“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.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

St Cuthbert's Cross

In “The Legend of the Durham Dun Cow” I recounted the tale of how the city of Durham was supposedly founded in 995 AD by a band of wandering monks with some help from a long-dead saint and a lost cow. The saint in question was St Cuthbert, who spent his life as a monk on the island of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert died in 687 AD and 11 years after his death, his corpse was found to be miraculously preserved. His tomb soon became a place of pilgrimage and was linked to a number of further miracles which eventually led to Cuthbert’s canonisation.

The monks of Lindisfarne left the island in 875 AD taking Cuthbert’s remains with them, having been driven out by over 80 years of ongoing Viking raids. The monks, along with Cuthbert’s remains, wandered the north of the country (predominantly Northumbria and Scotland, but also going as far south as Ripon) stopping at a number of temporary homes until 995 AD when they finally settled in what is modern day Durham.

It is because of these wanderings that a number of locations in the north of the country have become linked with the remains of St Cuthbert, and there are a number of churches in the region dedicated to the saint.

Having read about the legend of St Cuthbert and the wanderings of his remains, from their original home on the east coast of England, I was recently surprised to find a memorial to St Cuthbert on the west coast in the Lancashire seaside town of Lytham. On Church Road in front of the playing field there is a stone cross by the side of the road which bears a metal plaque. The plaque reads "According to ancient tradition the body of St Cuthbert about the year 882 once rested here."

Whether St Cuthbert’s remains actually did travel from Lindisfarne to Lytham is unclear, as all of the popular re-tellings of this tale that I have read do not seem to include a visit to the west coast. But the locals of Lytham clearly seem to believe this legend and unsurprisingly the nearby church is also dedicated to St Cuthbert!

St Cuthbert's cross in Lytham; did St Cuthbert's body once stop here in 882 AD on its journey from Lindisfarne to Durham?

Pictures: Lancashire (November 2015).

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Seville’s Post-Apocalyptic Future

The below photos show what looks to be an abandoned post-apocalyptic science fiction landscape, with weeds and decay slowly encroaching upon a futuristic building, a communications satellite dish and a rocket. This bizarre landscape can be found on the outskirts of the Spanish city of Seville on La Isla de La Cartuja. Despite its appearance the site is not an abandoned set of a science fiction movie, but is instead part of what remains of the Universal Exposition of Seville, also known at Expo 92. Expo 92 opened in April 1992 and ran for 6 months, attracting nearly 42 million visitors. The aim of the exposition was to celebrate the modern age and offer blueprints for the future, hence the science fiction feel. Over one hundred countries were represented at the event, with some of them sponsoring massive pavilions. Some of the biggest eye-catchers included Japan’s Pavilion (at the time, the world's largest wooden structure) and the Spanish Pavilion which included a modernistic cube and a huge sphere.

The facilities and Pavilions were all planned to be temporary and demolished in the months that followed the exposition, however only some of them were. Some of the facilities and Pavilions were converted for other uses and some of them were left to decay. The post-apocalyptic science fiction landscape pictured below is what remains of the “Plaza of the Future” - a vision of the future envisaged back in 1992.

The Plaza of the Future.

The Plaza of the Future overgrown and left to decay. Views of its original grandeur can be found here, here and here

The "Seville rocket", a replica of the European Space Agency's Ariane Four launch system, which graces the Plaza of the Future.

The biosphere - this huge sphere was used to spray micro-fine jets of water to cool visitors to the exposition.

The colourful tower hiding in the background is the European Pavilion, to see it in all its glory look here.
Pictures: Seville, Spain (November 2014).

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Bell that came to a Mysterious End

Knowlton is a hamlet in Dorset, on the B3078, which is home to a ruinous 12th century Norman church. What makes the church remarkable is not its ruinous state, but the fact that is was constructed within the earthworks of a much older Neolithic henge monument (circa 2,500 BC).

The Knowlton site is home to three Neolithic henges.  The henge in which the church resides is known as “Church Henge”.  It is the best preserved of the three with the banks and ditches of the henge still visible. Church Henge has a broadly circular footprint and a maximum diameter of an impressive 106m. The other two henges (the “North Circle” and the “South Circle”) have been mostly destroyed over the years by ploughing or by being bisected by the nearby B3078! The North and South Circles can however still be discerned by the tell-tale marks in the crops, which can be readily seen in aerial photographs. The Knowlton site is also known to have been home to at least 35 barrows (burial mounds), the largest being known as the Great Barrow. The Great Barrow is of late Neolithic or early Bronze Age vintage and is the largest barrow in Dorset, measuring in at 40m in diameter and 6m in height. The Great Barrow would have originally been surrounded by two concentric ditches, but again these have been ploughed into obscurity.

This large concentration of barrows points towards Knowlton being an important Pagan religious centre. The prominence of Knowlton in the Pagan landscape is likely to be the reason why the church was built where it was – a Christian attempt to assimilate the Pagans into their religion. This assimilation is unlikely to have just included the local Pagan population, the standing stones that would have once adorned the Neolithic henge were most likely broken up and used in the construction of the new church.

