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Episode 6: Hampshire

Where is Hampshire?

In our sixth episode, we referred to loads of interesting Hampshire-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:

Eleanor and Martin as Fairies

Here we are, with our friend Rosie. Learn more about Fetherfoy Forest here.

The Biddenden Maids

On Easter Monday morning, the Kentish village of Biddenden is the scene of a curious old custom called the Biddenden Maids’ Charity.

Through the window of the Old Workhouse, tea, cheese and loaves of bread are given to the local widows and pensioners. Large amounts of Biddenden Cakes, baked of flour and water, are distributed among the crowd of tourists and spectators.

The cakes bear the effigy of the Biddenden Maids, two women whose bodies appear to be joined together. A tradition of obscure and ancient origins tells that these maids were conjoined twins, born in 1100, who lived joined together for 34 years.

According to tradition, the Biddenden Maids, Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, were born to fairly wealthy parents in the year 1100. Their bodies were joined at the hips and shoulders. They were naturally very close friends, although one source states that they sometimes disagreed in minor matters, and had “frequent quarrels, which sometimes terminated in blows”.

In 1134, Mary was suddenly taken ill and died. It was proposed that Eliza should be separated from her sister’s corpse by means of a surgical operation, but she refused with the words, “As we came together we will also go together”, and herself died six hours later.

Winchester Cathedral

One of Europe’s great cathedrals, Winchester spans 1,000 years of rich, fascinating history with so much to discover including one of the world’s most exquisite bibles, the 11th century crypt and Jane Austen’s final resting place.

Once the seat of the royal power of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans, a Christian church was built here around 645 AD and over the next 350 years it became the most important church in Anglo-Saxon England.

By 1000 AD, its status as one of the grandest cathedrals in Europe was assured. Its early Norman roots are visible in the round-arched crypts and transepts and over the centuries, ‘soaring Gothic arches’ were added, as were stunning works of art, medieval carvings and the 12th century 1.5 ton Tournai marble font.

Other highlights include the 17th century Morley Library bequeathed by Bishop Morley, the Triforium Gallery that includes the Shaftesbury Bowl, the last surviving example of late Saxon glass in England and the jewel in the cathedral’s crown, the Winchester Bible.

Commissioned in 1160 probably by William the Conqueror’s grandson, it is a magnificent handwritten, hand-illustrated and hand-coloured Romanesque manuscript (including gold leaf and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan which are as vibrant and intense today as they were eight centuries ago). The Winchester Bible is a masterpiece, a lavish testament to 12th century creativity and is worth the trip on its own!

Note two of 'Fox's Boxes' up high behind us, to the left and right of the Great Screen.

Winchester Museum

Located in the heart of the historic city of Winchester, City Museum tells the story of England’s ancient capital, the seat of Alfred the Great.

From its origins as an Iron Age trading centre to Anglo‑Saxon glory, the last journey of Jane Austen to the hunt for King Alfred’s remains, explore the sights and sounds of Winchester past and present in the museum’s three galleries.

Winchester Great Hall

The Great Hall, “one of the finest surviving aisled halls of the 13th century”, contains the greatest symbol of medieval mythology, King Arthur’s Round Table, and is all that now remains of Winchester Castle.

Come and see the iconic Round Table of Arthurian legend that has dominated Winchester’s ancient Great Hall for centuries.

This is one of the finest surviving examples of a 13th century aisled hall and is an enhancement of the original Winchester Castle built by William the Conqueror.

The Highclere Grampus

The folktale involves a creature called a Grampus, which is a historical name for the Orca meaning big fish. Highclere appears to have had a Grampus, a big fish living in a yew tree in the church yard of the Highclere Estate Chapel.

This creature apparently terrified the local population by emitting wheezing grunting noises and chasing anyone who got too close. All rather difficult one would think for a big fish who lived in a tree.

The beast was eventually exorcised by a local clergyman who banished the animal to the Red Sea for a thousand years.

The Mermaid of Nately Scures

In the small Hampshire village of Nately Scures stands St. Swithun’s Church. It is one of England’s smallest churches, measuring little more than 30 feet in length and 15 feet in width, and one of the very few dedicated to St, Swithun, the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester.

The church, built in 1175, also has the unusual distinction of only offering a single way in or out: one ornate north door. The archway of this door houses perhaps the most curious feature of this unique church. Those who look to their left as they enter the church will lock eyes with the Mermaid of Nately Scures.

