My visit to Ganina Yama, Romanov burial site, Yekaterinburg

November 2001

“That’s where the Tsar was buried,” K had told me.

“That” was a simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross set among snow-sprinkled trees. It was late 2001 and K and I were on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the city notorious as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and almost his entire family were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Simple wooden cross in the trees, marking the site of Ganina Yama.

Ganina Yama, or ‘Ganya’s Pit’, in November 2001. Just visible through the trees, between the cross and the tree with the plaque is the pale outline of a simple building that could be the beginnings of the monastery built to commemorate the murdered Romanovs.

I took a picture of the cross but I didn’t find out where it actually was. So nearly 15 years later it was still uncaptioned in the album. If I was going to do a proper job of writing up this trip, I decided, I really should find out where that picture was taken. I did, but I found out, too, a little about how Russia has changed in that decade and a half.

I started by doing an internet search for the burial place of Nicholas II. The top result was Ganina Yama, or “Ganya’s Pit”. There were lots of pictures, and countless reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. But that couldn’t be the place where my photograph was taken. Sure, there was a plain wooden cross, a slightly different style to ‘mine’, but seeing as wood rots it could easily be a replacement for the one in my picture. However, everything else was different too. Behind the cross in my photograph there is a low metal fence and beyond that, under the snow, what appears to be a depression in the earth. Around that are some slender trees, and just visible through them a shadow of what could be a largish building. There are no people in the picture because there was no one else there with us, nor did we see anyone on the road leading to the burial place.

There were lots of people in the pictures of Ganina Yama, though, lots and lots of people. There were some trees around the cross, but far fewer than in my photograph. There was also a depression, clearly visible, but running round the edge of it was a covered walkway, a rather substantial, obviously permanent structure. There were pictures, too, of the seven churches at Ganina Yama, one church for each murdered member of the Imperial family, who were canonised as saints by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981.

Nah, no way was that the place I had been to. So I (pardon the pun) dug a little deeper. I learned that, while the Orthodox Church still officially regards Ganina Yama as the place where the bodies of the Tsar and the people murdered with him were dumped and burned to nothing, it has now been established that this wasn’t the case. The remains, of the Tsar, members of his family and a couple of retainers, were indeed deposited at Ganina Yama within hours of the killings, but they were not cremated there. (Attempts may have been made, but burning 11 bodies to ash is almost impossible, especially in a wood in the middle of nowhere and without fuel to aid the blaze along.)

Within less than a day it was decided that Ganina Yama was just too public, too easy for the people of Yekaterinburg to find, so the bodies were moved to a place just a couple of miles away but less obvious, called “Pig’s Meadow” or “Piglet’s Meadow”. This fact was established in the mid-late 1970s by three local researchers, but they kept their discovery secret until the Soviet Union had collapsed and the political climate changed. The site was subsequently excavated and the remains comprehensively tested to confirm their identities. In 1998 the bones of the Imperial family members were re-interred at St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in a formal and very public ceremony. However, senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the event, as the Church was still insisting that the Romanov bodies had been burned to dust at Ganina Yama.

So, it must have been Pig’s Meadow that K had taken me to. But while there were countless pictures of Ganina Yama, there were hardly any of Pig’s Meadow, and most of what few there were dated from around the time of the killings and the first investigation into the fate of the Tsar. Eventually, though, I unearthed some modern(ish) pictures of Pig’s Meadow. The only marker was a simple cross, but in some kind of black stone. The immediate area was bare of trees – and any possible depression in the earth – and bore no trace of any fence, present or past. Plus, the topography was nothing like that in my picture, unlike that of Ganina Yama.

After a lot more searching, I found an article on a Russian Orthodox Church news website. It was about the then-Patriarch visiting Ganina Yama in October 2000 (ie a little over a year before my trip to Yekaterinburg) to give his blessing to the foundation of a monastery to honour the “Holy Royal Martyrs”. Apart from all the people on it, the cross and the setting looked just like those in my picture.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama, surrounded by scores of people.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama. Spot the difference between this cross and the one in my pic? You won’t – there isn’t one!

