“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, 29 April 2016

Willet's Hidden Tower

Willet Tower is a folly that can be found hidden in dense woodland on the summit of Willet hill, to the south of the village of Elworthy in Somerset.

The tower stands 15 metres tall and was apparently originally built to resemble a ruinous church tower. The exact date of the tower's construction is uncertain but it was documented in 1791, meaning it was built at some point before that date. Some sources say that the tower was built in 1774 with the required funds of £130 being raised by public subscription. Other sources suggest that the tower may not have been built until 1782.

It is also unclear if the tower served any purpose or was a pure folly. Perhaps it was just an eye catcher or a “steeple” for horse riders? When the tower was originally built Willet hill would not have been home to the dense tree coverage which now hides its summit. So the tower would have originally commanded views across the landscape and also could have been seen from a good way off. As it can be seen from the below pictures, the tower did once have an internal wooden staircase, so it is likely that the tower would have been used for viewing the surrounding countryside at some point in its lifetime.

British listed buildings website describes the tower as:

Folly in the form of a ruined church tower. Circa 1820. Iron stone random rubble, brick dressings. 3 stage crenellated tower, one merlon on South side larger to give the illusion of stair turret, stepped buttresses to second stage, arched openings third stage, arched entrance on East and West sides. About 5 metres of wall on South side, 6 metres high including arched opening. Remains of rafters inside and indications of stairway to viewing platform. The quality of the workmanship is poor, but the tower is a very prominent landscape feature crowning a wooded hill and visible for some distance. Probably erected for Daniel Blommart of Willett House (qv) and therefore perhaps by the architect of Willet House, Richard Carver.

Ultimately however, the detailed history of Willet Tower remains uncertain,  and this folly that was once built as a sham ruin of a church tower is ironically now a ruin itself.

Approaching the tower.




The remains of the internal staircase.

Pictures: Somerset (March 2016).

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Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Ancient Holford Dog Pound

The unusual structure in the below pictures can be found in the Somerset village of Holford, at the entrance to Alfoxton Park.

The structure is an ancient dog pound, which was originally owned by the St. Albyn family, who were the owners of Alfoxton Park. The plaque on the dog pound provides a little of the history of the structure:

“This ancient dog pound
was given to
the village of Holford in 1982
by the family of the late
John Lancelot Brereton
descendants of the St. Albyns
owners of Alfoxton
since the 15th Century
whose crest appears above”

The dog pound dates from sometime in the 16th to 17th centuries and is a square roof-less structure with walls that are about 3 meters tall. There is an opening at the rear where once a gate or door may have stood. The walls of the dog pound have small slits in them which are angled downwards through the walls. These slits were probably used to enable people on the outside to look down and in to the dog pound and see what was on the floor (e.g. the dogs).

The dog pound was apparently built following the tragic death of the huntsman who used to look after the hunting dogs of the Alfoxton Estate. The story seems to be that back in the day (no exact date given) the meat for the estate’s hunting dogs was stored by being hung in trees. This practice however seems to have had the unfortunate side effect of attracting local stray dogs which in turn would unsettle the estate’s hunting dogs. On the tragic night of the huntsman’s death it is said that he was awoken by the sound of unruly dogs and went to investigate. Unluckily for the huntsman he did not dress in his usual hunting attire and was apparently not recognised by the estate’s hunting dogs who savaged and killed him.

Whilst there does not seem to be any clear evidence to support this story, it is a possible reason why the Alfoxton Estate may have chosen to build the dog pound, to house local stray dogs and prevent them from causing trouble on the estate.

On my visit to the dog pound, a small scattering of used prophylactics made me think that the structure may still to this day be used for a dog-related activity. But the less said about that the better!

The Holford dog pound, at the entrance to Alfoxton Park.



The crest of the St. Albyns family.




Pictures: Somerset (March 2016).

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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Templecombe Head

The Church of St Mary in the village of Templecombe, in Somerset is home to an unusual painted wooden panel which depicts a disembodied head. The painting was discovered in the outhouse of a local building by a resident of Templecombe in 1945. The roof of the outhouse had started to collapse and the panel was found hidden behind the plaster of the roof, with the face looking down upon the surprised home-owner.

