Caergwrle Packhorse Bridge from the north-east

A while back I blogged about Caergwrle Castle, Flintshire, a possible early medieval hill-top fortification and 13th-century Welsh castle. Today, I went back to the castle and also explored the impressive war memorial. In addition, I visited the Caergwrle Packhorse Bridge, the historic route across the River Alyn between Caergwrle and the church of Hope. I am more used to seeing the ‘clapper bridges’ the crude megalithic packhorse bridges of Dartmoor. Here we find a far more sophisticated masonry construction with multiple arches and yet equally narrow. It is apparently one of the best surviving in Wales.

The archaeodeath dimensions are twofold and simply articulated:

  1. As the main route between principal settlement and church, I wonder how many souls, living and then dead, have made their way over this 17th-century bridge from their homes to Hope church?
  2. There was of course a dimension of heritage commemoration. The trip wouldn’t be complete without noticing a memorial plaque on the face of the wall of the house closest to the east end of the bridge. The plaque commemorates the restoration of the bridge following it being washed away in floods.


Caergwrle Packhorse Bridge from the south-west


Approaching the bridge from the west (Caergwrle) side


The route down to the bridge from the east (Hope) side


The bridge from the east (Hope) side looking west to Caergwrle


On the bridge


The River Alyn from the Caergwrle Packhorse Bridge


The memorial plaque


The memorial plaque and photograph of Edward White Benson in St Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden

Dying in church during Sunday service? What are the odds? If this happens, surely that is bad news: a sign of a really bad character who has done something terribly wrong in the eyes of the Almighty or perhaps simply really bad luck.

If you are a really devout and above repute Christian it seems that death in church can get a positive spin. For an archbishop, it is dying on the job in a sense and worthy of positive commemoration in its own right. It worked okay for Becket didn’t it? Proof, if proof be need be, that Christianity is superb at putting a positive spin on the most unexpected of deaths through commemorative monumentality.


Benson’s effigy in Canterbury Cathedral

This is what happened in St Deiniol’s church, Hawarden, Flintshire, to the Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson, aged 67, on Sunday 11th October 1886. Benson had been visiting former prime minister William Ewart Gladstone when he perished from a heart attack during the Sunday service.

Upon one of the pillars within the church there is a photograph and memorial plaque commemorating his (un)lucky fate. This is a rare memorial because it marks the church itself as a site of death and commemorates that fact.

Three days after his death, Benson’s body was loaded onto a train three days later at the no-longer-extant Sandycroft railway station and transported all the way to Canterbury for burial. His monument (I am not sure whether it marks his burial place, or not) is under the north-west tower of Canterbury Cathedral – St Augustine’s Chapel. It is a striking and dramatic late Victorian effigy tomb, one of a series that mark the final resurgence of this grandiose memorial tradition, as discussed here.

The archbishop is commemorated elsewhere, including Lincoln Cathedral. Together, this is evidence that if you are at the highest level of the church hierarchy, you can be memorialised in many locations. Furthermore, it shows that death in church doesn’t always play out badly in commemorative terms. Is this the Victorian Anglican clerical equivalent of dying whilst charging the enemy lines?


The canopy of Benson’s tomb


The Birmingham bombings memorial, prominently located beside one of the main paths through the churchyard


Recent memorial plaque in eighteenth-century style of initials only

In archaeological discussions, the date-range for cemeteries and churchyards is often taken from the memorials or dated graves. When these run out, the site is presumed to be abandoned.

We often don’t muse about what happens next. It is often implicitly assumed that the site rapidly becomes invisible unless marked by prominent monuments. Even the function and significance of these structures might be soon forgotten. Of course we encounter many instances where burial sites are reused after long periods of disuse. However, the absence of evidence between use and reuse is so often taken as evidence of absence. Often this is justified, but is it always so?


