“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, 17 June 2016

Britain's only Blue Post Box?

On a recent trip to Windsor I was surprised see my first blue Royal Mail post box, which is located near Windsor Castle where the High Street joins St Alban’s Street. Blue post boxes seem to be a very rare thing indeed and some sources suggest that this may be the last still to be found in the country. Blue post boxes began to be introduced into some British cities and other locations of note in 1930 and were used for postal airmail services to send and receive mail mainly to and from Europe. The blue post box at Windsor Castle, which is near the site of the old Windsor Post Office (1887 – 1966) commemorates the first United Kingdom airmail service. On the 9th September 1911, Gustav Hamel flew a Blériot monoplane (which looks a bit of a death-trap) from Hendon aerodrome in London and landed on the Long Walk behind Windsor Castle. This 19 mile flight took only 18 minutes and his cargo was a sack of mail celebrating the coronation of King George V. Following this first official airmail flight the use of airmail slowly increased and became firmly established in the 1920’s when improved post World War I aircraft and pilots became available to support the service.

The use of these bespoke blue post boxes was short lived however and by the end of 1938 they had fallen out of use. A number of reasons for their withdrawal are citied including: the rise of air travel; the build-up to the Second World War and the re-allocation of aircraft assets; and the cost associated with having bespoke post boxes solely for airmail. Whatever the true reason, come the end of 1938 it was acceptable for airmail to be posted in normal red post boxes and the only reference to the blue boxes remained in the blue airmail stickers that adorned the envelopes of airmail letters.

Gustav Hamel (25 June 1889 – 23 May 1914) who safely delivered the UK’s first airmail in 1911, sadly got “lost in the post” himself. Hamel disappeared on the 23rd May 1914 whilst returning from France in a Morane-Saulnier monoplane that he had just collected. Whilst his aircraft was never found a body was found on the 6th July 1914 by the crew of a fishing vessel in the English Channel near Boulogne. The crew did not retrieve the body, but their description of clothing on the corpse and the fact that one of the personnel effects of the deceased was a road map of southern England led some to conclude that the body was Hamel.

Windsor's commemorative blue airmail post box.

If unusual post boxes are of interest, then Windsor is home to another peculiar example. Located on the High Street next to the Guild Hall is a green hexagonal Penfold post box dating from around 1872. Between 1866 and 1879 green was the standard colour for all British post boxes, however from 1874 they were all re-painted to the now traditional post box red to enable them to be more easily seen.

Pictures: Berkshire (June 2016).

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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Shoes that Undertook the First "Grand Tour"

The Church of St Peter & St Paul in the village of Odcombe in Somerset is home to an usual monument. The monument in question can be found inside the church, attached to one of the walls is a stone carving of a pair of old shoes. This stone carving is actually a replacement for a real pair of shoes that were lost in the 1860’s when work was carried out on the church. So whose old shoes are worthy enough of being immortalised in a village church?

The original shoes belonged to a man from Odcombe called Thomas Coryat (circa 1577 – 1617) who was a wanderer and early travel writer, who documented his journeys in an era where traveling the world was an extremely challenging pursuit.

The Oxford educated Coryat considered himself a witty and intellectual person, and he spent an early part of his adult life (1603 to 1607) employed in the court of the eldest son of James I (Prince Henry). Sadly for Coryat he was described as being “some form of court jester”, and presumably chose to undertake an impressive feat to prove himself to his contemporaries. In May 1608 Coryat set off on his first trip, a tour of Europe, which saw him visit France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands before returning to England. This 1,975 mile journey took Coryat until October 1608 and saw him walk around half of the distance (nearly 1000 miles) over the course of 5 months.

On his return from Europe, Coryat published an account of his travels entitled “Coryat's crudities : hastily gobled up in five moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Grisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany and the Netherlands : newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the county of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this kingdome”.

Coryat’s first journey is said to have resulted in a number of changes to English culture.  Firstly Coryat is credited with the introduction of the table fork to England - the table fork having become part of Italian etiquette in 16th century. Coryat is also said to have introduced the word “umbrella” into the English language, which apparently arose from his description of how Italians shielded themselves from the sun! Coryat’s journey is also said to have been the first Grand Tour of Europe, and his travel writing is said to have inspired wealthy upper-class young men to follow in his footsteps. The custom of the Grand Tour became popular from the 1660's onwards and remained a rite of passage for wealthy upper-class young men well into the 19th Century.

