Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Man Proposes, God Disposes

England, the 19th of May, 1845. Sir John Franklin sets sail from Greenhithe in search for the infamous North-West Passage. Not alone in his journey, the expedition consisted of two ships: the HMS Erebus, commanded by Captain James Fitzjames and HMS Terror which was commanded by Captain Francis Crozier, Franklin's second in command. Accompanying them was a combined crew of 131 men[1], consisting of a further 21 officers and 110 men. The ships themselves were state of the art, fitted with steam engines to back up their sails and provide speed but also heat for the ships central heating system, three years worth of food, libraries to educate and amuse the crew and re-enforced hulls to help push through the ice and protect the ships from the treacherous sailing conditions. The ships were last spotted by a whaling ship in July, 1845. They were never seen alive again.With their boats trapped in ice and Franklin dead[2], Captain Crozier gave the order to abandon ship with plans to walk through the frozen wilderness to civilization. Succumbing to bad luck and tragedy, to this day the bones of these poor men lay scattered around the Arctic like confetti and the search for answers continues. Thanks to search parties sent by both the Royal Navy and Franklin's determined widow, Lady Jane, the expedition has been memorialised in writing, songs and even paintings. And that is why I'm writing this blog now, not just because the expedition is a source of never ending fascination to me, but because one of these paintings is allegedly cursed.
Studying for any exams? You might want to look away now. Don't like gore? You might want to look
away as well.

Man Proposes, God Disposes is © Royal Holloway College, University of London

Painted in 1864 by Edwin Landseer, the painting has to be one of the macabre I've seen when it comes to the subject of the Franklin Expedition. There is no glory here, no brave British boys struggling against their fate, there is only death and chaos as the Arctic triumphs. The boats torn asunder, the men devoured by the elements and voracious polar bears. The Victorians were fond of adding an element of heroism and romance to their arts but there is none to be found here. There is only tragedy and death.

© Royal Holloway College, University of London
Today it hangs in the Royal Holloway College at the University of London. At the time the colleges founder Thomas Holloway bought the painting, it was a woman-only college. I imagine it would have been considered an unusual purchase, since the Victorians still considered woman to be delicate creatures, prone to fainting and hysteria. Whatever their opinions[3], the painting was there to stay. The gallery that held the painting was also used to hold exams. At some point (possibly during the 1920's or 1930's) the rumor started that if you were to sit in front of the painting while taking an exam, you would fail. Rather than dying out, the tall tale grew into full on urban legend, an incident in the 1970's only helping it thrive, when a student refused to sit for their exam unless the painting was covered. Such a fuss was raised that the registrar was forced to cover the painting and the only thing big enough to do so was a large Union Jack. After this it became a tradition to cover the painting, one that continues even now. Another thing that continues is the evolution of the paintings myth, since some unknown and morbidly minded student decided to add a rather frightening footnote to the legend of the painting. Despite there being no records of any deaths in the exam room or related to the painting itself, it is now said that the painting has taken at least one life. The story goes that some poor soul caught sight of the painting mid-exam and made eye contact with one of the polar bears depicted therein. This event drove the poor student insane, and she killed herself in some unknown manner after scrawling "the polar bears made me do it" all over her exam paper.
Now I don't know what you think, dear reader, but in my humble opinion the painting isn't cursed. It's a sad reminder of lives lost to Victorian hubris, a reminder of terrible failure and that is what causes the students to fail their exams. It's all down to autosuggestion. The painting is a monument to failure. It's not hard to see how students might have got distracted by it, by its message of doom and failed the exam. These failures are then blamed on the painting, soon rumours start that the painting caused a few students to score badly in their exams and  finally this becomes immortalised in superstition and urban legend. Fear of the dreaded canvas continues as time passes and the 1970's incident just causes it to grow out of control, like wildfire. But eventually, someone is telling the story and it just doesn't seem scary enough anymore, so they add in an extra tale of their own. The unsubstantiated suicide. And this, while false, adds a whole new scare to the story. I'm honestly surprised that whomever was responsible for that little edit didn't also try to claim that the dead student now haunts the painting. Untrue as the suicide itself, but do you see how easy it is to add to a myth? It has been 173 years since the Franklin Expedition and it haunts us even now, in one form or another. In the bodies of those lost being found, in the ships being discovered, in the Inuit oral history that is helping solve the mystery of the lost expedition and in Edwin Landseer's dark homage to those lost.

