“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, 30 October 2014

Wiltshire's Italian Church

The Wiltshire town of Wilton, which is synonymous with English carpet manufacture, is not the sort of place that you would expect to find an ornate Italian Church. But that is exactly what Wilton has.

The church in question is the Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, which was built on West Street between 1841 and 1844, as a replacement for the town's 15th century Church of St Mary.

The Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas was commissioned by The Lord Herbert of Lea with support from his mother the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, who was of Russian descent. The Lord Herbert of Lea had a passion for Italian architecture and as a result the architects created the church in a Romanesque style, with considerable Byzantine influences. It has also been proposed that the church was built as an imitation of a basilica in Lombardy, Italy.

One of the most striking features of this impressive building is its 105ft high campanile which is connected to the church by a short cloister, which is adorned with carved columns. The church also boasts crafted items that were imported from Europe to be incorporated into the building, such as 2nd century B.C. marble columns from the Temple of Venus at Porto Venere, and 12th and 13th century stained glass from France. The church even contains a 17th century engraved metal chest from Germany.

Not all of the church's adornments are from exotic locales however, the church bells were recycled from the melted down bells of the old St Mary's Church.

The church also has an unusual alignment, with it lying on a north-east to south-west axis, as opposed to the more traditional easterly alignment. This highly unusual parish church was consecrated on 9th October 1845 and is well worth a visit!

The Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas on West Street in Wilton. 

A decorative lion supporting the archway over the main entrance.

The ornate interior of the church. 

Carved columns in the cloister between the church and the campanile. 

A rear view of the church.
Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Home of Halley

The house shown below is on New College Lane in Oxford and is adorned by a small wooden plaque which reads: Edmond Halley Savilian Professor of Geometry 1703 - 1742 lived and had his observatory in this house.

It seems that the English astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley (1656-1742) spent a significant period of his life in Oxford, firstly as a student at Oxford University and latterly as a professor.  Halley is most famously known for calculating the orbit of the comet that was named after him.

Halley spent some of his career calculating the orbits of 24 comets that had been observed between 1337 and 1698. During these calculations he postulated that three of the observed comets which appeared in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were likely to be the same object returning to the solar system time and again. Based on his calculations Halley postulated that the comet would return in 1758 and on the 25 December 1758 (16 years after Halley’s death) the comet did return. The comet was posthumously named after Halley.

Halley’s Comet is known as a “short period comet” and is the only comet of this type to be visible from Earth with the naked eye. Halley’s Comet is also the only known short period comet that can appear twice within a human lifetime, as its periodicity is around the 75 year mark. Because Halley’s Comet is visible to the naked eye its appearance over the Earth has often been recorded within human history.

The first confirmed historical account of Halley’s Comet dates from 240 BC when its appearance was recorded in a Chinese chronicle. Babylonian records from 164 BC and 87 BC also record visits by the comet. Chinese astronomers recorded the comet’s visit to Earth in 12 BC, and some propose that this visit may have inspired the biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem, as the appearance of the comet was only a few years distant from when Jesus is believed to have been born (circa 7 to 2 years BC).  The comet continued to be observed and recorded over the years and the next most notable appearance was in 1066 when the comet was most famously recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry which chronicled the Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harold II of England.

Calculating the return of the comet was not Halley’s only accomplishment, during his illustrious career he is also known for a number of other achievements. Between 1676 and 1678 Halley recorded the celestial longitudes and latitudes of 341 stars in the southern hemisphere. In 1691, Halley built a diving bell, and with five companions he dived to a depth of 18m in the River Thames where they are reported to have remained for over 90 minutes. Halley further refined his diving bell design and was eventually able to execute dives of up to 4 hours in duration. Halley also pioneered a basic model of a magnetic compass, and established the link between barometric pressure and height above sea level.

Not all of Halley’s work and theories were sound however. Halley was a “hollow-Earther” and in 1692 he proposed the idea that the Earth was hollow and comprised of an outer shell that was 800km thick with two further inner shells and a core at the centre. He proposed that each shell was separated by an atmosphere and that each shell had its own magnetic poles and that they all rotated at different speeds (potentially explaining anomalous compass readings). In Halley’s model of the Earth each shell had its own atmosphere, and he proposed that it was the escape of this gas that caused the Aurora Borealis. Halley also suggest that each shell was illuminated and may also possibly harbour life.

In 1694 Halley proposed that the biblical story of Noah's flood might be an early account of the result of a comet impacting the Earth. This was an idea that was not well received by The Royal Society!

1720 saw Halley participating in the first known attempt to scientifically date Stonehenge. The working assumption being that Stonehenge had been laid out using a magnetic compass and extant magnetic records where used to try to calculate a construction date. Based on this method the earliest proposed date for the construction of Stonehenge was estimated as 460 BC, which as we know today is somewhat wrong, with the current accepted date being somewhere between 3,000 and 2,000 years BC.

