The Crossbones Graveyard: Remembrance and Healing

Laurie reading the Crossbones offerings

One of the most extraordinary and moving acts of remembrance that I have recently encountered is that of the Crossbones Cemetery in Southwark, London. Here, south of the River Thames – in the area where London Bridge spans the river – is Bankside and the Borough. Historically, this area was outside the old City of London’s boundaries and laws. As you crossed the river in to what was known as the ‘Liberty of the Clink’ you entered the underbelly of city life; here were prisons, drinking houses, gambling and prostitution, bear baiting and all manner of shady and edgy pursuits. In this chaotic, colourful and brutal environment the theatre was born; art imitating life at a place where living was experienced at its most visceral.

This area came under the ruling of the Bishop of Winchester, the ruins of his palace still visible near Southwark Cathedral. The prostitutes of the Liberty were under the Bishop’s licence for 500 years (they were known as ‘Winchester Geese’) but in an act of supreme hypocrisy they were denied burial in consecrated ground. The Crossbones Graveyard was where these unfortunate women ended their lives. In its latter years it became a pauper’s burial site. It was a place of forgotten souls, those whose lives had often been brutal and short and whose stories had been ignored.

This might have continued to be so but for one of those strange twists of fate. During improvements to the Jubilee Line, London Transport dug upon the land that had once – unknown to most – been the graveyard; their digging immediately unearthed skulls and bones and so further work was halted while Museum of London archaeologists were brought in to investigate and remove skeletons.

At around the same point, the playwright, poet and performer John Constable was making his own surprising discoveries with regard to the Crossbones site. Without knowing of its existence, he was drawn one night to this desolate piece of industrial ground by a poetic ‘voice’ in his head. The poem came to him in an inspired rush. It soon became apparent that the voice of this poem was that of a Winchester Goose, the ‘spirit’ of a Liberty prostitute who had been laid to rest at ‘Crossbones’. It was as if London Transport’s digging had unearthed not merely the bones of the dead but their unheard voices too.

Constable’s writing and later research led him to discover that the Crossbones cemetery had indeed once existed –  it had not merely been something his imagination had conjured that first night that ‘The Goose’ had introduced herself. Those earlier poems went on to become part of a larger work of modern mystery plays known as the Southwark Mysteries and since then John has become a champion of those ‘despised and rejected’ souls.

John and the Friends of Crossbones hold monthly ceremonies at the gates of this ‘hidden’ ancient graveyard. The land is mainly waste ground which is out of bounds to the public. They clear rubbish and tend the space lovingly. The gates themselves have become a beautiful shrine covered in ribbons, flowers and tokens. As names of those interred here have gradually been rediscovered, John ties ribbons with these names written upon them; the gates are festooned, transforming this rather bleak place into something beautiful. This act of remembrance is incredibly powerful and moving. John understands Crossbones to be a ‘wound of history’ and that the work that he and others are doing at the site is a way of healing that wound, of acknowledging those who in their lives and deaths had been treated with such disdain and indifference. He believes that this work of naming and acknowledging the lost and forgotten not only brings peace and healing to those long dead but has a transformative impact on us too.

John’s approach is very near and dear to that of modern Druids. As Druids we understand the importance of honouring the ancestors, of remembering those forgotten ones. We sense that they are the foundation of our being; their days lived and shed are the countless layers of fertile psychic soil that we root ourselves within. They are you and me; we are them. Their mistakes and lessons are ours and every cell of our bodies holds a memory of their experiences. In Druidry, we aim to respectfully draw upon these for their wisdom and guidance. We know that our own stories will vanish beneath the soil all too soon and so, in remembering those who have gone before, we are also acknowledging that all existence counts; that each voice, no matter how lowly, has something valuable to add to the ever deepening and unfolding story of life. The Ancestors can enable us to remember who we truly are and in caring for them, we also begin to learn to care for our descendants too; their futures matter to us. In acknowledging the forgotten ones, we tie the thread of life – the past, present and future – into a circle, a symbol of the eternal bonds of love and experience, the spiralling of life, death and rebirth that makes us one with each other and all creation.

History is so often written by the powerful and wealthy. The political and financial manoeuvrings of a country’s elite in reality is an extremely narrow view of history, one that excludes the rich and complex day to day experience of ordinary folk.  What John Constable and the Friends of Crossbones dedication and care illustrates is that when we acknowledge the story of those forgotten lives – the struggles, the degradation and the poverty; the heroism and vision of ordinary people who had the odds unfairly stacked against them – we are also acknowledging our common humanity. It teaches us how to treat each other in the here and now –with kindness, respect and care.

I find it incredibly moving that this place has become a shrine to the lost. These beautiful gates are not only an entrance to the past; they are a place where redemption is found for all those who find themselves cruelly and unfairly exiled. Here we gather those lost souls back into the fold of our humanity; here we reclaim something of ourselves.

