Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: April 2024

Grace Darling, Local Heroine: the Lady with the Oar

In the early days of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution there were no women crews, not least because of the widely held suspicion that it was bad luck to have women crewing boats. But women always provided support, working to get the lifeboats afloat, and after an anxious wait recovering them from the water and readying them for the next launch. The women who lived along the coasts knew the dangers of the sea.

Grace Darling was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper on Longstone Island, one of the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland. On the night of 6 September 1838, the merchant ship the Forfarshire was carrying sixty-two people, crew and passengers, from Hull to Dundee. When its boilers failed the captain stopped the engine, and in a storm the boat drifted and foundered on the rocky island of Big Harcar. Almost immediately the ship broke in half and one half sank. In the early hours of the morning Grace spotted the wreck and survivors on the rock.

Believing  that the weather was too rough for the lifeboat to be able to put out from the mainland at Seahouses, Grace and her father took a wooden rowing boat, a four-man Northumberland cobble, along the leeside of the islands, rowing over a mile through gale force winds and a churning sea. While her father clambered onto the rock to help the survivors on board Grace held the cobble steady, rowing backwards and forwards to prevent it being smashed on the reef. Then they made the slow, punishing journey back to the lighthouse.

The lifeboat had set out from Seahouses, Grace’s brother William Brooks Darling, a fisherman, one of the crew. Arriving after Grace and her father had rescued the nine survivors, they  found only the bodies of two young children and an adult who had died of exposure.

So severe was the weather that the lifeboat crew too returned to the lighthouse. There everyone was obliged  to remain for three days before it was safe to return to shore.

The Victorians were prone to hero worship although the cynosures of their admiration were usually pugnacious men expanding the empire and building colonies. Women generally found favour only in a passive role as “the Angel in the House,” but Grace’s courage and strength captured the popular imagination, helped no doubt  by the fact that the shy, retiring, and modest young woman did not disturb the gender stereotype of women as caregivers.

Grace became a national celebrity, by all accounts uncomfortable in the role, finding herself expected to sit for portraits and feeling obliged to answer the tsunami of letters requesting locks of her hair or scraps of material from her dress. There were also the thank you letters to write in response to the strange gifts proffered by her admirers: the Duke of Northumberland sent a silver teapot, surely of little use in the lighthouse. Boats were even hired locally to take the curious out to Longstone Island to look at her.

Four years later, having contracted tuberculosis, Grace died at the age of only twenty-six, in the place of her birth, her grandparents’ cottage in Bamburgh on the mainland. The unwelcome adulation, or exploitation, continued: soaps, chocolate bars and a rose were named after her. Wordsworth, then Poet Laureate, wrote a tribute; Grace Darling is not one of his finer works.

Grace is buried in St Aidan’s churchyard in Bamburgh, in the family grave. A few yards from the grave an elaborate canopied Victorian funerary monument was erected with a life size stone effigy of Grace holding an oar. Made of Portland Stone it quickly became weathered and was replaced as early as 1885 when the original was moved into the church. There she lies beneath a memorial stained-glass window. In the latter, again clutching an oar, she symbolises Fortitude, an unlikely tall  figure with an abundance of blond hair: Grace was small and dark. She is flanked by Charity holding a heart and Hope with an anchor.

Darling Family Grave in St. Aidan’s Churchyard, Bamburgh
Funerary monument to Grace Darling with life size figure, St. Aidan’s, Bamburgh
The original effigy, moved into the church in 1885

Charity Fortitude Hope

Grace Horsley Darling Born 24 November 1815 Died 20 October 1842

The Wreck of the Forfarshire 7 September 1838

After visiting the church and the graveyard, I crossed the road to the Grace Darling Museum established in 1938, passing her birthplace identified by a plaque. In the museum I viewed, amongst other things: the cobble; clothing which had belonged to Grace; her locket; and an account of her story in Japanese. Here too was the original family gravestone, for this had also weathered and been replaced.

Original Darling family gravestone, now in the museum, with another stained glass image of Grace

I was beginning to feel that the small village of Bamburgh was overdoing it a little, in danger of reducing itself, and Grace, to a theme park. Then a party of primary school children entered the museum, buoyed up on a wave of seamless chatter, fingers and noses pressed to the glass display cases. Finally seated on the floor, barely fidgeting and almost silent under the eye of their teacher, they waited for the museum guide to speak to them. She told them the familiar story of Grace Darling’s bravery; it was a new story to them, but local children, they knew the temper of the sea on their coast and the dangerous rocky islands which pierce it, and they grew quiet and round-eyed.

The RNLI maintains the museum believing that the values of charity and concern for others which lie at the heart of Grace’s story, are mirrored in the selfless altruism which motivates lifeboat crews today, and they hope through telling the story to inspire others to support their work.

Bamburgh is no theme park. It is an ordinary village, albeit huddled beside an extraordinary castle, located on a spectacularly beautiful part of the Northumberland coast. But for all its beauty the sea can be cruel and capricious, and Bamburgh has a very special story to tell about a very brave woman who epitomised the fortitude, tenacity, and generosity of spirit  which has inspired RNLI crews for two hundred years.