Second view of the Birmingham bombins memorial – traces of where formerly wooden crosses had been appended can be clearly seen

So how quickly did cemeteries ‘disappear’ once ‘fresh’ burials cease to be inserted? Were they abandoned utterly? Or did they persist as vibrant memoryscapes? Or do post-burial cemeteries remain significant but at a lower-level of use-intensity: a kind of half-light undead existence?


The back-side of the angel fountain

The modern world provides many examples of cemeteries that, once abandoned, can be rapidly reused for other purposes and their funerary functions forgotten. Equally though, our British townscapes and landscapes are punctuated by thousands of abandoned cemeteries, burial grounds and churchyards with memorials in situ or at least still on display. These are still important and often protected (listed) components of our historic environment; they linger on with no or infrequent use as ‘heritage’ but also as used spaces in a variety of sometimes eclectic and complex uses and intermittent memorial practices.

For example, Birmingham Cathedral’s churchyard is instructive in its tenacity as a commemorative environment long after its disuse for burial. As mentioned in a previous blog, it is the tombs and memorials from the period of use as  cemetery that are one dimension to this tenacity. St Philip’s churchyard was closed in 1859 and converted into a park in the early 20th century. While most memorials were removed over time, a selection have endured. They were retained for their physical permanence, artistic value and the stories they tell.


Plaque adjacent to a memorial tree

Yet St Philip’s churchyard endured as a commemorative environment post-burial in other ways. A range of new memorials were added during the later 19th, 20th and now into the early 21st centuries.

For the 19th century, the most prominent is an obelisk commemorating war hero Colonel Frederick Burnaby of the Horse Guards. He was killed by a spear in the throat in the short but bloody battle of Abu Klea in 1885 during the Desert Column’s attempt to save General Gordon besieged in Khartoum. By the time his memorial was raised, the churchyard had been closed for over 20 years, and yet he is afforded a prominent obelisk larger than any monument apposite for a cemetery. Still, it is very appropriate for such a larger-than-life personality and someone of heroic status.


The Burnaby obelisk


The angel fountain, built into the perimeter of the churchyard, originally from Christchurch

There is also a mid-19th century fountain, transferred from a demolished church of Christchurch at the turn of the century. Today, this fountain has been ascribed a memorial function: the angel is given flowers, although the back-side of the memorial is scrawled with graffiti.

For the 20th century, the most prominent cenotaph in Birmingham Cathedral’s grounds commemorates those killed by the IRA bombs of 1974. Recently renovated, it bears the traces of absence upon its sides of formerly present crosses.


Memorial bench

There are also more personal memorials, including the ubiquitous memorial benches with plaques, one commemorating the sisters of the same family. There are also memorial trees. There is an oak planted by Lady Diana; her secular-saintly and commemorative deeds in life readily transferred here as elsewhere to honour her own memory.


Modern memorials situated beside a 19th-century monument

There are also indications, as identified elsewhere in churchyards, that the cremated dead, in certain circumstances, might be making their way back into these spaces. For while there was no garden of remembrance, the size, scale and association with other memorials suggest that some recent plaques commemorate sites of the interment of ashes.


Enjoying the churchyard

We have already mentioned in a previous blog how some memorials are a focus of ongoing memorial practice, notably Badger and Reap’s memorial. Thus, ongoing memorial practices can focus on graves of war heroes and other celebrities.

Most recently, there are indications of more ephemeral monuments; the flowers on the angel fountain, and a temporary memorial beside Badger and Reap’s memorials among them. Another example is a wicker sculpture, one of a series throughout the city commemorating the centenary of the First World War.


And of course, in addition to these memorial uses, the churchyard is a place to walk through and rest in, a place for the living as much as a repository of tombs and memorials. There is plenty of evidence, despite the well-tended nature of the space, for subaltern uses of the space, such as the song lyrics daubed onto the surface of one structure.


In summary, this post-burial churchyard has remained an active and intermittent commemorative environment for well over a century and a half. It has evolved as a space in that time, but has retained a focus of both ongoing monumental and more ephemeral commemorative practices.

