Pits, Poetry ... and a Curious Greek Tragedy

Daily Mail (London), November 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

Pits, Poetry ... and a Curious Greek Tragedy


Byline: Roy Hattersley

BELIEVE it or not, Hucknall a pleasant and apparently prosperous town, but hardly the centre of the universe has just achieved a special status in the constitution of Greece.

The parliament in Athens has determined that, each year, the Greeks will celebrate Byron Day, in tribute to the poet who died fighting for their country's independence.

And Hucknall plays an essential part in the Byron story.

The inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire market town are not at all surprised by its new eminence. Bill Horton, a Saturday morning steward at the parish church of St Mary Magdalene, says that for years he has greeted 'visitors from all over'.

Last week he welcomed parties from as far afield as Australia and Chile. As they descended from their coaches in the town square, a life-size statue of Lord Byron looked down on them from above the doorway of Kitchen Creations.

Its presence is easily explained.

After he died of a fever in Missolonghi in 1824, where he had gone to fight the Turks, Byron was refused burial in Westminster Abbey, so his body was brought home to Hucknall. It now lies in the family vault beneath the chancel steps of St Mary Magdalene.

We know it to be there because, during the late afternoonof Wednesday, June 15, 1938, Hucknall was the scene of a macabre ritual.

The Reverend Thomas Gerrard Barber, rector of that parish, opened the vault to see if Byron's earthly remains lay beneath the chancel steps of his church.

When the first flagstone was levered aside, he saw three coffins the top layer of a carefully arranged pile. One of them was covered by a faded velvet cloth.

The corroded coronet which stood on top suggested that it contained Byron's remains.

THE lid was loose and the rector and his tomb-raiders lifted it to look inside. All he saw was a second coffin.

Undaunted, he opened that too.

'There lay the embalmed body of Byron in as perfect a condition as when it was placed in the coffin. The serene, almost happy expression on his face made a profound impression on me,' he said.

No one could complain that Mr Barber was not thorough. Knowing that Byron was lame, he examined the corpse's feet to discover which one was deformed, and satisfied himself that it was the right.

Not all of Byron was in the coffin.

His heart and brains removed during the embalming were in an urn, kept in a casket nearby.

They still are. The vault was re-sealed and the poet and his family were left to rest in peace, disturbed only by the tramping feet of pilgrims overhead. …

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