Three 1950s youths in a medieval plague village

Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott's watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how 'old' Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a 'timeslip' case.

Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott’s watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how ‘old’ Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a ‘timeslip’ case.

Looking back, the really strange thing was the silence. The way the church bells stopped ringing as the little group of naval cadets neared the village. The way even the ducks stood quiet and motionless by the shallow stream that ran across the road where the main street began.

And, when the boys thought about it afterward, they recalled that even the autumn birdsong faded as they neared the first houses. The wind had dropped to nothing, too.

Not a leaf stirred on the trees they passed. And the trees appeared to cast no shadows.

The street itself was quite deserted—not so odd, perhaps, for a Sunday morning in 1957, especially in the rural heart of England. But even the remotest British hamlets displayed some signs of modernity by then—cars parked by the roadside, phone wires strung along the roads, aerials on roofs—and there was nothing of that sort in this village. In fact, the houses on the high street all looked ancient; they were ragged, hand-built, timber-framed: “almost medieval in appearance,” one boy thought.

The three, all Royal Navy cadets, walked up to the nearest building and pressed their faces to its grimy windows. They could see that it was some sort of butcher’s shop, but what they glimpsed in the interior was even more unsettling. As one of them recalled for the author Andrew MacKenzie:

There were no tables or counters, just two or three whole oxen carcasses which had been skinned and in places were quite green with age. There was a green-painted door and windows with smallish glass panes, one at the front and one at the side, rather dirty-looking. I remember that as we three looked through that window in disbelief at the green and mouldy green carcasses… the general feeling certainly was one of disbelief and unreality… Who would believe that in 1957 that the health authorities would allow such conditions?

They peered into another house. More

The strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example to the right comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

The Roman poet Lucan was one of the first authors to describe the basilisk. His work stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

The Roman poet Lucan stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. More

Natives of the Red Dragon

The Welsh dragon on the First World War memorial to the men of the 38th (Welsh) division at Mametz Wood.

The Welsh dragon on the First World War memorial to the men of the 38th (Welsh) division at Mametz Wood.

Today is St David’s Day, the national day of Wales, and it seems an appropriate moment to post what remains perhaps my very favourite story among all the thousands of strange tales that I have read.

That is a large claim – I tend to read a fair bit – but I still find what follows so surreal and so magical, in its combination of the gentle, the mundane and the extraordinary, that for me each reading is like immersing myself in a warm bath. All right, it’s pretty hard to credit that it’s literally ‘true’; it helps that it’s a Welsh story, and that I’m a proud Welshman – and that the tale remains all but unknown; the account first appeared in print in 1928, and so far as I can tell has never made it onto the Internet. The names of the characters involved are so common that it would be extremely difficult to check if they were actually real or not; Radnor Forest, though, is real – and is, according to local legend, the place where the last Welsh dragon still lies sleeping (Daniel Parry-Jones, A Country Parson. London: Batsford, 1975). The strange stamps you’re about to read of did exist. No other comment is possible – but then perhaps none is necessary.

Here, then, is the story as I first read it – it is based, as mentioned in the first lines, on an article originally published in the 1920s in a children’s stamp magazine [The Stamp Lover, 1928 p.274]  The best thing to do is simply to sit back and enjoy. More

An abandoned lifeboat at world’s end

Breaking news: a credible solution to the Bouvet Island lifeboat mystery has been found. See comments for 22-27 May 2011, 12 November 2011, 17-20 March and 9 April 2016.

The unidentified whaler or ship's lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

The unidentified whaler or ship’s lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

LongreadsThere is no more forbidding place on earth.

Bouvet Island lies in the furthest reaches of the storm-wracked Southern Ocean, far south even of the Roaring Forties. It is a speck of ice in the middle of a freezing fastness: a few square miles of uninhabited volcanic basalt groaning under several hundred feet of glacier, scraped raw by gales, shrouded by drifts of sea-fog, and utterly devoid of trees, shelter, or landing places.

What it does have is a mystery. More

Erotic secrets of Lord Byron’s tomb

Byron in death, Greece, spring 1824.

It was hot and dusty in the crypt, and it had been hard work breaking into it. Now the vicar had gone, along with his invited guests, to take his supper. The churchwarden and two workmen armed with spades were left to wait for their return, loitering by the grave they had come to examine – the tomb of Lord Byron the poet.

We didn’t take too kindly to that,” said Arnold Houldsworth. “I mean, we’d done the work. And Jim Bettridge suddenly says, ‘Let’s have a look on him.’ ‘You can’t do that,’ I says. ‘Just you watch me,’ says Jim. He put his spade in, there was a layer of wood, then one of lead, and I think another one of wood. And there he was, old Byron.”

“Good God, what did he look like?” I said.

“Just like in the portraits. He was bone from the elbows to his hands and from the knees down, but the rest was perfect. Good-looking man putting on a bit of weight, he’d gone bald. He was quite naked, you know,” and then he stopped, listening for something that must have been a clatter of china in the kitchen, where his wife was making tea for us, for he went on very quickly,  “Look, I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been in bathhouses, I’ve seen men. But I never saw nothing like him.” He stopped again, and nodding his head, meaningfully, as novelists say, began to tap a spot just above his knee. “He was built like a pony.”

