There is supposed to be a review of Secret Tunnels of England in the July edition of Fortean Times, but I haven't yet been able to find a copy in a newsagent.
There are less than 10 places left on next month's Hogarth walk.
Books I've been reading this month:
Roberto Calasso The Art of the Publisher
Guy de la Bedoyere Roman Britain
Marc Morris King John
Readable - if rather confusing chronologically - biography of the king whose death anniversary comes up on 18th October.
Robert Aickman Cold Heart in Mine
Aickman's strange and unsettling tales - such as 'The Swords' in this collection - stay in the mind much longer than the vast majority of ghost stories.
John Robb Death to Trad Rock
Skim-read after a surprisingly powerful, relentless and rocking gig by The Nightingales at The Carlisle pub in Hastings a couple of weeks ago, only temporarily halted by someone leaning on the jukebox and dislodging the plug for the mixing desk.
Brix Smith Start The Rise, the Fall and The Rise
Fair to say that MES doesn't come out of this too well.
A. J. Lees Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment
Very interesting autobiographical account by one of the world's leading neurologists of the influence of the writings and thought of William Burroughs on his scientific work, particularly with regard to drugs. Could usefully be read in conjunction with Oliver Sacks' Awakenings (Sacks, of course, features here). His thoughts on modern medicine (pp183-4): 'The NHS regarded neurology as an expensive, largely talking speciality with woolly outcomes and there was never enough funding. Performance was now judged by waiting times, not quality of care or innovation. Professionalism was being replaced by brainless accountability reflected in meaningless league tables... In the pretence to be more scientific, only the very latest and most immediate data was now considered trustworthy. Painstaking, clinical, pharmacological observation in small numbers of patients was disparaged as "eminence based medicine". New was better than old, more was superior to little, and early detection of disease was essential - such truisms reflected the prevailing zeitgeist.'
Lees also mentions a piece of underground folklore (p.12) included in my Secret Tunnels of England.When he was training in anatomy at the London Hospital in the capital's East End: 'A rumour that passed from one generation of students to the next was that at the end of each term the mauled cadavers were transported on a dead body train from the hospital to Whitechapel station and then to a place of rest near the necropolis of Brick Lane.' For more on this classic urban legend see here.
A friend managed to get me an inscribed copy, as I couldn't get to the book launch. Notting Hill Editions were partially an influence on the book design of Accumulator Press. It's a great book - I cannot comment on the scientific and medical information contained therein, but what I can say is that (adopts whining nasal tone) it would be highly unusual to get a train from Liverpool Lime Street and arrive at King's Cross (p. 7 and p.9) rather than Euston.
To make a change from secret tunnels the next event is a walk on Hogarth's London, one of my very occasional artist walks. It will leave from Westminster Reference Library at 6.30 on Friday 15 July. Details here. Places will be limited and it will end at the lovely Lamb pub in Lamb's Conduit Street. More information to follow.
I recently acquired a framed print from photographer Bob Mazzer (see above) who, I was surprised to find, lives in St Leonards. He is most well known for chronicling the passengers on the London tube for the last thirty years or so, a remarkable and revealing record that shows many of the social changes in the capital (and the years when it was permissible to smoke and drink on underground trains). All the fashion trends can be seen: skinheads, punks, New Romantics etc. and there are reminders of how menacing travelling on public transport could be, especially in the 1970s, as I recall. I'm hoping that we will be doing an event together in London at some point in the next three months. More on Bob Mazzer's work can be found here and here and here.
I wrote something about The Yellow Book for Westminster Reference Library's Book of the Month here.
I've just found out that The Nightingales are playing at The Carlisle pub in Hastings this Sunday 12th June. I've never been a fan, but I often heard them on Peel and the bill looks interesting - may go.
Announcement last week of the discovery of the earliest dated document from Roman Britain on the vast Bloomberg redevelopment site in the City of London which encompasses the vanished river Walbrook and the Temple of Mithras. Appropriately enough it concerns a financial arrangement. See here and here.