It will be interesting to see how this kind of spaces morphs through the 21st century. If not fully living environments of commemoration, these urban churchyards might be described at the very least undead graveyards in memorial terms.


One of the tenacious memorials in Birmingham Cathedral’s churchyard


Birmingham Cathedral


Obelish and memorial to burial vault


Neo-Egyptian memorial

The churchyard of St Philip’s, Birmingham Cathedral, might be regarded as a useful place to ruminate on the futility of remembrance. Over 60,000 bodies are thought to have been interred here between the church’s opening in the early 18th century until its closure for burial in 1859. So few of these received a memorial and only a tiny fraction of these have survived to be viewed today. Commemorate as we might (as Bill and Ted once said, citing the epic masterpiece by Kansas) all we are is dust in the wind... dude.

However, let’s not be so maudlin; let’s instead celebrate the tenacity of select memorials. St Philip’s churchyard was closed to burial in the mid-19th century and subsequently it was laid out as a park in 1910. You would be forgiven for thinking that the memorials were doomed, but through complex processes, some lucky memorials survived and following recent restoration and demarcation by new railings together they collectively rise like a phoenix in Birmingham’s city centre.

Why do some monuments survive? Quite a few reasons I guess. A key linking theme is that they all become valued and conserved by the communities of Birmingham and adopted as municipal monuments (features within managed public space) rather than as private family plots and vaults.


Memorial to a local war hero: Thomas White


Grand pedestal memorial with urn

First, some survived because they were the largest and grandest, and hence the most enduring and difficult to justify removal. These are unsurprisingly the memorials of the wealthiest occupants of the churchyard.

Further monuments are a subset of the above, those particularly honoured over the long term because of the particular civic identities and the honoured war dead. Some individuals represent a combination of these qualities, like the memorial to Crimean War Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Unett.

Others are not particularly monumental but their design – through happenstance as much as intention – renders them physically tenacious. Indeed, such low-lying ledgers and low pyramidal monuments are perhaps more enduring than over-blown and elaborate tombs.

Some memorials have been rendered tenacious following conservation, framed with slabs and laid flat.


A chest tomb and Ruth

A further category of memorial to survive are those that form into groups, and those that have been moved into the ‘protection’ of other memorials.


Associated memorials ensure their longevity


A memorial that perhaps survives because it is physically tenacious rather than overtly monumental


Originally upright, these gravestones have been rendered ‘tenacious’ through conservation and preservation laid flat


To the left, the broken column commemorating Heap and Badger


Protection through association – a foot-stone moved within the shadow of its paired headstone

There are also ‘tragic’ deaths that ensure survival. An obvious of these are the memorial to a pair of workers – Heap and Badger – who were killed during a building accident in 1833 during construction work on Birmingham’s Town Hall, an accident that had lasting implications in safety at work.

Such working class heroes were afforded a shared memorial: a broken classical column, situated at a prominent location on the south side of the churchyard near one of its principal entrances. Apparently it still affords a focus of trades union assemblies and is further protected by the railings that now prevent it being approached from the front.



Nanette Stocker’s gravestone

Then (and I use the word not to venture my prejudice, but to reflect Victorian attitudes) there are ‘freak’ graves. In Birmingham Cathedral’s churchyard, prominent near the western entrance to the church, is the memorial to the Austrian performer Nanette Stocker, who died in 1819 but only reached a height of 33 inches

A final reason for their survival is their association with a series of cenotaphs that have perpetuated the significance of the churchyard as a commemorative environment. I will discuss these in a future blog.

And of course, these memorials are not static, we encountered examples of fragmented memorials, one recently conserved memorial adjacent to another that is no longer present; the pavement around it serving to commemorate its absence. We also witnessed an example of how root movement and the interaction of memorials and trees creates a tension between different kinds of conservation; the need to conserve trees and memorials together.

