Walking in Surrey

November 9, 2015

It has been noted by a friend of ours that most of my recent posts – and I use the term recent in the loosest of senses – have been about graveyards. So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that our recent excursion into Surrey saw us visiting two nice country cemeteries as well. In our defence, it ought to be noted that at least the first of these visits wasn’t actually planned: The plan was simply to take the train to Guildford and then walk to the nearby village of Compton to visit the Watts Gallery and the Watts Mortuary Chapel. The thing is, in order to get from Guildford station to the edge of town, our walking guide book suggested a route that steers clear of busy roads and leads through back-streets and footpaths instead. As it happened, one of these paths was right through Mount Cemetery.

Not that we minded, of course. It really is a beautiful old cemetery with a nice Victorian chapel, and the colours of its autumn trees added to the atmosphere while squirrels were busy gathering their winter supplies. Much to our surprise we found that Mount Cemetery also holds the grave of one Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his nom de plume Lewis Carroll.

On we went, not down the rabbit-hole, but rather past gently sloping hills and meadows and finally through pleasant woodland.

Some of the narrow forest paths were overgrown with branches and brambles and looked like something out of a fairy-tale. It was only fitting then that upon our arrival at Watts Gallery in Compton we found that there was a splendid special exhibition dedicated to Victorian ‘fairy painter’ Richard Dadd, best-known for the amazing The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke which was also on display.

Watts Gallery (pictured above) was purpose-built around 1900 (it opened in 1904) to house the works of the painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts who lived nearby with his artist wife Mary Watts. To be honest, we weren’t too impressed with the art of G. F. Watts, but then again, we hadn’t come to Compton to look at his work anyway. What we’d come for was Watts Mortuary Chapel in the nearby cemetery, designed by Mary Watts:

Begun in 1895 and completed in 1904, the chapel’s rich decoration is perhaps best described as a fusion between the Book of Kells and art-nouveau, its symbolist iconography focusing on the hierarchies of the angels.

The terracotta decorations on the outside of the building are a testimony to Mary’s preferred artistic medium, pottery, while the colourful interior has a more painterly aspect to it. Even here, though, the designs are executed in flat relief which lends a unique and fascinating texture to their overall appearance.

In typical arts-and-crafts fashion, Mary Watts paid attention to every last detail of the chapel and its furnishings such as the iron door-grills or the elegantly curved benches both on the inside and on the outside.

And speaking of the outside, the hillside cemetery surrounding the building is every bit as beautiful as the chapel itself, at least at this time of the year when the trees are in their autumn beauty and the ground is strewn with fallen leaves…

I know we promised you mountains, but this will have to wait until [m] finds the time to put together a blog post. You see, where I come from the landscape looks like this…

… so, frankly, I don’t feel competent to write about mountains. [m], on the other hand, is a regular Heidi – she grew up in the mountains of South Tyrol (or Alto Adige)* and that’s just where we went for our holiday last week. Mostly, we stayed in the area around Meran (Merano) which – as one Arnold von Harff put it – is “a fine small town situated in a beautiful valley“.

Meran and its surroundings seen from Tyrol Castle (the building in the foreground is the Brunnenburg, a neo-medieval fantasy built in 1904 on the ruins of a 13th century castle)

Arnold von Harff wrote this brief characterization of Meran way back in 1496. Even more interesting, though, is the account given by a travel companion of Count Johann Ludwig of Nassau-Saarbrücken who visited the town just one year before Arnold, in 1495:

“On Easter Saturday, His Lordship remained in Meran and, accompanied by his servants, he went to receive the Holy Sacrament in a reformed monastery of the Poor Clares order. Also, in Meran there is an exceedingly pretty church with six most beautiful altarpieces (…).

The late medieval / early modern tower of Meran's Parish Church

On Sunday, the 19th day of April, which was the holy day of Easter, His Lordship also remained in Meran and heard Mass in the parish church, and after he had eaten, our host, the local mayor, lead His Lordship to a chapel outside town dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen where there was great indulgence and mercy.

The village of Gratsch, outside of Meran, with the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen to the right

Not far from it lies Tyrol Castle (…) and it is a pretty castle to behold. Also it is said that the armour of Hildebrand, Roland and other heroes is kept in this castle.”

Tyrol Castle (see also second picture in our previous post)

Personally, I think it’s fascinating how most of the buildings mentioned in this late 15th century account are still intact, even if they have undergone slight alterations in later centuries. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about those buildings’ furnishings: Today, no late medieval altarpiece survives in Meran’s parish church, and nobody knows whatever happened to those pieces of armour in Tyrol Castle which were believed to have belonged to the great heroes of myth and legend. Today, if you want to find traces of those epic heroes, you have to go a bit further south, to Runkelstein Castle (Castel Roncolo) near Bozen (Bolzano), about half an hour’s drive from Meran. At Runkelstein, a whole gallery of heroes was painted in the castle’s courtyard around 1400/1410 [see also last picture in our previous post]:

The heroes Dietrich von Bern, Siegfried and Dietleib, and the giant Waltram. Wall painting in Runkelstein Castle, ca. 1400/1410

Granted, there is neither Roland, the famous paladin of France celebrated in the 11th century Chanson de Roland, nor is there Hildebrand, one of the key figures of Germanic legend and main protagonist of the 9th century Lay of Hildebrand. But there is Hildebrand’s boss lord, Dietrich von Bern, a mythical character based on Gothic king Theoderic the Great (see photo above), and there also is Roland’s boss lord, Charlemagne:

King Arthur and Charlemagne. Wall painting, Runkelstein Castle, ca. 1400/1410

As for Tyrol Castle, even without Hildebrand’s and Roland’s armour, there’s plenty to see and discover – but I’ll save that for another time…


* As you probably know, South Tyrol is a bilingual region where both German and Italian are spoken. Therefore, all place names in this post are given in German and in Italian (in brackets).