Cimetière du Père Lachaise Part 1

by Christina

In a couple of weeks I’m going to Paris. I’ve been there in every season except springtime, which according to poetry and literature throughout the ages, is the ultimate time to go.

(When spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise‘ – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer)

I’m particularly excited because it means I get to visit the French forerunner to the Magnificent Seven London cemeteries we know and love – the grand Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Sitting on a hill overlooking the city with it’s 110 acres, it’s the largest cemetery in all of Paris.

Père Lachaise was opened on 21 May 1804, the city’s answer to the rapidly filling graveyards in the city. London cemetery fans and long-time readers of this blog will be no stranger to the notion of overcrowded churchyards and corpses piling up with nowhere to go. A large garden cemetery situated far enough away from the city centre to avoid the spread of disease was the solution. London would follow suit some years later with the opening of Kensal Green Cemetery.

To begin with, Père Lachaise was not a popular cemetery. Most considered the greater distance from the centre of Paris a disadvantage, as it was too far to come for a funeral, and Roman Catholics would not be buried there as it had not been blessed by the church. By the end of 1804, Père Lachaise only contained 13 graves. Bizarrely, the administrators chose to execute a publicity stunt in order to attract more burials, and consequently, the remains of Jean de la Fontaine and Molière were transferred to Père Lachaise, after which popularity grew, and in 1812, 833 people had been interred there. Desperate to be buried next to famous people, everyone began clamouring to get in, and by 1830, there were more than 33,000 graves in the cemetery.

Père Lachaise has been expanded 5 times over the years (between 1824 and 1850) and today it holds over 1 million graves, which doesn’t include the columbarium, which houses the remains of the many that have chosen to be cremated there.

I visited the cemetery in early 2011, on the sort of grey January day where it never really gets light, and oddly, I took no photos of the place, bar a few Polaroids that didn’t develop well due to the lack of light and warmth needed. Specifically, I went to visit the grave of Jim Morrison of The Doors, and I wasn’t the only one. As we arrived, near to midday, we found a small crowd of people gathered around the fence separating his (surprisingly tiny) grave from us, the common man.

Paris Jim Morrison

Several people had chosen to vent their frustration at being the common man, forbidden from getting too close to the grave of their hero by scrawling graffiti on a nearby tree.

Paris Jim Morrison

And on the sides of a nearby mausoleum.

Paris Jim Morrison


The experience would have been somewhat of a musical epiphany had it not been so bitterly cold and dark that day. I declined to spend any more time freezing my butt off in a French cemetery, something I now regret. I would have liked to have visited some other famous Père Lachaise residents. Oscar Wilde for example. And I really wish I had taken some more photographs.

Paris Père Lachaise

I hope to revisit this beautiful place in a couple of weeks, and I very much hope the weather is better. With that in mind, keep your fingers crossed for part 2 of this post!

All photos by Christina Owen © 2015


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The Lost Docks, Prince and Engineer of Southwark

by Sheldon

On a chilly Sunday morning, Steve and I went to Bermondsey tube station to go on a tour of Thames-side Southwark, led by the charismatic Tim Thomas (who wore the best flat cap I’ve ever seen). An actor (gleefully telling us it was he who bumped off Simon Callow in the third act of Four Weddings and a Funeral), Singer (and songwriter, co-writing the theme tune to Rainbow) and friend of the Brunel Museum, over the next two hours Tim took us into the heart of the old docks of Southwark.


Bermondsey and Rotherhithe were historically poor areas. The inconsistent docking of ships meant that a regular wage to a worker was not accessible, so it’s hardly surprising that Dickens, the tour-guides’ friend, came here regularly to see the deplorable conditions for himself and get inspiration for his characters from the area. One such character lies in the Church of St Mary’s, designed by John Adams, who also designed St. George’s Hanover Square, where Laurence Sterne was buried.


In the shadow of its mighty spire, lies the grave of a Prince. In 1783, The Antelope, on a secret mission from the East India Company, was wrecked on a coral reef off what is now the Republic of Palau. “The crew were terrified that they were going to be put in a pot, boiled up and eaten by the locals” explained Tim. “The opposite happened, the locals welcomed them and helped them repair the ship. The Captain got to know the King of the island very well, and friendships were formed.”