In summary, these memorials are in an open public city-centre space and so are constantly open to the elements and assaults from the living; graffiti, vandalism or simply accidents. This is after all a rare open space in a busy urban arena. Hence, when we visited, Ruth and I were fascinated with the careful framing of memorials to protect them, assuring they have the longest lease of life of those luck few who have persisted from the 18th and 19th centuries despite being located in such a busy city centre environment. Indeed, these lucky memorials, given their careful conservation, have a far greater chance of survival through the 21st century than far more recent memorials in typical suburban cemeteries and churchyards.


A pairing of memorials conserved within a protective slab surround: one present, one now absent


The interaction of trees – themselves a part of the historic environment, and a gravestone


A triad of gravestones protected within the same surrounding arrangement of slabs


Carefully framed and paved areas protect memorials in situ



Ewloe Castle, round tower to left, donjon to right. View from the south


Ewloe Castle’s newspaper headline-style heritage board. Superb artist’s reconstruction with eerie smoke…


Heraldic gate

I recently ‘went native’ in castle terms. I revisited the wonderful early/mid-13th-century ‘native Welsh’ castle of Ewloe, Flintshire. Located in dense woodland above the steep Wepre Brook, this is a castle of the Welsh princes of Gwynedd. It may have been built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth c. 1210 and enlarged by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd around 1257. It’s plan is simple; a natural outcrop provided the site of a rectangular donjon with an apsidal eastern end.  The outer bailey is defended by a single round tower at its western end and contains ancillary buildings and a well.


The keep from the north-east

I am rather suspicious of all this talk of ‘native’ vs. ‘English’ castles. It smacks of the kind of culture-historic mindlessness that has dogged so much of archaeological interpretations in medieval archaeology until very recently. It is a tad racist, in a patronising way of seeing elite residences on a single hierarchy of bigness and loftiness…. We should work harder to challenge such thinking but some of it is very tenacious in archaeology.

Of course the scale, morphology and location of Ewloe Castle contrasts starkly with the later 13th century Flint Castle of Edward I located only c. 6 miles away. Hence, Ewloe is called a ‘typical Welsh’ design, and there are striking parallels with other castles of the princes of Gwynedd, such as Castell y Bere.


The well and western tower

That is fine. However, let’s remember that the contrast is an utterly false one and shouldn’t be seen in ethnic terms of ‘Welsh’ versus ‘English’ design. Despite their relatively close chronological and geographical proximities, these castles were built and used for very different purposes and so when viewing them you are not comparing like-with-like at all. Instead when we read of ‘typical Welsh’ castle design, I think it might be better to think of particular lordships and their visions and requirements for castle design, as well as the socio-political networks within which these elite households were connected to.  


The well

If you are visiting the castles of North Wales, you must not miss out on Ewloe because of its distinctive woodland location. You can walk up to it from the car park of Wepre Country Park or else endure the maddening noise of the nearby kennels and park in the lay-by on the B5125 and walk across a field to approach the castle from above.

The heritage dimensions are interesting as well. More ‘newspaper headline’ heritage boards from Cadw (diolch!) and a map of the walks around the country park, plus a rather random heraldic date. In terms of visitor use, the inside of the donjon is riddled with the detritus of Connah’s Quay’s youth: beer cans and glass bottles. Otherwise, it is a nice, well-managed, arboreal location and a pleasant place to visit. Remember, no wheelchair/pushchair access. So while there were no archaeodeath dimensions to Ewloe I could identify, another death-free trip for me and the kids.


Scaling the donjon


Looking down inside the ruins of the donjon

IMG_6527IMG_6507IMG_6523Recently I had the opportunity, as part of the Past in its Place project, to visit Birmingham Cathedral and explore its memorials together with my doctoral student Ruth Nugent. We met their new and superbly helpful Heritage Manager, Jane McArdle, and explored the churchyard and inside the cathedral church itself.IMG_6403


Birmingham Cathedral from the south gallery

In previous blogs, I have outlined some of the interests we have in cathedral commemoration over the long term here and here and here and here and also… here.

