Although chalk figures appear in many places throughout the world, there is one region in particular that has a wealth of them. Mighty figures of men with clubs, ogres and rampant steeds, acres in extent, and visible across great counties, decorate the hillsides in Southern England. Horses are especially abundant, with the finest of them to be found in Berkshire. This is the Uffington White Horse, located just two miles south of the tiny village of Uffington in the Berkshire Downs. It lies at the centre of a cluster of well-known landmarks thick with folkloric and literary associations, including the Neolithic barrow Wayland’s Smithy, of which much is told in Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, the pre-Roman Ridgeway, a hill fort called Uffington Castle, and the naturally flat-topped Dragon Hill, where Saint George is said to have slain the dragon. While the Uffington White Horse is a majestic creature measuring approximately 360 by 130 feet, it is not just size that makes it unique. It possesses two other traits that none of the other existing white horses have – antiquity and unique artistry. Indeed, this particular chalk figure may have served as the inspiration for all those that followed it.
If you’re looking for a ghost story to elicit a pleasurable shudder this Christmas, then you could do far worse than read the work of that oft-overlooked Edwardian scribe of the supernatural, Richard Henry Malden. His book of short stories Nine Ghosts (1942) was compiled over many years and issued as a tribute to his long friendship with the writer M R James, who had of course been one of the most celebrated authors in this particular genre. One of the most appealing features of R H Malden’s ghost stories is that we are always conscious of the presence of Malden the narrator. We may be sure that it is Malden and not some fictional persona because of the brief and entertaining, if not always actually necessary, fragments of his own experience that are mentioned in his ghostly tales. This is also most likely a natural result of the fact that the tales were written to be read aloud – Malden was among those present at the auspicious first readings of the ghost stories of M R James at the celebrated meetings of the Chitchat Society at King’s College, Cambridge and remained forever affected by the experience. As Malden notes in his introduction to Nine Ghosts, “It was my good fortune to know Dr James for more than thirty years”.
This has been a huge year for Scotland, with a referendum on independence and a Commonwealth Games hosted in Glasgow in addition to the usual annual highlights of Hogmanay, Up Helly Aa and the Edinburgh Festival. Somewhat lost among all these events is the significance of the Stone of Scone, perhaps the single most important, mysterious and widely travelled object in Scottish history. This holy relic, also known as the Stone of Destiny, has been fought over by England and Scotland for centuries. According to one Celtic legend, the stone was once the pillow upon which the patriarch Jacob rested at Bethel when he beheld the visions of angels, hence its other famous moniker, Jacob’s Pillow. Thereafter, it was for centuries associated with the crowning of Scottish kings and then, in 1296, was taken to England and later placed under the Coronation Chair. It was finally returned to Scotland seven centuries later – the supreme symbol of Scottish independence for some and the ultimate symbol of the union with England for others. However, the Stone of Destiny has other, more mystical associations, which are known to few.
If you’re at a loose end this Halloween and in the mood to be scared silly, here are some suggestions courtesy of Ghost Cities:
1 Thing to watch – the Babadook will scare you silly…
1 Thing to visit – the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum: just about the scariest place to visit this Halloween!
1 Thing to eat – here’s a ghoulishly good recipe for that old favourite: pumpkin pie!
1 Thing to listen to – what else but Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre?
Enjoy – Happy Halloween!
With Halloween almost upon us, I thought that a post on the late Ray Bradbury – that October Dreamer extraordinaire – was timely. After all, the season of thrills and chills never had a greater fan, or finer exponent of the Halloween-themed short story, than the great man. Bradbury only passed away fairly recently (he lived from 1920-2012) but he left behind him a vast, influential body of work ranging from science fiction to horror novels, short stories, plays and TV scripts. Best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury was one of the most celebrated 20th-century American writers, inspiring the likes of Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Robert Bloch to follow in his footsteps. Bradbury is credited with writing 27 novels and over 600 short stories – more than eight million copies of his works, published in over 36 languages, have been sold around the world. His honours include Emmy and Nebula awards, as well as the National Medal of Arts. However, leaving all these achievements aside, his work is particularly celebrated at this time of year – and he appears on this website mainly because of – his enduring love of the Halloween season. If you’re looking for something to put you in the mood this year, you could do much worse than seek out Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or the stories of The October Country, which are nothing less than a series of passionate love-letters written about Halloween and all of its associated thrills and dread.
Although Daphne du Maurier is remembered as one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century, she is in many ways an unlikely success story. Daughter of the famous actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier, Daphne was educated at home in London, and then in Paris, before writing her first novel in 1931. Three others followed before Rebecca, in 1938, made her one of the most popular authors of the day (much to her own surprise). Nearly all her fifteen novels have been bestsellers, and several of her works became successful films, notably the version of Rebecca starring Laurence Olivier, and the chilling adaptations of her short stories The Birds and Don’t Look Now. Daphne herself was made a dame in 1969, in recognition of her unique achievement of writing novels that were both popular and literary classics. What merits her mention on this website is that she has been credited with shifting the Gothic mode towards romantic fiction with her novels, which were built on the work of the Bronte sisters and inspired a genre that has flourished ever since.
