“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.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Burying Scrooge

The church in the below photos is St Chad's Church in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. St Chad’s dates from 1792, and the church’s distinctive round profile (you can just see this in the second picture below), makes it somewhat of an eye-catcher. As interesting as the church is however, it is an oddity in the church’s small graveyard that really caught my attention.

Wandering St Chad’s graveyard the observant may notice a rather plain grave stone bearing the name Ebenezer Scrooge (the fictional character from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol). Scrooge’s gravestone was apparently created for the 1984 film version of this story (starring George C Scott as Scrooge), which was filmed in Shrewsbury. It seems that a weathered gravestone in the graveyard was re-purposed for the film with Ebenezer Scrooge’s name being engraved into the stone. In the last picture below it is just possible to discern at the bottom of the stone, the faint markings from the original inscription, presumably commemorating the previous owner of the gravestone. Once filming had ceased the stone was left in place and now probably confuses the occasional visitor to the graveyard who now wonders if Ebenezer Scrooge was perhaps a real person?

George C Scott who portrayed Scrooge in the 1984 film was rather famous during his career. Scott’s most notable performance was probably playing the title character from the 1970 film Patton, for which he was awarded, but did not accept, an Academy Award for Best Actor. Scott died in 1999 and given his fame one might expect that Scott would have a lavish grave, however it seems to be that he actually resides in an unmarked grave in the Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. I cannot find any clear explanation why Scott’s grave is unmarked, but it does seem rather ironic that he rests without a memorial stone, whilst one of the fictional characters that he portrayed has a memorial!

It does make me wonder if any other fictional character has a burial plot in a graveyard? If you know of one, let me know in the comments section.

St Chad's in Shrewbury, Shropshire.

Scrooge's grave is the horizontal stone at the bottom right of the photo. 

Here lies Ebenezer Scrooge.

Pictures: Shropshire (October 2016).

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Friday, 23 September 2016

Discovering Oxygen at Wiltshire's Atlantis

Anyone who has studied chemistry will be familiar with the name Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804). Priestley was the clergyman chemist who is credited with the discovery of oxygen in August 1774.

Oxygen, which Priestley called "dephlogisticated air", was only one of the "airs" that he discovered during his experiments. Priestley also isolated: nitric oxide (NO); hydrogen chloride (HCl); ammonia (NH3); nitrous oxide (N2O); carbon monoxide (CO); and sulphur dioxide (SO2). Priestley also conducted electrical experiments, and his dabblings with charged spheres lead him to propose that the electrical force followed an inverse-square law. This relationship was formalised and published in 1784 by French physicist Charles Augustin de Coulomb, and became known as Coulomb's law.

Priestley's greatest gift to the world was probably his method for making soda water. Thinking that soda water might cure scurvy, he provided the method to Captain James Cook for his second voyage. If only he had provided them with some lemons and limes to go in it, his idea may have worked!

When Priestly discovered oxygen he was resident at Bowood House near Calne in Wiltshire, as a guest of Lord Shelburne who had provided him with lodgings and a laboratory.

Bowood House today is a shadow of its former self. At its peak the house consisted of the "Big House" and the "Little House" which were connected by a huge drawing room. In the modern era Bowood become too expensive to maintain, so in 1956  the "Big House" and the drawing room were demolished. During this rationalisation of the house a dining room designed by Robert Adam was auctioned off to Lloyd's of London.  Lloyd's had the drawing room rebuilt in their London offices, and  today this part of Bowood House can be found on the 11th floor of their Lime Street offices. All that remains of Bowood house today is just the "Little House", but this name does a disservice to what is still a rather substantial country residence.

The grounds of Bowood House were designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown, and the centerpiece of his design was a sizeable lake. However, one thing stood in the way of Capability Brown's lake, and that was the village of Manning's Hill!

To enable the lake to be constructed the residents of Mannings Hill had to be relocated, and in 1766 they were persuaded to move to nearby villages such as Sandy Lane. Once the former village was empty Capability Brown had it flooded to form the sinuous lake that is seen today. A lake that is almost 1 km long covering an impressive area of 45 acres.

It seems that parts of the village remain submerged in the lake to this very day and in 2007 divers found the remains of two cottages and stone walls in the lake's murky depths.

So not only does Wiltshire boast its own ghost town, it also boasts its own version of Atlantis!

Bowood House.

The laboratory where Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen.

Bowood's Lake, but what lies beneath its surface?

A Doric temple folly on the lakeside. 

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2016).