“How many of you take sugar?” said Mrs Houldsworth, coming with the tea. More

The chupatty movement

Why were thousands of chapatis – an Indian unleavened bread – carried by night across the interior of India in the months before the outbreak of the great Sepoy Rebellion? And why did not even the people who bore them know what they were for?

Thousands of chapatis – an Indian unleavened bread – carried by night across the interior of India in the months before the outbreak of the great Sepoy Rebellion. But why did not even the people who bore them know what they were for?

“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” wrote Dr Gilbert Hadow in a letter to his sister at home in Britain dated March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.’” [Hibbert p.59]

The “movement” that Dr Hadow was describing was a remarkable example of rumour gone wild. It consisted of the distribution of many thousands of chapatis – unleavened Indian breads – which were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the mofussil (interior) of the Subcontinent. That these chapatis really existed is beyond doubt; what made their distribution truly bizarre and inexplicable was that nobody knew for sure what they were for. More

The miniature coffins found on Arthur’s Seat

Seventeen miniature coffins were discovered high above Edinburgh in 1836, and eight of them survive today in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland.

It may have been Charles Fort who described the strange discovery best:

London Times, July 20, 1836:

That, early in July, 1836, some boys were searching for rabbits’ burrows in the rocky formation, near Edinburgh, known as Arthur’s Seat. In the side of a cliff, they came upon some thin sheets of slate, which they pulled out.

Little cave.

Seventeen tiny coffins.

Three or four inches long.

In the coffins were miniature wooden figures. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin.

The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here: More

The Monster of Glamis: a first draft

Glamis[For a completely revised and more detailed account of the same mystery, featuring the fruits of much new research, see here.]

Glamis Castle, in Scotland, is a famous place: a picture-postcard tourist destination, childhood home of the late-lamented Queen Mother Gawd Bless ‘Er™, and – not incidentally for the purposes of this blog – notoriously the most haunted ‘house’ in Britain. Any number of spook stories are associated with the castle, from tales of ghosts materializing in visitors’ bedrooms to the legend of the infamous Earl Beardie, the so-called “Tiger Earl” – a fifteenth century Earl of Crawford whose soul is said to have been claimed by the devil while he unrepentantly played cards at Glamis upon the Sabbath day.

Best known by far, however, is the strange story of the Monster of Glamis, which (thanks in large part to its vague royal associations) has some claim to be ranked among the more pervasive legends of the twentieth century. In its evolved form (and it took some time to evolve, as we will see), this legend relates how, in the early nineteenth century, the wife of the then heir to the Earl of Strathmore gave birth in the castle to an boy who was so hideously deformed that the family took the decision to lock the child away in a secret room, denying him the chance to succeed to the earldom. More

The horrible history of the Ostrich Inn

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The Ostrich Inn, Colnbrook

An old friend, Alan Murdie, has written an interesting  essay which discusses, among several gory stories, the supposedly spook-infested Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire – where ‘a past landlord named Jarman is supposed to have murdered up to 60 guests on the premises, in either the 16th or 18th century’. The pub’s unusual name rang a bell, and after a short hunt I turned up a story about the same place that I clipped from the Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1989:

In the shadow of one of London’s ghastliest locations, one of England’s oldest pubs is on the market – together with a ghastly history.

The Ostrich Inn, a Grade II listed freehouse near Heathrow Airport, is said to date back to 1106 and was the scene of 60 grisly murders committed by 12th century landlord John Jarman and his wife.

After inviting wealthy travellers to sleep on a specially-made hinged bed, Jarman would say to his wife, “There is now a fat pig to be had if you want one.” She would answer: “I pray you put him in the hogsty till tomorrow.” The victim would then fall through a trapdoor into a vat of boiling water. More

A Scottish spinster at the Battle of Nechtanesmere, 685AD

A Pictish carving which possibly depicts the great battle of 685.

Being an historian, I readily admit to a special fondness for that rarest of Fortean phenomena, the “timeslip” case. These are incidents in which a witness appears to travel back through time, in some unexplained and unexpected way, and is able to witness at first hand an event in the past. The proper name for the phenomenon is retrocognition, and by far the best-known example of it is the celebrated Versailles incident of August 1901, which involved two female English academics on a visit to Paris who took a fork in the path in the grounds of the palace of Versailles and became convinced that they had somehow begun walking through the gardens as they existed in the late eighteenth century, at the time of Marie Antoinette.

In the course of their ‘adventure,’ the women remembered passing several structures which did not exist in 1901, and encountering a number of people, clad in convincing period dress, whom they initially supposed to be actors rehearsing a play. Their story has been the subject of considerable investigation, and though far from all of the results favour the ladies’ interpretation, the incident nonetheless still ranks among a surprisingly large number of researchers’ “classic cases”. There are, however, three or four other, much less celebrated, timeslip cases that follow a very similar pattern, and I want to have a look at one of those today. More