“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, 22 January 2016

Raking The Moon

As a resident of Wiltshire I was recently interested to learn that local people have in the past been called “Moonrakers”, a term that can be used in a derogatory manner.

The derogatory use of this nickname has its roots in a version of a legend that recounts how a traveller encountered some drunken Wiltshire men one moonlit night. These drunken local men were apparently trying to rake a round glowing object out of a pond. When questioned about their behaviour the rakers claimed that they were trying to retrieve  a big round cheese from the pond, which to the wise and intelligent traveller was clearly the reflection of the moon. So off the traveller goes,  having had a good chuckle about the stupidity of the locals.

The people of Wiltshire would however, point out that this nickname is derived from a different version of the legend, one that shows just how clever and cunning the locals really are.

The more readily recounted version of the legend, which predates 1787, is that on a moonlit night some local smugglers were observed by customs officers using their rakes to retrieve barrels of contraband which they had previously hidden in a pond. When challenged by the customs officers as to what they were up to, the locals played dumb by pointing to the moon’s reflection and saying that they were trying to retrieve the big round cheese! The customs men, baffled by the stupidity of these yokels, laughed at them and left. The smugglers, amused by the gullibility of the customs men, laughed at them and carried on retrieving their contraband.

This version of the legend is immortalised in the town of Devizes by a little plaque that sits near the town pond, which is known as The Crammer. The plaque reads:

The Crammer and its Legend

The origin of the Crammer is not known and neither is its name, which was probably derived from Cranmere, meaning Crane Pond. However it has often been associated with the famous Wiltshire Moonraker Legend, bestowing this nickname on the county’s inhabitants.

The story goes that some Wiltshire smugglers who had concealed kegs of brandy in the pond were observed by Excisemen in the moonlight in the act of trying to retrieve the kegs. The moon was reflected on the water and the smugglers said they were trying to rake out “Thik gurt yaller cheese.” Convulsed with Laughter, the Excisemen rode on. While the smugglers chortle “We were too vly for they. There baint no vlies on we.”

The pond is owned by Devizes Town Council.

This plaque was the gift of Mr John Drake. Mayor of Devizes in 1972/73, who was made an honorary freeman of the town in March 1996.

So which version of the legend should be believed? Well I guess that depends on whether you are a customs officer or traveller who suspects that the residents of Wiltshire lack intelligence, or if you are a resident of Wiltshire who considers themselves clever and cunning!

The Devizes town pond, known as "The Crammer".

The plaque explaining the "Moonrakers" legend.

The local "Moonrakers" public house.

Pictures: Wiltshire (January 2016).

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Friday, 8 January 2016

The American Connection

A couple of miles from Creech Folly in Dorset is the small hamlet of Steeple, which is home to the steeple-less Church of Saint Michael & All Angels. This quiet and remote church proudly displays the flag of Washington DC, the capital city of the United States of America. The flag was presented to the church on the 25th July 1977 by Walter E. Washington, the Mayor of Washington DC (January 1975 - January 1979). The letter accompanying the flag reads:

The Rector
Church of St. Michael & All Angels
Steeple, Dorset

Dear Rector,

We recently learned through Mr. George Honebon of Poole, that the Church of St. Michael & All Angels has an historic relationship with the family of George Washington, in whose honor our Nations Capital is named.

It was particularly interesting to see drawings of the stone armorial tablet depicting the Washington arms quartered with those of Lawrence. Because they are shown in our flag, the Washington arms are a very familiar sight in the District of Columbia.

Thinking that your parish might appreciate having some token of our mutal heritage, I have asked Mr. Honebon to carry with him on his return to England, this letter and the Flag of Washington, District of Columbia.

I know the citizens of our city join with me in this expression of friendship and best wishes to you and all the people of the community of Steeple, Dorset.

With warm personal regards.


Walter E. Washington
District of Columbia

The letter refers to a “stone armorial tablet” which is probably the engraved coat of arms that can be found in the stone wall of the main porch of the church. The coat of arms is a quartering (an amalgamation) of the coats of arms of the Lawrence and Washington families who were joined in 1390 when the heiress of the Washington family Agnes de Wessington married Edmund Lawrence. The Washington family’s coat of arms is the three stars atop the two stripes and it is this coat of arms that was used by George Washington (an ancestor of Agnes de Wessington) when he became the first president of the United States in 1789. This star and stripes motif was replicated in the flag of Washington DC and also was presumably the inspiration for the design of the US National flag.

A more striking example of the quartered Lawrence/Washington family coat of arms can be found painted in scarlet and white on the bosses on the ceiling of the church. It pays to look up occasionally!