So my photo had been taken at Ganina Yama after all! Yet a decade and a half after I was there the place was all but unrecognisable.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the change in attitudes towards the Romanovs in Russia over just, say, 25 years. For decades the mere existence of the Imperial family was such a sensitive subject that it was only in 1989/1990 that the discoverers of the remains in Pig’s Meadow had felt safe enough to report their discovery to the authorities in Moscow. Yet now, in 2015/16, Ganina Yama is an officially-recognised, openly-visited, substantial shrine to them. (Even if the bodies were only buried there for a matter of hours – despite the official Orthodox Church line.)

Of course it wasn’t just the Romanovs that the Soviets had a problem with – they weren’t too keen on the Church either, seeing it as a challenge to the ethos and authority of Communism. Put it this way, there’s a reason why the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church “in exile”. Now, though, in the 20-teens, Vladimir Putin is bezzie mates with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and tourists are posting selfies from the churches of Ganina Yama.

If you’re interested, the potted history of how the bodies came to be in Ganina Yama and Pig’s Meadow in the first place goes something like this:

At the time of the killings, in mid-1918, Russia was in the throes of what amounted to a civil war. The main protagonists were the Bolsheviks, or ‘Red Russians’, and the ‘White Russians’, who wanted change in Russia, but nothing as drastic as that sought by the Bolsheviks (some White Russians were actually monarchists). The Tsar abdicated in March 1917 and he and his family were taken into custody by the Bolsheviks. After several months the family was moved to Yekaterinburg. By July 1918 White forces were closing in on the city, and the Bolshevik leaders decided that rather than risk having the Tsar and his family ‘rescued’ by the White army, they should be disposed of. Which is what happened in the cellar of the Ipatiev House on 17 July. Within days the White forces had taken Yekaterinburg, and a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov, was tasked with establishing what had happened to the Romanovs. Just a few months later, though, the Bolsheviks re-took Yekaterinburg and Sokolov was forced to flee – but not before he had amassed a whole heap of evidence, which he managed to get out of Russia before he left the country in 1920. Although Sokolov never actually found physical proof of the fate of the Romanovs, the earlier story about the remains being totally destroyed at Ganina Yama stuck and no one sought to question it – especially as even mentioning the deaths would probably have led to a trip to a Gulag during Soviet times.

Despite the dangers, in the 1970s two local geologists, Alexander Avdonin and Michael Kochurov, and a filmmaker, Geli Ryabov, and their wives, set out to establish once and for all what had happened to the Imperial remains. Using the material Sokolov had gathered during his investigation, and a contemporaneous account of the murder and subsequent disposal of the bodies, they eventually located the real burial site – Pig’s Meadow.

(In 2007, two other sets of remains were uncovered in Pig’s Meadow. Tests confirmed that they are of the missing children, the Tsarevitch Alexei and his sister Maria, but as of October 2015, they had yet to be recognised by the Russian Patriarch.)

Simple cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House.

Yekaterinburg: Cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House. This was taken in November 2001.

Ganina Yama isn’t the only site around St Petersburg that demonstrates how much attitudes to Russia’s Imperial past have changed. My picture of the site of the Ipatiev House – where the Romanovs and their courtiers were murdered – features a simple cross and a tiny wooden chapel. In 2016, while the cross appears to have gone, the chapel is still there, but now it is dwarfed by the newly-built, gleaming white Church on Blood, which commemorates the dead Romanovs. That said, I suppose the cross and chapel of my picture marked progress even in 2001: it was only a quarter of a century earlier that the house had been razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage for royalists. (The demolition was ordered by the then-Chairman of the local Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, although he claimed later he only did it because he had been told to by the Politburo.)

Note: I’ve re-published this blog to mark the Centenary of the deaths of the Tsar and his family. There are more posts about my trip along the Trans-Mongolian Railway on the Trans-Sib tab on the header menu.


At home with William Morris

One of the first views of the Red House - from the ticket office!

One of the first views of the Red House – from the ticket office!

