“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.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A Church Load of Virgins

St Mary’s Church in Abbotts Ann (near Andover in Hampshire) is seemingly the last Church in the country that still practices a medieval custom of awarding Virgins Crowns. As the information board inside the Church describes:

"Abbotts Ann remains the only parish in England which perpetuates this Medieval Custom of awarding Virgins Crowns.

The ceremony of this ancient burial rite takes place at the funeral of an unmarried person who was born, baptised, confirmed and died in the Parish of Abbotts Ann, and was a regular Communicant. Such persons must also be of unblemished reputation.

The Virgins Crown is made of Hazelwood and is ornamented with paper rosettes, with five white gauntlets attached to it. The gauntlets represent a challenge thrown down to anyone to asperse the character of the deceased.

The Crown suspended from a rod is borne by two young girls habited in white with white hoods, at the head of the funeral procession. After the funeral the Crown is carried to the Church and is suspended from the gallery near the West Door, so that all who enter the Church on the following Sunday will pass under it. Here it remains for three weeks. If during that time no one has challenged or disputed the right of the deceased to the Crown, it is hung in the roof of the Church with a small scutcheon bearing the name and age of the person concerned, and the date of her funeral, and there the Crown remains until it decays and falls with age.

Most of the Crowns are awarded to women, but men are not excluded, provided that they fulfil the same conditions.

The present Church was built in the year 1716 and the oldest Virgins Crown still in existence approaches that date."

The Abbotts Ann Virgins Crowns hang high on the nave wall around the Church and each one bears the name, age and date of death of a parishioner who died as a virgin. Given the height at which the garlands are hung, and faded lettering on some of the scutcheons, it is hard to read names and ages of all the people commemorated with Virgins Crowns.

The oldest Crown is dedicated to John Morrant who died in 1740. John Morrant’s Crown has now entirely decayed and all that remains of it is the string from which it once hung.

The newest crown dates from 1973 and is dedicated to Lily Myra Annetts who died aged 73. As the newest Crown, Lily Myra Annetts’ Crown seems to be wholly intact with all five gauntlets still hanging in place. The Crown is still white in colour. The majority of the rest of the Crowns are in various stages of decay, most with their gauntlets missing and most now blackened by the passage of time.

St Mary’s Church was purchased as part of the Abbotts Ann Estate in 1710 by Thomas “Diamond” Pitt (the grandfather of Prime Minister Pitt the Elder), and in 1716 Thomas Pitt paid for the demolition of the Church and the construction of a new Church, the one that remains today. Presumably any Virgins Crowns pre-dating 1716 were lost during the demolition of the old Church.

Today the St Mary's Church is home to a total of 49 Virgins Crowns and the names of those honoured can be found on the “Southern Life” website. The Crowns honour 15 men and 34 women. Presumably no new Crowns have been added since 1973, because the local populace are either less likely to spend their whole life living in the same Parish, or they are far less virtuous than they used to be!

The Virgins Crowns explained.
The hanging Crowns inside the Church.

The oldest Crown in the Church, John Morrant's dating from 1740, is now just a piece of string (2nd scutcheon from the left). The scutcheon honouring Marianne Geraldine Fenwick who died in 1919 at the age of 43 is clearly legible (2nd scutcheon from the right).

The newest Virgins Crown dedicated to Lily Myra Annetts who died aged 73 in 1973 (left). The Crown is in good condition retaining all five of its gauntlets. Near to Lily Myra Annetts' Crown is the Crown for William George Annetts who died aged 15 in 1919 (centre). Presumably he was related to Lily Myra?
Florence Jane Wisewell who died at the age of 72 in 1953 (left).
Martha Ann Tapp died aged 12 in 1837. Sarah Maslin died aged 22 in 1837, Elizabeth Annie Edmunds died aged 45 in 1915, Louisa Poore died aged 16 in 1835 and Ann Fennell died aged 17 in 1837 (left to right). 

St Mary's Church.

Pictures, Hampshire (July 2014).

