Tuesday, 12 March 2013


Mortlake is an odd district of London, shaped like a jagged scarf, cupping to the south bank of the Thames between Kew and Barnes, a clutch of busy roads flowing through the shadow of a soon-to-close Budweiser brewery, a  hidden suburbia where the Oxbridge boat race finishes near the industrial works. Tommy Cooper is interred in the expansive crematorium, Turner enjoyed painting the riverside lime trees of Mortlake Terrace. Last September, a man fell out of the sky, falling 1000s of feet before dying on impact with leafy Portman Avenue; a stowaway from Angola (still unidentified) who lost their grip of the undercarriage during the final few minutes of Heathrow's flightpath.  

Perhaps, it's the name Mortlake itself which conjures a leading morbid curiosity, but then again a closer look at the origin the name suggests an Anglo-Saxon salmon stream. It probably says more about Mortlake that its most well-known resident is John Dee. As a mathematician, navigator, Astrologer Royal, alchemist, spy, cryptographer and altogether mystical proponent to Elizabeth I, John Dee lived in his mother's house opposite St Mary The Virgin Mortlake. Nothing remains of Dee's house and library today, in fact some modern flats (called John Dee House) now occupy the site, however an ancient arch in the churchyard behind St Mary's is rumoured to be a remnant from the building, when he died in 1609 he was buried in an unmarked central plot towards the south side of the chancel whilst his previous wives were buried in the grounds.
So with all of this hanging in the air we plotted a trip to seek out the remarkably strange tomb of  Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890) this time in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen's Roman Catholic Church, situated beyond the first roadside St Mary's. Burton was such a polymath as to put even Dee's well strung bow to shame. He was a writer, soldier, geographer, explorer, translator, linguist, poet, spy, fencer, orientalist and diplomat. He traveled to Mecca in disguise, fought in the Crimean War, tracked the source of the Nile to Lake Victoria, translated One Thousand And One Nights and the Kama Sutra, amongst a complete wealth of other works.

When Burton died in 1890 of a heart-attack in Italy, his wife Isabel became distraught, destroying his journals and manuscripts, before starting work on a somewhat wholesome biography glossing over his obsessive interest in sexuality and a decidedly shady episode linking him to the murder of a boy. Returning to London, Westminster Abbey declined a final resting place and so Isabel chose Mortlake for his internment, deciding on a mausoleum, inspired by Burton's dying wish to lie with her for eternity in a desert tent. The ambitious project was funded by public subscription and further embellished by the earnings of said biography.

After navigating the confusing, looping roads, footpaths watched from treehouses and high walls surrounding Burton's resting place, the church's entrance can be found on North Worple Way, along a stretch of concrete railway walling. Walk through the courtyard, amid deflating balloons and choose the veranda door on the left to gain access to the graveyard. The Burton tomb lies in a quiet corner of the plot to the right of the Catholic church, and its truly a sight to wonder at, standing thirteen foot tall in the glum corner of the graveyard, studied by nearby houses. 

Isabel designed the tomb in the shape of an actual rippling tent they had made for their own travels, only made out of sandstone and replete with Islamic crescents and Christian detail, including a gilt star of Bethlehem on its apex. A window on the rear panel of the tent allows visitors today to peer into the tomb via a short suspended ladder. Originally this window was stained glass, flooding the mausoleum with light (Burton did not like the dark) but years of vandalism leading up to the mid-1970s meant a restoration project was badly needed, the tomb's original door having been since bricked up and plastered over. Inside Isabel (who died seven year after her beloved) and Richard's coffins are both visible side by side, cloaked in dust, cobwebs and a variety of intriguing ephemera. Eastern lamps, water flasks, a white marble altar, a broken crucifix, candles, religious paintings, figurines, festoons of camel bells and funereal flowers decorate the inside making for many minutes of interested conjecture and pressing up of cameras to the toughened glass. Purportedly, air currents slowly move around the tattered remains and decaying assemblages over the years so that every time you return to the window you'll notice something has moved position or changed. There are other more decidedly magical explanations proffered for these alterations too but why doesn't that surprise me, we're in Mortlake, where people fall out of the sky, so when do we return?

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