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Canterbury Tales

13 Nov

One of England’s most venerable cities, Canterbury offers a rich slice through two thousand years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman castle, and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren of time-skewed Tudor dwellings. The city began as a Belgic settlement that was overrun by the Romans and renamed Durovernum, from where they proceeded to establish a garrison, supply base and system of roads that was to reach as far as the Scottish borders. With the Roman empire’s collapse came the Saxons, who renamed the town Cantwarabyrig; it was a Saxon king, Ethelbert, who in 597 welcomed Augustine, dispatched by the pope to convert the British Isles to Christianity. By the time of his death, Augustine had founded two Benedictine monasteries, one of which – Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica – was to become the first cathedral in England. Canterbury, like any other city with such rich history, has its fair share of spooky ghost stories, including the Girl in Grey in St Margaret’s Street, the mysterious figure in white at the Marlowe Theatre, and the Robed Man of Sudbury Tower.

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Kong: Fact or Fiction?

10 Jul

King Kong is a fictional giant movie monster, resembling a colossal gorilla, that first appeared in the 1933 film of the same name. The character has since appeared in various media, having inspired countless sequels, remakes, spin-offs, imitators, parodies, cartoons, books, comics, video games, theme park rides, and even a stage play. In the publicity materials for his first appearance, Kong was described as, ‘a prehistoric type of ape’ and, while gorilla-like in appearance, he had a vaguely humanoid look and at times walked upright in an anthropomorphic manner. A much more recent screen incarnation of Kong – Peter Jackson’s 2005 film – while far less successful and iconic than the 1933 original, presented an altogether more interesting take on the character. Jackson opted to make Kong a gigantic silverback gorilla without any anthropomorphic features. Kong looked and behaved more like a real gorilla: he had a large herbivore’s belly, walked on his knuckles without any upright posture, and even beat his chest with his palms as opposed to clenched fists. In order to ground his Kong in realism, Jackson and the Weta Digital crew gave a name to his fictitious species, Megaprimatus kong, which was said to have evolved from the Gigantopithecus – a species of prehistoric giant ape, which actually once existed. Is there, however, any real-life precedent for Kong himself?

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Legend of the Black Swine

13 Jul

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.

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The Lost Souls of Mingulay

9 Mar

There are few places in the British Isles that are more grim, isolated and ill-omened than the barren isle of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides. Located 12 miles south of Barra, it is known for its important seabird populations, including puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and razorbills, which nest in the sea-cliffs. Today, iron age remains on the island offer mute testimony to the two thousand years or more of continuous habitation that Mingulay once knew. The culture of the island was influenced by both Vikings and early Christians and between the 15th and 19th centuries Mingulay was part of the lands of Clan MacNeil of Barra. These are merely footnotes in history, however, for the island has now been more or less deserted for more than a century. The island was abandoned by its residents in 1912 and has remained virtually uninhabited ever since – today it is no longer used even for grazing sheep. Whatever happened to the lost souls of Mingulay?

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Shadows in the Fens

12 Jan

I’ve often considered the Fens, a vast tract of land stretching north from Cambridge right up to Boston in Lincolnshire, to be one of the strangest and most compelling of all English landscapes. They are not beautiful in the conventional picturesque sense but, with their huge skyscapes and curious translucency of atmosphere, they are quite unlike any other part of England. For centuries they were an inhospitable wilderness of quaking bogs and marshland, punctuated by clay islands on which small communities eked out a living cutting peat for fuel, using reeds for thatching and living on a diet of fish and wildfowl. Although systematic draining in the seventeenth century transformed the Fens, reclaiming the land and making it extremely fertile, its towns and villages remained scattered and isolated. Even today, much of the land is either water-logged or under water altogether, making it extremely treacherous. The few remaining areas of undrained fenland, in particular, are notorious for the tales told there of drownings, disappearances and all manner of other strange sights and sounds. There has even long been a theory – not mine I hasten to add – that paranormal activity might be conducted through water vapour, making damp areas like the Fens a fertile breeding ground for all manner of supernatural phenomena. Perhaps it should be no surprise, therefore, that ghost stories are one thing that this dark corner of East Anglia is not short of.

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Midwinter Ghosts

15 Dec

There is something about the festive season that irresistibly brings ghosts to mind. Who can tell whether it is the wintery chill, the creeping mist or the inscrutable blanket of snow, but the period approaching Christmas seems inextricably bound with the supernatural. A traditional time for tales of unquiet spirits and the restless dead, the Yuletide season has inspired writers from Charles Dickens to M R James to write ghost stories either during or expressly set at Christmas. But is there perhaps more to this? Are these fictional ghostly tales actually based on real-life paranormal occurrences? There is no shortage of material to support such a conclusion – in Britain alone, there are spooky stories of things that go bump in the night each Christmas that span the length and breadth of the country. From spirits that roam the bleak North York Moors, to haunted houses in the garden of England, from ghastly deeds in the cobbled streets of old London town to dark legends of the highlands of Scotland, almost every region has its own chilling seasonal tales to recount. So, whilst everyone else is buying presents and preparing for Christmas parties, spare a thought for the more sinister side of the festive period and its very own Midwinter ghosts.

