Kingley Vale, yew trees and Viking ghosts


When we were students in Sussex in the early Nineties, my friends and I would sometimes drive up to Kingley Vale, just outside Chichester, on the South Downs, to work off our indolence with a bracing walk, and possibly an extra strong cigarette or two. On one memorable occasion we were surprised by members of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, who drove up to our van in the car park one Saturday evening, and shone their torches in our faces, on the spurious grounds that the van was a diesel and someone had been stealing similar ones in the area. Personally I think they were just bored of rounding up drunks in Chichester that night. But I digress.

Kingley Vale is a National Nature Reserve and SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), and is looked after by Natural England. As well as being a diverse habitat for flora and fauna, it contains 14 scheduled ancient monuments, including an Iron Age earthwork (Goosehill Camp), the remains of a Roman temple, and, at the top of the Vale, on Bow Hill, four Bronze Age barrows. These are colloquially known as the Devil’s Humps, or otherwise the Kings’ Graves, and are said to be the burial site of Viking lords defeated by local men in the Ninth Century. Further down the hill is a large area of yew woodland, with some trees thought to be over five hundred years old, and the ghosts of the dead Vikings are supposed to haunt them. Having been there myself after dark, I can testify that this is indeed a spooky and atmospheric place at night, the trunks and branches of the old yew trees twisted into strange and wild shapes by the wind, and the passing of the years.

Photo: Jessica Ann


Matthew Sweet on Sheridan Le Fanu

Yesterday was the bicentenary of the birth of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

How do I know this?

Because he was the subject of yesterday’s “Google doodle”.

Embarrassing as it is that I had to be reminded of this important anniversary of one of my favourite authors by Google of all people, I hope it indicates that Le Fanu is finally being given the wider recognition he so richly deserves, and if you don’t believe me, take a look at this article by Matthew Sweet from the Telegraph, celebrating his writing and wider legacy. And then go out and buy one of his books. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Just remember to leave the lights on…

Face to face with ‘Penal Crosses’

This is a bit of Irish history and folklore I was previously unaware of. What beautiful objects these crosses are. A great article.


On a recent unscheduled trip to County Donegal, I was honoured to be shown a pair of 18th Century ‘Penal Crosses’. I had not seen anything like these ‘up close’ and was totally intrigued by these fascinating  pieces of Irish folk art.

So what are ‘Penal Crosses’? The ‘Penal Laws’ referred to  a series of  statutes aimed at diminishing the power and influence of religions other than the established church, and were enacted in various forms from 1695 on. In England the established church was the Anglican Church, while in Ireland it was the Church of Ireland. Presbyterians for example were also subject to the  Penal Laws, but in Ireland it was the Catholics who were most oppressed by the laws that covered almost every aspect of life including employment, ownership of weapons, intermarriage, education, religious practices and clergy. The practice of the Catholic religion continued during these ‘Penal Times’ with…

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The Wild Beast of Exmoor (and other places)

When I was a kid in primary school, way back in the early Eighties, in a town on the edge of Exmoor, stories started to appear in local and national media about a so-called “wild beast” that was savaging sheep and frightening people in some of the more isolated communities of the area. I even wrote a story, complete with my own gory illustrations, about some huntsmen who manage to track and kill it.

The beast itself was thought to be a large black cat, like a panther, and soon there were reports of its appearance – or something like it – in other moorland regions of the West Country, like Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor. Rewards were offered for killing or capturing the animal, and there was an official investigation into the attacks.

These stories eventually petered out, and nowadays you rarely hear about it, though I’m sure you can still find people who claim to have seen something strange one night while they were out walking their dog. Scientists investigating the phenomenon ultimately concluded that any sightings must have been of indigenous cats or large dogs turned into something more sinister by the imaginations of the onlookers.

What is undisputed is that sheep and other livestock were attacked, at one point in great number, and that a few years before the reports began the government passed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, requiring owners of exotic or dangerous pets to be properly licensed and insured. There has been speculation that, prior to the act coming into force, some owners may have surreptitiously released their animals into the British countryside, but I don’t suppose anyone is going to own up to it!

The Wild Beast of Exmoor (allegedly)