Only late in the project has it become clear that, despite the sensitivity of our project to comparisons between cathedrals and in embracing cathedrals as environments over the long term, our sample lacked comparative information about more recent cathedrals dedicated in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hence Ruth and I visited Birmingham Cathedral. This church, originally an early 18th-century baroque church dedicated to St Philip (consecrated 1715) and only achieved cathedral status in 1905.




One of several fabulous neo-classical draped urn mural monuments


It is difficult not to like this self-aggrandising memorial with dove on tomb

First Impressions Inside

Visiting Birmingham Cathedral was fascinating on many levels; such a contrast to experience an 18th-century church subject to renovations and expansion during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, operating as a cathedral. Birmingham stands in contrast to the heavily reworked medieval buildings that have been the principal focus of our research elsewhere. The church operates on a smaller scale. It has the light, airy, optimistic and vibrant atmosphere of its baroque origins, plus it has many memorials of 18th and 19th century design and date. Indeed, the memorials felt more ‘at home’ in the light environs.

Of course by this I don’t mean that they are somehow more, ‘authentic’ or consistent in this space; many have been moved from other churches in the city, many have probably moved around within the church.

A key difference was that the 18th and 19th century memorials were well ordered and spaced out, not interpolated or sidelined by older memorials. A further point: memorials were fewer in number compared with larger medieval cathedral churches. A third point was  the lack of ledger stones; only a few memorials were upon the floor surfaces and these were all 20th century. Hence, at Birmingham, the 18th and 19th-century dead are on the walls, the 20th-century dead have moved to the floors and fittings.


Mural monuments in Birmingham Cathedral, from the south gallery

Professions and the Antique

Birmingham possesses a wonderful array of mural monuments, many high-quality examples of neo-classical draped urns and draped tombs. Also notable is the number that employ distinctive artefacts and symbols of professions – doctors, secretaries and so on – in their design.


Bishop’s memorial


Bishop’s memorial



Bishop Barnes: the only 20th-century mural monument in the cathedral

In such a modern cathedral, it is interesting how the bishops get commemorated, in diamond ledgers and one mural monument. Only one memorial was demonstrably and distinctive paired with a place of interment of cremated remains beneath the only 20th-century mural monument.


Wilson’s diamond ledger stone – a former FEPOW who endured capture and incarceration in Changi jail, having been Bishop of Singapore at the time of the British surrender to the Japanese.


Regimental and other military flags


HMS Birmingham memorial

The Military

Despite the pacifist status of the third bishop, and the long-term wartime suffering of the fourth, it is notable that the 20th-century memorials of bishops are paired with the ubiquitous dominance of military memorials.As with all cathedrals, the military dead are commemorated in many fashions.

There is a First World War memorial, regimental flags, ship’s bell and plaque (HMS Birmingham) but notably only a few to individual military personnel and none of the 19th-century grandiose memorials to the military that would have made their way in here had this been afforded cathedral status a century or two earlier in an older county city.

Indeed, military commemoration dominates Birmingham temporarily at the present. A number of mural monuments we couldn’t see because they have been temporarily obscured by the red drapes that define the cathedral as a place of mourning to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War. There is also a temporary shrine with poppies, sandbags and even a model carrier pigeon.


The First World War memorial


The temporary memorial to mark the Great War centenary


Partially obscured mural monuments behind the Great War temporary memorial


I am very glad that we followed up on Ruth’s suggestion of visiting Birmingham Cathedral and we are grateful to the cathedral’s staff for a warm welcome and support for our project. It was a worthwhile place to visit with many dimensions connected to the project’s research aims. Be warned though, Birmingham Cathedral lacks its own cafe, so one is forced to utilise Gregg’s, McDonald’s and various other fast-food outlets close by.

In commemorative terms, the mural monuments of the late 18th and 19th centuries are the majority. The military dominate the presence as well remember the Great War. Yet it is the humble memorials of the bishops that set this cathedral apart from the grandiose clerical monuments of many other cathedrals.  The bishops’s memorials do not dominate in numbers given the youth of this cathedral church. Still, in spatial location upon floors and walls, particularly Wilson’s centrally placed ledger, they define the spirit and identity of this holy space at the heart of one of England’s greatest cities.


