“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, 26 December 2012

Weirdness at Versailles

The below photos show the popular tourist destination of the Palace of Versailles, which lies about 12 miles southwest of Paris. The palace began life in the1600’s and became the centre of France’s political power in 1682 when Louis XIV moved to Versailles. The palace remained the seat of power until 1789, when the French Royal Family eventually moved back to Paris.

Of all the places that I have visited on my travels, most have left me feeling under-whelmed. The Palace of Versailles however (well more specifically the gardens of the palace), is the only place to date that has really made me say "wow". When you first stand at the back of the palace and look downhill at the ornate gardens and the lake which stretches seemingly to the horizon, it is an impressive sight.

I am not the first person to be awe-stuck by the gardens however.

On the 10th August 1901 two female academics Charlotte Anne Moberly (1846–1937) and Eleanor Jourdain (1863–1924) visited the Palace and they had a very odd encounter during their tour of the gardens. After touring the palace, the women decided to walk through the gardens and they soon became disorientated. While trying to gather their bearings the pair reportedly experienced a “timeslip”, encountering buildings, a bridge and people (including Marie Antoinette) which did not seemingly exist in 1910. It is reported that on subsequent visits to the palace the pair could not re-trace the path that they had taken, nor locate the landmarks that they had seen, leading to the question did they really experience a step back in time or were they simply mistaken?

Palace courtyard.
Palace courtyard.
Palace rear aspect.
"Oval Buddha".
First view of Palace gardens.
The lake.
The lake.
Main fountain.
Citrus garden.

Pictures, France (October 2010).

Friday, 21 December 2012

Housing Estate Air Traffic Control

Recently Mrs J and I visited the relatively new housing development at Kings Hill, which is about 5 miles west of Maidstone in Kent. While looking around the development the obvious facets of modern housing estates were evident: large modern houses; schools; a golf course; a small shopping precinct; supermarkets; and an air traffic control tower! The air traffic control tower is a rather unassuming building, nestled between modern new-build houses and a branch of Waitrose.

The site of Kings Hill used to be the location of RAF West Malling, which began life as an airfield during the First World War and eventually become RAF West Malling in 1940. During the Second World War RAF West Malling served to protect the UK against attack by the Luftwaffe. The airfield is most famous for being an early posting for Guy Gibson (who found fame commanding 617 Squadron on the Dambusters Raid), and for being one of the most successful bases at intercepting V1 rockets on their approach to London. By the end of the war RAF West Malling had laid claim to around 280 V1 kills.

The air traffic control tower in its odd new environment is pictured below. The tower is currently being refurbished so unfortunately it is shrouded in scaffolding. However a view of what it used to look like before it was hidden has been reproduced from the controltowers.co.uk website, where further historic pictures of the control tower can be found.

West Malling Control Tower - Today
West Malling Control Tower - Today
West Malling Control Tower - As it used to be.
Picture reproduced from www.controltowers.co.uk. Copyright  Hywel Williams (2005).
The approximate GPS coordinates of the West Malling Control Tower are (51.27194, 0.40298).

Pictures, Kent (December 2012).

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Dirty Devil of Rennes-Le-Chateau

In May 2010 Mrs J and I visited the small French hilltop village of Rennes-Le-Chateau. The village is most popularly known due to claims that the local 19th-century priest (Father Bérenger Saunière) uncovered some form of treasure during his tenure in the village. The rumours surrounding the nature of the treasure are wide and varied and include claims that the treasure could be: the gold horde of Blanche de Castile (a ransom fund for Louis IX); proof that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married (which allowed Saunière to gain wealth by blackmailing the Vatican); treasures of the Temple of Soloman (including the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah); and even the Holy Grail (which is also rumoured to have resided at one point at nearby Montsegur).

During our exploration of the village the only treasure that we came across was a rather naughty Devil that was residing inside the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. The Devil lives just inside the entrance to the church and supports the holy water stoup. He greets visitors with an interesting hand gesture that most people would instantly recognize, and perhaps it is his own special message to would-be treasure hunters!

The view from Rennes-Le-Chateau.

Inside the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. 

A tribute to Saint Mary Magdalene.
The Dirty Devil of Rennes-Le-Chateau.
The picture of the Devil of Rennes-Le-Chateau has previously featured in Andrew May’s Forteana Blog.

