Friday, 13 March 2009

The Wyrd Museum

I went to visit Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and when I got there I noticed the Wyrd Museum which is almost next door. This is a 600-year old house - genuinely haunted, apparently - which has been turned into a strange museum with a Harry Potter theme (The Creaky Cauldron) but also contains much folklore and history pertaining to witchcraft. It starts with a lot of billowing mist, and curtains eerily moving on their own...I was quite scared as I was on my own too..then I began to tread the stairs upwards, and in some of the upper rooms I reached the Victorian Spirit Room, which challenges the visitor to sit in the dark with the curtains drawn. I sat there in the dark, waiting for the spirit to appear, but nothing happened. In front of me was a sort of crystal ball with what looked like a face in it, but as it was dark I could not tell. After about ten minutes or so I gave up waiting and explored a bit more. I found other rooms, an apothecary's shop selling all sorts of odd subtances. Then a bordello with a spooky mannequin that looked like a vampire from a Hammer film. The mannequins are very creepy. There were also pictures on the wall with eyes that follow you. I read some of the information about the Stratford Ripper, and some of the local witches and the foul deeds which are supposed to have gone on. After a while I decided to leave before I was turned into a newt.

No flash photography was allowed but I did manage to get some incriminating shots of the "Stratford Ripper" I took these without a flash. Overall I was very impressed with the Wyrd museum and the work which has gone into it.


Thursday, 12 March 2009

Portland Isle Sea Caves & a Ruined Church

This weekend we went to visit the Isle of Portland, in Dorset. I wanted to visit the sea caves. When we arrived I noticed the coast was every bit as romantic as that of Cornwall. Portland is what Thomas Hardy called, "carved by Time out of a single stone". It is certainly fascinating from a geological, ecological and historical point of view. I was most interested in going to visit the sea caves. We walked along the South West Coast path, - a long distance route that is more than 1000 miles in all! - to reach the caves, where we found Cave Hole.

It would seem that Cave Hole has a natural blow hole in the cliff, which has been secured with a steel grate for safety but from which you could stand in stormy weather or when the tide is high and get splashed or feel the power of the waves.

In their book Dark Dorset, Robert Newland and Mark North tell the grisly tale of the Roy Dog of Portland, a phantom black dog which haunts Cave Hole. They even use an artist's impression of this for the cover of their book:

In this tale, three men are fishing at Cave Hole. Two decide to go home as the weather has taken a turn for the worst, but the third insists on staying until he has caught something. On their way back, the two men met the lighthouse keeper who told them he thought evil was afoot as the lighthouse would not function properly. Shortly after this, when they went to get a drink of water, the two men met the Roy Dog itself, as big as a man and "like something out of HP Lovecraft." Apparently it has two different fiery coloured eyes, one red one green, and the eyes of the victims plucked from their heads dangle from its black mane of fur. They ran as fast as they could to get home. Next morning they returned to Cave Hole to see if their friend was still there fishing, and found him lying dead with his eyes plucked out on Cave Hole. Attached to his fishing rod was a piece of flesh and a large claw, and they concluded that he had caught the Roy Dog.

Newland & North speculate that the Roy Dog legend could be a corruption of the ancient Germanic myths of the Rye Wolf or Corn Dog. Portland was certainly populated in ancient times for such a myth to grow. Although the Dog itself behaves more like a water spirit, luring people to their dooms.

We however survived Cave Hole partly by not going too near the edge, yet walked fairly strenous length of the South West Coast path for about 4 miles up and down the cliffs. At times the views were breathtakingly spectacular. Finally we arrived at a place called Church Ope Cove. This beach was secluded and very beautiful. The portland stone pebbles were smooth and grey and the exact colour and texture that sea pebbles are supposed to be.

I thought this was the sort of beach were one could expect to see mermaids. We turned to face the shore, and could see the ruins of Rufus Castle overlooking the beach, and next to it the romantic ruins of the mediaeval St Andrews Church. This church was ransacked by the French before being abandoned to the sea due to crumbling cliffs.

