Dry bones…

Today is the day that Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country comes out in paperback. Though it’s possible that it may never have seen the light of day if one of the incidents that took place while I was researching ended in a different manner.

In April 2018, en route to visit Arthur Machen’s Gwent and the place where William Hope Hodgson wrote his masterpiece The House on the Borderland, I stopped off in the Midlands at one of just two known extant bone crypts in the UK (the other being at Hythe in Kent): the ossuary or charnel house at the Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northants.

In the 13th-century crypt below the south aisle of the nave of the otherwise unremarkable-looking parish church are interred the skulls and bones of some 2,500 individuals. Local legend has it that the existence of the crypt was unknown until around 1700, when it was rediscovered by a sexton ‘who wielding his mattock [a pickaxe-like tool] suddenly found himself precipitated into a dark abyss… discovering himself in this awful assemblage of past generations’ as he fell through into the covered-over crypt below. 

I’d arranged a private visit to the crypt as part of my book research (though in the end the episode didn’t make it into the final draft), meeting the vicar at the appointed time. We were the only two there on that rainy morning and I think he was slightly bemused by the general idea I gave him of what Ghostland was to be about, but none the less very helpful. Once he’d unlocked the main church door he took me through another side door and then unfastened another heavy door that led down to the crypt.

He turned on the light that lined the stairs and I followed him down. 

At the bottom lay an eerie, brooding site: the shelved and piled-up remains of thousands of human bones and skulls. After a brief introduction and potted history the vicar asked if I would be okay left on my own – he had parish business to attend to – and said he’d return to meet me and lock up in half an hour or so. He left and I proceeded to photograph these vivid reminders of mortality and to try and imagine something of the lives of all these souls. Despite the constant whirring of the de-humidifier, which masked all other sounds of the outside world, there was a distinct smell of dankness in the vaulted room.

I took many photographs and reflected. 

After a while, for some reason I decided that it might be more atmospheric to take some shots just using my camera’s flash, so went up the stairs and switched off the single large strip light. I turned on the torch on my phone and carefully descended once more. In the white, narrow beam it projected the bones took on a reflective glow.

I killed my light and contemplated the all-encompassing darkness, wondering if this was what eternity would be like. It wouldn’t be too bad I thought, apart from the dampness, snapping off some shots in the dark, the bursts of the flash momentarily illuminating the place. 

While I was doing this I heard the heavy door that guarded the top of the crypt stairs creaking closed, alongside the rattle of keys. Although, up to this point, being alone in this place of mortality had not unduly spooked me, the thought of being locked down here was not something I was keen on. I moved surprisingly quickly up the stairs, shouting that I was still there. 

“I thought you’d gone,” said the vicar, as I explained sheepishly that I’d just switched off the light to take some photos. 

“I’m glad you heard me,” I replied. “I didn’t really want to be stuck down there.”

In any case I was done and had seen enough. And we left the place together – and those silent fragments of skulls and femurs – and I learned a valuable lesson that it is perhaps not wise to turn off the lights in an ossuary. 

For further information about the history of this remarkable crypt see here.  

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