Pictures, France (May 2010).

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Kensington Flamingos

Walking through busy Kensington one thing most people would not expect to find is a group of Flamingos living in the area, but they are there if you know where to look. The Flamingos live in the Kensington Roof Gardens, which can be found via Derry Street (just off of Kensington High street). The roof gardens sit atop the former Derry and Toms department store building on Kensington High Street, and are accessible via an entrance on Derry Street (marked 99 Kensington High Street). The roof gardens are extensive, covering 1.5 acres and until recently were reported to be the largest roof gardens in Europe. Visiting the roof gardens on a sunny English day is a bizarre, rewarding and (most importantly) free experience, and one can easily imagine themselves as being somewhere in the Mediterranean as opposed to being in the centre of busy London!

Pictures, London (May 2012).

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Somerset’s WW2 Oddities

This week’s blog post is a guest post penned by friend, former colleague and long-time Fortean, Dr Andrew May. Andrew maintains his own blog “Forteana”, which focuses on the weirder fringes of Science, History, Arts and Mysticism, and is well worth a read. Andrew is also a freelance writer who regularly contributes to Fortean Times and writes his own books. It was during research for his latest book “Bloody British History: Somerset”, that he came across the following WW2 Oddities:

The Taunton Stop Line

In a quiet residential street in the South Somerset town of Chard, there is a low but very thick concrete wall that serves no apparent purpose. It’s screened from the road by a hedge, and most people probably go straight past without even noticing it. But the wall is massive enough to stop a fifty-ton tank... which is exactly what it was designed to do. It was built at the start of the Second World War as part of the Taunton Stop Line -- a defensive barrier stretching for fifty miles from the Bristol Channel to the south coast, designed to slow down the enemy in the event of an invasion. The anti-tank wall in Chard is just one of many leftovers of the Stop Line that remain to this day... but most of them are out in the open countryside, not in a town centre like this one.

The Taunton Stop Line

The Brean Down Fort

Another strange relic from the Second World War can be seen in North Somerset, at Brean Down near Weston-super-Mare. Originally a coastal defence battery built in Victorian times, Brean Down Fort was used during WW2 for naval weapons testing. One of its more unusual facilities was a rocket sled that was used to propel munitions into the sea at high speed, in order to simulate launch from a low-flying aircraft. The trackway used by the rocket sled is still there to this day.

Brean Down
Pictures, Andrew May, Somerset (2012).

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Himalayan Milk Baba

In 2005 Mrs J and I were lucky enough to go on an expedition to the Himalayas as part of a group, and during this expedition our group had an encounter with the Himalayan Milk Baba in Kathmandu. The Himalayan Milk Baba is a Hindu from Nepal, who is primarily known for some of the penances that he has undertaken during his religious life. He was born in 1933 in a small village near Kathmandu, and at the age of 18 he left Nepal to join a Hindu religious order in central India. Since becoming a Hindu, the Milk Baba is reported to have undertaken a number of penances to show his devotion to his faith. These have included: a twelve year pilgrimage penance to sites across India, Nepal and Tibet; a twelve year solitary meditation and observation of religious rituals at an isolated Shiva temple in India; a three year penance of covering his body with ashes; an on-going penance of growing dreadlocks; and finally a penance of subsisting solely on two litres of milk a day for twenty five years. It is this final penance for which he is best known, and has led to the name of the Milk Baba.

Milk is considered by Hindus to be a pure food (as no life is sacrificed to obtain it) and the Baba’s twenty five year diet of milk is rumored to have granted him the power of prophecy (I wonder if he saw us coming)!

Milk Baba poster.

The Milk Baba.

A note on credit for the photos - I am certain that I did not take these pictures during our trip to Kathmandu, and following the trip all 25 members of the party shared all the photos that were taken. As such, I cannot be sure who to credit for the above two snaps, but thank you whoever you are!

Pictures, Kathmandu (November 2005).

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Ghost Towns

On our travels Mrs J and I have visited a number of ghost towns, some supposedly haunted, some not. They all however share a mysterious air, as they are essentially towns that have been frozen in time. Below is a short history of the ghost towns that we have visited.


