Chalk Ghosts at Fort Process

I’m frantically packing for walking the South Downs Way and almost forgot to mention that I am giving the Chalk Ghosts talk again at Fort Process. This should be particularly interesting, as I’ll have spent the week before tramping across the downs.

Sussex is haunted by stories. Sometimes it seems that folklore is confined to books, but it’s still out there. Looking at Sussex myths, ghosts and chalk, this talk will show how our world is just as strange as it has ever been. There are ghosts all around us. James Burt looks Sussex legends over the years, drawing links between them, and asking why these stories have changed over the years.

I’ve been doing lots of new research for this including on angels and food in visitations. I will also finally see Dr Bramwell’s talk on Ghost Villages. I’m also looking forward to seeing Sarah Angliss, Kemper Norton, Gagarin and Scrying Ylem. I’ll also get to watch Matthew Clayton’s talk, which I missed at Wilderness.

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A weekend at Wilderness

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I spent last weekend at Wilderness Festival, where I was speaking at the Odditorium Tent. It was a fun time, with lots of friends and great weather. But I fear I’m not as good at festivals as I used to be.

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If you told 18-year old me, fresh from his first Glastonbury, that he’d still going to festivals at 40 he’d be pleased. He’d be less impressed that I was asleep through the first night. We were kept up all night on Thursday, including by a group singing Toto’s Africa near our tent. The next night, I fell asleep at 7pm and managed to sleep through till 5am.

(I’d like to think that the people singing Toto were in the middle of a reunion, having the best time of their summer, and will be talking about that night for years. In which case, it would make up for the lack of sleep)

(I did wake for a bit and head down to festival around 10pm on the Friday. I couldn’t find any of the others and there was no way I was going to catch up with the drunks around me. I passed a man who was pissing as he walked. I decided to head back to bed and sleep through).

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I was up at dawn the next day, and went to read by the river. A few people were still partying and very sweetly came over to check I was having a good time. Fish skipped out of the water.

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I was also drinking for the first time since the start of the 2016, which was fun. The cocktails from Artbar were perfect. I didn’t have any hangovers.

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It was a weekend of bumping into people and losing people. I visited the posh £3 toilets. They seemed expensive but, like the i360, worth trying to say that you have.

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The Saturday Spectacle included amazing high-wire skills. My favourite bit was when someone did a headstand on the wire and a man behind us was unimpressed: “I could do that”

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We kept bumping into the fawn in the picture above. Every time we saw him, he gave us a friendly ‘hello!’.

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I didn’t see any bands, but I did see a lot of talks. It was a good weekend.

Chalk Ghosts – 8th July 2016

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I’m giving a performance at the next Small Story Cabaret event, on 8th July at Westgate Chapel in Lewes. The theme of the night is ‘Hoof and Horn’, which means stories of magic and the occult. I will be performing a new ‘thing’:

Chalk Ghosts
Sussex is haunted by stories. Sometimes it seems that folklore is confined to books, but it’s still out there. Looking at Sussex myths, ghosts and chalk, this talk will show how our world is just as strange as it has ever been. There are ghosts all around us.

Tara originally asked me if I wanted to do a version of the talk on Slenderman that she saw at the Towner in 2014. This started out as a performance at 2014’s Brighton Digital Festival and was given in a longer version at Wilderness last year. I’ve also been talking about Sussex folklore at last year’s Brighton fringe and in my performance for Two Knocks for Yes. This talk brings together a lot of those threads.

Chalk Ghosts is very much based around Sussex. It’s about what this county means to me – I’ve lived here since I was 2 or 3 years old. I’m currently making projections and recordings, and figuring out how best to use the space. I have no idea quite what this will turn out to be, but it won’t be boring.

The Return of Pilgrimage

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Last night I went to a Brighton Fringe event, Pilgrimage: A New British Tradition of Walking with Soul. It featured Guy Hayward and Will Parsons of the British Pilgrimage Trust who told us about modern pilgrimage, served us foraged tea and led a short journey to St Ann’s Well. The event’s write-up described pilgrimage as “the best form of physical prayer for people who aren’t sure if they believe in prayer”. While the sessions was organised by the Brighton & Hove Centre for Spirituality, a group “rooted in the riches of Ancient Christian wisdom” the religious aspects were never intrusive.

