“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, 25 February 2015

The New Forest Snake Catcher

St Nicholas’ churchyard in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, is home to an unusual white marble headstone. The headstone depicts an old bearded man in a wide-brimmed hat holding a handful of snakes, standing  outside what appears to be a crude hut in a forest. The inscription on the headstone reads:

This stone marks the grave of Harry Mills, (better known as “Brusher Mills”,) who for a long number of years followed the occupation of  Snake Catcher, in the New Forest. His pursuit and the primitive way in which he lived, caused him to be an object of interest to many.  He died suddenly July 1st 1905, aged 65 years.

This eccentric man was born on the 19th March 1840 and for the early part of his life he lived in the village of Emery Down near Lyndhurst in the New Forest, where he worked as a labourer. In his forties Mills decided to move and to take up living in an old charcoal burner’s hut in the New Forest, just to the north of Brokenhurst. Armed with just a sack and a forked stick, Mills struck out on a new occupation as a snake catcher. Mills offered his services to rid the grounds of local properties of snakes, and he also set about catching snakes in the forest. The snakes that he caught were often sold to London Zoo as fodder for their snake eating animals. Word gradually spread about Mills and his eccentric ways, and he began to become a tourist attraction. This new found fame gave Mills the opportunity to sell ointments made from snakes and snake skeletons to curious tourists to further supplement his income. Some estimates suggest that during Mills’ 18-year snake catching career that he caught an astounding 30,000 grass snakes and 4,000 adders - which is an average of about 5 snakes per day!

Having lived in a small hut in the forest for many years, it seems that Mills decided to improve his lifestyle and build himself a larger hut. Sadly however, this hut was vandalised before it was completed. This crime for which nobody was caught, was possibly committed to prevent Mills from claiming any kind of squatters’ rights on the land which he had made his home. Following the destruction of his hut, the heart broken Mills took up residency in one of the outbuildings of his regular haunt, the Railway Inn in Brokenhurst. The destruction of Mills’ hut seems to have had a significant impact upon the man, as he died suddenly and unexpectedly on the 1st July 1905, not long after its destruction.

In honour of this local eccentric, Brockenhurst’s Railway Inn is nowadays named The Snake Catcher.

Harry Mills' gravestone.

Mills outside his hut in the forest, holding some captured snakes.

Mill's favorite haunt, The Railway Inn, now known as The Snake Catcher.

The pub sign.

Pictures: Hampshire (February 2015).

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Friday, 13 February 2015

The Legend of the Durham Dun Cow

On the outside of Durham Cathedral is a sculpted panel which depicts a cow, a milkmaid and a man in monk-like robes. At first glance this seems to be a rather odd sculpture to adorn the side of a cathedral, but it was inspired by a legend about the founding of the cathedral.

The legend in question is that the location where the city of Durham and the cathedral were founded in 995 AD were selected by a band of wandering monks, following some help from a long-dead saint and a lost cow.

The story of the founding of Durham Cathedral really starts on the island of Lindisfarne in 687 AD with the death of a monk called Cuthbert. 11 years after his death, in 698 AD, Cuthbert's tomb was opened and it was discovered that his body had not been corrupted by the passage of time. This miraculous preservation of Cuthbert’s body led to his tomb becoming a place of pilgrimage, and it was not long before visiting pilgrims began to report miracles occurring during their visits to Cuthbert’s tomb. Unsurprisingly this level of fame ultimately led to Cuthbert being canonised, and the remains of Saint Cuthbert became important relics.

793 AD saw the first Viking raid on the Monastery on Lindisfarne, and over the following decades the threat of further raids was ever present. Having had enough of being under threat, in 875 AD the monks of Lindisfarne finally decided to quit the island and to find a less risky place to conduct their worship. Fleeing with their most important possessions, which included the relics of Saint Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne gospels, the monks are said to have wandered homeless for seven years until 883 AD when they settled in Chester-le-Street (7 miles due north of present day Durham). Their stay at Chester-le-Street was not to be a permanent one however, and further threats of invasion saw the monks and the remains of Saint Cuthbert on the move again, this time to Ripon. Eventually it was decided by the monks to return to Chester-le-Street, and it is during this return journey in 995 AD that the long-dead Saint Cuthbert and a lost cow conspired to steer the monks towards the location of present-day Durham.