Watery Tales from Winchester

Saint Swithun

Saint Swithun’s was the first watery tale to attach itself to Winchester Cathedral. The Anglo-Saxon bishop had putatively requested a burial outside the old church, “subject to the feet of passersby and to rain drops pouring from on high.” A century later however his body was transferred indoors, first to the Old Minster and later to the new Norman Cathedral. A heavy rainstorm on the day the body was moved supposedly lasted for forty days, and a popular myth developed  that rain on St. Swithun’s Day, 15 July, would presage rain for the next forty days: St. Swithun expressing his displeasure at the move.

Nonetheless his tomb became a popular site of pilgrimage. The monks, required to rush to the church to celebrate every miracle which  allegedly occurred, found themselves having to get up several times during the night such was the volume of these preternatural events. He remains the recommended saint for those praying for a drought.

A modern monument to St. Swithun stands on the site of his final shrine which was demolished in 1538 during the English Reformation. At this time his relics disappeared.
Prior to 1476 Swithun’s relics were displayed on a feretory platform behind the high altar and the “Holy Hole,” still visible here, allowed pilgrims to crawl beneath the platform to be closer to the curative powers emanating from the saint’s remains.

King Canute

Most of us remember only one thing about King Canute: the apocryphal aqueous anecdote which has him sitting on his throne beside the sea unsuccessfully commanding the incoming tide to halt. According to his biographers’ sympathies this indicated either humility, as he sought to illustrate the limits of his secular power to his sycophantic courtiers, or extraordinary hubris in thinking he had a god like control over nature. Rival traditions locate this thalassic legend in various places. Bosham in Sussex is one contender.

When the tide comes in at Bosham…
…the road along the foreshore disappears…
…and the turning for the church requires careful negotiation.
You can only wait

The presence of the grave of Canute’s eight year old daughter in the Bosham church lends credence to the town’s claims.

The remains of Canute’s daughter who drowned in the millstream at Bosham

Canute himself however lies in a colourful mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral. Around him other chests contain the remains of Saxon Kings whose lands he conquered in 1016. The Saxons may be even closer to the Dane than they would have chosen, for the chests were ransacked and their contents scattered during the English Civil War. It is unlikely that the comingled bones were all replaced in the correct chests.

Mortuary chest of Canute
Canute is joined by Saxon Kings…
… their mortuary chests located on the presbytery screens.

William Walker

My third story concerns a diver held in high esteem in Winchester – and this is a true story.

In the early twentieth century Winchester Cathedral was in danger of collapse. The Cathedral was built by the Normans who demolished both the Old and the New Saxon Minsters and replaced their bishops with men more sympathetic to the new regime. In the fourteenth century William of Wykeham deployed his master mason to remodel the Norman nave in Perpendicular Gothic.

But the foundations of this great cathedral were unsound. Constructed on a floating raft of beech trees, which were rotting by the twentieth century, the cathedral was sinking into the peaty soil beneath and listing to the southeast. The walls were bulging, and stone was falling. Cracks in the  vaulted ceiling and the walls were variously described as large enough for owls to nest or a small child to crawl into. Trenches were dug under the walls to replace the rotten foundations with concrete, but the high-water table meant that they flooded before any reinforcing could be done. An attempt to pump out the groundwater accelerated the destabilisation of the foundations, and the building sank further. Collapse seemed imminent.

William Walker, a deep-sea diver, trained at Portsmouth dockyard, was called in. Between 1906-1911 he worked for six hours a day, descending into the flooded trenches and diving under the cathedral building. At a depth of six metres, in water rendered septic by the presence of bodies and graves, in complete darkness since the sediment suspended in the water rendered it impenetrable to light, Walker worked by touch. He dug out the rotten foundations and put concrete underneath the walls.

The task required 25,800 bags of cement and 114,900 concrete blocks. Walker’s diving suit weighed 91kg even when it was dry and took so long to put on and off that he removed only the helmet to eat his lunch and smoke his pipe. At the weekend he would cycle home to south London, a round trip of 150 miles.

When Walker had completed his work the groundwater was pumped out without fear of the walls collapsing, and bricklayers were able to restore the damaged walls. The highwater table still causes the Norman crypt to flood in winter, and the waters reach the knees of Anthony Gormley’s life size statue which lives down there, but the shored-up cathedral walls stand firm.

William Walker died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. There is a bust of him in the cathedral and a much more attractive one in the cathedral garden; in both he wears his diver’s suit and in the former he holds his helmet.

and a far more attractive image in the cathedral garden

Walker is buried in the cemetery at Elmer’s End near his south London home. Ironically, the cross marking his grave became unstable in recent years and has been laid flat. A new slate slab bears an engraving of the diver  and recalls his achievement.

The new slate records his achievement




The diver who with

his own hands saved

Winchester Cathedral

But, like Christopher Wren and St. Paul’s, you can see William Walker’s  real memorial if you stand in the nave of Winchester Cathedral and look around you.

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