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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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Winter Masks

28 Oct

With the fateful day not far away now, it struck me recently that Halloween is all about masks. When I was a child everyone seemed to wear them – and not just on All Hallows’ Eve. It all started with the perception that people seldom said what they really felt about anything. I wasn’t sure why, but I soon learned that apparently there was something impolite about frankness, and politeness was something that I took seriously growing up. I also came to believe that success or failure in life might be measured by how one handled one’s mask. The most famous actors of the day – Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise etc – were born with wonderful masks, or maybe they grew up with them, I didn’t know for sure. But in any case they handled them brilliantly and so putting on a mask, I thought, was a wonderful thing. If I could have got away with it, I think I would have worn one all the time – which made Halloween just about my favourite time of year! When I was young Halloween wasn’t something that you spent a lot of money on. Not many children went around in full costume as werewolves, witches, devils or what-not, but masks – which rarely cost more than a couple of pounds at most back in those happy days – were another matter. Each year the challenge became picking a mask that you could cobble up a matching costume for with little or no money. Eventually not just Halloween but the entire final third of the year became associated with masks and masquerades for me. As the old poem goes: ‘The winter light is pale and bright, and so the serpent basks. On snowy floor we waltz the score, we masquers are our masks’.

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The Devil’s Triangle

7 Oct

The Bermuda Triangle represents one of the most interesting scientific enigmas of our time. It was in 1945 that the authorities were first alerted to the fact that there was something frightening and dangerous about the stretch of ocean between Florida and the Bahamas. Flight 19 – five Avenger torpedo bombers which took off from Fort Lauderdale for a routine two hour patrol over the Atlantic – vanished completely in the area that came to be known as the Devil’s Triangle. A giant Martin Mariner flying-boat, with a crew of thirteen, which was sent to rescue Flight 19, met with the same mysterious fate. At the time the authorities took the view that these disappearances were a rather complex accident, due to a number of chance factors: bad weather, electrical interference with the compasses, the inexperience of some of the pilots and their unfamiliarity with the area. Similar explanations were adopted to explain a number of similar tragedies during the next two decades: the disappearance of a Super-fortress in 1947, of a four-engined Tudor IV in January 1948, of a DC3 in December 1948, of a Globemaster in 1950, of a British York Transport plane in 1952, of a Navy Super Constellation in 1954, of an Air Force Tanker in 1962, of two Stratotankers in 1963, of a flying boxcar in 1965 and of civilian cargo planes in 1966, 1967 and 1973… The total number of human lives lost in all these disappearances was well in excess of two hundred. What lurks out there in the Bermuda Triangle, and just why is it so hungry for mortal souls?

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Land of the Prince Bishops

12 Aug

For England’s northeastern region – in particular the counties of Northumberland and Durham – the centuries between the Roman invasion and the 1603 union of England and Scotland were a period of almost incessant turbulence. To mark the kingdom’s limit and to contain the troublesome tribes of the far north, a series of formidable coastal fortresses was built, most impressively those at Bamburgh, Alnwick, Wakworth and Durham. For arrivals to Durham, the view from the train station is one of the finest in northern England – a panoramic prospect of Durham Cathedral, its towers dominating the skyline from the top of a steep sandstone bluff within a narrow bend of the River Wear. This dramatic site has been the resting place of Saint Cuthbert since 995, when his body was moved here from nearby Chester-le-Street, over one hundred years after his fellow monks had fled from Lindisfarne in fear of the Vikings, carrying his coffin before them. Cuthbert’s hallowed remains made Durham a place of pilgrimage for both the Saxons and the Normans, who began work on the present cathedral at the end of the 11th century. In the meantime, William the Conqueror, aware of the defensive possibilities of the site, had built a castle that was to be the precursor of ever more elaborate fortifications. Subsequently, the bishops of Durham were granted extensive powers to control the troublesome northern marches of the kingdom, ruling as semi-independent Prince Bishops, with their own army, mint and courts of law. When they ceded their powers to the Crown in 1836, following a long period of decline, they also abandoned Durham Castle and transferred their old home to the fledgling University of Durham, England’s third oldest seat of learning after Oxford and Cambridge. Unsurprisingly for a place with such a long and storied history, Durham is said to be the home of a number of ghostly residents and eerie legends.

