“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, 24 July 2015

The Hill Figures at Westbury and Cherhill

Back in September 2013 I used the power of Google Maps to conduct an “Armchair Tour” of Britain’s white horses. Since that post I have been able to visit both the Westbury White Horse and the Cherhill White Horse, so I can now share some pictures of them in the flesh.

The Westbury White Horse

The Westbury White Horse can be found about 1.6 miles east of the town of Westbury in Wiltshire (south of the B3098), and resides just below an Iron Age hill fort (Bratton Camp) on the edge of Bratton Downs. The Westbury White Horse is believed to be the oldest of the white horses in Wiltshire, and the second oldest in the country.

Legend suggests that the white horse was carved to commemorate King Alfred’s victory at the Battle of Edington in 878. King Alfred was supposedly born in the Vale of White Horses near Uffington. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Uffington White Horse would have been long in existence before King Alfred’s birth, and as such it could have provided inspiration for the Westbury horse. However, there is no firm evidence for the existence of a chalk horse at Westbury before the year 1742, so it is deemed unlikely that this legend is in fact true.

The Westbury White Horse has evolved over time. An engraving from the 1760s depicts a horse at the site, but the horse is smaller than today’s horse and is facing in the opposite direction. Over the years the horse has been slowly remodelled and “improved”, with the original chalk horse slowly morphing into the low maintenance concreted-over horse that can be seen today.

The Westbury White Horse


The view from the white horse




A fire beacon a short distance from the Westbury White Horse. This was installed in honour of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in June 2002.




The Cherhill White Horse

The Cherhill White Horse can be found just to the southeast of the village of Cherhill in Wiltshire (to the south of the A4); the horse lies on the side of a hill fort known as Oldbury Castle. The Cherhill White Horse is believed to be the third oldest white horse in Britain, and was cut in 1780 by a man from nearby Calne. Apparently the horse once had a unique feature, a glass eye, which was created by bottles being pressed upside down into the ground. It seems that this glass eye would reflect sunlight enabling the horse's eye to be seen from quite a distance. The eye however, is no longer made of glass, as the bottles slowly disappeared over time. Presumably taken as souvenirs by visitors.

If the Cherill horse looks nice and clean in the below pictures it is because the horse was re-chalked in May 2015, a task that apparently required 14 tonnes of chalk! If you want to see what is involved in maintaining a white horse, take a look at "Maintaining the Broad Town White Horse".

The Cherhill White Horse



Near the Cherhill White Horse is an obelisk called the Lansdowne Monument. This is a 38m stone structure that was erected in 1845 by the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne in memorial to his ancestor Sir William Petty.



Pictures: Wiltshire (May 2015).

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Friday, 17 July 2015

Creech Folly

The stone archway shown below is Grange Arch (also known as Creech Folly) which sits atop Ridgeway Hill, near Steeple in Dorset. The folly is essentially a stone wall inset with archways and surmounted by battlements, which was built around 1745 by the then owner of Creech Grange, Denis Bond. It is said that Bond built this folly atop the hill so he could look up upon it from the Grange, and survey the surrounding countryside from the folly. The structure was never apparently built with any practical purpose in mind other than being an eye-catcher and demonstrating Bond's not-inconsiderable wealth.

The Grange itself dates from the second half of the 1500s, when the original house was built by Sir Oliver Lawrence (1507–1559). Lawrence was an ancestor of the first American president, George Washington, and this area of Dorset has connections to the nascent United States of America. I will explore some of these connections in a later post.

Creech Folly.





Looking from the folly down towards Creech Grange.

The Grange.

Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Warminster Thing

The prominent hill shown in the below pictures is Cley Hill, which is just to the west of Warminster in Wiltshire. Cley Hill was once the location of an Iron Age hill fort and evidence of the earth works can still be seen today, along with two Bronze Age round barrows.