ARE you a fan of William Morris? The Pre-Raphaelites? The Arts and Crafts movement? If you are, this is a place for you: Red House in the London suburb of Bexleyheath.

Red House is the only house commissioned, created by and lived in by the great designer, writer and activist. You could argue that it was a labour of love for Morris: not only would his house embody the ideals and aesthetics he held dear, but he intended it to be a home for himself and his new wife, Janey, and the family they hoped to have.

Red House is significant for several reasons. Firstly, although Morris had a clear idea of what he wanted from his home, he commissioned Philip Webb to turn his ideas into solid bricks and mortar. Webb was relatively unknown at the time, and Red House was his first solo project, but he went on to become probably the leading Arts and Crafts architect.

The completed building was decorated and furnished by William and Janey’s Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts friends, and quite a lot of their work remains in the house today. That includes a mural described as “of international importance” because it is believed to be the combined work of Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal and Ford Madox Brown. Amazingly, it was only (re-)discovered about five years ago, behind a wardrobe and hidden under layers of wallpaper! (As reported by the UK’s Guardian newspaper.)

Red House is also the place where Morris and Janey became parents – their daughters, Jenny and May, were born there. And it’s also the place where Morris set up his influential decorative arts company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co (which later became Morris and Co). It’s also (less salubriously), where the family were living when Janey started a relationship with Rossetti.

Red House had been on my list of places around London to see for years and years, and last Summer I finally got to do just that. I wasn’t disappointed; the house was just as captivating as I’d hoped it would be.

In fact, it was even better than I’d hoped, thanks to the lovely ever-so-English garden, and the obvious enthusiasm of the guides. Most (possibly all) of them were volunteers from the Friends of Red House, which was set up in 1998, when the then-owners were struggling to keep the house open to the public. In 2003, the house was taken over by the National Trust, but the Friends are still very much involved in running it.

I haven’t said much about Red House because the purpose of this post is, really, to recommend it to any Morris and Arts and Crafts fans out there. And, to be honest, I doubt I could give a better account of Red House and the people who contributed to it than this fab essay from a US-based open learning site:

I found the National Trust website ( really user-unfriendly, and worth bothering with only to find out opening times, prices and advice on how to get there. The website of the Friends of Red House is miles more informative, and you can find it here: (

An unexpected treat: St Pancras Old Church, London

“Hmm, I wonder what’s up there?” I thought to myself as I walked from King’s Cross to the Carreras Cigar Factory in Camden.

“There” was a flight of steps, stone, characterful and obviously old, probably something like a couple of hundred years or so old, flanked by mature trees – and totally out of keeping with their surroundings.

I decided to take a quick detour. And found myself in the lovely grounds of the lovely St Pancras Old Church. From the outside, the church looked vaguely Saxon or Norman, although as the stonework looked in good state it probably couldn’t actually be that old.

And when I went inside and read the information boards I found out I was right. It looks like there has been a church on the site for more than 1,000 years, maybe even 1,500, but it has been rebuilt or restored several times, and the current building dates from the mid-19th Century. That said, there are some bits of the earlier buildings still visible inside.

The interior is nice enough, but it’s the churchyard that’s really remarkable. Not only is it a little haven of peace – it’s easy to forget you’re in a busy part of a busy city – but it contains some really interesting tombs and/or tombs of really interesting people.

One is that of the architect John Soane. Not only is he famous in his own right, but his tomb – which he designed himself – gave Giles Gilbert Scott his inspiration for the famous red telephone boxes.

There’s also a sundial that’s a monument to people who were originally buried in the churchyard but whose remains were moved when part of the churchyard was made into a public park and also when the Great Northern Railway to/from King’s Cross station was built on part of it.

Which brings me to this, the “Hardy Tree”:

It’s named after Thomas Hardy, who, before he became a famous novelist, worked as an architect, and supervised the works to clear the churchyard to make way for the railway.

You can read the story here:

Plaque about Thomas Hardy's work at St Pancras, which included moving bodies to make way for a railway line.

And you thought Thomas Hardy was ‘just’ a novelist?