“Now the King had a son by the name of Prince Lee Boo, and he was fascinated by what he could gather from the crew about what London was like. Prince Lee Boo begged his father that he should sail back. He caused a sensation when he arrived as no-one had seen a South Sea Islander before. He became a celebrity and even met the King. However the air of London got to him and he died of Smallpox six months later.”


Wheeeeeeee! Prince Lee Boo in the background, probably wouldn’t be impressed…


Tim then took us to a pub nearby called the Mayflower, whose Captain resides in the same Churchyard as Prince Lee Boo. The Mayflower, named in honour  of the ship that sailed from the mooring of this very pub to bring the first successful colonists of North America to what is now Massachusetts in November 1620. “This is a very popular place for our North American allies to make a pilgrimage to,” confirmed Tim.


The jewel of the tour was hidden from view, ingress gained through a tight hole into what looks like a baby gas-holder from Rotherhithe Street. Next door to the Brunel Museum is the original entrance shaft to is Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first significant engineering project: the first tunnel under the Thames and indeed, a river. The project, which sought to alleviate the congestion that the boats of the Thames had created, was projected to take three but instead took eighteen years to complete. It was a marvel of engineering which cost several workers their lives (with Isambard a near fatality at one stage) from deadly methane gas, quicksand and flooding.


Tim’s voice, holding the group’s attention like a subterranean raconteur, boomed around the soot-stained walls, pointing out the remains of the staircases that our greatest living engineer and thousands of Londoners would have once walked down, to sample banquets and music. The venture ultimately failed and the tunnel, which became the haunt of thieves and scarlet women, was eventually converted into a tunnel for a railway. It is now the oldest section of railway in London.

Brunel's Tunnel last year, when it was open to walk to the public die to engineering works. © Nick Richards, 2014.

Brunel’s Tunnel last year, when it was open to walk to the public die to engineering works. © Nick Richards, 2014.

An original rail for the bannister of the Brunel Tunnel

An original rail for the bannister of the Brunel Tunnel

We ascended the scaffold out of Brunel’s tunnel and seemingly returned to the world of the living. Much of the area’s past is hidden, buried even, underground, but with guides such as Tim, the long gone and the long dead effortlessly were resurrected.


And to finish, two pints in the pub frequeted by Turner and Whistler.

And to finish, two pints in the Angel pub, frequented by Turner and Whistler.

Tim’s walk runs every Sunday, meeting at 10:45am at Bermondsey Tube. Photographs © Stephen Roberts 2015.

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Outside London: A Visit To The Miracle Church, Iceland.

by Christina

On the south western tip of Iceland, near to the parish of Selvogur,  lies Strond, an old area of farmland. Here, there is a little church standing on a dune, looking out to sea. In front of it, the Atlantic Ocean crashes angrily over lava reefs and onto the shore. Down the coast a bit there’s a lighthouse, and all around is evidence of what nature can do when it’s feeling volatile. Mountains and ice caps hiding volcanoes underneath. Lava fields and flood plains. Snow and ice. Iceland is magnificent but deadly. The lighthouse might not save you if nature decided to do it’s worst here. The church is called Strandarkirkja and it is small and calm in the face of all of this terrifying and dramatic beauty.

The church of miracles


The legend of the church at Strond

‘A long time ago, a young farmer who lived inland went to Norway on his own ship to obtain goods for building a house. On his way back to Iceland with his companions, the seas were getting rough. They were lost in the dark storm not knowing where the ship was heading. In desperation the farmer promised that if he came ashore safely, he would give all his wood to build a church at the landing site. 

Then a vision of a shining angel appeared to him, in front of the ship and he steered towards it. Nothing is told of the progress of the ship until it landed in a sandy cove between low cliffs. The angel disappeared and dawn broke upon the sailors, who then saw that they had been led along a winding channel between dangerous reefs on the surf-pounded coast. Upon that shore, beyond a low gravel dune, the first church at Strond was erected from the farmers’ wood as he had promised. ‘

– A popular legend about the church at Strond, chronicled by Konrad Bjarnason in Selvogur in 1988. The events probably took place in the 11th or 12th century. 

The origins of the church at Strond

The church is mentioned for the first time in a register of churches compiled by bishop Pall Jonsson shortly before 1200. It is dedicated to two saints of the Catholic church – Mary, the mother of God and Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred in 1170.

