“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.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Horny Man of Abson

Abson is a small village in South Gloucestershire which consists of a handful of houses, a farm and a church.  Abson's church is dedicated to St James the Great and is a largely unremarkable building except for a carving which is tucked away high on the outside East wall of the church.  The carving is very easy for a casual observer to miss, but once it is noticed it is a real attention grabber. The carving in question is of a man crouching on all fours, with his testicles and a large erection proudly on display! At first glance such a rude carving looks out of place on a church, but it seems that graphic carvings such are these are fairly common on churches, castles and other ancient buildings around the country.

This carving seems to be a male version of a Sheela na Gig figure and possibly dates from the Saxon or early Norman period. Sheela na Gig carvings typically depict naked women displaying large and exaggerated vaginas, often holding them open as if to be inspected by the viewer. These female figures are sometimes accompanied by a male figure sporting an erection, and the carving on Abson church looks to be such an example.

The purpose behind Sheela na Gig carvings is not really known, however some theories suggest that they may be representations of pagan goddesses and gods relating to fertility. It is also proposed that they are a warning against lust and the sins of the flesh, or perhaps protection against death and evil - which may explain why this man is near the window,  protecting that entrance to the church.

Ultimately however, the intended purpose of these types of carvings is not known for sure.  So just enjoy it for what it is, a rude carving of a horny man on a church!

St James' Church in Abson.

The East wall.

Notice the horny man?

Up close!

Pictures: South Gloucestershire (August 2015).

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Sunday, 9 August 2015

Upsetting God in Devizes

The Market Cross in Devizes was erected in 1814 and bears a metal plaque that tells the unfortunate story of Ruth Pierce from nearby Potterne. Ruth Pierce met her unfortunate demise at Devizes market on the 25th January 1753. The plaque reads:

“On Thursday the 25th of January 1753, Ruth Pierce of Potterne in this County, agreed with three other women to buy a sack of wheat in the market, each paying her due proportion towards the same. One of these women, in collecting the several quotas of money, discovered a deficiency, and demanded of Ruth Pierce the sum which was wanting to make good the amount. Ruth Pierce protested that she had paid her share, and said, ‘She wished she might drop down dead if she had not.’ She rashly repeated this awful wish; when to the consternation and terror of the surrounding multitude, she instantly fell down and expired, having the money concealed in her hand.”

It is said that the day following Ruth Pierce’s death that an inquest was held and that the judge and jury found that there were no marks of violence on her body nor any clear reason why she had died. The verdict that the inquest arrived at was that Ruth Pierce had been struck dead by “the Visitation of the Great and Almighty God”.

In an attempt to warn people and to deter such behaviour from occurring again, Ruth’s story was captured on a stone tablet in the market place. Following the construction of the Market Cross in 1814 this stone tablet was replaced by the current metal plaque. The original stone tablet is said to be in the care of the Devizes Heritage Museum and may be on display in the foyer of the Devizes Corn Exchange - but I have not been there to confirm this for myself.

Some sources also suggest that the part of the story that says Ruth died “having the money concealed in her hand” was a latter fabrication of the story to give it a stronger moral message. It is entirely possible that Ruth Pierce was innocent of any wrong doing, and simply suffered a heart attack or stroke as a result of the accusations being levelled at her. Or perhaps she was indeed an embezzler, who was justly struck down by the Lord Almighty as punishment for her crimes? 

Devizes Market Cross.

Ruth's tale.
The story of Ruth Pierce is not the only morality story that is on display in Devizes. St John’s Churchyard is home to an obelisk that warns of the dangers of breaking the Fourth Commandment - remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. The story is that one Sunday evening in June 1751 a newlywed couple and three of their friends went to Drew’s Pond in Devizes to enjoy the water. Sadly during this trip all five of the friends drowned, a tragedy that would have been avoided if they had all been in church like they were supposed to have been! The worn inscription on the 15ft high monument reads:

In memory of the sudden and awful end of Robert Merrit and Susannah, his wife, Eliz. Tilley, her sister, Martha Carter and Josiah Derham, who were all Drowned in the Flower of their Youth in a pond near this town called Drews. On Sunday evening the 30th June 1751 and are together underneath entombed.

The inscription on the other side of the monument reads:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. This monument, as an awful monitor to young people to remember their Creator in the days of their Youth. Was erected by subscription.”

For five people to drown is Drew’s pond is somewhat surprising, given that it is not a huge body of water. So perhaps the Lord Almighty did have a hand in the event? 

So be warned! If you ever visit Devizes in Wiltshire be sure not to upset the Lord Almighty else you may come to an untimely end!

St John's Church.

The Obelisk.

The worn inscription.
Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Sunday, 2 August 2015

St Aldhelm's Chapel

St Aldhelm's Chapel is a Norman chapel which resides inside a low circular earthwork on St Aldhelm's Head near Worth Matravers in Dorset. The chapel is dedicated to a St. Aldhelm (639 AD – 709 AD) who was the Bishop of Sherborne.

St. Aldhelm's Chapel has some unusual features for a chapel firstly it is square (25 feet by 25 feet), as opposed to the rectangular shape of most chapels. The interior space is also odd. Typical chapels have an open interior, whereas  St. Aldhelm's Chapel has a large central column which dominates the interior of the building. The chapel is also oriented in a different manner to more typical chapels. Chapels tend to be laid out based on an East to West orientation, St. Aldhelm's Chapel however is oriented with the corners of the chapel pointing towards the cardinal points of the compass.

The other thing that makes the placement of St. Aldhelm's Chapel so strange is its apparent remoteness. The chapel is around 1.5 miles from Worth Matravers and there has been no evidence found to date of any historic settlements closer to the chapel.

Based on this peculiar feature the original purpose of the building is not certain, it could have been originally built as a chapel or it could have been built for another purpose. Some suggest that it may have originally been built as a watchtower for Corfe Castle, covering the sea approaches to the south. Essentially however, it is not accurately known when the chapel was built, who built it or why they built it!

The first written record of the building being used as a chapel dates from the reign of King Henry III (1207 – 1272) and the chapel appears to have been in use until circa 1625. Following 1625, the chapel slowly fell into disrepair until it was finally restored by the Earl of Eldon in the 19th century, and re-opened for services in 1874. The chapel still holds services to this day, but limited to special occasions, such as Easter.

St Aldhelm's Chapel is not the only eye-catching structure on St Aldhelm's Head. Nearby the chapel is an unusual looking sculpture that serves as a memorial to the pioneering work on radar, undertaken at nearby Renscombe Farm during the Second World War. Work was carried out on the development of radar by a team of researchers including the famous astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell. The stainless steel sculpture represents two radar dishes which are arranged in such a way that they also form a large fire basket. This design is intended to reflect both the ancient and modern methods to warn of invasion - fire beacons were historically used to send messages across the country and warn of impending invasions, and radar took up this role during the Second World War.

Worth Matravers was chosen as a site for the development of radar due to the area’s cliff tops which are relatively flat and thus good for testing radar. In May 1940 there was an influx of around 200 scientists to the area and two years later by May 1942 around 2000 people were actively working on the site. The coastal location did however lead to fears that the research centre could be raided by the Germans and as such the majority of the research effort was moved to Malvern in May 1942. Post 1942 some work on radar did continue in the area and the last radar tower operated by the RAF (a 110m tall tower) was only taken down in the early 1970’s.


Even with the area being home to the development of radar, it seems that the powers that be were still unable to prevent the Daleks invading nearby Winspit Quarry in 1967 and 1979.

Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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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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