The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, London

Posted in Ghosts, History, Legend, London, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Jeremy Bentham was apparently quite a character. As well as being an influential philosopher and jurist, he was probably the first ever Englishman to donate his body to medical science when he passed away in 1832. Even more unusual was his request that his body should then be turned into what is known as an ‘auto-icon’. This is exactly what happened, and Bentham’s auto icon can now be found in the cloisters of University College, London.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Sitting in a rather smart wooden case, Bentham’s auto-icon may looks like the kind of waxwork figure that you might expect to find nearby at Madame Tussaud’s. In fact this is Bentham’s actual body, with his articulated skeleton hidden below his smart outfit and his real hair sticking out from underneath his wide-brimmed hat.

The head which currently sits on the figure is indeed wax, but Bentham’s real head still exists. It used to be exhibited at the feet of the auto-icon, but curators recently decided that it was just too fragile to leave on display, and it is now safely kept in temperature-controlled storage. I must say I was rather glad to hear it – if you think the figure is kind of spooky, wait until you see the head…!

Jeremy Bentham's head, UCL

Jeremy Bentham’s head, UCL

A number of strange tales have appeared over the years concerning this bizarre figure. One relates that Bentham’s body was put into storage by the College in 1955, with creepy consequences. It seems that Jeremy was not too happy about being hidden away, and his vengeful ghost went on regular rampages throughout the college until he was finally put back in his rightful place in the cloister.

Another story tells that the head was only taken off public exhibition after its theft by rowdy students from Kings College, who ended up using it in a game of football. It is also said that Bentham is still taken into meetings of the College council, and that it is recorded in the minutes that Mr Bentham is ‘present but not voting’.

The latter two are apparently just myths. As for Bentham’s ghost, well I will leave it up to you whether you believe that one.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Little Compton Street, London

Posted in History, London with tags , , , , on July 6, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Under a traffic island in on a busy road next to London’s Soho district is perhaps not the most obvious place to look for magic. But strange things can be found in the most unexpected places.

A traffic island on London's Charing Cross Road

A traffic island on London’s Charing Cross Road

Back in Victorian times, Little Compton Street was a bustling lane which joined Old and New Compton Streets. In 1896, however, the area was largely demolished to make way for Charing Cross Road, and the street level was raised. If you look carefully, however, you can find an intriguing remnant of Old London right beneath your feet. Below the unassuming grate in the middle of Charing Cross Road can be seen a wall still bearing not one, but two street signs for the now-buried Little Compton Street.

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

Not quite a secret street perhaps, but this is still a rather magical remnant of London’s fascinating past, and one which most people pass over without ever even knowing it’s there.

The Wilmington Giant, Eric Ravilious

Posted in Art, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2015 by mysearchformagic

This week I visited an exhibition dedicated to the short life of mid twentieth-century artist Eric Ravilious at the rather lovely Dulwich Picture Gallery. Ravilious spent much of his life in Sussex, and many of his best works are views of the South Downs and the charming countryside that lies around them. Images of winding country lanes, travellers’ caravans and rolling hills recall a magical rural England, reminders of a time now long past.

, Eric Ravilious

I particularly loved his painting of the Wilmington Giant, which can be found on Windover Hill just outside the village of Alfriston.  While many things may have changed since Ravilious painted this scene in 1939, the Wilmington Giant, also known as the Long Man, remains steadfastly the same. He’s been there since time immemorial, and will not doubt still be there for centuries to come; huge, silent and mysteriously magical.

The Alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, History, Standing Stones, Woods with tags , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The huge complex of standing stones at Carnac in Brittany is, quite deservedly, world famous. With row upon row of huge megaliths running for kilometres across the landscape, it is hardly surprising that these stones have fascinated generations of antiquarians and now attract thousands upon thousands of tourists every year. The large numbers of visitors have inevitably had an impact on the fragile environment of Carnac, and as a result the majority of the stones are now kept behind fences, far from the fingers (and feet) of inquisitive day-trippers. So, although they are an amazing sight, the best-known alignments of Carnac can seem rather distant, untouchable, lacking that certain uncanny atmosphere that I love so much.

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

What few of the visitors to Carnac realise is that there is in fact one set of the stones which remains rather overlooked, and still retains a wonderfully air of magic. The stones of the alignements du Petit-Ménec, which sit at north-easterly end of the complex, might be smaller than some of their better-known neighbours, and may be rather hidden in woodland, but the fact that they remain open and unfenced means that visitors can still wander among them and get a real sense of their unique ancient mystery.

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Although they do appear on most of maps of the complex, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are not properly signposted, and lie quite a distance from the other megaliths beyond a busy main road. This is perhaps why they tend to be ignored by most visitors to the Carnac stones. Whatever the reason, I am rather glad that they are overlooked. Hidden in a quiet woodland, far from the crowds and their cars, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are a magic-hunters dream come true!

