As Halloween is nearly upon us again, here is a true tale of ghosts and scary happenings.
If you were driving through Northamptonshire and happened to pass through the village of Woodford and you drove down Church Street your eye might be drawn to the lovely old village Church.
On first sight a Church not unlike many others in the County, constructed of Northamptonshire stone, standing in the same spot for many, many years, nothing unusual it its outward appearance you may think, and glancing away you drive on to your destination whereever that may be.
Buildings however like people often have things hidden inside which sometimes due to particular circumstances are revealed with shocking results.
In the Spring of 1866 it was decided that restoration work must be done on this fine building, wear and tear had taken their toll and with the majority of the people still holding their religion as important in their lives the Church was an important building in any community.
Nobody at this time could have known that this would lead to a strange and sinister discovery which would fascinate and horrify the local populace in equal measure.
The work started innocuously enough but there came a point when an old beam had to be removed, and after moving some masonry the workmen noticed a recess in the stonework, curiosity roused one man put his hand into the recess and feeling around thought he had discovered an old birds nest.
Pulling the object out they saw what appeared to be some sort of small wicker basket, the workman dropped the object whereupon it shattered on the stone floor, what happened next would shock and stun the men inside the Church.
The outer object having broken released what appeared to be something wrapped in a type of cloth and the men being lowly and probably lowly paid thought they may have chanced upon hidden treasure.
The cloth was unwrapped and what was actually revealed was a mummified human heart, the men naturally were stunned and word spread quickly throughout the local area with people flocking to the church.
St Mary The Virgin Church Woodford Northamptonshire
The people were asking questions, and the question most on their lips that day was, whose heart was this, how had it come to be hidden in their Church ?
At this juncture two women of the village told tales of ghostly appearances in the building, one telling how she had been alone in the Church arranging some flowers when she had seen what appeared to be a monk move towards the altar and upon reaching it knelt and prayed.
Another woman told a similar tale of being alone and her attention drawn to a movement near the altar she witnessed again what appeared to be a monk moving in her direction, only to disappear near the spot where the mummified heart had been discovered.
The answer to the question of how the heart came to be hidden in this Church will never really be known with certainty but much speculation has gone on over the years, some saying that it was the heart of a Crusader who had lived locally, some speculated it belonged to the monk whose ghostly apparition appeared to the two women.
You can still see the heart behind glass, set into the stone of one of the transepts, it was placed there a very long time ago for posterity.
So today I visited the Church to see for myself, above you can see the Church and below that the river Nene as it runs through fields at the back of the building.
Was it a recess like the one below where the heart was discovered ?
Below you can see the heart as it is on display now set into the stone but safely behind glass. Its a strange feeling to be looking at something which once beat strongly in the body of a human being who lived so long ago.
Aside from the novelty of its strange occupant the Church is a beautiful old building, andalthough I am not a religious person I can always appreciate the beauty of stained glasswindows, and the work that went into building these wonderful places of worship.
The two figures below are the oldest remaining memorials in the Church, they are the figures of Sir Walter Trailli and his Wife Eleanor, Sir Walter died in 1290 and his Wife in 1316.
They are effigies made from wood and the fact they have survived this long and are in such good condition is remarkable.
Sir Walter is dressed in his armour which would have been from around the period of Edward 1 and Eleanor is wearing a rather elegant costume as befitting her status.
Ghosts and stories about ghosts have always created lively conversations between those that believe in them and those that don't. As for myself I can say I have never witnessed or even thought I may have seen one, but I like to keep an open mind.
Last year I read a book about a well known outbreak of Poltergeist activity in a family home in Enfield North London, Some of the things that were described made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and the two men who investigated the case were sure the events were in no way staged by the occupants. In any case the chaos and disruption and it has to be said terror that were caused to the family were obvious, and nobody would inflict that on themselves. Eventually they were forced to leave their home and live with neighbours and friends.
This was in 1970's England pre the internet and all the easy publicity that brings so the family who some thought were staging these happenings for some short term fame for themselves did not have the easy and readily available outlets that people do today,
After watching this and then reading the book I certainly was convinced that an open mind is definitely the best policy, after all can everything be explained rationally, and would we really want to live in a world where it could. ?
