“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.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Raking The Moon

As a resident of Wiltshire I was recently interested to learn that local people have in the past been called “Moonrakers”, a term that can be used in a derogatory manner.

The derogatory use of this nickname has its roots in a version of a legend that recounts how a traveller encountered some drunken Wiltshire men one moonlit night. These drunken local men were apparently trying to rake a round glowing object out of a pond. When questioned about their behaviour the rakers claimed that they were trying to retrieve  a big round cheese from the pond, which to the wise and intelligent traveller was clearly the reflection of the moon. So off the traveller goes,  having had a good chuckle about the stupidity of the locals.

The people of Wiltshire would however, point out that this nickname is derived from a different version of the legend, one that shows just how clever and cunning the locals really are.

The more readily recounted version of the legend, which predates 1787, is that on a moonlit night some local smugglers were observed by customs officers using their rakes to retrieve barrels of contraband which they had previously hidden in a pond. When challenged by the customs officers as to what they were up to, the locals played dumb by pointing to the moon’s reflection and saying that they were trying to retrieve the big round cheese! The customs men, baffled by the stupidity of these yokels, laughed at them and left. The smugglers, amused by the gullibility of the customs men, laughed at them and carried on retrieving their contraband.

This version of the legend is immortalised in the town of Devizes by a little plaque that sits near the town pond, which is known as The Crammer. The plaque reads:

The Crammer and its Legend

The origin of the Crammer is not known and neither is its name, which was probably derived from Cranmere, meaning Crane Pond. However it has often been associated with the famous Wiltshire Moonraker Legend, bestowing this nickname on the county’s inhabitants.

The story goes that some Wiltshire smugglers who had concealed kegs of brandy in the pond were observed by Excisemen in the moonlight in the act of trying to retrieve the kegs. The moon was reflected on the water and the smugglers said they were trying to rake out “Thik gurt yaller cheese.” Convulsed with Laughter, the Excisemen rode on. While the smugglers chortle “We were too vly for they. There baint no vlies on we.”

The pond is owned by Devizes Town Council.

This plaque was the gift of Mr John Drake. Mayor of Devizes in 1972/73, who was made an honorary freeman of the town in March 1996.

So which version of the legend should be believed? Well I guess that depends on whether you are a customs officer or traveller who suspects that the residents of Wiltshire lack intelligence, or if you are a resident of Wiltshire who considers themselves clever and cunning!

The Devizes town pond, known as "The Crammer".

The plaque explaining the "Moonrakers" legend.

The local "Moonrakers" public house.

Pictures: Wiltshire (January 2016).

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Friday, 8 January 2016

The American Connection

A couple of miles from Creech Folly in Dorset is the small hamlet of Steeple, which is home to the steeple-less Church of Saint Michael & All Angels. This quiet and remote church proudly displays the flag of Washington DC, the capital city of the United States of America. The flag was presented to the church on the 25th July 1977 by Walter E. Washington, the Mayor of Washington DC (January 1975 - January 1979). The letter accompanying the flag reads:

The Rector
Church of St. Michael & All Angels
Steeple, Dorset

Dear Rector,

We recently learned through Mr. George Honebon of Poole, that the Church of St. Michael & All Angels has an historic relationship with the family of George Washington, in whose honor our Nations Capital is named.

It was particularly interesting to see drawings of the stone armorial tablet depicting the Washington arms quartered with those of Lawrence. Because they are shown in our flag, the Washington arms are a very familiar sight in the District of Columbia.

Thinking that your parish might appreciate having some token of our mutal heritage, I have asked Mr. Honebon to carry with him on his return to England, this letter and the Flag of Washington, District of Columbia.

I know the citizens of our city join with me in this expression of friendship and best wishes to you and all the people of the community of Steeple, Dorset.

With warm personal regards.


Walter E. Washington
District of Columbia

The letter refers to a “stone armorial tablet” which is probably the engraved coat of arms that can be found in the stone wall of the main porch of the church. The coat of arms is a quartering (an amalgamation) of the coats of arms of the Lawrence and Washington families who were joined in 1390 when the heiress of the Washington family Agnes de Wessington married Edmund Lawrence. The Washington family’s coat of arms is the three stars atop the two stripes and it is this coat of arms that was used by George Washington (an ancestor of Agnes de Wessington) when he became the first president of the United States in 1789. This star and stripes motif was replicated in the flag of Washington DC and also was presumably the inspiration for the design of the US National flag.

A more striking example of the quartered Lawrence/Washington family coat of arms can be found painted in scarlet and white on the bosses on the ceiling of the church. It pays to look up occasionally!

The Church of Saint Michael & All Angels in Steeple.

The stone tablet in the church porch showing the coat of arms of the Lawrence/Washington family.

The flag of Washington DC in the church.

Is the flag upside down? In the coat of arms the stars sit atop the stripes!

The letter from the Mayor of Washington DC.

Looking along the church.

The painted bosses in the church roof, showing the Lawrence/Washington coat of arms.

Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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