Biz Bark

Review: Ghost Club reviews Duncan Mackay’s Bizarre Berkshire

2/12/11 This review is to be published in a forthcoming newsletter of The Ghost Club.

BIZARRE BERKSHIRE by DUNCAN MacKAY, published 2012 by Two Rivers Press, 7 Denmark Road, Reading RG1 5PA
Pb. 103 pages, scraperboard illustrations by Sally Castle. £8.99,
ISBN 978-1-903677-77-5

I must declare an interest, in that I know Duncan, and enjoy his dry humour – which is why I gladly agreed to provide a back cover blurb for his first paddle in the odder backwaters of Berkshire history after works on travel and natural history, and share it with GC colleagues even though it is not mainly about ghosts.

My blurb follows commendations from Sir Michael Parkinson (yes, that Michael Parkinson) that “this delightful book is based in the rich seam of doubt and possibility which lies between real events and ‘history’ as revealed by eye witnesses or recorded by historians’, and a Professor in Landscape Theory and History who calls it ‘classic place-storytelling in the tradition of Herodotus’. I don’t pack that sort of authority, but summarised it as “Duncan MacKay has dug deep into Berkshire’s murkier history, raising an eyebrow at a range of weirdness to exorcise any suspicions that the home counties might be predictable. This book grips your interest – and then continues to fire your imagination. Worth space on any Fortean’s bookshelves”. Read on if you’re interested in Forteana beyond ghosts, or Berkshire with ghosts!

The book is constructed alphabetically – the 2500-year old Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede, where King John signed Magna Carta (with his fingers crossed); the Bucklebury Fly (a C17th glass painting above the Winchcombe family pew in Bucklebury church); Caravanning (the retired Victorian army surgeon who invented the mobile traffic jam); Thomas Day, a C18th philantropist who hung around orphanages selecting pre-teen girls to raise as suitable wife-material (an experiment which failed, but bred the founder of NatWest); Eton (which he describes as “the Galapagos islands of private education, operating under its own peculiar evolutionary rules”.

G is for Ghosts, and dwells on the area around Littlewick Green., Ashley Hill and the octagonal Romano-Celtic temple at Weycock Hill, one of only three such in Britain, which is haunted by a white lady (possibly one of the Vestal Virgins who may have served it – and could be buried alive if they ceased to be the latter….). She has been seen widely locally, including walking across the sitting room of Bertha Lamb, who in 1918 founded the Littlewick Green WI (today’s keepers of the hearth and home?). Duncan also mentions a Black Dog at Feens (or Ffiennes) Farm – where confusingly an Irish wolfhound-sized White Dog was also seen around 1985-6, disappearing ‘as if running behind a black sheet’ – and the headless ghost of Dorcas Noble, allegedly decapitated after her attempt to restore her lover’s affections through love magic failed.

So on to H for the Hammer House of Horrors studios around Bray; the ‘Irish-Dutch War’ of 1688 (the defeat at Reading of James 11’s Irish dragoons by William of Orange’s invading Dutch cavalry; JethroTull (the C18th agricultural reformer); the Knights Templar’s various holdings around Berkshire’ the Lambourn Valley Railway; Montem Mound (strange initiation rites from pre-Christian times, linked (inevitably) to Eton); Nuclear Cows (about Greenham Common); the shrine of Our Lady of Caversham, once home to one of Christendom’s holiest relics, the Spear of Longinus which pierced Jesus’s side on the Cross); the Pitt Diamond (acquired in 1702 in Bombay by the founder of the line of Whig PMs, in between shipping opium, and allegedly haunted thereafter by the ghost of the slave who found it first).; Queer Things (a ragbag of oddities, including spooklights around Padworth Village and nighthags and other phantasmal figures around the Old Rectory; other holy Relics once preserved around the county; Swan Upping; the Tuttimen of Hungerford (men and women taking it in turns to tie each other up around Hocktide Monday, a rare oddity with no connection to Eton); UFOs (an oasis of normality amongst the other chapters…); the Vicar of Bray:

“And this is law, I will maintain
Until my Dying Day, Sir
That whatsoever King may reign
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!” (a (political model for us all);

Whirlwinds; X-roads (and ley lines); Yemmerrawanyea, an Aborigine shipped to England at 18 to amuse George 111, and buried in Reading at 19; and the world’s first Zebra crossing, in those parts of Slough which survived the kindly bombs.

Scratch below the surface (and wash carefully afterwards). Recommended!

Lance Railton