“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, 5 October 2015

The Fosse Way Standing Stones

Alongside a section of the Fosse Way in Wiltshire, three standing stones surmounted by a cap stone can be found arranged in the style of an ancient burial chamber.

The Fosse Way is an ancient Roman road that ran for 182 miles linking the Roman settlements at Exeter and Lincoln, via the other Roman settlements at Ilchester, Bath, Cirencester and Leicester. The name of the Fosse Way derives from the Latin word for ditch and for the early part of Roman rule in Britain the Fosse Way marked the western border of Roman control. The Fosse Way may have started life as a defensive ditch and then latterly been converted into a road, or the initial construction may have been a road supported by a ditch - the jury is still out on that one.

The standing stones in question can be found on the Bannerdown Road as it passes between Batheaston in Somerset towards Colerne in Wiltshire. Whilst these standing stones look like an ancient monument they are actually a fairly modern construction that marks the point where the boundaries of the counties of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset historically met. The stones were erected in February 1859 and were erected over three slightly older stones dating from 1736, each of which are said to be inscribed with the initials of one of the three counties (i.e. G, W & S).

A quick Internet search reveals that this is not the only “Three Shires Stone” in the country and other tripoints (a point where three counties meet) are also marked with monuments, whether these be standing stones, oak trees or a wood!

If you ever visit the Three Shires Stones on the Fosse Way, do keep your eyes peeled. Apparently nearby in a dry stone wall there are a few carved words that tell the story of an unfortunate person who was murdered on the Fosse Way. My brief inspection of the wall failed to uncover the inscription, but a more careful eye may be able to discern the inscription and the tale that it tells.

The Three Shire Stones on the Fosse Way.

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2015).

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Devizes Millennium White Horse

Following on from my previous visits to the Westbury, Cherhill, Broad Town and Hackpen white horses in Wiltshire, here is another of the county's white horses, this time on Roundway Hill on the outskirts of Devizes.

The Devizes White Horse is also known as the Devizes Millennium White Horse as it was cut in 1999 as part of the celebrations for the new millennium. The Devizes horse (which is approximately 150 ft by 150 ft) is unique amongst Wiltshire's white horses as it is the only one that faces to the right, all of the rest face in the opposite direction.

The Devizes Millennium White Horse is not the first white horse to grace Devizes. In 1845 a local shoemaker cut a white horse into Roundway Hill beneath the hill fort known as Oliver's Castle - to the west of the location of today's horse. This original horse was locally known as the "Snobs Horse", with the word "snobs" apparently being a local word for a shoemaker. It seems that the Snobs Horse only survived until around 1922, when it was eventually lost due to a lack of regular maintenance and slowly encroaching turf.

The ghost of the Snobs Horse can still occasionally be seen however, when the weather conditions are just right. The Snobs Horse was made using a technique called "trenching", where a trench is dug and filled with chalk to create the white horse. This approach is used when the local chalk is not sufficiently near the surface to enable the horse to be created by just peeling back the overlying turf. This trenching means that the chalk that formed the white horse is at a different level to the surrounding chalk, this enables parts of the long overgrown old white horse to be seen from time to time when the weather is just right. From these sightings it has been determined that the original Snobs Horse was about half of the size of the present day white horse.

So if you ever visit Devizes and see the current white horse, be sure to make the effort to go a little further west to Oliver's Castle and try to see if you can see any trace of the Snobs Horse. If you do I would love to see your pictures!

The Devizes Millennium White Horse in the distance.

Looking a bit grubby!

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2015).

If you find this post interesting please share it using the buttons below.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Weird Wessex is here!

Weird Wessex: A Tourist Guide to 100 Strange and Unusual Sights is a journey across the English counties of Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Berkshire seeking out the weird and sometimes little known sights that wait to be discovered. Have you ever heard of:
  • Somerset's standing stones - the second largest circle of standing stones in Britain?
  • The murderous tale behind Berkshire’s Coombe Gibbet?
  • The Dorset building with a Civil War cannon ball buried in its wall?
  • The Devon village that flips a boulder each year to keep the Devil trapped below ground?
  • The Hampshire shop that once fought in the War of 1812?
  • The home of Wiltshire’s most famous poltergeist?
If not then let Weird Wessex take you there, and treat you to over 200 full-colour photographs of these weird and wonderful locations. You are certain to discover an unusual location that you never knew existed!

Written by Andrew May (of the Retro-Forteana blog) and myself, Weird Wessex is now available at Amazon here!

Please note this book is printed on demand. So if it shows as being “temporarily out of stock” on Amazon do not be perturbed, the printing press will fire up as soon as your order is placed!

