Ancient Architecture and Animal Graves: Breadsall Priory

April 15, 2018 — Let me tell you the story of the only time I’ve ever set foot on a golf course. It was last year. Involves a 500-year-old estate, a dog cemetery, a horse grave. Charles Darwin’s grandfather makes an appearance in the story. There’s the remnants of an ancient monastery.

This could only be a British tale.

We were in England, driving from Nottingham to somewhere in Wales. There were four of us. Lindsey, myself, and two friends. I wasn’t the one handling the lodging arrangements that night, and when I asked my friend where we were staying, he said, “A Marriott in Derby.”


Not too long after, we pulled into the parking lot of a building that, had it been built in the States, we’d have called a castle. But in a land bumpy and prickly with actual castles, this was a mere mansion.

Above the door to this august-looking stonework establishment was a plaque that read, “The oldest Marriott Hotel in the world.” Otherwise known as Breadsall Priory.

Breadsall Priory, as its name suggests, was originally the site of a monastery. That was back in the 13th century. It lasted until the 16th century when the land was sold, the building razed, and a private residence built there. That private residence is, give or take some additions over the centuries, the current one whose towels and lotions I was about to steal. For most of its existence, Breadsall was a private estate held by various families. In 1977, it became a hotel and golf resort. And then the Marriott name was slapped on it in 1996.

The last thing my friend told me before we headed to our separate rooms was, “There are supposed to be animal graves on the property, if you want to try to find them.”

Yes. Yes, I did.

After throwing our luggage in our rooms, the four of us took off looking for the graves without really knowing where they were or really if they were in existence anymore. Nothing on the website or the brochures touted them, nor did I see them listed in the amenities binder on the bedside table in my room. And in a lobby full of middle-aged men with golf bags, I didn’t want to be the guy asking the front desk where the dead horse was.

We knew there was a trail behind the hotel, so we took it. It wended through a thin strip of wooded land perpendicular to the hotel. We were looking for two sites in particular: a horse grave and a canine cemetery. Fifteen minutes of pleasant wandering later, we hadn’t found a single head stone.

Eventually we popped out of the woods and were greeted by a sign. Instead of “Dog Remains This Way,” it read, “18th Tees (Through Wood).” We had found ourselves deep within the manicured turf of a golf course. And that made us all feel uncomfortable in ways I still don’t understand to this day.

Beaten and hungry and wanting booze, we retraced our route to the hotel. However, about halfway back, we somehow found the horse grave. It was a mere rock in the forest about a hundred feet off the path. We’d only spotted it because of two small lanterns beside and atop it.

The mossy rock looked like every other rock sticking out of the underbrush except for the rectangular indentation on its face. That indentation had once held a slate plaque, destroyed by a tree years ago and now only a shard of which still clung to the rock, showing nothing legible other than a few letters and numbers.

This was the grave of Doctor, a horse belonging to the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

That’s right. Breadsall Priory was once the residence of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who only stayed there a little while at the end of his life. He had inherited the place from his son Erasmus, Charles’s uncle, who had bought it and then committed suicide in a nearby river.

Bolstered by our discovery of the horse grave, which seemed to corroborate the existence of a dog graveyard, we continued back to the hotel. And then we found said dog graveyard. It was only a few hundred feet from the building, beneath a large tree and right near the fountain in the lawn. Thinking the graveyard was in the woods, we’d walked right past it.

The rotyard for Rovers had been created during the Darwins’s ownership, sometime in the first half of the 19th century, and had been used continually since then. There were about a dozen stones, featuring names like Vixen, Carlo, Captain, Monsieur Dash (d. 1852), “funny little” Flo, and “dear little” Judy. We found one cat in the dog cemetery: Munchy, a “much loved hotel cat and companion to many” who dropped life nine in 2002.

After reading every epitaph twice, we celebrated our success with lukewarm G&Ts by an almost 800-year-old stone arch in the hotel bar that was the only piece of architecture surviving from the property’s holy days. I apparently didn’t take a photo of it. In my defense, we had been in England for about a week at that point and, well, everything is ancient on that island and I was getting sadly numb to it.

The next morning, we left amidst a throng of arriving businessmen with tubular bags full of metal shafts. Feels like old Doctor probably goes a long time between visitors.