“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.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Wiltshire's Ancient Landscape

Wiltshire as a county is known for its mystical landscape and as I live in Wiltshire it was inevitable that I was eventually going to discuss it here! So here are some of my pictures from the Avebury area, which include the Avebury Henge, Silbury Hill, The West Kennet Long Barrow and The Sanctuary. These impressive monuments to our country's ancient past can all be found nearby the A4 trunk road as it winds its way from the town of Marlborough to the town of Calne.

The West Kennet Long Barrow

Pre-dating Stonehenge by about 400 years, the West Kennet Long Barrow was constructed around 3650 BC. The West Kennet Long Barrow is one of the largest Neolithic tombs in Britain, with maximum dimensions of  3.2 metres in height, 25 metres in width and 100 metres in length. The barrow sits atop a chalk ridge and commands a good view over the local landscape and overlooks the nearby Silbury Hill. In its original form, the barrow's sides would have been bare white chalk, making it a very prominent place for people to be buried.

It is estimated that the barrow was in use for over 1000 years until around 2500 - 2000 BC when it was closed. Closure of the barrow was achieved by its main passage being filled in with soil and rubble and its entrance being secured by the toppling of the sarsen stones that guarded it. When explored by archaeologists, the barrow was found to be home to at least forty-six burials with the remains ranging from those of infants to the elderly.

Today the barrow is covered in turf and the sarsens that once sealed the entrance have been re-erected to their original “open” position. The front part of the barrow is open for visitors to explore and the central passageway and five small chambers can be accessed.

The front entrance of the West Kennet Long Barrow.
The West Kennet Long Barrow with Silbury Hill in the distance.
Looking into the central passageway of the West Kennet Long Barrow.
The Sanctuary

The next oldest site is The Sanctuary on Overton Hill, which is located alongside the A4 and opposite a number of Bronze Age barrows. Construction is believed to have commenced around 3000 BC and the exact nature of the construction and its purpose remains a mystery. It is believed that the initial construction at the site was the erection of six concentric rings of timber posts. Some theories propose that The Sanctuary was possibly a henge type structure similar to Stonehenge or Avebury, whilst others propose that the erect timbers may have supported some form of roof. Excavations have uncovered large numbers of human bones along with evidence of food, so it is very possible that the site was linked to death rites and ceremonies.

It is believed that the site was improved over time with increasingly large timber structures being built, with progressive diameters of 4.5 metres, 11.2 metres  and 20 metres. Eventually these timber structures seem to have been superseded by two stone circles around 2100 BC. The outer stone circle is believed to have consisted of forty two stones and have a diameter of 40 metres.

Today all that remains of the site is a series of coloured concrete posts which mark the locations of where the stones and timbers once stood.

Markers showing where the timbers and stones of The Sanctuary would once have stood.
The blue markers indicate the position of stones, whilst the red markers indicate where timbers would have once stood.
Looking away from The Sanctuary towards Silbury Hill (hiding in the tree line to the left of the gate) and Avebury. The markers show how stones would have formed the entrance to The Sanctuary. 
From the entrance looking in towards the centre of The Sanctuary. 
Bronze Age barrows on the opposite side of the A4 from The Sanctuary. 

The Avebury Henge

Avebury Henge was constructed between 2850 BC and 2200 BC and is an impressively large monument comprising of a bank and ditch system with three stone circles, an outer circle and two inner circles.

The earthworks at Avebury consist of an outer bank with a ditch on the inside, which enclose an area of 28.5 acres. The site is divided by four entrances that cut through the earthworks. Today the bank is circa 4.2 to 5.4 metres high, whereas it was originally estimated as being 17 metres high with an accompanying 9 metre deep ditch. It is also believed that the banks and ditch would have consisted of exposed chalk, giving the earthworks a striking white appearance.

The outer stone circle is believed to have originally consisted of 98 to 105  sarsen stones, arranged around the perimeter of the site’s ditch. The sarsens would all have been different in their size and shape, with tallest stones being around 4.2 metres in height and the heaviest weighing over 40 tonnes. The outer circle of stones has a diameter of just under 332 metres which makes it Britain’s largest stone circle and also one of the biggest in Europe.

The centre of the Avebury site consists of two smaller separate stone circles. The northern circle measures in at 98 metres in diameter and is believed to have originally consisted of 27 standing stones, of which only 4 remain in situ today. The centre of this circle was once home to a “Cove” of three stones. These three sarsens were rectangular in shape and would have been arranged to form 3 sides of a square, with an open side facing north.