So I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up a well known television and radio listings magazine this week and saw that on the 21st of this month the BBC are going to broadcast a new drama named Gunpowder,
It will centre around a certain gentleman, one Robert Catesby who I wrote about a short time ago in a short piece about November 5th and my experience of it many moons ago, methinks it will be quite interesting to see how the story of the plot and its protagonists are portrayed,
I'm hopeful as anything thing the BBC produces in this sort of area is usually pretty good, and I'm hoping they did some of the filming in and around the Catesby family home where a lot of the plotting was done.
The actor who will play Catesby is actually a descendant of the man himself on his Mothers side of the family.
I was thinking about this and thought what a good idea a follow up series which told the story of how things may have turned out had the plot succeeded might be, after all not too long back we had the story of a UK ruled by a victorious Germany,
That aside its good to see our history being given an airing, and sadly I suppose it shows that for all our assumed sophistication the human race will always be at war with itself, maybe one day we we learn to live without religion, would that be a positive thing ? you tell me.
So an update now that the first episode has been shown.
You know when you hear someone's voice on the telephone but you have never met them, without realising it you build an image in your mind of what you think they will look like.
I did a similar thing leading up to the first episode of Gunpowder, I thought "Ah the story of those bad men who plotted against the good me but were caught and rightly punished".
This is a sad admission on my part as it shows I was still seeing and thinking about the story through the prism of what I had been taught, or maybe not taught at school. If you read my blog on the mummified human heart and ghosts I mentioned always keeping an open mind. Obviously I'm not always following my own advice and I need to think about that in the future.
What did I think after the first episode, well it opened my eyes to the cruelty we as humans can inflict on each other for no real reason, I knew that Catholics had suffered persecution,
but had never thought what the realities of that might be like.
The scene where the lady of the house was slowly crushed to death was truly horrific, and worse was to come with the dismemberment of the young man.
I am not religious and never have been, and for me the lunacy of one set of people inflicting such barbarity on fellow human beings on the basis that the method of worship they practice differs although they believe in the same God suggests to me we could do without formal religion.
You can see how one mans terrorist can easily become another mans freedom fighter, anyway I look forward to episode two and the comments that will appear on Twitter, I love reading other peoples thoughts and opinions.
OK its not about Northamptonshire but last night there was a wonderful Harvest Moon which I attempted to capture,
Some of the shots I saw on Twitter were magnificent and my own attempt can't match those but I thought I would post it up for posterity anyway.
A few days later I took the picture above, the sky was looking like something out of a Hammer Horror film, with the Moon just visible.
If you travel through the countryside and visit some of the many villages of the county you will see many examples of the use of Northamptonshire stone, it is not a well known fact but many different types of stone were available to craftsmen.
The county at one time had many small quarries producing stone, and one point over forty existed but many of these diasappeared as mining for iron ore boomed.
John Morton writing in The Natural History of Northamptonshire, 1712:
“And no County in England affording a greater Variety of Quarry-Stone than this, or exceeding this in the Goodness and Plenty of it, upon that account it deserves a more particular consideration.”
‘Quarries: here of White Stone, there of Red; here of Freestone, there of Ragg.’
The most common for use in construction were Ironstone, brown sandstones and pendle limestones, and dustin slates
I saw something on Twitter today which reminded me that November 5th will soon be upon us and I was also reminded of the link to my home County Northamptonshire and in particular the village of Ashby St Ledgers and the Manor House, of which more later in this post.
I have to be honest its a day like any other day as an adult but November 5th or bonfire night as we called it then was a night for me and my mates that was second only to Christmas.
That sounds fairly improbable now in the days of Halloween and its commercialisation and all the stress and cost that must involve for parents, but back then certain times, notably the time you finished the school day, when you got your pocket money, bonfire night, those were moments that had magic.
Bonfire night was a big one, and it wasn't just the night itself, in fact the days and nights spent in preparation were if anything even better, we had something called anticipation which is grossly undervalued now, defered gratification I think its called not much in vogue these days. Building the bonfire meant collecting combustible material wherever we could find it, scouring the countryside for firewood, carrying it back, or loading it onto our home made carts.
