“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.

Friday, 28 June 2013

A Handful of Hill Forts

Living on the Wiltshire – Hampshire border, one thing that the local countryside offers me in abundance is ancient hill forts. Below is a quick look at some of those that I have visited recently.

Sidbury Hill, Wiltshire

Sidbury Hill (also known as Sidbury Camp) is the remains of an Iron Age hill fort that consists of rampart earthworks supported by a double ditch system. Sidbury Hill is northwest of the military town of Tidworth in Wiltshire (home of the Demon Drummer) , and is part of the MoD Salisbury Plain training area. The Sidbury Hill site is approximately 17 acres in area, and excavations in the 1950s indicate that the Iron Age hill fort may have been built on the site of a previous neolithic settlement.

Sidbury Hill from a distance.
Sidbury Hill earthworks & ditches.
 Sidbury Hill earthworks & ditches.
View from Sidbury Hill.

Fosbury Camp, Wiltshire

Fosbury Camp, is the site of an Iron Age hill fort in Wiltshire, located a couple of kilometres west of the village of Vernham Dean. Fosbury Camp  sits atop the steep Knolls Down and has a similar rampart earthworks and ditch system to that of Sidbury Hill. The site is oval in shape, and is reported to be approximately 26 acres in area.

Fosbury Camp earthworks & ditches.
 Fosbury Camp earthworks & ditches, with opposite hillside in the distance. 
Fosbury Camp - looking towards the centre.

Bury Hill, Hampshire

Bury Hill is the site of another former Iron Age hill fort, which lies just west of the village of Upper Clatford (just outside of Andover). The site is about 22 acres in area and the earthworks are mostly hidden by the trees that encircle the site. Some sources suggest that Bury Hill was used as a camp by the Danish invader Cnut the Great (careful spelling required there) in 1016 during his campaign to gain control of the country from the then King of England (Edmund Ironside), although some sources also refute this claim.

Mrs J walking the footpath along the inner rampart.
Looking back along the inner rampart.
Looking from the inner rampart to the outer rampart.
The centre of the site is guarded by a solitary tree.

Danebury, Hampshire

By far the most famous of the hill forts that I have visited is the one at Danebury, which is near the village of Nether Wallop, about 10 miles south of Andover. Like the other hill forts mentioned here, Danebury dates to the Iron Age. Danebury covers an area of about 12 acres, and is believed to have been built in the 6th century BC and to have been in use for about 500 years. Danebury was believed to have been home to a community of 300 - 400 people, and excavations between 1969 - 1988 uncovered extensive evidence of occupation including over 180,000 pieces of pottery and 240,000 pieces of animal bone. Like most hill forts, Danebury was abandoned around 100 BC. The reason for the general abandonment of hills forts in this era is still a matter of debate.

The entrance to Danebury.
The inner rampart.
Looking towards the centre of Danebury.

Pictures, Wiltshire & Hampshire (June 2013).

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Saturday, 22 June 2013

Dead Man’s Plack

Just outside of Andover in Hampshire, hidden inside the Harewood Forest (near Longparish), a 19th century stone cross can be found. The cross was erected in 1825 by Lt. Col. William Iremonger.  The inscription on the cross commemorates an event that was believed to have occurred within the Forest in 963 and perhaps even at the very location of the cross.

As the story goes, King Edgar (great grandson of Alfred the Great), who was also known as “Edgar the Peaceful”, was looking for a Queen and had heard about the beauty of a lady called Elfrida. The King dispatched his adviser Earl Athelwold of Wherwell to check if the claims of Elfrida’s beauty were true, and if so, he was ordered to present the King’s offer of marriage. However, after meeting Elfrida, Athelwold (presumably enraptured by her beauty) decided to marry her himself and to report to the King that she was not suitable for him to marry. King Edgar, not being easily duped, found out about the deception and by way of repayment killed Athelwold during a hunt in Harewood Forest. Whether this story is true or not is hard to tell but it lends an interesting reason to search out this isolated spot.

