The Phoenix Guide to Strange England – County by County: Hookland by David Southwell

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The Greencoat’s Truckle, Worstow

Hookland adores motorbikes. Possibly it’s an addiction to the excitement and the permissive freedom promised by the motorcycle. Possibly it’s the practical solution offered to the twisting, narrow roads of a largely rural county. Whatever the cause, the vehicle has seemed to fascinate many Hooklanders since the frothing press coverage given to the first Merryweather Fire Engine bike to be driven from London to Ashourt in 1889.

The Coreham Motorcycle Club founded in 1904 was one of the first of its kind established in England and until recent years, the county boasted three motorcycle manufacturers. The Hookland Victory Motorcycle Company built and sold its first vehicle in 1898 from premises at 195-197 Stonegate Road in Hook, while the Cottering & Niven Motor Company in Ashcourt was founded in 1916 to help meet wartime demand for two-wheeled troop transport. The county’s most successful motorbike maker remains Mordant-Zephon, also based on the outskirts of Ashcourt.

The county was an early adopter of utilising motorbikes for entertainment. In 1913, the first Hookland Time Trophy race was run on a hazardous course across the roads of Barrowcross, while in 1928 it got its first Wall of Death at the Coliseum amusement park in Brighthaven. By 1929, it boasted its first speedway team – the Ashcourt Lions – and its first crash-helmeted sporting ghost in the shape of Johnny Mains the same year.

Yet the escalating number of phantom riders that seemed to accrete on the highways and lanes of Hookland did little to dissuade a large number of young county folk who wanted to make a career out of their motorcycle passion. Among them was Romy Burland. When the organisers of 1932 Hookland Time Trophy race refused to let her compete on the grounds she did not meet the minimum weight requirement (a requirement they brought in an attempt exclude female competitors) she disguised herself and adopted the identity of a man to enter the competition. After coming fifth on her bike ‘the Sweet Machine’, but being disqualified when she revealed who she really was, Romy was recruited to the Lion’s speedway team as a ‘masked rider’ called Billy Brimstone – though everyone in the sport seemed to know it was her behind the darkened visor.

Burland helped the Lion’s reach the top of their sport when in 1936 and 1937 they raced at Wembley Stadium in the World Championship of Speedway. She was retired from the Lions in 1938 after pressure from the Auto-cycle Union which governed the sport. They complained of her ‘scandalous behaviour’ after the Sunday People and several other newspapers ran speculative stories about her relationships and alleged fondness for prescription cocaine. Asked about this, Burland famously quipped:

‘They got rid of me because they couldn’t handle the fact I’m the only rider with three cigarette cards – one for Billy Brimstone, one for the fastest women time trialist and one depicting my head-to-head with Fay Taylor.’

Burland also achieved a modicum of notoriety as founder of the most well-known of the county’s female motorcycle clubs – the Hookland Hellions.

During World War II, Burland was a motorcycle courier for the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS also known as the Wrens). She was awarded the British Empire Medal when during one run from the blitzed capitol to Ashcourt, she was blown off her bike by a Luftwaffe bombing raid and despite suffering a broken shoulder, ran the last mile to her destination to deliver a dispatch. It was during another London-Ashcourt run that Romy Burland suffered a fatal high-speed crash on a 342cc Triumph while coming down a narrow lane near Long Lavington in the north east of the county.

Possibly due to her fame, possibly due to Hookland’s love of motorbikes, Romy Burland is one of those figures whose ghost is said to be seen in several different locations. Aside from the site of her death, where many have reported hearing the phantom roar of a bike at high speed or a sickening tearing of metal and rending of flesh, up until its closure, some racegoers and staff at the Lion’s old stadium swore they saw Romy in her Billy Brimstone disguise wandering among the other racers in the pits. Romy’s presence is also detected at The Greencoat’s Truckle pub at Worstow, much favoured as a destination for excursions by the Hookland Hellions.