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Megalodon, Terror of the Deep

24 Aug

Megalodon, an extinct species of shark that lived approximately 1.5 million years ago, is regarded as one of the largest and most powerful predators in history. If you have a thing about sharks, then I’d suggest that you don’t read any further – Megalodon really is the stuff of nightmares. This prehistoric marine predator may have grown to a length of up to 100 feet and, with teeth the size of Olympic javelins, it possessed by far the most powerful bite of any creature that ever lived. Today, it is generally accepted that Megalodon’s descendant, the Great White Shark, is nature’s ultimate hunter. To put things into perspective, then, imagine a creature capable of swallowing a Great White whole in a single bite! With such fearsome natural weaponry at its disposal, it is hardly surprising to hear that, back in the Cenozoic Era Megalodon wasn’t too picky about its diet and in fact ate pretty much whatever it wanted. If imagining a shark the size of a battleship makes you shudder, then you might find the thought that Megalodon is now extinct fairly reassuring. Until, that is, you hear about the persistent, bloodcurdling reports that this super-shark still exists and continues to hunt at the depths of the oceans of the 21st century. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

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The Angel of Mons

29 Jun

The Angel of Mons – a popular story about a group of angels who supposedly protected members of the British army in the Battle of Mons – is perhaps the most enduring supernatural legend of the First World War. The battle of Mons took place on 23 August 1914 and within weeks tales of the ‘Angel of Mons’ had entered the realms of legend. It arose from a belief during the Great War that a miracle had happened during the British Army’s first desperate clash with the advancing Germans at Mons in Belgium. In some versions a vision of St George and phantom bowmen halted the Kaiser’s troops, while others claimed angels had thrown a protective curtain around the British, saving them from disaster. By the end of the war it became unpatriotic, even treasonable, to doubt the claims were based on fact. The spread of the legend was aided by the publication on 29 September 1914 by Welsh author Arthur Machen of a short story entitled The Bowmen, which was inspired by accounts that he had read of the fighting at Mons and an idea he had had soon after the battle. Machen’s story was written from a first-hand perspective and was a kind of false document, a technique he knew well. The unintended result, however, was that Machen had a number of requests to provide evidence for his sources for the story soon after its publication, from readers who thought it was true, to which he responded that it was completely imaginary (he had no desire to create a hoax). The only link between the Mons retreat and Machen’s story, in fact, was its beginning, which observed that troops of the British Expeditionary Force were in retreat: Mons itself was not mentioned. However, to this day, the myth and the short story have become intertwined so inextricably that it is almost impossible to unravel which was the inspiration for the other.

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The Lord Lucan Affair

10 Feb

The 7th Earl of Lucan, Richard John Bingham, better known as Lord Lucan, is one of the most infamous fugitives in British criminal history. Born in the 1930s, he was a charismatic man with expensive tastes: he raced power boats and, like James Bond, drove an Aston Martin. In 1963 he married Veronica Duncan, who bore him three children, and for a time his life seemed perfect. Then, at the start of the 1970s, Lucan’s marriage collapsed, he moved out of the family home and a bitter custody battle with his wife over the children ensued. This dispute seemed to change Lucan fundamentally – he spent most of the money he had on drink and gambling, became obsessed with regaining his children and began to spy on his family. Things came to a head in 1974 when the Lucans’ nanny was found brutally bludgeoned to death, apparently by Lord Lucan. Lady Lucan, who had also been present during the attack, indicated that her estranged husband was the murderer. Almost immediately, one of the largest manhunts ever organised in Britain began – one that to this day has still not resulted in an arrest. The last confirmed sighting of Lord Lucan was a few days after the body of the nanny was discovered, when he left a friend’s house in Uckfield, Sussex, never to be seen again. Since then, there have been almost as many alleged sightings of Lord Lucan as there have been of Elvis, Bigfoot or Jimmy Hoffa. Lucan’s true fate remains a fascinating mystery for the British public. Hundreds of reports of his presence in various countries around the world have been made following his initial disappearance, although none have been substantiated. Despite a police investigation and huge press interest, Lucan remains missing (presumed dead?).

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Children of the Stones

27 Jan

Britain is a country dotted with mysterious stone circles, a legacy either of its original inhabitants, fairies or aliens (depending on whom you believe). Despite intense speculation over the years, to this day no one really knows for certain what function was originally served by the standing stones at Salisbury, Avebury or any number of other sacred sites. Many of the most intriguing theories have in fact been put forward, not by scientists or historians, but by creators of film and fiction. One television series which particularly springs to mind whenever anyone mentions stone circles to me is the profoundly disturbing, yet startlingly original, Children of the Stones. Broadcast in 1976-77, this one-off serial follows astrophysicist Adam Brake and his young son Matthew after they arrive in the small village of Milbury, which is built in the midst of a megalithic stone circle. Their terrifying experiences in Milbury are recounted in seven atmospheric episodes which culminate in a chilling finale. A series which has stood the test of time, I’ve never seen anything like Children of the Stones since. Even though it was nominally created for children, there is very little that is childish about the serial, either in terms of plot, acting, script or mood. In fact Children of the Stones is frequently cited by those who remember it as one of the scariest things they ever saw as children – even the director was surprised on seeing the script that it was intended to be broadcast at teatime! This is definitely one to watch with the lights switched on…

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