“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Southwark Spike

At the southern end of London Bridge, in the shadow of the spike-shaped building “The Shard”, is another spike shaped structure. This structure is a 16m tall spike made from light grey Portland stone. This leaning spike tapers from its base to a point, and it apparently lies at an odd 19.5° angle. This structure is known locally as the Southwark Spike or more correctly as the Southwark Gateway Needle. The Needle bears no inscription or plaque to explain its purpose or why it was built where it is.

The common explanation on the Internet seems to be that the Needle is a monument that relates to an old practice of displaying heads on spikes. Today’s London Bridge was built in 1974 and is not the original London Bridge. It seems that there have been various crossings of the River Thames at Southwark since Roman times. In 1209 a medieval bridge was completed at Southwark and this may have been the first to be formally known as “London Bridge”. This medieval bridge was 8m wide and around 240m to 270m long.  By 1358 it had become home to around 138 shops making it just as much a part of the city as any other street. The other key feature of the bridge was that it had defensive gatehouses at each end, and these gatehouses were regularly decorated with the tarred and spiked heads of executed criminals. William Wallace (of "Brave Heart" fame) is regularly cited as being one of the first people to have their head displayed on a spike at the bridge. The idea of displaying heads was that people crossing the bridge would be deterred from committing crimes by the clear and obvious indication of the punishment that may befall them!

Based on this history of impaling heads at the entrance to London Bridge, it is understandable why the collective wisdom of the Internet seems to be that the Southwark Gateway Needle was built as a monument to this practice. It seems however that the truth behind the Needle is somewhat less exciting. In the May 2014 issue of Fortean Times, David Hambling’s “Forum” article explains the intention of the architect who built the Needle in 1999. The idea is that if you follow the trajectory of the Needle as it passes through the ground, it points to the termination point of the old (medieval) London Bridge.

The medieval London Bridge was replaced in 1831 by a new London Bridge that was built a few metres upstream (at the site of today’s London Bridge) by John Rennie. By 1896 this new bridge was found to be insufficient for the volume of traffic that was passing over it. The bridge also appeared to be slowly sinking by 2.5cm every eight years, and by 1924 it was found that the east side of the bridge had sunk some 9cm lower than the west side of the bridge! As such it was decided that the bridge needed to be replaced and in 1967 the bridge was put up for sale. The bridge was bought on the 18th April 1968 by the American entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch, who paid just over £1M for it. McCulloch had the bridge dismantled and shipped it back to the USA where he had it rebuilt at Lake Havasu City in Arizona on the Lonn Colorado River. The rebuilt bridge was opened for use in October 1971. The sale of this bridge lead to another myth, with the story being that McCulloch bought London Bridge thinking he was buying the much more impressive Tower Bridge! There seems to be no evidence to support this claim however, and it is a bit of stretch to believe that a wealthy entrepreneur would mix the two bridges up!

So it just goes to show not to believe everything you read on the Internet! Although having said that perhaps I should try to start a myth that The Shard was built as a monument to severed heads of London Bridge!

"The Shard". The Southwark Gateway Needle can just be seen to the right hand side of the square building.

The Southwark Gateway Needle.

From the other side.

  David Hambling’s “Forum” article in the May 2014 issue of Fortean Times.

Pictures: London (August 2016).

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Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Sarsen and the Trap Door

Previously in this blog I have visited Knowlton Church and earthworks in Dorset, where a 12th century Norman church resides within the confines of a much older Neolithic henge monument (dating from circa 2,500 BC). Knowlton Church and earthworks is cited as an example of a newer religion (Christianity) trying to assimilate an older religion (Paganism), by  adopting and repurposing the older religion’s place of worship. Recently I came across another possible example of this repurposing of an ancient religious site, when I visited All Saints Church in Alton Priors, Wiltshire.

