A recent visit to Blackheath in London SE3 prompted a few morbid questions.
I went for a walk on the heath, south London’s original and possibly last classic ‘village green’ the other day with my friend and fellow photographer Gemma. We were looking for nice things to test our new lenses out on (her’s a telephoto, mine a macro) and many ducks and autumn leaves were involved, as well as a pesky crow on a lamppost and a fluffy caterpillar that I named Jonathan. But as well as the abundance of wildlife that resides there, I found myself wondering about the history of the place.
I didn’t investigate any further that day however. It was a day for photographs and lunch and cake bought from quaint village bakeries.
A few nights later, I sat in the passenger seat of the ambulance I was manning for the evening (cos that’s where I work, in case you didn’t already know), and our route to our next call took us shooting across the vast open space of SE3 – something I always love – a rare treat in the midst of such a built up and often ugly, imposing conurbation. Suddenly all the brickwork and concrete gives way to flatland and grass and sky, with the lights of Canary Wharf twinkling in the distance, and the welcoming glow of the Blackheath Tea Hut beckoning us with the promise of greasy burgers and Ribena.
On this occasion, I found my eyes wandering across the darkness of the heath (it was about 8pm at the end of October and the clocks had gone back the night before) to All Saints Church, which sits on the edge of the green, just outside Blackheath village itself. It’s the parish church for Blackheath village, Catholic, quaint looking, and it plays a large part in the local community.
I had noticed on the photo visit that the church has no graveyard, which seems rare. I said this out loud and my crewmate answered ‘probably because the whole heath is a graveyard – it was a plague pit wasn’t it?’
And I thought that I must do some research on this subject, because I didn’t know.
And so I did, and the wise old Internet tells me that the Blackheath plague pit is nothing more than urban legend, which is sort of a shame, because I have a morbid fascination with stuff like that, and the only thing that could make Blackheath even more beautiful to me would be the notion that the whole thing is one mass grave. It may well be, of course. Back in the dark days of the Black Death, and every wave of plague that came after it, bodies were buried everywhere, heaped up all together in mass graves anywhere there was a space big enough. So it’s likely that Blackheath did get used to house the dead. The urban myth is more in the question of the name – Blackheath didn’t get it’s name from the Black Death, but instead arguably from the quality of the soil, or from the legend that the devil was once summoned there by a group of renegades who used onions as an offering.
Once I had begun researching the subject of plague pits, I found myself wanting to know where in London they actually were.
Here’s a great article written for The Telegraph in March 2013, detailing a new plague pit uncovered by the pesky Crossrail construction (the same one that felled The Astoria – and don’t even get me started on that loss. Maybe that’s a whole CC post in itself.). I particularly like the description of London as a ‘city of skeletons’.
I think the truth is that London has such a great history of death and decay, of overcrowding and terrible graveyard organisation as a result, that the dead are buried all over the place. It’s just something that seems all the more apparent when confronted with a large open space like Blackheath, which has such an ominous name and is surrounded by the swirls of ancient myth and legend that make history buffs like Sheldon and morbid humans like me salivate slightly.
This is a corner of London packed with hidden alleyways and Roman roads. There’s an information board on every corner of the heath pointing the discerning and interested walker to the sites of old windmills and gravel pits, and in terms of remnants of the past, you really couldn’t ask for more here.
There may not be any obvious graves but just standing on this immense stretch of London grassland brings forth images of centuries and centuries of death and decay, mystery, myth, legend and the odd highway robbery. If you want to feel like you’ve gone back in time, Blackheath is a wonderful place to be.
So that was that, a little bit of research and the plague pit question answered, or kind of answered, depending on which source you want to pay attention to. I like to think personally that many a ghost wanders on the heath, amid the street furniture and dog walkers of the modern day.
The myths and legends of Blackheath continue. Here’s a story from last year regarding a living human presence living beneath the heath.
Have a wander across the grass next time you venture to that part of London. Take a kite. Spot some crows. And see what fascinating history you can dredge up while you’re at it.
All photographs by Christina Owen.