In southwest London is a most unusual mausoleum to an unusual man (and his wife), that’s in the shape of a Bedouin tent. Oh, and it has a ladder to climb up and peer inside it.
This mausoleum, to be found in a church near Mortlake railway station contains the earthly remains of the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton, who was famed for his explorations and was said to be able to speak 29 languages.
He visited Mecca in disguise, translated the Arabian Nights, published the Karma Sutra in English, and was one of the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa while searching for the source of the Nile.
He died in 1890 aged 69.
A slight controversy surrounds the death of Sir Richard and the location of the mausoleum. Although Sir Richard belonged to the Church of England, he was an atheist, unlike his Roman-Catholic wife. When he died, it’s said she asked a priest to perform last rites, and the mausoleum is located in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic church.
The mausoleum was designed by his wife in the shape of the tent they had spent so much time in while travelling around the middle east, and apart from its obviously unusual shape, it also features a ladder to climb up and a glass window to peer into the tomb itself.
The stonework on the mausoleum drapes delightfully, and by design or accident, the dirt of the ages now accentuates the drapes down the sides. A scalloped pelmet runs around the top decorated with the Islamic star and crescent motifs, with the star of Bethlehem at the very top.
Go around the back though, and something I’ve never seen next to a tomb appears – a large metal ladder.
Climb up and you can peer down into the mausoleum itself. It’s inside that the tent tomb takes on a very different character, with the coffins of Sir and Lady Burton as you would expect, but then you see Syrian lanterns sitting on the floor and camel bells hanging from the ceiling.
The more ornate coffin contains Sir Richard, with the plainer coffin for his wife.
The graveyard is usually open 9am-3pm, but you may need to double-check with the church if making a special visit.