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Monday, 21 July 2014

The Lambton Worm

Anyone who has ever visited the Sunderland area will no-doubt have seen the monument pictured below, which stands proud upon Penshaw Hill, and dominates the local landscape. The monument is known as the Penshaw Monument and it was built in 1844 as a half-sized replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. The monument measures in at 30 metres in length, 16 metres in width and 20 metres in height, and has columns that are 2 metres in diameter. The formal name of the monument is The Earl of Durham's Monument and it was built in dedication to John Lambton (1792–1840) who was the 1st Earl of Durham and the first Governor of the Province of Canada.

The Lambton family are associated with an interesting local legend, the legend of the Lambton Worm.

The legend surrounds another John Lambton who skipped church one Sunday to go fishing in the River Wear. The fishing trip was generally unsuccessful, but Lambton eventually catches an eel like creature, which he disposes of in a nearby well.  Forgetting about this creature, Lambton grows up and eventually heads overseas to join the crusades (putting the legend somewhere in the 12th Century). Over the years the creature grows extremely large and begins to terrorise local villagers, coiling itself seven times around a local hill.

Eventually the worm makes its way to Lambton Castle, where the Lord (John Lambton's father) is able to sedate the worm, via a daily ritual of offering it copious quantities of milk. A number of attempts are made by local villagers and knights to kill the worm, however all these attempts fail, as any parts of the worm that are cut off seem to re-attach themselves to the worm, healing it.

After seven years, Lambton returns from the crusades and finds that his father's estate is almost bankrupt because of the worm and the costly demands of keeping it satisfied. In response to this, Lambton resolves to destroy the worm, but first he seeks guidance from a witch near Durham. The witch advises Lambton to cover his armor in spikes and fight the worm in the River Wear, where it spends its days wrapped around a rock. The witch also advises Lambton that after killing the worm he must then kill the first living thing he sees, or else his family will be cursed not to die peacefully in their beds for nine generations. Deciding to follow the witch’s advice, Lambton arranges with his father that he will sound a horn three times once the worm has been killed. The plan being that once the signal is heard, Lambton’s father would release Lambton’s dog, which would run to Lambton to be killed, thus preventing the curse from being enacted.

Lambton does battle with the worm at the river and when the worm tries to curl itself around him it hurts itself on the spikes on his armor. As Lambton cuts pieces off of the worm, the river washes them away. Unable to heal itself, the worm finally succumbs and Lambton sounds his horn in victory. In the excitement of victory, Lambton’s father forgets to release the dog and instead rushes to congratulate his son. Lambton, cannot bring himself to kill his father (as the first living thing that he sees) and as a result nine generations of the Lambton family are duly cursed.

The local hill that the worm coils itself around seven times is often said to be either Penshaw Hill or sometimes it is the much less impressive Worm Hill in Fatfield. It's easy to see why Penshaw hill might fit the bill, as it is said that the hill that the worm coiled itself around was scarred by the worm's presence. Penshaw Hill is the only triple rampart Iron Age hill fort known to exist in the north of England and it is easy to see how the remains of these ramparts could be interpreted as marks left by the coiling worm.

The legend of the Lambton Worm is a staple of local folklore and has inspired at least one movie, Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm.

The Penshaw Monument.

Dedication on the Penshaw Monument.
Information board.
The Penshaw Monument at a distance.
The Penshaw Monument, visible from the roof of Durham Cathedral.
Worm Hill in Fatfield - natural or man-made structure?
Pictures, County Durham (June 2014).

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Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Very Hungry Tree

St John's churchyard in the Wiltshire village of Tisbury is home to a rather interesting tree. The yew tree that dominates the churchyard has a girth of around 9 metres and it is estimated to be up to 4000 years old, making it the second oldest tree in Britain. It is not the size of the tree or its age that makes it striking however, it is the large boulder that the tree is in the process of consuming. Over the years it seems that the tree has extended its grip around a large boulder and now has it trapped firmly in its grasp.
The St John's yew tree.

The boulder, slowly being eaten by the tree.

St John's Church. 

Pictures, Wiltshire (July 2014).