Pilgrimage is a walk of one or more days to a site of some type of power. It doesn’t need to be an officially sanctioned holy place, but could be, say, a family grave. Guy and Will have performed a number of pilgrimages leading to their founding of the British Pilgrimage Trust (whose patron is Rupert Sheldrake, who will speak in Brighton this Wednesday – it was at his house where Guy and Will first met). As well as doing the Cheeky Walks recently, I’ve become interested in various aspects of walking, and pilgrimages are a fascinating link.

For Guy and Will, walking is connected with song and they shared a number of these with us on the night. The songs often relate to the places they pass  – for example, at a war memorial, they would stop to sing Kipling’s lament for his son Jack. I particularly loved the song ‘What is a Man’ (also known as the Fall of the Leaf). Their first pilgrimage was to the Hartlake Disaster memorial, which is remembered in the Hartlake Bridge Song. On reaching the site, Guy and Will arrived at exactly the same time as some descendent of the survivors, who had made their own journey to the site. Apparently pilgrimages generate a lot of coincidences – something that Discordians are great enthusiasts for.

There was a psychogeography bingo point for use of the word ‘liminality’. This was part of a fascinating description about how pilgrimage disconnects walkers from everyday life, with the world continuing around them. This reminded me of Guy Debord saying that the derive involved a suspension of the walker’s normal relations to the world and society.

Pilgrimage also has a connection with the etymology of holiday as holy-day. Apparently religious journeys were one of the few reasons that a serf could use to escape their feudal obligations. This may have been one of the things that led to the suppression of pilgrimages in reformation times. British tradition turned the pilgrimage internal, encouraging worshippers to stay home and read the gospels.

The traditions of pilgrimage go back a long way. I’m often frustrated by the how English tradition is often ignored entirely in favour of yoga, Buddhism etc. Pilgrimage was described as an “indigenous British yoga” with links to questing and the grail. Along with the main aim of a quest, there are often sub-quests that emerged, just like in a video game.

Sometimes modern pilgrims will stay in chruches, other times they will wild camp. The mention of how easy this was, just a tarp and a bivvy bag, reminded me of Alastair Humphrey’s microadventures. It was also pointed out that one advantage of a tarp was that you could see clearly what was around you. This led to a discussion of how lying down was the best way to look at stars – and, apparently, it’s a great way to experience a church. So we all went into the sanctuary and lay down. It was an novel and relaxing experience.

We were then offered a choice of teas made from rosemary and plantain, (also known as Lord of the ways because it grows well on compacted soil like footpaths). Plantain is particularly interesting as it was the only plant that was taken from Europe to the Americas. It has medicinal properties and can be applied to blisters, where the rubbing will cause it to release its juices.

The status of a pilgrim is an interesting one and a pilgrimage is definitely different to a walk – for example, there are the pledges: to go slow, to improve the way (or to right wrongs), to need less, accept more and pass the blessing on. Guy and Will described an almost-primal response of welcome that they received from strangers. There is a social benefit to people just passing through an area.  Most people accepted them as pilgrims without suspicion – although a pilgrim’s staff helps make a good impression.

The talk included so many fascinating aspects: about drinking wild water and different tastes; pilgrimages among animals, including the mysterious migrations of the Kingfish. We also heard a fascinating story about the clearance of St Helen’s Well in Hastings. This is a modern miracle, “magic in a way” as one of the speakers put it.

The Pilgrim’s Trust aims to establish a South Downs Pilgrims Way (the North Downs one, as walked by Hilaire Belloc is apparently blighted by a motorway along much of its route). A quarter of a million people a year walk the way of St James in Spain; 200 a year is a good year in Canterbury Cathedral. The Pilgrim’s Trust aims to nuture a revival.

The evening ended with a short pilgrimage to St Ann’s Well garden. We circumabulated the well, singing a song to the water. As the speakers said, this is a place that “Probably didn’t get honoured much”, but it was a lovely occasion. Then Guy and Will were off to spend the night at a long barrow before a meeting today.

The trust has some bold ambitions and I hope they succeed. It was an interesting counterpoint to the Odditorium’s Edge of Culture night, which is part of another nascent movement. I hope they both blossom.