During the monk’s passage north, back towards Chester-le-Street, it is said that Saint Cuthbert’s coffin came to a miraculous halt, and despite the best efforts of the monks it could not be made to move. During this period of immobility it is said that a monk called Eadmer had a vision in which Saint Cuthbert appeared to him and said that his remains should be taken to a place called “Dun-holm”. Following Eadmer’s vision the coffin could miraculously be moved again, however none of the monks had ever heard of a place called Dun-holm, and so had no idea where to go. As luck would have it, the monks happened across a milkmaid who was looking for her lost dun (dull brownish grey) cow, which she had apparently last seen at Dun-holm. Realising their luck, the monks accompanied this milkmaid to Dun-holm and began to create an early cathedral at the site. This early cathedral was to become the first building in the city that is now Durham.

Durham Cathedral - which is also the resting place of the Durham Dwarf

The sculpture of the dun cow from a distance.

Close up. 
Dun Cow Lane near the cathedral - note that the corner of the building has been chamfered. Presumably this is to prevent damage to the building by vehicles trying to make the tight turn.
A Durham statue showing the monks carrying St Cuthbert's remains towards the location of the cathedral.

For Lego lovers - inside the cathedral there is a fund raising project to help support the up-keep of the cathedral, which apparently costs £60,000 a week to run. This project is the construction of a replica of the Cathedral in Lego, using around 350,000 Lego bricks. For a small donation visitors get to place a Lego brick on the part of the model that is being built, and the model is slowly growing. The pictures below show the status of the model when I visited the cathedral in June 2014. It is shaping up to be an impressive build.

Pictures: County Durham (June 2014).

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Friday, 30 January 2015

The Winchester Round Table

The building pictured below is “the Great Hall” in Winchester, which is all that remains today of Winchester Castle. The castle was originally built in 1067 for William the Conqueror, and it was improved over the years with the Great Hall that stands today being built in the early 1200's to replace the castle’s previous hall.

The castle’s downfall occurred during the English Civil War in 1646, when Parliamentarians captured the castle from Royalist forces. Following this victory Oliver Cromwell had the castle demolished. The Great Hall was given a stay of execution and the building was preserved as a venue for assemblies and the County Assizes.

Over its lifetime the Great Hall has been the venue of some important events. In 1603 Sir Walter Raleigh stood trial at the Great Hall for his suspected part in the plot to remove King James I from the throne. In 1685 Judge Jeffreys condemned supporters of the Duke of Monmouth to death as part of the Bloody Assizes. And more recently in 1954 Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Major Michael Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood were tried and convicted in the Great Hall on charges of “conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons” , or buggery for short!

The most striking feature of the Great Hall is the Arthurian Round Table which hangs at one end of the hall. The table is believed to have been constructed around 1250 to 1290, during the reign of Edward I. The current paintwork on the table was commissioned by Henry VIII for the visit of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1522. The artwork shows the names of 24 knights of King Arthur’s court and shows Henry VIII sitting in King Arthur's seat at the 12 o’clock position. At 18 feet in diameter, the round table would have been an imposing piece of furniture.

Across Europe during the Middle Ages Arthurian legend was popular and jousting festivals, called “Round Tables”, were occasionally held. Sometimes at these events competing knights would assume the identities of characters from Arthurian Legend and presumably also replica round tables were made for these events. Edward I was himself believed to be an Arthurian enthusiast and to have attended a number of Round Tables and to have even hosted one himself in 1299. So it is possible that the Winchester Round Table was created for this event, however, there is also evidence that it was created for a tournament in 1290 to mark the betrothal of one of his daughters.

The Winchester Round Table is clearly not the original table at which Arthur and his court are said to have convened, some theories even suggest that the round table of legend was not a table at all. However, the Winchester Round Table is perhaps one of the earliest surviving replicas still in existence.

If anyone knows of any other round tables in existence from the Middle Ages that are on display in Europe, let me know via the comments section.