Have you seen the painting yourself and heard it's tale before? Have you been unfortunate enough to take your exams in front of it? Leave a comment and tell me your story, or tag me on Twitter @LWall54451552. As always, I'd love to hear your stories and views.

[1]Interestingly enough, I've read at least one article that states that at least four of the crew found have been identified as women. It wasn't unusual for women to join the Royal Navy in the 1800's, most of the time you never knew they were there unless they got caught.
[2]From a note left, we know that Franklin died on the 11th of June, 1947. Although a lot of bodies have been found, and some even identified, Franklin's grave has yet to be discovered and how he died is a mystery. His grieving widow, Lady Jane Franklin, never gave up hope of finding her husband and even employed the talents of mediums, one of which claimed he had been slain by polar bears.
[3]Lady Jane was far from impressed, but then a lot of things about the expedition displeased her. The news that the poor, lost men had at some point resorted to cannibalism, for example. When she was bought this bit of news she went out of her way to ruin the reputation of John Rae, the man bringing the news.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Devil's Brew; Lucifer vs Blackberries

It's my favourite time of the year. I adore Autumn, with its 
misty mornings, coloured leaves and golden light. After the dryness and heat of the summer, the coolness and frosts are welcome. It's the perfect time for long country walks and berry picking. Although, according to folklore, you might want to be careful about what you pick after the 29th of September; St Michaelmas Day. The feast of the Archangel Michael, associated with the beginning of Autumn, this holiday has many stories to it and everyone who celebrates it seems to have their own interesting ways to do so.* My favourite story associated with St Michaelmas of one of spite and blackberries.
Folklore tells us that not only is the 29th of September** the feast of St Michael, but it is also the day that St Michael drop kicked the Devil out of Heaven. Now the fall from Heaven was long and unpleasant, so when he collided with the Earth the Devil was already in a bad mood. But what made that mood even worse was what broke his fall. A blackberry bush. Not a little one either, but one of those big ones that tower above you, that have the biggest thorns and always have the plumpest berries just out of reach. After flailing around helplessly in the bush for a while, the Devil finally managed to pull himself out. And he was not amused in the slightest. Shouting and cursing, he decided the best way to express his rage was to piss on the poor bush. This is an act he has apparently repeated every St Michaelmas Day since then, though in some versions of the story he spits on the bush rather than relieving himself. Blackberries tend to get bitter later in the season and prone to rotting on the bush, most likely this is what lead to this particular bit of folklore. Whatever the case, it is rather amusing that people believed the Devil had nothing better to do with his time than going around and peeing on each and every bramble out of spite. But then that is the folkloric Devil for you; a sore loser, often a little dim and easily fooled, as you will no doubt see in future folklore related posts.
Now, that's the folklore. How about a recipe? I could have suggested a pie or crumble, even a sauce to go with chicken, but I'm going with a nice Blackberry Whiskey. There's nothing more pleasant on a chilly winters night than a little glass of something warming, but I'd still like to take this opportunity to remind you to PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY.

That being said, here is the recipe for Devil's Brew:

  • 1 bottle of whisky, doesn't matter what brand but I recommend a nice, dark, smokey one.
  • 2 cups blackberries, picked after the 29th of September.
  • 1 and a 1/2 cups of dark brown sugar.
  • A mason jar big enough to hold everything.
  • A bottle big enough to hold the whisky.


  • Sterilize the mason jar and let it dry, while it's drying wash the blackberries and set aside til needed.
  • Once you're ready to begin, place the blackberries in the jar with the sugar and give it a good shake.
  • Pour the whisky into the jar, over the blackberry/sugar mix.
  • Give the whole lot a good stir, fasten the lid and store it somewhere dark and warm, but not too warm.
  • Let it brew for about 6 months , gently shaking once a week to mix the sugar. Taste it at the 5 month mark, if you feel it needs to be sweeter you can add another half cup of sugar.
  • After 5-6 months it's time to strain and bottle your whisky. Take a fine strainer, tea strainer or square of linen. Place this over the top of a jug and strain the whisky through it, when all the whiskey has been poured though squish the blackberries with a fork to release any whiskey that as soaked into them.
  • Dispose of the used blackberries. Keep them out of reach of animals and children, they still retain some of the alcohol but don't taste good enough to eat anymore.
  • Pour the Whiskey from the jug into a sterilized bottle.

