“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.

Monday 30 December 2013

London's Texan Embassy

The below picture was taken on St James's Street in London, where St James's Street joins Pall Mall (opposite St James's Palace). On the corner of these two streets you will find a shop with a black frontage, which is the wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd (No. 3 St James's Street). To the left of the shop there is an alleyway which leads to Pickering Place.  It is on the entrance to this alleyway where the below plaque can be found.

The plaque reads:

Texas Legation
In this building was the Legation for the ministers from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St James 1842 - 1845.
Erected by The Anglo - Texan Society

In 1836 Texas declared its independence from Mexico (an independence that the Mexican government did not recognise) and from 1842 the new Republic of Texas maintained an embassy (a Legation) in London at this location (No. 4 St James's Street). This embassy was short lived however, because in 1845 Texas joined the United States and its brief spell as an independent state came to an end. Not being well versed on my American history I was somewhat surprised to find out about Texas's short stint as an independent state and its former embassy in London.

The plaque at the entrance to Pickering Place. 
Pictures, London (May 2012).

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Tuesday 17 December 2013

The Weyhill Mermaid

As you drive along the A342 in Hampshire you may happen to pass through the village of Weyhill (three miles west of Andover). Weyhill comes across as a fairly insignificant settlement and it is the sort of place that you can drive through without even noticing. Weyhill was not always insignificant however, once it was famous throughout the country for its fair (the Weyhill Fair) that regularly attracted enormous crowds.

The Weyhill Fair was most famously known for the sale of sheep, however the sale of horses, pigs, cattle, hops and cheese were also regular occurrences. It seems that there was also a “Pleasure Fair” which was home to stalls selling all manner of goods and entertainment. It was at the Pleasure Fair in 1832 that a man named Joseph Thomson sold his wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog (which seems like a good deal to me). This sale of a spouse is believed to have been the inspiration for one of Thomas Hardy’s characters, who sold his wife at the Weyhill Fair for five guineas, in the 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' (1886).

The first written reference to the Weyhill Fair seems to date from 1225, although it is believed that the site had been home to a fair as far back as the 11th century. Over the years the fair steadily grew in prominence and by the 19th century up to 100,000 sheep were routinely traded during the course of a single day. The fair began to gradually decline in the latter part of the 19th century and by the end of World War II the sheep sales had almost entirely ceased, with only the Pleasure Fair still operating. Today most of the original site of the fair has been turned over to other uses, but a craft centre called the “Weyhill Fair Ground” remains on the site.

Given the range of merchandise on offer at the fair it is no real surprise that Colonel Peter Hawker in 1811 remarked on seeing a Mermaid for sale. Hawker (1786 – 1853) was a soldier, author, a sporting shooter and a diarist and it is in his diary entry for the 14th October 1811 where he records his encounter at the Weyhill Fair:

Went to Weyhill Fair, where the principal curiosity was a creature (shown under the name of a mermaid) that was caught and brought alive from the Southampton river.

From the paucity of detail in the dairy entry it is hard to be sure what the Weyhill Mermaid might have been and whether it was actually alive while it was on display at the fair. Potential sources of mermaid accounts tend to be: hand-made hoaxes such as Fiji mermaids, misidentification of marine animals such as Dugongs and occasionally people with genetic abnormalities such as Sirenomelia. But whether one of these is the basis of the Weyhill Mermaid is unclear.

If any readers know any more about this particular story please let me know via the comments section below.

The Weyhill Fair Ground today.

The Weyhill Fair Ground today.

The entrance to the Fair Ground.

The old livestock sheds converted into craft shops.

The old livestock sheds converted into craft shops.

Weyhill Church.

The local pub.

Sign outside the pub.

The pub sign depicting the old sheep fair.

Pictures, Hampshire (December 2013).

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Monday 9 December 2013

Inspiring Tolkien

The Vyne is a 16th century country house that is just outside of the village of Sherborne St John (a couple of miles north Basingstoke in Hampshire). The Vyne was originally built for Lord Sandys (King Henry VIII's Lord Chamberlain) and in 1653 The Vyne became the property of the Chute family. The Chute family handed the property over to The National Trust in 1958 and today the house is open to the public. The house displays a number of interesting artefacts, one of which is the “Ring of Silvianus”.

The Ring of Silvianus (named after the British Roman citizen who was believed to have owned it) is an inscribed gold ring that dates from the 4th century, which was found in 1785 in a field near the village of Silchester (about 5 miles north of Sherborne St John). Silchester is home to the ancient Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum, which was first occupied by the Romans in 45 AD and today extensive sections of the town walls and an amphitheatre can still be found. Shortly after the ring’s discovery it came into the possession of the Chute family and was held in their private collection.

It was the discovery of another artefact (a lead tablet) in the early 19th century at the site of the Roman temple dedicated to the god Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire, that provided some context to the ring. This lead tablet was inscribed with a curse that read:


Which translates to:


The curse seemingly accusing a person named Senicianus of stealing the ring from Silvianus.

