The Shard and the Winchester Geese - The Cross Bones Cemetery, London

By Jeanette Farrell:

To walk along the river Thames from London Bridge, east towards Vauxhall is to walk in the shadow of tall, misshapen skyscrapers that have a habit of suffocating us minions who lurk below. As Londoners we’re given to kowtowing to the inevitable as another patch of sky is taken away and yet we admonish our city when beauty gives way with increasing ferocity to the financial services sector. ‘That’s life’, they say, and so it is.

The Shard is a strange spectacle; so obvious it hardly seems noticeable. It was the first proper skyscraper to land on the south side of the city, tenuous though this postcode is within shouting distance of its brethren at Bishopsgate. Borough, where the Shard is located is an artery in the heart of London’s folk lore and there’s still the odd hint of what took place there before all the money moved in.

Amongst these residues is the Cross Bones Cemetery on Redcross Way. If casually wandering back to the tube from Tate Modern on the Southbank, the cemetery is startling to happen across. Attached to iron gates, perhaps six metres long and three high, are hundreds if not thousands of colourful ribbons, love hearts, teddy bears, poems, dream catchers, letters and flowers. Billowing in the wind at dusk, it’s spine-tinglingly unexpected, uncanny even. The land behind the gates belongs to TFL or Transport for London. In 1990 whilst building a substation for the city’s Jubilee Line extension, the bodies of approx 150 women and children were found, thought to be an estimated 1% of the number of bodies subsumed into the ground.  

The site, you see, is what’s known as a pauper’s burial ground and before that an unconsecrated burial ground for the city’s sex workers. Medieval prostitution was licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Liberty of the Clink, as Southwark, home to Borough, was known. Taxable in life yet dishonourable in death the women, known as the ‘Winchester Geese’, were forbidden a religious funeral and were buried in this pagan ground where they lay, undisturbed. Eventually the graveyard was home to the bodies of children and finally paupers until it was closed in 1858, ‘completely over-charged with dead’ and forgotten about.

The Cross Bones Cemetery, now a memorial garden, is, according to one care- taker I spoke with, a feminine place with a female spirit sitting as it does beneath the great phallus of the Shard. John Constable, a druid who has lived in Borough for almost 30 years, took charge of the Winchester Geese and, finally, fought their corner. On the 23rd of each month he gathers with a group, sometimes 10, sometimes 40, to honour the outcast, dead and alive. Well kept and ever growing, the garden, on temporary lease from TFL for the next three years, is a sanctuary. Trees play host colourful mementos, a mound covered in shells sits at the centre surrounded by two freshly built raised flower beds. A shelter, build by a local architect and enthusiast, gathers rain water to feed the pond.

The Cross Bones Cemetery is important to many people, for many reasons and is subject to continued lobby by local residents to maintain the space as it is, safe from the hands of the developers. It’s eerie to sit there amongst the dead, right by a power station, opposite a wine bar looking over to the city. And it’s a little bit strange these mounds and small shrines, separate as they are from any explanation. But it’s also gentle and indeed, female, and really quite beautiful. It is, somehow, the London we come looking for but can never quite find.