“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.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Lambton Worm

Anyone who has ever visited the Sunderland area will no-doubt have seen the monument pictured below, which stands proud upon Penshaw Hill, and dominates the local landscape. The monument is known as the Penshaw Monument and it was built in 1844 as a half-sized replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. The monument measures in at 30 metres in length, 16 metres in width and 20 metres in height, and has columns that are 2 metres in diameter. The formal name of the monument is The Earl of Durham's Monument and it was built in dedication to John Lambton (1792–1840) who was the 1st Earl of Durham and the first Governor of the Province of Canada.

The Lambton family are associated with an interesting local legend, the legend of the Lambton Worm.

The legend surrounds another John Lambton who skipped church one Sunday to go fishing in the River Wear. The fishing trip was generally unsuccessful, but Lambton eventually catches an eel like creature, which he disposes of in a nearby well.  Forgetting about this creature, Lambton grows up and eventually heads overseas to join the crusades (putting the legend somewhere in the 12th Century). Over the years the creature grows extremely large and begins to terrorise local villagers, coiling itself seven times around a local hill.

Eventually the worm makes its way to Lambton Castle, where the Lord (John Lambton's father) is able to sedate the worm, via a daily ritual of offering it copious quantities of milk. A number of attempts are made by local villagers and knights to kill the worm, however all these attempts fail, as any parts of the worm that are cut off seem to re-attach themselves to the worm, healing it.

After seven years, Lambton returns from the crusades and finds that his father's estate is almost bankrupt because of the worm and the costly demands of keeping it satisfied. In response to this, Lambton resolves to destroy the worm, but first he seeks guidance from a witch near Durham. The witch advises Lambton to cover his armor in spikes and fight the worm in the River Wear, where it spends its days wrapped around a rock. The witch also advises Lambton that after killing the worm he must then kill the first living thing he sees, or else his family will be cursed not to die peacefully in their beds for nine generations. Deciding to follow the witch’s advice, Lambton arranges with his father that he will sound a horn three times once the worm has been killed. The plan being that once the signal is heard, Lambton’s father would release Lambton’s dog, which would run to Lambton to be killed, thus preventing the curse from being enacted.

Lambton does battle with the worm at the river and when the worm tries to curl itself around him it hurts itself on the spikes on his armor. As Lambton cuts pieces off of the worm, the river washes them away. Unable to heal itself, the worm finally succumbs and Lambton sounds his horn in victory. In the excitement of victory, Lambton’s father forgets to release the dog and instead rushes to congratulate his son. Lambton, cannot bring himself to kill his father (as the first living thing that he sees) and as a result nine generations of the Lambton family are duly cursed.

The local hill that the worm coils itself around seven times is often said to be either Penshaw Hill or sometimes it is the much less impressive Worm Hill in Fatfield. It's easy to see why Penshaw hill might fit the bill, as it is said that the hill that the worm coiled itself around was scarred by the worm's presence. Penshaw Hill is the only triple rampart Iron Age hill fort known to exist in the north of England and it is easy to see how the remains of these ramparts could be interpreted as marks left by the coiling worm.

The legend of the Lambton Worm is a staple of local folklore and has inspired at least one movie, Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm.

The Penshaw Monument.

Dedication on the Penshaw Monument.
Information board.
The Penshaw Monument at a distance.
The Penshaw Monument, visible from the roof of Durham Cathedral.
Worm Hill in Fatfield - natural or man-made structure?
Pictures, County Durham (June 2014).

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Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Very Hungry Tree

St John's churchyard in the Wiltshire village of Tisbury is home to a rather interesting tree. The yew tree that dominates the churchyard has a girth of around 9 metres and it is estimated to be up to 4000 years old, making it the second oldest tree in Britain. It is not the size of the tree or its age that makes it striking however, it is the large boulder that the tree is in the process of consuming. Over the years it seems that the tree has extended its grip around a large boulder and now has it trapped firmly in its grasp.
The St John's yew tree.

The boulder, slowly being eaten by the tree.

St John's Church. 

Pictures, Wiltshire (July 2014).