The Great Hall in Winchester.
The Winchester Round Table.
Henry VIII presiding over the table.
Looking towards the east wall of the Great Hall, where the table hung from 1348 to 1873.
The east wall is decorated with the names of Hampshire's Knights and MPs.

Pictures: Hampshire (January 2015).

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Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Grisly Place to Hang Out

On the Test Way footpath near the villages of Coombe and Inkpen in Berkshire, a gibbet can be seen sitting high on the hillside overlooking the surrounding countryside. The gibbet is known locally as Coombe Gibbet and it sits atop Inkpen hill - to be pedantic it actually sits upon a Bronze Age long barrow on the summit of the hill. The original gibbet was apparently erected in this very prominent location in 1676 to display the bodies of two convicted murderers, in an attempt to dissuade other people from committing such crimes.

The murderers in question were a pair of lovers known as George Broomham and Dorothy Newman. It is said that Broomham was married with a son and that Newman was a widow when the pair commenced an illicit relationship. Accounts vary, but it seems that as this illicit relationship progressed Broomham and Newman had cause to murder Broomham’s wife and son. This was probably because divorce in the 17th century was practically impossible, as it required a private Act of Parliament, so bumping off your unwanted wife was by far the more practical option. They committed this crime near the location of the gibbet, and unluckily for them, they were witnessed in the act.

During a trial at Winchester Assizes in February 1676, both Broomham and Newman were convicted of these murders and were sentenced to be publicly hanged. This execution took place in Winchester on 3rd March 1676. Following this hanging, the pair’s bodies were transported to the purpose built gibbet for public display, and their bodies were hung on the 6th March 1676.

The gibbet that stands today is not the original gibbet, but is believed to be the 7th gibbet to stand in this location and was erected in 1992. Previous gibbets erected in 1676, 1850, 1949, 1950, 1970 & 1979 seemed to have fallen prey to either the elements or persons of a vandalous nature.

The gibbet is not the only place of interest in the area, slightly further east along the Test Way footpath is Walbury Hill, which at 297 metres above sea level, is the highest point in South East England. Walbury Hill was once home to the Iron Age hill fort known as Walbury Camp, which was initially constructed circa 600 BC. At its peak the defensive earthworks of Walbury Camp would have protected an area of 80 acres, and the camp would have remained in use until the Roman era.

So if you ever walk the Test Way, be sure to look out for these two interesting features.

Coombe Gibbet visible in the distance.
The gibbet, sited on the long barrow at the summit of Inkpen Hill.
The gibbet.
Looking north from the gibbet into Berkshire.
Looking east from the gibbet towards Walbury Hill.

Pictures: Berkshire (January 2015).

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Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Battle of Alton & Ball Lightning

For those who know where to look, the Church of St Lawrence in Alton, Hampshire, still shows the scars of its involvement in an English Civil War battle. The Battle of Alton occurred on the 13th December 1643 when Parliamentarian forces, commanded by Sir William Waller, undertook a surprise attack on Royalist forces stationed in Alton, which were commanded by the Earl of Crawford. The Royalist forces defending Alton comprised of both infantry and cavalry units.

At dawn on the 13th December Waller's Parliamentarian forces commenced their attack on Alton. As the Parliamentarian forces approached, the Royalist commander (Lord Crawford), decided to flee Alton for Winchester, ostensibly to seek reinforcements. In his withdrawal  Lord Crawford took the Royalist cavalry with him, and they were pursued for some distance by the Parliamentarian cavalry. Lord Crawford’s withdrawal left Colonel Boles to mount a defence of Alton with just the Royalist infantry at his disposal.

Outnumbered and under artillery fire,  the Royalist infantry led by Colonel Boles were harried from one defensive position to the next, until they were finally corralled inside the Church of St Lawrence, which would become the location of their last stand. Using horse carcasses as cover and also firing from the church windows, the Royalists mounted a defence of the church, whilst the Parliamentarian forces fired back and lobbed hand grenades in through the church windows. The Royalist's defence of the church was short lived and the Parliamentarian forces soon forced entry into the church. The remaining Royalist forces only surrendered upon the death of Colonel Boles. Legend states that Colonel Boles fought fiercely from his position in the church's wooden pulpit and it was in the pulpit that he was finally overcome and killed.

