Richmond Palace

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Between Richmond Green and the river Thames a royal palace once stood proudly alongside the water, its turrets thrusting into the sky. A 100-foot long great hall, a 200-foot long open gallery, a chapel and a library were all contained within its walls. Once a favourite haunt of Elizabeth I – who hunted in the nearby Old Deer Park – you will be called upon to use your imagination when visiting this site today as only traces remain.

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But there is certainly enough here to warrant a visit: the gatehouse in particular is well preserved. Although now privately owned (on land rented from the Crown Estate), you can still walk amongst the buildings, pass directly underneath the old gate, and see what remains…

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Built in around 1501 for Henry VIII (formerly the Earl of Richmond), royalty lived in Richmond Palace until 1649. The nearby town felt it sensible to obey Henry’s edict and change its name from Shene to Richmond. Tragically, the bulk of the Palace was demolished in the mid-17th and early eighteenth centuries.

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The street names themselves are evidence of the site’s former life –  today you can still traverse along Old Palace Yard, Old Palace Lane and The Wardrobe. Keep an eye out for the Royal bollards. As well as the five-bedroomed Gate House, you can see the Wardrobe (which was joined up to the Gate House in 1688-9), and the Trumpeters House (built in 1702-3, replacing the Middle Gate). Maids of Honour Row, just to the left of the Gate House along The Green, was built in 1724 for the women attending the Princess of Wales, though it was only used for this purpose for a few years. The Victorian explorer Richard Burton – whose tomb I visited last year – lived at number two as a child.

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The closest station to the Richmond Palace zone is Richmond, which has all bases covered with tube, overground and National Rail services. Head to the southern side of Richmond Green to find the site. There are some very informative signs in the park just across the road from the Gate House; I recommend a quick read of these first to glean some basic history and to orientate yourself within this unusual site.

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Death in the south west

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Surely the award for most unusual mausoleum in London goes to that of Sir Richard Burton (and wife) in Mortlake. Burton – the 19th century explorer and linguist, not the 20th century actor – has as his final resting place a 12 foot by 18 foot stone replica of a Bedouin tent, in the otherwise sedate graveyard of St Mary Magdalen Church. Burton spent much of his career in the Arab world, and features among his many claims to fame the penetration of the cities of Medina and Mecca, allowing him to secretly draw up plans of the latter’s Great Mosque.

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Hence the tent-like tomb, complete with its frieze of golden crescents and stars. But if that’s still not enough of a draw, step around the back for the big reveal. A metal ladder leads to a window in the mausoleum that allows visitors to see right into the ‘tent’ and take a look at the coffins of Burton and wife Isabelle Arundell in situ among some suitably Arabian artefacts. A mirror on the opposite wall reflects the Christian shrine along the wall directly below you.

St Mary Magdalen’s churchyard is open Monday-Friday 9-3.30, Saturday and Sunday 9-5, closing at dusk during winter. It is located just a few minutes walk from the Mortlake National Rail station.

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Within walking distance of Burton’s tomb is Old Barnes Cemetery, situated within Barnes Common – once a favourite haunt of infamous highwayman Dick Turpin. I can recommend a nice stroll between the two along the Thames Path. Not to be confused with the nearby Wandsworth Cemetery, Old Barnes Cemetery is located near the Rocks Lane Multi Sports Centre. Once described as more desecrated than the battlefield burial grounds at Flanders, it has certainly suffered from years of neglect and vandalism – surely a record number of beheaded angels linger here.

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The cemetery ceased to be used in 1966 when Richmond Borough Council purchased the site from the Church of England, demolished the chapel and lodge, removed the gates and railings, and left the place to fend for itself. I believe it has more recently had a bit of a clean up and is today a very atmospheric and eerie spot that is well worth a look; in some ways its overgrown state actually adds to its character. Due to the lack of fences around both the cemetery and the common, both are effectively open 24/7.

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I hope to bring you another unusual south west London mausoleum later in the year…

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