Yes, I know my pictures are a bit tat (and all of the same thing), it’s just that when I took them I took them just for me – I didn’t intend to write about them or anything. But then I thought why not? Someone looking for an interesting, peaceful place in a busy part of London might just find it useful.

There’s more information (and more pictures than my lamentable ‘selection’) on the church’s own website:

Well, that’s Trump told…

Long story, but the other day I discovered the delight that is , the website of the official news agency of North Korea (or the DPRK).

There’s a lot of glorious stuff on there but I just couldn’t resist sharing this below, which was posted a couple of days ago. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s yet another diversion from my stated aim for this website, which was to be a record of my travels, but I did say, too, that it could be a bit random. And I guess this is pretty much as random as you can get. Anyway, seeing as I tried to visit North Korea but failed, I could argue that this counts, as a record of my travel that never was (more’s the pity).

If you think I’m making this up, you can find it – and a whole treasury of other gems – for yourself here: Enjoy!

War Maniac Must be Tamed with Fire

A mentally deranged hooligan Trump recently spit out unprecedented rubbish at the UN General Assembly that he would totally destroy the DPRK.

The DPRK solemnly warned that the way out for the U.S. to evade its final doom is to think with discretion and roll back its anachronistic hostile policy toward the DPRK, though belatedly.

Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say. Such maniacs as Trump who are fond of war should be tamed only with fire.

Whatever they might have expected, they will face results beyond their expectation.

The impudent aggressors U.S. imperialists have so far ignited wars against other countries and nations and inflicted all kinds of disasters upon them and have resorted to a nuclear blackmail against the DPRK and the world, calculating that there is no bomb that can be dropped on their land. They should clearly understand that tremendous is the power of the army and people who formed a citadel around their leader and turned out as one and that no one can break the decision and will of the DPRK to fully exercise the right to preemptive strike to defend the dignity of the supreme headquarters and sovereignty.

How far and vast the U.S land may be, it can never escape the fate of getting scorched by the fire of justice of the DPRK.

Belated regret for a wrong judgment and action at a wrong time would be useless.

It is the stern determination and will of the DPRK to annihilate the U.S. imperialists, the ringleader of aggression, to the last man on this planet.

Home page of DPRK (North Korea) official news agency, uriminzokkiri.

Home page of DPRK (North Korea) official news agency, uriminzokkiri.

ps. Should you so wish, you can follow uriminzokkiri on Twitter: . Don’t be misled by the capitalist imposter, @DPRK_News, because that’s a spoof run by some American imperialist (probably). And, to be honest, while truth is stranger than fiction, in this case it’s probably funnier as well.

Myanmar Mystery

This post is a bit of a departure from my usual rather fluffy travel ones, but having spent some time in Burma/Myanmar – and just published a book about it, for goodness sake – I feel I can’t not address what is happening to the Rohingya.

The thing is that, while I accept completely that the Rohingya have suffered – and indeed are still suffering – dreadful, dreadful things, I just can’t understand why.

Once upon a time I would have seen the news images of refugees streaming across the border to Bangladesh and I would have thought: “The Burmese junta – what arseholes”.

But that was before I actually went to Burma. There, (as I relate in the book) I met a man who, while European rather than Burmese, had something like 30 years’ experience of visiting Burma and had formed personal relationships with local people, who told me about the amount of personal freedom enjoyed by people in Myanmar. “You can be gay, you can build a mosque, do anything, so long as you don’t question the authority of the government,” he said.

I didn’t hear anything about prejudice against Muslims from any other quarter while I was in Burma, and the travel guides I used to plan my trips, if they referred to Muslims at all, implied that they were viewed and treated no differently to other Burmese people.

The groups who did attract the ire of the authorities weren’t singled out because of their religion, but because of their ethnic background – or rather their attempts to liberate “their” people from the Burmese state; the Shan, say, or the Karen.