The damaged caused to the church during the battle is still evident today for those with a keen eye. Musket holes from the fighting can been seen in the church door, as well as in other locations inside the church.

The Battle of Alton is not St Lawrence’s only interesting piece of history. Forty three years later on Sunday the 19th December 1686 it is said that a massive thunderstorm broke over Alton and caused a bit of a stir for the congregation present in the church at the time. A contemporary account of the storm states:

All of a sudden it grew so exceeding dark that the people could hardly discern one another, and immediately after it happened such flashes of lightning that the whole Church seemed to be in a bright flame, the surprise of the Congregation was exceeding great, especially when two Balls of Fire that made their entry at the eastern wall, passed through the body of the Church, leaving behind them so great a smoke, and smell of brimstone was scarcely able to be expressed.

Could these two “balls of fire” be an early report of ball lightning? It certainly sounds like it!

The Church of St Lawrence in Alton, Hampshire.

The church door.
Musket holes in the church door from the Battle of Alton in 1643.
The pulpit where Colonel Boles met his end.
Inscription on the pulpit. 

Pictures: Hampshire (September 2014).

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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Feeling for Lego Minifigure Series 13

Lego Minifigure Series 13 are due to hit the shops on the 1st January 2015, and to assist fellow hunters I have put together my third Lego Minifigure Feeling Guide, which gives an overview of:

1) the chances of finding a particular character in a box of 60 minifigures;
2) what to feel for when trying to identify each character in the blind bags.

As per my previous post on “Feeling for Lego Minifigure Series 12” I have not included a review of the bump/dot codes due to the regional variation in the codes. The best tactic to find the minifigure that you are after and to minimise the risk of getting duplicate minifigures is to stick to the tried and tested “feeling technique”.

Lego Minifigure Series 13 Character Distribution in a box of 60.

From a single box of 60 minifigures the character distribution seems to be:

Three of each in a full box:

Character #3: Unicorn Girl
Character #6: Paleontologist
Character #11: Fencer
Character #12: Samurai
Character #13: Disco Diva
Character #14: Hot Dog Man
Character #15: Lady Cyclops

Four of each in a full box:

Character #1: King
Character #2: Sheriff
Character #4: Snake Charmer
Character #7: Alien Trooper
Character #8: Egyptian Warrior
Character #10: Evil Wizard

Five of each in a full box:

Character #5: Goblin
Character #16: Galaxy Trooper
Character #9: Carpenter

A feeling guide for Lego Minifigure Series 13.

When hunting for Lego minifigures in blind bags, the best method for confidently identifying the character you want is by feeling the components in the packet and targeting the distinguishing components for that character.

To start off, once you grab a blind bag, shake it. Shake it well! Shaking the packet well helps to ensure that all of the small loose components drop down to the bottom of the bag. Once you have done this you need to feel the packet for the components that will help you to identify the character you want. Here is a quick look at what key components make specific characters easy to identify.

The Whole Gang.
Character #1 – King:

The King can be a tricky character to feel for. The best tactic is to look for the King's sword. You have to be careful however, as a number of minifigures have swords, but the pointy end of the King's broad sword and its hilt make it distinctive. If any doubt remains search for the King's beard, this piece has a hole in the middle through which the King's head attaches to his torso, so if you feel something like a Polo Mint in the bag, it may well be the King's beard.

The King.
Character #2 - Sheriff:

To find the Sheriff quickly look for his 2x2 tile. The Sheriff is the only character with a 2x2 tile and this distinctive piece is easy to find. Once you have found the 2x2 tile if any further confirmation is required look for the Sheriff's hat, which is unique in this series of minifigures.

The Sheriff.
Character #3 – Unicorn Girl:

The Unicorn Girl is easy to find if you look for her horn. The horn is a small tapering piece that will be found at the bottom of a well shook bag. The Unicorn's ears may also be felt for if required, but I found that the horn was so distinctive that feeling for the ears was not necessary.

