We knew we’d found it when I saw the gleaming sign, a washed, weather-wracked white against the blood and sand red of the brick behind it. We’d been shuffling around the back of the station for a while, trying to wind our way around the alleyways, flanked by high, grey stone walls as the trains thundered ahead, wheels shrieking against the sides of the tracks and buffeting our ears with their metallic, greasy roar. But there way no mistaking it when I saw it: Redcross Way. This was the place.
From the corner of the road it looked perfectly ordinary. There was a pub at the end – the building almost sagging with age and use – and, directly opposite, we could just make out a flash of green and pink against the grey of the steel gates. The faded chalk confirmed it, we were standing in front of Cross Bones Graveyard.
There’s nothing like discovering a piece of London that you never even knew existed and this graveyard was definitely a first for both me and my flatmate Carine. We’d gone on the recommendation of London blogger Fiona Maclean and, to be honest, weren’t expecting much. There’s also nothing quite like being proved wrong.
On the rusty iron gates of Cross Bones, half-hidden in the twisted bits of ribbon, broken dolls and faded flowers, is a plaque that reads ‘R.I.P The Outcast Dead.’ Here lies the Winchester Geese, the ladies of the night, the women of ill repute…in short, the prostitutes that worked in the Liberty of he Clink – or Southwark as it was technically known.
From the 12th to the 17th century, The Bishops of Winchester were effectively ruling this patch of seedy London and what was forbidden within the confines the city walls, be it gambling, drinking or whoring, was all go in this quarter. During Shakespeare’s times it was reputedly a seething hotbed of brothels, bear pits, taverns and, most sinfully of all THEATRES. Gasp.
But there was a problem. The gentle folk of the city couldn’t be expected to share grave space with the unclean Southwark dwellers, so Cross Bones – a ‘single women’ graveyard – was born
‘I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Woman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.’ John Stow, Historian, 1598
Cross Bones stayed a graveyard until concerns were raised over it becoming overcrowded and dangerous to public health. The land was briefly turned into a fair ground before being taken over by London Underground in the 1990s and used as an electricity sub-station for the Jubilee Line extension. Archaeologists removed some of the skeletons, but an estimated 99% are still buried at the site and in the last decade the gates and graveyard have become a shrine for anyone of any faith to leave mementoes, messages and gifts remembering those loved and lost. There are monthly vigils and events organised by the Friends of Crossbones, which you can find out more about here.
Whether you’d like to see a seedier side to London; a portion of it’s shadowy past that’s never been forgotten, or just to stumble across something so colourful and macabre it will make you re-evaluate quite why you love this city, then a weekend wander here is a must.