Sunday, 1 November 2015

Samhain In Southwark

Here the veil between the worlds dissolves:
the living, the dead
share the brew, break the bread.
Ancestor souls
converse and commune this Samhain night,
by the light of a bone-white moon. 
  - The Southwark Mysteries

The Prelude

Three people stroll along a footpath that crosses a sunny Suffolk heath. Spring 2015, and the large tracts of heather through which the path carves are alive with rabbits, adders, stonechats and fledgling tits. Insects toil and spin in the busy air; in the near distance, the constant washing rumble of the North Sea provides a gentle background melody.

We notice the anomaly at about the same time. Just off the path, in a space between outcrops of heather, lays a patch of disturbed ground, a small bump, as though someone has lifted the turf, placed an object beneath, and not bothered too much about concealment when replacing the strip of earth.

My eldest and his girlfriend watch with expectation as I step from the path, crouch by the anomaly, and lift the turf. Below lies a small Tupperware box, and I deduce what I have found from previous experience. "It's a geocache."

These are small containers, thousands of which are concealed around the countryside and towns of the UK. They are usually located using GPS devices and reference to certain websites which provide cryptic clues to their location. We've sought out a few in the past, at Rye, on the North Downs, and around Saffron Walden; but this is the first time we have found one accidentally.

I peel off the lid and we inspect the contents. Normally they contain a small notebook or strip of paper accompanied by a pencil, so that the finder can record their name(s) and the date of the discovery. There are also small inconsequential objects, such as beads, paperclips or small denomination coins; the idea is to take an object from the cache and replace it with another.

I drop a coin into the box and lift out a stone which I inspect with interest. A small piece of brown flint, almost lozenge shaped, pitted and scarred, pierced by natural forces with a hole. Almost a miniature of the Men-An-Tol, that curious Bronze Age monument down in the deep west of Cornwall.

Now it's mine. I slip it into my pocket, this tiny tolmen, this igneous token. A pierced pebble, symbol of age and endurance, resonant of the Sacred Feminine, plucked from the humming, breeze-caressed surface of Dunwich Heath, where 'the vipers slide' and 'the slow-worm coils'.

It is with me still.

The History

31st October 2015.

Along a South London backstreet, minutes from the pungent bustle of the Borough Market, I pause and gaze at a large set of iron gates... or, rather, the decor that covers almost every inch of them. Ribbons, cards, photographs, messages;dense and defiant, as though to conceal what rests beyond this barrier. High on the gate, a circular plaque tells the story.

According to parish records, the burial ground now known as Crossbones was acquired by the parish of St Saviour in 1769 as a cemetery for the poor; however, many believe that it was in use before this date, possibly being the location of the 'Single Woman's Graveyard' mentioned by John Stow in his Survey Of London (1598). 'Single Woman' in this instance is a euphemism for 'prostitute', and the recovery of the syphilitic skeleton of a teenage girl during archaeological exploration in the 1990's could support this possibility. Since the reign of Henry II, the Bishop of Winchester licensed the use of 'stews' or brothels along Bankside, and the women who worked in these places became known as the 'Winchester Geese'. Despite profiting from their activities, the Diocese of Winchester rather hypocritically refused to allow these women to be buried in holy ground, which is why they required their own unconsecrated graveyard.

(C) Oonagh Shiel

By the time it closed in 1853, an estimated 15,000 burials had taken place. The Ground has been under threat many times since, beginning in 1883 when Lord Brabazon wrote to The Times complaining that the land had been sold as a building site. The Disused Burial Ground Act, passed by Parliament the following year, rendered the sale null and void, but failed to stop the site subsequently being threatened by a fairground, warehousing, and the Jubilee Line extension.

For almost two decades, local activists have championed and protected Crossbones, none more than local author and poet John Constable, whose work The Southwark Mysteries - inspired by Crossbones and the colourful history of the area -  has been performed at the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral (as St Saviour's is now known).

Until recently a barren, empty space, Crossbones is now being transformed into a community garden, a place of colour and reflection, a riot of symbolism and imagination.

1% of Crossbones has been excavated, yielding 148 skeletons packed tightly together. From this, it has been estimated that the ground contains the remains of 15,000 souls.

The Event

A couple of hours lapse, during which the darkness descends. Bankside continues to bustle, the stalls at Borough Market begin to close down and the Saturday night revellers, many in grisly and colourful Halloween make-up, start to head for the pubs and clubs. I finish an Americano in a Bankside coffee shop and step out into the evening, pausing briefly to admire the shimmering lights of the City as they dance in the swelling waters of the Thames. Then I move away from the river, winding through the sinuous Southwark streets, strolling around the side of Tate Modern's behemoth bulk and making my way to the Table Café.

I am greeted at the door, my name crossed off a list on a clipboard, and am presented with a brace of articles: a cardboard cut-out of a black feather, and a long white ribbon which I fasten around my left wrist with a reef knot. Both articles are inscribed. On one side of the feather is written The Goose & the crow & the wild, wild earth bring you the blessings of... and on the other side a single word.

