On a country lane in Essex a few miles south east of Chelmsford a lych gate stands amongst the trees. Behind the lych gate is an almost uniform set of gravestones which reveal a tragic story, but also a story of passion and devoted caring.
The gravestones are the memorials to victims of leprosy who were cared for in a nearby hospital.
Leprosy sounds like it should be from a distant time and place. It feels like a disease from biblical times or in countries far away. However effective treatment was only introduced in the middle of the 20th century and the Hospital & Homes of St. Giles which once stood across the road from this graveyard was established just one hundred years ago specifically to care for sufferers of leprosy.
The hospital was established in 1914 by a group of nuns and alongside the gravestones of the patients there are one or two marking the last resting place of some of their carers as well.
Today the hospital is long gone – although there is still sheltered housing nearby – and the churchyard is now in the care of the Essex Wildlife Trust. It looks like it is still used as a burial site though. When I visited in April 2023 I noticed some new and well-tended gravestones close to the wooden chapel of rest. Some of those graves were for people who had died at far too young an age and, sadly, many of them seemed to be from the same family.
I first came upon the graveyard in the wood when I was exploring the road from my home in London to the St Peter’s Chapel near Bradwell on Sea. The photographs I took on that occasion became a part of the “Riding to the end of the road” project. I returned one afternoon in the spring of 2023; the dots of daffodils around the graves were coming to the end of their season and overhead greenery was just beginning to spring from the branches of the trees.
I still had a long way to cycle – I needed to get back to Shenfield to catch the train back to London but I seemed reluctant to leave this sad but tranquil spot. Somewhere nearby children were playing in some fields and occasionally a vehicle would pass by on the road but otherwise the place was empty save for myself and the birdsong.
I connected with my surroundings in the way I nearly always do – through the viewfinder of my camera, looking out for the details. i focussed in on the blossom on the trese by the chapel, a solitary daffodil standing in a line of crosses, and the lych gate standing alone beneath the trees. There was even the pile of last year’s leaves!
Gradually, gradually I knew I needed to leave this place behind so I returned to my bicycle and, with one final glance, I cycled away.