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Monday, March 05, 2012

A Horse's Grave in the Wood

Sue and I discovered this unusual monument a few years ago, while out walking in Morkery Wood near Castle Bytham, Lincolnshire. Back then, information on the obelisk was scarce, and the only mention of it I could find was a hesitant guess that it was some kind of ordnance marker to do with the army stationed here during WW2. Since then, the full story has come to light.

It turns out that the monument was erected by General Henry Grosvenor, one-time master of the Cottesmore Hunt, who lived at nearby Stocken Hall in Stretton some two hundred years ago. Grosvenor was a well-known figure who ran his own stud farm at the hall, providing the Duke of Wellington with his famous horse Copenhagen.

The story goes that Grosvenor’s favourite horse, one ‘Black Butcher’, died on the spot beneath his owner during a hunt. Grosvenor then erected the gravestone to commemorate a much-valued steed.

Seen today, the memorial is much eroded, although the image of the horse on the front remains striking. A poem on the reverse has been totally obliterated. The unknown stonemason chose soft ashlar stone for the carving and inscription, but his choice has fared badly with our country’s changeable weather. However, the Rutland Online website has provided a full transcription of the tribute:

“Within old Morcary Wood you hear the sound

Of Lowther's voice encouraging the hounds.

Pass ye not heedless by this pile of stones

For underneath lie honest Butcher's bones.

Black was his colour yet [his] nature fair,

Where ere the hounds went Butcher would be there

'Tis graven to be a tribute to his worth,

Better hunter ne'er stretched leathern girth.”

Grosvenor seems to have held his animals in high regard; a former resident of Stocken Hall Farm noted the prevalence of dogs’ gravestones near the hall itself. Incidentally, a portrait of Butcher, painted by famed equine artist John Ferneley, now hangs in Grimsthorpe Castle near Bourne, Lincolnshire.

As Morkery Wood is today the favoured haunt of dog walkers and cyclists, discovering this lonely grave was a surprise. It feels somehow incongruous. The grave is set back from one of the main pathways in the ancient woodland and easy to miss in the summer months, when it’s hidden in the undergrowth. There’s a subdued and solemn atmosphere to this forlorn spot, and it’s no surprise that the soldiers once stationed here supposed the grave to be haunted, presumably by the hulking, fleet-footed spectre of Butcher himself.