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

There are plenty of fabulous tales associated with the stones, including the (rather anachronistic) story that they were marching Roman centurions turned to stone by the wizard Merlin. Another legend tells that they are in fact a fleeing army of Pagans literally petrified by Pope Cornelius. All in all there are 101 standing stones in the Petit-Ménec group, with seven rows facing east and a further three facing north-east. Wandering amongst the stones in their peaceful forest, its easy to imagine yourself in some enchanted wood. I didn’t see any fairies, goblins or Korrigans on the day of my visit, but if I had, I am not sure I would have been that surprised. After all, I can’t think of a more suitable place for them than the magical alignements du Petit-Ménec.

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

The Standing Stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Island, Legend, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The Gulf of Morbihan is famous for its mild climate and pretty ports, which are popular with tourists and sailors alike. Today it is peppered with around forty islands of various shapes and sizes, but it was not always this way. Thousands of years ago this huge bay was a much dryer place, and before it was consumed by the sea, these islands were the highest hilltops of a large and complex prehistoric landscape. A number of the islands also feature fascinating megalithic monuments, and one of the most intriguing of these is the stone (semi)circles of Er Lannic.

The island of Er Lannic, Morbihan

The island of Er Lannic, Morbihan

As a protected bird sanctuary, it is not possible to land on Er Lannic, but you can take a boat trip which skirts round its rocky shores. From a distance, the island looks rather craggy and uninviting, but as the boat approaches its southern side an interesting feature emerges. First you notice a huge standing stone towards the top of the island, then more stones pop up and soon a large semicircle of menhirs becomes clear. On the day of my visit, each stone seemed to be topped by its own proud seagull.

The standing stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

The standing stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

In fact, many more of these stones lie beneath the waterline, and recent investigations have revealed another stone semicircle below the water. The largest stone measures an impressive 5.4 metres tall, and a number of cists containing bones, charcoal, flints and pottery were also discovered by modern archaeologists. Although the purpose of the monument is not clear, it has been dated to around 3000 BC. My visit to Er Lannic made me wonder what other magical treasures lie under the waves of the Gulf of Morbihan – it is surely monuments like this that gave rise to the local myth of Ys, an ancient city that once stood on the coast of Brittany which was destroyed by the a huge flood after its citizens descended into sin and debauchery.

The Sanctuary Knocker, Durham Cathedral

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Last month I spent a weekend in Durham, a picturesque place with a castle, cathedral, winding lanes and medieval walls all perched on top of a dramatic rocky crag. I was able to spend an afternoon exploring the town, and discovered many magical nooks and crannies in the process.

My favourite discovery was undoubtedly the famous sanctuary knocker which can be found on the northern door of Durham’s beautiful Romanesque cathedral. In past centuries those who had committed a crime could rap the knocker, and would then be offered thirty seven days of sanctuary inside the church in which to reconcile with their victims, or even plan an escape.

The Sanctuary Knocker, Durham Cathedral

The Sanctuary Knocker, Durham Cathedral

Made from brass, the knocker features a wonderfully gothic sun face, its handle decorated with dogs’ (or is it dragons’?) heads. The knocker which can now be seen on the cathedral door is actually a modern replica, as the fragile medieval original is now safely held in the cathedral’s museum, but it is still pretty magical I am sure you will agree.

Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

Posted in Uncategorized on March 29, 2015 by mysearchformagic

As regular readers of this blog will now know, there are few things I love more than an ancient site, be it a dolmen, a stone circle, or a burial mound. No surprises then that my recent trip to the south west of England included a visit to Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, one of the best examples of a Neolithic chambered tomb in Britain.

Stoney Littleton Barrow is situated on a windswept hillside in the depths of rural Somerset. Following a drive down a very narrow and very winding road, cars have to be abandoned at the roadside next to a rickety wooden bridge which leads over a stream towards the barrow.

The bridge leading to Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

The bridge leading to Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

Reaching the site involves a treck across a few muddy fields and climbing over some stiles, but the barrow itself is definitely worth the effort. Its location on the hillside offers stunning views of the valley below, dotted with old stone farmhouses and flocks of rather chilly looking sheep.

Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

The barrow is long and low, with only the its edging of stones and a tiny dark doorway indicating that this is no ordinary hillock. First constructed around 3500 BC, the tomb actually lay hidden for thousands of years until a local farmer broke into the interior chamber while searching for building stones in 1760.

The doorway of Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

The doorway of Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

Closer inspection of that little doorway reveals a huge fossil ammonite embedded in the stone that forms its left jamb, but it was the gloomy shadows which lay beyond it that really drew my attention. The interior of the tomb is fully accessible, but the low ceiling and tiny chambers inside mean that crawling on hands and knees is pretty much the only way to view it.