So next time you visit Oxford look out for Halley's house, and if you happen to still be alive in 2061 keep an eye on the sky, you may get to see his comet!

New College Lane, Oxford.

The house where Halley lived. 

The memorial to Halley's time in residence.

New College Lane also features this interesting foot bridge that was erected in 1914 to link two buildings of Hertford College. Some say that this bridge is reminiscent of the Venetian Bridge of Sighs

Pictures, Oxfordshire (October 2014).

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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Oxford Curiosities

During a recent scamper around the free museums of Oxford, I spotted two items on display that piqued my curiosity. Here is what I found:

The Dangers of Metal Wallpaper

The below two pictures show an Electrostatic Lightning House on display in the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, which was manufactured by W. & S. Jones, London circa 1830.

The Electrostatic Lightning House is a small wooden model of a house, which is home to three women (who seem to be made of paper), who are attached by small wires to a lightning conductor on the roof of the house. The model seems to be a representation of an event that occurred in the 18th century.  The occupants of a property were injured when it was struck by lightning and the metal in the wallpaper of the property brought the electricity into contact with them. The label accompanying the model explains:

Lightning House

Unique model replicating an actual event described in the 18th century: the occupants of a house received severe shocks from the metal patterns in their wallpaper as a lightning bolt coursed through the house to earth. In the model, the figures are placed in front of small spark-gaps made by wires in the walls of the house. They were knocked over by the sparks when a Leyden jar was discharged through wires. 

Sadly a search of the Internet revealed no further information on the curious events that are depicted by the model. But it stands without saying, be careful if you have metal wallpaper!

The Bottled Witch

The next curiosity was seen in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The diverse collection that forms the Pitt Rivers Museum includes a display of magical items. One of these items is a small silvered bottle that apparently contains a witch. The label that accompanies the bottle reads:

Silvered and stoppered bottle said to contain a witch, obtained about 1915 from an old lady living in a village near Hove, Sussex. She remarked “... and they do say there be a witch in it and if you let un out there it be a peak o' trouble.”
Donated by Miss M. A. Murray. 1926.6.1

Here's to wondering what the bottle really does contain!

Pictures, Oxfordshire (October 2014).

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Friday, 3 October 2014

Finding Sweet F.A.

The gravestone pictured below can be found in the town cemetery of Alton in Hampshire. The gravestone commemorates a young girl called Fanny Adams who was murdered in 1867. The inscription of the gravestone reads:

 Sacred to the memory of Fanny Adams aged 8 years and 4 months who was cruelly murdered on Saturday August 24th 1867.

Fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. Matthew 10 v 28.

It seems that on Saturday 24 August 1867 Fanny Adams (aged 8) was out walking along Tanhouse Lane in Alton with her friend (also aged 8) and her sister (aged 7). During the course of this walk they encountered a local solicitor's clerk named Frederick Baker. After offering the girls some money, Baker abducted Fanny and took her into a nearby field.

When the two girls (without Fanny) returned home the alarm was raised and Fanny’s mother and a neighbour went up the lane to find her. Walking up the lane they encountered Baker but did not suspect him of any wrong-doing due to his respectability in the community.

The search for Fanny continued into the early evening and her body was eventually found in the field. It is said that her body had been butchered, with her head, legs and eyes removed and her torso emptied of its organs. Over the course of the next few days all of her missing body parts where eventually found.

Baker was duly arrested, and although he claimed innocence, he apparently had blood on his shirt and trousers and was in possession of two blood-stained knives. The piece of evidence that finally removed doubt of his guilt was his diary entry for the day, which read “24th August, Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.”. At his trial Baker was found guilty of the murder and he was hung on 24th December 1867 outside Winchester Jail.

The horrible nature of this murder and the widespread reporting of the crime led to the name Fanny Adams becoming widely known and eventually being perverted into a form of slang.  In 1869 new rations of tinned mutton were introduced into the British Navy and they were widely reviled by the Sailors. It became a Navy joke that some parts of Fanny’s body may have found its way in to this new tinned provision. So the phrase Sweet Fanny Adams sprang up as a slang for this worthless form of tinned meat. Over the years this phrase became generalised to mean “nothing at all”.

If you want to find Sweet FA for yourself, then Alton town cemetery can be found on Old Odiham Road. Fanny’s gravestone is in the south side of the cemetery, to the north of Spitalfields Road. The approximate location is 51.153286, -0.975730.

Fanny Adam's gravestone in the distance.

A close up.

Tributes to Fanny. 

Pictures, Hampshire (September 2014).

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