The southern circle was 108 metres in diameter and is believed to have originally consisted of 27 standing stones. At the centre of the southern circle resided “The Great Obelisk”, which was a large sarsen believed to be up to 6.4 metres tall. The southern circle was destroyed in the 18th century and today the location on which the “The Great Obelisk” stood is marked with a concrete post.

The other striking feature of Avebury is The West Kennet Avenue, which is a an avenue of paired stones, which leads from the southeastern entrance of the henge towards The Sanctuary on Overton Hill and the man-made Silbury Hill.

Nobody truly knows why the Avebury earthworks and stone circles were built, but it is commonly accepted that the site was used as a place of worship by the ancient people who created it, and that Avebury formed part of their mystical relationship with the landscape.

By the Iron Age, the Avebury site was effectively abandoned, and the coming of the Medieval period saw the site become home to the nascent Avebury Village.  As the population of England converted to Christianity the Avebury site gradually became shunned as being “pagan” and became associated in folk lore with the devil.

During the 14th Century, these changing religious tastes saw some of the Avebury stones purposefully pulled down, with some of the stones being buried in prepared pits, used to remove them from sight. During this period of destruction one man was unlucky enough to be crushed to death under a 13 ton stone that was being pulled down into a ready-made pit. The body of this poor soul was found by archaeologist Alexander Keiller in 1938, and it is believed that the body was left in situ because the villagers did not have the capability to remove the offending stone to recover the body. Following the death of this man, it seems the destruction of Avebury was halted, possibly due to concerns that vengeful spirits may have toppled the stone in revenge, or possibly due to the arrival of the Black death in Avebury in 1349.

The late 17th Century saw the rise of Puritanism and the “pagan” site of Avebury again came under attack. It seems that at this point the majority of the standing sarsens where smashed to pieces and were recycled for use in local building projects. By the mid 1800’s the majority of the standing stones at Avebury had disappeared forever, and with the population of the village booming more houses were beginning to be built inside the henge. In a bid to save the site, the wealthy politician and archaeologist Sir John Lubbock, purchased much of the available land in the monument, and actively worked to discourage further building within the boundaries of the henge.

The site was eventually purchased in its entirety by archaeologist Alexander Keiller who wanted to protect the site. It seems that Keiller was responsible for re-erecting some of the fallen stones and clearing parts of the site of old trees and buildings to make more of the site visible. Keiller eventually sold the 950 acres of land on to the National trust in 1943, who have maintained it ever since.

An Avebury Sarsen.

A section of the stone circle.

More of the sarsens. Does the one on the right look like a face in profile?

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill sits on the side of the A4 and it looks strangely out of place in the landscape, which is understandable, as it is an artificial mound. Silbury Hill was constructed around 2,400 BC and was predominately made from half a million tonnes of chalk and clay which were sourced from the surrounding area. The hill stands at an impressive 40 metres tall, with a width of 30 metres at its summit and a width of 167 metres at its base, making it the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe. Estimates vary as to how long the hill took to build, with some suggesting  that the hill took approximately 4 million man-hours to build, whilst others offer an estimate of 18 million man-hours. Either way the construction of Silbury Hill was a significant undertaking and the hill must have been an important project to the people who built it.

The original purpose of this hill remains a mystery. Legend suggests that Silbury Hill may be the last resting place of a King Sil. Legend also proposes that the hill was created when the Devil was forced by priests, from Avebury, to drop a mass of soil that he was carrying with the intention of burying the nearby town of Marlborough. However, outside of legend, the intended purpose of the hill remains a mystery. 

There have been a number of archaeological excavations of the hill from the 17th century onwards, which have included a vertical shaft being sunk from the top of the hill down through to its base, and a horizontal tunnel being dug at the base to the hill’s centre. None of these excavations have found the burial of the legendary King Sil or have been able to resolve with any certainty the purpose of this mysterious man made structure.

Silbury Hill as seen from the West Kennet Long Barrow. 
Silbury Hill as seen from the A4. 

Pictures: Wiltshire (December 2014).

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Friday, 28 November 2014

The Mummy of the Golden Tower

The pictures below show the Torre del Oro (the Gold Tower) which was a military watchtower in Seville constructed in the early 13th century. The tower sits alongside the Canal de Alfonso XIII, and was originally intended to guard the waterway access into Seville and also acted as a prison. The tower is known as the gold tower due to its colour. Today the tower is home to Seville’s Maritime Museum.

The Torre del Oro is linked to a tragic legend of a women who was pestered by a king into a horrific act of self-mutilation. The woman in question was Maria Fernandez Coronel who was born in 1334 and is reported to have grown into an immensely beautiful woman over the years.