Please do visit the Crossbones website  . John and the Friends of Crossbones are campaigning to save the south and oldest end of the graveyard from development. They would like to create a memorial garden. So please do sign their petition!

Mindfulness and the Blessings of Grace

My body – its struggles and minor triumphs – has been teaching me some important things about life this year. Thankfully, the herbs that Wendy has prescribed for me are helping enormously. I have just had a short, relatively normal and almost pain-free period! Given where I have been of late, this feels like a small miracle. With Wendy’s support and knowledge, I feel for the first time in countless months that there is hope for me. I find it quite shocking that only a couple of months ago I was being handed leaflets about hysterectomy by the hospital and yet here I am seemingly improving. I have learned how easy it can be to be channelled down a particular route, one that might not necessarily be right and yet, once you are on it, has its own momentum. I feel incredibly blessed to have met Wendy at this point; it feels like a much prayed for reprieve.

Now that the difficulties I encountered with Implanon and Utovlan are behind me and the herbs are working their magic, I have been able to really enjoy my Yoga. Not only this, running is having a positive impact on both my physical and mental state too. Since quitting Implanon, I began a beginners running programme that mixed running and fast walking. Gradually and gently I have been building up the running and reducing the walking, the plan being to ultimately run for the full period.

It has been one of the hardest physical things I have done and yet, I am really loving it! During the worst moments of my Implanon experience I wrote a Blog piece about how living in the moment can become such a challenge when you find that those moments are dominated by illness and pain. How do we embrace mindfulness in a positive way when our bodies or minds are suffering? I am not sure that there is any one easy answer to this. However, what the ‘pain’ and effort of running are teaching me is that even when we feel ourselves to be struggling, focusing on the end point – i.e. when I will stop for that session – only makes running all the harder. When I stay in the moment, right inside the intense breathing, the heaviness of gravity weighing on my muscles, the tiredness, and stop thinking about it ending, it becomes bearable. I wouldn’t say it becomes easy – it isn’t but I can understand how running can be experienced as a form of meditation, its gift being that it brings you right here, right now, deep into the experience of your body. I am finding that running focuses you perfectly and teaches that wherever you find yourself, the trick is to be with it, become fascinated by it and it will transform the way you experience time and your ability to cope with difficulties. I am beginning to discover that there can be found a peace at the centre of that challenge. Not only that, having a good cardio vascular workout has the most glorious of paybacks: I feel high as a kite after! Those lovely, feel-good endorphins that pump through your brain and into your system post-exercise have a long lasting effect on your sense of well-being. Running can lift your spirits.

I suspect that my menstrual problems have been triggered by the hormonal imbalances that long-term stress can bring us; when the body and emotions are pushed so hard by life’s challenges – upended by too much grief and loss – we can tip over and find it hard to right ourselves on our own. I think in many ways this has happened to me and I needed a helping hand to get back up. I feel that the herbs are helping me to reclaim that balance again and my body and emotions are definitely feeling the benefit.

Last night, one of my Yoga teachers taught me the Moon Salutation Vinyasa (flowing sequence). I had asked her to do this so that I could combine both the Moon and Sun Salutations in my daily practice. I love the thought of honouring the Goddess and God with my body in this way, of using my body to acknowledge the balance of my inner and outer life; my own creative force and the source of inspiration that nourishes it. Like the ever-flowing energies that the Yin Yang sign so beautifully and simply illustrates, that balance is by no means static – it breathes, moving in and out of complimentary states; our spirits, our bodies, our whole beings are meant to breathe and move. When we get tipped off-balance, it is almost as if our spiritual breathing becomes congested, the flow blocked and the energy stagnant. It can make us poorly, depressed, blind to the beauty and wonder in life. I certainly have felt all of these states during the worst part of this year and to feel myself breathe a little easier again I am incredibly thankful for.

What I have also learnt is that despite how hopeless we might feel any one of us can encounter Grace. Meeting Wendy, for me, has been an act of Grace; it was completely unexpected and came at that point when all my options seemed at their most limited and grim.

And so…the world is still spinning and as always things are moving on and at this time of the year’s harvest, I count my blessings, I shed and I store.

The Capel-Y-FFin Cat

Maria indulges in some serious cat loving - Capel-Y-FFin Church Yard

Turning Back the Tide

Watched a video of myself at age 22 this week. Such a weird sensation. Despite making me feel incredibly decrepit and past my prime, I felt a sense of compassion for the person that I was. It’s a cliché to say if only I knew then what I know now… well hey, it’s not a cliché for nothing! I just wish I had been more confident and believed in myself a little more, enjoyed who I was. No doubt I will be here at sixty saying the same thing about my forty-four year old self; I sometimes wonder whether I have actually learnt anything, turning round and round in my own little tight circle of life. Growing old is a wonder and a mystery and the changes come whether we honour them or not. Poor old Canute – the tide comes in and washes clean away every single print left in the sand.

'Queen Canute' - my very own beach lounger - Luccombe Bay