The newest piece to be added to my museum of Wonderments and Atrocities! I have covered the story of the Chained Oak in more detail in my ‘The 199th blog post special!’ mentioning how I had been fascinated by the legend and how I had been to see it for myself having been to Alton Towers. The Hex attraction inspired by the tale didn’t disappoint, I was especially taken by the little details hidden throughout the attraction. Preserved in this ‘distressed’ glass frame is a souvenir from that visit a fragment of the tree! The accompanying label (bearing the Earl of Shrewsbury’s Coat of Arms) reads, Fragment of the ‘Chained Oak’ Staffordshire, England. On a cold autumn night in 1821 as the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury returned to his home at Alton Towers in Staffordshire an old woman appeared in the road and begged him for a coin. The Earl refused the old woman. Scorned, she placed a curse on the Earl telling him that "For every branch on the Old Oak Tree that falls, a member of the Earl’s family will die." The Earl dismissed her and carried on his way. That night a violent storm caused a branch on the old oak tree to break and fall, that same night the Earl’s son died. The Earl ordered his servants to chain every branch of the Oak together to prevent other branches from ever falling again. This fragment was taken from a fallen branch.
Last week, Mrs Jones and I went up to London for the day to celebrate our second wedding anniversary. First on the agenda a celebratory lunch on the Belmond British Pullman, sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. The Belmond British Pullman is a privately owned train service complete with former Brighton Belle Pullman coaches restored to their former beauty providing luxury first-class coach excursions throughout parts of the British Isles along with elaborate dining and full steward service promising “true vintage luxury, highlighted by tantalising modern cuisine.” We could hardly wait! Our steam-hauled ‘golden age of travel by steam’ luncheon trip around Kent and Surrey started out in Victoria Station on platform 1 as a jazz band played some hits from the past. And then she pulled into the station, SR Merchant Navy Class 35028 Clan Line, a wonder to behold! Built at Eastleigh Works in Hampshire she entered traffic in 1948 from Bournemouth shed. A ‘British Railways’ engine she never carried the full livery, markings or numbering system of the Southern Railway.
In 1959, having run 401,005 miles she was rebuilt at Eastleigh Works to a more conventional design and was the last of her class to be so dealt with. Under British Railways ownership she was used on the Southern Region’s principal express trains, including the ‘Golden Arrow’ and ‘Night Ferry’ to Dover and Folkestone; the ‘Bournemouth Belle’; the ‘Royal Wessex’ and the ‘Atlantic Coast Express’. Then in 1967 having run a total of 794,391 miles she was withdrawn from service and bought by the Merchant Navy Locomotive Preservation Society devoted to maintaining and keeping her in working order. From 1985 to 1990 she was used by the then Special Trains Unit of British Railways that ran regular ‘Sunday Luncheon Express’ services from London Marylebone to Straford-Upon-Avon before being chosen by Belmond British Pullman to haul their excursions. Naturally all passengers made a beeline for the front of the train to take photos for posterity, ourselves included. Having marvelled at her mighty ‘Brunswick Green’ splendour we made our way to our carriage.
Each of the British Pullman's cars has its own name, décor and history , we were seated in magnificent Audrey carriage seats 11 and 12. Audrey was built as a first class kitchen car in 1932 for Southern Belle (later renamed the Brighton Belle) service and made her debut on New Year’s Day 1933 as part of the worlds first all electric Pullman train.
She served the Brighton Belle for 40 years, travelling 2.7 million miles and survived a bombing raid at Victoria Station in 1940 (rejoining the Brighton Belle in 1947). Complete with original features of the period representing the high end of the Art deco-style. Audrey’s interiors are lined with wooden panels decorated with marquetry, which were restored by A Dunn and Son, a family firm that dates from 1895 who created some of the originals they also worked on panels for the Titanic, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Buckingham Palace! It’s of no surprise then that she was used regularly by the Royal family carrying the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother. The carriage really was exquisite, we were shown to our seats by the steward who proceeded to pour us each a glass of champagne. As we toasted our anniversary the train’s whistle echoed throughout Victoria Station as she pulled out setting off a trend we would see for the next four hours, people stopping what they were doing to marvel or take photographs. Looking around the carriage in all its art deco splendour along with the stewards tending to passenger’s needs and the clanking of crystal glasses. The smell of the steam engine, the sound of the tracks followed by the occasional air whistle it was just like being in the world of Agatha Christie (only without the murders). Well on our way the stewards set to work bringing out our five-course lunch comprising of, Potted Cornish crab and marinated Loch Duart Salmon on saffron potato salad, mixed leaves and beetroot dressing. Seasonal vegetable broth with basil pesto and garlic croutons. Roast rump of season lamb on minted pea and woodland mushroom ragu, Jersey potatoes and salsa verde. Selection of Cheeses from the British Isles with homemade chutney. Roast plum and almond tart with vanilla sauce and mixed berries and Coffee and Petit Fours. Not to mention a rather nice bottle of Côtes du Rhône!