Amongst whirling waves, the mermaid watches all who pass through the church, and, if local legends are to be believed, she serves as a warning to them all. The mermaid’s legend tells that, once upon a time, she and a sailor fell in love out at sea. Their time together was, however, cut short when the sailor returned to land. The lovers parted ways, promising to reunite once he was recalled to sea. On his return to land, however, the sailor put thoughts of the mermaid aside and instead began courting a local sweetheart. Before long the couple was set to be wed at their local church in Nately Scures. Word of this union crossed the waves, and, as the groom-to-be approached the church on his wedding day, who should he see but the mermaid, blocking the church’s one door. The mermaid threw him onto her back and through streams, rivers, and seas she returned to the deepest ocean with the cheating sailor.

Shocked not only by the appearance of a mermaid but also by the philandering ways of the sailor, the village carved a mermaid into the doorway of the church, as a reminder and warning to any would-be cheats.

The original carved mermaid, weathered by years of watchful warning, can be found within the nave of the church building. A modern copy now takes the place of the original on the doorway but has sadly been defaced, figuratively and literally.

The Wherwell Cockatrice

The tale tells us about a duck who laid an egg in the crypt of the old Wherwell Abbey. This egg was brooded by a toad and when the egg hatched what emerged was a fierce some creature, made up of many animal parts. It had the body of a rooster, wings of a bat and the tale of a snake.

It was nurtured as a pet by the villagers but as it grew it demanded human flesh as part of its diet.

It grew to such a size it was capable of flying over the countryside and picking off its victims. Caught in the talons of the beast there was no escape as the Cockatrice carried the its prey back to its lair.

Netley Abbey

Standing close to Southampton Water, Netley Abbey is the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England.

After the Suppression of the Monasteries the buildings were converted into a mansion for Sir William Paulet. The ruins now reflect over 800 years of change, during which the abbey was transformed from a monastic house to a mansion house, and later to a romantic ruin.

Sir William Paulet’s mansion was occupied until 1704, when the owner sold it for building materials. The abbey was only saved when a demolition worker was killed, causing work to cease.

When this house was abandoned, however, and the neglected site became overgrown with trees and ivy, it came to be celebrated as a romantic ruin. As the ‘Romantic Movement’ grew in strength, many authors and artists visited the abbey to find inspiration. Set among the wild, wooded slopes above Southampton Water, overgrown Netley appeared to be the perfect medieval ruin.

John Constable came to paint here, and writers such as Thomas Gray enthused about the abbey. It is reported that Jane Austen visited Netley, finding inspiration for her novel Northanger Abbey (published in 1817).

Although the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s under Henry VIII left most of England’s monasteries in ruins, the ghost stories associated with them would prove far more difficult to suppress. In fact, when antiquaries of the late seventeenth century turned their attention to England’s own medieval architectural inheritance, they discovered and recorded some of the supernatural legends and traditions that circulated around these ruins.

However, as an antiquarian study such as Browne Willis’s An History of the Mitred Parliamentary Abbies, and Conventual Cathedral Churches (1718–19) makes clear, the nature and function of the ghost had, by this time, changed considerably.

Describing the ruins of Netley Abbey, a thirteenth-century Cistercian monastery in Hampshire, Willis related the tale of a carpenter named Taylor who, having acquired the ruin set about converting the once-sacred space into a place of modern, domestic habitation.

Having dismantled the remaining portions of the abbey’s roof and pulled down some of its walls, Taylor is troubled by an unsettling dream in which a ghostly monk appears before him and warns him of the fatal consequences that are to befall him if he persists in his task of architectural demolition.

Upon waking, Taylor persists with his programme of vandalism at Netley completely undaunted– at least until, in an uncanny enactment of his dream, he is crushed to death by a large piece of masonry that falls from one of the abbey’s windows.

This tale of the supernatural is offered up as a means of ensuring the ruined abbey’s protection from the hands of avaricious despoilers; no longer bound up in Catholic theological rights and practices, the spectre becomes a vehicle for nascent notions of ‘heritage’ and architectural preservation.

M.R. James

Many people regard M. R. James (1862-1936) as the finest writer of ghost stories in the English language.

Montague James went to study at Cambridge, where he would spend much of his adult life, first as a student and then as a don. His scholarly achievements are less widely known than his ghost stories, but he was a notable academic who catalogued virtually the entire collection of medieval manuscripts at Cambridge University, and was an influential director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge for fifteen years.

James’s interest in all things antiquarian – and medieval – fed into his ghost stories, which he would read to his fellow dons on Christmas Eve (his audience was exclusively male, much like M. R. James’s life: he never married and was probably a lifelong celibate).

In many ways, his ghost stories represent a step backwards in the evolution of the ghost story: at a time when his contemporaries, such as his namesake Henry James, were writing ambiguous tales that treated the supernatural with scepticism and ambiguity (as in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw), M. R. James tended to adopt a less equivocal line in his treatment of the supernatural.

When a linen sheet billows in an M. R. James story, there usually is a (genuine) ghost beneath it...

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