Wyrd Daze Lvl.4 *** The Phoenix Guide to Strange England: Hookland

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Thanks To The French King, Ashcourt

As anyone reading more than a few pages of this guide will be able to tell, Hookland has a surfeit of odd drinking establishments. Some hint at their history in paint cracking across the swell and contraction of wooden sign. Others tell a tale just by their location, for even in this peculiar county there is still some surprise in finding a pub in a church, necropolis or lighthouse. There is also a third way for a tavern to signal its strangeness and that is in its name. It is to this later category that Thanks To The French King falls.

Located within the docklands of Ashcourt that wear dirt and the roughness of constant industry upon its streets, Thanks To The French King is an obvious architectural reminder of an earlier period of the port’s history. Behind a high brick wall lies a stone courtyard and a much rejigged, three-storey building that has fooled some pseudo-historians into believing it must have once been a galleried coaching inn or an inn-yard theatre. However, the structure was originally part of a French embassy established in Ashcourt during the 15th century. Considered sovereign soil with all the rights that traditionally go with it, the status of the embassy ran into a labyrinth of legality during the French Revolution. It was accepted as being both the property of the dead Louis XVI and retaining its position as French territory, but not under the control of the French authorities. When the courts of the county did not recognise the claim of the Capetian dynasty’s claim to it in 1814, permission was granted to the Ashcourt Port Authority to manage the estate until a valid claimant to the French throne was established. They then rented it out to William Wren who cannily turned it into a tavern and took full advantage of its status as foreign territory. Wren quickly asserted that as sovereign soil, no revenue officer nor other official of justice could enter his establishment or its courtyard without permission. Overnight this made his tavern popular with all manner of roguery.

Through a decade-spanning series of legal actions, Wren further upheld the rights to disavow a number of laws usually constricting any landlord. Those early 19th century tussles have echoed into the now and confirmed a range of legal loopholes which are still fully exploited. Thanks To The French King is the only pub in England that has ignored all licensing laws and been able to remain open for 24-hours for at least 150 years, even during both World Wars. The official recognition that there are a several feet of France in county still causes much cheer for dockers finishing a shift at 4am and seeking out a celebratory pint or two. The inability for the police to enter it without permission, which in practice is almost always granted, but usually not instantly, meant it was known during wartime as the ‘Kingdom of Spivs’. Its extra-legal status making it a perfect base for them to operate from. The establishment also has a long history of being frequented by some of more colourful magic users of the county, as being foreign territory, it was considered neutral ground by cunning folk.

The anomaly that current patrons and landlord have most reason to give thanks for is the exemption from excise on all ale resold in the premises. The name of the pub itself not only celebrates all these benefits, but is taken from a twice daily ritual observed by those drinking there. At noon and 10:30pm – the traditional times of pub opening and closing under the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act – when all patrons are called upon by a ringing bell to stand and raise a toast of thanks to the French king. The enthusiasm for this practice has never been eroded since it was initiated in 1916. Those wishing to visit it should note the pub enjoys a lively, diverse clientele and as such is an unsuitable place to bring young children into.

David Southwell is an author of several published books on true crime and conspiracies, which have been translated into a dozen languages. However, these days, he mostly writes about place.

Twitter:      Hookland     Repton

Wyrd Daze Lvl.4 ** The Phoenix Guide to Strange England: Hookland

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The Jolly Eccentric, Bidulpham

The renaming of pubs by breweries has become a source of seething in many communities during recent years. The weather-bullied signs that scrape and sigh above the roadsides of England are storytellers. They are recorders of folklore, local historians – a communal bank of remembrance. As the cunning folk of Hookland are often recorded as saying, there is power in naming. Denominations such as The Three Horseshoes may tell of the time an inn had a blacksmith’s forge attached to it, The Smudge’s Prize hint at a now lost industry of charcoal burning once conducted in nearby forest.

