Sunday, 3 January 2016

Winter sun

Another year has rolled around and the blog-o-sphere is full of 'Top Things From 2015' and 'What I've Done This Year'. The most exciting thing for me is the news that A Year in the Country is back for 2016 and promises some amazing hauntologies and accompanying artwork.

I spent a bit of New Years Day on the tallest point in England's Peak District. It has a name, but when it was shouted at me my ears were so cold that I couldn't hear. The view was amazing and the weak sun broke through the grey cloud to illuminate the wet land.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Devil's Dyke

No, this post is not about... whatever you're imagining.

Like most people, I've found the run up to Christmas pretty busy hence the lack of blogging of late. I've just returned from my pilgrimage back to see my family in Hertfordshire. While I was there I went to go an see the Devil's Dyke in the nearby village of Wheathampstead.

The Dyke is all that remains of what was possibly a massive Celtic fortified encampment surmounting a shallow plateau of raised land. We really don't know know much about it other than that, but there are several conjectures. One is that the Celts would have retreated to it in times of strife, and perhaps King Cunobelinus fought the Roman's there when Caesar invaded in 54BC. There isn't much evidence to prove or disprove this, but the Celtic-Roman connection has certainly embedded itself in public consciousness, as the local street names like 'Battle View' attest. The attribution of the dyke to the devil isn't something there seems to be a lot of literature about. It was common in history for all sorts of mildy unusual things to be explained as the work of the devil as a neat and theologically-sound way to account for unnatural phenomena. A massive ditch might well have warranted such an attribution.

The Dyke is certainly an impressive affair. Its sides are too steep to climb and the trees shade its bottom from the sun. The deepest part gets churned to mud in the winter, so walking through it is a task. One gets the impression of moving through an antediluvian region, somehow separated from the modern world above. When it is possible to climb the Eastern ridge one can see out onto the raised plane (known as "Belgic Oppidum"). These aren't so nearly managed that one can't imagine medieval farm workers tilling the land and discovering all manner of Satan's Claws uncovered by their ploughs.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Stone tapes, terrifying meterorites and slap-bass jazz odysseys

It's been doing 'the rounds' on a lot of listings and blogs, so I make no pretence about being first-in here, but the BBC has broadcast a new radio version of Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape. Interestingly the producers chose to keep the tale set in the 1970s so the casual sexism is now a deliberate, strong theme (while the casual racism of the original has been excised). While it's a solid piece of spooky radio drama with a good human edge, it lacks the sheer bloody terror that the television original conjured up.

By happenstance I also listened to a reading of Lovecraft's The Colour Out Of Space. By contrast this tale doesn't rely on any sudden shocks - indeed, it's told in retrospect by the first person narrator. I found myself more terrified by the creeping, infectious horror in this than by the BBC radio play. The 'colour' gradually consumes a family of hapless farmers and it's thoroughly unsettling to watch them be progressively decimated.

I've also been rewatching a bit of The Mighty Boosh comedy series. I love the way that bizarre, grotesque characters like the Crack Fox and the Hitcher are updates to classic urban myth folklore. I have to say this timing wasn't great, as Julian Barratt (AKA Howard Moon) appears in the aforementioned The Stone Tape and I had a growing expectation that his character would suggest listening to some 'slap-bass oddysey' as a remedy to the group's ills.

You've got about a month left to catch The Stone Tape radio adaption here. Below is the reading of the Lovecraft tale.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Dimension-sliding brickwork

I've not blogged a lot of late due to spending lots of time repairing my broken Victorian house. One of the things which has become apparent as I've been stripping back the small bedroom is that the fabric of the structure is an onion skin. The process has revealed all sorts of time-capsule goodness - decades-old wallpaper, nails and hooks and nineteenth century lathe and plasterwork.

One of the most striking discoveries is that these houses are less solid than they appear. There are all sorts of nooks, crannies and voids hidden below the facia of the room (and this is still the case despite mine being solid wall construction - ie there is no wall cavity). This immediately brings to mind classic tales of horror like Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls and Nigel Kneale's Baby where voids reveal terrifying secrets*.