The panel was gifted to the Church of St Mary in 1956, and is not as brightly coloured as it was when it was found back in 1945. It seems that during the intervening 11 years the panel may have been partially damaged by some over eager cleaning by a previous custodian, leading to the rather faint image that is seen today.

The panel has been dated to the 13th century and has been linked to the presence of the Knights Templar in Templecombe. In 1185 the Knights Templar established a preceptory (a headquarters) in the village, which served as the administrative base for their land holdings in the south west of the country. The Knights Templar's presence in the area would have lasted until the early 1300's when they were forced to disband as an organisation.

So who does the Templecombe Head depict? The most common theory is that the Templecombe Head depicts Jesus Christ, but Christ without his halo. It seems that in the 13th century it was normal for religious iconography to show Christ with a halo, however the Knights Templar were apparently known to depict Christ without a halo. So it could well be a Knights Templar image of Christ.

Other theories suggest that the head may be that of John the Baptist. Andrew May in his Forteana Blog points out that the Templecombe Head has drooping eyelids and a gaping mouth which may indicate that the image is of a decapitated head. Perhaps even the decapitated head of John the Baptist, who according to the Gospel of Mark was beheaded on the orders of King Herod. King Herod apparently gave John's head to his daughter as a gift.

But as with all mysteries, ultimately no-one truly knows who the Templecombe Head depicts. Or whether the Templecombe Head was originally in the possession of the Knights Templar, and if it was perhaps used as an icon for worship.

The Church of St Mary, Templecombe, Somerset.

The Templecombe Head - Jesus Christ? John the Baptist? Or someone else?



Inside the church.


Pictures: Somerset (March 2016).

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Sunday, 13 March 2016

When a "moot point" was not quite so "moot"

The below memorial can be found on the White Horse Trail footpath in Wiltshire where it intersects the Woodborough to Pewsey Road, just to the south of the Kennet and Avon Canal.

The memorial reads:

"29th July 2000. A gathering was held at this site of families who bear the Swanborough name and whose origins can be traced to this location."

-----

"Swanborough Tump
Swinbeorg. C.850
Meeting Place of The Hundred of Swanborough"

-----

"Here in the year 871 the future King Alfred the Great met his elder brother King Aethelred I on their way to fight the invading Danes and each one swore if the other died in battle the dead man's children would inherit the lands of their father King Aethelwulf."

Swanborough Tump is a small hillock which today is marked with a memorial and a standing stone, which are shown below. The Tump would originally have been the moot (the meeting point) for the Swanborough Hundred, where people would have come together to debate and discuss important issues. The memorial refers to one such meeting in 871 A.D. when King Alfred and his brother Ethelred assembled their troops at the Tump, prior to going to fight the raiding Danes at the battle of Ethandun. Unsure if they would survive the coming battle Alfred and Ethelred made their wills at the Tump to ensure that their lands and children would be provided for in the event of their death. Alfred eventually went on to finally defeat the Danes seven years later at the battle of Edington.

So what was the Swanborough Hundred? In Saxon times a "Hundred" was a unit of land that was divided into one hundred "Hides". A "Hide" being a parcel of land that was able to support one family. The size of a "Hide" varied however, depending on the quality of the soil and the size of the family it was intended to support. So in Saxon times a 'Hundred Hide' was an administrative area that could comfortably support one hundred families.

Similarly in the Norman era, land was divided into three levels of administrative district. These were the "Shire", the "Hundred", and the "Vill". Which are roughly comparable to today’s Counties, local districts, and villages. Each "Hundred" had a designated meeting place and the Swanborough Tump was the meeting place for the Hundred Moot of Swanborough. Moots were assemblies or councils where points of local governance and other issues could be debated. In such assemblies points which were put up for discussion were said to be mooted. This practice gave rise to the original definition of a “moot point", a point worthy of debate and discussion.

Interestingly however the modern common meaning of a "moot point" is exactly the opposite, with a "moot point" these days being one that is not worthy of debate and discussion. It seems that this modern day meaning may have arisen from the legal profession and the introduction of "moot courts". A "moot court" being a training court where law students can argue hypothetical cases and particpate in simulated court proceedings, but which ultimately led to no real outcome. Well except for helping to change the meaning of a "moot point".