Bodie is an abandoned town that lies east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California at a wind-swept elevation of 2,554m. Bodie began life in 1859 as a small mining camp following the discovery of gold by a group of prospectors, which included W. S. Bodey (whom the town was ultimately named after). In 1876 further deposits of gold ore were found, which facilitated Bodie’s transformation from a small mining camp into a Wild West boomtown. Continuing discoveries of gold enticed more people to the town and by 1879 Bodie had a population of approximately 5,000 to 7,000 people, and consisted of around 2,000 buildings.

Bodie’s demise as a town began in 1880, when miners began to drift off towards other more prosperous boomtowns. By 1910 the population was recorded at 698 people, and by 1920 it had fallen to around 120. The final nail in Bodie’s coffin seemed to occur in 1942, when due to the war, all non-essential gold mines in the USA were closed.

Pictures of Bodie have previously featured in Andrew May’s Forteana Blog.


Rhyolite is an abandoned town which lies at an elevation of 1,200m in the Bullfrog Hills in Nevada, about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, near the edge of Death Valley.

In August 1904, prospectors found gold on the side of Bullfrog Mountain and word of this discovery soon spread, and shortly afterwards thousands of hopeful prospectors rushed in to the area. This sudden influx of people lead to settlements being established near the mines and Rhyolite became the largest of them. Starting as a two-man camp in January 1905, Rhyolite became a town of 1,200 people in two weeks and reached a population of 2,500 by June 1905. By which point it was a significant town with 50 saloons, 19 lodging houses, 16 restaurants, half a dozen barbers, and even a weekly newspaper. By 1907 the population had increase further to about 4,000 to 5,000 people and the town now boasted concrete sidewalks, electric lights, water mains, telephone and telegraph lines, daily and weekly newspapers, a monthly magazine, police and fire departments, a hospital, school, train station and railway depot, at least three banks, a stock exchange, an opera house, a public swimming pool and two formal church buildings.

The town’s decline was nearly as fast as its boom, and by 1909 the mines had stop producing new gold ore and by March 1911 the gold rush was over. The town’s population decline mirrored this drop in gold production and by 1910 the population had dropped to only 675 residents. All three of the town’s banks had closed by March 1910 and the post office followed suit in November 1913. The last train left Rhyolite Station in July 1914, and the Power Company turned off the electricity and removed its power lines in 1916. By 1920 the town’s population was only 14 people, and the last remaining resident was reported to have died in 1924.


Imber is an uninhabited village which today forms part of the Army training ground on Salisbury Plan in Wiltshire. Imber had existed as a settlement for many centuries, with the first documented mention of the village coming from 967. Imber is also mentioned in the Domesday book (1086), at which time the population was around 50 persons. By the 1300’s the population of the village had risen to around 250, where it is believed to have remained until the 1800’s. The population peaked at 440 as recorded in the census of 1851, declining to around 150 by the time of Imber's abandonment.

Imber’s abandonment was a result of the war effort during the Second World War In November 1943, while the Allied forces made preparations for the invasion of Europe, the people of Imber were called to a meeting in the village schoolroom and given 47 days' notice to leave their homes. Imber was to be abandoned to allow the US forces to practice Urban Warfare prior to the planned invasion of Europe. The villagers after being assured that they could return to their homes within six months, left the village with no resistance, however they were never allowed to return, and the town continues to be used for military training today.

Pictures of Imber have previously featured in Andrew May’s Forteana Blog.

Pictures California & Nevada (2008) and Wiltshire (2011).

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Legends of Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard is an atmospheric graveyard in the historic Old Town of Edinburgh. Over the years the kirkyard has been linked to a number of interesting legends, the most famous of which is no-doubt the story of Greyfriars Bobby. The pictures below show a statue of Bobby (which is just outside the kirkyard), Bobby’s grave, and the grave of his “owner” John Gray (Auld Jock).

As everyone knows, Greyfriars Bobby was a faithful little dog, who spent 14 years in the kirkyard mourning at the grave of his “owner” Auld Jock, until Bobby eventually died in 1872. However, it would seem that this story everyone knows to be true is in reality a myth. The current most likely explanation for this legend is that it was made up to stimulate more visitors to the kirkyard, and in reality Bobby was in fact not one dog, but two. It is thought that “graveyard dogs” such as Bobby were a relatively common occurrence across 19th century graveyards.