Local legend proposes that Cley Hill was formed by the Devil when he dropped a sack of earth which he was taking to Devizes to dump on the town. It is said the Devil was angry with the citizens of Devizes for converting to Christianity so he set off to bury the town by way of revenge. On his way to Devizes the Devil stopped to ask an old man the distance to the town. The old man, realising he was talking to the Devil, replied that he had been walking for years to reach Devizes. Disheartened, or feeling lazy, the Devil abandoned his plan and dropped the earth where he was, forming Cley Hill. A similar local legend surrounds Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, where this time the Devil was forced to drop earth he was carrying to bury the town of Marlborough. Clearly these legends are how folk tales try to explain these seemingly out of place stand-alone mounds.

In more recent times Cley Hill along with nearby Cradle Hill (to the North East of Warminster) have become places of pilgrimage for UFO Spotters hoping to have an experience with the Warminster Thing.

The story of the Warminster Thing starts on Christmas morning 1964 when a number of people in Warminster were awoken by a series of strange noises. The sounds in question were described by some of the witnesses as branches being pulled over gravel, giant hailstones, a chimney crashing to the ground, or the roof tiles of their houses being rattled around. One woman walking to Christ Church in Warminster encountered sounds which she found so disturbing that they apparently made her feel weak and unable to move!

The strange noises associated with the Warminster Thing continued until around June 1966, when they eventually petered out. The Warminster Thing was not just a series of aural phenomena; in May 1965 visual aspects of the phenomena commenced, with people seeing unusual objects in the sky. The first reported object in the sky was a silent cigar-shaped object covered in winking lights. A similar object was also seen in June of the same year, with this object seen hovering over Warminster for around half an hour.

Following these happenings and coverage in the national news, Warminster become known as a UFO hot spot and sky-watchers flocked Cley Hill and Cradle Hill to try to catch a glimpse of the Thing. Popular interest in the Warminster Thing continued until the late 1970’s when UFO reports in the area had essentially dried up, and the sensationalism had died away. Although it seems that even to this day people still visit the area every year to conduct sky-watches in the hope of having an experience.

The mystery of what caused the strange noises around Warminster in the 1960’s has never been satisfactorily solved, and the strange objects that were seen in the sky have never been suitably identified. Some people propose that Warminster’s proximity to the military training area on Salisbury Plain may hint towards the military being the source of some of the phenomena. Also in the area is the Ministry of Defence's airfield at Boscombe Down where military aircraft have been tested and evaluated since 1939.

Memory of the Warminster Thing still persists in the area and 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the start of the phenomena. To mark this occasion a mural has been unveiled in the town opposite the Tourist Information Centre. The mural, which is partially painted in glow-in-the-dark paint, depicts strange creatures and triangular UFOs hovering over the very distinctively shaped Cley Hill.

Cley Hill near Warminster.

Cley Hill from a distance.


View over Warminster from Cley Hill.

View from the main peak of Cley Hill looking towards Little Cley Hill.

Features on Cley Hill.

Cley Hill information board. 

Cradle Hill.

View from Cradle Hill. 

The Warminster Thing mural. 




Pictures: Wiltshire (May & July 2015).

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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Finding Frankenstein in Bournemouth

Having been to Bournemouth numerous times over the years I was surprised to find out recently that Mary Shelley (the famous author of Frankenstein) is buried in St. Peter's Churchyard near the centre of the town.

Most people will be familiar with the story behind how the idea for Frankenstein was conceived. The outline of Frankenstein was written during the Year Without Summer (1816), when Mary Shelley was part of a group visiting the poet Lord Byron at his villa near Lake Geneva. The visit was not the sun-drenched holiday that people might expect it to be. An ash cloud from a volcanic eruption in Indonesia had shrouded the northern hemisphere in darkness and led to 1816 having a very cold and wet summer. Because of this unusual weather Mary and her friends spent a lot of time indoors and amused themselves by developing ghosts stories. It was during this dark wet summer that Frankenstein was born.

What most people won't know about Mary Shelley however is how tragic and beset with hardship the majority of her life seemingly was.

