“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.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Doctor, Druid and Cremation Pioneer

The statue shown below is a memorial, in Llantrisant, to the Welsh physician William Price (4 March 1800 – 23 January 1893) who is remembered for his eccentric lifestyle and as being the pioneer of cremation in the United Kingdom.

Price was born in Monmouthshire to a father who was a Reverend and whose unusual behavior may have inspired Price's own eccentric ways. Reverend Price suffered from a mental illness and was known to act erratically and experience fits of rage. The madness of Reverend Price saw him conducting a number of unusual activities such as: bathing either fully clothed or naked in local ponds; collecting snakes in his pockets; spitting onto stones to try to improve their value; and carrying a saw with him so that he could remove the bark from trees.

As a young man, Price trained as a doctor in London and after his training he returned to Wales to work as a general practitioner. He eventually became interested in the Chartist movement and their ideals that all men should have the right to vote, irrespective of their wealth or social standing. In 1839 the Chartist movement attempted an armed rebellion against the government, which failed. Whilst Price was not actively involved in this rebellion, his involvement with the Chartist movement necessitated him to flee from the country. So he fled to France, apparently disguised as a woman!

Whilst in exile in Paris, Price visited the Louvre museum and became interested in a stone on display there which sported a Greek inscription. It seems that Price erroneously interpreted this inscription as a prophecy declaring that a man would come in the future to reveal the true secrets of the Welsh language and to liberate the Welsh people. Price also seemed to assume that the prophecy applied to him, so he decided to return to Wales to free the Welsh people from the English authorities.

On his return to Wales, Price set himself up as a Druid and founded a Druidic group which began attracting followers. In his new calling as a Druid he took to  wearing a fox fur hat and emerald green clothing, and began to grow his beard long and stop cutting his hair. It is in this unusual garb that Price is remembered in the statue shown below.

In 1883 Price fathered a son, who he named Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ in Welsh), apparently to provoke the religious establishment and also because he expected great things from his child. Sadly however, the child died after only five months in January 1884. In his belief that burial polluted the earth and was therefore wrong, Price opted to cremate his son and he created the pyre on the summit of a hill near Llantrisant. It seems that a number of local people noticed the fire and when they discovered that Price was trying to burning his son’s body (cremation was a taboo in 1884), the mob turned on him. The Police eventually arrived and arrested Price for the illegal disposal of a corpse, and they removed the unburnt body from the pyre for medical examination. In court Price managed to argue that while the law did not state that cremation was legal, it also did not state that it was illegal either, and Price was subsequently acquitted of the charges.  On 14 March 1884 Price was finally allowed to cremate his son.

Price’s brush with the law on the issue of cremation paved the way for cremation to become generally accepted in the United Kingdom as a method of corpse disposal. The first official cremation took place in Woking only a year after Price cremated his son.

Price died in 1893 and unsurprisingly he opted to be cremated. His cremation ceremony was apparently attended by 20,000 spectators!

The memorial to William Price in Llantrisant. 

Pictures, Glamorgan (August 2014).

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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Flying Monk - Killed by a Tiger

Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire has a history that reaches back to 676 AD when a Benedictine monastery was first founded on the site. During this long history the Abbey has become known for two rather unusual British “firsts”...

The Flying Monk 

Around 1125 AD the medieval historian William of Malmesbury wrote in his book Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings), about a fellow monk from Malmesbury Abbey who is reputed to be Britain’s first aviator. The monk in question was called Elmer (sometimes also called Eilmer) and in circa 1005 AD it is said that he managed to fly a distance of about 200 metres from the Abbey’s tower using a rudimentary type of hang-glider. It seems that Elmer’s flight was only a partial success in that he did manage to glide, however on landing he is said to have broken both of his legs that left him lame for the rest of his days. Elmer is immortalised in a stained glass window in the Abbey, where he is depicted holding what looks to be a model of his hang-glider.

Elmer's window is a little tricky to find as it is not in the main body of the Abbey, but instead is located inside the crèche. So if you want to find Elmer take a left as you enter the Abbey and you will find the crèche where Elmer lives directly in front of you.

Killed by a Tiger 

In the Abbey graveyard an interesting gravestone can be found that commemorates a rather unusual death. The gravestone remembers a Hannah Twynnoy (1669/70-1703) who was a barmaid working in The White Lion Inn (sometimes also referred to as The Lion Pub) in Malmesbury. The story is that the grounds of the pub played host to a travelling menagerie and that a tiger from the menagerie mauled the unfortunate Hannah to death. It has to be said that being killed by a tiger in an average Wiltshire town is not a typical way to go, and Hannah is often referred to as being the first person to be killed by a tiger in Britain.

