Archive for October, 2012

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A Hallowe’en Jaunt: Sibylline Geography in Dorset

October 31, 2012

A jaunt to a small area of Dorset to the north and west of Wimborne Minster today was a reminder that the supernatural death-messenger, known as the Banshee in Ireland, has a presence under different names in this area too. Armed with Kingsley Palmer’s Oral Folk-Tales of Wessex (1973 Newton Abbot: David and Charles) on a wet and windswept day I visited some of the haunts of “often uncanny and not altogether pleasant” female ghosts (p.139). I headed up the B3078 Cranborne Road north towards Bone Acre Copse, Wimborne St.Giles. This copse, according to Rodney Legg’s Mysterious Dorset (1987-98 Wincanton: Dorset Publishing Company, p.80), is said to be haunted by a hooded lady, dressed in white, “who sometimes ventures on to the highway but crashes back into the undergrowth as soon as she is spotted”. Sound is strongly associated with her, as she was heard to rush through the trees before, moments later, a louder roar was heard as “a wagon and horses careered between the trees”. This sound then continued for a number of minutes though no phantom coach was ever sighted. Tree-fellers have disturbed skeletons in the copse, hence its name. A prehistoric or Roman cemetery? Perhaps it was just as well – on a day when fairies and the dead are said to walk – that there was nowhere for me to safely pull over and explore…

I decided instead to visit the Neolithic henges at Knowlton, the best preserved of which encircles a ruined Norman church. Cranborne Road and its gently winding course towards Bone Acre Copse is clearly visible from here. As I circumambulated the bank of the henge the rain really started to set in.

The ruined Norman church inside one of the Neolithic henges at Knowlton. Two ‘churchyard yews’ at the perimeter of the henge – visible to the immediate left of the church – have been turned into a contemporary shrine linked to remembrance of the dead. Bone Acre Copse can be seen further left in the far distance.

I’m not sure of the ethics of picturing such places, but I found evidence of modern observances connected to ‘the Goddess’ and remembrance of the dead when I had a closer look at the yew trees at the edge of the henge.

I had to retreat as the rain was pretty heavy by now and decided to head for Charlton Marshall, a few miles west (via Witchampton, naturally), where the ghost of a witch “is supposed to appear… on Hallowe’en night” (Palmer, p.139). Sometimes she is seen mounted on a white horse – much like the apparition of Kitty Nocks in Hampshire. Palmer’s not specific on where in Charlton Marshall she appears but the River Stour passes pretty close to the road by the church of St.Mary the Virgin and bearing in mind the recurrent association of uncanny women – including Irish banshees – with water…

Thence to Almer (meaning ‘Eel Mere’) further south, another St.Mary’s church and the mere from which the village took its name, with yet more uncanny associations.

Palmer writes, “On the road from Almer to Wareham near the World’s End Inn can be seen the ghost of a woman who warns of an imminent death in the Wells family. Tradition tells that she was badly treated by the family and takes her revenge whenever she can” (p.139). In Ireland this would be a classic Banshee manifestation; as the blurb on the back of Patricia Lysaght’s book (The Banshee: the Irish Supernatural Death Messenger, 1996, Dublin: O’Brien) says, “In origin a patron goddess caring for the fortunes of her people, the banshee of folk belief is usually considered to be a harbinger of death, and is said to follow certain families”.

Looking north from The World’s End towards Marsh Bridge, at the boundary between the parishes of Almer, Morden and Winterbourne Zelston as well as the western extremity of the huge Charborough Park Estate.

Afterthoughts on All Souls’ Day, November 2nd

Was it pure chance I ended up at the pub which was not only one of the primary inspirations for my PhD title – The World’s End – but also inspired, in its association with an uncanny apparition, one of the themes animating that document? The existence of The World’s End at the margins of different bounded communities parallels the location of a Paris bar which was woven into the texture of an evolving psychogeography:

a bar called AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Au bout du monde), on the edge of one of Paris’s strongest unities of ambiance (the rue Mouffetard, rue Tournefort, rue Lhomond area) is not there by chance. Events are only fortuitous insofar as the general laws governing their category are unknown.

‘Architecture and Play’, Potlatch 20, May 1955 (in Andreotti and Costa 1996).

Psychogeography – “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” – was an attempt to overcome the determination of chance to which it was felt the urban wanderings of the surrealists had succumbed. In the psychogeography of the situationists (its psyche evoking for me the ‘breath, life, soul’ of the original Greek) I drew the inspiration for a putative sibylline geography in which I could marshal some critical charge against both an archaic, reactionary feudal privilege and a soulless, dehumanising modernism that motivates the technocratic projects of the right and left (including, in certain respects, the situationists). The parochial limits at which The World’s End is located and the uncanny female appears is, to apply the essentialism of a radical feminist perspective, “a call of the wild to the wild, calling hags/spinsters to spin/be beyond the parochial bondings/bindings of any comfortable ‘community'” (Daly 1978:xv, quoted in Weigle, M. 1982 Spiders and Spinsters: Women and Mythology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, p.42). Consider this alongside the situationist Asger Jorn’s appropriation of the disorientating simultaneity of ‘primitive art’ against the distant vanishing point of central perspective derived from the Christian orientation towards Doomsday. To paraphrase Debord (I think), against the spectacle of the end of the world we must posit the end of the world of the spectacle.