All Saints Church also dates from the 12th century and over the years it has undergone a number of major refurbishments and improvements. In the early 1970’s the church was declared redundant and today it only hosts three services a year. The church is however still open to visitors and based on the day of my visit it is rather popular! The day I visited there was a coach load of foreign tourists also exploring the church and its grounds.

The church itself is a relatively small barn like structure and the floor is home to two trap doors, both of which hide sarsen stones. It seems that the church was constructed over these sarsens, and presumably they were originally part of a much older place of worship. The hidden sarsens are not the only indication that the site of the church may have once held religious significance prior to the construction of the present day church. The churchyard is also home to a yew tree that is estimated to be 1700 years old. The aforementioned foreign tourists seemed to be captivated by the yew tree, with some of them taking turns to stand in its hollow trunk, others pressing themselves flat against its outer trunk, some leaving votive offerings, and even a few standing cupping the trees branches and needles in their hands! Clearly to these particular visitors the tree held some spiritual significance.

The other main feature of the church is a monument to local landowner William Button who died in 1590. The monument includes an unusual ornate brass plaque that shows a young man rising from the grave and looking towards the gates of what is presumably heaven. The inscriptions on the plaque and its overall design is somewhat complex, and it seems out of place in what is otherwise a rather simple and plain church. These complex inscriptions have led some to speculate that the plaque conceals a hidden meaning, as opposed to just being a grand attempt at a monument to a wealthy local!

All Saints Church.

Inside the church.

A trap door.

A hidden sarsen.

The monument to William Button.

Button's plaque. 

The churchyard's 1700 year old yew tree.

The yew's split trunk.

Pictures: Wiltshire (July 2016).

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Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Blowing Stone

The Blowing Stone is a sarsen stone that resides outside Blowing Stone Cottages, at the base of Blowingstone Hill, just to the south of the B4507 near Kingston Lisle in Oxfordshire.

The sarsen is around 3ft tall and is perforated by a number of holes, which were possibly created by long vanished tree roots. It is said that one of the holes in the stone, if blown into in the correct manner, turns the stone into a form of trumpet and produces a loud booming sound that can be heard for several miles around. According to legend the Blowing Stone was originally located on Kingstone Down, a few miles to the south west of its present location, and it was here that King Alfred made use of the stone’s trumpet-like effect. King Alfred apparently used the Blowing Stone to rally his Saxon armies in preparation for his battle against the Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown. But like all good legends, it is highly unlikely to be true!

The Blowing Stone seems to have been first documented in 1761 and it is believed that the stone was brought down from the ridgeway in the mid-18th century by either a local blacksmith or a local landowning family, who placed the stone in its present position outside the cottages. In 1811 the Blowing Stone Cottages were in fact the Blowing Stone Inn, and the landlord of the time would apparently amuse his customers by making the stone bellow for a small fee. It seems that using the stone to generate an income may have continued for a good number of years. The “Getty Images” website hosts a picture of the stone dating from c1860-c1922 and claims to show an enterprising young boy on hand to charge tourists who try to blow the stone.

The Blowing Stone has also featured in fiction, being referred to in Thomas Hughes’ (1822 – 1896) novel “Tom Brown's Schooldays” which was published in 1857. In the novel the stone is referred to as the “Blawing Stwun”.

The idea of a Blowing Stone is not just limited to Oxfordshire. As the “Legendary Dartmoor” website suggests, Devon is also home to a tradition of a Blowing Stone. Unlike the Kingston Lisle sarsen, which was used as an instrument itself, the Devon Blowing Stone was instead used to amplify the sound of a trumpeter’s horn. The Devon Blowing Stone is described as a flat slab of granite with a concave hollow in it. The trumpeter was said to place the end of his horn into the hollow and then blow his trumpet. The Blowing Stone would then amplify the sound of the trumpet allowing it to be heard far and wide.