The Church of Saint Michael & All Angels in Steeple.

The stone tablet in the church porch showing the coat of arms of the Lawrence/Washington family.

The flag of Washington DC in the church.

Is the flag upside down? In the coat of arms the stars sit atop the stripes!

The letter from the Mayor of Washington DC.

Looking along the church.

The painted bosses in the church roof, showing the Lawrence/Washington coat of arms.

Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

St Cuthbert's Cross

In “The Legend of the Durham Dun Cow” I recounted the tale of how the city of Durham was supposedly founded in 995 AD by a band of wandering monks with some help from a long-dead saint and a lost cow. The saint in question was St Cuthbert, who spent his life as a monk on the island of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert died in 687 AD and 11 years after his death, his corpse was found to be miraculously preserved. His tomb soon became a place of pilgrimage and was linked to a number of further miracles which eventually led to Cuthbert’s canonisation.

The monks of Lindisfarne left the island in 875 AD taking Cuthbert’s remains with them, having been driven out by over 80 years of ongoing Viking raids. The monks, along with Cuthbert’s remains, wandered the north of the country (predominantly Northumbria and Scotland, but also going as far south as Ripon) stopping at a number of temporary homes until 995 AD when they finally settled in what is modern day Durham.

It is because of these wanderings that a number of locations in the north of the country have become linked with the remains of St Cuthbert, and there are a number of churches in the region dedicated to the saint.

Having read about the legend of St Cuthbert and the wanderings of his remains, from their original home on the east coast of England, I was recently surprised to find a memorial to St Cuthbert on the west coast in the Lancashire seaside town of Lytham. On Church Road in front of the playing field there is a stone cross by the side of the road which bears a metal plaque. The plaque reads "According to ancient tradition the body of St Cuthbert about the year 882 once rested here."

Whether St Cuthbert’s remains actually did travel from Lindisfarne to Lytham is unclear, as all of the popular re-tellings of this tale that I have read do not seem to include a visit to the west coast. But the locals of Lytham clearly seem to believe this legend and unsurprisingly the nearby church is also dedicated to St Cuthbert!

St Cuthbert's cross in Lytham; did St Cuthbert's body once stop here in 882 AD on its journey from Lindisfarne to Durham?

Pictures: Lancashire (November 2015).

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Seville’s Post-Apocalyptic Future

The below photos show what looks to be an abandoned post-apocalyptic science fiction landscape, with weeds and decay slowly encroaching upon a futuristic building, a communications satellite dish and a rocket. This bizarre landscape can be found on the outskirts of the Spanish city of Seville on La Isla de La Cartuja. Despite its appearance the site is not an abandoned set of a science fiction movie, but is instead part of what remains of the Universal Exposition of Seville, also known at Expo 92. Expo 92 opened in April 1992 and ran for 6 months, attracting nearly 42 million visitors. The aim of the exposition was to celebrate the modern age and offer blueprints for the future, hence the science fiction feel. Over one hundred countries were represented at the event, with some of them sponsoring massive pavilions. Some of the biggest eye-catchers included Japan’s Pavilion (at the time, the world's largest wooden structure) and the Spanish Pavilion which included a modernistic cube and a huge sphere.

The facilities and Pavilions were all planned to be temporary and demolished in the months that followed the exposition, however only some of them were. Some of the facilities and Pavilions were converted for other uses and some of them were left to decay. The post-apocalyptic science fiction landscape pictured below is what remains of the “Plaza of the Future” - a vision of the future envisaged back in 1992.

The Plaza of the Future.

The Plaza of the Future overgrown and left to decay. Views of its original grandeur can be found here, here and here

The "Seville rocket", a replica of the European Space Agency's Ariane Four launch system, which graces the Plaza of the Future.

The biosphere - this huge sphere was used to spray micro-fine jets of water to cool visitors to the exposition.

The colourful tower hiding in the background is the European Pavilion, to see it in all its glory look here.
Pictures: Seville, Spain (November 2014).

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Bell that came to a Mysterious End

Knowlton is a hamlet in Dorset, on the B3078, which is home to a ruinous 12th century Norman church. What makes the church remarkable is not its ruinous state, but the fact that is was constructed within the earthworks of a much older Neolithic henge monument (circa 2,500 BC).