King Peter I (Don Pedro I) who was the king of Castile and León from 1350 to 1369 met Maria (who was married to Don Juan de la Cerda, the lord of Gibraleon) and he was instantly besotted by her beauty. It is said that King Peter was so besotted that he commenced a campaign of harassment against Maria, constantly pestering her, trying to get her to give herself to him. King Peter’s campaign was so intense that Maria opted to withdraw from social life, hoping that being out of sight would help to remove her from King Peter’s mind.

In 1366 the Castilian Civil War began, which saw King Peter in conflict with his illegitimate brother, Henry of Trastámara. During this civil war Maria’s husband Don Juan de la Cerda was in the service of the king’s brother and had the bad luck of being captured by the king’s men. Hearing of her husband’s capture Maria visited King Peter to plead for her husband’s life, but it was too late as he had already been executed at the Torre del Oro. The execution of her husband and the subsequent seizure of all the family’s assets left Maria destitute and she eventually sought refuge at a convent.

Coming to the king’s attention again meant that Maria was again subject to harassment by the king who remained insistent that she should give herself to him. Eventually the king sent his men to the convent to find Maria and bring her to him, but she managed to elude their searches by being temporarily buried alive. Displeased with his men’s failure to find Maria, the king eventually went to the convent himself in order to capture Maria, and he eventually cornered her. Finally having had enough of the king’s advances it is said that Maria picked up a pan of boiling olive oil and poured it over her face to remove her beautiful looks and dissuade the king in his advances. Unsurprisingly Maria was severely disfigured by this act of self mutilation.

After this tragic event it is said that King Peter was so remorseful for his actions that Maria’s family assets were returned to her, and these assets enabled her to found the Convent of St. Agnes in Seville. Maria eventually died on December 2nd 1411 at the ripe old age of 77. In the mid sixteenth century construction work uncovered Maria’s tomb, and her body was found to be very well preserved, with her characteristic burns still visible. Her body was subsequently placed into a glass box and today is still preserved in the Convent of St. Agnes (Convento de Santa Inés on Calle Dona Maria Coronel), and it can be viewed on the anniversary of her death each year (December 2nd). Some pictures of her persevered body can be found on this blog.

King Peter met a suitably nasty end for a sex pest; in 1369 he was apparently stabbed in the face by his illegitimate brother Henry of Trastámara.

Torre del Oro (the Gold Tower).

The Canal de Alfonso XIII.

Pictures: Seville, Spain (November 2014).

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Home of the Spanish Smurfs

The Spanish region of Andalusia is known for its white towns and villages,  where all of the buildings are uniformly whitewashed making the settlements stand out against the earthy colours of the countryside. Not all of these settlements are white however, one town known as Júzcar is painted blue, Smurf-blue!

In 2011 this small and remote Spanish town was selected as the location for the worldwide premiere of the 2011 movie “The Smurfs”, which was held on June 16, 2011. Prior to the screening of the premiere Sony Pictures arranged to have the town painted Smurf-blue. It is reported that circa 4,000 litres of paint were used in this undertaking, which saw the entire town including the church and its gravestones painted. This transformation of the town from a traditional whitewashed settlement to a blue haven for Smurfs drastically increased the number of visitors to the town, and as a result of this the inhabitants have kept the new colour scheme to this day.

These little blue creatures, which were first created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo (Pierre Culliford) in 1958 are not just responsible for turning a Spanish town blue. According to the "Topless Robot" website it seems that the Smurfs may have inspired modern day Zombie fiction with their 1963 storyline "The Purple Smurf". The same website also recounts that Smurf figurines may have been responsible for creating a lead poisoning scare in the UK in the 1970s.

For those who care to investigate I am sure there are also many other Fortean themes lurking in the long history of theses little blue creatures.

Looking across the roof tops.

Smurf murals adorn the town.

Pictures: Júzcar, Spain (November 2014).

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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Barge(ing) Inn to Crop Circles

Every year across Wiltshire tens if not hundreds of crop circles appear in the countryside during the night, as if by magic. The bulk of these crop circles or crop formations (as they are not always circular) tend occur near ancient sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill, the West Kennet Long Barrow or near chalk hill figures, which comprise the mystical landscape of Wiltshire.

The phenomenon of crop circles first came to prominence in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s. This new phenomenon soon caught the public’s attention and it was not long before they were attributed to visitors from outer space or in some cases freak weather, such as tornadoes or ball lightening. The reality of crop circles is much more prosaic however. In the early 1990s two Southampton artists claimed to be responsible for a significant number of the circles stating that they were made using planks of wood, rope and a baseball cap fitted with a loop of wire. The latter tool was apparently used to help them walk in straight lines. It is now widely accepted that crop circles are the product of artistic humans as opposed to visiting extra-terrestrials or rare atmospheric phenomenon.