IMG_20140809_112155Archaeodeath fans, I haven’t gone over to the dark side and started studying medieval castles. Let me assure you, ruined castles are light relief from serious mortuary matters: places of fun and recreation. This is their heritage purpose in my view: past-lite family days out. Fine eternal ruins without the stench of mortality infesting your nostrils. There is serious scholarship on these impressive structures, but this is not for me!

IMG_20140809_100349Flint Castle - a Cadw managed and protected monument – is a free entry historic monument and one of a series of fabulous castle tourist attractions along the North Welsh coast.  Somewhat surprisingly, Flint, Conwy and the rest were not built to be pretty and fun. Instead, they began life as mechanisms of conquest of Wales by English monarch Edward I. For details look here.

IMG_20140723_132140Of course the pedant in me still doesn’t really, really, deep-down understand why he is Edward I, since the Elder, the Martyr and the Confessor were perfectly good Edwards that ruled Wessex and the Confessor almost certainly envisaged himself as a king of England. I am sure royal historians can put me straight on this as to why we start again at one for the 13th century…. I imagine it comes down to what historians define as ‘England’ at different times and the historiographical Berlin Wall that is the Norman Conquest.

The issue of whether he deserved to be first, second, third or even fourth, Edward’s castle is a phenomenal maritime design built as a base for invasion. It was subsequently embroiled in politics and conflicts for well over a century and was the site where Richard II agreed to abdicate the throne. Flint Castle later had a brief period of reuse as a Royalist and then Parliamentarian stronghold in the English Civil War.

Flint Castle’s great tower is the highlight although the entire site’s scale – both inner and outer bailey, merit attention. The views over the Dee estuary and its juxtaposition next to housing and industrial estates render it a distinctive place to visit. It is also free to visit.

IMG_20140809_111207Recently, I visited twice; both on lovely sunny mornings, both visits with segments of my family. I confess that Flint Castle is blissfully free of archaeodeath interest: there were no notable memorials or other distinctive funerary features: it is just a castle ruin. Both utilised the on-site free parking.

IMG_20140723_131248Still, the castle deserves a posting for its fabulous ruined walls. The heritage boards follow the spoof tabloid headline theme found at all the castles I have recently visited in North Wales. Nice idea that wears thin after a while…

It amuses me to reflect on the contrasting experiences of meeting other visitors there.

First up was a visit with my twin toddlers who had to be kept on reins from falling over and into, and climbing up the ruins to dangerous heights. There were other families there, some with young kids, some with older (pre-teen) boys playing football in the outer bailey and running around and climbing freely and without fear over the walls (despite the signs) to incredible precarious heights. There were other bizarre visitors. In the short time I was there, moving from tower to tower was a young woman posing against the ruins for professional photographers. In stark contrast, there was a topless middle-aged pot-bellied man slumped on the only bench within the inner ward, talking to himself, seemingly frowning at everyone and drinking lager (no friends, this wasn’t me).


The basement of the great tower

Second was my visit with my older three kids. This time, there was a mother with two boys with whom my kids played. All the other visitors were couples, some young, some middle-aged, exploring the ruins as ‘serious’ tourists and all very friendly. This time it was my kids who were climbing all over the walls despite my best attempts to prevent them. The basement of the great tower was particularly popular for running in circles, tripping over, shouting randomly and hiding in the arrow-slits.  All very safe, although I would note that one window should have vertical bar running down it to prevent little kids from squeezing through and falling out.

Both visits were most enjoyable and Flint Castle is highly recommended. An archaeodeath free day-out for all!



The Great Tower looking towards the North East Tower



Keep toddlers on reins at all times!


Exploring the great tower


The North East Tower


Exploring the outer bailey


The outer bailey