A royal burial (though not the one you’re thinking of) and how a monk helped me find my grandmother’s grave

So. My original plan when I booked today’s visit to London, two weeks ago, was to work from our London office today and tomorrow before getting the last Eurostar on Tuesday. But it turned out that for some reason the office would be closed today. Fine, I said to myself, I’ll work from my hotel room for the day, and fulfill a long-standing Monday evening social commitment.

Then, to my dismay, I found on arrival that the hotel’s rooms are completely unsuitable for work – no desk, no comfortable chair, and worst of all, no coffee. Entirely my own fault for not reading the small print when booking, but my plans of today being a normal remote working day disintegrated. I tossed and turned in bed last night, wondering what to do. My mood shifted from frustration to sorrow with the news that we have lost Maureen Kincaid Speller, just one day after she was given a lifetime achievement award by the British Fantasy Society.

And then it all came together. The first funeral I remember attending was my grandmother’s, in 1979, when I was twelve; she was born in Philadelphia in 1899, died after a period of ill health in a nursing home near Hook in Hampshire, and is buried in Brookwood Cemetery, the largest graveyard in Europe, southwest of London. I have not been there since. Given what else has been happening today, and also given that I tracked down her grandparents last month, it felt appropriate to try and find her.

In parenthesis – some people have been asking me for my take on the transition in the British monarchy, as some are euphemistically putting it. I decided not to renew my British passport in 2017, and in general I think it is better to elect your head of state, preferably by qualified majority in Parliament or a electoral college, though I’ll take a popular vote if that’s what’s on offer. Liz Truss was right in 1994 (I was in the room when this happened).

But of course it is a massive crunch to lose a physical link with the past. Very few people can remember a time before the late Queen’s reign. Without really knowing much about her, everyone felt connected to her. Monarchy is bad for the royals, but she managed to persuade her subjects that it is good for the country, without ever having to say so directly.

I watched the ceremony this morning and then walked from Trafalgar Square over the Golden Jubilee Bridge to Waterloo station. Lots of people were standing silently, staring in the direction of Westminster. You can see the massed crowds in the distance in the photo I took of Parliament with its flag at half mast.

It takes 45 minutes to get to Brookwood from Waterloo by train. Today being (of course) a public holiday, the cemetery offices were closed, but I had done a bit of research. My grandmother rests with two of her aunts, her uncle by marriage, and her maternal grandmother. (Her uncle and aunt had no children of their own, but informally adopted my grandmother after her own mother’s early death.) Her uncle, Sir Robert Hadfield, was rich and famous, so I guessed that he might be in one of the posher parts of the cemetery according to a map I found in an academic paper on the social stratification of burials at Brookwood.

But before I get there, I have to say that I was really impressed by the way that Brookwood was designed as, and has remained, a resting place for those of many faiths from the start – Muslims, Zoroastrians, Ismailis, all have space reserved. (I guess that Jews and Hindus have their own arrangements?) It was a bit of a contrast with the very Christian ceremony that I had watched before catching the train, and seemed to me more reflective of England as it really is.

I wandered around the three poshest sections of the southern (Anglican) part of the cemetery, but found no Hadfields. The weather was pleasant this afternoon, fortunately, and I detoured over to the Orthodox shrine of St Edward the Martyr, King of England, who was murdered in 978, a thousand and one years before my grandmother died. After a series of improbable events, he now rests in Brookwood, the longest dead of anyone known to be there, the earliest ruler of England with an identified resting place.

Father Niphon is camera shy, but gave me a tour of the shrine and then a cup of tea. The monks have a sense of humour.

Father Niphon then unearthed a book by John Clark listing famous graves in Brookwood. (On the wall he has a photograph of John Clark presenting him with the book.) To my delight, Sir Robert Hadfield, my great-great-uncle, is among those listed. So I headed straight off to Plot 34, the D-shaped plot east of the small circular plot that is the focus of the southern part of the cemetery, to look for him, his wife, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law and his niece. I felt a bit like Tuco at the end of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, and I confess that I was whistling “The Ecstasy of Gold”, startling a young deer which was the only other large living animal around.

Plot 34 is quite big, and I was (unwisely, as it transpired) guided by a four-decades-ago memory of a gravesite near the path, with arch-shaped headstones. I toured Plot 34 twice looking for such graves with Wickersham / Hadfield / Whyte inscriptions, and was on the point of giving up when I returned to John Clark’s book, and realised that he had left an important clue in the description.

There are really not a lot of conifer-hedged allotments in Brookwood at all, never mind in Plot 34. 

And at the entrance to the enclosure I found her, with the others close by.

My memory was completely wrong; it is about as far from the path as you can get in Plot 34, and there are no headstones at all – the memorials are all at ground level. It’s in pretty good shape, though several hours later I am still brushing conifer twiglets out of my hair and clothes.

I remember my grandmother best when she was already frail, but it has been good to renew my acquaintance with her from her memoirs. Here she tells of how her grandmother died when they were on holiday in Italy together at Lake Como. My grandmother had just turned thirteen, a little older than I was when she in turn died.

Triumphantly I returned to the metropolis. As I crossed back north of the river towards Charing Cross, a busker was playing a tuba which belched flames in tune with an Abba recording. Which Abba song? Which do you think!

England, never change.