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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