The other day on the radio a lady mentioned the 'bones of Hythe'. She was referring to the ossuary of Hythe Church, an ossuary being a store of bones. You might think this a morbid topic, one that I really could do with avoiding given my recent experiences. But the ossuary at Hythe doesn't carry suggestions of morbidity for me.
Perhaps it's the word 'ossuary'. An elegant, stately word. Containing a pile of bones within such a latinate construction lends them a certain grace.
I visited the ossuary a few years ago on a sunny summer's day. The church is a short climb up from Hythe's High Street. A small sign directs you to the rear of the church and through a small door. The sharp contrast between the sunlight and the dark of the interior meant it took a couple of seconds for my eyes to adjust. I was surprised to find myself looking right into a bank of skulls and bones.
It reached about as high as my head, the height exaggerated somewhat as the bank stood on a small stone dais. It was shaped like a granite kerb corner, with one long face turning through 90 degrees into a shorter end face; it sloped slightly back on itself. Its interlocking construction was that of a dry stone wall, and it must have been put together with some skill having remained integral for hundreds of years. The skulls had been placed evenly throughout the structure, but without a formulaic regularity.
What was peculiar about the experience was there was nothing sinister or disturbing about it. On the contrary, whilst hardly having an everyday, unremarkable character, the bones had a comfortable feeling about them. Many generations of eyes had taken them in and worn them smooth. They seemed settled, almost familiar, unthreatening as milk.
It's unclear how the ossuary came into being. One story has it that it was the product of an Anglo Saxon battle. But a more likely explanation is that it was created when the church was extended over the graveyard. The ecclesiastical authorities required that all the bones be removed and put somewhere safe. Hence the ossuary. A very peculiar and little-known place.