How People Remembered

There is nothing like being surrounded by dead people to make you think about death and people’s attitude to it, and how that attitude had changed over the centuries. As well as volunteering for English Heritage at Wrest Park House and Gardens in Bedfordshire I also am part of a small number of volunteers that help people interpret the De Grey Mausoleum in Flitton, a village about a mile and half from Wrest, the home of the De Greys until 1917 (I am pretty certain I’ve blogged about this before but I’m getting old and therefore will inevitably repeat myself). In the 1600s the church a Flitton was the local Parish church so when the 7th Earl of Kent decided to create a mausoleum for the family it was added to the North side of the chancel.

Family mausolea of this period are an odd beast. Unlike a monument in a church aisle the mausoleum is for the family only; monuments in it a reminder to descendants of where they have come from and sending various additional messages that change over the years as styles and attitudes change. The De Grey Mausoleum is one of the biggest in England and has monuments from the early 1600s through to the last in 1859. It was massively increased by Henry, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Kent – more on him later – and one of things I enjoy is being able to show people how the monuments change over time.

The earliest monuments hang over from the Medieval view of reminding people they are mortal, and death comes to us all, no matter how important you are. It is adorned with skulls and almost in a black comic manner, a colourful hourglass with wings – time flying, indeed. Next to this chest tomb is another from the late 1600s – a man and a woman’s effigy lying in state but now carved with more elegance and the shock tactics have been dropped in the 5o years between them.

When the Duke of Kent quadrupled the size of the Mausoleum he was at the height of his power, having been Lord Chamberlain and having elevated the family to a Dukedom. His monument is massive and of the highest quality, an Eighteenth-century hymn to achievement. He lies full sized reclining, dressed as a Roman general. Now it is not so much about death as about what was achieved in life.

Unfortunately for Henry and the De Greys, the one thing he could not achieve was a legacy. All his children pre-deceased him and with no male heir the Dukedom passed back to the Crown (the current Duke of Kent being a member of the Royal family is a regular source of confusion for visitors, who assume there must be some Royal connection).  The monuments to his children in my eyes become smaller and speak more of the sadness of a powerful man facing the inevitability that there was nothing he could do to save his family. In the end, he secures the title of Marchioness for his remaining descendant, his granddaughter Jemima.

The monuments to her and her two daughters, now late 1700s and creeping into the Nineteenth Century are best described as modest and elegant; these are still monuments to powerful and wealthy people, but as they sit on the wall opposite the huge monument to Henry, they almost seem a little embarrassed by the bombastic excess.

My favourite monuments are the last ones installed before the family moved away and stopped using the mausoleum. Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey, inherited the Wrest Estate from his aunt and set about designing his own house to replace the old one for himself and his Countess Henrietta. Henrietta, who died first, is seen being carried up to heaven by an angel as Thomas stands among other mourners, his head in his hands. To the left, he himself lies in state, full size and realistically carved, looking as though he might just get up and walk away at any time (it is a source of some amusement that we have to put an old bed sheet over Thomas when we lock up to prevent his effigy being degraded by the droppings of resident bats).

Both monuments drip with Victorian Romanticism, that death is merely sleep until the Resurrection, and anyway we’ll be united with our loved ones in heaven.

The De Grey Mausoleum is open 2-4pm the first Sunday of the month through the Summer and on occasional Wednesdays, bets to check the website Admission is free.



Seeing Things (Or Not)

I have kind of slipped out of the habit of rambling at the internet each week, so I thought I would try and pick it up again, at least when I have something I think may be vaguely interesting to say/talk about/recommend. We will see how it goes. Certainly, summer holidays are a good time for projects for us, as not having kids means that these weeks can be quite quiet. Although for some reason this year has not been quite the respite we might have hoped for after the events and emotions of last year.

The Lovely Wife and I are quite partial to the hidden and the quirky and one of the places I have wanted to visit for several years is Dennis Severs house in Spitalfields. Dennis Severs was an artist who passed away in 1999.  His home had been 18 Folgate Street, a four floored Eighteenth century town house in East London (I was very amused that it is around the corner from Norton Folgate which always makes me think of one of my favourite Madness albums – for good reason, as this is their patch). Over the years he was living there he gradually constructed his house into an art installation that was meant to evoke the life of a family of Huguenot weavers across the centuries from the Eighteenth to early Twentieth Century. It is not a museum, and it there is very little explanation, deliberately so. The staff who let us in give a brief introduction and then the rest of the visit of 45 minutes or so is carried out in silence, with the occasional paper note reminding you to ‘experience’ the house through look (the whole place is largely candlelit) and through smells and noises. It is quite an odd experience and one to chalk down to you probably get out of it what you put into it, indeed the paper notes repeatedly claim that the motto of the place is ‘You either see it, or you don’t’. As most of the promotional literature indicates it is meant to feel that the occupants of the room you have just walked into have left moments before, leaving you to imagine what was going on before you arrived through the ‘clues’ they have left behind. I found it quite odd at first, but as you go on you start to get the hang of it, for example walking into a room and just sniffing the air and listening to the aural cues before looking.

Not for everyone, but for those who like the offbeat, probably worth a look.

Additionally, Spitalfields was a bit of a revelation. In my head the area had a poor reputation and certainly in some periods has been a genuine slum. Now, Spitalfields Old market is filled with up market crafts, the buildings occupied with up market restaurant chains and hipster attracting bars. That might not sound too attractive but on the Monday evening we were there the place was buzzing and siting outside at a bar with a nice cold beer made for ample enjoyable people watching opportunities 5 minutes from Liverpool Street station. As with the Kings Cross area, this part of East London has been revitalised and had for me a very particular look, with the old Eighteenth century terraces, pubs and enamel fronted pie and fish shops set against a skyline of the business district (the Gherkin looms seemingly at the end of one of the main streets in a dramatic fashion). Two London worlds that are very different but neighbours and the main connection between them being the flow of people between them.

Links for those that might be interested, Dennis Severs House, Spitalfields Old Market and we ate at Galvin La Chapelle next to the market – expensive, but the venue, food and staff were lovely (oh, and apparently despite the name, which is actually connected to a vineyard they own, the restaurant is in a building that had been part of a hospital – Spitalfields apparent gets its name from (Ho)spital – that was later used as a girl’s school).