“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, 18 March 2015

The Shop that Fought in the War of 1812

The village of Wickham in Hampshire is home to a rather unusual building, known as the Chesapeake Mill. The Chesapeake Mill is an old watermill that was built in 1820 and worked as a commercial watermill until 1976. After 1976 the mill was re-purposed for its current occupation, which is serving as an antiques and craft shop. The history of the Chesapeake Mill starts long before its construction in 1820 however.  It really starts on the 2nd December 1799 when the USS Chesapeake was launched from the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia.

The USS Chesapeake was a United States Navy three-masted heavy frigate of wooden construction, rated at 38-guns. The USS Chesapeake’s military career included service in: the Quasi-War between the United States of America and France (1798 – 1800); the First Barbary War between the United States of America and the Muslim Barbary States of Northwest Africa (1801 – 1805); and ultimately in the War of 1812 between the United States of America and the United Kingdom (1812 - 1815).

In December 1812 the USS Chesapeake commenced her first patrol of the War of 1812.  During this patrol she was responsible for the capture of five British merchant vessels and the re-capture of an American vessel from British Privateers. She completed this patrol by returning to Boston on the 9th April 1813 where she underwent a refit and a change of Commanding Officer. Whilst the USS Chesapeake was refitting in Boston, the British 38-gun frigate HMS Shannon arrived at Boston and commenced a blockade of the port.

By the 1st June 1813, the USS Chesapeake was again ready to put to sea, so she sailed out of Boston to challenge the HMS Shannon’s blockade of the port. The ships were evenly matched, with both vessels being of comparable size and similar armament. The only significant difference between the vessels was the size of their crews, the USS Chesapeake had a compliment of 379 men in comparison to HMS Shannon 's crew of just 330.

The two ships met at around five o’clock in the afternoon 37 km east of Boston lighthouse, with the first exchange of cannon fire occurring when the ships had closed to a range of 35 metres apart. This exchange of cannon fire lasted for around 6 minutes with HMS Shannon scoring the first hit. The two vessels where soon alongside each other and HMS Shannon secured herself to the USS Chesapeake. HMS Shannon now concentrated her fire on USS Chesapeake’s gun crews, killing many of the men. The USS Chesapeake was finally disabled by cannon fire which destroyed her wheel, leaving her unable to manoeuvre. With the USS Chesapeake disabled, she was quickly boarded by the British and her remaining crew subdued in hand-to-hand combat. The entire battle only lasted around 11 minutes, during which HMS Shannon is reported to have had 23 men killed and 56 men wounded, whilst the USS Chesapeake had somewhere around 50 - 60 men killed, with 85 – 99 men wounded (although exact numbers differ depending on the source).

The captured USS Chesapeake was eventually repaired by the Royal Navy and was put back into service as HMS Chesapeake and served until July 1819 when she was put up for sale. HMS Chesapeake was sold to a timber merchant who in turn broke up the vessel and sold her timbers to a local miller, a Mr John Prior. The timbers from the Chesapeake were re-used by John Prior in the construction of the Chesapeake Mill, with the interior of the building designed around the length of the available deck beams.

Some say that the timbers of the mill still bear bloodstains and bullets from that singularly bloody battle. I saw no evidence of this, but you may be more lucky.

The Chesapeake Mill, Wickham, Hampshire.

HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake at battle
HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake locked together.
The boarding party fights its way onto the USS Chesapeake.
The USS Chesapeake is taken as a prize.

Pictures: Hampshire (February 2015).

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Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Portuguese Fireplace

In the New Forest in Hampshire between the village of Emery Down and the Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary, close to Millyford Bridge, there is a stone fireplace sitting alone on a patch of grass beside the road. The fireplace is known as the “Portuguese Fireplace” or sometimes as the “Canadian Fireplace” and it serves as a war memorial, to honour a role that foreign military units stationed in the New Forest played in the First World War. The plaque which accompanies the fireplace explains:

"This is the site of a hutted camp occupied by a Portuguese army unit during the First World War. This unit assisted the depleted local labour force in producing timber for the war effort. The Forestry Commission have retained the fireplace from the cookhouse as a memorial to the men who lived and worked here and acknowledge the financial assistance of the Portuguese government in its renovation."

From the start of the First World War, essential timber required for the Allied war effort was primarily supplied from Canada. However by early 1916 the Canadian provision of timber could not meet the demand of the Allied war machine, so Britain needed to start felling its own trees. The problem with this solution was that most of the skilled local foresters where away fighting the war, so foreign military manpower was required to plug the resource short fall.

In response to this demand for skilled lumbermen, the Canadian Forestry Corps sent men and equipment to the UK, and one lumber camp was set up in the New Forest to begin felling and processing trees. The New Forest lumber camp became a significant settlement, housing around 200 Canadians and covering around 4 to 5 acres.  It was supported by a number of saw mills and even a narrow gauge railway to transport the timber out of the forest. By 1917 further manpower was needed to support the Canadian Forestry Corps, so 150 Portuguese labourers joined the Canadian effort and set up camp with them. The Portuguese Fireplace is all that remains of this part of the war effort. The fireplace was originally the fireplace of the camp's cookhouse.

The Portuguese Fireplace is not the only War Memorial in the New Forest. Further along the road from Emery Down to Bolderwood there is a memorial cross that is dedicated to Canadian forces. The cross was originally erected on the 14th April 1944 by Canadian forces, for their religious services whilst they were stationed in the New Forest in the run up to D-Day during the Second World War. The cross has been kept as a memorial to these men ever since. The plaque at the base of the cross reads:

"On this site a cross was erected to the Glory of God on April 14th 1944. Services were held here until D Day 6th June 1944 by men of the 3rd Canadian Division R.C.A.S.C.

So whilst today the New Forest is a place for holidays and leisure it once played a vital part in the United Kingdom's war machine.

The Portuguese Fireplace.

The Canadian Cross.

Pictures: Hampshire (February 2015).

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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.

Update: 10th March 15 - A scan of a recently acquired postcard showing Harry Mills and some of his snakes.

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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