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

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The Faery Fort, Sidley Hill, Blagden Bridge

Confusingly for visitors to Hookland, the county boasts four locations known to those who live near them as ‘the Faery Fort’. While the Faery Fortress of Summer Hill and the Faery Fort of Scar Hill regularly grace tourist brochures and occasionally even cross the place propaganda threshold to become postcards, Blagden Bridge’s Faery Fort is largely neglected. This may be because it is one of England’s smallest stone
circles, measuring just 15-feet in diameter. It may also be because it on the feral edges of Barrowcross or its ill reputation for high strangeness that extends from the thin memory of folklore right into the latter half of the 20th century.

Surrounded by the ancient birch copse crown of Sidley Hill, the Faery Fort, also known as the Seven Maids or Seven Hostages, is a late Bronze Age hengiform embankment measuring some 40-feet across. Sitting within the levelled centre is a complete seven-stone circle. Mapped by moss, each of the sandstones is around four-feet high. Outside the embankment, flanking the entrance cut into the earth are portal two stones eight-feet heigh known as ‘The Gatemen’ or ‘Greenkin Guards’ who give an impression of implacable nightclub bouncers, all thin-mouthed silence and scrutiny.

Almost too archetypal in appearance, a child’s dream of how a ring of faery stones should look, the Faery Fort repays the aching climb up the Sidley Hill with a peculiar prettiness that not everyone responds to. When Hookland artist Katherine Giddings was asked why she never painted it as part of her Long Lithic sequence of works, she replied: “It’s too damn twee. I’d be worried that Walt Disney would sue me for some infringement of his turgid films.” Other artists including noted photographer Paul Watson have talked of it being a poor subject, writing: ‘It feels stage-managed, a piece of landscape set-dressing. A doll-house scale thing trying to contain something inexpressibly dwarfing to humanity.’ *

Belying its tranquil appearance, local lore has the Faery Fort as a site of entrenched enmity, sealed by blood and loss. Traditional tales have the earth embankment as the remains of a Faery soldiers’ camp. It is said a party of knights from the Summer Court were sent into our world to retrieve either an errant elfin noble or a treasure stolen from the Queen of Faery herself. Needing a secure base, they spoke polite magics to the soil of Sidley Hill and it carved itself into its current shape. The seven stones of the circle are said to be maidens taken from surrounding villages as hostages to ensure people co-operated with their quest. When the villages came together and sent a war-party to retrieve the kidnapped women, several of the faery warriors were slain. The remaining knights were forced to flee back to their land, but before they left by jumping into the flames of the camp’s fire, they took revenge on their foes. They claimed the hill as forever faery, left two of their party behind to guard it and turned them and the maids into stone. A spring at the bottom of Sidley Hill, known as Mother Tears, is said to be a sympathetic
response from the land to the weeping of those whose daughters had been petrified.

Largely disregarded as having any historical veracity by most modern academics, several Hookland antiquarians, including Richard Moore and Edward Bliss, put forward the theory that the folklore of the Faery Fort recorded an actual historical conflict between Bronze Age tribes. C.L. Nolan was kinder to the idea, writing: ‘Folklore is often the long memory of the land. Its tales may be outlandish, but they are rarely hollow. We may not be able to say what or when, but something happened to scar the site, to make it a taboo that echoes to this day in mother’s forbidding their children to venture within it.’ * *

It is interesting to note that recent work on the site undertaken by the Radiation Laboratory at Mordant College, seemed to confirm one detail of local lore when it suggested that the remains of organic material burnt in the middle of stones dated to between 900-700 BCE.

The sinister nature of the site in local eyes was perpetuated in 1921 when a 10-year old Molly Lovell from Blagden went missing while disobeying her mother and playing at the Faery Fort. Despite extensive searching, poor Molly was never seen again. A decade later, visiting walkers discovered the decayed remains of human adult forearm within the circle. The origins of the grisly find were never fuller ascertained, though the theory adopted by detectives investigating at the time was that the arm had been dropped by foxes who dug it from a shallow grave – despite the fact no such burial site could be found within a five-mile radius of Sidley Hill.

A reporter for the Hookland Messenger recorded at the time: ‘Tavern talk in Blagden has taken an atavistic turn with murmurings of trade with elves, blood curses and who among them might be guilty of some resentful witchery.’

A sense of menacing oddity has clung to the Faery up to more recent times. In 1968, Arthur and Vera Tiniswood from Surrey were touring Hookland on their annual holiday with their teenage daughter Cynthia. Approaching Sidley Hill around noon, they decided to pull over their Bristol 407 and have a picnic lunch. While Arthur snoozed off sandwiches and tea, Vera gave permission for Cynthia to climb to the summit.