As you enter the Abbey’s graveyard on the path that leads directly to the main door of the Abbey, Hannah’s gravestone can be found set back from the path on the right hand side. The fading inscription reads:

In memory of
Hannah Twynnoy
Who died October 23rd 1703
Aged 33 years

In bloom of Life
She's snatchd from hence,
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tyger fierce
Took Life away.
And here she lies
In a bed of Clay,
Until the Resurrection Day.

So if you ever visit Malmesbury be sure to watch out for deadly tigers and flying monks!

Malmesbury Abbey. 

Elmer the flying monk, holding what looks to be a model of his hang-glider.

Hannah Twynnoy's gravestone (centre of frame). 

The inscription on Hannah Twynnoy's gravestone.

Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Monday, 25 August 2014

The Depressing Chair of Bishops Cannings

Bishops Cannings is a village in Wiltshire, which is a short drive north-east of the town of Devizes. The village church is the Church of St Mary the Virgin and it is believed that the church was built in the second half of the 12th century and gradually augmented and improved over the years. It is during this lengthy history that the church became home to a very depressing chair.

The chair in question is a type of pew that can be found inside the church and which has a  “hand of meditation” painted on its back. The hand is decorated with a number of depressing phrases in Latin, that are presumably designed to make the person sitting in the pew consider their life, their actions and their life's meaning.

The accompanying inscription dates the “hand of meditation” to the 15th century: The origin of this ancient pew is uncertain. It is thought by some to be a confessional; by others a monastic carrel or study desk. Only the painted panel is medieval and belongs to the 15th century. The surrounding woodwork seems to have been added in the 18th century. 

The inscriptions on the hand are all rather depressing, and apparently translate to the below:

The inscription of the palm reads:
What thou oughest to think upon.

The thumb reads:
Thou knowest not how much.
Thou knowest not how often.
Thou hast offended god.

The index finger reads:
Thy end is bitter.
Thy life is short.
Thou hast come into the world.
With sin.

The middle finger reads:
Thou shalt carry nothing with thee but what thou hast done.
Thy life thou canst not lengthen.
Thy death thou canst not escape.
Thou shalt die.

The fourth finger reads:
Thou knowest not whither thou shalt go.
Thou knowest not how thou shalt die.
Thou knowest not where thou shalt die.
The hour of death is uncertain.

The little finger reads:
Thou shalt quickly be forgotten by thy friends.
Thy best will seldom do anything for thee.
He to whom thou leaveth they goods will seldom do anything for thee.
Thy end is miserable. 

Notwithstanding the very sombre and depressing nature of the inscriptions on the chair, it is a very striking piece of furniture and I have never seen anything like it in any other church that I have visited. Who knows, perhaps it is unique?

The Church of St Mary the Virgin.

The Pew.

A confessional or a carrel? 

The "Hand of Meditation". 

Translating the hand. 

Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Friday, 15 August 2014

Gun End of Base?

If you live in the Salisbury area you will likely be familiar with the ancient site of Old Sarum. Old Sarum was originally an Iron Age hill fort, and following the Roman invasion of Great Britain it became the Roman settlement of Sorviodunum (43 AD – 410 AD). The site remained in use as a fortified settlement during the Saxon era and the Normans erected a motte and baily castle on the site (circa 1069).

A cathedral was built on the site between 1075 and 1092 and this was followed by the construction of a Royal Palace within the inner castle between 1130 – 1139. As the hill fort of Old Sarum was somewhat exposed to the elements, it was eventually decided to relocate the cathedral to a less exposed position, and in 1220 the construction of what would become New Sarum (Salisbury) Cathedral commenced. The general populous of Old Sarum followed the relocation of the cathedral, and Salisbury began to emerge as a settlement as the population moved themselves and their homes from Old Sarum. By 1240 the majority of the local population had abandoned Old Sarum in favour of Salisbury. Even though Old Sarum was now effectively population-less it still retained the right to send two members of parliament to the House of Commons. As such Old Sarum became known as one of the most famous “Rotten Boroughs” in the land, with wealthy people owning the land to ensure that they could become elected to parliament.

What most visitors to Old Sarum will miss however is a stone monument on the opposite side of the A345 to Old Sarum, which sits half way between Old Sarum and the Portway roundabout. The monument is marked on Ordnance Survey maps and on 1:25,000 scale maps and it is accompanied by the cryptic label “Gun End of Base”. The monument itself clearly explains its purpose and bears the following inscription  “In 1794 a line from this site to Beacon Hill was measured by Capt W Mudge of the Ordnance Survey as a base for the triangulation of Great Britain”.