Unicorn Girl. 
Character #4 – Snake Charmer:

The Snake Charmer has a 1x4 bar, which is easy to find and can be readily distinguished from the various swords in this series. Be careful however, as the Evil Wizard has the same piece. So if you find the 1x4 bar you now need to determine if you have the Snake Charmer or the Wizard. This is done by searching for the biggest item in the bag. This will either be the Snake Charmer's snake - a soft rubberised item - or the Wizard's Legs which is a 2x2x3 sloped brick.

The Snake Charmer. 
Character #5 – Goblin:

The Goblin can be tricky to find, start of by looking for his wide curved sword, which is similar to the Egyptian Warrior's sword. Once you find a large curved sword, you need to check for either the Goblin's roundish sack or the Warrior's shield to tell which character you have.

The Goblin.

Character #6 – Paleontologist:

The bone and the fossil are the key to finding the Paleontologist. The bone can be discerned by its bulges at each end, the fossil is a 1x1 round tile which is unique to this series.

The Paleontologist.
Character #7 – Alien Trooper:

The quickest way to find the Alien Trooper is to look for the 2x2 round "radar dish" that forms the end of his weapon. Failing this, look for his gun or his head. The Alien Trooper's distinctive head has Cthulhu style tentacles.

The Alien Trooper.

Character #8 – Egyptian Warrior:

The Egyptian Warrior can be found by his wide curved sword, which can be confused with the Goblin's sword. So once you have found a wide curved sword it is time to look for the Warrior's large shield, which is square at one end and pointy at the other. This will help you distinguish this character from the Goblin, whose other distinctive part is his sack.

The Egyptian Warrior. 
Character #9 – Carpenter:

The Carpenter can be found by his plank, which is a 1x4 flat tile and is unique to this series. His saw is also rather distinctive and has a similar profile to a 1x4 part, but has a textured handle and a tapering blade.

The Carpenter.
Character #10 – Evil Wizard:

The Evil Wizard's Legs are a 2x2x3 sloped brick and are very bulky in the blind bag making them easy to find. The wizard also has a 1x4 bar which is easy to distinguish from the other minifigure's swords, but be careful, as the Snake Charmer has the same piece. The Evil Wizard also has a "light saber hilt" as part of his staff and people familiar with the style of these components should easily be able to feel them.

The Evil Wizard.
Character #11 – Fencer:

To find the Fencer it is a case of looking for his sword. Unlike the other swords in this series, the Fencer's sword is long, thin and round in cross-section. It also has a round hilt and a small round ball at the tip of the blade, so it is relatively easy to distinguish from the other swords in the series.

The Fencer.
Character #12 – Samurai:

Like the Fencer, finding the Samurai is a story of swords. The Samurai has two long thin swords, which unlike the Fencer's sword have a curved profile with a flat blade. The Samurai also has an armour piece that can be searched for, but be careful not to confuse this with the Galaxy Trooper's armour piece.  

The Samurai.
Character #13 – Disco Diva:

I found the easiest way to find the Disco Diva was to focus on finding her microphone, which is a small component with one bulbous rounded end and a one tapered end. The Disco Diva's microphone is significantly different to the Unicorn Girl's horn that you won't get confused.

The Disco Diva.
Character #14 – Hot Dog Man:

What can be said about the Hot Dog Man? This great character has a humongous body piece, the hot dog and bun, which is a single piece and very easy to find.   

The Hot Dog Man.

Character #15 – Lady Cyclops:

To find Lady Cyclops you need to look for her club. The bulbous club, with its spikes and its handle is relatively easy to find.  

Lady Cyclops.

Character #16 – Galaxy Trooper:

The Galaxy Trooper has two blasters which can be distinguished by their twin barrels which are round in profile. Shaking a blind bag well will mean that these blasters fall to the bottom of the bag and are easy to find. The Galaxy Trooper also has an armour piece which can be looked for, but be careful as the Samurai has a similar armour piece.
Galaxy Trooper.
I hope this Lego Minifigure Series 13 feeling guide will help some fellow Lego hunters find the characters they want with ease and help to remove the curse of getting duplicates of characters by buying the minifigures totally blind!

Happy hunting!

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