I can remember looking into an open box of fireworks and visualising what each one of them was going to do, my Dad putting up a post so we had somewhere to attach the Catherine wheel, a firework which would would spin around like a whirling dervish until spent. The rockets, jumping jacks, bangers, and all the other fireworks we looked at in shop windows with a wonder in our eyes only experienced by the young.
We must have been taught the history behind this yearly ritual but how much of that we were really interested in is debatable, although I suspect the tradition of building a Guy and requesting a penny for the guy must have least at given us an inkling that the main conspirators name was Guy. We were not to know the main conspirator was one Robert Catesby.
The Manor House Ashby St Ledgers.
So the story behind our childhood excitement and joy is this.
In the village of Ashby St Ledgers in Northamptonshire is a grand house, it is one of Northamptonshires many historic houses.
From 1375 to 1611 it was the home of the Catesby family, In 1605 it was in this house that Robert Catesby and his fellow conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, gathered regularly in the Manor’s gatehouse.
In the gatehouse they conspired together to assassinate King James I together with his courtiers by blowing up the Houses of Parliament in one of England’s most notorious acts of treason, the Gunpowder Plot.
Its likely that you have never heard of Robert Catesby because Guy Fawkes is the name most well known in relation to the plot,
Catesby was born in 1573 to a wealthy Catholic landowning family from Warwickshire, Robert Catesby was the only surviving son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton.
The Catesby family were highly respected and well-established. Their Catholic faith meant that they were in constant conflict with England’s Protestant establishment.
Robert’s father was subjected to heavy fines and many terms of imprisonment, this lead Robert Catesby quite understandably to take an anti-Protestant stance.
When James 1 of England succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, Catholics were hopeful that the new king would be more sympathetic to their plight. When this hope proved to be futile, Robert Catesby decided it was time for action. On 20 May 1604, he gathered together a group of cousins and close friends for a meeting in London.
It was at this meeting that Catesby unveiled his plan to use copious amounts of gunpowder to blow up the Palace of Westminster. The attack would mean certain death for the new King, members of the Royal Family and the sitting Government. In the chaos which would inevitably follow, Catesby hoped that the oppressed Catholic nobility would stage an uprising and seize the reigns of power from the Protestant establishment.
The date was set for 5 November 1605 – the official opening of Parliament. Over the course of the next year, Catesby’s attack was meticulously planned. But it wasn’t to be. Late in the night of 4 November, the Plot was uncovered by the King’s men. When news of the plot’s failure reached Catesby, he fled to the country with some of his fellow conspirators.
I had an hour to kill last week, it was midday I was home for lunch and I turned on the television and had a look at the programmes that had been on earlier in the week in the hope of finding something interesting to fill my hour.
I wasn't too hopeful but when I saw a programme called "The Oak, natures greatest survivor," I thought "sounds interesting" I happen to love oak trees as they sort of fascinate me, probably because of the age they can live to and the size they can reach.
The basic premise was, lets take one tree and follow in through the four seasons, see what happens to it and what the tree does in terms of taking in nutrients, attempting to reproduce and generally surviving, You may be thinking "doesn't sound like gripping stuff", but it was absolutely fascinating,
This tree was a little under 400 years old, come on that's pretty impressive isn't it ? considering that you or I may live if we are lucky (or not depending on your viewpoint), to be a quarter of that age.
To put this into a historical perspective the tree had been a mere sapling during the battles of The English Civil War, and had matured at the time of the Industrial revolution, and is still in good health, the changes that have taken place in that span of time for the human race are incredible.
This resonated with me all the more because despite previous failed attempts I have managed to grow a baby oak from an acorn that I collected last Autumn, something I am thrilled about. Here is the young oak below -
Now assuming I can find a place where that sapling can grow to maturity and live to be 300 or possibly even 400 years old what changes that tree may live through.
I will be long gone and so will you, and many other generations will have lived their lives, that to me is a thought that both beguiles me and scares me.
So I'm thinking I will drive this sapling up to my allotment in my petrol driven car and find a place for this baby to thrive and live on, in 300 years or maybe even sooner people may look back and laugh at the idea of their forebears driving around in metal boxes pumping poisonous gases into the air.
