellow rape were almost luminous. I saw my first Peacock butterfly of 2019 as it obligingly posed on a dandelion head and the local sheep bleated in welcome. Or perhaps it was a warning…
Then I encountered my first ghost hunters of the day as a car stopped with an eager looking family inside. The driver asked for directions to the church. I pointed in its direction and they drove off. Later I saw them driving out of the village again looking somewhat disappointed. As I said earlier ghosts don’t appear to order.
In fact Pluckley was teeming with small groups of ghost hunters walking up and down the High Street or briefly visiting St Nicholas looking hopeful. Some drove off quickly as obviously they had been unable to find a spectre with which to pose for a selfie. The village’s other claim to fame is that it was used as the backdrop to ITV’s The Darling Buds of May and I could see why. It’s just ‘perfick.’
St Nicholas was easy to find and it’s a real picture postcard church with a candle snuffer spire. It features on the village sign.
There may have been a church on the site since Saxon times and Pluckley is recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Pluchelei’. In the 13th century there was a stone church in place and there have been many alterations and repairs right up to the present day. The Derings have their own side chapel and there are brasses set into the floor that record various family members.
They lived at the grand house of Surrenden Dering from the 1500’s until 1928. The house was demolished in 1957 after a fire and part of some of its wood after the fire was used to create the oak cover for the font.
Inside, the church was bustling but not with eager spectres anticipating my arrival. Instead it was a group of flower arrangers placing elaborate arrangements around the church. I should have guessed that the church would be busy over the Easter weekend as the female organist began to practice. The interior of St Nicholas is small and plain with the Dering Chapel on one side. But no ghosts unless they were masquerading as the helpers, or hiding in one of their pockets. Another ghost hunting family popped their heads in and then quietly closed the door.
But no, I didn’t feel anything at all other-worldly
I decided to explore the churchyard which had a fine collection of 19th century headstones and some precariously leaning older ones. They were weighed down by moss and age and any inscriptions or symbols are now lost unless recorded elsewhere. I had to photograph one interesting symbol almost lying down on the grass as the headstone was almost horizontal.
On the other side of the churchyard was an apple orchard, just beginning to blossom, and attracting butterflies and enthusiastic bees. A small rug of multi-coloured primroses were beside a grave with a beehive on the headstone. ‘The local beekeeper?’ I thought and in a corner of the churchyard was a small plot bordered by iron railings on which there was a fulsome epitaph.
After buying postcards in the local shop to prove that I had actually been there and stoutly resisting the temptation to have a cold lager shandy in the Black Horse I retraced my steps to the station.
So is Pluckley the most haunted village in Britain? Does anything or anyone lie in wait in St Nicholas Church? Were the flower arrangers or one of their number ghosts?
The jury’s still out on whether Pluckley deserves its title but on another day in another season, perhaps when St Nicholas is not so busy, it could all be so different. Maybe if I visited during the dark season on a chill autumnal day with perhaps with the chilly fingers of mist wreathing the trees… A forgotten scarecrow blown by a wind that makes it creak and turn towards me in an empty field and the marauding groups of spook seekers are all at home watching their Most Haunted Live DVDs. This time when I enter St Nicholas it’s changed.
The shadows are longer, it feels claustrophobic and I know, by the prickling of my spine that I’m not alone…… I can only hope that this is my chance at last to meet the wonderful people in the dark..
You never know what little gems you might find in a country churchyard and I discovered one while exploring in Staplehurst. All Saints has a commanding hilltop position and looks down on pretty half-timbered houses. Since 1100 it has stood on this site and has several ancient features such as the remain s of an anchorite’s cell..
The churchyard was far larger than I expected and led to a more modern section at the back of the church. But as I explored the older part of the churchyard I turned around and came face to face with this unusual symbol on a white headstone.
It’s dedicated to Alice Stone, wife of James Stone of Sheerness. There is no date of birth recorded but she died on 5 February 1787 aged 27. Alice may have died in childbirth which was a frequent cause of death for women in past eras or maybe she was a victim of an epidemic. We’ll never know. However, there is some barely legible lettering above the inscription which I have been unable to sufficiently enhance in order to read it so this may well warrant a second visit.
The scene at the top of the tombstone is almost like a miniature Doom painting. My interpretation of it is that it’s Judgement Day and the deceased has awoken from their eternal slumber. They appear to be in a burial chamber and lying on a ledge or on a shelf within a vault. They have partly cast off their burial clothes and appear to be slightly decayed. Ribs are visible and the head appears skull-like.
But where are they destined to go next? What will be their fate?
There’s only the choice of two final destinations for them – Heaven or Hell which are depicted on either side of the figure.