Once you've got your whiskey bottled you can start drinking it straight away but it's best to leave it till the winter months, to let it settle a little. You should be left with a dark, almost black brew. Sweet, slightly thick and aromatic, this whisky goes down warm and has a kick like the Devil himself. It's perfect on its own or with tonic, goes quite nice in an apple and blackberry crumble, you can use it in jams and it's even quite pleasant on good vanilla ice cream. I've been using (and enjoying) this recipe for a good few years now, it's evolved a lot from the original, which called for brewers sugar and was unbearably sweet. I've picked more berries for this year's whisky and I've picked a couple of cups extra for an extra Devil's Brew project as I intend to try my hand at Blackberry and chilli Mead. We'll see how it goes and, if all goes well, then you can expect another post about the Devil in Folklore and recipe soon. If you try out this recipe and enjoy it, let me know in the comments or tag me in a Twitter post, I'd love to see what you think and see some photos of your brew. You can find me on Twitter at @LWall54451552.

*I was especially impressed with the home made Devil/Dragon pinata!
**In some of the stories I've read the dates are different, giving the date of October the 10th or 11th instead of September the 29th. Known by some as Old Michaelmas Day, and is considered another day on which the Devil was evicted from Heaven. This was most likely caused by a calendar reform in 1752.

Seriously though, please drink responsibly. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Back to basics: the original Jack'o'lantern

Thanks to IrishFireside, CC

Halloween is upon us and the supermarkets are packed with beautiful, bright pumpkins, just ready to be carved into all sorts of wonderful and terrifying designs. Perfect to ward off the ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, right?
How about if I told you that the humble Jack-o-Lantern has a long history, it has evolved over time and is linked to folklore? Two of my favourite things in one candlelit package; folklore and Halloween. Which is why I found myself standing in our local supermarket, trying to choose between a Swede and a turnip whilst wondering how the hell I'm going to fit a candle in such tiny turnips. One awkward internet search later (have you ever tried to maintain your grip on a turnip, a swede and use a mobile phone at the same time? Not easy.) and I discover that the rather handsome fellow on the right is, in fact, a swede. Still not easy to carve, but probably more forgiving than a tiny turnip. I would be lying if I said I wasn't relieved, I'm clumsy and I value my fingers. Our local A&E is not where I want to spend my Halloween, thank you very much. I make my purchases and scuttle off home. There's an icy chill in the air, as a cold front has crept down from the Arctic. Many parts of the country will spend Halloween under a blanket of snow. I am lucky, being too far down the country to experience anything other than the biting cold.

The Jack-o-Lantern we know today has changed a lot over the years. They started off as an Irish tradition, with their roots firmly planted in folklore. With the pumpkin not being native to Ireland, the people would use turnips or swedes instead. These tough veggies are hard to cut, even with a good knife. It must have been a relief when they were introduced to pumpkins, so bright and easy to carve. So unlike the swede, which is a devil to hollow out and shape, seemingly resenting and resisting all attempts to do so. Their origin can be traced back to a folktale concerning a man known as Stingy Jack. An unpleasant nickname for an unpleasant man. Jack had a terrible reputation; a drunkard, tight with his money and a cheat. And, as so often happens in such tales, Jack became so infamous that the Devil himself came to to hear about him and decided to see if the stories he had been told were true. What persuaded him that the rumors were true we may never know, but the Devil approached Jack with the intention of dragging his soul to Hell. Imagine his surprise when Jack agreed to go, providing the Devil would allow him one last drink first. Unable to resist granting such a harmless and simple wish, the Devil agreed, taking Jack to the nearest pub where the two whiled the night away while Jack savoured his last pint. The problems started when it came to paying for the ale. Jack was quite unwilling to pay for it himself, insisting that the Devil pick up the tab, even suggesting the Devil trick the bar tender by turning himself into a sixpence to cover the cost. After all, the Devil could take so many forms, and he could always take his original form afterwards. How hard could it be to turn into one little coin? Annoyed at Jack's baiting, but up for the prank, the Devil turned himself into a coin as asked, fully expecting to be handed over to the barkeep. It was the moment Jack had been waiting for all evening. He took hold of the coin and, instead of handing it over in payment, thrust it deep into his coat pocket where he kept a crucifix. This small, holy item prevented the Devil from turning back to his previous form and he found himself trapped. A master trickster, Jack had played the Devil like a fiddle. He was not a stupid man either and had already guessed he couldn't avoid the Devil forever. Although trapped in the form of a coin, eventually the Devil would escape and then there would be hell to pay. So Jack offered his captive a deal; ten more years of freedom for Jack in exchange for it's freedom. The Devil took the deal and made his escape.

