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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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Immortal Beloved

14 Jul

Ludwig van Beethoven remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers, a household name even for non-musicians. He was a virtuoso pianist and composed 9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. What he is lesser known for, perhaps, is the Unsterbliche Geliebte (German for ‘Immortal Beloved’) – the mysterious addressee of a love letter which he wrote on 6–7 July 1812 in Teplitz. The apparently unsent letter, written in pencil and consisting of three parts, was found in the composer’s estate after his death. At the time even an exact dating of the letter and identification of the addressee was speculative, since Beethoven did not specify a year or a location. It was only in the 1950s that an analysis of the paper’s watermark yielded the year, and by extension the place. To this day, however, scholars have been divided on the intended recipient of the Immortal Beloved letter. This intriguing musical mystery inspired a Hollywood adaptation, 1994’s Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven, which focuses on the efforts of the great composer’s biographer Anton Schindler to ascertain the identity of the intended recipient of the famous letter. While the film, and the many theories put forward in the years both before and since, have identified some likely candidates, a definitive solution to this particular mystery remains somewhat elusive.

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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 Smiling Pope

16 Jun

Pope John Paul II – the second-longest serving Pope in history – remains a familiar figure even almost a decade after his death. How many, however, remember his immediate predecessor Pope John Paul I, who only served for a matter of weeks back in 1978? Born Albino Luciani, this pope was a humble, almost timid man, without any prior high-profile career in the Vatican hierarchy – a surprising choice in many ways. Catholics all over the world responded warmly to his modesty, however, and he soon acquired the nickname ‘The Smiling Pope’. At his coronation on 26 August 1978 he refused the customary papal tiara and only reluctantly agreed to be carried aloft on the traditional gestatorial chair. His reign was to last only 33 days, however; shortly after 5am on 28 September Pope John Paul I was found dead in the papal lodgings. The Vatican claimed initially that his body was found by his papal secretaries but afterwards it was revealed that he was discovered by a nun who had brought him his morning coffee. The papal doctor declared him dead of a heart attack and there was no autopsy. For any pope, let alone such a popular one, to die just a month after his election was unimaginable. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, conspiracy theories have abounded ever since. Rumours of foul play have circulated, implicating a bizarre triumvirate of Vatican conservatives, Mafia bankers and right-wing Italian Freemasons. What really happened to the Smiling Pope?

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