Essex

Colchester and Mistley: “Wicked Spirits” and Old Knobbley

Another week, another witchy post! I’ve been wanting to see “Wicked Spirits? Witchcraft + Magic at Colchester Castle” since it opened back in July, so we rented a car a couple of weeks ago to make it happen. Whilst there (since Essex is a pretty significant drive from SW London), we also stopped by a couple more sites relating to the incredibly evil Matthew Hopkins and some of his victims. Essex has the dubious honour of being the county with the most witchcraft trials and executions in Britain, largely due to the zealousness of Hopkins, the self-styled “Witchfinder General,” who was responsible for the deaths of at least one hundred people, and possibly as many as three hundred, all in just a short two-year period.

 

We hadn’t been to Colchester Castle before, and we were pleasantly surprised to find it in the middle of a large park with lots of beautiful flowerbeds, including a rose garden containing a memorial to the victims of the witch trials. The Castle itself costs £11.25 to enter, which includes the exhibition. The museum is mainly about the Roman history of the area (“chester” in a British place name is usually a clue to Roman origins) through to the medieval period, with a small display in the dungeons about the Castle being used as a jail in the early modern era by that awful Matthew Hopkins. There is even a shadowy video projection with accompanying audio in one of the cells showing a teenage girl who was accused of witchcraft and was forced to implicate other witches, including her own mother, to save herself. It’s a horrible story, and listening to her sobbing and pleading was actually quite distressing.

The witchcraft exhibition was fairly small, but had been done in conjunction with the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, so had the quality of interpretation I would expect. It provided some background to the Essex witch trials (most of which were held during the turmoil of the English Civil War) and highlighted a few of the victims, including the very sad case of the unfortunately nicknamed “Dummy”, an elderly deaf and mute man who was accused of witchcraft in 1863(!) by the incredibly nasty-sounding Emma Smith, who decided to do her own “ordeal by water” on him by throwing him in a nearby freezing river with the help of her equally unpleasant friend Samuel Stammers, and beating him with sticks. He later died of pneumonia brought on by this trauma and Smith and Stammers were sentenced to six months of hard labour as a result, which doesn’t really feel like enough punishment.

On a less-depressing note, the exhibition also included impressive paper cuts showing different superstitions as well as cases full of items traditionally used in magical practices, like a mummified cat and some very cool witch bottles. Had to include a photo of the magpies too, since I love them so much!

But back to the depressing stuff, because that is the nature of early modern witchcraft (or at least of the witch trials), there was a list of names of everyone who died in Essex as a result of being accused of witchcraft, mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries, but as we have seen, one poor man in the 19th century as well, which filled an entire side of a display case in not terribly large writing. There were also displays of the torture implements used to extract confessions – the use of most of these was not legal by Matthew Hopkins’s time, but that didn’t stop him from using other methods, such as sleep deprivation, to get the confessions he needed.

After the rather heavy subject matter, I was almost ridiculously pleased to see the fun display of witchy merchandise in the shop, which I absolutely cannot resist. I ended up getting a moon-adorned travel cup and a postcard of Matthew Hopkins and some demons (though obviously he’s the only real demon).

 

We didn’t linger in Colchester, since we knew we had a long drive home and we definitely wanted to visit Old Knobbley before we went. There is a three mile “Walking with Witches” walk from the village of Manningtree (Hopkins’s base, so not a good place to be living in the mid-1600s) to Mistley that you can do if you’re so inclined, which includes QR codes to scan in order to view online art pieces, but we were feeling a bit too lazy for that, so we headed directly to the Village Hall carpark in Mistley to see the sites we were most excited about, namely Old Knobbley. Old Knobbley is a lovely eight hundred year old oak tree that may have sheltered some of the accused “witches” as they hid out in the woods from Hopkins and his gang. If you wander through the trails at the back of the playing field, you’ll encounter him eventually – everything we saw online said you’ll know him when you see him, and that is indeed the case, as he is the biggest and knobbliest one. There is also a pond nearby that is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Matthew Hopkins in full witch-hunting regalia, and I am glad to say we didn’t see him, as I probably would have crapped my pants, but I did get spooky vibes down there, and also tripped over and twisted my ankle a bit, which I’m totally blaming Hopkins for (I would DEFINITELY have been one of his targets). If you do the full walk, you can see the pub in Manningtree where Hopkins was meant to have plotted against his victims, as well as a bridge where the accused were thrown for their “swimming trials” (i.e. drowning, since they were tied to a chair), in addition to a few other sites.