This really was the life, the meal was delicious. Having finished my coffee I had a closer look around the carriage, looking at all the little details I may have missed taking photos as I went along, even the lavatory impressed with its wood panelling, marble surfaces and mosaic flooring. Inevitably we returned to Victoria Station, stepping off the train and back to reality. We made our way up the platform taking one last look at ‘Clan Line’ the magnificent engine that had made our day so special only to learn that that this was her penultimate outing before she retires to Crew for an overhaul on the 30th June. Our since thanks and admiration to all involved in Clan Line’s preservation and everyone on the Belmond British Pullman for making our day a memorable one.
Mark Smith filmed this wonderful video of Clan Line on her approach to Chilworth in the Surrey Hills.
We left Victoria Station and made our way to Bloomsbury to visit the finest museum dedicated to human history, the British Museum. Having explored the Enlightenment Gallery in awe, stopping to study something every two or three steps we made our way into the Wellcome Trust Gallery (Room 24: Living and Dying) and there greeting us as we went in was Hoa Hakananai'a a Easter Island moai! Made of basalt the Hoa Hakananai'a ('lost or stolen friend') were made on Rapa Nui between AD 1100 and 1600 it is believed this one dates from around AD 1200. This magnificent statue complete with birdman cult carvings on the back was removed from ‘Orongo, Rapa Nui by the crew of British expedition to Rapa Nui in 1868 and presented to Queen Victoria by the Lords of the Admiralty. She then gifted it to the British Museum in 1869 a truly amazing wonder to behold! Then to his right, tucked away in the corner a crystal skull! I’ve always been fascinated with these mysterious skulls, they featured prominently on Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World series and practically every book that I read about the ‘unexplained’ as a child would feature a photograph of a crystal skull somewhere. Although no crystal skulls had been reported from well-documented official archaeological excavation they began to surface in public and private collections, during the second half of the nineteenth century when interest in collecting Mexican material was at its height. There have been many paranormal claims made about these skulls over the years particularly regarding the famous Mitchell-Hedges skull. This life-size carving of a human skull was made from a single block of rock crystal (but not as detailed as Mitchell-Hedges skull and does not have a movable lower jaw) and was purchased by the Museum from Tiffany and Co, New York in 1897. At the time of its purchase, the skull was said to have been brought from Mexico by a Spanish officer before the French occupation (in 1863).
It was sold to an English collector and acquired at his death by Eugène Boban (1834–1908), a French antiquities dealer and official archaeologist of the court of Maximillian I of Mexico. Before it became the property of Tiffany and Co. The skull was exhibited for many years at the Museum of Mankind in Piccadilly (which housed the British Museum’s Ethnographic collection). It has been noted that Eugène Boban had been in possession of at least two crystal skulls casting doubt onto their provenance and after extensive testing the British Museum declared that skull was not in fact an authentic pre-Columbian artefact but "probably European, 19th century AD”. The techniques used to carve the skull post-dated the ancient Aztec period and was not carved by hand but made with modern tools most likely a lathe-mounted rotary wheel used by jewellers. Never the less it still looks impressive and I was delighted to see one at last!
The British Museum holds the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt and I needed my fix of mummies, sarcophagi and canopic jars! Another aspect of ancient Egypt that fascinates me is the mummification of their pets (I’m like that) particularly cats and the role cats played in their lives.
All animals associated with deities were regularly mummified in the later periods of Egyptian history but the cat played a particular part due to their association with the goddess Bastet, whose cult centre was at Bubastis in the Delta, but there were other feline deities elsewhere in Egypt. One particularly interesting specimen was one found in Abydos, Upper Egypt believed to be from the Roman Period, perhaps 1st century AD. Elaborately wrapped it seems unlikely that the cat died a natural death as its believed that temple catteries provide subjects for mummification and sale to the pious. The purchase and burial of an animal mummy in a specially designed catacomb was seen as a pious act towards the deity represented by the animal. Unfortunately, many cat cemeteries were plundered before archaeologists could work in them: A shipment of as many as 180,000 mummified cats was brought to Britain at the end of the nineteenth century to be processed into fertiliser!