There is currently an excellent programme available to stream from Radio Four called Ghost Stories from Theatreland which I urge you to listen to. It touches on some of the current thinking on parapsychological phenomena, including the multiplicity of dimensions and 'glitches' in humans' ability to perceive time. While Kneale's The Stone Tape posits that the fabric of a place can record emotion, I wonder if capsule-voids might have perculiar properties too? Perhaps it's not that activity permeates solids, but instead that it can be contained by solids and escapes when their capsule is ruptured? Maybe these hidden apertures are conduits that puncture the general flow of time, or are protected pockets left undisturbed as time flows around them?

All this has got me slightly worried so I'm working quickly to plug all these temporal-nightmare wormholes as quickly as I can. I've seen Poltergeist and I know how these things end. It's a good job I don't have a massive dingy basement full of god-knows-what. Oh, wait a minute...

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Newstead Abbey

Earlier this summer I visited Newstead Abbey, just to the north of Nottingham. Any guide, including Wikipedia, will outline the history of the place (usually starting with a dry explanation that it was never an abbey but a priory) but the really interesting thing about it is its previous tenants and the psychic residue they have left.

Lord Byron is the main event here, famous for being 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'. He lived at the Abbey on-and-off from the time he inherited it until he left England permanently in 1816. The building was difficult and expensive to maintain but its ramshackle nature appealed to Byron's love of the ancient and forlorn. A combination of repair costs and the poet's abysmal financial acumen meant the property was sold-on in 1818.

But the proportionately short term of Byron's stay has left its mark. Beneath the well-tended and rather orderly restorations and redecorations there lurks something of the lunatic deviancy of the poet. When I visited the reflecting lake had been drained to leave a cracked surface of baked mud with the footprints of some explorer veering weirdly around the scum in the centre. Byron's bedroom is a naked room where all the plaster has been lond since hacked-off the walls to reveal the cold, chiselled stones of the buidling's fabric. These blocks are likely impregnated with the memory of whatever acts occurred in that den.

It is said that when Byron's great uncle died in 1798, leaving the estate to his wayward nephew, a vast swarm of crickets he kept at Newstead left the estate. One can imagine the neighbours being terrified by this biblical plague and what it might herald. Byron seems not to have disappointed them on this front.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

KML file of megalithic doom!

I've always been a bit frustrated when trying to find menhirs and other antiquarian goodness close to places I am visiting. Thus far I've used a combination of books (like Julian Cope's amazing Modern Antiquarian) and websites (like the associated, both of which are rather clunky in their own way. Books are naturally limited when plotting wilderness locations, and website interfaces are clunky and useless in the field when you've got no data connection. Both are equally bad at showing you what's in, say, 30 minutes of a place you're visiting.

However, I recently discovered that now offers a set of tools which can be used with Google Earth. So it's now possible to put in a postcode of a place you're going to, and see what's in the surrounding area. Joy! Now, like rats, you know you're never more than X number of miles from a megalith.

Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire. This is a shot from a reel of analogue film I've just got back. More coming soon.

Monday, 27 July 2015

May Queen throne in Lustleigh

Earlier this summer I went on what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to the South West of the country - an area thick with folklore and legend. While there I was taken to the village of Lustleigh in Devon. Visitors to this picturesque civil parish are greeted by the quaint little church and the stone cross on the tiny green in front. However, there are older traditions kept alive in this settlement.

Further down the hill is an orchard bounded by a tiny brook. The field has been put to use as a children's play area, but looming over the grass is the largest of the many boulders which protrude from the earth and the top of this stone has been carved into a throne. This is the seat of the May Queen - the girl who, in true Wicker Man style is chosen to personify the May Day holiday and the fair weather and fecundity of the spring. My guide told me that, once a year, all the young girls are dressed in white smocks and line-up in front of the church to be blessed by the vicar, in a ritual that seemingly embodies the Christian aptitude for subsuming much older customs into liturgical practice.

The names of the Queens are carved onto the rock face and date back to 1968. No doubt the re wakening of public interest in folk ritual was the impetus to begin carving the names. I'd be interested to learn if earlier names are recorded anywhere, or if the tradition was broken before that year.