The End of the Road

THIS post is a bit of a departure (excuse the pun) from previous ones, as it’s about a traveller other than me. And it’s about where he ended up after his travels were done.

I’m talking about Richard Burton (the one who was famous as a traveller rather than an actor). Burton’s life was exotic and “interesting”, to say the least, and his last resting place reflects that rather well:

 

Yup, not exactly what you would expect to find in in a graveyard behind a nice but conventional church, albeit one in a rather posh part of London.

In a time well before planes, FaceTime and even – for some of the places he visited – maps, Burton (a non-Muslim, of course) conned his way into Mecca disguised as an Afghani; explored modern-day Ethiopia (getting a spear in his face for his trouble), and, with fellow adventurer John Hanning Speke, set out to find the source of the River Nile. They failed on that score, but they did become the first Europeans to see Lake Tanganyika. (They split up after having a row, and Speke went on to find the source, which was actually Lake Victoria. Which wasn’t called that until Speke named it in honour of his monarch.)

Burton also served as British Consul in Fernando Po, Santos in Brazil, Damascus and Trieste – his final posting seeing as he died there.

Burton produced a number of travelly books in English (oh, and one on the history of farting). He could speak 35 languages and dialects and he produced some rather complete – aka explicit – translations of the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights (the original version of which is, apparently, not quite as family-friendly as, say, the Disney cartoon of Aladdin).

When Burton headed for the great departure lounge in the sky it was pretty obvious that a bog-standard gravestone wasn’t really going to cut the mustard, so his widow, Isabel Arundell, had this concrete Bedouin tent built for him in the graveyard of the church of St Mary Magdalen in Mortlake, South West London. When she died six years later, she joined him in there.

And here they are: (and no, I’m not being a ghoul – if Isabel didn’t want people to see them in repose, she wouldn’t have put a window and a sogging great ladder up the back of the mausoleum, would she?

 

Burton’s tomb aside, the graveyard is quite a nice place to visit if you happen to be in the area, as it’s rather characterful and tranquil, even if it is only a minute or so from a busy train line. It even boasts at least one urban fox – I know because it bolted goodness knows where after I startled it.

St Mary Magdalen Catholic Church is at: 61 North Worple Way, Mortlake, London SW14 8PR.

Updated with important information: I guess I should warn potential visitors that the cemetery isn’t accessible all the time; there’s a gate that can be – and is – locked, and as far as I could find, there was no other way into the graveyard, seeing as it’s surrounded by a rather high wall. I’m afraid I never made a note of the opening times (as I went for myself, never really intending to write about it), but if you went before 3pm you should be able to get in. or, best of all, check with the church yourself when planning your visit.

If you’re a visitor to (rather than a resident of) London, the easiest way to get to the church is probably public transport. Transport for London (TFL)’s rather effective journey planner can be found here.

If you want to read an uproarishly entertaining account of Burton’s life you can find a brilliant one here: http://greatbritishnutters.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/sir-richard-burton-gone-to-devil.html

And look what I discovered purely by coincidence was published just a couple of days ago in the UK Guardian newspaper about Burton and Speke’s jaunt to Tanganyika: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/05/suppressed-story-of-richard-burtons-rival-explorer-surfaces

 

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