I recently asked paper artist Linda Toigo to tunnel through a copy of Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact and this is the result. You can see more of her work here. Down to under 100 copies left, so get yours soon. Available through Amazon, and Watkins, Treadwells and Atlantis, LRB Bookshop in London, Five Leaves in Nottingham, Albion Books in Hastings and the Bookkeeper in St Leonards.
Sinkholes are becoming an increasing problem worldwide. This example from Cornwall is one of the most impressive and terrifying, opening up directly outside a house. Apparently it reaches water at 300 feet but could be 'four or five times' deeper. From the latest issue of Subterranea Britannica's Subterranea and via BLDGBLOG.
Another recent one opened up in Greenwich and almost swallowed a car. See here.
This week the number of page views for this blog exceeded 100,000. The most read post is the one about Subterranean Selfridges, but for some reason the Golden Ram of Satan is also proving very popular at the moment; I know there is very little information about it online apart from my post. Another much-read item is about a talk on Paul Raymond, but it may just be because of the picture.
Sarah Bakewell At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails (Chatto & Windus, 2016)
Proteus and the Magician: The Letters of Henry Miller and John Cowper Powys ed. Jacqueline Peltier (The Powys Society, 2014)
David Douglas English Scholars 1660-1730 (Eyre & Spottiswood, 2nd rev ed. 1951)
Annebella Pollen The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians (Donjon Books, 2015) - reveals the significant influence of Aleister Crowley on this strange group, which I wasn't aware of. Due a revival? We camped with the offshoot Woodcraft Folk last year.
Ruth Scurr John Aubrey, My Own Life (Vintage, 2016) bought at the charming Harris & Harris bookshop in Clare, Suffolk. I'd tried to buy it earlier at a Waterstones in Lincoln, but they'd never heard of it and couldn't find it on their catalogue, admittedly I couldn't remember the full title. (It's been extensively reviewed and was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Biography Award). There are frequent mentions of various coffee houses in London, Jonathan's in particular, and Aubrey's meetings there with luminaries of the period (second half of 17c). As he reports (p.297) 'I have the advantage of London's new coffee houses. Before they opened, men only knew how to be acquainted with their own relations or societies. They were afraid and stared at all who were not of their own communities.' I believe my book London's Coffee Houses in which Jonathan's and many others establishments are described, may have recently gone out of print (although the publishers have failed to inform me of the fact).
As I write this I am presently 5999th in a queue to buy tickets for a series of visits to Hidden London organised by the London Transport Museum, including the Down Street 'ghost station' and Clapham South Deep Level Shelter. It seems unlikely that I shall be getting a ticket, despite the fact that they are a mind-and wallet-blowing £75 each! At least the Down Street tickets are, others are less expensive.
I have added yet another update to the massively popular post on the alleged Victorian street under Selfridges in the light of the Subterranean Saturday discussions.
It is highly likely that I shall be joining David Quantick, Gareth E Rees and others for an evening of what they have termed 'Weird Shit' at Borough Wines in Robertson Street, Hastings on Thursday 5th May. I'll be talking for about 20 minutes about some of the more outlandish tales in my secret tunnel book. I understand that there will be a folklorish theme to the evening as it follows shortly after the excellent annual Jack in the Green festival. The shop has a large grungy underground space that looks as if it should have a smugglers' tunnel leading from it to the beach.
To conclude this short series of pieces on Borley Rectory I should note some of the more interesting aspects of the case for me.
A long list of dramatis personae (see here) were involved in the Borley story, some of whom went on to achieve renown in other areas. Two of the most significant are Robert Fordyce Aickman and Ellic Howe. Aickman (1914-1981) is probably the greatest 'weird' fiction writer this country has ever produced - Faber has recently reissued his stories and there have been documentaries such as this excellent one from Ray Russell and another on Radio 4. Aickman visited the ruins of the rectory on the night of July 24 1943 (End of Borley Rectory pp.76-77) and the following week on 31st - the second visit took place during a spectacular thunder storm, which must have added considerably to the atmosphere; the minor incidents he recorded on both occasions were not considered supernatural.