On the right hand side is a magnificently winged demon, or The Devil himself, standing over a grinning skeleton whose crown has fallen from his head. The crown is a very significant symbol in that it can indicate the passage from the earthly life into the divine and I have written it about in a previous Symbol of the Month. The demonic figure appears to be holding what looks like a besom or maybe it is a three pronged fork or even a large arrow. Although there are no flames, here the Devil is triumphant in his domain.
On the left-hand side, an angel appears to be floating within clouds while blowing a large trumpet in the direction of the newly awoken deceased. Underneath the angel is a brick house with an entrance or a small narrow gateway (I have to say the entrance does resemble a fireplace). I interpret this as being a depiction of God’s House and there are numerous references to it within the Bible such as Matthew 7:13-15:
‘Enter through the narrow gate,
For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,
And many enter through it’
And also in Genesis 28: 16-17:
‘When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought,
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
It was difficult to find a specific Biblical verse that mentioned the Devil and Hell but I did find a reference in Matthew 10:28 :
‘And fear not them which kill the body,
But are not able to kill the soul:
But rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’
(King James Version)
I am not a particularly religious person but the parishioners of All Saints at the time would have recognised the quotations.
The scene would have been a prompt to the passing viewer or mourner to live their lives in a righteous manner or face the alternative for eternity. It’s very dramatic and, as Alice died at an early age, this reminder would have very pertinent at a time when the average life expectancy was far lower.
So far I have not been able to find out more about Alice or James but for now she rests within part of the quintessential English country churchyard. She’s amongst ancient stones, some protected or obscured by mosses and lichens, and the bright wildflowers of late Spring. However, I would like to know more about her and what may have inspired the little scene on her headstone.
Stylised animals, sinuous snakes, Celtic knots and traditional strapwork, flowers, angels and even a cat! The decoration on Celtic crosses within cemeteries can be varied and interesting. But it wasn’t until I was exploring Brompton Cemetery with an apps designer that I really began to look at them more closely. He spotted the Viking style animals on Margaret Stevenson’s cross near the Chapel and we were soon seeing spirals and the more emblematic strapwork known as Hiberno-Saxon art or Insular art amongst others.
Celtic Crosses first appeared within cemeteries during the Celtic Revival of the 1850’s and it has since become a worldwide emblem of Irish identity. The Revival has also been described as the Celtic Twilight and the Cross is seen as its lasting contribution to the western world’s funerary art. The Celtic Cross has been known in Ireland since the 9th century and in mainland Britain since medieval times.
It’s a form of the traditional cross but with the addition of a nimbus or ring. The latter is seen as a symbol of eternity as it has no beginning or end. The addition of the nimbus has been attributed to St Patrick who is reputed to have added it to a Christian cross, extended one of the of the lengths to form the stem and then placed it on top of a stepped base. It was this combination of a pagan symbol and a Christian one that became the Celtic Cross. It has also been described as the ‘sun cross’ by those who interpret the nimbus ring as a representation of the sun. The four arms have also been interpreted as representations of the four elements; air, earth, fire and water as well as the stages of the day or the four fixed compass directions.
The more traditional, intricately patterned bands known as strapwork are known for the unbroken lines that make up any piece. There have been 8 basic designs that have been identified and claimed to be the basis of nearly all of the interlaced patterns in Celtic decorative art. Hiberno-Saxon art is also known as Insular art and examples appear in the Books of Kells. Here are four examples from West Norwood Cemetery.
It was in Brompton that I noticed two examples with single spirals on them. A spiral on a Celtic cross is generally drawn clockwise to represent either the sun or the direction of running water.
It is one of the most ancient symbols known to mankind. A double spiral is more difficult to create and has been seen as a depiction of universal balance such as yin and yang or night and day. The triple spiral or triskele is the most difficult for obvious reasons and has several meanings attributed to it. But the one that I thought was the most appropriate in a funerary context was the triskele being seen as a representation of three worlds: the spiritual, the earthly and the celestial. The word Triskele is reputed to have come from the Greeks and it’s one of the most complex Celtic symbols.
Also in Brompton, I discovered a Celtic cross with decoration that ended in snakes heads which is interesting as snakes which were revered by the Celts. They saw them as a representation of rebirth as they shed their skins and then live again. Notice also the Celtic knot in the centre of them. These have been found in Scandinavia and Western Europe as well as appearing within Celtic insular art. They are supposed to represent eternity or the never ending cycle of life with the closed ends signifying unity.
So the next time you visit a cemetery or churchyard look out for the Celtic Cross and see what you find. It’s not only Celtic inspired decoration that appears on them. These two examples are from my local churchyard – one features traditional strapwork and the other has a lovely and unusual angel with beautifully carved feathery wings and the nimbus is almost like a halo.
This is the Mills memorial from Nunhead Cemetery and features beautifully carved passionflowers, a deeply significant symbol in the language of flowers, and also the IHS in the centre of the cross.
And finally, again from Brompton, one with a cat in its centre which is possibly a pun on the name of the family commemorated – Cattenach.