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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Durham Dwarf

The portrait below shows a man called Józef Boruwlaski. Boruwlaski was a diminutive entertainer who was born in Poland in 1739 into a family that ultimately consisted of 6 children, three of whom were unusually small. Boruwlaski was said to have been 64cm tall at 15 years old, 71cm at 22 years old, 89cm at 25 years old and finally reaching his maximum height of 99cm by the age 30. One of Boruwlaski’s elder brothers was reported to have been only a few centimetres taller than him, and his sister who was three years his junior, was reported to have been only 66cm in height (whether this was her ultimate height is unclear). However, it seems that Boruwlaski’s other three siblings were of a more normal stature, and he even had one brother who grew to be six feet and four inches in height. Boruwlaski and his two vertically challenged siblings may have been of a small size but they were also said to have been built in proportion to their height and to not have suffered any of the deformations or disabilities associated with typical dwarfism.

Boruwlaski's small stature gave him the problem of finding a suitable way to make a living, and many potential avenues of employment such as the clergy or military service were out of the question given his physique. This predicament led him to look for a wealthy sponsor and he eventually became adopted by The Starostin de Caorlix, and was then subsequently taken into the care of Countess Humiecka. This adoption kicked off Boruwlaski’s career as an entertainer and curiosity for European high society, a career that saw him touring Europe and meeting such influential people as the Queen of Hungary, the King of Poland, the King of England and the Queen of France. Even though Boruwlaski mingled with such important people, his real purpose was to essentially be an interesting diversion for the courts of the day and his travels saw him being taught to dance and play the guitar by some of the best professionals of the day. He was also often made to dress up in small copies of military uniforms and sometimes even posed in purpose built miniature doll’s houses. Some people may have classed Boruwlaski as a sideshow freak, and it must have been an interesting sight when he met a couple of prominent sideshow freaks of the era. He met Patrick Cotter (The Irish Giant) a man who stood 8 feet tall, and he also met the famously obese Daniel Lambert, who in his prime weighed in at massive 50 stone.

As Boruwlaski’s touring career came to an end he needed to find a new way to make a living. His later years saw him trying to make a living for himself and his wife (a woman of normal stature) from playing music, and eventually he had to resort to displaying himself in public and writing an autobiography to try to make ends meet. Eventually however, an organist of Durham Cathedral (Thomas Ebdon) offered Boruwlaski  a place to live, and Boruwlaski lived out his days in Banks Cottage in the company of the unmarried daughters of Thomas Ebdon. Boruwlaski eventually died in Durham in 1837 at the grand old age of 98.

It seems that the city of Durham fondly remembers its diminutive Polish resident and clues to his time in Durham can be found in a number of places. Durham Town Hall is home to a life-sized statue of Boruwlaski, as well as an oil painting of Boruwlaski as an old man. There is also a display of some of his personal effects, which includes a suit, hat, cane, chair and violin.

Durham Cathedral is also home to a tribute to Boruwlaski, his tombstone. Just inside the entrance to the cathedral on the right hand side a small stone slab (approximately 15cm x 15cm square) can be found set into the floor bearing the initials “J B”. It seems that Boruwlaski was interred in the cathedral, close to one of his influential friends (Stephen Kemble).

Following the riverside footpath that skirts the peninsular on which the cathedral resides brings the walker to a riverside folly. The folly is a mock Greek temple which is referred to locally as The Count’s House. It seems that during his touring days Boruwlaski used the title Count Boruwlaski, even though he had no formal right to the title, and as such, people incorrectly assume that the folly is where Boruwlaski once lived. The truth is less exciting however, and it seems that the folly was probably just an ornamental feature in the garden of the property where Boruwlaski saw out his retirement years.

For any readers who are interested in the Count’s life and travels a version of his autobiography can be found here.

A portrait of an elderly Józef Boruwlaski in Durham Town Hall.
A life size Józef Boruwlaski in Durham Town Hall.
A collection of Józef Boruwlaski's possessions in Durham Town Hall.

Durham Cathedral.
Józef Boruwlaski's tombstone inside Durham Cathedral.
The Durham folly known as The Count's House.

Inside The Count's House.

Pictures, County Durham (June 2014).

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