The Crossbones Garden: Garden of Remembrance
“I’ll take you to the burial ground garden” She says. This is not a phrase I was expecting to hear from my work colleague as we leave our office building one sunny lunch time. My imagination piqued, I agree to come along. We walk through Southwark back streets, detour around the ever present road-work barricades and wait patiently at traffic lights while cars and cyclists blur across our vision. Eventually we stop before a sandwich board sign announcing entry to the Crossbones Garden (the garden’s official name) and, not knowing quite what to expect, I take my first glimpse of our lunch hour destination. The entryway is a large wooden sculpture, a giant bird’s wing set upon carved stilts, a cloistered tunnel designed to sweep visitors across the threshold from urban street to the concealed garden within. Following the curvature of this sheltered path we finally emerge into the walled garden and I stop, my mind attempting to take in this strange place. Rough patches of rubble are juxtaposed with soft natural plantings emerging from neat dry stone walls. Everywhere sculptures and symbols demand inspection: a bronze skull, a porcelain goose, a clay mask of the green man. Having been here before, my colleague sits down to eat her lunch but I feel compelled to look around, to try to make sense of this confusion.
Directly in front of me there is a bare, raw expanse of concrete ground. Dull grey, cracked and blinding in the midday sun, it is uncompromisingly barren, a featureless desert from which the garden protrudes. Sweeping across this negative space my eyes land on the far wall where a mural depicts a stylised map of the local area, a crude outline of a skull marking the location of the Crossbones garden. I walk purposefully towards the map, but my attention snags along the way. To my right, wicker work hearts dangle and spin from a tree above a wildflower turf. Faded ribbons, woven through the wicker, drape down forlornly and then stream suddenly outwards with a momentary gust of wind. Words flicker along their lengths and I catch them in broken drifts: “who have none to remember them….”, “leaving a young son…” “beloved…”. I step backwards and drop my eyes, not wanting to intrude as the ribbons continue their solemn dance of remembrance.
Turning, I see a pyramidal mound, its base a crumbling mass of broken rubble, compacted earth and sweet pea shoots pushing upwards through the cracks. Midway along one side there is a row of oval faces. They have blank expressions, slits for eyes, scratches for mouths. They are no-one and everyone.They make me uneasy. Above these masks there is a rising mosaic of sharp edged oyster shells, pearlescent and reflective, jigsawing their way to the pyramid’s point. At the tip there is a weight of concrete and broken brick, a visual connection to the raw foundation of the structure that lies beneath.
Finally I reach the mural which is presented as a triptych, the central panel being the map, while the outer panels are painted white with poetry written in large black print. The poems, excerpts from John Constable’s book The Southwark Mysteries, are replete with mysterious allusions to a goose persona: “I was born a Goose of Southwark”, “You can hear me honk..” And this ‘goose’ appears to hold some power to “unlock”, “unveil” and “reveal” a hidden “secret history”.
Bewildered, intrigued, my eyes fall on a friendly face. A woman has appeared beside me wearing a vest marked ‘volunteer’. She answers the question in my eyes and tells me to take an information booklet from beneath the wooden entryway. This text, titled Crossbones Garden, The strange but true story, performs the role promised by the “Goose of Southwark” and reveals to me the mysteries of this unique place.
As I read the guide I continue to circuit the garden and I begin to see how Crossbones is choked with symbolism. Every nook and cranny is crammed with carvings, objects, text and plantings that denote deeper meanings connected to its fascinating past. The goose’s wing entrance, the poetry on the mural, and the rosemary plants, symbolic of remembrance, all refer to the beginnings of this place as the burial ground for the prostitutes of Bankside’s brothels. Working in the ‘stews’ from as early as the 12th century, these prostitutes were described as ‘Winchester’s Geese’ due to the protection accorded to them and their trade by the Bishop of Winchester. Barred from a Christian burial, these women are thought to have been buried at this site, referenced in John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London as the “Single Women’s Churchyard”. By Victorian times the Cross Bones burial site had extended to include not only the local prostitutes but also the general poor who lived and died in the crime and cholera infested area surrounding Redcross Street. The graveyard finally closed in 1853 due to its being ‘completely overcharged with dead’, with an archaeological dig in the 1990’s confirming this overcrowding (the archaeologists estimated up to 15,000 burials on the Cross Bones site, with more than 60% being children).