The erasure of the wonderful pointers to the past for the sake of hollow marketing phrases such as ‘brand continuity’ speaks to an increasing lack of respect for locality by big businesses. Yet, in 1977 while out-of-county brewers were earning curses for insensitive renamings of the pubs including The Howling Tooth, Old Mother Broadman’s Pot and The Faery Bun to the shared blandness of The Silver Jubilee, local ale company Hicks was praised for retitling The Quarrymen’s Arms on the north-east edge of Bidulpham to The Jolly Eccentric. Regular drinkers and members of the English Eccentrics Club who held an annual event at the tavern saw it as fitting memorial to former landlord Derek Byrant. A former professional racing and rally car driver and former holder of the title of Wear of England’s Longest Moustache, Byrant had retired to his native Hookland and taken over the tenancy of The Quarrymen’s Arms in 1964. Always a colourful character with an eye for a gimmick – he had once competed in the London-Istanbul Rally with a monkey in a butler’s uniform as his ‘mechanic and back-up navigator’ – Byrant regularly used the tavern to host unusual gathering. These included a world record attempt for the largest gathering of one-legged men and women, the World Cream Cracker Eating Contest and the English Eccentrics Club’s Summer Convention. He also used the extensive garden area of The Quarrymen’s Arms to run a sideline business offering trips in a hot-air balloon he had won in a bet in Baden-Baden. In 1976 at the height of interest in the ‘Hookland Bigfoot’ whipped up by author Brian Danebury, the fateful decision was taken by Byrant to become involved in hunting for evidence of it.


Danebury’s work collecting modern sighting of an unidentified hairy biped as well as re-interpretation of earlier accounts of the ‘wildman of Hookland’, or as the Victorians termed it ‘the modern woodwose’, had become a minor media circus after BBC’s Nationwide aired a segment on it. Re-christening his balloon from the Baden Bet to the Woodwose One, Byrant ensured local television news was at The Quarrymen’s Arms on the August bank holiday to film the dawn inflation for his inaugural, and as it would turn out, only wildman-hunting flight. In an interview with Hookland Independent Television conducted minutes before lift-off Byrant explained the rationale behind his somewhat bizarre jaunt:

“If there is a true, archaic wildman in Brockwood, to survive undetected in the 20th century they’d need to have incredible hearing and smell. There’s little hope of any researcher approaching him or her on foot. Humans are noisy and tainted by soap and deodorants. We stink of modernity. By balloon, a relatively noiseless craft, we can not only survey great distances with the advantage of height, we can avoid spooking the beast below. You won’t spot a woodwose if you go looking with gyrocopter cacophony or helicopter riot. You will get no glimpse of the past by modern methods. Older technology to catch feral ancient is the way to go. The only recently invented kit we are taking on the flight are the film cameras and the tranquiliser darts. People like you call me an eccentric because I favour a pre-diluvian style of facial hair, because I believe in the possibility of cryptids. If having a sense of style and wanting to take on a challenge, to solve a mystery is considered as slightly strange behaviour these days, I am proud to be one.”

Filmed floating off towards Brockwood without any apparent problem, the ground team following Woodwose One lost visual and radio contact with Bryant and his crew when their van was involved in a collision with another vehicle pulling a horsebox. In the confused tumble of time after the accident, no-one worried too much about the balloon. By the time people became concerned, the great heatwave which had seen 45 consecutive days in the country without rainfall and the appointment of Denis Howell MP as Minister of Drought, broke in spectacular fashion. A violence of thunderstorms resulted in flash flooding as 80mm of rain fell in Hookland. Inundated emergency services did not have the capacity to immediately prioritise the search for the now missing Byrant and his balloon. When they eventually began seeking in earnest to find out what had happened to him and his two man crew of Lawrence Wilson and Sherry Perkins, they could find no trace of Woodwose One at all. Ironically given Bryant’s comments about their uselessness in hunting the ‘Hookland Bigfoot’, both gyrocopters and helicopters alongside light aircraft, were used in a fruitless attempt to find a possible crash site. Even three years on, no hint of wreckage has ever been recovered. While some have tried to weave the disappearance of Woodwose One into narratives of UFO or faery abduction, time-slips or portals to parallel dimensions, the official view remains harshly prosaic. In a statement made to the press in October 1976, Detective Inspector Armitage of the Hookland Constabulary said:

