Monday 22 June 2009

This is the story of the hare who lost his spectacles

This I couldn't resist. I saw Jethro Tull perform A Passion Play, although I can't remember when exactly in the 70s, and this particular piece sticks in the grey matter. Look out for Mr. Anderson making a quick appearance.

Travels around Dartmoor

Last Tuesday, our new Texas Representative Naomi West came to visit us with her husband, Ritchie and mother Barbara. They are on a family holiday to the UK and came to stay in Devon for a few days before moving on to Scotland.

On Friday we all went for a day out to Dartmoor and its surrounding countryside on the way to visit CFZ friend Lionel Beer in Paignton who had some taxidermy specimens that he wished to kindly donate to the CFZ Museum.

We stopped at Okehampton Castle where, as a complete change of subject I felt really sorry for a young couple who were in charge of a plethora of young children all queuing for the one toilet facility at the site - some wiggling in their urgency, some looking as if they were saying to themselves 'I just went' as they stood with arms crossed with expressions of boredom across their face. It was, apparently, the second visit to the facilities that they had made that morning and seemed resigned to the fact that it was probably going to take at least half an hour to get all the children sorted out again.

But, back to the subject at hand.

Then it was on to a tiny village called Lewtrenchard. This was the name of the village where the celebrated hymn writer and novelist, Reverend Sabine Baring Gould (he composed Onward Christian Soldiers) lived in the Manor, which is now a luxury hotel. He is buried in the local church and both Barbara and Naomi had recently read about him and were interested in visiting the place where he lived and was buried.

After that, it was on to Baskerville country and a drive across Dartmoor. I can never decide whether it is Dartmoor or Exmoor that is my favourite. I have spent holidays walking across both of them in days long gone and they both hold a special place in my heart for their beauty and wildness. Ever since my first visit, though, I have always expressed the desire to live in a cottage in the middle of Dartmoor in the company of two Irish wolfhounds, a gaggle of geese, several chickens and a cow. OK a childish fantasy that is not really workable, but a delightful dream nevertheless. Especially in winter – oh those moors are even more beautiful at their bleakest.

Whilst on Dartmoor and near Hound Tor it was a must to take our visitors to see the enigmatic Jay’s Grave. This is sited at the intersection of an old moorland miners track that leads eastwards to Manaton and westwards to the mines around Birch tor and the Ashburton to Chagford road.

The story behind the resting place is both tragic and haunting, but considering the century it all took place, one that was perhaps more common than we at first think.

Back in around 1790 a baby girl was taken to the Poor House in Newton Abbot, Devon. She was an orphan and, as such, was now at the tender mercies of the government of the day and was destined to the care of one of those establishments we now read of in the novels of Charles Dickens.

As was traditional, the little girl was given a surname by the Poor House, known as Wolborough. It so happened that at the time of her arrival the next letter of the alphabet was ‘J’ so she was given the surname Jay. In those days, this was a slang term for prostitute so she was also given the Christian name Mary. It would seem that the more common names had been given to others already.

It seems that Mary Jay spent her life at Wolborough until her teens, looking after younger children. Then she was sent to a farm in Manaton – Canna Farm – as an apprentice, which would mean she would work in both the house and the fields. Her days would have been long and the rewards would have been few – decent meals and clothing would have been luxuries and ones that we will never know whether Mary received. It is not known from where she got her nickname ‘Kitty’, but it could well have been at this farm.

So, in the early 1800s Kitty, as she was now known, spent her days working at Canna Farm, and - as is oft the case - she soon became the recipient of the attentions of the farmer’s son. And - as was so often the case too - she became pregnant. To be fair, we will never know whether those attentions were one sided or not but we can only imagine her despair at finding out that she was going to have a child at such a young age, with no home, no family and – of course – out of wedlock and with no hope of that situation changing. She was shunned – after all her surname said it all. She was thrown out of the farm and she knew that word would soon get around as to her predicament and that she would find no other employment. Her only other choice would be to return to Wolborough, but the poor child could not face this fate.

Therefore, as I am sure quite a few other young girls did who found themselves in such a situation, she took her own life.

Suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground and as was the tradition of the day, she was buried at a crossroads. It was tradition that sometimes stakes would be driven through the deceased’s heart to prevent their souls returning and tormenting god fearing mortals, but we do not know whether this was the case with Kitty.