Swanborough Tump, a public meeting place from the Saxon era until as recently as 1764.




Even though Swanborough is not the name of a local town or village it seems that in the thirteenth century, when the fashion of having a surname began in Britain, that the name of the Swanborough Hundred’s meeting place began to be used as a local surname.


Pictures: Wiltshire (March 2016).

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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Napoleon’s Penis and the most (Un) Haunted House in London

During a recent visit to London I happened across Berkeley Square in Mayfair, which during the Victorian era was believed to be home to the most haunted house in London. The property with this spooky reputation is 50 Berkeley Square. 50 Berkeley Square is a four storey town house that was built in the mid 1700s and over the years was home to a number of occupants, including one British Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister in question was The Right Honourable George Canning, who took up office on the 10th April 1827 but popped his clogs after only 4 months in office on the 8th August 1827. This untimely death means that Canning currently holds the record as Britain's shortest ever serving Prime Minister. Canning was the first person to apparently report any ghostly happenings at 50 Berkeley Square. It is said that during his time in residence that he experienced strange noises and psychic phenomena.

The most commonly told form of the ghostly legend associated with the house revolves around its attic room. Different versions of the legend state that a person (sometimes a young woman, sometimes a young man) met a tragic end (sometimes suicide, sometimes abuse) in the attic room and that they now haunt the property in the form of a brown mist or sometimes a white figure. In the legend, the ghost of 50 Berkeley Square is reported to be so terrifying that it resulted in the death of at least two people during the late 1800s, people who were brazen and foolish enough to try to spend a night in the property. One of the victims apparently died of fright, the other apparently died from a fall when trying to escape the property after seeing the terrifying ghost.

In 1937 the antiquarian book dealers Maggs Bros became the owners and residents of this notorious London address. Maggs Bros (established in 1853) is one of the longest-established antiquarian booksellers in the world, and they have made some interesting transactions over the years. The firm's record purchase occurred in 1998 when they bought a copy of the first book printed in England, William Caxton’s The Canterbury Tales, for a whooping £4,200,000. Their most notorious purchase probably occurred in 1916, when Maggs Bros bought the penis of Napoleon Bonaparte! The penis was apparently purchased from the descendants of a person who had performed Napoleon’s last rites, and had taken the opportunity to pilfer his penis. Maggs Bros sold the penis on in 1924, undoubtedly for a tidy profit.

Maggs Bros continued to operate from 50 Berkeley Square until last year (2015), when they decided to relocate their business to 46 Curzon Street. As you can see in the pictures below, when I passed the building the removals people where in attendance. During their 78 years of residency in the property Maggs Bros never had any cause to report any unusual phenomenon in the house. So this begs the question, was the house really haunted or did the ghostly presence become silent sometime before 1937?

In his article “The Most Haunted House in London” in Fortean Times Issue 335, Jan Bondeson argues the former, that this house may have never been haunted at all. Jan suggests that the house’s spooky reputation may have begun when the house was owned by the eccentric Thomas Myers Jr. Myers possibly owned the house from as early as 1859 until his death in 1874, and during his tenure it is said that he mostly lived in a single room and let the rest of the house fall into disrepair. This dilapidation of a once prestigious house led to it having the reputation as the spooky house in an otherwise respectable square. The rundown and spooky state of the house may have been all the inspiration needed for over eager ghost hunters in the early 1900s to readily declare the house haunted, possibly repeating existing tales or perhaps creating their own as they saw fit; tales that have become repeated over time until they become well known "facts".

Or perhaps the house is haunted and Maggs Bros just did not declare any strange occurrences? I guess we will have to wait and see if the new owners report any odd goings on!


50 Berkeley Square and the removals men.



A blue plaque commemorating George Canning's residency at the property.

Pictures: London (February 2015).

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Saturday, 13 February 2016

Seville Oddities

In two of my previous blog posts I have shared some of the interesting sights and unusual history that the city of Seville has to offer. There is the derelict remains of a 1992 vision of the future, and the tale of the Mummy of the Golden Tower.