No connection between the ring and the curse was made until 1929 when the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler discovered the details of the curse and linked the inscriptions on the tablet to those on the ring. It seems that Wheeler consulted with J. R. R. Tolkien who was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford University to assist in understanding the origins of the name "Nodens" that was referred to in the curse.

Wheeler exposing Tolkien to the details of the Ring of Silvianus, the cursed tablet and the archaeology of the Lydney area (which includes an Iron Age fort known as Dwarf's Hill) is theorised to have inspired Tolkien’s writings and the "One Ring" in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The Vyne.
The Vyne.
The Silvianus Ring in its display case. 
A close up view of the inscribed ring. 
Another close up.
A copy of the "curse" tablet.
The curse translated into English. 
Visitor's views on whether the ring inspired Tolkien - a marginal "yes".
Calleva Atrebatum Information Board.
Entering the Amphitheatre. 
Mrs J in the Amphitheatre ready to be fed to the lions.
Amphitheatre Information Board.
A section of Calleva Atrebatum's walls.

On top of the wall.

Pictures, Hampshire (November 2013).

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Sunday 1 December 2013

Uffington's Mexican Twin

Back in September I conducted “An Armchair Tour of Britain’s White Horses” using the power of Google Maps to locate the horses. This tour included Britain’s most ancient white horse, the Uffington White Horse, which is located on the slopes of White Horse Hill near the village of Uffington in Oxfordshire.

Whilst browsing the Internet I was recently surprised to find that the Uffington White Horse has been reproduced in Mexico. This Mexican reproduction can be found approximately 10 miles south west of El Paso in Texas and about 10 miles due east of Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico. The Mexican version of the Uffington White Horse has been painted in whitewash on the side of a mountain (unlike the original horse that was made by removing soil to expose the white chalk underneath). The original horse faces to the right, whilst its Mexican twin faces to the left. The Mexican horse is over half a mile long (960m), dwarfing the Uffington horse, which only measures in at 110m in length. The Mexican horse is said to have taken 2,600 gallons of whitewash and over three years to create, so no easy task!

Location (51.577723, -1.566601)
Location (31.662733, -106.587320)

Pictures, Google Maps (November 2013).

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Saturday 23 November 2013

England's "Forgotten" Empress

I currently live in a town called Ludgershall on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border. Ludgershall today is a fairly unremarkable army town, but it has a recorded history that stretches back to the Domesday Book (1086) and beyond. At the time of the Domesday Book the town was referred to as Litlegarsele, which apparently translates to "small grazing area". For the majority of Ludgershall's history it has had a castle of which today only a series of earthworks and a ruin remain. Ludgershall castle is believed to have been built in the late 11th century by Edward of Salisbury and became a royal property around 1100. Over the years the castle was improved and in 1210 King John (the King who famously lost his crown jewels in The Wash) repaired and improved the castle and adopted it as a hunting lodge. This hunting lodge was subsequently used by his son, King Henry III. The castle remained in use as a hunting lodge and was frequented by royal visitors until it eventually fell into disrepair in the 15th Century.

It was whilst reading about the history of the castle I become aware of the tale of England's “forgotten” Empress, Empress Matilda.

King Henry I of England (1068 - 1135) had two legitimate children, William Adelin and Matilda (also known as Maude). William died at 17 years old (in 1120), which left Matilda as King Henry's only legitimate heir. Matilda was betrothed and eventually married off to Henry V (the Holy Roman Emperor), which resulted in her becoming the Holy Roman Empress.

When King Henry I died in 1135 a power struggle for the English crown ensued between Stephen of Blois (King Henry I's nephew) and Matilda. This civil war, known as the "Anarchy”, lasted between 1135 and 1153. After the death of King Henry I, Stephen immediately took power, and Matilda led a rebel movement to take the crown for herself. In 1141 Matilda's forces managed to take King Stephen prisoner at the battle of Lincoln, and she effectively deposed him from rule. This situation only lasted a few months however and whilst trying to be formally crowned in London in June 1141 she was evicted from the city by the populous. Worse still for Matilda in September 1141 the army of imprisoned King Stephen defeated Matilda's army who were besieging them at Winchester. Following this rout Matilda had to flee to Gloucester and en-route she sought refuge at Ludgershall castle. Eventually Matilda had to release King Stephen in exchange for prisoners taken in the rout at Winchester and following further defeats Matilda eventually fled back to the continent. However, after the death of King Stephen's son (Eustace), Matilda's first son (Henry) become recognised as King Stephen's heir and eventually became King Henry II of England.

So even though Matilda is often forgotten from the list of British Monarchs, she was effectively England's first female ruler few a months in 1141.

Remains of the castle's Royal Apartments.

Looking along a ditch.
View from the outer bank, looking North. 
Explanation of the layout of the site.
Artist impression of the Royal Apartments.

