“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Monday, 30 December 2013

London's Texan Embassy

The below picture was taken on St James's Street in London, where St James's Street joins Pall Mall (opposite St James's Palace). On the corner of these two streets you will find a shop with a black frontage, which is the wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd (No. 3 St James's Street). To the left of the shop there is an alleyway which leads to Pickering Place.  It is on the entrance to this alleyway where the below plaque can be found.

The plaque reads:

Texas Legation
In this building was the Legation for the ministers from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St James 1842 - 1845.
Erected by The Anglo - Texan Society

In 1836 Texas declared its independence from Mexico (an independence that the Mexican government did not recognise) and from 1842 the new Republic of Texas maintained an embassy (a Legation) in London at this location (No. 4 St James's Street). This embassy was short lived however, because in 1845 Texas joined the United States and its brief spell as an independent state came to an end. Not being well versed on my American history I was somewhat surprised to find out about Texas's short stint as an independent state and its former embassy in London.

The plaque at the entrance to Pickering Place. 
Pictures, London (May 2012).

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

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Weyhill Mermaid

As you drive along the A342 in Hampshire you may happen to pass through the village of Weyhill (three miles west of Andover). Weyhill comes across as a fairly insignificant settlement and it is the sort of place that you can drive through without even noticing. Weyhill was not always insignificant however, once it was famous throughout the country for its fair (the Weyhill Fair) that regularly attracted enormous crowds.

The Weyhill Fair was most famously known for the sale of sheep, however the sale of horses, pigs, cattle, hops and cheese were also regular occurrences. It seems that there was also a “Pleasure Fair” which was home to stalls selling all manner of goods and entertainment. It was at the Pleasure Fair in 1832 that a man named Joseph Thomson sold his wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog (which seems like a good deal to me). This sale of a spouse is believed to have been the inspiration for one of Thomas Hardy’s characters, who sold his wife at the Weyhill Fair for five guineas, in the 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' (1886).

The first written reference to the Weyhill Fair seems to date from 1225, although it is believed that the site had been home to a fair as far back as the 11th century. Over the years the fair steadily grew in prominence and by the 19th century up to 100,000 sheep were routinely traded during the course of a single day. The fair began to gradually decline in the latter part of the 19th century and by the end of World War II the sheep sales had almost entirely ceased, with only the Pleasure Fair still operating. Today most of the original site of the fair has been turned over to other uses, but a craft centre called the “Weyhill Fair Ground” remains on the site.

Given the range of merchandise on offer at the fair it is no real surprise that Colonel Peter Hawker in 1811 remarked on seeing a Mermaid for sale. Hawker (1786 – 1853) was a soldier, author, a sporting shooter and a diarist and it is in his diary entry for the 14th October 1811 where he records his encounter at the Weyhill Fair:

Went to Weyhill Fair, where the principal curiosity was a creature (shown under the name of a mermaid) that was caught and brought alive from the Southampton river.

From the paucity of detail in the dairy entry it is hard to be sure what the Weyhill Mermaid might have been and whether it was actually alive while it was on display at the fair. Potential sources of mermaid accounts tend to be: hand-made hoaxes such as Fiji mermaids, misidentification of marine animals such as Dugongs and occasionally people with genetic abnormalities such as Sirenomelia. But whether one of these is the basis of the Weyhill Mermaid is unclear.

If any readers know any more about this particular story please let me know via the comments section below.

The Weyhill Fair Ground today.

The Weyhill Fair Ground today.

The entrance to the Fair Ground.

The old livestock sheds converted into craft shops.

The old livestock sheds converted into craft shops.

Weyhill Church.

The local pub.

Sign outside the pub.

The pub sign depicting the old sheep fair.

Pictures, Hampshire (December 2013).

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

Monday, 9 December 2013

Inspiring Tolkien

The Vyne is a 16th century country house that is just outside of the village of Sherborne St John (a couple of miles north Basingstoke in Hampshire). The Vyne was originally built for Lord Sandys (King Henry VIII's Lord Chamberlain) and in 1653 The Vyne became the property of the Chute family. The Chute family handed the property over to The National Trust in 1958 and today the house is open to the public. The house displays a number of interesting artefacts, one of which is the “Ring of Silvianus”.

The Ring of Silvianus (named after the British Roman citizen who was believed to have owned it) is an inscribed gold ring that dates from the 4th century, which was found in 1785 in a field near the village of Silchester (about 5 miles north of Sherborne St John). Silchester is home to the ancient Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum, which was first occupied by the Romans in 45 AD and today extensive sections of the town walls and an amphitheatre can still be found. Shortly after the ring’s discovery it came into the possession of the Chute family and was held in their private collection.

It was the discovery of another artefact (a lead tablet) in the early 19th century at the site of the Roman temple dedicated to the god Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire, that provided some context to the ring. This lead tablet was inscribed with a curse that read:


Which translates to:


The curse seemingly accusing a person named Senicianus of stealing the ring from Silvianus.

No connection between the ring and the curse was made until 1929 when the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler discovered the details of the curse and linked the inscriptions on the tablet to those on the ring. It seems that Wheeler consulted with J. R. R. Tolkien who was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford University to assist in understanding the origins of the name "Nodens" that was referred to in the curse.

Wheeler exposing Tolkien to the details of the Ring of Silvianus, the cursed tablet and the archaeology of the Lydney area (which includes an Iron Age fort known as Dwarf's Hill) is theorised to have inspired Tolkien’s writings and the "One Ring" in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The Vyne.
The Vyne.
The Silvianus Ring in its display case. 
A close up view of the inscribed ring. 
Another close up.
A copy of the "curse" tablet.
The curse translated into English. 
Visitor's views on whether the ring inspired Tolkien - a marginal "yes".
Calleva Atrebatum Information Board.
Entering the Amphitheatre. 
Mrs J in the Amphitheatre ready to be fed to the lions.
Amphitheatre Information Board.
A section of Calleva Atrebatum's walls.

On top of the wall.

Pictures, Hampshire (November 2013).

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

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Uffington's Mexican Twin

Back in September I conducted “An Armchair Tour of Britain’s White Horses” using the power of Google Maps to locate the horses. This tour included Britain’s most ancient white horse, the Uffington White Horse, which is located on the slopes of White Horse Hill near the village of Uffington in Oxfordshire.

Whilst browsing the Internet I was recently surprised to find that the Uffington White Horse has been reproduced in Mexico. This Mexican reproduction can be found approximately 10 miles south west of El Paso in Texas and about 10 miles due east of Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico. The Mexican version of the Uffington White Horse has been painted in whitewash on the side of a mountain (unlike the original horse that was made by removing soil to expose the white chalk underneath). The original horse faces to the right, whilst its Mexican twin faces to the left. The Mexican horse is over half a mile long (960m), dwarfing the Uffington horse, which only measures in at 110m in length. The Mexican horse is said to have taken 2,600 gallons of whitewash and over three years to create, so no easy task!

Location (51.577723, -1.566601)
Location (31.662733, -106.587320)

Pictures, Google Maps (November 2013).

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