“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.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Elephants in the Church

So far on my wanderings I have happened across a number of unusual things in churches and churchyards, some of my favorites to date being The Depressing Chair of Bishops Cannings, The Nether Wallop Pyramid, A Brief History of Bread Prices, A Church Load of Virgins and Finding Sweet FA. Given churches offer such a rich source of oddities I make sure to take a peek in as many churches as I can.

Recently I visited Wickham in Berkshire (not to be confused with Wickham in Hampshire - which is the home of The Shop that Fought in the War of 1812) and had a quick look around St. Swithun's Church.

St. Swithun's Church is notable as its tower dates from the Saxon era and is possibly the oldest example in the country. The church is located near the site of an ancient Roman camp, and recycled Roman tiles and columns can be seen incorporated in to the tower's construction. It is thought that this tower was originally built as a free-standing watch tower, with access to the first floor provided by a ladder that could have been pulled up when the need arose. The main body of the church would have been a later addition to the tower.

The main oddity of interest lies within St. Swithun's Church. As you enter the nave of the church carved angels can be seen decorating the roof beams, which seems to be a fairly standard type of decoration for a church. However, when you move into the north aisle, which houses the church's organ, the roof beams are unusually decorated by eight large golden elephants.

It seems that between 1845 and 1849 the church underwent extensive refurbishment and that the nave, chancel and both the north and south aisles were effectively rebuilt. The person responsible for this work was a William Nicholson, and it was during a visit to an Exhibition in Paris that he is said to have impulsively bought four papier maché elephants to decorate the church. Needing four more elephants to complete the task, Nicholson apparently had another four specially commissioned to finish the new look of the north aisle.

I am guessing that a village church decorated by golden elephants is a bit of a rarity in the United Kingdom, but if you know of another, please let me know.

St Swithun's Church, Wickham, Berkshire.

Angels decorating the roof beams in the nave. The north aisle's elephants can be seen though the archways.

The golden elephants.




Pictures: Berkshire (April 2015).

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Friday, 10 April 2015

A Royal Death in the New Forest

In my last few blog posts I have looked at oddities that can be found in and around the New Forest in Hampshire, such as the Brockenhurst Snake Catcher and the Portuguese Fireplace. No tour of the New Forest would be complete however, without mentioning the Rufus Stone.

The Rufus Stone is a small monument which can be found in the forest between the village of Brook in Hampshire and the A31 trunk road, near to the Sir Walter Tyrrell pub. The stone commemorates the death of William II of England (known as William Rufus) and the inscriptions on the three sides of the stone reads:

Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100.

King William the Second, surnamed Rufus being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis, and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church, of that city.

That the spot where an event so memorable might not hereafter be forgotten, the enclosed stone was set up by John Lord Delaware who had seen the tree growing in this place. This stone having been much mutilated, and the inscriptions on each of its three sides defaced. This more durable memorial with the original inscriptions was erected in the year 1841, by WM Sturges Bourne, Warden."

William Rufus was the third son of William the 1st of England (better known as William the Conqueror) and he was born between 1056 AD and 1060 AD (the exact date is not known). William Rufus had three brothers, Robert and Richard who were older than him, and Henry who was his junior.  In 1075 AD his brother Richard was killed whilst hunting in the New Forest and in September 1087 his father William the Conqueror died. Upon the death of his father Robert was bequeathed Custody of Normandy, William became the King of England, and the young brother Henry received an inheritance of money.  The division of William the Conqueror’s titles between Robert and William ultimately led to the brothers coming into conflict, a conflict that William won. William remained the King of England until his death, but during his rule he was considered to be an unpopular and wicked King and he would have fostered a number of enemies including from within the Church.

As the inscription on the Rufus Stones recounts, the commonly accepted account of William’s death is that whilst hunting in the New Forest on the 2nd August 1100 AD that he and a Walter Tirel (also referred to as Tyrrell) became separated from the rest of the hunting party (which included William’s brother Henry). It is said that Tirel shot an arrow at a stag and that the arrow deflected off of an oak tree, striking William in the chest and killing him instantly. Tirel is said to have fled the scene of the accident and made his hasty escape to France, to evade any re-percussions of his actions and before he could be questioned about what had happened. Upon hearing of the death of this brother, Henry wasted no time in getting to Winchester to secure the royal treasury and then in travelling to London, where he was crowned within just a few days of his brother’s passing.

Whether the exact details of the story are true or not are uncertain, especially as there may have been only one witness to the event (Tirel) who is unlikely to claim that the event was anything other than an accident. But given William’s unpopular rule and given his rivalries with his brothers, Robert and Henry, it is more than possible that he was a victim of murder - an idea that is explored in Andrew May's book Conspiracy History: A History of the World for Conspiracy Theorists.

Whether the event was an accident or not is not the only area of uncertainty. There also seems to be some uncertainty of the exact location of William’s death with some accounts suggesting that the events unfolded nearer to what is today Beaulieu.

The Rufus Stone.

The inscription, side one.

The inscription, side two.

The inscription, side three.

Pictures: Hampshire (February 2015).

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Sunday, 29 March 2015

London's Phoney Houses

Here are two examples of interesting, yet phoney, houses in London that the unobservant passer-by may miss as they go about their daily business.

The Upside Down House

The “Upside Down” house can be found on Blackfriars Road near the junction with Stamford Street. The building originally dates from 1780 and the current upside-down façade was installed as an art project, by the artist who had previously created Margate’s “sliding house”. As you can see in the below pictures, the roof of the building nestles on the pavement, whilst the front door to the building floats high-up in the air. Even the shop’s sign, the for-sale sign and the guttering are upside down. A news-paper article from December 2013 suggests that this interesting art installation may soon be demolished so that the building can be repurposed into residential dwellings. So if you want to see this phoney house for yourself, you had best get your skates on.

Blackfriars Road's "Upside-Down" house.



Leinster Gardens

The second phoney house can be found at 23 - 24 Leinster Gardens in Paddington, where a fake façade has been created to hide what lurks behind. During the construction of the world’s first underground railway (the Metropolitan Railway), the houses at 23 - 24 Leinster Gardens had to be demolished to accommodate the Paddington to Bayswater section of the line (opened in 1868). Once the line had been installed it was decided to replace the houses with a façade to enable the prestigious terrace of upmarket 5-story houses to retain its grand image. Walking along Leinster Gardens the casual observer may not notice that the roof line above 23 - 24 is slightly different to the rest of the terrace, or that the doors to the property have no handles and that the windows are all painted a uniform grey.

The façade is only a few feet thick and the deceit is visible if you walk around onto Porchester Terrace and view the building from behind. Here you can see the girders supporting the façade and the section of underground railway that the façade hides. Here the railway tunnel is open to the elements, and back in the 1860’s the steam trains using the line would have used this open section of track to vent off their built-up steam. The fake frontage of 23 - 24 Leinster Gardens would have mostly hidden this venting from the well-to-do residents of the street.

23 - 24 Leinster Gardens. 

Notice the fake windows in comparison to the property on the right. 

Looking along the terrace.

A front door with no handles!

The painted on windows.

The rear view of the facade and the rail line that it hides.



Pictures: London (March 2015).

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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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