So if you are ever passing the Blowing Stone at Kingston Lisle why not stop and try blowing the stone? Legend does suggests that any person who is capable of making the Blowing Stone sound a note which can be heard atop of the nearby White Horse Hill at Uffington will be a future King of England. So it is worth an attempt, as long as you don’t mind pursing your lips against a dirty old piece of rock where countless other lips have been pursed before!

The Blowing Stone Cottages.

The Blowing Stone.

The new Blowing Stone Inn at nearby Kingston Lisle.

Kingston Lisle Church.

Pictures: Oxfordshire (June 2016).

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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Headington Shark

I first saw the Headington Shark in March 1994 on the front cover of Fortean Times, and in June this year I finally got to see it in the flesh.

The Headington Shark “crash landed” head first in to the roof of 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford early on the morning of Saturday 9th August 1986, 41 years to the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

The 299kg, 7.6m (25ft) long painted fibreglass shark was the brain child of the property owner Bill Heine and sculptor John Buckley. Known formally us “Untitled 1986”,  when Heine was asked what the purpose of the shark was, his reply was apparently: "The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation... It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki"

After its installation the shark became a local topic of controversy and a 6 year battle commenced between Heine and Oxford City Council, who wanted the shark removed. The Council first tried to have the shark removed on the grounds of health & safety. However, following an inspection, the structure was declared safe and secure. So the council pursued the line that the shark should be removed because planning permission had not been granted, and because of the precedent that it might set. If the shark was allowed to stay everyone might want one on their roof! Somewhat expectedly the council rejected Heine’s retrospective application for planning permission.

Undeterred, Heine and local residents battled to keep the shark and in 1992 the case was eventually escalated to central government. Peter Macdonald, a minister in the Department of the Environment, was asked to rule on the case. Heine's book "The Hunting of the Shark" outlines Macdonald's verdict:

"Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the Shark. The contrast between the object and its setting is quite deliberate. In this sense, the work is specific to its setting, and it would "read" quite differently in the context of, say, the foyer to an arts centre in Gloucester Green. 

It is (as the Council say) incongruous, and that incongruity is quite consciously sought by the artist. It is, indeed, out of harmony with its surrounds. It is that lack of harmony, that sense of being “out of place”, to which the Council objects, and which it equates with demonstrable harm to visual amenity. It is the very same feature which appeals to many of the Shark’s supporters, and which has made it an urban landmark… An “incongruous” object can become accepted as a landmark in some cases becoming well-known, even well-loved, in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the Shark.

There is a real sense in which permitting the Shark to remain is the “risky” option, the safe and easy thing to do being to remove it. However, I cannot believe that the purpose of planning control is to enforce a boring and mediocre uniformity to the built environment. Any system of control must make some small space for the dynamic, the unexpected and the downright quirky or we shall all be the poorer for it. I believe that this is one case where a little vision and imagination is appropriate, and I recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain."

So whilst the government is often accused of being bureaucratic, it seems that common sense and imagination can sometimes prevail!

The Headington Shark.

The cover of Fortean Times #73.

Pictures: Oxfordshire (June 2016).

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Friday, 17 June 2016

Britain's only Blue Post Box?

On a recent trip to Windsor I was surprised see my first blue Royal Mail post box, which is located near Windsor Castle where the High Street joins St Alban’s Street. Blue post boxes seem to be a very rare thing indeed and some sources suggest that this may be the last still to be found in the country. Blue post boxes began to be introduced into some British cities and other locations of note in 1930 and were used for postal airmail services to send and receive mail mainly to and from Europe. The blue post box at Windsor Castle, which is near the site of the old Windsor Post Office (1887 – 1966) commemorates the first United Kingdom airmail service. On the 9th September 1911, Gustav Hamel flew a Blériot monoplane (which looks a bit of a death-trap) from Hendon aerodrome in London and landed on the Long Walk behind Windsor Castle. This 19 mile flight took only 18 minutes and his cargo was a sack of mail celebrating the coronation of King George V. Following this first official airmail flight the use of airmail slowly increased and became firmly established in the 1920’s when improved post World War I aircraft and pilots became available to support the service.