The oldest description of the church dates from 1624, during the time of Oddur Einarsson, the bishop of Skaholt, who detailed a restoration of the church, including new beams and a pulpit. The church has been restored several times over the centuries, but it has always stood in the same spot, despite plans to move it in 1751, 1759 and 1820.

How I came to be standing in front of the church at Strond

I was on a coach tour of southern Iceland during the first week of March 2015. It was spectacular. We had seen hulking glaciers and mountains that stretched away into the distance. The edges of continents and crashing waterfalls with rainbows running through them like ribbons. We had seen the Northern Lights shining in the sky above us and the waves of the north Atlantic attempting to rush up beaches with volcanic sand as black as night, to capture us and sweep us away. It was our last day and we were on our way back to Reykjavik. This church was one of our last stops. It was a sunny day but very cold, and it had snowed earlier. There was snow still on the ground, and thick sheet ice all around. As we descended the steps from the coach, several of our party slipped over. Wind battered the faces of those who chose to venture towards the edge of the dunes to stare out to sea. I turned around and made a beeline up the hill, towards the church.

DSC04310 DSC04312


It looked so small and innocent standing there on the low dunes, surrounded by a small churchyard and a smattering of gravestones. Why had the ocean not risen up and swept it away? Surely it could not remain here unharmed for long? Our Icelandic tour guide told us that this church was known as the ‘miracle church’ and this area as ‘angel’s cove’ in homage to the legend of the seamen lost in the storm, who were brought safe to shore by a shining angel.



The locals believe that the church has divine powers, and that no harm will come to sailors who sail within sight of it.

Next to the church, there is a path that winds up a little hill to where a stone statue of an angel stands tall and looks out over the ocean.

Angel's CoveThe sculpture is called ‘Landsyn’ or ‘Land in Sight’. It was carved of Norwegian stone in 1950 by Gunnfriour Jonsdottir, who is buried in the churchyard at Strandarkirkja. It reminds men to compare the ‘low and insignificant here on Earth to the high and heavenly’.



We were called back to the coach all too soon and were on our way, leaving the little church on this remote coastline behind us. I was sad to say goodbye so soon. I could have stayed there all day.

All photographs by Christina Owen, copyright March 2015


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The Burton Mausoleum: an adventurer’s tomb in a quiet suburb

by Caroline

To call Sir Richard Francis Burton an adventurer is, really, a huge oversimplification.  He was an explorer, a translator, a linguist, an ethnographer, a diplomat, a spy, a poet and a soldier – one of the most eccentric, fascinating and controversial of Victorians.  He’s buried in an otherwise unassuming churchyard in Mortlake, South West London, in a stunning mausoleum that captures something of the dramatic, adventurous nature of his life.


Continue reading

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Life Overlooking Death

by Sheldon

A stone’s throw away from Baron’s Court Station and the Charing Cross Hospital is the oasis of Margravine Cemetery, also known as Hammersmith Cemetery. Last week I borrowed a very expensive camera and went grave-hunting to have a closer look at a beautiful juxtaposition between life and death.



Where once orchards and market gardens provided produce for the sleepy town of Hammersmith, the arrival of the Metropolitan Line and a wave of cholera epidemics forced the vestries of the local area to open a new burial ground for a rapidly expanding population after fifteen years of heel-dragging. farmers were told to move on after that year’s harvest had been taken and work promptly began in the laying out of the cemetery.

Two chapels, designed by local architect George Saunders were built in the Gothic style, although only one now remains: even though the Cemetery was bombed in 1940 (with stories of a crater and various bits of the dead ending up in neighbouring back gardens,) Hitler wasn’t responsible for the loss of the Anglican Chapel, which was demolished in 1939 at the hands of council forces instead. Boo.


Close to the entrance, the only Mausoleum in the entire Cemetery, to the Young Family stands, looking like its vacationing from West Norwood.

The Cemetery was closed in 1951 and landscaped to provide a green space in a part of London that was under consistent threat of development. I was slightly taken aback at how few headstones remain: part of the works to tidy the site involved removing headstones, unless living descendants wished the memorials to stay. This creates sporadic patches of emptiness and clusters of weathered headstones. But don’t let that allow any cause to sneer – its a beautiful space and rightly has a Green Flag award: a result and testament to the loyal volunteers and work that Hammersmith and Fulham put into the site to maintain a balance between nature, wildlife and the historic legacy of what remains.