Crop circles still however have significant appeal for many, and each year a considerable number of people from around the world travel to Wiltshire to be the first to see the new batch of crop circles that appear. The hub of crop circle hunting in Wiltshire is the Barge Inn in Honeystreet on the Kennet and Avon Canal. The Barge Inn which dates from 1810 is positioned on the Duke's Ley Line (running from Avebury to Stonehenge) and lies in the centre of the Wiltshire mystical landscape close to both the Ridgeway (Britain’s oldest road), the ancient complex of Avebury. The Inn is also overlooked by both the Alton Barnes White Horse and Adam’s Grave Long Barrow. The Inn has a crop circle room where an up to date record is kept of the current batch of crop formations, with a map showing their location and pictures showing aerial views of the designs. Each summer this room becomes the hub from which circle spotters deploy to try to be the first to explore new crop formations.

The Barge Inn also shows an interest in other aspects of the mystical and unusual.  The ceiling of the crop circle room has a detailed and exquisitely painted mural which shows the ancient Pagan sites that fill the nearby countryside. Some call this mural the "Sistine Chapel of Wiltshire". Taking the Pagan theme even further, the Inn hosts Handfasting ceremonies. During these ceremonies couples can pledge their love for each other by the ceremonial binding of hands. The practice of Handfasting originates from an old Norse custom, and the Norse term “hand-festa” means "to strike a bargain by joining hands". This Pagan ceremony is still practiced today and the ceremony ends by the traditional act of jumping over a broom.

If beer is more your thing, then at the Barge Inn you can partake in numerous suitably named beverages including Area 51 Cider, Alien Abduction Green Ale, Croppie Ale and Roswell Ale. The Inn is also currently seeking planning permission to erect an observatory in its grounds to enable customers at the bar to be able to keep an eye on the stars and to watch out for incoming flying saucers on their way to create a crop circle nearby!

The Barge Inn.

The circle gallery showing the current batch of crop formations.

The circle gallery showing the current batch of crop formations.

The map, showing the locations of the crop formations. 

Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Thursday, 30 October 2014

Wiltshire's Italian Church

The Wiltshire town of Wilton, which is synonymous with English carpet manufacture, is not the sort of place that you would expect to find an ornate Italian Church. But that is exactly what Wilton has.

The church in question is the Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, which was built on West Street between 1841 and 1844, as a replacement for the town's 15th century Church of St Mary.

The Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas was commissioned by The Lord Herbert of Lea with support from his mother the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, who was of Russian descent. The Lord Herbert of Lea had a passion for Italian architecture and as a result the architects created the church in a Romanesque style, with considerable Byzantine influences. It has also been proposed that the church was built as an imitation of a basilica in Lombardy, Italy.

One of the most striking features of this impressive building is its 105ft high campanile which is connected to the church by a short cloister, which is adorned with carved columns. The church also boasts crafted items that were imported from Europe to be incorporated into the building, such as 2nd century B.C. marble columns from the Temple of Venus at Porto Venere, and 12th and 13th century stained glass from France. The church even contains a 17th century engraved metal chest from Germany.

Not all of the church's adornments are from exotic locales however, the church bells were recycled from the melted down bells of the old St Mary's Church.

The church also has an unusual alignment, with it lying on a north-east to south-west axis, as opposed to the more traditional easterly alignment. This highly unusual parish church was consecrated on 9th October 1845 and is well worth a visit!

The Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas on West Street in Wilton. 

A decorative lion supporting the archway over the main entrance.

The ornate interior of the church. 

Carved columns in the cloister between the church and the campanile. 

A rear view of the church.
Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Home of Halley

The house shown below is on New College Lane in Oxford and is adorned by a small wooden plaque which reads: Edmond Halley Savilian Professor of Geometry 1703 - 1742 lived and had his observatory in this house.

It seems that the English astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley (1656-1742) spent a significant period of his life in Oxford, firstly as a student at Oxford University and latterly as a professor.  Halley is most famously known for calculating the orbit of the comet that was named after him.

Halley spent some of his career calculating the orbits of 24 comets that had been observed between 1337 and 1698. During these calculations he postulated that three of the observed comets which appeared in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were likely to be the same object returning to the solar system time and again. Based on his calculations Halley postulated that the comet would return in 1758 and on the 25 December 1758 (16 years after Halley’s death) the comet did return. The comet was posthumously named after Halley.