The use of these bespoke blue post boxes was short lived however and by the end of 1938 they had fallen out of use. A number of reasons for their withdrawal are citied including: the rise of air travel; the build-up to the Second World War and the re-allocation of aircraft assets; and the cost associated with having bespoke post boxes solely for airmail. Whatever the true reason, come the end of 1938 it was acceptable for airmail to be posted in normal red post boxes and the only reference to the blue boxes remained in the blue airmail stickers that adorned the envelopes of airmail letters.

Gustav Hamel (25 June 1889 – 23 May 1914) who safely delivered the UK’s first airmail in 1911, sadly got “lost in the post” himself. Hamel disappeared on the 23rd May 1914 whilst returning from France in a Morane-Saulnier monoplane that he had just collected. Whilst his aircraft was never found a body was found on the 6th July 1914 by the crew of a fishing vessel in the English Channel near Boulogne. The crew did not retrieve the body, but their description of clothing on the corpse and the fact that one of the personnel effects of the deceased was a road map of southern England led some to conclude that the body was Hamel.

Windsor's commemorative blue airmail post box.

If unusual post boxes are of interest, then Windsor is home to another peculiar example. Located on the High Street next to the Guild Hall is a green hexagonal Penfold post box dating from around 1872. Between 1866 and 1879 green was the standard colour for all British post boxes, however from 1874 they were all re-painted to the now traditional post box red to enable them to be more easily seen.

Pictures: Berkshire (June 2016).

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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Shoes that Undertook the First "Grand Tour"

The Church of St Peter & St Paul in the village of Odcombe in Somerset is home to an usual monument. The monument in question can be found inside the church, attached to one of the walls is a stone carving of a pair of old shoes. This stone carving is actually a replacement for a real pair of shoes that were lost in the 1860’s when work was carried out on the church. So whose old shoes are worthy enough of being immortalised in a village church?

The original shoes belonged to a man from Odcombe called Thomas Coryat (circa 1577 – 1617) who was a wanderer and early travel writer, who documented his journeys in an era where traveling the world was an extremely challenging pursuit.

The Oxford educated Coryat considered himself a witty and intellectual person, and he spent an early part of his adult life (1603 to 1607) employed in the court of the eldest son of James I (Prince Henry). Sadly for Coryat he was described as being “some form of court jester”, and presumably chose to undertake an impressive feat to prove himself to his contemporaries. In May 1608 Coryat set off on his first trip, a tour of Europe, which saw him visit France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands before returning to England. This 1,975 mile journey took Coryat until October 1608 and saw him walk around half of the distance (nearly 1000 miles) over the course of 5 months.

On his return from Europe, Coryat published an account of his travels entitled “Coryat's crudities : hastily gobled up in five moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Grisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany and the Netherlands : newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the county of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this kingdome”.

Coryat’s first journey is said to have resulted in a number of changes to English culture.  Firstly Coryat is credited with the introduction of the table fork to England - the table fork having become part of Italian etiquette in 16th century. Coryat is also said to have introduced the word “umbrella” into the English language, which apparently arose from his description of how Italians shielded themselves from the sun! Coryat’s journey is also said to have been the first Grand Tour of Europe, and his travel writing is said to have inspired wealthy upper-class young men to follow in his footsteps. The custom of the Grand Tour became popular from the 1660's onwards and remained a rite of passage for wealthy upper-class young men well into the 19th Century.

In 1612 Coryat set off again on another journey, this one taking him to Greece, through the Mediterranean to Constantinople and onwards to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, Coryat decided to walk to  Moghul India, a mere 2,700 miles, and he arrived in the court of Emperor Jahangir in Ajmer, Rajasthan in 1615.  Coryat’s second travelogue entitled “Thomas Coriate traueller for the English vvits: greeting. From the court of the Great Mogvl, resident at the towne of Asmere, in easterne India“ was published in 1616 and was an account of his adventures which included seeing the Great Mogul’s pet unicorns!