Ellie Howe (1910-1991) was known to me as the author of The Magicians of the Golden Dawn, but he was also an a authority on the history of printing and had an interesting war. He accompanied Price on his first visit to Borley on 2 June 1937 after he had agreed to rent the rectory. They established the Base Room in the old library and on the two nights they spent there Howe claimed to have heard taps and thumps and the sound of a door being closed.
The Revd Lionel Algernon Foyster was born in Hastings on 7 January 1878. Visiting All Saint's church this morning I saw that three Foysters in succession had been vicars of the church in the nineteenth century (see photo above). Marianne Foyster said that some of the furniture from the All Saints rectory was moved to Borley. Eric Dingwall, who was one of the three authors of the debunking tome The Haunting of Borley Rectory, spent his final years in a seafront flat in St Leonards. He has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and information can also be found here and here. His interest in erotica is explored a little here.
Our old friend C E M Joad (1891-1953), who features in my book Netherwood, not only knew Aleister Crowley, but was also a friend of Price (see an earlier post here). He visited Borley on 28 July 1937 when he said he saw pencil marking on the wall which he thought had not been there earlier.
Finally my favourite story from the whole farrago of nonsense:
At the ago of 80 and, it should be borne in mind, after having read The Most Haunted House in England, Mr P. Shaw Jeffrey felt moved to write to Harry Price. In his letter he recorded that he had visited the rectory in 1885 and 1886 where:
'I had lots of small adventures ... Stones falling about, my boots found on top of the wardrobe ... and I saw the nun several times and often heard the coach go clattering by. But the big adventure that would have been worth your while recording was one time when I missed a big French dictionary which I had been regularly using for some days. Nobody could find it, but one night I was awakened by a big thump on the floor, and there was the dictionary (after I had lit my candle), with its back a good deal knocked about, sprawling on the floor. My bedroom door was locked.'
Dr W J Pythian-Adams, Canon of Carlisle, a major supporter of the reality of the haunting at Borley, had in January 1941 sent Price a lengthy, ingenious and totally speculative 'explanation' for the events, based heavily on the reported seance results and other 'evidence' given in MHHE, which makes fairly entertaining reading, but cannot be taken seriously by anyone of a remotely critical frame of mind.
Price used the letter as an entire chapter (X) in The End of Borley Rectory and all subsequent research was based on this theory that the nun Marie Lairre from Le Havre was brought to this country by a member of the Waldegrave family and was later strangled by him and buried in the grounds of the rectory. Looking at the transcripts printed in EBR (ch VIII) it is clear that Marie Lairre was just one of many different entities contacted during the seances, some claiming to have been murdered at Borley, the most popular burial spot being by a tree in the garden. Some fragments of female remains were found by Price in very suspicious circumstances in the rectory cellars in August 1943 (as explained here, the 'well tank' under which her remains were interpreted to lie by Canon Pythian-Adams, based on his reading of the wall writings, would have been in the attic and not in the cellar - you'd think a seventeenth-century nun would have had a more thorough knowledge of plumbing). It is also repeated many times in the transcripts that the nun claimed to have been based at a nunnery in Bures, which we know simply did not exist, and neither, I would hazard, did she.
There is also the rather unusual fact that the seances were conducted in English, not French (although some nonsense Latin was received at one point). Fortunately Canon Pythian-Adams came to the rescue once more to explain why, in particular, the mysterious wall writings later attributed by him to Marie Lairre, were in English rather than her native French. By the time that he came to pen an article for the Church Quarterly Review in 1946 he was aware of Mr Shaw Jeffrey's tale of his disappearing dictionary from the 1880s and could therefore write:
'Am I seriously contending that a French girl (the 'Nun') was haunting Borley all those years and that she collected English words out of a dictionary in the 80s for an appeal [the wall writings] which had to wait another half-century? I am contending nothing. I simply ask whether any other explanation will fit the facts.'