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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Durham Dwarf

The portrait below shows a man called Józef Boruwlaski. Boruwlaski was a diminutive entertainer who was born in Poland in 1739 into a family that ultimately consisted of 6 children, three of whom were unusually small. Boruwlaski was said to have been 64cm tall at 15 years old, 71cm at 22 years old, 89cm at 25 years old and finally reaching his maximum height of 99cm by the age 30. One of Boruwlaski’s elder brothers was reported to have been only a few centimetres taller than him, and his sister who was three years his junior, was reported to have been only 66cm in height (whether this was her ultimate height is unclear). However, it seems that Boruwlaski’s other three siblings were of a more normal stature, and he even had one brother who grew to be six feet and four inches in height. Boruwlaski and his two vertically challenged siblings may have been of a small size but they were also said to have been built in proportion to their height and to not have suffered any of the deformations or disabilities associated with typical dwarfism.

Boruwlaski's small stature gave him the problem of finding a suitable way to make a living, and many potential avenues of employment such as the clergy or military service were out of the question given his physique. This predicament led him to look for a wealthy sponsor and he eventually became adopted by The Starostin de Caorlix, and was then subsequently taken into the care of Countess Humiecka. This adoption kicked off Boruwlaski’s career as an entertainer and curiosity for European high society, a career that saw him touring Europe and meeting such influential people as the Queen of Hungary, the King of Poland, the King of England and the Queen of France. Even though Boruwlaski mingled with such important people, his real purpose was to essentially be an interesting diversion for the courts of the day and his travels saw him being taught to dance and play the guitar by some of the best professionals of the day. He was also often made to dress up in small copies of military uniforms and sometimes even posed in purpose built miniature doll’s houses. Some people may have classed Boruwlaski as a sideshow freak, and it must have been an interesting sight when he met a couple of prominent sideshow freaks of the era. He met Patrick Cotter (The Irish Giant) a man who stood 8 feet tall, and he also met the famously obese Daniel Lambert, who in his prime weighed in at massive 50 stone.

As Boruwlaski’s touring career came to an end he needed to find a new way to make a living. His later years saw him trying to make a living for himself and his wife (a woman of normal stature) from playing music, and eventually he had to resort to displaying himself in public and writing an autobiography to try to make ends meet. Eventually however, an organist of Durham Cathedral (Thomas Ebdon) offered Boruwlaski  a place to live, and Boruwlaski lived out his days in Banks Cottage in the company of the unmarried daughters of Thomas Ebdon. Boruwlaski eventually died in Durham in 1837 at the grand old age of 98.

It seems that the city of Durham fondly remembers its diminutive Polish resident and clues to his time in Durham can be found in a number of places. Durham Town Hall is home to a life-sized statue of Boruwlaski, as well as an oil painting of Boruwlaski as an old man. There is also a display of some of his personal effects, which includes a suit, hat, cane, chair and violin.

Durham Cathedral is also home to a tribute to Boruwlaski, his tombstone. Just inside the entrance to the cathedral on the right hand side a small stone slab (approximately 15cm x 15cm square) can be found set into the floor bearing the initials “J B”. It seems that Boruwlaski was interred in the cathedral, close to one of his influential friends (Stephen Kemble).

Following the riverside footpath that skirts the peninsular on which the cathedral resides brings the walker to a riverside folly. The folly is a mock Greek temple which is referred to locally as The Count’s House. It seems that during his touring days Boruwlaski used the title Count Boruwlaski, even though he had no formal right to the title, and as such, people incorrectly assume that the folly is where Boruwlaski once lived. The truth is less exciting however, and it seems that the folly was probably just an ornamental feature in the garden of the property where Boruwlaski saw out his retirement years.

For any readers who are interested in the Count’s life and travels a version of his autobiography can be found here.

A portrait of an elderly Józef Boruwlaski in Durham Town Hall.
A life size Józef Boruwlaski in Durham Town Hall.
A collection of Józef Boruwlaski's possessions in Durham Town Hall.

Durham Cathedral.
Józef Boruwlaski's tombstone inside Durham Cathedral.
The Durham folly known as The Count's House.

Inside The Count's House.

Pictures, County Durham (June 2014).