Road-workers found her remains in 1860 and they were placed in a coffin and reburied. A ghost has been seen at her resting place - a figure in a thick black cloak has been seen kneeling by her grave on many occasions, and it is thought that this apparition could be the farmer’s son or even perhaps the person who actually threw her off the farm.

The other phenomenon that surrounds her resting place is the daily addition of fresh flowers/greenery upon the grave. No-one sees anyone leave them, but they are placed there all through the year.

The site of Jay’s Grave, as it is now known, has become a pilgrimage for many a visitor to the hypnotic and beautiful wilds of Dartmoor.

Friday 5 June 2009

Turn! Turn! Turn!

Sixty-five years ago tomorrow, the invasion of Europe began with the D-Day landings. Despite what is so often depicted in Hollywood movies, in total 75,215 British and Canadian troops and 57,500 US troops were landed by sea on the infamous beaches of Normandy on 6th June 1944.

I am sure most of you will know of the disgraceful actions of the French Government when it was confirmed that only the heads of state of France and America would be marking D-Day on the beaches where it all took place. No other heads of state were invited, including the head of state of Britain and Canada who, of course, is the same person and was actually in uniform herself during the war years. As far as I am aware, this decision has not been overturned.

Today, however, in a little corner of Britain an event occurred that made those watching cheer and clap with good old-fashioned English joyfulness and Jon, Graham and I went along to join in the excitement.

We were not quite up with the lark, but - for Jon at least - 6.00 am is as near as dammit for the CFZ. Appledore Book Festival had commissioned the construction of a panjandrum (a more detailed explanation of which you will find written by Graham elsewhere in today’s blog postings) to mark the 65th anniversary of the landings, and our destination on this bright summer morning was the beach at Westward Ho! This was the beach where the prototypes were tested, rather unsuccessfully, back in 1943. Our friend Jim Jackson had come up with the idea of the panjandrum and had invited us along to the event. Although we knew it would only be around two-thirds of the size of the originals, I am not sure that any of us really knew what to expect, and we would not have missed this for anything.

For Health and Safety reasons all the spectators had to remain on the pebble ridge. Climbing up on to that from the beach was an exercise of courage on my part I can tell you. I am not as spritely as I used to be and planning my route across large, slippery pebbles was not as easy as it was the last time I visited Westward Ho! back in the 70s.

With 5 minutes to go the Union Jack was unfurled to flutter in the faint breeze that came off the sea and then came the countdown, and three blows on the whistle. The Union Jack was waved with gusto to signal the off and it was ‘chocks away’. Off with a bang went the panjandrum, down its ramp as it began its explosive way down the beach. It was like watching a giant Catherine Wheel on Guy Fawkes Night. I am not sure how far they expected it to go, but it made its way slowly across the soggy sand, coming to a halt around 20 seconds later. It didn’t fall over and it didn’t veer off course – in fact it behaved itself perfectly.

There were no heads of state to witness this little episode of British commemoration – just a small crowd of onlookers. And yes, there was only the Union Jack flying, but it was done in true British style to pay our respects to ALL those who landed on those beaches on 6th June 1944 and participated in D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, in all the different armed services: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“Ainsi les Présidents Sarkozy et Obama, mettent cela dans des vos pipes respectives et le fument”. Or as we would say over here in good old Blighty, “So Presidents Sarkozy and Obama, put that in your respective pipes and smoke it.”
Lest We Forget*

* ‘Recessional’(1897) - Rudyard Kipling who attended the United Services College, Westward Ho! from January 1878 until 1882

Thursday 4 June 2009

The alternative Canterbury Tales

Haunted Canterbury (John Hippisley - History Press ISBN 978-0-7524-4998-2 £9.99) – now this is not a book for the delicate. I read this one in bed in the early hours of the morning and even I, whose own hand does not falter at writing fairly descriptive passages of death and destruction, felt a horror at some of the hauntings. There are a couple of entries that I found myself having to re-read just to make sure I had got them right the first time.

There is obviously a lot of history attached to Canterbury. Like London, it is one of those cities that has been around for centuries and much has occurred there throughout history. Canterbury, of course, is where Thomas a Becket met his untimely end and there are, as to be expected in those that believe, many sightings of those connected with that event. The city also boasts the most haunted street in Britain, St. Margaret’s Street, where there are around 27 sightings a year.

In cities and towns as old as Canterbury new buildings are bound, over the years, to be built upon the sites of others or on areas of a more dubious nature. Archaeological investigations in the 1980s revealed massive burials from around the time Henry VIII decided to dissolve the church and have those connected with it massacred. The fact that Christchurch University accommodation block is now built upon this place of burial has a peculiarly macabre feeling about it.