So is this the case with the Rohingya? Not as far as I can find out. I’ve found stuff about other Burmese/Myanmar people not accepting the Rohingya as Burmese, describing them as “Bengalis”, even though the Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state for generations. But if the Generals have a problem with ethnic groups trying to break free of the State, why wouldn’t they love the Rohingya, who, apparently, want to be Burmese?

OK, so there have been bouts of Rohingya insurgency over the past few years, and they’ve got worse this year (as predicted in January by intelligence, defence etc analysts Janes: There’s now, apparently, something called the “Arakhan Rohingya Salvation Army”, which may include Rohingyas who have returned from working in Saudi Arabia and may be linked to al-Qaeda or Daesh. (Sources for that information include, amongst others, Priscilla Clapp, who was US Chief of Mission in Burma in 1999-2002, speaking on the BBC World Service.) However, that doesn’t really explain why the army is either persecuting Rohingya itself or is standing back and allowing Buddhist nationalists to persecute them instead. Unless the army’s reasoning is that if you drive out all the Rohingya, they’ll take the insurgents with them – and sod how much the innocents suffer?

Otherwise, why would the generals want the Rohingya out? I can understand why Buddhist nationalists might want Muslims out of the country, but I can’t understand why the generals would care that much about keeping the Buddhist nationalists happy. After all, they weren’t that fussed about keeping anyone happy for decades, and now, as then, they have the means to suppress dissent, wherever it comes from.
If there’s a reason other than religion, what is it? It’s not like land is at a premium in Burma – it’s a big country with a relatively small population, and, also, I can’t find anything to suggest that the Rohingyas are sitting on some particularly valuable land; that it contains oil (how 20th Century!), say, or mineral deposits, precious stones or the like.

To muddy the Myanmar waters still further, just yesterday I found a podcast of the BBC World Service’s Business Matters dating from May 2015. I’d downloaded it for a completely different reason, but it just happens to include correspondent Jonah Fisher reporting from Sittwe on a(nother) Rohingya exodus happening at that time. In it he says that: “If a way of evacuating them to a third country could be found they would be in favour of it… Almost all the people you speak to here talk about wanting to leave, to start a new life somewhere, but where are they going to go to?…They would grab any opportunity, but no one wants to take them.” So why did the Rohingya (apparently) want to leave then, yet the people quoted in news reports this year talk about how much they want to return to their villages?

The simplest thing for me to get my head round is why Aung San Suu Kyi has been as quiet as she has. OK, so she may not want to upset Buddhist nationalists – apparently for fear of losing their vote – but surely her biggest problem is the military?

I don’t know about other people, but I was actually really shocked when the military opened up the country as much as it did in 2011; it seemed to happen just so quickly, and I wondered at the time whether it was just another way of smoking out NLD supporters and other “undesirables”, as had happened in the 1990 elections.

What people seem to have forgotten – or be blissfully ignoring – is the fact that while ASSK is now de facto head of state, it is still the military that holds pretty much all the power. It’s the military that controls the key ministries. And, let’s not forget, it’s the military that has all the guns and weapons. And, as we have seen so many times in the past, they’re not afraid to use them against the people of Burma – Rohingya, Shan, Karen, Buddhist, Bamar, whatever. So maybe I’m being naive here, and giving ASSK too much credit, but I can’t really see what she could actually do. Sure, she could denounce the military, but how would the Generals react? It is, after all, only a handful of years since they ceded even the tiniest bit of power.

Western media outlets are full of heart-rending images and accounts of refugees and the horrors they have been through, but I haven’t found one that has come even close to explaining why. Why is there (supposedly) such resistance to the Rohingyas in Burma? Why single them out over other Muslim groups? What do the insurgents/the ARSA want? A breakaway state? If so, how much support do they have, especially given that the Rohingyas seem so keen to be regarded as citizens of Burma/Myanmar? Would the generals be happy to see the Rohingya people go, so long as they left the land with Burma? If so, why is the land so important, unless as a buffer against Bangladesh?