Halley’s Comet is known as a “short period comet” and is the only comet of this type to be visible from Earth with the naked eye. Halley’s Comet is also the only known short period comet that can appear twice within a human lifetime, as its periodicity is around the 75 year mark. Because Halley’s Comet is visible to the naked eye its appearance over the Earth has often been recorded within human history.

The first confirmed historical account of Halley’s Comet dates from 240 BC when its appearance was recorded in a Chinese chronicle. Babylonian records from 164 BC and 87 BC also record visits by the comet. Chinese astronomers recorded the comet’s visit to Earth in 12 BC, and some propose that this visit may have inspired the biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem, as the appearance of the comet was only a few years distant from when Jesus is believed to have been born (circa 7 to 2 years BC).  The comet continued to be observed and recorded over the years and the next most notable appearance was in 1066 when the comet was most famously recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry which chronicled the Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harold II of England.

Calculating the return of the comet was not Halley’s only accomplishment, during his illustrious career he is also known for a number of other achievements. Between 1676 and 1678 Halley recorded the celestial longitudes and latitudes of 341 stars in the southern hemisphere. In 1691, Halley built a diving bell, and with five companions he dived to a depth of 18m in the River Thames where they are reported to have remained for over 90 minutes. Halley further refined his diving bell design and was eventually able to execute dives of up to 4 hours in duration. Halley also pioneered a basic model of a magnetic compass, and established the link between barometric pressure and height above sea level.

Not all of Halley’s work and theories were sound however. Halley was a “hollow-Earther” and in 1692 he proposed the idea that the Earth was hollow and comprised of an outer shell that was 800km thick with two further inner shells and a core at the centre. He proposed that each shell was separated by an atmosphere and that each shell had its own magnetic poles and that they all rotated at different speeds (potentially explaining anomalous compass readings). In Halley’s model of the Earth each shell had its own atmosphere, and he proposed that it was the escape of this gas that caused the Aurora Borealis. Halley also suggest that each shell was illuminated and may also possibly harbour life.

In 1694 Halley proposed that the biblical story of Noah's flood might be an early account of the result of a comet impacting the Earth. This was an idea that was not well received by The Royal Society!

1720 saw Halley participating in the first known attempt to scientifically date Stonehenge. The working assumption being that Stonehenge had been laid out using a magnetic compass and extant magnetic records where used to try to calculate a construction date. Based on this method the earliest proposed date for the construction of Stonehenge was estimated as 460 BC, which as we know today is somewhat wrong, with the current accepted date being somewhere between 3,000 and 2,000 years BC.

So next time you visit Oxford look out for Halley's house, and if you happen to still be alive in 2061 keep an eye on the sky, you may get to see his comet!

New College Lane, Oxford.

The house where Halley lived. 

The memorial to Halley's time in residence.

New College Lane also features this interesting foot bridge that was erected in 1914 to link two buildings of Hertford College. Some say that this bridge is reminiscent of the Venetian Bridge of Sighs

Pictures, Oxfordshire (October 2014).

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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Oxford Curiosities

During a recent scamper around the free museums of Oxford, I spotted two items on display that piqued my curiosity. Here is what I found:

The Dangers of Metal Wallpaper

The below two pictures show an Electrostatic Lightning House on display in the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, which was manufactured by W. & S. Jones, London circa 1830.

The Electrostatic Lightning House is a small wooden model of a house, which is home to three women (who seem to be made of paper), who are attached by small wires to a lightning conductor on the roof of the house. The model seems to be a representation of an event that occurred in the 18th century.  The occupants of a property were injured when it was struck by lightning and the metal in the wallpaper of the property brought the electricity into contact with them. The label accompanying the model explains:

Lightning House

Unique model replicating an actual event described in the 18th century: the occupants of a house received severe shocks from the metal patterns in their wallpaper as a lightning bolt coursed through the house to earth. In the model, the figures are placed in front of small spark-gaps made by wires in the walls of the house. They were knocked over by the sparks when a Leyden jar was discharged through wires. 

Sadly a search of the Internet revealed no further information on the curious events that are depicted by the model. But it stands without saying, be careful if you have metal wallpaper!

The Bottled Witch

The next curiosity was seen in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The diverse collection that forms the Pitt Rivers Museum includes a display of magical items. One of these items is a small silvered bottle that apparently contains a witch. The label that accompanies the bottle reads:

Silvered and stoppered bottle said to contain a witch, obtained about 1915 from an old lady living in a village near Hove, Sussex. She remarked “... and they do say there be a witch in it and if you let un out there it be a peak o' trouble.”
Donated by Miss M. A. Murray. 1926.6.1

Here's to wondering what the bottle really does contain!

Pictures, Oxfordshire (October 2014).

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