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Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Maintaining the Broad Town White Horse

On the sunny weekend of the 14th & 15th of June, Mrs J had the pleasure of helping a team of local volunteers to refurbish the white horse that overlooks the village of Broad Town in Wiltshire.

The Broad Town White Horse (which I have previously mentioned in my “An Armchair Tour of Britain's White Horses”) is situated about half a mile northeast of Broad Town and is believed to date from 1864.

The Broad Town White Horse as seen from Google Maps.
The Broad Town White Horse in 1947.
So armed with a variety of gardening implements the team of volunteers from the village of Broad Town, led by local Archaeologist Bob Clarke, set off to restore the white horse. The first day of activities saw the team spend most of their time weeding the horse and trimming the horse’s outline. It seems that because the field in which the white horse is situated is not grazed by livestock that the outline of the horse is constantly under threat of becoming over grown. This unrelenting march of nature means that twice a year the horse has to be weeded and trimmed to ensure that it retains its shape and its crisp outline, otherwise after a few short years it would be lost from view. 

The Broad Town White Horse on day 1, before its make over.
Zooming it - it's not really white any more.
The horse's head - it is overgrown and the home to weeds.
The rear part of the body and the two back legs - after some weed clearing has occurred.
The body of the horse - almost clear of weeds.
The arch of the horse's back restored to a nice sharp line with the tail, yet to be weeded at the back. 
The restoration team at the start of day 1 (excluding Team Leader Bob Clarke, who is behind the camera).
Day two saw the team complete the weeding and edging activities. Once the team had finished removing all the weeds from the horse’s body and had restored its eye, body and limbs to their nature shape and size, attention turned to restoring the horse back to its natural white colour.

Originally when the white horse was cut into the hillside chalk it would have appeared a brilliant white, however over time the colour tends to yellow and on an annual basis the volunteers have to re-lime the horse to ensure it retains its former glory. Coating the Broad Town White Horse in lime required the use of over 1 tonne of powdered lime, which the team raked out over the horse’s body and limbs to give the horse a restored brilliant white appearance. As it was explained to me, once the first rains hit this powdered lime, it turns from a fine powder into a hard crust and gives the horse another year of life.

The Broad Town White Horse only seems to survive due to the dedication of the local villagers who commit a few days each year to its upkeep. The villagers also have to fund the work themselves, raising money during community events. Interestingly, the Broad Town White Horse is not a scheduled ancient monument and if it did become so it sounds like it would prevent the villagers from taking care of it in such a cost efficient and proactive manner.

Bags of powdered lime starting to be laid out.
All the bags laid out.
The leader of the restoration (Bob Clarke) opens the first bag of lime on the horses head.
The new white lime in comparison to the old (non-white) surface.
The restoration team at the end of day 2 (excluding Mrs J, who is behind the camera).
It should be noted that I only turned up to take a few photos late on day 2 - I did not really get involved in the hard work!
The restored horse seen from the track just below the hill.
Zooming in.
The restored Broad Town White Horse seen from the village school. 
Zooming in.
The information board that lives just below the horse.

On my way home from the Broad Town White Horse I also happened to pass another local white horse, The Broad Hinton White Horse. The Board Hinton White Horse (also known as the Hackpen White Horse) lies about two miles southeast of the village of Broad Hinton (on the side of the B4041). Details of the origin of this white horse are not certain, but some believe it was cut into the hillside in the mid 1800’s (possibly in 1838 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria). It also seems that the local area used to be home to a third white horse at Rockley (between Hackpen and Marlborough), which was rediscovered in 1948 on land at Wick Down Farm on Rockley Down, but subsequently lost again to the farmers crops and plough. From the design of the horse it has been proposed that it dates from the early 19th Century, which neatly aligns with the dates of the creation of the Broad Town and Hackpen horses - clearly creating white horses in Wiltshire in the 19th Century was the fashionable thing to do!

The Hackpen White Horse.
The Hackpen White Horse.
The Hackpen (Broad Hinton) White Horse as seen from Google Maps.
The Rockley Down White Horse, reproduced from: The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine,  Volume 59, 1964. 
Pictures, Wiltshire (June 2014).

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