Happy exploring!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Gypsy Curse of Odstock

The pictures below show a grave in St Mary’s churchyard in the village of Odstock in Wiltshire. The grave belongs to a man named Joshua Scamp who was a gypsy and a convicted criminal.  The inscription reads:

In memory of Joshua Scamp
Who died April 1st 1801
May his brave deed be remembered
To his credit here and hereafter

Joshua Scamp's death and his subsequent burial in St Mary's churchyard are linked to an odd local legend, a legend about a gypsy curse. The details of the story differ slightly, depending on the source, but the general theme is as follows. In 1801 a local  gypsy named Joshua Scamp was condemned to death and hanged at Fisherton gaol in Salisbury for the crime of the theft of a horse.  As it turns out Joshua was not the perpetrator of the crime, it was his son-in-law who actually stole the horse. It is said that Joshua decided to take the blame for the crime and suffer the associated punishment to protect his daughter (presumably from losing her husband).  When it became clear that Joshua was in fact innocent of the crime he became a local hero to the gypsy community and the anniversary of his passing was celebrated each year by a party at his graveside.

Not being too keen on gypsy revellers holding their annual celebration in the churchyard, the church officials of the time, supported by local authorities, uprooted a rose bush planted by Scamp's grave and locked the church door to keep the gypsies out. In retaliation to this affront, a Gypsy Queen supposedly placed a curse on the church, so that anyone who locked the church in the future would die a sudden and untimely death.

Any untimely deaths of church key-holders clearly cannot be attributed to the gypsy curse with any degree of certainty. However it seems that the legend of the curse may have left a lasting impression. It is said that in the 20th Century, following the untimely deaths of two Church Wardens, that the Rector threw the key to the church door into the River Ebble where it presumably remains to this day.

St Mary's Church was unlocked when I paid my visit, so perhaps the current Church Warden is taking a cautious approach to the legend?

St Mary's Church, Odstock.

Joshua Scamp's grave stone and rose bush.

The inscription.

Inside the church.

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2015).

If you find this post interesting please share it using the buttons below.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Hiding Secrets in the Bog

I would not normally post a picture of a public convenience on this blog, but this building bears an interesting plaque which describes the convenience’s part in the Cold War Portland Spy Ring. The plaque reads:

"Secret information hidden in this toilet was collected periodically by Harry Houghton. In 1961 he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for his part in the Portland Spy Ring."

Its seems that during the Portland Spy Ring’s period of activity that the public toilets near New Alresford station were occasionally used as a dead drop location, with pilfered information being handed over between members of the spy ring.

The Portland Spy Ring was a Soviet spy ring that operated in England from the late 1950s until 1961. The spy ring was discovered in 1959 when the CIA received a tip that the Russians were being provided with information regarding UK research on underwater warfare. The source of the pilfered research was the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment and HMS Osprey, both in Portland, Dorset.

The key suspects for the leak were civil servant Harry Houghton, who seemed to be living a lifestyle that far exceeded his wages, and his mistress, Ethel Gee. Gee was a civil servant filing clerk, and was suspected of providing Houghton access to some of the classified material.

Both suspects were put under surveillance and they were observed taking frequent trips to London where they would meet a Canadian businessman, Gordon Lonsdale, and exchange packages with him. Lonsdale was also put under surveillance and he was seen regularly visiting the home of an antiquarian bookseller in Ruislip, Middlesex. The home belonged to a couple called Peter and Helen Kroger.

During a regular meeting in London on the 7th January 1961, Houghton, Gee and Lonsdale were arrested. Gee was found to be in possession of large amounts of classified material, including details of HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine.

The Kroger’s house in Ruislip was raided next and was found to contain microdots (photographic reductions of documents), which Peter Kroger would hide in the print of his antique books to enable them to be smuggled to Russia. The Kroger’s house was also found to be full of spying paraphernalia, including large sums of money, photographic material, equipment for encoding messages and a long-range radio with a 74ft aerial so that they could communicate with Moscow. It is said that the radio equipment was so well hidden that it took authorities nine days of searching the property before they located it. Further to this, some of the Kroger’s radio equipment was not found until years later, when the property was renovated!

All five of the alleged spies were charged with espionage and found guilty. Houghton and Gee received a sentence of 15 years each, whilst the Kroger’s (who were identified as known spies Morris and Lona Cohen), were sentenced to 20 years. Lonsdale was deemed to be the mastermind behind the plot and he was given a sentence of 25 years. Lonsdale was also suspected of being a member of the KGB, and he was eventually identified as Konon Trofimovich Molody. Lonsdale was the first of the five to be released from jail, as in 1964 he was exchanged for a British spy who had been captured in Russia.

So if you ever use the public toilets in New Alresford, be careful as the person in the cubical next to you could be doing a dead-drop for the KGB.

The public toilets in New Alresford close to the railway station. A plague commemorates that occasionally classified documents obtained by members of the Portland Soviet Spy Ring were left here for collection.

Pictures: Hampshire (August 2015).

If you find this post interesting please share it using the buttons below.

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).

If you find this post interesting please share it using the buttons below.

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).

If you find this post interesting please share it using the buttons below.