Ten years passed quickly.
Staggering home drunk, Jack once again found himself approached by the Devil. And once again Jack seemed remarkably fine with the whole situation. But he did have one last request. Before he was carried to Hell he would like an apple. Just one last taste of an apple. Like with Jack's last last request the Devil saw no harm in it. He wasn't changing his form, so he couldn't be trapped in Jack's pocket and granting the request was childs play, all he had to do was climb up a nearby apple tree and fetch the fruit. Jack was too drunk to do it himself. What could go wrong? As you've probably guessed, quite a lot could go wrong. Cunning Jack waited til the Devil was up the tree picking the apple, then used his pocket knife to carve crosses in the tree trunk. The poor Devil* didn't realise what his victim was doing until it was far too late and he was trapped in the tree by the sign of the cross. Jack had done it again and once more agreed to give the Devil his freedom if he would make a another deal with Jack. This time Jack didn't ask for another ten years of freedom, his request was that the Devil would never be able to take his soul and drag it to hell. The Devil gladly agreed. He was eager to get out of the tree and to wash his hands of Stingy Jack forever. Jack cut the crosses from the tree bark. Freed at last, the Devil scuttled back to Hell, hoping to never see Jack again. Jack staggered home to sleep off that nights beers. Thinking his soul safe from the Devil, Jack didn't even bother to change his way. The drinking continued, as did the trickery. Years passed, eventually this unhealthy lifestyle ended his life and Jack marched on up to the Heavenly Gates, expecting to be let in. But, to his horror, he was turned away. He'd been so awful in life that there was no way God was going to let him into heaven. Annoyed by what had happened, Jack decided to try his luck elsewhere and headed to the gates of Hell instead. The Devil still hadn't forgotten their deal or how Jack had tricked him, not once but twice and he was still angry about it. He turned Jack away like the afterlife's best bouncer, Jack's name wasn't on the list, he wasn't getting in. However, feeling merciful, the Devil tossed Jack a small chunk of burning hot ember to light his way as he walked the earth for the rest of eternity. Jack happened to have a turnip in his pocket and hollowed it out so he could carry the burning coal without hurting himself. From then til the end of time, the phantom of Stingy Jack roams the night, his way lit by his hellish turnip lantern. This lead to a change of names for him, Stingy Jack being changed to Jack of the Lantern, or simply just Jack o Lantern.
It's possible that this tale was the result of people seeing swamp lights** or ball lighting and not knowing what it was. Nevertheless the story stuck in peoples imaginations and evolved over time along with the Jack o Lantern itself. It became common practice to hollow yourself out a turnip lamp and carve a terrifying face in it. When lit, this lamp was guaranteed to scare away any evil spirits or undead ghouls that might be stalking you on All Hallows Eve, when the dead roamed the earth. This practice changed even more when taken to America and switched to pumpkins. In 19th Century America it became a fun prank for children to carve a pumpkin lamp and roam around at night to terrify other travelers. Oh, and of course, like the veggies before them, a pumpkin lamp could scare away wandering ghosts.