On the ribbon is written 17 OCTOBER 1730   SUSANNAH, DAUGHTER OF ARTHUR BRAYS, A DYER.  I know virtually nothing about Susannah Brays. She died two hundred and thirtyseven years before I was born. All I know is that she was buried in the Crossbones Burial Ground, and that for the next couple of hours, I will be the guardian of her spirit.

The interior of the Café has been organised like a theatre, rows of low benches facing an altar. A couple of dozen other guests have already arrived, and are either sitting or mingling. I move to the altar, the Altar Of The Ancestors, adorned with Samhain paraphernalia, and reach into my pocket. When my hand emerges it is clutching my token, my small holed stone from the sultry heathland of Suffolk, and I place it carefully on the Altar, where it will remain until I leave the building in a couple of hours time.

I sit on a bench and make small talk with other guests, and eat a ginger sweet that I have been offered. Guests continue to arrive, some in dark Gothic dress, others in graceful swirls of colour. At seven o' clock, the performance begins.

A local troubadour, Nigel Of Bermondsey, serenades the gathering with acoustic guitar and sings in tribute to Crossbones. Following this our shaman for the evening, Mr. John Constable himself, adopts the persona of 'John Crow' and, assisted by the delightful Moksha as the persona of a Winchester Goose, performs poetry from his Southwark Mysteries.

For tonight in Hell they are tolling the bell
for the whore that lay at The Tabard,
and well we know how the carrion crow
doth feast in our Crossbones Graveyard.

With a hey ho, jolly Jack  Crow
and his merry merry band of outlaws-o
never stumble when he trips
mad clown of the Apoca-poca-pocalypse!

They chant of geese and crows, of bells and bones, they evoke a time and place of bustling mystery, they give the outcast dead a voice on these Southwark streets that inspired Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens.

At the end of the performance, those of us who have contributed to the Altar Of The Ancestors retrieve our artifacts. The Suffolk Stone returns to my pocket, then we file out to the courtyard behind the venue, a long strip of paving split by a line of trees adorned with mellow lights. Here we are treated to a performance by Wolfshead and Vixen, a Gothic Morris group from Rochester.


Our human serpent, a long line of well over a hundred people striding two abreast, now sets off east along Southwark Street. Cars hoot at us, pedestrians stop and watch with curiosity. The air is rich with the noise of the city, the scents of traffic and incense, food scents wafting from Borough Market. Ahead, the colossal, glowing inverted icicle that is The Shard dominates the vista, rising defiantly into the Samhain sky as though the road itself has curled into the heavens ahead of us.

We turn right, into the quiet side-street, Redcross Way, and at its limit - the junction with Union Street, we reach the colour-festooned gate of Crossbones. Here we step forward, unloosing our ribbons and tying them to the railings, quietly chanting the names of our outcast dead and invoking their spirits, "Susannah Brays," I whisper as my ribbon tightens. No gravestone for the dyer's pauper daughter, yet her name now adorns her resting place. "Seventeenth of October, Seventeen Thirty."

Through a side gate, we enter the Burial ground. Paths have been laid out, the space is adorned with tealights, candles, an upright burning log adding the scent of woodsmoke to the miasma of urban aroma. Paths wind through patches of votive offerings, around a rubble pyramid, past walls adorned with community artwork. An altar stands dominated by a statue of Virgin Mary, another altar is dominated by a Green Man.

In the darkness here are the Mysteries performed, alternated with the drums and accordion and the clack-clack of smacking sticks from Wolfshead and Vixen.

Here lay your hearts, your flowers,
your Book of Hours, your fingers, your thumbs,
your 'Miss you, Mums'.

Here hang your hopes, your dreams,
your Might-Have-Beens,
your locks, your keys,
your Mysteries.

Somewhere in this vicinity, somewhere below my feet, lays my dyer's daughter, my Susannah. I wonder about her. Was she old? Probably not, since she is defined by her relationship to a parent. Unmarried, then. Was she pretty, or scarred by smallpox? Was she vivacious, or careworn from a tough and unforgiving lifestyle? Was she fair or dark? Was she a woman, or was she a child? Were it not for ceremonies like this, at a time when the veil between the worlds of living and dead becomes diaphanous, would she not remain a forgotten, insignificant shadow from the Georgian past?

"Susannah," I whisper, as though my voice could resonate through the veil and be echoed back by a phantom, female response.

Guided by our Crow Priestesses, the entire assembly joins hands for a Tantric Pulse, energy rippling through the crowd, down through our feet and into the ground surcharged with the dead. We sing, the Ballad of Mary Overie, joining in the chorus, "Lady of The Liberty, Goose And Crow!"

And the rituals come to a close. The crowd disperses long before the energy does.

I walk, heading north toward London Bridge, to cross the trembling Thames on the first stage of my journey home. I pass close to where Chaucer's pilgrims set off for Canterbury. I pass close to where the child Dickens cowered in a debtor's prison. I pass close to where Shakespeare first presented Hamlet, Lear and Prospero to the world, close to where the stews simmered, the bear-pits bustled, and the Geese cackled.

I pass... but, like Susannah and her ghostly voice on the breeze, I also remain.

Friends Of Crossbones
Wolfshead And Vixen

And, blowing my own trumpet:

Samhain In Ytene
Southwark Cathedral

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