A local legend of a 13c Bendictine monastery once occupying the site of Borley Rectory gave rise to a ghost story about a monk who was said to have eloped with a nun from a convent at Bures: both were caught and executed, he being beheaded and she walled up in her convent. A further strand of the story has them eloping in a coach before being apprehended - sightings have been reported of a ghostly coach at Borley - a pure anachronism, as it is referring to the period prior to the Dissolution. The Rev Henry Bull, who had the rectory built for his large family in 1863, seems to have been fond of this story (a pair of monks were carved into the side of a fireplace in the house) and it probably spread beyond the rectory to the surrounding houses of Borley. In 1938 Sidney Glanville told Price that he had been informed by the local archaeological society that there was no documentary or physical evidence whatsoever for a monastery on the site of the rectory. However, when his first book on the subject was published two years later, Price still referred to the possibility that it existed, as it fitted in with his theories about the ghost of a monk and nun haunting the grounds of the building (note also the handy materialization of the 'monkish' medallion in 1929 when this theory was strongly held, which magically transformed into two Roman Catholic medallions when this theory had to be altered to accommodate the murdered nun; see Borley 1 below).
Inevitably, secret tunnels are also involved in the legend. In The Most Haunted House in England (p.26) Price wrote:
'The remains of a portion of an underground tunnel can be seen in the farmyard of Borley Rectory. Apparently it had caved in at some period in the remote past. It is impossible to trace it very far, and no one appears to know for what distance it is blocked. Future investigators might well make it their business to explore this tunnel. But portions of the tunnels - or a tunnel - have been discovered in various places in a direct line between Borley and Bures, a township seven miles from Borley, on the River Stour ...Bures is six miles southeast of Sudbury and the remains of a nunnery or similar religious foundation have been found there. The story is that a secret passage or subterranean tunnel led from Borley Monastery or castle to the nunnery at Bures. Whether this tunnel - of small ancient bricks - was used as a means of escape from some possible danger, or for some military purpose; or whether it was constructed as a purely domestic arrangement between the monastery and nunnery, is a matter of conjecture. I have been told that the entrance to a second tunnel, or perhaps the entrance to a branch of the Borley-Bures tunnel, is still extant in the farmyard of Borley Place, the ancient house opposite the Rectory. A tunnel from Clare is supposed to meet the one from Bures somewhere in the Rectory grounds.'
Bures, a village located on the border between South Suffolk and North Essex, is a union of the two parishes of Bures Hamlet in Essex and Bures St Mary in Suffolk and is called Bures for convenience. According to legend, a tunnel is said to run from a shop in Bures |(later a cafe called the Two Teas) to the site of Borley Rectory. There is also no evidence to suggest that there was once a nunnery at Bures.
In 1957 a tunnel was found during work on the road between Borley Place and the farm opposite. Intrepid researcher Len Sewell, who was following in the footsteps of Harry Price, went down into the tunnel and some photos were taken (see above) showing that it was extremely low (28 in high), although some books print an image without Sewell which might make readers think that it was larger than it actually was. The idea that a monk or nun crawled their way along here to facilitate a romantic tryst is absurd. It was most likely a storm water culvert.
Much more on the tunnels of Borley can be found at the excellent Foxearth site.
Last week, while staying at Clare, we visited Borley one evening at around six. The church is rarely open, this being due to the work of vandals, which can also be seen in the damaged monuments in the churchyard. Ever since the first newspaper reports in 1929 the village has been the target of thousands of sightseers - coach tours from Colchester were organised in the early years. The number of unwanted visitors combined with the lack of basic facilities was one of the main reasons for the Smiths quitting the building.
I took a few photographs, above are Borley Place, the farmhouse behind which the rectory once stood and an atmospheric shot of the church including a ghost, or could it be wood smoke from a fire behind the hedge that we saw when we parked? Just before we were about to drive off an old and possibly blind rabbit came and stood right beside us and wouldn't budge. Earlier, in the churchyard we noticed a pair of secateurs swinging ominously on the railings surrounding a tomb. Despite these possible ill omens we went back the next day and had nothing unusual to report.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact