If you are ever in Dorset, England, drive as far south as you can possibly go – across a shingle spit to the rugged stone island of Portland – and you may, if you are very determined, get a glimpse of the Pirate’s Graveyard.
Locals will chuckle at the name. The graveyard is all that is left of a church which has been clinging to the edge of the cliff since Saxon times. It was called St Andrews, and by all accounts it was a splendid one indeed. It had columns and an altar of Purbeck marble, and its construction was said to be of the highest standards.
Though it had its darker side. There is a well just outside the West Wall which is said to predate even the church. In excavations between 1978 and 1982 they found the well contained a large quantity of building rubble; above which sat several human skeletons.
Neither human loss of life nor splendour of construction could guarantee St Andrew’s immortality. It is a salutary lesson to realise that the clifftop was advancing towards it, inexorably, over the centuries. Not even God stepped in to save his splendid mediaeval house by the sea.
These days, it takes determination to find it. Walk past Pennsylvania Castle through a deep-green wooded dell until you hear the sound of the sea. Look for the arch which once formed the entrance to the church bell tower. And walk through to a strange enchanted world indeed.
The stones are sinking with their church. Pillars, gravestones, once-splendid monuments are all time-limited.
The place is called the Pirates’ Graveyard because of the preponderance of skull-and-crossbones motifs on burial monuments. They really are everywhere.
But we all know this is not unusual. Often, all over the country, the fragile mortality of the deceased would be expressed by skull and bones. Remember man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. Indeed, locals will confirm that all of the people lying in this graveyard were respectable citizens of the island.
What I do find unusual – and bear in mind I visit a lot of graveyards – is the number of such motifs in such a small space. I might find one in five visits to ancient burial grounds in the UK. Here, they really were everywhere.
And there was one great, splendid tomb with the biggest skull and crossbones you have ever seen.
This is clearly a very wealthy Portlander’s grave. Certainly, he who commissioned it must have had a bob or two.
How he made his bob or two, we will never know for sure.
But any pirate with such a monument to his demise would surely be the Pirate King.