In 1612 Coryat set off again on another journey, this one taking him to Greece, through the Mediterranean to Constantinople and onwards to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, Coryat decided to walk to  Moghul India, a mere 2,700 miles, and he arrived in the court of Emperor Jahangir in Ajmer, Rajasthan in 1615.  Coryat’s second travelogue entitled “Thomas Coriate traueller for the English vvits: greeting. From the court of the Great Mogvl, resident at the towne of Asmere, in easterne India“ was published in 1616 and was an account of his adventures which included seeing the Great Mogul’s pet unicorns!

Coryat’s travels are not just amazing for the distances that he walked, but for the way in which he undertook his travels. Coryat did not seek to make arrangements in advance, but instead he took things as they came and relied on the kindness of the people he encountered to get him through. This approach saw him get in trouble more than once, with him having to flee from angry farmers whose vineyards he snacked on, and having to dodge an angry Rabbi who wanted to circumcise him.

Unsurprisingly for such an avid wanderer, Coryat did not die at home in his own bed. Instead Coryat died of dysentery while traveling in India in December 1617.

The Church of St Peter & St Paul.

A stone carving of Thomas Coryat's shoes.

The front piece of Coryat's crudities. The illustrations labeled A to N depict some of his experiences on his travels. Note the women in the centre being sick on his head! She apparently represents the German people and their love of boozing.

Somerset (March 2016).

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Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A Robbery at Gore Cross

On the side of the A360 near the hamlet of Gore Cross in Wiltshire there is a small, easy to miss, memorial to an event that occurred near the spot in 1839. The stone is denoted on the Ordnance Survey map as the “Robbers’ Stone” and it commemorates an attempted robbery that had an unfortunate end for the bandits in question.

The events described on the stone occurred on the evening of the 21st October 1839 when a Mr Dean, a farmer, from the now deserted ghost town of Imber was making his way home from the market at Devizes. As he approached Gore Cross along the Lavington Road he was accosted by four highway men. Apparently Mr Dean had the wits to pretend that he was not alone (he called out to an imaginary companion) and also went on the attack, using his horse-whip to fend of the robbers. Surprised by their potential victim’s response the robbers fled and Mr Dean gave chase, pursuing one of the robbers for three hours across the countryside.

It seems that the fleeing robber, Benjamin Colclough, was not up to the task of escaping Mr Dean and he eventually fell down dead in his tracks upon Chitterne Down. His three accomplices Thomas Saunders, George Waters and Richard Harris were eventually captured and tried for the attempted robbery, with their sentence being transportation for a term of 15 years.

The death of Benjamin Colclough on Chitterne Down is commemorated with a second “Robbers’ Stone”. Unfortunately however, the site of this second stone is today inside the “Danger Area” that is the Imber live firing range on Salisbury Plain, and as such access to the stone is strictly limited. An image of the stone can however be found on the Geograph website.

The stones were erected as a warning, to other potential highway men. To remind them that crime does not pay, and presumably also to warn them not to mess with Mr Dean the Farmer.

The inscriptions on the Gore Cross stone reads:

Mr. DEAN, of Imber. was
Attacked and Robbed by
Four Highwaymen, in the
evening of Octr. 21st. 1839.

After a spirited pursuit of
three hours one of the Felons
fell dead on Chitterne Down.
were eventually Captured,
and were convicted at the
ensuing Quarter Sessions at
Devizes, and Transported for
the term of Fifteen Years.

This Monument is erected
by Public Subscription
as a warning to those who
presumptuously think to
escape the punishment God
has threatened against
Thieves and Robbers.

The inscriptions on the Chitterne Down stone reads:

This Monument is erected
to record the awful end of
a Highway Robber who fell
Dead, on this Spot, in
attempting to escape his
Pursuers after Robbing
Mr Dean of Imber, in the
Evening of Oct 21st 1839,
and was buried at Chitterne
without Funeral Rights.

The robbery of the wicked
shall destroy them.
     Prov. 21. 7.
His three companions in
were captured & sentenced
at the ensuing Quarter
Sessions at Devizes to
Transportation for the
Term of Fifteen Years.

Though hand join in
hand the wicked shall
not be unpunished
     Prov 11. 21

The "Robber's Stone" at Gore Cross.

Pictures: Wiltshire (May 2015).

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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