December 2018: On my way to Saudi Arabia, I had an 8-hour night stopover in London. It just seemed fitting on my way to Saudi Arabia to stop and pay homage to one of the greatest explorers of Arabia; one that I deeply admire-Sir Richard Burton. Of course, to do so, I would need to find his graveyard. My stop-over in London was during night and in the dead of winter, the perfect setting for a graveyard visit.

About Sir Richard Burton

Sir Richard Burton lived from 1821 to 1890. His exploits are too many to list but some of the most notable are being among the first known westerner to enter Mecca, Medina, and Harar and exploring the African Great Lakes region. All of his travels occurred during an era when true adventure still existed and each and every journey carried with it a high if not imminent risk of death. He was also a military officer, diplomat, master linguist and author. His explorations brought him to the most remote parts of Asia, Africa and South America.

He managed to survive so many near death encounters in his life; bandits, pirates, hostile tribes, exotic illnesses but in the end, it was a heart attack that took him. When Sir Richard Burton died, his wife built him a tomb in the shape of a Beduin tent as a tribute to his interest and love for Arabia. Both he and his wife are buried in the Beduin tent shaped tomb, which is located in the graveyard of a small chapel-St. Mary Magdalen Church, located in Mortlake, outside of London. The coffins of Sir Richard Burton and his wife can be viewed by climbing a small ladder to the rear of the tomb, where there is a glass window that peers inside.

 

 

Getting There

I tried once before to visit Sir Richard Burton’s grave with my wife during a daytime London stop-over, but she lost her passport on the plane as we were disembarking, and we spent the entire stop-over trying to secure her permission to return home.

To get to Mortlake, I traveled via the London metro via multiple connection points. Once in Mortlake, I had to find the chapel and to make matters more confusing there were two chapels in the area with the same name-St. Mary Magdalen Church. I went to the first chapel bearing the name. I walked up to the entrance as a small group of church goers exited the church and asked a woman attendant if she knew of the location of the graveyard. She looked at me with bewilderment and asked me why on Earth would I want to visit a graveyard at night. When I explained, she informed me I was at the wrong chapel, and she provided me instructions to the right one. She warned me that it might be closed.

I raced off with my travel pack down residential alleyways following her instructions and after taking a few wrong turns, I finally arrived at the other church bearing the same name-St. Mary Magdalen Church. Indeed, the church was closed, and its lights turned off. The small catholic church’s graveyard was completely surrounded by a wall. I tried to open every gate I could find but all were locked. I wasn’t going to come all this way to not see Sir Richard Burton’s tomb and I vowed to find a way in. The gate. stood about 8 feet tall but had plenty of foot holds for me to use to climb over the fence with. So, I leaped up and over the fence, trying to avoid the sharp metal spikes on the top of the gate. To avoid them I had to climb from the fence over to the concrete wall protruding out from the church. From there I was able to jump into the graveyard but as soon as I did, I realized I had one more fence to jump. I was in a courtyard but not a graveyard. Trying to be as sneaky as possible in order to avoid being arrested for trespassing, I jumped the 2nd fence, this time almost getting my jacket caught on the gate. Just like that I had entered a creepy world of Gothic tombstones in a graveyard that dates back to the mid-1800’s. I instantly spotted the tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent, and I climbed up the ladder in its rear and found the window where I could peer inside and see the coffins of Sir Richard Burton and his wife.

Coffins inside the church graveyard

Sir Richard Burtons Tomb in the Shape of a Beduin tent

Coffins of Sir Richard Burton and his wife inside his tomb.   

As I stood in the presence of this great explorer, I imagined his life full of wonder and truly great adventures like nothing that still exists in my era. My wonderment was interrupted by a flapping sound in the distance. At first, I thought the church caretaker was approaching and I readied myself for a confrontation but there was so no light from a flashlight, and I doubt anyone would beside me would be back here in the darkness. To exit the gate, I had entered the graveyard through, I had to walk in an arc near where the sound was coming from. I couldn’t see exactly what it was and nor did I want to, but I really thought I saw a dark figure standing next to an open coffin. The figure swayed back and forth creating the flapping sound I heard. I didn’t need another reason to hasten my departure, and I hurriedly hopped the gate and out the graveyard back to London Heathrow for my flight.

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