Another legend associated with Greyfriars Kirkyard is that of the McKenzie Poltergeist. In the kirkyard is the tomb of “Bloody” George McKenzie (which is pictured below). The tomb is supposedly haunted by a poltergeist that has been known to attack visitors to the tomb, and sometimes even to manifest in the properties that back onto the kirkyard. Unfortunately, there was no evidence of otherworldly goings on during my visit.

Pictures, Edinburgh (October 2011).

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Mrs J's Nessie Encounter

In October 2011 Mrs J and I hired a boat and took a trip along the Caledonian Canal in Scotland. During our trip we spent a day moored up in Fort Augustus prior to crossing Loch Ness. Fort Augustus lies at the South West end of Loch Ness and is home to a former Abbey (a Benedictine Monastery) that sits on the Loch’s edge.

While walking along the Loch’s edge in the shadow of the former Abbey Mrs J was alert enough to spot Nessie lurking in the trees. It seems that some artistic person had taken the time to "decorate" a natural kink in a tree to make it resemble the famous serpentine resident of Loch Ness (Nessie). Slightly hidden in plain sight, this simulacra of Nessie is no-doubt passed by many tourists each year, but I suspect very few actually notice it.

This picture of Nessie has previously featured in Andrew May’s Forteana Blog, and on the Loch Ness Mystery Blog.

Pictures, Fort Augustus (October 2011).

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Rotterdam's Cube Houses

In the early 2000's I took a short trip to Amsterdam and Rotterdam. While exploring the streets of Rotterdam I stumbled upon the rather odd looking houses pictured below. The houses are cubes that are set at about a 55 degree angle and positioned upon hexagonal plinths. On first sight the houses are very striking and confusing to the eye, it certainly takes a bit of thought to try to imagine what they would be like on the inside.

It cannot be easily seen from the picture below, but the houses do in fact look like trees when viewed from the correct angle, and it seems that the design philosphy behind the Cube Houses was to create high density housing while leaving space at ground level.

Perhaps the designer had spent some time in Amsterdam himself, before designing these houses!

Pictures, Rotterdam (early 2000's).

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Peak District Rock Art

The below three simulacra were captured by my colleague, David "DB" Byrne, during a visit to the Peak District in 2011. I submitted these pictures to Fortean Times on David's behalf for consideration for "Simulacra Corner" in July 2011, but they are yet to feature. Here is hoping that one or more of them will grace Fortean Times' pages one day.

Simulacra 1, a face in profile, looking to the right.

Simulacra 2, a face looking roughtly towards the camera (facing slightly to the right of the frame).

Simulacra 3, a sheep sideways on, facing the left hand side of the frame.

Pictures, David "DB" Byrne, Peak District (2011).

Monday, 1 October 2012

Bloody Montségur

Pictured below is the mountain fortress of Montségur, which lies in south western France in the Languedoc region. The fortress pictured dates from around the 17th Century, however a much earlier fortress once stood on the site, a fortress that was once home to the Cathars.

The Cathars were a religious sect that were considered heretics by the Catholic Church and, as such, the Catholic Church set about a 45 year-long military campaign (the Albigensian Crusade) to eliminate the Cathar faith from the Languedoc region. Towards the end of this campaign in May 1243, the Cathars of Montségur (including a fighting force of circa 100 men), were besieged by around 10,000 men of the French Royal forces. The siege lasted around nine months until March 1244, when the Cathars eventually surrendered.

As the story goes, the terms of surrender offered to the Cathars were, renounce your faith and go free, or retain allegiance to your faith and be burnt alive. Bizarrely enough, it seems that around 200 hundred of the Cathars besieged in Montségur decided to retain their faith and walk willingly into the mass bonfires that had been built to burn them. Even stranger, it is said that some of the non Cathar residents in Montségur adopted the faith in the last couple of weeks of the siege, in full knowledge that by doing so would result in their painful death by fire!

The siege of Montségur is also linked to the myth that during the siege, a small band of Cathars smuggled a great treasure out of the fortress and away from the besieging forces. In some tales, this great treasure was rumoured to be the Holy Grail itself!

These pictures have also featured on Andrew May’s Forteana Blog.

Pictures, France (May 2010).