Theses ones were truly amazing! Then onwards to Room 56: Mesopotamia where we saw the 'Ram in a Thicket'. Discovered in Ur (modern southern Iraq) dated from around 2600-2400 BC it is one of a pair (The other resides at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia) discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley (1880 –1960) in the 'Great Death Pit' in 1928.
Although named after the Old Testament passage the animal is in fact a goat reaching up for the branches. When found, the 16.5-inch figure had been crushed flat by the weight of the soil and the wooden core had perished. Wax was used to keep the pieces together as it was lifted from the ground, and it was then pressed back into shape. Made up Gold, copper, shell, limestone & lapis lazuli it is believed that it would have once supported something, probably a bowl. Another interesting thing about this object that Agatha Christie also an amateur archaeologist was working on the same dig. Christie had become interested in archaeology and met future husband, archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, CBE (1904 –1978). She was involved in the excavation of the sites in Iraq and Syria cleaning, repairing and cataloguing many finds undoubtedly influencing many of her books.
There was still lots more to see but we had to leave, we had tickets booked…
What trip to London would be complete without taking in a show? Onwards to St. Martin's Theatre in West Street, near Shaftesbury Avenue home of Agatha Christie classic murder mystery The Mousetrap! Since its first opening night in the West End in 1952 the show entered the record books in 1958 by becoming the longest running show in the history of British Theatre. It has long since smashed that record and became the longest initial run of any play in history (clocking up its 25,000th) on its 60th Birthday back in 2012! St. Martin's Theatre (first opened in 1916) is gorgeous, after extensive interior refurbishment it has been restored to its former glory. The auditorium complete with woodwork, glass light fixtures and silk wallpaper has memorabilia from the shows past lining the walls and a beautiful wooden counter clock that clocks up each performance! As we took our seats the structure and design of the theatre impressed us both as Mrs Jones put it “how a theatre should look”.
Having never seen the Mousetrap before we were very much looking forward to it and enjoyed it immensely, in order to maintain the show’s tradition we have been forbidden to discuss the plot so all I can do is advise you, if you haven’t seen it yet do so! As we made out way to the tube, we stopped at the Agatha Christie Memorial to salute the lady that seemed to have woven herself throughout our special day. Located at the intersection of Cranbourn Street and Great Newport Street by St Martin's Cross (erected in Covent Garden because eight theatres have shown her work in the area) this bronze memorial was designed by sculptor Ben Twiston-Davies. It was unveiled on 18th November 2012 to coincide with the Mousetrap’s 60th anniversary and is in the form of a large book with a bust of Christie in the centre along with several familiar images from her work and well worth stopping to investigate. And that was our day, and what a day it was! I hope it was of interest!
Back in around 2000 I wrote a fan letter to Sir Christopher Lee. It was the usual fan letter babbling telling him how marvellous he was and how much I adored his work and how I wished there was more of it (this was just before Lord of the Rings that would set his career off again). I closed the letter with an autograph request and about a week later I received a response, no letter or message just this single card with what I regarded to be a pre-printed signature on the back. Thinking he had fobbed me off with a pre-printed signature card I just stuck it on my studio wall before eventually filling it away in my scrapbook. A few years later I looked at it again and noticed that the ink had slight fraying to it…it was actually pen… He had signed it… or had he? Fifteen years on I’m still unsure, adding a little more mystery to this man that captivated me that evening at the end of the 1980’s with Curse of Frankenstein and Taste the Blood of Dracula spring boarding me into my love of Hammer movies and all things Horror related. Whatever he starred in he brought a distinguished presence to the role completed with that unmistakable deep voice. I was genuinely sad to hear of his passing this month, marking the end of an amazing career.
US produced Clockwork Magazine is a bi-monthly publication that is dedicated to bringing a comprehensive look into the world of Steampunk and “the people who bring it to life”. If you take a look in the April/May issue not only will see an interview with talented CostumeArt, Hatton Cross Steampunk, Ätherwerk, and Mixed Media Design Studio. Sets featuring Rebelicious of Discarded Couture, Mistress Zelda, the fifth instalment of author Gabriel Roark’s Finnegan Tarrega’s Dispatches from the Field and a new piece from author E.S. Wynn, but also my Science Spotlights! This issue’s ‘Unsung heroes of discovery’ are Harry Grindell Matthews (1880-1941) Sir Richard Owen KCB (1804-1892) and Harry Price (1881- 1948). You can get your issue (hard copy, or digital download) for only $3.99 just follow the link. Tell them Arfon sent you!