Pictures, Wiltshire (November 2013).

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Friday 15 November 2013

Sin City's Mormon Fort

The Mormon faith has always held some Fortean interest for me, especially the story behind how the religion was created by the enigmatic Joseph Smith (1805 – 1844). In his early life Smith supplemented his income by searching for lost items and buried treasure, using seer stones as his method of detection. In his twenties Smith claimed to have been visited by an angel who revealed to him the location of a buried book made from golden plates (amongst other artifacts). Smith was charged by the angel not to show the plates to anyone and to translate them. Smith used a seer stone to translate the golden plates and he subsequently published the Book of Mormon, which formed the basis of the Mormon faith. Unfortunately for the world, after completing his work Smith was said to have given the plates back to the angel and as such the golden plates were lost to history.

Today Las Vegas is known as a city where gambling, drinking and debauchery are the order of the day and I was surprised to find that this concrete metropolis was home to a 19th Century Mormon fort. It seems that the oasis that is the Las Vegas Valley was first discovered by modern day Americans in the early 19th Century, when traders trying to develop trade routes west across the country to Los Angeles happened upon it. As the Las Vegas Valley had a plentiful supply of water, the traders decided that it was good place to stop off and resupply on the journey west.

The discovery of this oasis brought the valley to the attention of others and in 1855 a group of 30 Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City travelled to Las Vegas with a view to developing a permanent settlement there. This Mormon settlement primarily comprised of an adobe fort which was built next to a nearby creek. The fort was fairly substantial and was built as a square with walls of 46m in length and 4.3m in height.

This fort can still be found today, but the fort is now mostly a reconstruction. The original fort was built from bricks made of earth, most of which have long since weathered away.

The fort.

A 19th Century wagon.
The creek that made life at the fort sustainable.
Sorting soil to make bricks for the fort's walls.
Creating the bricks.

Pictures, Las Vegas (October 2013).

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Thursday 7 November 2013

Notable Nuggets

Whilst on a recent trip to Las Vegas I happened to visit the Golden Nugget Casino in the Freemont Street area of the city and was surprised to find a rather large gold nugget on display inside. The nugget in question is called The Hand of Faith and claims to be the largest gold nugget on public display in the world, which I assumed to be true as it weighs 27 kg. The Hand of Faith was found in 1980 by a man from Wedderburn in Victoria (Australia) using a metal detector. The caption in the display explains:

"This magnificent gold nugget, the largest on public display in the world was discovered using a metal detector, lying six inches below the surface in a vertical position. It weighs a massive 875 troy ounces, (61 pounds, 11 ounces av.)

A man, who has chosen to remain anonymous, his wife, and four young children were prospecting behind their modest trailer home when they made this spectacular find."

The size of this nugget got me wondering if it was truly a giant of the nugget world or if larger nuggets have been found. It seems that The Hand of Faith is actually fairly small when compared to some of the giant nuggets that have been found:

- The Welcome Stranger Nugget was found at Moliagul in Victoria (Australia) in 1869 and weighed in at 2,520 troy ounces (78 kg).

- The Welcome Nugget was found at Bakery Hill in Ballarat (Australia) in 1858 and weighed in at 2,218 troy ounces (69 kg).

- The Canaã Nugget was found at the Serra Pelada Mine in the State of Para (Brazil) in 1983 and weighed in at 2,145 troy ounces (67 kg). However, there does seem to be some suggestion that this nugget was actually part of a larger nugget weighing 5,291 troy ounces (165 kg) that broke during excavations.

It seems that the Canaã nugget is currently on display in the Gold Room of the Banco Central Museum in Brazil, which seemingly makes the Golden Nugget's claim that The Hand of Faith is the largest nugget on public display false!

The Hand of Faith
The Hand of Faith
Pictures, Las Vegas (October 2013).

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Tuesday 29 October 2013

Shopping for the Zombie Apocalypse

Over the last decade the idea of mankind being exterminated by an uprising of hungry Zombies has become a regular focus of TV shows and feature films with some notable productions being: The Walking Dead (2010 – present); World War Z (2013); the REC series (2007 – 2012); the Resident Evil series (2002 – 2012); Zombieland (2009); 28 Weeks Later (2007); Land of the Dead (2005); Shaun of the Dead (2004); Dawn of the Dead (2004); and 28 Days Later (2002).

Given this on-going reminder of the possible perils of a Zombie uprising it is no wonder that some people may be concerned enough to want to prepare for a potential zombie apocalypse. Luckily for those that do want to be ready there is now a dedicated shop for all your Zombie apocalypse needs. The Las Vegas Zombie Apocalypse Store (3420 Spring Mountain Rd, Las Vegas ) carries a selection of goods to help you survive the rise of the Zombie horde, from weapons to survival equipment and even a Zombie survival guide.

So if the impending rise of the Zombie horde keeps you awake at night it is time to get shopping!

Pictures, Las Vegas (October 2013).

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