I’ve tried so hard to find answers to my questions, but so far I’ve not got very far. If anyone who does have the answers should happen to read this, I’d love to hear from you…

From W1A to NW1

As if there weren’t already enough reasons to love the new series of the BBC’s W1A, I’m pretty sure that Perfect Curve and Fun Media are based in the Art Deco delight that is the Carrerras Cigar Factory, just across the road from Mornington Crescent tube station in London.

Purely by co-incidence, and not because I was in any way stalking Siobhan Sharpe, I happened to go to take a look the last time I was in London. Architecture is one of my “things” and the Carreras factory has been on my list of architectural things to see for ages.

The photos are a bit tat, I know; I’m a useless photographer at the best of times, but seeing as I took these purely as a record for myself they have even less artistic merit than my pictures usually have. However, there are loads of pics better than mine on t’internet, if anyone feels inclined to search for them.

There’s also some really great information about the origins and history of the building, once known as Arcadia Works, and the tobacco company.

This is one of my favourite sites, a treasure trove of information about modernist buildings, not just in Camden but throughout the UK (although it does lose Brownie points for omitting the Express Building in Manchester – especially as I once worked there!):

The Thames Path – or The Scenic Route

THERE’s probably a certain irony to how this post came about, seeing as it involves me visiting a dead explorer then doing some exploring of my own.

I’d decided it would make sense to combine checking out the tomb of Sir Richard Burton in Mortlake (the subject of my previous post) with a ‘work’ visit to the UK’s National Archives in Kew, seeing as the two are only a couple of miles apart.

Having done my stuff at the National Archives I hit the road – or rather roads – to Mortlake. I’d no complaints about the roads ; they were doing what they were supposed to do, ie get me from A to B (Archives to Burton, I suppose you could say). But at the end of the day they were just roads, of Tarmac and cars and pollution (and a retail park with a TK Maxx, if that’s your thang).

I crossed one pretty big road and followed a footpath down a little embankment and onto a housing estate. A little distance further on I found myself looking out onto the River Thames. Between the boring road I was on and the river, though, was a pretty little green area, framed by an elegant stone bridge.

I walked up to the bridge, which turned out to be Chiswick Bridge, which carried the big road I had just crossed over the river. “Kew Gardens 2 miles” said a sign pointing under the bridge and vaguely towards where I had just come from (the National Archives is at Kew Gardens). “Ooooh,” I thought, making a mental note for later. And I continued on my way to find Sir Richard’s tomb.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should ‘fess up here that I didn’t actually see the tomb this particular day; I got caught out because the graveyard was locked shut at 3pm (I’ve updated my previous post with a warning about this).

OK, so I was disappointed, but at least I had something else to explore – that path to Kew Gardens.

The “path” was wide, smooth and had hardly any incline on it at all, making it easy enough for people who might struggle to get up hills, and/or wheelchair users. There’s lots of greenery, and, of course, you’re on the banks of the Thames, so there’s (a bit of) wildlife to watch, including, during my walk, the members of a rowing club practising on the river.

It was much quieter than the road/s, and so much more relaxing. It was, in fact, such a nice experience that by the time I had reached the back of the National Archives, and Kew Bridge, I had pretty much overcome my disappointment at not meeting Sir Richard.

Map of Thames Path

My route to the Thames Path: A: St Mary Magdalen Church, and Richard Burton’s tomb; B: Jolly Gardeners pub (which we like because it has a toilet open to the public!), Lower Richmond Road, opposite Mortlake Green; C: The Ship pub, right on the riverbank; D: ‘park’ at Chiswick Bridge; E: Kew Bridge and the National Archives. (Map compiled and adapted from maps on the Thames Path website,

I found out later that what I had been walking on was (a small) part of the “Thames Path”, a 184-mile-long walkway along the length of the Thames from its source in the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier. If you’re visiting London and fancy doing something a little different to the usual stuff, as well as getting some fresh (for London, anyway) air and a bit of exercise, I’d say a walk along part of the Thames Path would be well worth considering.

There’s lots of information on the Thames Path on the official national trails website (  There’s also lots about the other 15 national trails across the breadth of England and Wales, from the “South West Coast Path” to the “Cleveland Way” (

(In case you’re wondering about the whole tomb thing, I went back to St Mary Magdalen Church a couple of days later, at a time when I knew the graveyard would be accessible. And then I went on to the Arts and Crafts Red House, at Bexleyheath, which I may write about presently, if the spirit moves me.)