Back at home, tucked up in the warm with a cup of tea, it's my turn to carve a traditional Jack o Lantern. Eager to get started, I have neglected to research exactly how to do this. I choose to wing it.
🎃 Take a sharp knife and take the top of the turnip off. 
🎃 Hollow the turnip out. This will take a while, as turnips are tough vegetables. Your best bet is to score the inside with a knife and then hack away with a spoon and strong sense of determination. It took me around three hours to hollow my turnip out, but that's only because I stopped for a break half way through.
I would advice leaving at least a centimeter of solid flesh at the bottom of the turnip. This will stop your candle from falling out.
🎃 Grab a pen and outline your lanterns face. Keep it simple and be careful while you're carving. I found this to be the toughest part of carving my turnip and narrowly avoided stabbing myself in my finger. I also tried to keep mine similar to the original, though I could never manage that level of terrifying.
🎃 Once you've got the face sorted you can punch two holes on either side of your lantern, for the string used as the handle. Once again, be careful if doing this with a knife. Environmentally friendly and an excellent improvised hole punch, I used the mental drinking straws my friend Fee bought me for Christmas to make my holes. Thread the string through the holes and the some nice big knots to secure them. I wouldn't advise doing this if you are using real candles to light the lantern, as the string can burn. As can the lid of the lantern.
🎃 Now your lantern is ready to terrorise trick-or-treaters with and forever haunt their nightmares, pop an LED candle or a glowstick inside and hang it outside your door.

And there you have it, how to carve a Traditional Jack o Lantern and the folklore behind it. I wish you all a Happy Halloween and, if you carve a turnip lantern of your own, please leave a comment with a photo or tag me in the photos on Twitter; I'd love to see the ghoulish horrors that you've created.

*This isn't the only story where he gets tricked. In some stories he gets tricked into greater feats than these, even being tricked into building bridges and church doors. The Devil in folklore is a bit stupid and arrogant, and is sometimes easily fooled.

**Swamp Gas will sometimes erupt into flames, resulting in an eerie, floating light. This fascinating natural occurrence also lead to the legend of Will-o-the-Wisp.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Devils in the depths: the cannibals of Clovelly

 "Arms, legs, thighs, hands and feet, of men, women and children, hung up in rows, like dried beef and a great many lying in a pickle..."