The chancel and nave of the church at Knowlton date from the 12th century.  Further additions and improvements were made to the church over its history, with the latest addition being the north aisle which was added to the church in the 18th century. The church remained in use until the late 18th century when the roof of the building collapsed and the church was eventually abandoned to ruin.

Most unusual ancient locations tend to have an associated local legend, and Knowlton Church is no different. At some point in the church’s history its bell is said to have gone missing. Some suggest that the bell was stolen by thieves who, finding it hard to make off with the bell, eventually abandoned their plans and dumped the bell into the River Stour. The residents of Knowlton apparently tried to recover the bell from the river, but ultimately failed. Others suggest that the stolen bell found its way to another nearby church, perhaps nearby Shapwick or Sturminster Marshall. Even stranger, one legend suggests that the bell was stolen by the Devil, who threw the bell into the River Allen and thwarted all attempts by the locals to retrieve it.

Whatever the truth, the legend surrounding the loss of the Knowlton bell was immortalised in the rhyme: "Knowlton bell is stole; And thrown into White Mill hole; Where all the devils in hell; could never pull up Knowlton Bell."

Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Great Flood of 1841

People who live outside of Wiltshire will probably have never heard of the Great Flood of 1841, which saw extensive flooding across parts of Salisbury Plain and the destruction of many homes in the surrounding villages.

The flood occurred in January 1841 and was triggered by an extremely wet autumn followed by a period of heavy snow across Salisbury Plain. Snow which fell onto solidly frozen ground. On the 13th January the snow covering the plain began to melt and because the ground remained frozen the water could not soak into the ground. This melt water began to flow down the valleys and eventually found its way into the various local watercourses. On the 16th January the River Till at Shrewton suddenly rose by an astonishing seven and a half feet. Similarly, small streams such as the Chitterne Brook became a raging torrent that burst their banks and had enough power to sweep away bridges.

Most of the properties in the area at the time were built from clay or cob (a mixture of soil and straw) and their foundations were no match for the force of water that assailed them.

The low-lying villages of Shrewton, Orcheston, Tilshead and Chitterne bore the brunt of the flooding and all told around 72 houses were destroyed, leaving around 200 to 300 people homeless and at least three people dead. Had the flooding occurred in the dead of night the death toll would have been much higher.

In the wake of the flooding a relief appeal was organised that raised enough money to rehouse all of those that had lost their homes and even had a surplus that enabled the construction of 14 “Flood” Cottages across the local villages. The rents from these properties provided money to buy fuel, groceries and clothing for local poor people. Examples of these Flood Cottages can be found in Shrewton, Orcheston and Tilshead, and each bears a plaque which reads:

These Cottages
Builded in the Year of Our Lord
From a portion of the fund subscribed by the public
to repair the losses sustained by the poor
of this and five neighbouring parishes in  
The Great Flood of 
Are vested in the names of
Twelve Trustees
Who shall let them to the best advantage
and after reserving out of the rents
a sum sufficient to maintain the premises
in good repair
shall expend the remainder in 
Fuel and Clothing
and distribute the same amongst the poor of the 
Said Parishes 
On the 16th day of January for ever 
being the anniversary of that awful visitation. 

For those that want to get a feeling for how high the waters rose, there is an another monument to the flooding that is set into the wall of Mill House on Orcheston Road in Shrewton. A marker stone in the wall shows the level to which the water at Shrewton rose, it marks 4 foot 6 inches above ground level and 7 feet 6 inches above river level!

The Tilshead "Flood" Cottages.

The Orcheston "Flood" Cottages.

Pictures: Wiltshire (October 2015).

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Monday, 5 October 2015

The Fosse Way Standing Stones

Alongside a section of the Fosse Way in Wiltshire, three standing stones surmounted by a cap stone can be found arranged in the style of an ancient burial chamber.

The Fosse Way is an ancient Roman road that ran for 182 miles linking the Roman settlements at Exeter and Lincoln, via the other Roman settlements at Ilchester, Bath, Cirencester and Leicester. The name of the Fosse Way derives from the Latin word for ditch and for the early part of Roman rule in Britain the Fosse Way marked the western border of Roman control. The Fosse Way may have started life as a defensive ditch and then latterly been converted into a road, or the initial construction may have been a road supported by a ditch - the jury is still out on that one.

The standing stones in question can be found on the Bannerdown Road as it passes between Batheaston in Somerset towards Colerne in Wiltshire. Whilst these standing stones look like an ancient monument they are actually a fairly modern construction that marks the point where the boundaries of the counties of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset historically met. The stones were erected in February 1859 and were erected over three slightly older stones dating from 1736, each of which are said to be inscribed with the initials of one of the three counties (i.e. G, W & S).

A quick Internet search reveals that this is not the only “Three Shires Stone” in the country and other tripoints (a point where three counties meet) are also marked with monuments, whether these be standing stones, oak trees or a wood!

If you ever visit the Three Shires Stones on the Fosse Way, do keep your eyes peeled. Apparently nearby in a dry stone wall there are a few carved words that tell the story of an unfortunate person who was murdered on the Fosse Way. My brief inspection of the wall failed to uncover the inscription, but a more careful eye may be able to discern the inscription and the tale that it tells.