Klf: Chaos Music Magic Money

The greatest trick the KLF did was deleting their back catalogue. Some of the greatest songs of the 90s, and it’s pretty much impossible to buy them. You can find them if you look, but there’s no complete discography on Spotify. It feels strange – refreshing – in a culture of re-releases and heritage compilations. It’s been over 20 years since the KLF disappeared.

One of my favourite books in recent years was John Higgs’ The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. It’s an incredibly clever book and retells the story of the band as a magical ritual, one that created the twenty-first century. It takes the burning of the money, an incident that bewildered the band, and turns it into something new. It’s a great piece of storytelling.

I also love the book because it connects to so many of my obsessions. Here’s a map to some of my favourite links the book made or implied:

(Click to see a larger version)

A map of interesting things in the John Higgs book
A map of interesting things in the John Higgs book

A Cheeky Walk: Bungalowland

I woke up on May Bank Holiday Monday to the sound of rain. I considered cancelling my plans but decided that a damp walk was better than staying indoors all day. Bungalowland is the last of the Cheeky Walks outside Brighton. It was left to the end, in part, because of the name – it doesn’t sound as promising as most of the others. It was a pretty good walk though, along the cliffs near Peacehaven then through to Telscombe, taking us through areas that were attractive and areas that were less so.

This time there were six of us. Katharine, Kaylee and I started out in the strangely unwelcoming Smuggler’s Rest pub. The clouds were thick and menacing, but soon eased out. The pub food was all right, but I am sick to death of sweet bread on burger buns. Katharine has also been following the walks and has the more recent edition of the book. In mine, Peacehaven is compared to Jimmy Saville, a reference that is now removed.

After dessert (sticky toffee and apple pudding), we were joined by Dr Bramwell, Jo and Cara. Since Dr Bramwell was one of the Cheeky Walk book’s compilers we had no chance of getting lost on this one.

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We set off along the bungalow-lined cliffs. Some of them stood out, such as the house-with-the-boxing-ring-on-its-roof and the Rubik’s Cube house. I couldn’t persuade David to knock on the door or the latter and find out the story behind it.

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We crossed the meridian, re-enacting the picture on the nearby signboard:

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Once away from the bungalows and caravans we found ourselves among the gorse. The signpost that should have been a way marker was no longer there, making it hard to work where we were supposed to go. We ended up in a tangle of gorse and weren’t sufficiently convinced to press through it. After backtracking and exploring, we decided to try again, dragging ourselves through the thorns, forced to crouch almost to a crawl.

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Once out of the gorse, we found some lovely views of the Downs that looked straight out of a Ravilious painting.

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The road led to the village of Telscombe. It was very beautiful, but we were tired and in no mood to explore (we’d also missed the farm open day), so we hiked across Telscombe Tye common back towards the pub. The group took slightly different directions here, and Cara and I rescued a laptop on the way back to the pub. After a drink, I headed home where Kaylee and I watched Guy Martin’s India DVD

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It was a pretty good day. There is just one more walk left, a short stroll around central Brighton – and then the book is finished. What will I do then?

 

Spirit of Place conference

Over a month back, at the start of April, Lela and I went to Liverpool for John Reppion‘s Spirit of Place conference, a site-specific event linked to the Calderstones, a group of standing stones in a Liverpool park.

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I don’t know Liverpool well – I last went with my Dad and sister back in the nineties. But the list of speakers was so interesting that I thought it would be worth the trip. John Reppion described the event as something “people who live in London, or Brighton say, might be quite used to seeing advertised but which there never seem to be very many of up here in the North.” Brighton could definitely do with events like this one.

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The day brought together a range of speakers, including archaeologists, psychogeographers, historians (an epic description of the wrecking of the RMS Tayleur), artists (a premier of short film The Menhir Motorway) and a magician. The sessions were incredibly inspiring while avoiding a game of psychogeography bingo, and I wanted to note down some of the things that I responded to. I came out of it fizzing with ideas, and things to follow up.