Initially delighted to reach the top and find the earthwork and circle hidden behind the trees, Cynthia’s mood soon turned to one of unease. Speaking to Strange Days Journal a decade later, she remembered: ‘It had been August’s full heat on the climb up and at first I liked the shade of the copse, seeing down on all the countryside below. I shouted out: “I’m the Queen of the Castle! You’re the dirty rascals!” When I entered in the circle itself, I began to feel chilly. Looking up the sky had become overcast and I decided I better get back to my parents before any rain started.

“When I tried to walk between the gap in the bank, I felt a spasm inside. Not just a muscle twitch, but something deep inside me. I found myself involuntarily turned around and walking back into the middle of the Maidens. I stopped and tried to walk out through the gap again, but the same thing happened. After several tries, I was panicking and so decided to try and climb over the bank. As I got to top of it, I felt an electric shock. It was as if there was a glass wall or some other an invisible barrier around it I began to walk around the bank, trying to feel for some gap on it, but I couldn’t find any way out at all.

“Even though it had only seemed like a few minutes, darkness had fallen. I will admit I was now hysterical. At one point I could hear voices calling my name, torches and lanterns moving amongst the trees on the other side of the barrier. I tried shouting to them, but they never seemed to hear me. Eventually I cried myself to sleep.”

Despite police and volunteer search teams scouring Sidley Hill for 48 hours and having entered the Faery Fort several times, Cynthia Tiniswood was found asleep in the middle of the Maidens nearly a full three days after she had disappeared when her mother had waved her off. Despite pressure from both the constabulary and her parents, Cynthia insisted her account of her missing days was entirely truthful. When the compiler for this Guide contacted her more than a decade later, she still held to her original telling of events at the Faery Fort.

“I know what happened, I just don’t know what it was or what it meant. I also know that you’d never get me up there again. There are some places we just aren’t meant to visit, places where the land takes trespass personally.”

* Ghost Currents, (Avalonia Press 1973)

* * C.L. Nolan On … Collected Radio Talks, (Horlick & Ward, 1938)

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.

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

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The Entombed Toad, Lower Constantine

Many Hookland pubs have bars with windows in their fronts or tops for gleeful display of some local curiosity. While the grisliness of objects behind glass at The Witch’s Hand at Ludbury and The Sorrow Rope at Crowford have earned them some infamy, those hostelry counters containing the strange rather than sinister are often overlooked. This is certainly the case with The Entombed Toad.

Originally a pub catering for quarrymen at the nearby Mutland Pit until it closed in 1921, The Entombed Toad is long, one-storey stone building on the northern edge of Lower Constantine. With its weather-withered sign and low-profile, it is easy to drive through the village and miss the establishment entirely. This would be a shame, for though it serves only Midwood ales, Half-Jack Half-Jenny (a locally produced perry) and assorted apple brandies, it is welcoming to visitors – which is more than can be said for many pubs in this guide. It also takes a relaxed approach to letting drinkers eat sandwiches or food obtained elsewhere on the premises. In fact, the landlord will direct those wanting a snack to Penny Bakery a few hundred yards down the road, recommending their dead-men’s arms and herb and cheese scones.

Displayed under the window cut into the oak bar top is the item from the which the pub takes its name – an entombed toad. Closer inspection offers you the grey, mummified flesh of a Bufo bufo surrounded by a curved depression in large piece of local limestone. However, it is far from a common toad for it is said to one of several found encased in stone at Mutland Pit in 1856. What makes the story of the entombed dead amphibian story even more strange, is the claim that when the rock holding them was cracked open, not all of them were dead.

An account written by the Hookland naturalist and antiquarian Rev. Valentine Darrow at the time details their supposed discovery. According to Darrow:

‘I went to the quarry where rumours of marvels are in common circulation and with permission of the owner Mr. Mutland, spoke to his workers. I found them solid men without hint of mendacity. They tell of striking a large piece of limestone and finding inside a grouping of fist-sized oval-shaped cells with no communication with each other. In this ancient prison or crypt, were several toads. While most were dead, six of them began to react to their sudden freedom, moving from corpse-like stillness to a curious crawling within but a few minutes.

While the preserved Bufo bufo were harvested for talismans and lately, the selling to interested collectors of such curios, their resurrected companions escaped into the higher part of the surrounding area. The part of the rock they were found in was 15 feet below the surface and of the sort that is much filled with ancient shells and other marine substances. I was unable to purchase one of the entombed creatures as tales of such Lazarus Toads are not unheard of in the county and as such, are much prized by certain cunning folk and the overly superstitious.’ *

* The Nature Notes of Valentine Darrow, (Richard & Horlick 1931)

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