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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Levitating Canal Boats and Massive Water Horses

This week’s post is a guest post penned by author and long-time Fortean Dr Andrew May. Andrew maintains his own blog “Retro-Forteana”, which in his own words "focuses on the weirder fringes of history (and other old-fashioned stuff)". Andrew regularly contributes to Fortean Times and was my co-author and editor for "Weird Wessex". Andrew's two most recent books are part of the " Pocket Giants" series looking at the scientific giants Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Andrew has previously written for this blog, with his previous post exploring some of Somerset's World War II oddities. Andrew's latest post describes two oddities that Andrew encountered during a recent visit to Scotland. Over to Andrew...

The Falkirk Wheel is a massive steampunk-looking contraption two miles west of the town of Falkirk in Scotland. It's essentially a giant lift, or elevator, designed to raise and lower boats between two canals at different levels. Although distinctly Victorian in its eccentricity and ingenuity, the Falkirk Wheel only dates from 2002. By that time, the series of eleven locks that used to connect the two canals - the Forth and Clyde Canal (lower level) and the Union Canal (upper level) - had fallen into disuse, and a new solution was needed. It used to take a boat almost a day to pass through all the locks - the new mechanism can do the job in just a few minutes.

Here is a view from the upper level, looking along the aqueduct leading to the "wheel". At first sight it doesn't look like a wheel, but the name becomes clearer when it's seen in action. The last section of the aqueduct is actually a sealable water tank which can hold up to four canal boats. Below it, at the lower level, there is another similar tank. The two tanks are attached to a central axle, around which they rotate - so one tank goes up as the other comes down (the tanks swivel so they remain horizontal). The total vertical distance travelled is 35 metres, and each tank can raise or lower 500 tonnes of water plus payload.

Here is the wheel as it starts to move...

And here it is just past the half way point:

And here is another sequence from the reverse angle:

Although the Falkirk Wheel was designed for a practical purpose, it has become a major tourist attraction with a large visitor centre. A significant proportion of the wheel's traffic is made up of tourist boats which spend the day going up and down from one canal to the other!

One striking feature at the visitor centre is a stainless steel sculpture of two horses' heads. In fact this is a one-tenth scale model of a towering modern sculpture, dating from 2013, which can be seen on the other side of Falkirk near the M9 motorway. It's called "The Kelpies", after the mythical water-horses of Scottish folklore. At 30 metres in height, it is currently the tallest statue in Britain.

Here is the small-scale version of the Kelpies at the Falkirk Wheel. If you look closely at the right-hand corner of the plinth of the left-hand horse, you can see a tiny human figure to the same scale!

... and here are the full-size Kelpies:

Pictures from July 2016 by Tomasz Babarowski (Falkirk Wheel), Andrew May (small kelpies) and Ewa Babarowski (large kelpies)

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Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Southwark Spike

At the southern end of London Bridge, in the shadow of the spike-shaped building “The Shard”, is another spike shaped structure. This structure is a 16m tall spike made from light grey Portland stone. This leaning spike tapers from its base to a point, and it apparently lies at an odd 19.5° angle. This structure is known locally as the Southwark Spike or more correctly as the Southwark Gateway Needle. The Needle bears no inscription or plaque to explain its purpose or why it was built where it is.

The common explanation on the Internet seems to be that the Needle is a monument that relates to an old practice of displaying heads on spikes. Today’s London Bridge was built in 1974 and is not the original London Bridge. It seems that there have been various crossings of the River Thames at Southwark since Roman times. In 1209 a medieval bridge was completed at Southwark and this may have been the first to be formally known as “London Bridge”. This medieval bridge was 8m wide and around 240m to 270m long.  By 1358 it had become home to around 138 shops making it just as much a part of the city as any other street. The other key feature of the bridge was that it had defensive gatehouses at each end, and these gatehouses were regularly decorated with the tarred and spiked heads of executed criminals. William Wallace (of "Brave Heart" fame) is regularly cited as being one of the first people to have their head displayed on a spike at the bridge. The idea of displaying heads was that people crossing the bridge would be deterred from committing crimes by the clear and obvious indication of the punishment that may befall them!

Based on this history of impaling heads at the entrance to London Bridge, it is understandable why the collective wisdom of the Internet seems to be that the Southwark Gateway Needle was built as a monument to this practice. It seems however that the truth behind the Needle is somewhat less exciting. In the May 2014 issue of Fortean Times, David Hambling’s “Forum” article explains the intention of the architect who built the Needle in 1999. The idea is that if you follow the trajectory of the Needle as it passes through the ground, it points to the termination point of the old (medieval) London Bridge.