  • John Reppion introduced the day with Invoking the Spirits of Place. It looked at some of the ways folklore connected with the park. Many of the trees had been brought from overseas, and he discussed the idea of tree spirits from different cultures. I loved the quote from Pope, his advice on gardening: “Consult the genius of the place”
  • Kenneth Brophy (AKA The Urban Prehistorian) gave a fantastic talk on ancient monuments in cities and the response of local people. He talked in particular about the Cochno Stone, which was buried to protect it from locals, mentioning the shame many felt at not being trusted with the monument. We also saw examples of how prehistoric monuments in cities are often fenced off, producing the strange spectacle of caged standing stones. Personally, I’m still disappointed that Silbury Hill was inaccessible. With the Cochno stone, there are plans for a replica to be made and placed above it. May Miles Thomas has produced a short film, Cochno Stone Revealed.
  • The session that influenced me most was one by David Southwell and Gary Budden on ‘Landscape Punk and Re-enchantment’. David spoke about how myth grows and escapes; where folklore comes from and what it’s for. He also talked about how walking is the best way to learn a place. There were some amazing turns of phrase in this session – “ghost soil”, “layers of story”, the “dark sediment of decomposing memory”,”every walk scuffs up… spirits”. David’s current project is Hookland, a fictional English county providing a chance to put back some of the weirdness in a conscious act of enchantment. “Landscape gives us the myth we need”
  • Gary Budden spoke about landscapepunk, which he saw as emerging from anti-road movements and squatters, and a culture of visionary English music like Crass and Zounds – he saw punk as a type of folk music. The talk grappled with the risk of interests like nature writing and psychogeography creating a sort of “hippie nationalism”, a negative island culture. He also spoke about the trope of the “Lone White male author” with time and leisure who reported back to office workers. The books these men produced were not the world he knew, and he compared his childhood experience of birdwatching to the lyrical descriptions found in nature writing. These didn’t reflect the nature he knew, of damp sandwiches in car parks and the Really Wild Show
  • Richard MacDonald worked as Heritage Story Maker, which is the best job title I’ve ever heard. If I knew that was a possibility, I’d never have become a programmer.
  • It was good to see Cat Vincent talk again. When he announced that he was a practising magician, someone in the audience gasped ‘Oh wow!’. His talk, Where the Buddleia Grows made the point that when most of the world’s people live in urban areas, magic should not continue to  privilege the rural above the urban. He also discussed how people say that history repeats itself, then suggested geography does not repeat, but it rhymes. He spoke about his own connection with buddliea, the ‘bombsite flower’. which often grows in the city. It was a lovely talk and well worth reading via the link.
  • The final session was an interview with horror author Ramsey Campbell. It was fun to listen to someone I’d been reading for about 25 years, since I used to borrow Best New Horror collections from Harlow Library in the 90s (that shelf of horror was probably the only good thing about that town). Campbell talked about his connections with the local area, the shop where he first discovered Lovecraft, and about Bartleby the Scrivener as horror. His latest book is based on the folklore of Liverpool. He claimed that he’d made notes of ideas among his research and now was no longer sure which parts he had made up.

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It was good to visit Liverpool, even if we didn’t have a long time there (we did our best to visit the Tate in 30 minutes, and made a fairly good go of it). We also stayed in a Beatles-themed hotel, with a night-manager who’d never been to the top floor until he showed us to our room. Terrible breakfasts, but fun decor.

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All-in-all, it was well worth the journey and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for John Reppion’s future events. I also note that I’ve become the sort of person who is excited by megaliths

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The fate of Rabbit Island

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BN1 Game card by Paul Stapleton

Rabbit Island was a bit of Brighton folklore. An overgrown roundabout on the way out of town, you’d sometimes see rabbits peeking out from the undergrowth. The story was that someone had placed a couple of pets there and they’d raised an empire. I’m not sure that makes sense – putting rabbits there rather than the neighbouring park would be ridiculous – but there were definitely a lot of animals trapped in a small area. It was a leporine equivalent of the TV show Lost.

Earlier this year, the council cut back the vegetation on Rabbit Island. There is no cover, and there are no rabbits. All that remains on the island are a few pieces of metal piping. Apparently this was for safety, although the excellent Brighton Bits website points out that the foliage cut down headlight glare. It’s also a poor welcome for visitors to Brighton.

A Cheeky Walk: Grooving in the Ghost Village

Doing the Cheeky Walks has introduced me to several amazing places I should have visited during my two decades in Brighton. I’ve found stunning countryside a short distance away and walked along Devil’s Dyke for the first time. But Sunday’s trip to the Castle Hill Nature Reserve was the best discovery so far, and I had no idea it existed.