The largest symbolic gesture within the garden is that of the red iron gate shrine, a dedication to the multitude of nameless dead buried beneath this site. Bedecked in countless ribbons, flowers, and scraps of embroidery, these gates are continuously replenished with mementos, layer upon layer building, blocking the gaps between the bars, shutting out the light. In the centre of the gates, a commemorative sign reads: “R.I.P The Outcast Dead” while facing the gates, a line of objects stand to attention: plump geese, benevolent angels, and, set upon a wooden pedestal, a statue of the Virgin Mary holding a white, orange beaked goose within her arms.Sometimes sinister, often poignant, the garden is a living poem with its visual rhythms and metaphorical displays holding you caught as in a spell, wanting to delve deeper, to decipher the layers of meaning held within the walls of this truly bizarre space.
Kathy, one of the many regular volunteers who maintain the garden, explains to me that “everybody has a different take on this place”. She proposes that the garden has an ‘aura’ that draws all sorts of different people through its winged entry. This includes office workers, tourists, and those with a deeper connection – the Friends of Crossbones Group – some of whom perform monthly vigils at the shrine. These vigils, started by visionary writer, John Constable, author of the poems on the mural, are held on the 23rd of each month. They are ritualised acts of remembrance, a recognition of those ignored at the margins of society, from past to present.
There is, for me, a sense of macabre eeriness created through the repetitive reminders of human mortality that permeate the space. This disquiet, however, is softened by the garden that grows above the surface of this graveyard. Lime green euphorbia rise above feathered ferns. Purple sage, rosemary, thyme and lavender meander gently through the raised beds, punctuated dramatically by startling red poppies and pure white daisies. Nature, often perceived as a symbol of life and death in its seasonal changes, its cycles of fruitfulness and rot, growth and decay, becomes a salve – a calming tonic to the more confrontational momento mori of the skulls and statues within this remembrance garden/burial ground.
The garden was originally created in the 1990’s by Andy Hulme, “the Invisible Gardener” who was a security guard on the site. In keeping with the mysterious ‘underbelly’ atmosphere of Crossbones, Andy Hulme secretly created a guerrilla garden hidden within the confines of the London brick walls. Since then, and through the work of John Constable and other Friends of Crossbones, the site has become an official garden of remembrance, the land leased from Transport for London for this purpose. Managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust, designed by Helen John, the Crossbones Garden has had thousands of visitors since opening to the public in 2015.
Having completed my introductory tour of the garden, I take a moment to sit with my work friend and rest within this tranquil space. The wooden bench set within the dry stone wall feels warm from the sun. My fingers reach to gently crush a clump of thyme growing beside me. I raise my hand to my nose and breathe deeply, inhaling the fragrant aroma reminiscent of relaxed home cooking. Three other visitors sit on a bench not far from us, shaded by a hawthorn hedge. Eating their lunch, immersed in discussion, their voices murmur and blend with the vibrating hum of the bees collecting nectar from the abundant rosemary flowers. Just visible behind a pine tree and burgeoning shrubs, a volunteer gardener kneels on the earth, scraping and pulling at unwanted growth. Then the sound of church bells pool into the garden, drowning out even the bustling trains that hurtle across the rail bridge behind the garden’s northern edge. The bells, announcing the 1pm mass in the local church, lend a moment of reverence to the garden in keeping with the shrine, the solemn poetry and the burial mound covered in blood red poppies. They also signify the end of our lunch break and the need to return to our office. The spell broken, we exit through the goose’s wing and return to the hurry of the London streets.
To find out more about the history and events surrounding the Crossbones Garden visit: www.crossbones.org.uk
Helene Latey writes a regular blog for Transition Town Kensal to Kilburn with a specific focus on gardening, sustainability and community. In 2012 Helene ran a guerrilla gardening arts project “The Blue Flower River Project” as part of local arts exhibition The Kilburn Grand Tour. When she’s not writing or gardening Helene can be found wandering the streets of London looking for new green spaces to explore. Read the TTKK blog here: http://ttkensaltokilburn.ning.com/profiles/blog/list/
January 2020 update
Helene has a new gardening website!