The Knowlton site is home to three Neolithic henges.  The henge in which the church resides is known as “Church Henge”.  It is the best preserved of the three with the banks and ditches of the henge still visible. Church Henge has a broadly circular footprint and a maximum diameter of an impressive 106m. The other two henges (the “North Circle” and the “South Circle”) have been mostly destroyed over the years by ploughing or by being bisected by the nearby B3078! The North and South Circles can however still be discerned by the tell-tale marks in the crops, which can be readily seen in aerial photographs. The Knowlton site is also known to have been home to at least 35 barrows (burial mounds), the largest being known as the Great Barrow. The Great Barrow is of late Neolithic or early Bronze Age vintage and is the largest barrow in Dorset, measuring in at 40m in diameter and 6m in height. The Great Barrow would have originally been surrounded by two concentric ditches, but again these have been ploughed into obscurity.

This large concentration of barrows points towards Knowlton being an important Pagan religious centre. The prominence of Knowlton in the Pagan landscape is likely to be the reason why the church was built where it was – a Christian attempt to assimilate the Pagans into their religion. This assimilation is unlikely to have just included the local Pagan population, the standing stones that would have once adorned the Neolithic henge were most likely broken up and used in the construction of the new church.

The chancel and nave of the church at Knowlton date from the 12th century.  Further additions and improvements were made to the church over its history, with the latest addition being the north aisle which was added to the church in the 18th century. The church remained in use until the late 18th century when the roof of the building collapsed and the church was eventually abandoned to ruin.

Most unusual ancient locations tend to have an associated local legend, and Knowlton Church is no different. At some point in the church’s history its bell is said to have gone missing. Some suggest that the bell was stolen by thieves who, finding it hard to make off with the bell, eventually abandoned their plans and dumped the bell into the River Stour. The residents of Knowlton apparently tried to recover the bell from the river, but ultimately failed. Others suggest that the stolen bell found its way to another nearby church, perhaps nearby Shapwick or Sturminster Marshall. Even stranger, one legend suggests that the bell was stolen by the Devil, who threw the bell into the River Allen and thwarted all attempts by the locals to retrieve it.

Whatever the truth, the legend surrounding the loss of the Knowlton bell was immortalised in the rhyme: "Knowlton bell is stole; And thrown into White Mill hole; Where all the devils in hell; could never pull up Knowlton Bell."

Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Great Flood of 1841

People who live outside of Wiltshire will probably have never heard of the Great Flood of 1841, which saw extensive flooding across parts of Salisbury Plain and the destruction of many homes in the surrounding villages.

The flood occurred in January 1841 and was triggered by an extremely wet autumn followed by a period of heavy snow across Salisbury Plain. Snow which fell onto solidly frozen ground. On the 13th January the snow covering the plain began to melt and because the ground remained frozen the water could not soak into the ground. This melt water began to flow down the valleys and eventually found its way into the various local watercourses. On the 16th January the River Till at Shrewton suddenly rose by an astonishing seven and a half feet. Similarly, small streams such as the Chitterne Brook became a raging torrent that burst their banks and had enough power to sweep away bridges.

Most of the properties in the area at the time were built from clay or cob (a mixture of soil and straw) and their foundations were no match for the force of water that assailed them.

The low-lying villages of Shrewton, Orcheston, Tilshead and Chitterne bore the brunt of the flooding and all told around 72 houses were destroyed, leaving around 200 to 300 people homeless and at least three people dead. Had the flooding occurred in the dead of night the death toll would have been much higher.

In the wake of the flooding a relief appeal was organised that raised enough money to rehouse all of those that had lost their homes and even had a surplus that enabled the construction of 14 “Flood” Cottages across the local villages. The rents from these properties provided money to buy fuel, groceries and clothing for local poor people. Examples of these Flood Cottages can be found in Shrewton, Orcheston and Tilshead, and each bears a plaque which reads:

These Cottages
Builded in the Year of Our Lord
From a portion of the fund subscribed by the public
to repair the losses sustained by the poor
of this and five neighbouring parishes in  
The Great Flood of 
Are vested in the names of
Twelve Trustees
Who shall let them to the best advantage
and after reserving out of the rents
a sum sufficient to maintain the premises
in good repair
shall expend the remainder in 
Fuel and Clothing
and distribute the same amongst the poor of the 
Said Parishes 
On the 16th day of January for ever 
being the anniversary of that awful visitation. 

For those that want to get a feeling for how high the waters rose, there is an another monument to the flooding that is set into the wall of Mill House on Orcheston Road in Shrewton. A marker stone in the wall shows the level to which the water at Shrewton rose, it marks 4 foot 6 inches above ground level and 7 feet 6 inches above river level!

The Tilshead "Flood" Cottages.

The Orcheston "Flood" Cottages.

Pictures: Wiltshire (October 2015).

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