“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, 30 August 2015

Hiding Secrets in the Bog

I would not normally post a picture of a public convenience on this blog, but this building bears an interesting plaque which describes the convenience’s part in the Cold War Portland Spy Ring. The plaque reads:

"Secret information hidden in this toilet was collected periodically by Harry Houghton. In 1961 he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for his part in the Portland Spy Ring."

Its seems that during the Portland Spy Ring’s period of activity that the public toilets near New Alresford station were occasionally used as a dead drop location, with pilfered information being handed over between members of the spy ring.

The Portland Spy Ring was a Soviet spy ring that operated in England from the late 1950s until 1961. The spy ring was discovered in 1959 when the CIA received a tip that the Russians were being provided with information regarding UK research on underwater warfare. The source of the pilfered research was the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment and HMS Osprey, both in Portland, Dorset.

The key suspects for the leak were civil servant Harry Houghton, who seemed to be living a lifestyle that far exceeded his wages, and his mistress, Ethel Gee. Gee was a civil servant filing clerk, and was suspected of providing Houghton access to some of the classified material.

Both suspects were put under surveillance and they were observed taking frequent trips to London where they would meet a Canadian businessman, Gordon Lonsdale, and exchange packages with him. Lonsdale was also put under surveillance and he was seen regularly visiting the home of an antiquarian bookseller in Ruislip, Middlesex. The home belonged to a couple called Peter and Helen Kroger.

During a regular meeting in London on the 7th January 1961, Houghton, Gee and Lonsdale were arrested. Gee was found to be in possession of large amounts of classified material, including details of HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine.

The Kroger’s house in Ruislip was raided next and was found to contain microdots (photographic reductions of documents), which Peter Kroger would hide in the print of his antique books to enable them to be smuggled to Russia. The Kroger’s house was also found to be full of spying paraphernalia, including large sums of money, photographic material, equipment for encoding messages and a long-range radio with a 74ft aerial so that they could communicate with Moscow. It is said that the radio equipment was so well hidden that it took authorities nine days of searching the property before they located it. Further to this, some of the Kroger’s radio equipment was not found until years later, when the property was renovated!

All five of the alleged spies were charged with espionage and found guilty. Houghton and Gee received a sentence of 15 years each, whilst the Kroger’s (who were identified as known spies Morris and Lona Cohen), were sentenced to 20 years. Lonsdale was deemed to be the mastermind behind the plot and he was given a sentence of 25 years. Lonsdale was also suspected of being a member of the KGB, and he was eventually identified as Konon Trofimovich Molody. Lonsdale was the first of the five to be released from jail, as in 1964 he was exchanged for a British spy who had been captured in Russia.

So if you ever use the public toilets in New Alresford, be careful as the person in the cubical next to you could be doing a dead-drop for the KGB.

The public toilets in New Alresford close to the railway station. A plague commemorates that occasionally classified documents obtained by members of the Portland Soviet Spy Ring were left here for collection.

Pictures: Hampshire (August 2015).

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Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Horny Man of Abson

Abson is a small village in South Gloucestershire which consists of a handful of houses, a farm and a church.  Abson's church is dedicated to St James the Great and is a largely unremarkable building except for a carving which is tucked away high on the outside East wall of the church.  The carving is very easy for a casual observer to miss, but once it is noticed it is a real attention grabber. The carving in question is of a man crouching on all fours, with his testicles and a large erection proudly on display! At first glance such a rude carving looks out of place on a church, but it seems that graphic carvings such are these are fairly common on churches, castles and other ancient buildings around the country.

This carving seems to be a male version of a Sheela na Gig figure and possibly dates from the Saxon or early Norman period. Sheela na Gig carvings typically depict naked women displaying large and exaggerated vaginas, often holding them open as if to be inspected by the viewer. These female figures are sometimes accompanied by a male figure sporting an erection, and the carving on Abson church looks to be such an example.

The purpose behind Sheela na Gig carvings is not really known, however some theories suggest that they may be representations of pagan goddesses and gods relating to fertility. It is also proposed that they are a warning against lust and the sins of the flesh, or perhaps protection against death and evil - which may explain why this man is near the window,  protecting that entrance to the church.

Ultimately however, the intended purpose of these types of carvings is not known for sure.  So just enjoy it for what it is, a rude carving of a horny man on a church!

St James' Church in Abson.

The East wall.

Notice the horny man?

Up close!

Pictures: South Gloucestershire (August 2015).

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Sunday, 9 August 2015

Upsetting God in Devizes

The Market Cross in Devizes was erected in 1814 and bears a metal plaque that tells the unfortunate story of Ruth Pierce from nearby Potterne. Ruth Pierce met her unfortunate demise at Devizes market on the 25th January 1753. The plaque reads:

“On Thursday the 25th of January 1753, Ruth Pierce of Potterne in this County, agreed with three other women to buy a sack of wheat in the market, each paying her due proportion towards the same. One of these women, in collecting the several quotas of money, discovered a deficiency, and demanded of Ruth Pierce the sum which was wanting to make good the amount. Ruth Pierce protested that she had paid her share, and said, ‘She wished she might drop down dead if she had not.’ She rashly repeated this awful wish; when to the consternation and terror of the surrounding multitude, she instantly fell down and expired, having the money concealed in her hand.”