To finish my tour of Seville here are some more of the interesting and unusual sights that can be found in the city.


Seville Cathedral - 16th Century Graffiti

On the outside wall of the cathedral, examples of Latin graffiti can be found - which looks far more stylish than its modern counterparts. The graffiti is believed to date from the 16th century and one theory is that it was written by priests in waiting, who would write on the cathedral walls once they completed their studies to become a priest. Ultimately however, nobody is really sure who is responsible for the graffiti!


Seville Cathedral - The Tomb of Christopher Columbus

One of the main attractions of the cathedral is the spectacular tomb of the famous Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. On behalf of the Spanish Monarchy, Columbus completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, landing in the New World (the Bahamas) by accident in 1492 - he had been trying to find Japan. Columbus' "discovery" of the New World and his attempts to establish a permanent colony started the Spanish push to claim the Americas for the Spanish Crown, a period of colonisation which continued for around three centuries.

As every one knows, Christopher Columbus was the first European explorer to discover the Americas, well except for the Icelandic explorer Leif Ericson (970 AD - 1020 AD) who probably landed in Canada in the 11th century.

One of Columbus' other dubious achievements was that he was an early entrepreneur who spearheaded the development of the transatlantic slave trade, a diabolical practice that continued well into the 19th century.


Seville Cathedral - The Wooden Crocodile

Also inside the Cathedral those that look up may see a wooden crocodile, an elephant's tusk and what appears to be a horse's bit hanging from the ceiling.

It is said that in 1260 in an attempt to win the hand in marriage of King Alfonso X's daughter that the Sultan of Egypt showered Alfonso with a number of exotic gifts. The gifts include a crocodile, an elephant and a tame giraffe. The Sultan failed in his attempts to marry Alfonso's daughter and Alfonso was left lumbered with some rather large pets.

Apparently the animals lived out their lives in the gardens of the Royal Palace (the Alcázar) and when the crocodile died it was stuffed and put on display. The crocodile did eventually rot and so it was replaced by a wooden replica, which can be seen today. The elephant's tusk hanging from the roof of the cathedral is all that remains of the elephant, and the horse's bit was supposedly used on the giraffe and is all that remains in tribute to the giraffe.

Seville Cathedral seen from a distance.


16th century graffiti on the outside of Seville Cathedral.

The tomb of Christopher Columbus.


The wooden crocodile.

The crocodile, the elephant tusk and the giraffe's bit. 


The Purgatory Tiles

On Calle de Doña María Coronel there is a Catholic Gothic church which dates from the 1300s. This is the Church of San Pedro, and on its outer wall there is a tiled scene depicting a number of naked people surrounded by flames. These people are apparently in purgatory, waiting for their opportunity to get into heaven. Even though the flames are licking high up their bodies, the artist depicted the people as not really suffering as a result of their experience - so perhaps purgatory is not really that bad?

A legend associated with these tiles is centered around a little bird, and like most legends, is a bit silly and without any clear provenance. The artist who created the tiles painted a small bird into the scene and apparently those who spot the bird will soon get married. The bird is fairly easy to spot, if you think "outside the box".

The church of San Pedro.

The purgatory tiles.

The Missing Pissers

The "Source of Sevilla" is the name of the fountain dedicated to the city of Seville, which is located in the plaza where the Jerez Door once stood (Puerta de Jerez).

The fountain was created in 1929 by the artist Manuel Delgado Brackembury and consists of a woman sitting atop a couple of fish like creatures, which are atop some large lotus leaves, which are supported by naked children, who are in turn riding on the back of turtles (a bit Disc World?). Around the perimeter of the fountain once stood four more free standing sculptures of children. These children once held shells which gushed water, leading to them being know as "pissers".

The fountain was removed from the plaza between 1974 to 1983 whilst the city's Metro was being installed and when it was replaced, the four pissers were not returned to the fountain. It seems that during the nine years that the fountain was in storage that the pissers had disappeared. To this day, nobody seems to know the fate of the missing pissers. Perhaps they were destroyed or perhaps they were pilfered and now adorn the garden of some wealthy person?

The "Source of Sevilla".




Pictures: Seville, Spain (November 2014).

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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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