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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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The Green Man

14 Aug

Sir Kingsley Amis first came to prominence when he won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1954 for Lucky Jim, one of the great comic creations of the 20th-century. In subsequent works he proved to be a master of invective and comedy, as well as revealing his interest in the supernatural in several short stories and the chilling novel The Green Man (1969), which was described by The Times as “an accomplished ghost story in the M R James style, under appreciated when it first came out, but winning some belated admiration when it became a television serial in 1990.” A clubbable, generous-hearted, though often irascible man, Amis unwittingly created a furore when the novel was first published. It was written in its original form as a radio broadcast intended to make listeners believe it was a factual account. The whole idea backfired, however, when – like H G Wells before him – he found people, including close friends, believing it was true! Indeed, despite the fact that he repeatedly stated it was a “lying narrative, fiction disguised as fact,” this misapprehension – like the theme of another of his short stories Who or What Was It? – haunted Amis for the rest of his life.

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Oranges and Lemons

20 Mar

Oranges and Lemons is a traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game which refers to the bells of several churches, all within or close to the City of London. The lyrics go as so:

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

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The Maid of Buttermere

20 Dec

The Lake District is perhaps England’s most hyped scenic area, and for good reason. Within an area a mere thirty miles across, sixteen major lakes are squeezed between the steeply pitched faces of England’s highest mountains, an almost alpine landscape that is augmented by waterfalls and picturesque stone-built villages packed into the valleys. Two factors spurred the first waves of Lake District tourism: the re-appraisal of the landscape brought about by such painters as Constable and the writings of William Wordsworth and his contemporaries. Wordsworth was not the first writer to praise the Lake District – Thomas Gray wrote appreciatively of his visit in 1769 – but he dominates its literary landscape, not solely through his poetry but also through his still useful Guide to the Lakes (1810). Worsdworth and his fellow poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey formed a clique that become known as the ‘Lake Poets’, a label based more on their fluctuating friendships and their shared passion for the region than on any common subject matter in their literary output. The one subject which did overlap in their writings was the infamous episode of the ‘Maid of Buttermere’, which also inspired Melvyn Bragg’s best-selling novel of the same name in the 1980s.

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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 Ghosts of Haddon Hall

7 Jun

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.

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The Green Ray

6 Apr

The ‘green flash’ or the ‘green ray’ is a term applied to rare optical phenomena that sometimes occur either right after sunset or right before sunrise. The latter term was made famous in the 19th century by the publication of Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi/romance novel of the same name. Basically, when the conditions are right, a green spot is visible above the upper rim of the disk of the sun. The green appearance usually lasts for no more than a second or two. Sometimes (rarely) the green flash can resemble a green ray shooting up from the sunset (or sunrise) point. This spooky optical phenomenon has played on people’s imaginations over the centuries, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the visionary Verne appropriated it for his famous tale. In Le Rayon Vert (to give the book its original French title) Verne’s heroes are trying to observe the green ray in Scotland. After numerous attempts prove unsuccessful due to clouds, flocks of birds or distant boat sails hiding the sun, the phenomenon eventually becomes visible but the hero and heroine, finding love in each other’s eyes, end up not paying any attention to the horizon. Whilst the plot sounds fairly risible, the idea of the green ray itself has proved to be an intriguing one to this day, even inspiring a recent film which has in many ways become as famous as Verne’s novel.

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The Frozen Head Legend

1 Dec

Walt Disney – animator, business magnate, the man who brought us Mickey Mouse et al – was and remains an international icon. During his lifetime he earned more Academy awards and nominations than anyone else in history and today the company that he left behind is one of the richest and most powerful in the world. When he died in 1966, as everyone knows, he was cryogenically frozen, and his frozen corpse stored beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Except that it wasn’t – Disney’s remains were actually cremated on December 17, 1966, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The first known human cryogenic freezing was in January 1967, more than a month after Disney’s death. As Disney’s daughter Diane wrote in 1972, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumour that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.” So what is the source of this bizarre frozen head urban legend? Well, according to “at least one Disney publicist”, as reported in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969, the source of the rumour was a group of Disney Studio animators with “a bizarre sense of humour” who were playing a final prank on their late boss. As we shall see, however, this is not the only fact relating to the life of Walt Disney that is a matter of some dispute.

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Riddle of the Singing Sands

22 Sep

Porth Oer, an attractive if unobtrusive beach hidden on the north Wales coast is an unusual location for one of the UK’s strangest unsolved mysteries. This small, picturesque National Trust beach, backed by steep grassy cliffs, is famously known as ‘Whistling Sands’, a nickname based on the sound the granules make underfoot when you walk over its gleaming sand. The sound is created due to the stress of weight that is put upon the sand, and interestingly Porth Oer is unique among the beaches of Europe for this unusual effect. ‘Singing sands’ do exist in other places in the world, but usually these take the form of vast desert landscapes – the singing dunes of Almaty in Kazakhstan for example, or the Kelso dunes in California’s Mojave Desert – rather than a cute little beach on the Llyn Heritage Coast. Although there is a general consensus among scientists as to the best conditions for the ‘singing sand’ effect, why places like Port Oer exist at all remains something of a mystery.

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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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