I've always been fascinated by tales of the Wendigo, reading about these predatory and ever hungry spirits gives me chills, especially when reading about people's personal experiences. It makes me eternally grateful that we don't have them here in England. We just have a history of "normal" cannibalism. If you can call it normal.
I'm currently in Devon with friends, it's late at night and we're cosy and safe in our caravan. Outside storm Callum is pitching a fit. I choose to ignore that our caravan is very close to the edge of a cliff. It reminds me of a holiday a long time ago, when I was little, listening in horror and fascination as my Stepfather informed me that there were cannibals at the place we'd be visiting the next day. It isn't something found in the tourist leaflets for Clovelly but in books, the internet and word of mouth. An alleged story of local horrors, it seems that the tale is just a retelling of the story of Sawney Bean.* Unlike Sawney's story, this tale comes in the form of an eight page chapbook, with an unknown author. It's the only copy in existence and can be found in Bideford, another town in Devon. Smuggling was rife at the time, tall tales to keep people away from the smugglers hideouts were common, although this is the most gruesome I've heard so far.
Living in a coastal cave, along a rugged stretch of coast near Clovelly, they were lead by the patriarch, John Gregg. It isn't hard to guess why they lived there. For a poor family, with no money or home, any shelter would do. As for the attacks, those probably started as highway robberies, a way to make ends meet and stave off starvation for another week. However for some unknown reason, something changed. Maybe a robbery gone wrong, an ill-conceived way to hide bodies or maybe a harsh winter and starvation. We will never really know or understand why, but the family started to murder and eat people, going from "your money or your life" to "your money and your wife." They would ambush and attack their victims on the road, drag the bodies back to their lair and strip them of both valuables and flesh. Hidden in the cave with all the food they could ever need, the family itself grew and grew. It consisted of John, his wife, their fourteen children and a grand total of around 32 grandchildren. Because the family didn't leave their cave for anything other than a spot of murder, they grew more and more inbred and monstrous with each child born until they were barely recognisable as humans. If they had been real then it would have been a miracle that such a large and feral family wasn't caught sooner, yet the story tells us that they managed to vanish up to one thousand people in a twenty five year period and nobody outside that cave had a clue what was happening. A happy, safe, well fed family of monsters. After getting away with such abominable acts for so long they would have felt untouchable, so it's no surprise they got over confident. To put it bluntly, they cocked up.
Their downfall came in the form of a nameless couple traveling home on their horse one night. The Gregg's ambushed the couple, succeeding on dragging the wife from the back of the horse whilst the husband spurred the terrified beast on, making for the safety of the nearest town and leaving his poor wife behind to be savaged by the terrifying, ghoul like creatures that had crept from the shadows to set upon them. Fetching help, he headed back to where he was attacked with a group of curious townsfolk in tow, but nothing was found but the brutally mauled body of his late wife. Word of the incident quickly spread, a posse of four hundred men was formed, with a pack of baying bloodhounds for tracking. These dogs followed the scent of the family back to their underground lair, where the men that accompanied them were introduced to a subterranean world of horrors that rivaled any horror movie. Thousands of bones littered the cave, piled up in corners as if in some macabre attempt at housekeeping. Hung from the ceiling, like meat in a butchers window, were the limbs of more recent victims. Not one of them were spared, as even the remains of children could be seen swinging in the sea breeze coming through the entrance of the cave. Dark and lit by torchlight, echoing with the sound of excited bloodhounds and filled with the stench of death, it was a house of horrors. And there, in the middle of it all, preparing to put up a fight, were the Greggs. It was a good job that the men had come in such large numbers, a smaller group would have ended up in Ma Gregg's cooking pot along with their dogs for a bit of variety. After a bit of a scuffle, the men managed to drag the whole family out of their hole and into the light for all to see. From their the Greggs family were sent to Exeter to be trialed for their crimes, but all agreed that there was no need for that. No Judge in his right mind could possibly find John Gregg and his foul kin not guilty. The whole family was hung until dead. Even the poor, malformed and savage children. Because this story is more than often told word of mouth, another version states that they were instead burnt alive in three large fires. It's a short tale, but one that has crept so smoothly into folklore that many still believe it to be true, as I did as a child when my Stepfather told it to me so gleefully.
If one thousand people going missing over such a short amount of years with nobody questioning it wasn't proof enough that the tale is fictional, then the fact that there are no court records, newspaper clippings or even a burial sight is. It would be easy to say that maybe people just forgot, but there's no way that crimes as grotesque as those of the Greggs. The people of the 18th century were good at keeping records, you only have to look at Bodmin Jail for proof of the crimes of that era, or visit The Clink in London. Since executions were considered a form of entertainment, people would have flocked to see the end of ghoulish family, there would have been personal accounts from those involved. The burial sight alone would have been a tourist hot spot, both then and today. Although now they would probably charge you an entrance fee to visit it. There might not be records of cannibals, but there are records of smugglers. Folklore is rarely pleasant, usually stories such as this are meant to serve as a warning. The village of Clovelly is beautiful a joy to see and visit. The coast that surrounds it is wild and mysterious. In the days when people were more superstitious it wouldn't be too hard for people to believe such a tale. Keep away from the smuggler's cave would have just lead to arrests, possibly a few hangings. Easier to associate a tale of horror to that place, to warn people away with fear. And if folks go anyway and disappear? Well, you were warned. Maybe the Greggs are still hungry, even in death.

All photos taken by myself and owned, please do not use or re-dispute without asking permission.

*Alexander Bean, also known as Sawney Bean, was allegedly a man from 16th century Scotland. He and his forty eight member strong clan were said to have been responsible for around the same amount of murders over a similar time span to that of the Greggs, who's tale was told much later in the 18th century. The similarities between the two are obvious, though the Greggs story is set in a different location. As with the Greggs, there is no proof that Sawney existed, instead it's highly likely that he was created as an act of anti-Scottish proper gander.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Road Less Traveled

At 05:00 I leave for the Lake District and, although it's a long journey, I can't help but wonder what possessed me to leave so early. I should be packing my things, as I haven't even started and so I'm likely to forget something, knowing my luck my phone charger. But I'm a lazy traveller and a night owl, so instead I'm here writing this blog. Inspired by travel of course. Superstition, folklore and travel have gone hand in hand for hundreds of years. I present to you my Top Five Travel Superstitions.

Leave no sheet unturned
This was one superstition I encountered years ago, while working as a cleaner at a hotel. If you're traveling alone and end up in a room with two beds, then either use the bed you're not sleeping in to store your luggage or mess it up completely; pull he sheets out, throw the quilt and pillows on the floor, go nuts. Basically do anything but damage the hotel.
"Why the hell would you do that?" You might be wondering. Well it turns out that an empty bed can be an invitation for unwanted guests of the ghostly variety. The more uninviting you make the bed, the less likely you are to end up with an evil spirit as a roommate. Anyone who's ever read an M.R James story will tell you how unpleasant an aggravated sheet ghost can be.