Coryat’s travels are not just amazing for the distances that he walked, but for the way in which he undertook his travels. Coryat did not seek to make arrangements in advance, but instead he took things as they came and relied on the kindness of the people he encountered to get him through. This approach saw him get in trouble more than once, with him having to flee from angry farmers whose vineyards he snacked on, and having to dodge an angry Rabbi who wanted to circumcise him.

Unsurprisingly for such an avid wanderer, Coryat did not die at home in his own bed. Instead Coryat died of dysentery while traveling in India in December 1617.

The Church of St Peter & St Paul.

A stone carving of Thomas Coryat's shoes.

The front piece of Coryat's crudities. The illustrations labeled A to N depict some of his experiences on his travels. Note the women in the centre being sick on his head! She apparently represents the German people and their love of boozing.

Somerset (March 2016).

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Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A Robbery at Gore Cross

On the side of the A360 near the hamlet of Gore Cross in Wiltshire there is a small, easy to miss, memorial to an event that occurred near the spot in 1839. The stone is denoted on the Ordnance Survey map as the “Robbers’ Stone” and it commemorates an attempted robbery that had an unfortunate end for the bandits in question.

The events described on the stone occurred on the evening of the 21st October 1839 when a Mr Dean, a farmer, from the now deserted ghost town of Imber was making his way home from the market at Devizes. As he approached Gore Cross along the Lavington Road he was accosted by four highway men. Apparently Mr Dean had the wits to pretend that he was not alone (he called out to an imaginary companion) and also went on the attack, using his horse-whip to fend of the robbers. Surprised by their potential victim’s response the robbers fled and Mr Dean gave chase, pursuing one of the robbers for three hours across the countryside.

It seems that the fleeing robber, Benjamin Colclough, was not up to the task of escaping Mr Dean and he eventually fell down dead in his tracks upon Chitterne Down. His three accomplices Thomas Saunders, George Waters and Richard Harris were eventually captured and tried for the attempted robbery, with their sentence being transportation for a term of 15 years.

The death of Benjamin Colclough on Chitterne Down is commemorated with a second “Robbers’ Stone”. Unfortunately however, the site of this second stone is today inside the “Danger Area” that is the Imber live firing range on Salisbury Plain, and as such access to the stone is strictly limited. An image of the stone can however be found on the Geograph website.

The stones were erected as a warning, to other potential highway men. To remind them that crime does not pay, and presumably also to warn them not to mess with Mr Dean the Farmer.

The inscriptions on the Gore Cross stone reads:

Mr. DEAN, of Imber. was
Attacked and Robbed by
Four Highwaymen, in the
evening of Octr. 21st. 1839.

After a spirited pursuit of
three hours one of the Felons
fell dead on Chitterne Down.
were eventually Captured,
and were convicted at the
ensuing Quarter Sessions at
Devizes, and Transported for
the term of Fifteen Years.

This Monument is erected
by Public Subscription
as a warning to those who
presumptuously think to
escape the punishment God
has threatened against
Thieves and Robbers.

The inscriptions on the Chitterne Down stone reads:

This Monument is erected
to record the awful end of
a Highway Robber who fell
Dead, on this Spot, in
attempting to escape his
Pursuers after Robbing
Mr Dean of Imber, in the
Evening of Oct 21st 1839,
and was buried at Chitterne
without Funeral Rights.

The robbery of the wicked
shall destroy them.
     Prov. 21. 7.
His three companions in
were captured & sentenced
at the ensuing Quarter
Sessions at Devizes to
Transportation for the
Term of Fifteen Years.

Though hand join in
hand the wicked shall
not be unpunished
     Prov 11. 21

The "Robber's Stone" at Gore Cross.

Pictures: Wiltshire (May 2015).