There is the story of how several medical students, living down the aforementioned St. Margaret’s Street in a building that for over 300 years had once been a pub, decided to make a Ouija board and have themselves a séance. The upshot of this was that the events that occurred during and after this séance scared them witless, especially as one of them awoke in the early hours to find the kitchen mirror, which was usually located on the top of the stairwell, levitating over him. He saw the face of an old woman staring back at him, at which he screamed, waking his friends and causing the mirror to shatter covering him in shards of broken glass. By the time his friends broke down his door he had lost a pint of blood and had to have skin grafts to his face and chest. The author delved deeper into the history of the place and discovered that a former inhabitant had committed suicide there. I shall not go into her exact method because its detail is not for this blog, but is horrific to say the least.

I shall also not go into detail about the case of the corpses of four children, carbon dated to around 1412, that were found in an attic. I will just say that the events that occurred on the night that the author and a friend stayed in the relative building will cause the hair to stand up on the back of your neck and a cold chill to travel down your spine.

At the end of the book is a short list of other hauntings around Kent, some of which had a personal interest as my paternal family originate from Tunbridge Wells and my paternal grandparents used to live in Rusthall – a place that seemingly has a few stories to tell of its own.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Down at the Old Bull and Bush

I have been recently reading a collection of books on the subject of haunted Britain published by History Press. I have been given the task – which is not at all onerous as I do enjoy the subject matter – of writing some reviews on a couple of them. So today is the turn of the pubs of London.

Haunted London Pubs (David Brandon and Alan Brooke - History Press ISBN 978-0-7524-4760-5 £9.99) was a very enjoyable read whilst sitting out on the patio in the sunshine, apparently – according to Jon – whilst looking like some updated version of Yoko Ono in my big floppy hat and dark glasses. The fact that I was sitting in a vain attempt to achieve the slightly uncomfortable position of having my legs raised higher than the mid part of my body as I was suffering from rather alarming swollen legs and feet is another matter, but one that would surely shatter any look-a-like competitions with the ubiquitous Ms Ono I am sure.

London is an old city – and as any old city it has long-gone places of interest and macabre fascination. Since its origins in the late 12th Century and its eventual removal in as late as 1783 the infamous gallows, Tyburn, stood at what is now the busy modern-day junction of Edgware Road, Oxford Street and Bayswater Road (There is a plaque in the traffic island to mark the spot, but I wonder how many people walk across that junction today totally oblivious of the chilling events that used to take place there?). During Elizabeth I’s reign the original gallows was upgraded into the famous triangular gallows known as the ‘Triple Tree’ enabling up to 24 people at a time – 8 on each beam - to be executed. I suppose, in those days, this was one way to escape over-crowding in prisons if you can look at it with such morbid wit – no tv to amuse you or degrees to learn to enable you to be released as a new person back then, let alone the chance to win millions on the lottery......

The bodies of those executed used to be thrown into a nearby pit and in the 19th Century many bones were found after excavations took place.

It would come as no surprise, therefore, that this particular part of London has become known for ghostly visits from the departed. One particular pub, “The Mason’s Arms, claims to be situated on the site of the dungeons where prisoners were held before their hanging. The present pub cellar is said to be haunted by earlier inhabitants, many of whom had plotted abortive last minute escapes from the fatal ‘Tree’. Part of the escape plan may have involved using a tunnel that was reputed to run from the dungeons to Marble Arch, but it was sealed up over twenty years ago. On the cellar walls are fittings that were allegedly used as manacles for the prisoners.

It is uncertain whether the pub really did use the cellar to keep the condemned of Tyburn, but it is possible that the cart that conveyed them to the gallows stopped there for the last drink.” The authors go on to explain that: “A ghostly figure has been seen wandering around the cellar and staff have commented on the creepy atmosphere down there. It has also been claimed that phantom hands have turned off the beer barrels

It became a tradition that those condemned would stop at various pubs along the way to have a drink – in order to numb their senses of the inevitable at the end of their journey and many of these pubs report strange goings on.

Dick Turpin pops up a lot too. The book does make the comment that he seems to get about a bit as his ghost does seem to appear in quite a few pubs. It seems our most famous highwayman was a bit of an 18th Century bar-fly.

This is a very interesting little book and it would make a fascinating trip, indeed, to visit all those pubs mentioned in person.