There are a few memorials worthy of mentioning, including the three which are Grade II listed – Abe Smith, the Australian Gold prospector who’s bas relief adorns his headstone; the Bronze edifice to Robert Broad who owned the factory which cast the statue of Anteros in Piccadilly; and the cross to the Blakes Road Munitions Tragedy, where a few days before the end of the First World War, a number of the workforce, mainly women, were killed in an explosion. The site today is now home to the Riverside Studios, where early episodes of Doctor Who were filmed.


Despite not having the prestige of Highgate of Brompton, enough has happened within its seventeen acres that certainly shows off its quirky character. Gravediggers quarrelling over pay and having fist-fights in the tool-house, the superintendent’s wife getting drunk and making a spectacle of herself on Christmas day 1879 and residents of nearby Palliser Road complaining of the stench of a cemetery that was having to cater for 83,00 people. No such events happened on my visit, although alarmingly, a vandal has taken to decapitating the Angels of Margravine.


Margravine also has a family connection as somewhere in its soil lays the remains of me and Nick’s great-uncle, who, as family legend states, died aged five years old in the arms of my Grandfather. 

Cahring Cross Hospital as it overlooks Margravine

Something that Caroline, aka Flickering Lamps mentioned was the awkward situation of the leering dominance of the Charing Cross Hospital over the seventeen acres of tranquility. “Imagine going into hospital and seeing that from your bedside window!” she remarked. Ihadn’t thought of that: a number of Doctors must have had a very black sense of humour when dealing with patients from over the years. A not to pleasant thought perhaps – perhaps current patients are glad the Cemetery is now full! 

All photography (other than the image of the Chapel) © Sheldon K Goodman, 2015.

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Death in Bayswater

by Sheldon

I was supposed to be researching a tour along a canal the following day, yet there I was, making a bee-line for Kensal Green Cemetery, walking a mile off course to find the grave of a man whose life (and horrific death) had been preoccupying my thoughts for weeks and weeks.


During a reunion walk between my fellow course mates on the City of Westminster Guiding course, I heard the life story of a brilliant man who single-handedly built an empire. He was one of those men who litter the Victorian era: starting off with nothing and then reaping the successes of hard work. Becoming a household name, he held a reputation that stretched to all four corners of the globe.

His story was destined to end unhappily.


Bayswater was the epicentre of William Whiteley’s success. Described by some as a cross between Sir Alan Sugar and Willy Wonka, it was his visit to the Great Exhibition of 1851 that fired his imagination and passion for retail: marvellous goods and wares from all four corners of the empire and yet none of it was for sale. He wanted his own Crystal Palace where everything on show was for sale and to be a world renowned retailer. The decision was made: as soon as he was to complete his apprenticeship in Yorkshire, he would come to London to find his fortune.

In 1863, after saving £700 from a job he’d taken at a Drapers in Ludgate Hill, he owned one shop. By 1867, he owned the entire parade. Founding his own version of Harrods in the west of London, his services were recognised by Queen Victoria who gave him a Royal Warrant in 1896 – an unprecedented move.

On January 24th 1907, a young man entered the shop wishing to speak with Whiteley, claiming that he was on business from a solicitor. The chief cashier showed him to Whiteley’s Office where business was to continue as usual.

Half an hour had passed and the shop assistants had begun to worry. He was known for the speed with which he dealt with meetings and when shouting began to bellow from the office, a number of them became concerned. Very soon, Whiteley thundered out of his office and asked for a Policeman to be called immediately. The visitor, clearly aggrieved, then draws a pistol and shoots Whiteley twice, the second shot spreading his brains all over the floor. The visitor then turns the gun on himself, falling into a position that mirrors the final position of his victim.pic-8-william-whiteley


The glass dome of Whiteley’s Department Store, Queensway

The visitor, called Horace Rayner survived, but where he failed in killing himself, he succeeded in losing an eye. He’d come to the store asking for a job from the man who he believed he was the illegitimate son of, to which Whiteley point blank refused any assistance to him. A motive had been found: public opinion actually sided with Rayner after the less salubrious details of Whiteley’s nature came to light at the inquest – making his staff work sixteen hour days, his terrible womanising and demeaning punishments for the most minor of offences. Rayner’s sentence was commuted from hanging to twenty years imprisonment after public support demanded clemency, supported by articles in newspapers of the time.


