During our summer holiday we visited Mawnan in south-east Cornwall, where a peaceful old church nestles close to the cliff edge in a large churchyard that may be an ancient earthwork. A wedding had just finished and the church was locked, but we were interested in the churchyard and surrounding area.
The church and its environs were alleged to have been the scene - mainly in the mid-1970s - of the appearance of a strange entity known as 'Owlman'. More information here and here. The involvement of Doc Shiels with the investigation should also be noted. There are also parallels with Mothman.
In one encounter the flying creature was said to have hovered over the church tower. With the aid of my children we recreated this scene (see above). There is a beautiful walk from the church along a coastal path through trees to emerge into a spectacular view over the sea and the estuary of the Helford River. Sadly, owlman failed to swoop. Wandering through the churchyard a couple of fairly recent interments caught my eye: Hugh Scully, one-time Antiques Roadshow presenter (who I didn't know had died) and Patrick Woodroffe (1940-2014) who produced cover art for many Corgi science fiction novels in the 1970s and album covers (Budgie, Judas Priest, Pallas) including that archetypal prog behemoth Dave Greenslade's The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony, for which he also illustrated the accompanying book.
Another memorable visit was to the Poldark Tin Mine, where a knowledgable and expert guide took us around the damp underground passages.
Also had a chance to revisit the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, which gets a mention in Netherwood.
A recent read has been Calvariae Disjecta: The Many Hauntings of Burton Agnes Hall (Information as Material, 2017) edited by Robert Williams and Hilmar Schaefer. I've complained in this blog before about the sloppy nature of the vast majority of 'non-fiction' ghost books that repeat earlier versions of the same story without doing any basic research and sometimes weave new details into the embroidery. The idea of this book is to take all the extant narratives of one ghost story and put them in chronological order so that the reader can see the way in the which the basic text is transformed and enlarged in the retelling, with tropes from other pieces of ghostly folklore interpolated as the legend evolves. In this instance it is the story of the so-called 'Screaming Skull' of Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire. The earliest account traced thus far was printed in The Folklore Journal of November 1880 and the narrative is followed all the way up to paranormal sites on the internet. It makes fascinating reading. Review by Phil Baker in the TLS here.
At its simplest, the narrative concerns a daughter of the hall's owners who was fatally attacked by robbers - before she died she requested that her head be kept in the house; her family instead buried her whole body in the local church (or churchyard) and subsequently all kinds of ghostly goings on occurred until the grave was opened and her (by that time desiccated) skull taken into the house. If it was ever removed for any reason the supernatural outbreaks recurred. I found it amusing to see how details were added or mangled so that, for example, in one much later account the name of the family involved changes from Griffith to Griffin and clanking chains are introduced for the first time. The funniest must be the accounts of the skull rolling out of the house and bowling itself at skittles.
In many versions a maid unwittingly throws the skull from a window where it lands in a passing manure cart (later a cabbage cart) pulled by horses (or donkeys) that refuse to move until the skull is removed. By coincidence, this week I was reading Supernatural Peak District by David Clarke which has a chapter on skulls and stone heads - lo and behold there is exactly the same story attached to Flagg Hall in Derbyshire.
Apparently the Burton Agnes skull was walled up somewhere in the house at some point in the early twentieth century. The book is not so much a folklore study as an art project and also contains a dialogue between the editors and a section of various photographs of the skull motif. The photos of the skull-encrusted tomb in the local church certainly make one wonder whether the origins of the story might lie there.
I have a talk coming up in the excellent lecture theatre at Kensington Central Library on The Folklore of London. Monday 23 October, FREE, with my books on sale at reduced prices. Copies of Netherwood will also be available, but at full price. Details here.
Last Sunday I had the (expensive) opportunity to visit parts of Euston underground station not open to the public, including the deep level interchange ticket office between the C&SLR and the CCE&HR and tunnels closed to the public since the early 1960s. For the history of these tunnels see here. Apart from the abandoned lift shaft and atmospheric dark tunnels the collage effect of the historic film posters still visible on the tunnel walls was an artistic experience in itself. Some photos I took.
UPDATE: 14/09/17 Copies are selling fast, especially to the USA. 40 books this week. I was hoping more copies would be bought in the UK this time around, so hurry up before you miss out. There's a special deal with Secret Tunnels of England as a twofer. See the Big Cartel link below. I have a talk in Kensington in London on 23 October at which copies will be for sale, more details very soon. Price will increase as stocks dwindle (a lesson learned from other small presses).
The first edition of Netherwood: Last Resort of Aleister Crowley has been unavailable for some years now and is fetching high prices from dealers online, so some of you may be pleased to hear that a new edition has just been published. It's a limited edition of 500 published by Accumulator Press that's been thoroughly revised and updated by A Gentleman of Hastings, with a frontispiece not part of the first edition and including three Netherwood-related inserts for those who order online before supplies run out. Hardback, 227 pages, 24 pages of b/w and 4 colour illustrations, book ribbon. It's competitively priced at £30 plus postage of £3.00 for UK.
To avoid disappointment order soon. For the time being there are two ways:
The Accumulator Press shop on The Big Cartel (Paypal only) HERE
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