It is said that the day following Ruth Pierce’s death that an inquest was held and that the judge and jury found that there were no marks of violence on her body nor any clear reason why she had died. The verdict that the inquest arrived at was that Ruth Pierce had been struck dead by “the Visitation of the Great and Almighty God”.

In an attempt to warn people and to deter such behaviour from occurring again, Ruth’s story was captured on a stone tablet in the market place. Following the construction of the Market Cross in 1814 this stone tablet was replaced by the current metal plaque. The original stone tablet is said to be in the care of the Devizes Heritage Museum and may be on display in the foyer of the Devizes Corn Exchange - but I have not been there to confirm this for myself.

Some sources also suggest that the part of the story that says Ruth died “having the money concealed in her hand” was a latter fabrication of the story to give it a stronger moral message. It is entirely possible that Ruth Pierce was innocent of any wrong doing, and simply suffered a heart attack or stroke as a result of the accusations being levelled at her. Or perhaps she was indeed an embezzler, who was justly struck down by the Lord Almighty as punishment for her crimes? 

Devizes Market Cross.

Ruth's tale.
The story of Ruth Pierce is not the only morality story that is on display in Devizes. St John’s Churchyard is home to an obelisk that warns of the dangers of breaking the Fourth Commandment - remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. The story is that one Sunday evening in June 1751 a newlywed couple and three of their friends went to Drew’s Pond in Devizes to enjoy the water. Sadly during this trip all five of the friends drowned, a tragedy that would have been avoided if they had all been in church like they were supposed to have been! The worn inscription on the 15ft high monument reads:

In memory of the sudden and awful end of Robert Merrit and Susannah, his wife, Eliz. Tilley, her sister, Martha Carter and Josiah Derham, who were all Drowned in the Flower of their Youth in a pond near this town called Drews. On Sunday evening the 30th June 1751 and are together underneath entombed.

The inscription on the other side of the monument reads:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. This monument, as an awful monitor to young people to remember their Creator in the days of their Youth. Was erected by subscription.”

For five people to drown is Drew’s pond is somewhat surprising, given that it is not a huge body of water. So perhaps the Lord Almighty did have a hand in the event? 

So be warned! If you ever visit Devizes in Wiltshire be sure not to upset the Lord Almighty else you may come to an untimely end!

St John's Church.

The Obelisk.

The worn inscription.
Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Sunday, 2 August 2015

St Aldhelm's Chapel

St Aldhelm's Chapel is a Norman chapel which resides inside a low circular earthwork on St Aldhelm's Head near Worth Matravers in Dorset. The chapel is dedicated to a St. Aldhelm (639 AD – 709 AD) who was the Bishop of Sherborne.

St. Aldhelm's Chapel has some unusual features for a chapel firstly it is square (25 feet by 25 feet), as opposed to the rectangular shape of most chapels. The interior space is also odd. Typical chapels have an open interior, whereas  St. Aldhelm's Chapel has a large central column which dominates the interior of the building. The chapel is also oriented in a different manner to more typical chapels. Chapels tend to be laid out based on an East to West orientation, St. Aldhelm's Chapel however is oriented with the corners of the chapel pointing towards the cardinal points of the compass.

The other thing that makes the placement of St. Aldhelm's Chapel so strange is its apparent remoteness. The chapel is around 1.5 miles from Worth Matravers and there has been no evidence found to date of any historic settlements closer to the chapel.

Based on this peculiar feature the original purpose of the building is not certain, it could have been originally built as a chapel or it could have been built for another purpose. Some suggest that it may have originally been built as a watchtower for Corfe Castle, covering the sea approaches to the south. Essentially however, it is not accurately known when the chapel was built, who built it or why they built it!

The first written record of the building being used as a chapel dates from the reign of King Henry III (1207 – 1272) and the chapel appears to have been in use until circa 1625. Following 1625, the chapel slowly fell into disrepair until it was finally restored by the Earl of Eldon in the 19th century, and re-opened for services in 1874. The chapel still holds services to this day, but limited to special occasions, such as Easter.

St Aldhelm's Chapel is not the only eye-catching structure on St Aldhelm's Head. Nearby the chapel is an unusual looking sculpture that serves as a memorial to the pioneering work on radar, undertaken at nearby Renscombe Farm during the Second World War. Work was carried out on the development of radar by a team of researchers including the famous astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell. The stainless steel sculpture represents two radar dishes which are arranged in such a way that they also form a large fire basket. This design is intended to reflect both the ancient and modern methods to warn of invasion - fire beacons were historically used to send messages across the country and warn of impending invasions, and radar took up this role during the Second World War.

Worth Matravers was chosen as a site for the development of radar due to the area’s cliff tops which are relatively flat and thus good for testing radar. In May 1940 there was an influx of around 200 scientists to the area and two years later by May 1942 around 2000 people were actively working on the site. The coastal location did however lead to fears that the research centre could be raided by the Germans and as such the majority of the research effort was moved to Malvern in May 1942. Post 1942 some work on radar did continue in the area and the last radar tower operated by the RAF (a 110m tall tower) was only taken down in the early 1970’s.


Even with the area being home to the development of radar, it seems that the powers that be were still unable to prevent the Daleks invading nearby Winspit Quarry in 1967 and 1979.

Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).

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