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:

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:


Burmese Daze – the book!

For some strange reason it seemed to make sense to turn my diaries and dlogs from Burma/Myanmar into a book. More depth, more stories, more opinion, more, well, Myanmar!

It’s available now, as a print book from, and as an ebook from Smashwords , Barnes and Noble, and  Kindle. For UK-based readers, print copies are available direct from me (for less than the Lulu etc list price); please just ask via the contact form.

Reviews – good, bad or indifferent – most gratefully received on the relevant seller’s site. Thank you!

For anyone who fancies doing their own book, it’s not as difficult as you might think, but I’m happy to give advice based on my own experiences – again, just ask via the contact form.


Going via Gothiek to Hsipaw

I decided to move on east to the small town of Hsipaw, and to go by train. The eye-catching Celica dropped me outside the station about half an hour before the train was due to leave.

The ‘Foreigner price’ fare was US$2. I slapped down a $20 bill. The station-master said he had no change. “Well, I’ll pay in kyats, then,” I said. “Only dollars,” he replied curtly. There was nowhere to leave my pack, so I had to cart it the quarter-of-a-mile into town in search of change. Eventually I found someone who could change the $20, and I ran – yes, ran – back to the station, where the station-master, smiling away, handed me my ticket.

I’d chosen the train because it went over the Gothiek Viaduct, a marvel of turn-of-the-last-century engineering and once the second-highest railway bridge in the world.

Although the bridge was built by an American company such things always make me wonder about the old Colonial types. I mean, what on earth would someone from my home village in England in the 19th Century have made of the heat, the humidity, the wildlife, the locals, whatever, in a place like Burma?

It’s not like they would have seen it on TV or something, or even, until the later part of the century, seen photographs – drawings and descriptions would be all they had.

Even in the 21st Century going over the bridge was pretty hair-raising, as it was a looooong way down. Actually, given the shoddy state of the bulk of the infrastructure I’d experienced so far, maybe going over in the 21st Century was even riskier than going over when the bridge was first built. All I could do was hope that its strategic importance – as a link between the north-east and the rest of the country – meant that the government looked after it better than it maintained everything else.

You’ll have to take my word for it about what a nerve-wracking experience going over the bridge was. I tried to take pictures as proof but I was stopped by a soldier, who watched me like a hawk until we were well past the bridge.

I did wonder whether the train itself dated from Colonial times, with its solid wooden seats and (by now) knackered windows. The track was so shoddy we had to go very slowly.

Train from Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw.

Train from Pyin-Oo-Lwin to Hsipaw.

I didn’t lack for entertainment during the long journey though. For a start there were three mice playing in the sacks of vegetables, parcels of bamboo and shopping bags of the women sitting opposite. Then there was the constant stream of vendors prowling up and down the aisle, offering all sorts of things, from food to books to “medicine”.

One such vendor was selling little vials of powder that would fix anything from stomach upsets to headaches. How did I know this? He was yelling his sales patter into a megaphone at our end of the carriage, and it was being translated for me by Mr C, the local guide of an American called K. (I think the station-master in Pyin-Oo-Lwin had sat me with them because I was a woman alone and he thought they would look after me.)

Anyone who didn’t have a headache before the miracle cure man had started his spiel certainly would have one by the time he’d finished; strewth he was strident. I didn’t ask Mr C what the powder was, but it looked rather like ground black pepper and there was an awful lot of spluttering from the people who put it into their mouths or noses.

The most depressing experience of the trip was probably watching the local girl opposite me smarten herself up before getting off the train. She uncoiled her past-bottom-length hair, combed it a bit then twisted it into a rope, wrapped the ‘rope’ round her hand and made a knot with it, then wrapped the loose end round the knot and anchored the lot back on her head with a comb. Even my very best hair day wouldn’t match one of her very worst hair days!

From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.