The medieval London Bridge was replaced in 1831 by a new London Bridge that was built a few metres upstream (at the site of today’s London Bridge) by John Rennie. By 1896 this new bridge was found to be insufficient for the volume of traffic that was passing over it. The bridge also appeared to be slowly sinking by 2.5cm every eight years, and by 1924 it was found that the east side of the bridge had sunk some 9cm lower than the west side of the bridge! As such it was decided that the bridge needed to be replaced and in 1967 the bridge was put up for sale. The bridge was bought on the 18th April 1968 by the American entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch, who paid just over £1M for it. McCulloch had the bridge dismantled and shipped it back to the USA where he had it rebuilt at Lake Havasu City in Arizona on the Lonn Colorado River. The rebuilt bridge was opened for use in October 1971. The sale of this bridge lead to another myth, with the story being that McCulloch bought London Bridge thinking he was buying the much more impressive Tower Bridge! There seems to be no evidence to support this claim however, and it is a bit of stretch to believe that a wealthy entrepreneur would mix the two bridges up!

So it just goes to show not to believe everything you read on the Internet! Although having said that perhaps I should try to start a myth that The Shard was built as a monument to severed heads of London Bridge!

"The Shard". The Southwark Gateway Needle can just be seen to the right hand side of the square building.

The Southwark Gateway Needle.

From the other side.

  David Hambling’s “Forum” article in the May 2014 issue of Fortean Times.

Pictures: London (August 2016).

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Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Sarsen and the Trap Door

Previously in this blog I have visited Knowlton Church and earthworks in Dorset, where a 12th century Norman church resides within the confines of a much older Neolithic henge monument (dating from circa 2,500 BC). Knowlton Church and earthworks is cited as an example of a newer religion (Christianity) trying to assimilate an older religion (Paganism), by  adopting and repurposing the older religion’s place of worship. Recently I came across another possible example of this repurposing of an ancient religious site, when I visited All Saints Church in Alton Priors, Wiltshire.

All Saints Church also dates from the 12th century and over the years it has undergone a number of major refurbishments and improvements. In the early 1970’s the church was declared redundant and today it only hosts three services a year. The church is however still open to visitors and based on the day of my visit it is rather popular! The day I visited there was a coach load of foreign tourists also exploring the church and its grounds.

The church itself is a relatively small barn like structure and the floor is home to two trap doors, both of which hide sarsen stones. It seems that the church was constructed over these sarsens, and presumably they were originally part of a much older place of worship. The hidden sarsens are not the only indication that the site of the church may have once held religious significance prior to the construction of the present day church. The churchyard is also home to a yew tree that is estimated to be 1700 years old. The aforementioned foreign tourists seemed to be captivated by the yew tree, with some of them taking turns to stand in its hollow trunk, others pressing themselves flat against its outer trunk, some leaving votive offerings, and even a few standing cupping the trees branches and needles in their hands! Clearly to these particular visitors the tree held some spiritual significance.

The other main feature of the church is a monument to local landowner William Button who died in 1590. The monument includes an unusual ornate brass plaque that shows a young man rising from the grave and looking towards the gates of what is presumably heaven. The inscriptions on the plaque and its overall design is somewhat complex, and it seems out of place in what is otherwise a rather simple and plain church. These complex inscriptions have led some to speculate that the plaque conceals a hidden meaning, as opposed to just being a grand attempt at a monument to a wealthy local!

All Saints Church.

Inside the church.

A trap door.

A hidden sarsen.

The monument to William Button.

Button's plaque. 

The churchyard's 1700 year old yew tree.

The yew's split trunk.

Pictures: Wiltshire (July 2016).

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Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Blowing Stone

The Blowing Stone is a sarsen stone that resides outside Blowing Stone Cottages, at the base of Blowingstone Hill, just to the south of the B4507 near Kingston Lisle in Oxfordshire.

The sarsen is around 3ft tall and is perforated by a number of holes, which were possibly created by long vanished tree roots. It is said that one of the holes in the stone, if blown into in the correct manner, turns the stone into a form of trumpet and produces a loud booming sound that can be heard for several miles around. According to legend the Blowing Stone was originally located on Kingstone Down, a few miles to the south west of its present location, and it was here that King Alfred made use of the stone’s trumpet-like effect. King Alfred apparently used the Blowing Stone to rally his Saxon armies in preparation for his battle against the Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown. But like all good legends, it is highly unlikely to be true!