It seems that in 1794 Captain William Mudge (1762 – 1820) of the Royal Artillery measured the distance between the site of the monument and nearby Beacon Hill, which is approximately 7 miles north east of Old Sarum and can be found between the A303 and the village of Bulford. This measurement apparently became the baseline from which the first definitive mapping survey of Great Britain began. The label “Gun End of Base” on today’s Ordnance Survey map apparently refers to the spot at which a cannon was buried vertically in the ground. It seems that the buried cannon would have been used as a point for Mudge to erect his theodolite on, prior to him making his measurements.

The question that springs to my mind is whether the label “Gun End of Base” appears on any other Ordnance Survey maps or if it is particular to Old Sarum. Time to get looking!

The monument to Captain William Mudge.

Old Sarum from a distance.

Information board showing an aerial view of Old Sarum.

Looking towards Old Sarum's motte.

The motte and its protective ditch.

Ruins inside the motte.

Looking out from the motte towards the ruins of the Old Sarum Cathedral.

New Sarum Cathedral can be seen in the distance.

A model showing what the motte may have once looked like.

Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Friday, 8 August 2014

Uncovering an Unknown Building

Over the weekend of the 2nd and 3rd of August I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time helping a local archaeology team who are seeking to understand an unknown building that has been discovered in the hamlet of Bincknoll in Wiltshire.  

Bincknoll (pronounced Bynol) is a secluded rural hamlet that lies in the shadow of a former 11th Century (Norman) motte and bailey castle (Bincknoll Castle). The castle is believed to have been the seat of power for the local land owner of the period and today all that remains of this castle are some partial earthworks, which hint at what the site used to be. Bincknoll is also believed to have once been home to a medieval chapel and there is some documentary evidence that hints at its existence. However the location of this chapel has never been identified.

Finding the location of this medieval chapel recently became a possibility when a local home owner removed some trees from her lawn and uncovered what appeared to be a wall and some rubble from an previously unknown building. The wall that has been uncovered is made from chalk stone and has a west-east alignment, which interestingly does not align to any other local features (e.g. the road). Buildings with a west-east alignment are typical of Christian places of worship.  

With the possibility that the unknown building is medieval and may be the previously unlocated Bincknoll Chapel the excavations on site began.

The main aims of the excavation are to understand the extent of the building and its relation to the local landscape and to find features of the structure and contextual evidence that will enable it to be dated with some degree of confidence. Finding the original floor level of the building is a key objective, as the construction of the floor is likely to shed considerable light on the nature of the unknown building.

During my 2 days helping on the dig the wall and rubble field were uncovered to begin to understand the extent of the site and to enable the features to be charted and recorded. During these initial excavations a number of finds were made, which included:

  • Fragments of roof tiles.
  • Pig and sheep bones.
  • Pieces of mortar, and also what seems to be some mortar in situ on the outside wall of the building (this possibly shows that the outside of the building was once rendered?).
  • Oyster shells, which are apparently typical of Roman occupation in the area.
  • Flint cores and flint shards, which typically date from the Mesolithic era (10,000 - 4,000 years BC).
  • A possible piece of plaster with a thin surface of paint on it. If the building did have painted plaster it would hint towards it being a place a worship. 
  • Pieces of early medieval pottery. 
  • A return wall, enabling the team to be confident that they know what is the inside and what is the outside of the building.   

The dig will continue for a number of weeks, and once the team have planned and documented the exposed walls and rubble field they will slowly remove sections of the rubble field to explore the building. Painstakingly the team will remove layers from the site and eventually they may reach the original floor level. Hopefully during the dig the team will uncover suitable evidence to enable them to date the building and understand its former purpose, and maybe they might even be able to prove that it is actually the medieval Bincknoll Chapel.

The Bincknoll dig is being organized and managed by Broad Town Archaeology and the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group, visit their Facebook pages to find out more!

Day 1 - The site ready for excavations to begin. The home owner had already uncovered some of the rubble field after removing some trees from the lawn. The wall of the building is on the right hand side of the picture.

Day 1 - The wall of the unknown building, which runs along a west to east alignment.

Day 1 - The other end of the site, marked out and ready for exploration. 

Day 1 - The wall and the rubble field are slowly uncovered. A trench is opened on what is believed to be the outside of the building to explore the depth of the wall.

Day 1 - At the end of the first day. The team continue to slowly uncover the rubble field and the trench outside the building is prepared for documentation.

Day 2 - Mrs J continues to expand the trench downwards. 