I'd love to be around to see how things are 300 or 400 years from now, but knowing I won't be able to it would be great to leave something as magnificent as a mighty Oak behind as a sort of legacy.
One day my sapling may look like the Oak tree below, this tree is not too far from my local Pub, which appropriately enough is called "The Wooden Walls of Old England".
On the 29th May each year a ceremony takes place in the centre of Northampton to mark Oak Apple Day, a custom with its roots in the restoration of the Crown when Charles 11 came to the throne in 1660.
Once it was a public holiday, sadly no more, in fact it was a public holiday until 1859,
why Oak Apple Day ? well the name is a reference to the time when Charles hid in an oak tree from his Roundhead pursuers following the battle of Worcester in 1651.
This incident also accounts for the many public houses in England with the name "The Royal Oak". The 29th May 1630 was also the date of the birth of the future King Charles 11.
Long ago people with Royalist sympathies would wear oak leaves or sprigs of oak with the apple still attached, this was also a sign of their approval of the restoration of the Monarchy.
Others that perhaps did nor share this sentiment and failed to display Oak leaves upon their doors would have a wreaths of stinging nettles placed upon their doorsteps.
The ceremony in Northampton is attended by various dignitaries and sees a wreath of Oak leaves placed around the neck of the statue of Charles 11 that sits on the portico of All Saints Church, unfortunately I was not in the town yesterday so was unable to take any pictures.
Outside of Northamptonshire this day is also marked in the counties of Worstershire, Wiltshire, Cornwall, Derbyshire and also in London.
The picture is of the statue of Charles with his Oak wreath from a previous ceremony.
Someone posted a question on FB recently asking for examples of local history that would be of interest to a group of Scouts that they intended to show round the centre of Northampton.
The number of replies was both surprising and for me informative, as I learned something about my own towns history which I was up to that point unaware of, every day is a school day as they say.
Right in the centre of the town is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and one of the posts on FB made reference to this particular building, specifically that there is damage from musket balls near one of the entrances that occurred when Royalist soldiers were pursued by Parliamentarian troops who fired at their fleeing opposition who were seeking sanctuary in the church.
Intrigued I visited the church today to take a look for myself, the church is a beautiful building but sadly the surrounding grounds are very neglected, which disappointed me although sadly I was not that surprised.
Anyway the church has a fascinating history and here are some pictures I took, including some which may be the damage done by those musket balls so long ago.
I wonder what was was the fate of those Cavaliers ? something for me to research further, I hope you like the pictures.
As the sun is shining this morning and the trees are green, I thought I'd share this poem by John Clare which reminded me how words can move and inspire, especially in the dark times we seem to live in, enjoy.
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There's nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.
Its funny how something you happen to hear by chance sets off a chain of thought which leads to you linking in your mind something that happened a long way away to something much more local which is just what happened to me recently.
I had the radio on and someone was recounting how a terrible event had taken place on some ground where people were going about their business completely unaware of what had happened in that place so long ago.
Along with two old friends I had taken a trip to London and we had chosen to go by train from our local station which is named Castle Station due to the fact it is situated on what was the site of Northampton Castle, the Castle is long gone but the events that took place there are well documented.
After we had purchased our tickets and were deciding on a plan of action I wondered how many of my fellow travellers were aware that in 1612 the Northampton Witch Trails were held very close to where they were now going about their various business and as these people thought about the journey ahead, perhaps about people who would meet them at their destination in the same place others hundreds of years before had contemplated their own particular fate.
Six of these unfortunates were accused two of them being Mother and daughter Agnes and Joan Browne, their misfortune was to offend in some way a gentle lady one Elizabeth Belcher and her Brother William Avery, Elizabeth apparently took a dislike to Joan, who knows what lead to this probably something quite petty, but Elizabeth accused Joan of putting a curse on her. Miss Belcher fell ill and her Brother was dispatched to lift the curse but he testified that as he tried to approach the cottage of the two accused he was held back by an invisible force.
The two women were incarcerated for some time before being hanged in what is now Abington Park, which again is the last place you would expect such things to have taken place with children playing and their parents relaxing in what is a beautiful park in the middle of the town.