“We believe in only two possibilities. We either have an as yet unfound crash site with three dead bodies at it or Mr. Bryant and his crew have been wasting the time of hundreds of people by staging this disappearance as a woefully misjudged publicity stunt. I’d like to give Byrant the benefit of the doubt, but he once held a World’s Smelliest Hippy contest and employed a monkey called Mr. Jinks as a pot man, so he has form for stupid ideas.”

At the renaming ritual for the tavern on the following August bank holiday, a new sign was unveiled depicting a likeness of the Wodehouse One floating above a wood in which a cheeky wildman can be just be glimpsed, Speaking at the ceremony, Bryrant’s wife and possible widow Josephine said:

“Derek would have liked the new name, enjoyed being turned into part of the story of this place. If a man who once danced with two queens (Elizabeth II and Grace Kelly), raced cars on five continents and never once worried about people calling him odd doesn’t deserve to be immortalised this way, then no-one does. England was built by eccentrics and it would be a jolly bad show if we ever stopped celebrating them.”

. . .

David Southwell is an author of several published books on true crime and conspiracies, which have been translated into a dozen languages. However, these days, he mostly writes about place.

Twitter:      Hookland     Repton

Wyrd Daze Seven: Hookland

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The Broken Oak, Damsel’s Cross

Some taverns tell their tales in the free public library of swinging signs. Some like The Broken Oak will only give up their strange stories if you venture inside. While its name and sign is simple memorial to a lightning-tortured tree that once stood on the village green, once inside, the establishment offers a unique look at old method of dealing with troublesome spirits. For the price of a pint, you can take a look at its perpetually locked ‘ghost room’.

In the late 18th century, The Broken Oak was so troubled by an unruly spirit that scratched and scarred both the landlord’s wife, her young maid and several of its patrons, that a ghost-layer was called. When the sanctions of the Church of England were unable to end the spiritual terror, the services of the cunning folk were sought. The one who answered the call was Tom Warden, one of the then Walking Nine.

The Walking Nine refers to the folklore claim that there are always nine cunning women or men not tied to any parish who wandered abroad in the county at any time. Given they are the class of cunning folk traditionally viewed with most suspicion in Hookland, it suggests the haunting of the tavern must have become a desperate for one of them to be trusted to resolve it. Warden proved up to the task, even if he resorted to employing a long-established measure used only against the most intractable spirits.

For upstairs at The Broken Oak is a room that has been sealed since 1797. Previously a bedroom when the establishment was an inn, it was sacrificed by Warden to end the haunting. In the ghost lore of Hookland, when a dead spirit refuses all forms of banishment and exorcism, there is a chance that it can be dealt with by trapping it. Although ideally this is done in a bottle which can easily be disposed of by burial or placing in running water, it is also possible for a ghost-layer to confine it into specific place where, by use of ritual and sealing marks, it may rendered powerless and forever shut in.

Paying customers of the inn with a disposition for spook curiosity, are allowed by the current landlord to go take a peek at what regular patrons call the ‘Never Open’. Previously plastered over, renovations in the 1920s exposed the entrance to the ghost room that had become part of local legend. Now encased by a glass box that covers a metal grill put across the threshold after Tom Warden had finished his work. Visible evidence of the spirit attacks of 1797 reduced to an ancient wooden door. The once open wound of its keyhole sutured with solder; seven heavy iron bolts, inscribed with the names of angels, drawn; a network of mystic symbols carved into it providing map to the occulted mind of the 18th century cunning folk.