Carry Protection
Stop laughing. I meant a St Christopher's Medal.
The Catholic Church might have removed him from the Roman Calendar in the 1960's, but that hasn't stopped people believing that carrying one of these little charms will ensure safe journeys. St Christopher's story is one of legend, although there's very little evidence to prove he actually existed other than these stories; he kindly carried a small child across a river, once they got safely to the other side the child was revealed to be Jesus. As a result Christopher became the patron saint of travel.

Pick your dates
On the subject of Christianity, a lot of people consider traveling on a Friday to be unlucky. We're not just talking about the 13th here, we're talking about any Friday. Supposedly this is down to the crucifixion of Jesus taking place on a Friday. Sunday, on the other hand, in considered a luck day to travel on.

Beware the Willow
Willow trees are truly beautiful, nothing could beat a riverside picnic under those gracefully drooping bows on a hot summer's day. But at night this folklore laden tree is far from welcoming. According to old Somerset lore it's best to avoid Willow trees whilst traveling at night, as they are prone to uprooting themselves so that they may stalk unwary travelers, creeping along behind them and muttering. What do they mutter? Find out if you dare.

And finally...
Who's a good boy?
If you come across a stray pooch whilst on your travels it's considered to be good luck, even more so if it follows you home (congratulations on your new dog) and especially if the dog is black. Which is nice, since black dogs tend to get the rough end of the stick when it comes to folklore. There is a but though, there always is. If the dog follows you home on a rainy night it is a sign of bad luck. Although this is presumably because your house is going to stink of wet dog and you just know your new friend is going to shake itself dry them moment it gets through the door.

So what do you think, what do you believe and do you have any favourite or unique travel superstitions of your own? Feel free to drop a message in the comments with your opinions, you know I'd love to hear them. Myself, I don't really follow any travel superstitions although I do find them endlessly fascinating. I have been known to use a spare bed to store my luggage, but that's more because it's practical than because of ghosts.
Keep your eyes peeled for more blog posts coming soon. As I said, I'm visiting the Lake District, a place rich with folklore and hauntings, and I just can't wait to share them with you.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Ghosts of Dunwich

Personally speaking, off the Suffolk coast is the last place I would expect to find a lost, underwater city.
Yes, you heard me correctly. 
Lost, underwater city.

Let me take you back to the 11th century. Dunwich is vastly different from the chocolate box village it is today, it was a bustling city, a sea port, the capital of East Anglia and the seat of power for Bishops. The Doomsday Book even lists it as having a population of 3000. But all good things come to an end because then, much like something from a horror story, the sea came for Dunwich. The first great storm hit in 1286, followed by another in 1326. Dunwich's great port, the city itself and much of its farmland was washed away, the damage to the coastline there is irreparable. Even today more and more of the Dunwich coast crumbles away every day. While there have been many more storms and floods, it was these two that sealed the great cities fate. Once 3000 residents, now around 120. Every day the coast crumbles away even more and the sea creeps closer, a greedy thing, always wanting more. Walking the beach it's possible to find all sorts of archaeological goodies, but if you're tempted to go searching then be wary; it's also quite common to find human bones, whole or broken, that have fallen out of the crumbling cliffs above. It may be quite beautiful, but make no mistake, Dunwich is old, a place of tragedy and death. And, as with many such places, the dead do not rest easily here. It's no wonder the great author M. R. James was so inspired by this place, even basing his story "Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You My Lad" here or that H P Lovecraft chose to name his own eldritch town of Dunwich after it.