The Three Shire Stones on the Fosse Way.

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2015).

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Devizes Millennium White Horse

Following on from my previous visits to the Westbury, Cherhill, Broad Town and Hackpen white horses in Wiltshire, here is another of the county's white horses, this time on Roundway Hill on the outskirts of Devizes.

The Devizes White Horse is also known as the Devizes Millennium White Horse as it was cut in 1999 as part of the celebrations for the new millennium. The Devizes horse (which is approximately 150 ft by 150 ft) is unique amongst Wiltshire's white horses as it is the only one that faces to the right, all of the rest face in the opposite direction.

The Devizes Millennium White Horse is not the first white horse to grace Devizes. In 1845 a local shoemaker cut a white horse into Roundway Hill beneath the hill fort known as Oliver's Castle - to the west of the location of today's horse. This original horse was locally known as the "Snobs Horse", with the word "snobs" apparently being a local word for a shoemaker. It seems that the Snobs Horse only survived until around 1922, when it was eventually lost due to a lack of regular maintenance and slowly encroaching turf.

The ghost of the Snobs Horse can still occasionally be seen however, when the weather conditions are just right. The Snobs Horse was made using a technique called "trenching", where a trench is dug and filled with chalk to create the white horse. This approach is used when the local chalk is not sufficiently near the surface to enable the horse to be created by just peeling back the overlying turf. This trenching means that the chalk that formed the white horse is at a different level to the surrounding chalk, this enables parts of the long overgrown old white horse to be seen from time to time when the weather is just right. From these sightings it has been determined that the original Snobs Horse was about half of the size of the present day white horse.

So if you ever visit Devizes and see the current white horse, be sure to make the effort to go a little further west to Oliver's Castle and try to see if you can see any trace of the Snobs Horse. If you do I would love to see your pictures!

The Devizes Millennium White Horse in the distance.

Looking a bit grubby!

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2015).

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Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Weird Wessex is here!

Weird Wessex: A Tourist Guide to 100 Strange and Unusual Sights is a journey across the English counties of Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Berkshire seeking out the weird and sometimes little known sights that wait to be discovered. Have you ever heard of:
  • Somerset's standing stones - the second largest circle of standing stones in Britain?
  • The murderous tale behind Berkshire’s Coombe Gibbet?
  • The Dorset building with a Civil War cannon ball buried in its wall?
  • The Devon village that flips a boulder each year to keep the Devil trapped below ground?
  • The Hampshire shop that once fought in the War of 1812?
  • The home of Wiltshire’s most famous poltergeist?
If not then let Weird Wessex take you there, and treat you to over 200 full-colour photographs of these weird and wonderful locations. You are certain to discover an unusual location that you never knew existed!

Written by Andrew May (of the Retro-Forteana blog) and myself, Weird Wessex is now available at Amazon here!

Please note this book is printed on demand. So if it shows as being “temporarily out of stock” on Amazon do not be perturbed, the printing press will fire up as soon as your order is placed!

Happy exploring!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Gypsy Curse of Odstock

The pictures below show a grave in St Mary’s churchyard in the village of Odstock in Wiltshire. The grave belongs to a man named Joshua Scamp who was a gypsy and a convicted criminal.  The inscription reads:

In memory of Joshua Scamp
Who died April 1st 1801
May his brave deed be remembered
To his credit here and hereafter

Joshua Scamp's death and his subsequent burial in St Mary's churchyard are linked to an odd local legend, a legend about a gypsy curse. The details of the story differ slightly, depending on the source, but the general theme is as follows. In 1801 a local  gypsy named Joshua Scamp was condemned to death and hanged at Fisherton gaol in Salisbury for the crime of the theft of a horse.  As it turns out Joshua was not the perpetrator of the crime, it was his son-in-law who actually stole the horse. It is said that Joshua decided to take the blame for the crime and suffer the associated punishment to protect his daughter (presumably from losing her husband).  When it became clear that Joshua was in fact innocent of the crime he became a local hero to the gypsy community and the anniversary of his passing was celebrated each year by a party at his graveside.

Not being too keen on gypsy revellers holding their annual celebration in the churchyard, the church officials of the time, supported by local authorities, uprooted a rose bush planted by Scamp's grave and locked the church door to keep the gypsies out. In retaliation to this affront, a Gypsy Queen supposedly placed a curse on the church, so that anyone who locked the church in the future would die a sudden and untimely death.

Any untimely deaths of church key-holders clearly cannot be attributed to the gypsy curse with any degree of certainty. However it seems that the legend of the curse may have left a lasting impression. It is said that in the 20th Century, following the untimely deaths of two Church Wardens, that the Rector threw the key to the church door into the River Ebble where it presumably remains to this day.

St Mary's Church was unlocked when I paid my visit, so perhaps the current Church Warden is taking a cautious approach to the legend?

St Mary's Church, Odstock.

Joshua Scamp's grave stone and rose bush.

The inscription.

Inside the church.

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2015).

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