An 18th century timber building, whose white wooden boards make it stand out from the strident green bordering of the main road in and out of Worstow, even in the 1930s The Greencoat’s Truckle was a popular destination for cyclists as well as two and four-wheeled motorists wanting to escape to the countryside for a drink. Rather than the ghost of Romy herself, the pub’s carpark is seemingly visited by the apparition of her favourite motorbike – a 500cc Mordant-Zephon Star. Current landlord of the establishment Jimmie Wilson told the Guide:

“We often have non-locals come into the bar and ask who the lovely old bike belongs to. They get a bit of a shock when I point at the picture in the lounge of Romy and the other Hellions posing beside their bikes from the 1930s and tell them the machine belongs to Burland. We know it’s hers as a lot of folk say they’ve seen a conker in a black silk stocking tied to the handlebars. That was her personal lucky charm and she used it in every race she had. Of course, when they go back out into the carpark it has always disappeared.”

However, the form of haunting by Burland that causes most surprise seems linked to a memorial statue of her outside the walls of her ancestral home at Greywood. The life-sized bronze of her atop a motorcycle is a striking landmark that appears to be racing parallel to the road. More than one person has stopped their car to admire the effigy only to feel someone come up behind them and hear them and declare:

“Great isn’t it? Just a crying shame they got the bike wrong. I rode a Star not a bloody Norton International.”

When they turn around there is no-one there, though some do report a lingering smell of Guerlain Shalimar and hot oil.

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 Black Cattle of Barrowcross, Northmoor Track, Barrowcross

Most outsiders to Barrowcross and Hookland tend to snigger when they see a picture or catch wild glimpse of the moor’s Black Cattle as they are in fact white-coated and red-eared. Kinder Hooklanders, able to tolerate the one-sided laughter of humour long lost in repetition, may explain that it is more than just the county’s noted sense of irony behind the name. Many etymologists believe the Black derives from the Anglo-Saxon blac – meaning pale or white. An angular, primitive breed with a pronounced sloping rump, the Black Cattle of Barrowcross are one of the rarest and oldest breeds extant in England. Semi-feral, the animals are similar to other small herds scattered across the country known as White Park cattle, which experts speculate hold resemblance to and share heritage with extinct aurochs. In recent years, the distinctive porcelain colouring of the Black as well as their graceful, upward curving horns shared by both males and females, have made them a favourite subject of postcards from south-western end of the county.

Bos taurus and shade

To allow tourists to observe the animals without causing disruption to their habitat or placing travellers at undue risk, the Barrowcross National Park Authority have created a number of lay-bys off of the Northmoor Track road which cuts across the northern top of the moor. These viewing areas themselves have become much photographed themselves thank to the somewhat unusual signage placed at them. Alongside the expected reiteration of Park rules, prohibitions against feeding and other interactions with the cattle as well as some history on the breed and its place in local folklore, the signs also proclaim: ‘The cattle are under the protection of the Faerie Court. The National Park Authority is not responsible for any curses you may incur due to aggravating the noble animals and their unseen guardians.’ When the author of the Guide rang Elizabeth Wadsworth, the Public Relations Manager for the Nation Park, to ask about the curious wording on the sign, they were told: ‘It is obvious you are not from around here. It means what it means. The faeries look after their own. You can put it down to whimsical humour if you wish, but there’s no explanation needed and we won’t comment further.’ There is no doubting that the Black Cattle have a niche not only in the unusual ecology of Barrowcross, but in the crowded fields of Hookland folklore. Also known as the Old King’s cows and faery-rides, it is said that the red colouring of their ears comes from being gripped by invisible sprites who are carried on them at night. Their entwinement with the Otherfolk is longstanding, with claims made that the current herd originates from a pair of the beasts given to the Grimp family in pre-Norman antiquity by the Queen of the Summer Court. In ale establishments close to the Northmoor Track, it is still possible to catch some suggestion among the oldest of pub uncles that Alfred Grimp released his draught oxen and milking cattle into the wild care of Barrowcross in 1913 after ‘consulting with the faeries’.

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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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