Shrouded in Arthurian myth and rich in mystical associations, the town of Glastonbury was once one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in England. Now thousands flock here for the annual music festival and for the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day. Over the years history and legend have become intertwined, and the monks who founded Glastonbury Abbey, around 700 AD, found it profitable to encourage the association between Glastonbury and the mythical ‘Blessed Isle’ known as Avalon. Avalon was another name for the Otherworld, and was the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, as well as being the supposed site of his eventual tomb. Once Glastonbury and its conical hill, Glastonbury Tor, rising from a vast inland lake that covered much of present day Somerset, had been a sacred site of the Old Religion of the British Isles. Even today, it is a place where the very air is alive with the stuff of myth and legend. In Arthurian legend it was ruled by the enchantress Morgan le Fay and her eight sisters, every one of them skilled in the magical arts. Before that, it was said to be ruled by the dark Celtic deity Aballach. It has variously been called the ‘Isle of apples’ and the ‘Isle of glass’. In the Christian era, it was said to be the place where Joseph of Arimathea came carrying the Holy Grail in order to found Britain’s first church. All of these myths, legends and historical associations have inspired numerous fiction writers over the years, among them Phil Rickman, whose novel The Bones of Avalon, takes full advantage of this rich body of lore.
London has been the capital of England, more or less, for almost a thousand years. Much of the capital’s history is either hidden or forgotten, and this is especially true of the London beneath the feet of its residents. London’s sewers, tunnels and underground network stretch for uncounted miles deep below the bustling city, home to millions, which exists on the surface. Within those hidden depths lurk all manner of mysteries – the source of rumours, legends and nightmares down the centuries. There was a sensation in the 1860s, when it was feared, following the death of a well-known politician, that a band of criminals were stalking the capital, garroting anyone unfortunate enough to come into their path, then disappearing below ground. Then there was a string of news stories around the turn of the twentieth century, concerning reports of archaeological discoveries of hidden subterranean habitats and strangely large human remains found in the city’s sewers. But there is perhaps no story more terrifying than the persistent rumours over the years that the sewers of London are full of monstrous pigs that will one day free themselves from their foetid home and run riot through the city. The Black Swine in the sewers of Hampstead is one Victorian urban legend that has proved to be horrifyingly resilient.
Haddon Hall, perhaps the most simple and understated of English stately homes, is also one of the finest medieval manor houses in Britain. Nestled in the heart of the Peak District National Park, it certainly enjoys a picturesque setting, two miles south of Bakewell (known for its eponymous tarts) on the banks of the River Wye. In the mid-twelfth century the hall passed from its Norman founders to the Vernon family, who owned it for four hundred years until the most famous event in its history occurred. In 1558 the sole remaining Vernon heir, Dorothy, married John Manners, scion of another powerful family who later became Dukes of Rutland. Their union is commemorated in their joint tomb in Bakewell church, but the romantic story of their elopement may be apochryphal. Dorothy Vernon was 18 at the time and it is said that the couple eloped during the wedding of one of her sisters. There must have been some sort of reconciliation, as Dorothy and John later became owners of Haddon Hall. The hall has been owned by the Manners ever since then, but curiously enough has never been sold. The mansion fell into two hundred years of neglect from the start of the eighteenth century until the 9th Duke began restoring Haddon Hall when he moved there in 1912. No one quite knows the reason for the building’s neglect and seeming lack of interest to buyers – although this may have something to do with the fact that the ghost of Dorothy Vernon is said to appear there on a regular basis, usually seen on the steps leading up to Haddon Hall, as if being chased.
The House of Plantagenet was an Anglo-French royal dynasty that came to prominence in the Middle Ages. Although the Plantagenets transformed England from what was essentially a realm ruled from abroad under the earlier Norman kings into a powerful and independent kingdom in its own right, they came from dark and uncertain origins. The roots of House Plantagenet can be traced back to the House of Anjou, usually referred to simply as the Angevins, a family of Frankish origin descended from a ninth-century noble named Ingelger, who were Counts of Anjou since 870. The chronicler Gerald of Wales, however, borrowed elements of the Melusine legend to give a demonic origin to the Angevins. Melusine was a figure of European legend and folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers. She is usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down, and is said to possess eternal life as the result of a curse. Over the centuries tales of Melusine have been told by chroniclers as diverse as Sir Walter Scott, Marcel Proust, Felix Mendelssohn and A S Byatt. Melusine’s demon blood partly explains the commonly held belief that Lady Elizabeth Woodville – wife of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower – was a witch. At any rate the Angevin monarchs never shied away from their supposedly supernatural origins. The famous English king Richard the Lionheart was reputedly fond of saying that his whole family “came from the devil and would return to the devil” as a result of their descent from the demon countess of Anjou.