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‘… and the Old Magic was free for ever and the moon was new.’

October 16, 2012

The children’s novels of Alan Garner, books like Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath – which I read hard on the heels of the Narnia books in the 1970s – first tuned me into the idea of ‘the Old Magic’, especially The Moon of Gomrath. This book introduced me both to Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track – which sparked an enduring interest in ‘the power of place’ – and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. An element of this attunement to the magical themes given free rein within and beyond these stories is the perception of meaningful coincidence in the most disparate of seemingly unrelated things – in art, literature and ‘real life’.

Recently, I’ve been very preoccupied with a place associated with the legendary figure of Kitty Nocks, whose ghost is reputed to ride on a white horse at midnight of the full moon around a disappeared pond – in which she had drowned herself – on the top of Kitnocks Hill in Curdridge, Hampshire. Part of the preoccupation is borne of a wish to prevent a housing development on the site – which is also said to be Kitty Nocks’ burial place – as well as a fascination with the legend itself and its correlation with other landscape legends around the world, from Britain to Siberia. As Caroline Humphrey observed, in many stories the tracks made by the female protagonists of these legends-of-place are homologous with the movement of women between male social groups, a movement which often fails in one way or another (through ill-treatment, divorce, and flight of the wife with nowhere to go). This creates “a hiatus of abandonment, from which asocial place the female spirit wreaks her revenge” (see here).

A view across the Triangle towards Kitnocks House on 31.1.12, the eve of St Bridget’s Day (Candlemas). Kitnocks House was the home of E.H.Liddell Esq., the brother of Alice Liddell, immortalised by Lewis Carroll as Alice. The darker tufts of vegetation in the middle distance are rushes, the waterlogged ground where they grow being the likely site of the vanished pond (a natural ‘looking glass’) around which Kitty Nocks rides (Picture: Simon Crook).

In another post on this blog, about a moated site at Cranbourne off the Stockbridge Road (A30) north of Sutton Scotney, I explored the theme of the footprints of ‘the departed’ leading down to the otherworld of watery places, a feature of footprint carvings found in Bronze Age Scandinavian rock art (see here).  I remarked that this moated site was reminiscent to me of Angharad Goldenhand’s floating island on Redesmere, the refuge of Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.  Granted, this small stream-fed pool surrounding the site of a mediaeval manor and chapel is not remotely as large as Redesmere, but the analogy seemed ‘right’.  The Cranbourne, which rises a few hundred yards to the east of the moat also evokes in its name the Crane, a long-legged water bird significant in much traditional cosmology and lore around the world, such as those depicted in the Anatolian shepherd’s bag illustrated below.

Woven by nomadic tribespeople of central Anatolia in modern Turkey, this shepherd’s bag from Kayseri/Tomarza village displays a horizontal ‘V’ pattern which represents the return flight of migratory cranes, symbolic of good news, while the cross-hatched symbols are the nests of ‘holy birds’. (Picture: Simon Crook. I’m grateful to Mr Bilal Olgun for explaining the symbolism woven into this bag).

In a further post (here) I drew an explicit connection between Kitnocks Hill and the moated site at Cranbourne, based on similar geographical patterning – both watery places, both on a bend in the road, one a hill-top site, the other in a depression – and wondered whether any narratives of supernatural women revolved around Cranbourne which would amplify such tentative parallels. In an oblique way there is a compelling narrative which ties Cranbourne and Kitnocks, but it  relies on my personal identification of the atmosphere of Cranbourne with Alan Garner’s literary evocation of the mystique of Redesmere. This compelling narrative is Garner’s new novel, Boneland, published in August and written to complete a trilogy with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

Boneland intertwines the stories of Colin – one of the original protagonists of the first two books in the series – and ‘the Watcher’, both of them living in the same area of Cheshire, but thousands of years apart. The Watcher is a shaman of the Palaeolithic who carves images in a cave at Ludcruck (modern Ludchurch) and sings and dances to keep his world and the cosmos in balance. With the leg bone of a crane he faced ‘the wall of the bird spirits’ in the cave, putting the bone to his lips to play the cranes from their sleep, joining them in their flight on his spirit wings amidst ‘the gale of feathers’. It is a world created by a primal being, Crane, who separates the earth and sky with its wings; a being identified with the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan). The shaman sings Crane round “from its lowmost up to its height to bring the day.” The Watcher is in quest of a woman who will bear the child to whom he can pass on the wisdom upon which all life depends. In the present of the novel Colin appears to have taken on this shamanic mantle, as an astrophysicist engaged in research at the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank. He too is in quest of a missing woman, his twin sister Susan, who we last read of in The Moon of Gomrath when she rides across the sky with the Wild Hunt. While Colin remembers everything from the age of thirteen, he has barely any memory of his life before that or what happened to his sister.

