“I have heard ancient men of good credit report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church so long as they continued their sinful life and were excluded from Christian burial. And therefore, there was a plot of ground, called the single woman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”
- John Stow’s Survey of London, 1598.
“Sleep well, you winged spirits of intimate joy.”
- Note taped to Cross Bone’s fence, 2011.
“Where to, mate?” the cabbie asked as I settled in my seat.
“To London’s outlaw borough,” I thought. To the sanctuary sought by every runaway Roman slave; to the Liberty of the Clink where London’s own jurisdiction is left far behind. To the home of whores, killers and cut-purses throughout our capital’s dark history. To the city’s dumping-ground for its desperate and its despised; to the streets where Victorian industrialists placed their filthiest factories; to the site of London’s wildest acid house parties of the 1990s.
Where to? “To Shakespeare’s London,” I thought. To the site where he and his friends built the original Globe theatre with stolen timbers; to the taverns and brothels where he found his models for John Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet. To the broiling nightlife of bear pits and dogfights, where the young Bard himself was dragged into court for threatening another man’s life. To the home of so much great London theatre today.
Where to? “To Shard City,” I thought. To the latest tumour spawned by London’s financial district, where Renzo Piano’s jagged office block is now the tallest building between Guangzhou and Chicago. To the equally soulless developments coming in its wake. To a place of female power, now overshadowed by the biggest prick in Europe; to a giant shiv waved in the face of London’s poor.
Where to? “To a patch of unquiet graves,” I thought. To the site where London’s paupers were buried in unconsecrated ground; to a cemetery built for the Bishop of Winchester’s licensed whores, but later annexed for outcast burials of every kind. To graves which were routinely emptied after only a few months to make room for the newly dead; to the shallow pits where victims of London’s regular plague epidemics were hastily consigned. To a burial ground where London’s most notorious gang of corpse-snatchers knew they’d always find easy meat.
Where to? “To a modern shrine,” I thought. To the spot where a shamanic local writer has led over 100 monthly vigils to honour its humble dead; to a site which now attracts 50,000 visitors a year. To a pair of gates which Britain’s prostitutes have made a memorial to their own; to perhaps the only place in Britain where the murdered women of Ipswich, Bradford and Nottingham are given their due. To the display of a thousand fluttering white ribbons carrying the names of three centuries’ dead; to a patch of wasteland made beautiful by an invisible gardener. To one of London’s most neglected, yet most potent landmarks.
“Where to?” he asked again. “Redcross Way,” I replied. “It’s in Southwark.”