According to the official Portland website, there are real pirates' graves in this churchyard. But we could not decide which ones they were.

The Dark Dorset book states that according to folklore, a mermaid once came ashore on this beach. Whether the mermaid was washed ashore after expiring, or if she just came ashore is unknown and seems to depend upon which accounts you are reading. However the Church Ope Cove is certainly a very secluded and atmospheric location. The Mermaid Inn, a short walk from the cove, commemorates the strange event of the mermaid coming ashore.

After we visited Portland, we went to see Durdle Dor.

The weather changed at this point and I took some photos of the stormy waves.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Courtiers, Clifton Hampden

Our most popular local ghost, Sarah Fletcher is buried at Dorchester Abbey, according to a slab there which says she died "a martyr to excessive sensibility."

When she died in 1799, Gothic novels were very popular among upper class young ladies, who often fainted at the slightest thing. This is called excessive sensibility. However although it is tempting to suggest she was the first goth there is more to this dark tale.

What really happened was Sarah's husband cheated on her and she committed suicide in the house where she lived. Her ghost has been seen in the house, called Courtiers, and also out and about in Long Wittenham and Clifton Hampden villages.
She frequents two pubs: the Barley Mow in Clifton Hampden, and the George next door to Dorchester Abbey.

Her ghost has also been seen in the car park at the Barley Mow. It was Christmas Eve and there was a full moon. A couple had been to the pub and were going back to their car. When they got in, they noticed the moon getting larger and larger until it filled the passenger seat window. Then they realised it was a face. The pale face was Sarah's; it was benign and smiled benevolently at the lady until her husband drove off, leaving Sarah alone and sad in the car park on Christmas Eve.

It is thought Sarah wears a romantic long black velvet coat, or black silk coat, popular in the 1700s to keep ladies' dreses from getting dusty in the roads. This is why only her face could be seen. Sarah wears a purple ribbon in her hair.

Maude Ffoulkes wrote about Sarah in her book True Ghost Stories. In this she interviews the vicar who lived in Courtiers, and who apparently fell in love with the ghost, who is said to be very beautiful.

I went in the George pub, where the bar staff were very polite and helpful, and visited Sarah's grave in Dorchester Abbey. The George is a 15th century coaching inn across the road from the Abbey and has several other ghosts including that of a monk.

  1. Maud Ffoulkes

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Vale of the White Horse

Did a long-ish walk this weekend around the folklore rich are of the White Horse and Uffington Monuments. We parked in the National Trust car park and walked up the gentle slope to stand near the white horse.

We passed some strange ripples in the valley known as the "giant's steps". These are apparently a natural earth formation caused by the melting of water in the Ice Age. (Not the ice giants!) The valley below the horse is called the manger and is said to be where the horse goes down to drink.

According to legend, the hill below the horse is where St George slayed the dragon. The legend says no grass with grow on this hill as a result of the dragon's blood poisoning it. We walked on the hill, and sure enough there is hardly any grass growing on its top.

We walked from here up to Uffington castle, which an ancient hill fort and the highest point in Oxfordshire, and then walked the ridgeway, the ancient roman road, towards Waylands Smith.

Our pilgrimage to Waylands Smith took us on many diversions most notably the village of Woolstone where we found a really quaint old mediaeval church. I thought it was a beautiful place and loved the gothic interior.

On the way down to Woolstone we saw a real white horse:

Eventually we arrived at Waylands Smith where we left a penny for the invisible blacksmith to shod our invisible horse. We then took a diversion through the very strange valley called Oddstone Coombes, looking out over the valley through the gnarled beech trees.

The walk from here was a pleasant stretch of the ridgeway heading in a straight line all the way back to the distant landmark of Uffington Castle, where we arrived in time to watch the sun set.