The shadowy interior of Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

The shadowy interior of Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Somerset

I made it about halfway down the dark, damp corridor at the centre of the barrow before the muddy floor and a growing sense of claustrophobia made me turn around and scramble back out again. A torch is recommended for a visit to this place, and stout shoes will not go amiss either. But then it is that remote setting in the Somerset hills, and that shadowy dark interior that make Stoney Littleton Long Barrow such a magical place, an ancient site with a wonderfully dramatic character which lies at the heart of a landscape which has hardly changed for hundreds, it not thousands of years.

A Magical Staircase, Wells Cathedral

Posted in Uncategorized on March 15, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My recent visit to Somerset included a day trip to Glastonbury to see the Tor and the Abbey, and also to rootle around the town’s many esoteric shops. It’s certainly a fun place, but its reputation inevitably draws crowds of visitors and tourists, and I am sure even its greatest fans would admit that Glastonbury has become rather commercialised in recent years.

The historic city of Wells, however, which lies only a few miles away, was a lucky find which turned out to be much more atmospheric. With its pretty old streets and many historic buildings, the centre of Wells is dominated by a huge medieval cathedral and the picturesque moated Bishop’s Palace that sits next to it. Inside the cathedral I discovered this beautiful staircase, completed in 1306, which leads up to the chapter house.

The worn stairs leading up to Wells Cathedral chapter house

The worn stairs leading up to Wells Cathedral chapter house

Worn away by centuries of use, ascending the stairs is a rather precarious business, and coming down is even more tricky. The stairs split half way up, with the entrance to the chapter house itself at the top of the right hand branch of steps. In fact this is the only octagonal chapter house to be built on a first floor with a strong room below, and was constructed in this way as the high water table here made the more usual underground crypt impractical. With its high ceiling decorated with elaborate vaulting, the chapter house itself is definitely worth the steep climb up these slippery old steps, but in the end it was the stairs themselves, elegant, ancient and distinctly magical, that grabbed my attention.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

Posted in History, Legend, Somerset, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If you’ve ever visited the world famous stone circles of Stonehenge or Avebury, you will know how incredibly popular they are with tourists. You will also quickly realise that bustling crowds of visitors are not particularly conducive to an atmosphere of magic at these ancient sites. On a recent visit to Somerset, I discovered the stones of Stanton Drew, which despite lying only a few miles away from those more famous circles, seem rather overlooked. As a result, these marvellous megaliths retain a strangely magical atmosphere.

The Cove, Stanton Drew

The Cove, Stanton Drew

There are in fact three stone circles in the fields around the village of Stanton Drew, as well as a group of three huge stones known as ‘The Cove’ in a pub garden next to the church. Recent geophysical surveys have uncovered evidence that the surviving stones are just part of a huge ritual site which is believed to be between four and five thousand years old. Today, although much of it has disappeared or lies hidden below the earth, Stanton Drew is recognised as the third largest collection of standing stones in England.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

On the day that I visited, the dramatic sky definitely added to the magical character of Stanton Drew. It is impossible to get a sense of the scale of these circles from a photograph, as they stretch across a huge area, disappearing into dips and over a ridge. Some of the stones are huge, massive lumps of licheny rock which cast long, dark shadows. Many have tumbled over and now lie pitted and mossy on the ground.

Dramatic skies over the standing stones of Stanton Drew

Dramatic skies over the standing stones of Stanton Drew

Like many ancient sites, Stanton Drew’s impressive stones have some interesting myths and legends attached to them. For centuries they were attributed to King Arthur, who was supposed to have set up the stones to commemorate a military victory, a story no doubt inspired by similar links made between the nearby village of Camerley and Arthur’s celebrated Camelot. Another myth tells that the circles are the remains of guests at a wedding party who unwisely decided to celebrate with dancing on a Sunday. Their punishment for breaking the sabbath was to be turned to stone, inspiring the site’s local nickname of “the fiddlers and the maids”.

One of the largest megaliths of Stanton Drew, Somerset

One of the largest megaliths of Stanton Drew, Somerset

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, History, Legend, Museum, Sculpture, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If there is one thing I love more than a spooky mystery, it is an unsolved spooky mystery. I recently discovered one such mystery on a brief visit to Edinburgh, where I wandered into the wonderful National Museum of Scotland. There I found the intriguing Arthur’s Seat coffins, a spooky mystery if ever there was one.

The Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Discovered in 1836 by some boys in a cave on the side of Arthur’s Seat, the impressive craggy hill that dominates the city, these tiny handmade coffins were arranged carefully in three tiers. Each one is intricately carved, and wears custom made clothes with little painted boots. To this day nobody knows who made them, or when, or even why, but there are a few interesting theories.

A detail of the Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

A detail of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Some people have suggested that the coffins were used by witches to cast spells on their victims, rather like a Scottish form of voodoo. Another theory is that they were kept by sailors as good luck talismans. There is even conjecture that these strange little dollies represent the seventeen victims of notorious Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, and that local inhabitants made them in order to allow the stolen and dissected bodies a decent burial.

Interesting ideas indeed, but of course the real purpose of these rather cute (but also rather creepy) coffins will probably always remain a perplexing, but definitely very magical, mystery.