There is something about seeing the door that infects the imagination. At first you may think you are troubled only by the thought that superstition was once so strong that rationality as well as a room were abandoned. However, the idea that evolves and refuses to be expelled is that something must have actually happened, something tangible and dreadful that such a drastic action was undertaken. If you ask downstairs about any phantom problems since 1797, you will be told that Tom Warden did good considering he was one of the Walking Nine. The only more recent suggestion of an alleged trapped entity, come from claims by some visitors like yourself that when they tapped on the glass, they were certain they could hear them answered by knocks coming from within the ghost room.


David Southwell is an author of several published books on true crime and conspiracies, which have been translated into a dozen languages.

However, these days, he mostly writes about place.

Creator of the
@HooklandGuide
@Cultauthor
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The Phoenix Guide to Strange England: Repton

Wyrd Daze Six: The Phoenix Guide to Strange England: Hookland

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Greenstone Tea Room, Damsel’s Cross

It is the nature of war to spawn secrets. While the many military bases found in the county would be the obvious breading grounds, evidence of wartime clandestine activities may also be glimpsed in some unlikely places. However, the small cottage tea room of Greenstone on the High Street of Damsel’s Cross, must rank as one of the most improbable locations to find details of a once classified Admiralty operation.

Under oak beams and amid embroidered tablecloths, fresh flowers and tables burdened with apple butter cream teas known in the county as Hookland Delight, are souvenirs of the strange life the establishment’s first owner, Mrs. Lucy Bowman. If you ask politely about the vintage Admiralty charts, photographs of First World War U-boats and Royal Navy ships carrying depth charges that hang incongruously on the walls, the waiting staff will likely call the current proprietor and Mrs. Bowman’s grandson, John Moore to your table. With a charm and energy that surprises in being unbroken despite the number of times the tale has been told, he draws patrons attention to various letters from the Admiralty and objects on the walls while unfolding the most surprising biography of his grandmother.

In January 1917, the recently widowed Lucy Bowman offered her services to her country as dowser. In an impassioned letter to Admiral A.L. Duff, who had known her father when they both served above the cruiser St. George nearly two decades before, she claimed that her skills as a ‘spiritual dowser’ would enable her to pinpoint the location of enemy U-boats if she were provided with accurate Admiralty charts. Duff, who had been appointed Director of the Anti-Submarine Division of the Royal Navy, responded with an invite to a meeting at an Ashcourt naval establishment.

It is not entirely clear why Duff took such an extraordinary measure. It may have been out of desperation to tackle the problem of the German’s unrestricted submarine warfare which was costing losses of up to 500,000 tonnes per month and greatly eroding public morale. It may have been due to the link with Bowman’s to father or an existing belief in the efficacy of dowsing. However, after meeting her, Duff granted Bowman access to Admiralty’s secret submarine tracking room where with the aid of an iron saddlery needle suspended by the tail hair of white horse, she attempted to track U-boat movements in the North Atlantic.

As various letters on wall suggest, she was successful enough in her endeavours, to be invited back to provide assistance to the navy on several occasions right up until the Armistice of 1918. Mrs. Bowman’s part in the war below waves was kept secret right up until her death in 1959, after which her daughter turned the tea room she inherited into an informal museum celebrating her mother’s clandestine contribution to the war. When pressed by the author of The Guide about the reaction this revelation caused at the time, John Moore admitted:

“Mother did have a visit from a commander in naval intelligence when she first put the letters up. He asked to take them down, but she gave him short-shift and they soon gave up making a fuss, in the end just asking for a picture of nanna’s needle for their own archives. I am only sorry I’ve no talent for dowsing as that thing only passes down the female side in my family.”

David Southwell is an author of several published books on true crime and conspiracies, which have been translated into a dozen languages.

However, these days, he mostly writes about place.

Creator of the
@HooklandGuide

@Cultauthor