It is Colin’s attempt to trace Susan, with the help of his psychotherapist, Meg, which illuminates connections between places – like the ‘lowmost’ of the moat at Cranbourne and the ‘height’ of Kitnocks Hill – which reach beyond Garner’s fiction.  Colin has had three flashbacks in which he has seen his sister riding a horse into the Pleiades, a cluster of stars also known as the Seven Sisters. He confesses to Meg that he has used the radio telescope to try and find her, ‘using an object to trace a metaphor’. To Meg’s question, ‘why the Pleiades?’ Colin answers that since the dispersal of the first humans from Africa this asterism has been seen as the refuge of women and maidens: the Pleiades are a band of women or maidens escaping pursuit. Susan’s departure is lent an earthly dimension when Meg presents an old newspaper report about her disappearance on the night of November 21st/22nd. She had ridden off on a grey Shire horse which is later located on an island in Redesmere after its hoofprints had been found to end at the water’s edge. A fingertip search of the bed of the mere is undertaken, based on the assumption that Susan may have drowned but ‘no one had left the mere, and nothing was found’. At this, Colin excitedly exclaims that on this night the Pleiades would have reached the highest point on the meridian of the year, so that by the time Susan reached Redesmere they were reflected in the water: “She made it!”

It may seem odd to draw on a work of fiction to make connections between places ‘outside the text’, so that Redesmere=Cranbourne=Kitnocks Hill=Redesmere. This circular logic certainly doesn’t constitute ‘evidence’ within an objective framework but, subjectively, it rings true.

I finished Boneland last night. Having slept on my first reading of the book I awoke to muse on the themes of aquatic birds – cranes, swans – and the novel’s ‘earthing’ of cosmic patterns such as the integrating within it of Seven Sisters Road, which actually runs close to Jodrell Bank.  In the book this road leads to the house where Colin meets the enigmatic psychotherapist, Meg Massey, implying that Meg herself resides among the Pleiades.  This morning I couldn’t help being reminded of a short story I wrote for English homework when I was about twelve. Betraying the influence of what I’d read – Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Garner – it told of a young man undergoing a series of trials in a complex of caves until he succeeds in reaching a central chamber where a green, stone egg sits on a tripod.  Within its matrix are suspended the souls of seven captive swans, who are then released to fly away to freedom in their evanescent forms. Even here ‘mundane’ reality informed this fantasy. Onyx eggs were very fashionable ornaments in the early 1970s, my parents had a collection of them in a bowl. The green one with white veins was my favourite. Here’s a black one I’ve picked up along the way…

Addendum (20/10/12): I must mention an online resource dedicated to all things connected to Alan Garner, an unofficial website with a wealth of material through which you can while away the hours, here

 

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A Bend in the Road: from Kitnocks Hill to Betty Potter’s Dip

October 6, 2012

I was intrigued to see in the latest Fortean Times (FT 294, November 2012, p.21) Alan Murdie’s report on Betty Potter’s Dip, a stretch of road near the Essex village of Boxted said to be haunted by the ghost of a witch – Betty Potter – who committed suicide. This small dip appears to be situated on a pronounced bend in the road, marking the terminus of a long stretch of straight road named, appropriately enough, Straight Road.  I’m starting to think that such kinks and curves in roads are a recurrent feature of places which are either haunted or have numinous associations.  Betty Potter is reputed to appear at midnight on October 21st much as a Hampshire ghost, Kitty Nocks, haunts a length of road over Kitnocks Hill at midnight of the full moon (https://thegrammarofmatter.wordpress.com/the-enchantments-of-kitnocks-hill).

The bend in the road at the top of Kitnocks Hill. Kitty Nocks was drowned in a pond in the triangle of land formed by this junction of roads, an area she still haunts.

Likewise, both hilltop and dip are distinguished by a sudden bend in the road and tragic tales of suicide. I suspect this is a regular locative pattern of such hauntings, themselves the shadowy overhang of localised goddesses or ‘supernatural beings’ venerated at these places.  Though I know of no associated legends or hauntings, a dip and bend on the A30 Stockbridge Road just north of Sutton Scotney at Cranbourne, invites speculation as to whether it too has something more in common with the haunts of Betty Potter and Kitty Nocks (https://thegrammarofmatter.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/the-cranbourne/).

A bend and dip in the A30 Stockbridge Road – an old drovers’ route – just as it passes a medieval moat (behind the stand of trees in the left foreground) and site of a 14th/15th-century chapel at Cranbourne. This tributary of the Dever springs up a short distance away before flowing under the road.

This spot certainly shares its waterlogged quality with Kitnocks Hill, I wonder if the same can be said of Betty Potter’s Dip? And to whom would the chapel have been dedicated?