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Zombie Pirates!

1 Apr

The concept of zombie pirates and ghost ships has most recently been popularised in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. However, stories of ghostly galleons crewed by undead sailors roving the high seas have been around for centuries. This is hardly surprising – the sea has always had romantic associations for poets and explorers but equally it represents the unknown and, as such, has also carried with it a certain element of dread. In the early days of exploration no one knew what lay outside the realm of human experience in those uncharted waters and hence legends, superstitions and ghost stories were told in order to fill the vacuum. The term ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ entered into popular parlance precisely because there was a time when it was not known which was the worse of those two evils. Tales were told of sea monsters, ships of death and supernatural creatures haunting coastlines, estuaries and the seven seas. Some of these stories are now so famous that the mere mention of them is enough to strike fear into men’s souls – who has not heard the terrifying tale of the Flying Dutchman for instance?

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Ghosts of Prague

25 Mar

Prague, the city on the Vlatava river, is not only one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, it is also one of its most haunted. This bustling, cosmopolitan Czech city is sited amid the tranquil Bohemian countryside, which is home to dozens of brooding castles and historic towns, whose appearance has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. It is hardly surprising that a place with so many layers of history, that has seen battles, murders, executions and assassinations aplenty, as well as many of the key moments in the story of Europe, should also boast more than its fair share of ghosts. In the late Middle Ages, during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperors, Prague’s position as the crossroads of Europe aided its growth into a magnificent city (at that time far larger and more important than Paris or London). In the 16th century the Austrian Habsburgs took over and built many of the Baroque palaces and gardens that delight visitors today, few of whom suspect the many secrets and supernatural mysteries that lie beneath the glossy veneer. Whether you are a believer, a sceptic, interested in the unexplained or simply looking for a good old-fashioned scare, learning more about the dark side of Prague is a fascinating process. The narrow lanes, cobbled alleys, ancient churches and historic monuments of Prague are brimming over with tales of alchemists, murderers, executioners, and the many unfortunate souls who once lived there. Some of them are said to linger in these places, and who knows, perhaps they can still be seen today…

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Whitechapel

11 Mar

One of my favourite shows on TV at the moment is Whitechapel, which explores the many dark and disturbing urban legends of one of London’s famous suburbs. The first series of the show focused on a suspected copycat killer who copied the modus operandi of the most infamous and terrifying serial murderer ever to plague old London town – Jack the Ripper. In the words of Jack himself:

“Below the skin of history are London’s veins. These symbols, the mitre, the pentacle star, even the ignorant and degenerate can sense that they course with energy… and meaning. I am that meaning. I am that energy. One day, men will look back and say that I gave birth to the 20th Century.”

In one sense this is true yet, in spite of the epidemic of 2oth century serial killers with sobriquets like the Boston Strangler, the Buffalo Slasher, the Sunset Slayer and the Yorkshire Ripper, it is Jack who still remains by far and away the most infamous. This is not due simply to the grisly picturesqueness of the nickname but to the fact that the murders took place in the gaslit, fog-shrouded London of Sherlock Holmes and that – unlike the other criminals mentioned above – the identity of Jack the Ripper is still a total mystery.

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City of the Dead

29 Feb

The evocative word necropolis is of Greek origin and literally means ‘city of the dead’, of which arguably the most famous is Scotland’s Glasgow Necropolis – a Victorian graveyard situated on a low but very prominent hill to the east of St. Mungo’s Cathedral. Fifty thousand souls have been buried there and not only is it a Scottish national landmark, it may also be the largest Masonic site in Europe. The graveyard was established by the Merchants’ House of Glasgow, an organization of powerful businessmen looking after the town’s interests. According to the theory, most of these men were Masons, and they chocked the site full of symbols, one of which (and perhaps the one that shows up the most frequently) is the Royal Arch, the emblem of the fourth degree of Freemasonry. It was the Necropolis that once prompted one of Glasgow’s favourite sons, the comedian Billy Connolly, to say ‘Glasgow’s a bit like Nashville, Tennessee: it doesn’t care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead’.

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