Mary Shelley (née Godwin) was born in London in 1797 and just ten days after her birth her mother died from complications resulting from childbirth. In 1814 at the age of sixteen Mary fell in love with a married man, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the pair eloped to Europe. During this sojourn Mary became pregnant and when the couple's money eventually ran out they were forced to return to London with their tails between their legs. Because Percy was a married man with his own young family, upon her return to London Mary became a social outcast and was disowned by her father. The couple's financial situation was somewhat dire and Percy was forced to abandon Mary for a while to go into hiding to escape his numerous creditors. The couple's first child was born in 1815, but was sadly two-months premature and soon died. The couple's second and third children also died young with one dying in 1818 of dysentery and the other dying in 1819 from malaria at the age of three. 1816 was also a bad year for the couple, with Mary's half-sister (Fanny Godwin) committing suicide by an overdose of laudanum, and Percy's pregnant wife (Harriet Westbrook) committing suicide by throwing herself into London's Serpentine River.

The couple's relationship was also relatively short, with Percy drowning in 1822 whilst out sailing off the Italian coast. It seems that Percy and his two companions were caught out by a storm and the three never made it to their destination. Their bodies were eventually found on a beach 10 days after the storm and Percy's corpse was cremated near to where he was found.

Mary herself eventually died in 1851 at the age of 53 after a long illness, which was possibly caused by a brain tumour. After her death a silk parcel was found in Mary's possessions that was said to contain some of Percy's ashes along with the remains of his heart - which legend suggests refused to burn when he was cremated. Percy's incombustible heart was eventually interred with Mary's remains in St Peter's Churchyard in Bournemouth. Their tomb can be seen in the following pictures.

St. Peter's Church in Bournemouth.

Mary Shelley's grave.






The nearby pub - "The Mary Shelley" - a dead giveaway that there is some Mary Shelley related heritage nearby.  Pubs names often offer clues to nearby interesting history. The "Herbert George Wells" in Woking is another good example. 


Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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Sunday, 21 June 2015

Clocking the Earth as the Centre of the Universe

Here is another Church based oddity, this time from Wimborne Minster in Dorset.

Prior to Nicolaus Copernicus' 16th Century predictive mathematical model of the Solar System, that showed how the planets orbited the Sun, it was widely believed that the Earth was the centre of the Solar System and even the Universe. Wimborne Minster's astronomical clock, which is estimated to date from around 1320, is a relic from this pre-Copernican era.

On the face of the clock the Earth is show as a blue/green sphere which is positioned in the very centre of the clock face. The Sun, which is a gold emblem painted on a black disc, revolves around the perimeter of the clock's face and indicates the hour of the day as it orbits the Earth. Between the Earth and the Sun there is another sphere which has one hemisphere painted black, and one hemisphere painted gold. This black/gold sphere represents the Moon, and as it orbits the Earth it depicts the Moon's lunar phases. At full moon the sphere's golden hemisphere is on display, and at new moon the sphere shows its black side in its entirety. Intermediate phases of the Moon are shown by a display of varying proportions of the black/gold hemispheres.

Some say that as the clock dates from 1320 it is amongst some of the oldest working clocks in the world,  a group which includes clocks from Salisbury Cathedral and Beauvais Cathedral in France. It is also suggested that the clock was built by a Glastonbury Monk, Peter Lightfoot, who was also responsible for building a similar pre-Copernican clock for Wells Cathedral.

Wimborne Minster.

Looking towards the clock in the West Tower.

The clock.


Wimborne's pre-Copernican clock is not the only item of interest inside Wimborne Minster. The Minster is also home to a coffin which has a rather odd looking date inscribed on it. The coffin was commissioned by local eccentric Anthony Ettrick, who seemed to be convinced that he would die in 1693 and he had the coffin inscribed in anticipation. Unluckily for him however, he lived until 1703, and now the coffin bears a "half-arsed" attempt to amend the date of his death. This solution clearly being cheaper than the manufacture of a new stone coffin.


1693 or 1703?



Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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