The Blowing Stone seems to have been first documented in 1761 and it is believed that the stone was brought down from the ridgeway in the mid-18th century by either a local blacksmith or a local landowning family, who placed the stone in its present position outside the cottages. In 1811 the Blowing Stone Cottages were in fact the Blowing Stone Inn, and the landlord of the time would apparently amuse his customers by making the stone bellow for a small fee. It seems that using the stone to generate an income may have continued for a good number of years. The “Getty Images” website hosts a picture of the stone dating from c1860-c1922 and claims to show an enterprising young boy on hand to charge tourists who try to blow the stone.

The Blowing Stone has also featured in fiction, being referred to in Thomas Hughes’ (1822 – 1896) novel “Tom Brown's Schooldays” which was published in 1857. In the novel the stone is referred to as the “Blawing Stwun”.

The idea of a Blowing Stone is not just limited to Oxfordshire. As the “Legendary Dartmoor” website suggests, Devon is also home to a tradition of a Blowing Stone. Unlike the Kingston Lisle sarsen, which was used as an instrument itself, the Devon Blowing Stone was instead used to amplify the sound of a trumpeter’s horn. The Devon Blowing Stone is described as a flat slab of granite with a concave hollow in it. The trumpeter was said to place the end of his horn into the hollow and then blow his trumpet. The Blowing Stone would then amplify the sound of the trumpet allowing it to be heard far and wide.

So if you are ever passing the Blowing Stone at Kingston Lisle why not stop and try blowing the stone? Legend does suggests that any person who is capable of making the Blowing Stone sound a note which can be heard atop of the nearby White Horse Hill at Uffington will be a future King of England. So it is worth an attempt, as long as you don’t mind pursing your lips against a dirty old piece of rock where countless other lips have been pursed before!

The Blowing Stone Cottages.

The Blowing Stone.

The new Blowing Stone Inn at nearby Kingston Lisle.

Kingston Lisle Church.

Pictures: Oxfordshire (June 2016).

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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Headington Shark

I first saw the Headington Shark in March 1994 on the front cover of Fortean Times, and in June this year I finally got to see it in the flesh.

The Headington Shark “crash landed” head first in to the roof of 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford early on the morning of Saturday 9th August 1986, 41 years to the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

The 299kg, 7.6m (25ft) long painted fibreglass shark was the brain child of the property owner Bill Heine and sculptor John Buckley. Known formally us “Untitled 1986”,  when Heine was asked what the purpose of the shark was, his reply was apparently: "The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation... It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki"

After its installation the shark became a local topic of controversy and a 6 year battle commenced between Heine and Oxford City Council, who wanted the shark removed. The Council first tried to have the shark removed on the grounds of health & safety. However, following an inspection, the structure was declared safe and secure. So the council pursued the line that the shark should be removed because planning permission had not been granted, and because of the precedent that it might set. If the shark was allowed to stay everyone might want one on their roof! Somewhat expectedly the council rejected Heine’s retrospective application for planning permission.

Undeterred, Heine and local residents battled to keep the shark and in 1992 the case was eventually escalated to central government. Peter Macdonald, a minister in the Department of the Environment, was asked to rule on the case. Heine's book "The Hunting of the Shark" outlines Macdonald's verdict:

"Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the Shark. The contrast between the object and its setting is quite deliberate. In this sense, the work is specific to its setting, and it would "read" quite differently in the context of, say, the foyer to an arts centre in Gloucester Green. 

It is (as the Council say) incongruous, and that incongruity is quite consciously sought by the artist. It is, indeed, out of harmony with its surrounds. It is that lack of harmony, that sense of being “out of place”, to which the Council objects, and which it equates with demonstrable harm to visual amenity. It is the very same feature which appeals to many of the Shark’s supporters, and which has made it an urban landmark… An “incongruous” object can become accepted as a landmark in some cases becoming well-known, even well-loved, in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the Shark.

There is a real sense in which permitting the Shark to remain is the “risky” option, the safe and easy thing to do being to remove it. However, I cannot believe that the purpose of planning control is to enforce a boring and mediocre uniformity to the built environment. Any system of control must make some small space for the dynamic, the unexpected and the downright quirky or we shall all be the poorer for it. I believe that this is one case where a little vision and imagination is appropriate, and I recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain."

So whilst the government is often accused of being bureaucratic, it seems that common sense and imagination can sometimes prevail!

The Headington Shark.

The cover of Fortean Times #73.

Pictures: Oxfordshire (June 2016).

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