The monument.
The monument from behind.
Inscription on the monument.
Close-up of cross.
Alfred the Great in Winchester.
Information board.
Pictures, Hampshire (June 2013).

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Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Home of Hellfire

On a hill overlooking the village of West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire lie the Dashwood Mausoleum and the Church of St Lawrence. The church can be seen from some considerable distance away and is very distinctive as its tower is capped with a large golden ball.

The church and the Mausoleum were built in the 18th Century by Sir Francis Dashwood, who at the same time also excavated an extensive network of caves directly under the church which extend about a quarter of a mile underground. The caves are known as the Hellfire Caves, named after the notorious Hellfire Club (co-founded by Dashwood) which used the caves as its regular meeting place.

The internal layout of the caves is uniquely designed and consists of a number of individual chambers connected by a series of long narrow passageways, and even includes an underground river. The tunnels eventually culminate at a cave known as the Inner Temple, which apparently lies 300 feet directly below the church. It is in the Inner Temple where the meetings of the Hellfire Club were held, with the juxtaposition of the Inner Temple and church directly above supposedly representing Heaven and Hell.

The Hellfire Club (or the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, as the club was also known) seems to have offered some of the rich and powerful people of the time the opportunity to get together and indulge their fantasies. The clubs motto was Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt), and the club was rumoured to be involved in black magic, satanic rituals and wild sexual orgies.

The rumoured immoral acts that occurred in the caves are also probably why the caves are said to be home to two ghosts. One ghost being that of the former club Secretary, Paul Whitehead, whose heart was interred in an urn in the caves after his death, until it was reportedly stolen in 1829. The second ghost being a “white lady” known as Sukie who is reported to wander the caves dressed in a wedding dress.

The Hellfire Caves have also featured on Andrew May’s Forteana Blog.

The Dashwood Mausoleum on the hill, with the church tower's golden ball in the background. 
Mausoleum side view.
Inside the Mausoleum.
 The Church of St Lawrence. 
The golden ball on the church tower.
The entrance to the caves.
Pictures, Buckinghamshire (June 2013).

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Friday, 7 June 2013

Putting a little myth to bed

The picture below shows a recreation of Edward I’s (1239-1307) bedchamber in St Thomas’ Tower at the Tower of London. The bedchamber has one very striking feature, a short bed, which at first glance looks more like a bed fit for a child as opposed to a bed fit for a king. Most people (myself included) would typically assume that the bed was short compared to today's standards as people in the "olden days" used to be smaller in stature. However, this is not really the case, as the Mythconceptions feature in Fortean Times (FT 284:21) explains:

...the two things all informed sources seem to agree on are that average height rises and falls over the centuries - and that it doesn't rise or fall all that much. Figures abound, based on the excavations of dated skeletons; the "average medieval man" in Britain was 1.71m (5ft 7.3in) tall; a mere 4cm/1.6in (in some reports, 2cm/0.8in) shorter than a modern Briton. Saxon Londoners were "similar in height" to today's, but Roman Londoners were "6cm [2.4in] shorter". Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, some claim, were taller than we are. Some experts argue that average height in Britain fell in the 19th (some say 18th) century, as the industrial revolution impoverished millions, leading to poor diets, long working hours, child labour, and other height-suppressant factors. Early health and safety legislation, and better nutrition following the repeal of the Corn Laws, then saw the average go up again...

Beds like that of Edward I were not in fact shorter than those of today, but just appear to be shorter. This optical illusion is probably down to the length to width ratio (i.e. being relatively wide) and the high bed posts, which combine to make the bed appear to be shorter than it actually is. As the Tower of London website states:

Edward was unusually tall for a 13th century man, earning him the moniker Edward 'Longshanks'. When his tomb was opened, his skeleton measured an estimated 188 cm (6ft 2in). Making sure the bed was big enough for Edward was just part of the historical detective work that went into its re-creation.

So next time you visit an old property and see a bed that looks unusually short, take a moment to measure it and check to see if it really is unusually short. 

Edward I’s bed in St Thomas’ Tower
Pictures, London (May 2012).

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