David Thoreau warned his readers to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”. The Cheeky Walk around Castle Hill and the Lost Village of Balsdean required a new piece of equipment and a CD. The disc, 1 inch/ ½ mile by Grasscut is intended to be listened to at various points along the walk. I also bought a headphone splitter so that Lela and I could listen to the soundtrack simultaneously. And, in a departure from Cheeky Guide protocol, the walk is accompanied by a map.

Balsdean dates back to the 12th century and was a small farming community. For a time the manor house was used for a mental hospital. It fell into disrepair and the few remaining residents were removed in the second world war. The village was then used for artillery practise. Little trace of the buildings remain. Even online it’s hard to find photographs of what it once looked like.

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Listening to a soundtrack on a walk was an interesting innovation. Some tracks worked better than others (I caught Lela removing her headphones during one of the noisier, glitchier tracks). On the whole, it did enhance the walk, particularly when wind whistled around the headphones. I’d not heard of Grasscut before, but they seem to be an interesting band.

The scenery here was  stunning, a long right-angled valley with derelict farm buildings in the middle. There were also fearless lambs coming up to say hello as we walked down the avenue of trees. A few weeks ago, we’d passed Saddlescomb Farm while the lambing was taking place; now there were young lambs out in the field. I like how the countryside can tell stories like that between walks.

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The only traces of the old village are some half-buried foundations, and a plaque left where the church’s altar once was. It seems a shame to have used a Norman church for target practise.

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As we walked along the valley we occasionally heard screaming noises. Sometimes they sounded almost human. They had to be something to do with the flags near the derelict farm buildings.

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On our way back through the bottom of the valley we found that the noises were drone racers, from the Hidden Valley Group. Four of them were flying, piles of battery-packs beside their chairs – a drone can only fly a few minutes on a charge. Even so, when the racing is going on it looks exhilarating and the manoeuvrability is amazing. You can see examples on sites like FliteTest or RotorRiot .

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We stopped to talk with Ed, one of the racers. We also got to have a look at the viewscreens – the drones fly with cameras, allowing the pilots to fly with a first-person view. The drone racers told us about an air-show and drone-racing competition coming in early may.

After talking to the racers we were faced with the climb out of the valley. I’ve encountered a fair few hills on the Cheeky Walks, but this was the steepest of them all. But we did it bravely and without complaint.

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We followed the trail back to the start of the walk and then to the car. I think this hidden valley is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Brighton. I can’t believe we passed so few other people as we walked through it. Had everyone found better things to do? I’d wasted so many weekends when I could have come out here.

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A Cheeky Walk: Walking With Werewolves

The Cheeky Walk ‘Walking with Werewolves’ has an exciting premise. It’s intended as a night-time stroll, best carried out at full moon. Since full moon only happens once a month, this required planning ahead. By the time Friday arrived the weather wasn’t looking good, but we’d made an arrangement and we would stick to it.

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Lela and I met up with Romi and Katharine in Firle’s Ram Inn. With darkening, gloomy skies, the place had a slight Slaughtered Lamb feel. This ambience was worsened by the creepy sticker in one of the parked vehicles. Who thinks that sort of thing is funny rather than disturbing?

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After a quick drink, we set off through Firle’s deserted high street and were soon in the countryside. A narrow path went up onto the ridge of the Downs, joining the South Downs way. Climbing up to the hilltop, rain whipping and bitter wind, it occurred that this walk is another that might be improved by waiting until later in the year. It was still fun to be wandering about in the countryside by torchlight. It reminded me of the days when I’d sneak out of school at night to explore.

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Given that it was raining, the moon was hidden behind clouds. Apparently the effect of moonlight on chalky downland paths is quite something, but we will have to take the guidebook’s word for it. The views were still pretty good, with the night-time world moving below us. And, of course, the i360 back in Brighton, for the first time a welcome sight, pin-pointing where we’d come from.

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Stunning view of Sussex

The walk was pretty tiring – a few points we weren’t sure if we had overshot the route and needed to check it on google maps. We did find the two stony humps said to be bishops who lost an argument with some witches.

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We didn’t see any werewolves, but there was a creepy moment when a car approached us on the muddy coach lane. We stepped to the sides and waited, and the car stopped and reversed away once more.

Another fun walk, and actually pretty tiring. I want to do more night-hiking!

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