The cliffs themselves are dominated by Greyfriars Priory, not to be mistaken for Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland. I have to admit, the Priory is a stunning ruin. It's in good condition and untouched by graffiti or other vandalism. Unusual for a building like this. But I pity anyone foolish enough to deface this building, they might find themselves attracting more than the just police. You see, not all of the monks left. Their ghosts have been seen walking the hollow shell of a building and its vast grounds, scaring visitors and locals alike. And in 1926 there was even a sighting of the Black Shuck itself here, running through the grounds of the Priory. A great black beast of a dog, with glowing eyes, the Shuck has been spotted up and down the Suffolk coast and is one of England's most famous phantom hounds. Rest assured, this not so good boy will be getting his own blog post in the future (as will Greyfriars Kirk.). Further along the cliffs are thick woodlands and then Dunwich Heath. If WWII history is your thing then I'd definitely suggest looking into the Heath, as it was the most guarded piece of the Suffolk coast during those dark years and was home to an artillery battery, a radar station and much more. Unfortunately next to nothing of the original buildings here remain, but the history is still an interesting one and concrete can still be spotted on the paths and buried under the lush gorse and heather. The woods are what interest me and, I suspect, you. Tall trees reach to the sky, their thick canopy dimming the sun and giving shelter to not one, but two ghosts. Here you might spot a Victorian squire on a horse, galloping through the brush. Or you might spot the spirit of a local gentleman who supposedly died of heartbreak in those very woods after failing to gain his families permission to marry his true love. Forlorn and alone, his ghost is seen moving through the trees, perhaps looking for his beloved so that they can at least be united in death. Unfortunately for him, her grave was most likely one of the many washed into the sea. Which brings us to our next spot to visit. Not haunted, but most certainly eerie; the last grave. There may be no ghosts at the last resting place of Jacob Forster, but it's still an unexpected site tucked away in the blackthorn trees that line that area of the cliffs. You can find photos online of bones laying on top of this grave, found and placed there by some kind soul hoping to lay those lost bones to rest. Where are they now? Who knows, most likely given a proper burial by some kind local or tucked safely away in Dunwich's museum. When I went there with my friends, there was no sign of them. Head back into the village to St James Church and you'll find what's left of the local leper colony. It was this sad ruin that got me interested in Dunwich about 10 years ago. An attempt to find it was made by my friends and I, but back then we didn't have a sat nav and, after wandering onto the beach and finding a sick baby rabbit, we called a rain check to take our new fluffy friend to the vets instead. Now after visiting Dunwich again I have to admit I missed it for a second time and I'm very disappointed in myself. Dating back to the 12th century, the only sign of the leper colony left is the remains of the chapel, the sea took the rest. Its a place of quiet remembrance, but also of creeping horror as it is said to be haunted by shuffling, malformed shadow people. St James Church still has links to leprosy, as they raise money to help a mission in Africa that supports victims of this heart breaking disease. If you stop by for a visit then why not consider making a donation, I'm sure the lingering spirits would appreciate it. Now back down to the beach and, if you're lucky enough to avoid the Black Shuck as it roams the cliffs above, you might find yourself face to face with the ghost of brightly dressed Elizabethan sailor. A harmless spirit this, not out to spook or scare, he simply wants to take a slow walk down the beach to his ship. If you don't see the sailor then you might get lucky and experience the beaches other haunting, if you can call it that. Its said that sometimes, over the soft whisper of the sea breeze and the lapping of the waves on the shingle, you might hear the melancholy tolling of a church bell, rising from under the waves, the sound of the lost churches of Dunwich.

Now, did I experience anything ghostly on my visit? Unfortunately I did not, but that's not to say you won't. And if you do, or have, then I'd love to hear about it. As for the Black Shuck, the only canine I came face to face with was a friendly spaniel on the beach. Dunwich has other hauntings than these, I've only covered the main ones. It's a lovely village, made eerie by it's fascinating history. To find out more of this history, I'd recommend a visit to Dunwich's museum. And if you want to stay the night for a spot of (respectful) ghost hunting then the local inn, The Ship at Dunwich, has rooms and excellent food. If you're visiting for the day then you'll have no problem parking and the car park itself is free, asking only for a voluntary donation to help with its upkeep. Not an unreasonable request, I think you'll agree. If you're not visiting then why aren't you? If you're able to get to Dunwich then it's a treat that you won't forget.

All photos taken by myself, 30th August 2018. Please do not use without permission.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Welcome to The Strange Ways.

Ghosts stalk the halls, odd creatures lurk in the shadows of the forest and elsewhere other unknown beings lurk. Yet, in our busy, technology filled world the weird and wonderful often goes unnoticed. How many hauntings are missed because the victim is glued to the computer and doesn't notice? How many Bigfoot sightings have been scuppered by Angry Birds? We may never know, but with the rising popularity of the paranormal, I hope to creep onto your screens and leave you wondering whats standing behind you in the dark.
So grab yourself a drink, pull up a chair and lets wade into a world of strange and unexpected horrors.