Day 2 - The wall and rubble field are cleaned ready for planning and documentation. 

Day 2 - Planning commences, objects of interest are marked using flags and a grid is used to enable the site to be sketched.

Day 2 - The hard job! The rubble field and wall have to be documented and planned before any rocks can be lifted to enable the team the excavate deeper. 

Day 2 - Some of the finds from Mrs J's trench, a flint core and some flint chippings - evidence of flint knapping on the site. 

Day 2 - Some of the finds from Mrs J's trench, mortar from the unknown building. 

Some of the remaining earth works at Bincknoll Castle.

The view from Bincknoll Castle, looking towards the M4.

Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A Church Load of Virgins

St Mary’s Church in Abbotts Ann (near Andover in Hampshire) is seemingly the last Church in the country that still practices a medieval custom of awarding Virgins Crowns. As the information board inside the Church describes:

"Abbotts Ann remains the only parish in England which perpetuates this Medieval Custom of awarding Virgins Crowns.

The ceremony of this ancient burial rite takes place at the funeral of an unmarried person who was born, baptised, confirmed and died in the Parish of Abbotts Ann, and was a regular Communicant. Such persons must also be of unblemished reputation.

The Virgins Crown is made of Hazelwood and is ornamented with paper rosettes, with five white gauntlets attached to it. The gauntlets represent a challenge thrown down to anyone to asperse the character of the deceased.

The Crown suspended from a rod is borne by two young girls habited in white with white hoods, at the head of the funeral procession. After the funeral the Crown is carried to the Church and is suspended from the gallery near the West Door, so that all who enter the Church on the following Sunday will pass under it. Here it remains for three weeks. If during that time no one has challenged or disputed the right of the deceased to the Crown, it is hung in the roof of the Church with a small scutcheon bearing the name and age of the person concerned, and the date of her funeral, and there the Crown remains until it decays and falls with age.

Most of the Crowns are awarded to women, but men are not excluded, provided that they fulfil the same conditions.

The present Church was built in the year 1716 and the oldest Virgins Crown still in existence approaches that date."

The Abbotts Ann Virgins Crowns hang high on the nave wall around the Church and each one bears the name, age and date of death of a parishioner who died as a virgin. Given the height at which the garlands are hung, and faded lettering on some of the scutcheons, it is hard to read names and ages of all the people commemorated with Virgins Crowns.

The oldest Crown is dedicated to John Morrant who died in 1740. John Morrant’s Crown has now entirely decayed and all that remains of it is the string from which it once hung.

The newest crown dates from 1973 and is dedicated to Lily Myra Annetts who died aged 73. As the newest Crown, Lily Myra Annetts’ Crown seems to be wholly intact with all five gauntlets still hanging in place. The Crown is still white in colour. The majority of the rest of the Crowns are in various stages of decay, most with their gauntlets missing and most now blackened by the passage of time.

St Mary’s Church was purchased as part of the Abbotts Ann Estate in 1710 by Thomas “Diamond” Pitt (the grandfather of Prime Minister Pitt the Elder), and in 1716 Thomas Pitt paid for the demolition of the Church and the construction of a new Church, the one that remains today. Presumably any Virgins Crowns pre-dating 1716 were lost during the demolition of the old Church.

Today the St Mary's Church is home to a total of 49 Virgins Crowns and the names of those honoured can be found on the “Southern Life” website. The Crowns honour 15 men and 34 women. Presumably no new Crowns have been added since 1973, because the local populace are either less likely to spend their whole life living in the same Parish, or they are far less virtuous than they used to be!

The Virgins Crowns explained.
The hanging Crowns inside the Church.

The oldest Crown in the Church, John Morrant's dating from 1740, is now just a piece of string (2nd scutcheon from the left). The scutcheon honouring Marianne Geraldine Fenwick who died in 1919 at the age of 43 is clearly legible (2nd scutcheon from the right).

The newest Virgins Crown dedicated to Lily Myra Annetts who died aged 73 in 1973 (left). The Crown is in good condition retaining all five of its gauntlets. Near to Lily Myra Annetts' Crown is the Crown for William George Annetts who died aged 15 in 1919 (centre). Presumably he was related to Lily Myra?
Florence Jane Wisewell who died at the age of 72 in 1953 (left).
Martha Ann Tapp died aged 12 in 1837. Sarah Maslin died aged 22 in 1837, Elizabeth Annie Edmunds died aged 45 in 1915, Louisa Poore died aged 16 in 1835 and Ann Fennell died aged 17 in 1837 (left to right). 

St Mary's Church.

Pictures, Hampshire (July 2014).

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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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