Whiteley’s grave

As someone who works in retail, the whole affair had me intruiged. It certainly sounded better than anything I’d heard of that blasted Mr. Selfridge programme, and I was surprised to learn the story was made into a radio play in the 80’s, which is well worth a listen from the title alone – Willy’s Wild Oats. And there I was, at the grave of a multi-millionaire (surprisingly in a very regular part of the Cemetery – a spend-thrift even in death?) with people walking past, completely unaware of the events the man ten feet below me had experienced.

My thanks to the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery and Sandy Rhodes for assisting me in the research for this post.

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Outside London: Stumbling on a Medieval Church in Kent

Oast Houses, Kent

Oast Houses, Kent

by Christina 

Last week, on an uncharacteristically sunny day in February, I came across a brown sign with a picture of a church on it. It was pointing down a dirt track that led up a hill and then disappeared into the trees. I was in Kent, looking for Oast Houses to photograph (I love an Oast House and Kent is littered with them – many converted into other things – hotels, pubs, houses…but that’s for another day) and I don’t know what led me to go pursuing brown signs depicting churches instead but clearly something did, because before I knew it, I was driving up the dirt track and into the middle of deepest darkest nowhere (in real terms: about 5 miles from Tonbridge) in search of who knew what?

Brown Sign

I came to another sign that said ‘Norman church’. Now I was really interested. I imagined picturesque ruins and maybe a ghost or two.

And then I came upon my apparently destination. Here, on the side of a hill, stood a little church, surrounded by a very old churchyard and beyond that, a slightly newer, more gleaming one, with gravestones that were readable and obviously tended to. Beyond that was grass and mud and beyond that was a stile, which I evidently must climb in order to reach the Norman curiosity that lay beyond. I parked my trusty Nissan Micra up on a grass verge and set off. The sun was hanging low in the sky (it was about 3.30pm) and burning orange – a beautiful pre-spring, late afternoon colour. The sky was a deafening blue. A more beautiful time to find this hidden church I could not have picked.

Over the stile and up the hill

Over the stile and up the hill

I trudged up the hill and came alongside the church. Yew trees that had clearly seen better days were dotted all around, and wonky old gravestones that were now unreadable stood between them, partially moss covered and long neglected. I found a plaque on the wall of the church near the hulking wooden door (ajar) that declared it to be the Church of Thomas a Becket, Capel, and no longer in regular use.

Capel Church


Capel Church

The sign also told me that I could go inside and, taking this as an invitation, I pulled the door open and stepped into a foyer (a glossary of church terms tells me it should be called a narthex) that was at least 10 degrees colder than outside. I could see the chapel through the open door straight ahead of me and I could see that it was deserted. It might have been a little creepy if the sun had not have been pouring in through the windows to my right (substantially more contemporary than the windows on my left, which looked to have been carved into the stone walls very deeply and a very long time ago) but instead it was – and I know I say this a lot about various churches and churchyards so bear with me – peaceful. A tiny oasis of calm in an ocean of 21st Century hubbub that I knew lay just outside and down the road a bit. I didn’t even have 4G in here. The Universe was determined to get me off my phone and into the discovery of something historic.

Inside Capel Church

Inside Capel Church

And there was a lot of history here. The walls of the nave were covered with what looked like cave paintings, faded and brown, as if they had been drawn in wet clay. An information sheet on a table at the back of the church informed me that these were medieval church wall paintings, uncovered in 1927. Presumably until then, they had been hiding, just waiting to be discovered.

Medieval wall paintings

Medieval wall paintings

I tried to imagine what the church would have been like back in 1300. There was what looked like a bricked up doorway on one wall which I later learned was exactly that and had probably been part of the original architecture of the building. The church had been partially rebuilt after 1639, when it was damaged by fire, and the roof had been replaced in the 14th century, so this was a church that had seen some change. But some of the oldest parts still remain.

Capel Church

Back outside, I found daffodils sprouting up through the damp earth and beginning to flower. The very old and the very new, existing together. In the distance I could see Oast Houses – their pointed roofs gleaming in the setting sun, and across the valley I could hear cows mooing chickens clucking. Possibly the landscape hasn’t changed all that much in this part of the world since 1086, when this church was listed in the Domesday book (one of only five churches to have been so). Sir Thomas a Becket himself was thought to have preached here once upon a very long ago – perhaps not in the church but instead nearby, under a yew tree.

An information sheet for my information

An information sheet for my information

An enchanting accidental find on a rare good day in February.

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