There are plenty more witch-related sites to see in this area, because it was such a prominent and dark part of Essex’s history, but this was all we had time for on a day trip in order to get back home at a reasonable hour. The countryside bits of Essex are surprisingly lovely (I spent a month in Romford back in 2008, shortly before I officially moved to London, which is…not so much), so I’d definitely like to come back and explore more, especially with all the autumnal colour out. The exhibition at Colchester Castle runs until 6th January, so there’s still time to see it if you’re interested, and make sure you visit Old Knobbley too – he’s worth the trip!

Essex: Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker

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Although I was disappointed in the Postal Museum Store, the drive to Essex wasn’t a total waste, as we also had plans to visit the Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker.  I’ve had it on my list of places to visit for a while, though I was slightly more enticed by the thought of Merlincock Wood (made even funnier if you’ve actually seen that terrible Merlin show on the BBC.  We used to have an old TV that could only pick up BBC1 and Channel 4, so I’ve been forced to watch an entire series, a depressing number of hours I can never get back.), a nearby forest, than perhaps the bunker itself.  In any event, while we never found Merlincock Wood (though I shudder to think what kind of visitors I’m going to bring to my blog by even typing that name), we did find the bunker, albeit with some difficulty. Since it was a secret bunker, it stands to reason that it would of course be hidden away, which it was.  We had to loop around a narrow country road a few times to even locate the parking lot, which was at the end of a long dirt road past a field that looked as though it might have been full of land mines (probably just normal seeds though).  Upon parking, we realised that the bunker was a cash-only affair, so we then had to drive for half an hour to locate a cash machine (Kelvedon Hatch is sort of in the middle of nowhere), so don’t get caught out if you decide to visit.

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Cash located, we made the lengthy trek back to the bunker, and I was frankly thinking at this point that the bunker had better be pretty damn amazing to make up for all the inconvenience.  My first impressions were not great.  It shares a parking lot (and cafe) with some sort of military themed playground, where swarms of bratty children hung from ropes whilst screeching like banshees.  The bunker itself was not especially encouraging either.  The front of it was plastered with stern signage, outlining the many rules of the bunker (no pictures of the interior for one, unless you wanted to purchase a £5 “licence,” hence, although there were many cool things to take pictures of, all the ones in this post will be of the rather boring exterior).  The whole thing operated on an honour system, so there was no admissions desk, rather, you helped yourself to an audio headset and were told to pay at the end of the tour. I have to admit, I tend to steer clear of places that I imagine will be rife with hardcore conspiracy theorist types, and the bunker hadn’t done anything so far to dispel my preconceptions.  We were the only people there, and I was a little apprehensive about entering the dodgy looking tunnel, but as the sign at the threshold informed us there was no turning back at that point (without having to pay, anyway), we were already in too deep.

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Like the vast majority of audio tours, this one was also long-winded, but there were signs up with the same information that was given in the audio tour (in some cases, word-for-word), so you didn’t necessarily have to listen to it.  It actually got pretty annoying, as the narrator kept repeating the same phrases.  For example, he told us how “the likes of you and I” would be kept out of the tunnel at gunpoint about five times.  The vast majority of information was about the operation of the bunker, rather than why or how it was built.  I mean, obviously it was a Cold War construction, but there wasn’t much background provided.  Nonetheless, once we left the opening tunnel (there to protect the bunker against the blast), and entered the bunker proper, things picked up quite a bit.

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The bunker promised “extremely realistic” wax models, and whilst I’d perhaps quibble on the realism, they certainly delivered an impressive array of wax figures, including ones of Margaret Thatcher and John Major (we actually visited the week before Thatcher died, so it would be interesting to see if they had changed anything as a result, though I don’t see why they would have, as the figures were there to represent the Prime Ministers who would have used the bunker).  The bunker was vast, far bigger than I would have thought, and all the communications rooms had clacking machines running, so it was surprisingly lively in there – a nice change from the funereal mood of the entrance.  They had ’50s and ’60s era nuclear preparation films playing in a few of the rooms, and I love that kind of atomic kitsch, so we of course stopped to watch. You’ll be glad to know that I now know how to create a shelter within my home, assuming I can lay my hands on a couple of old doors and a hell of a lot of sand, and have time to do some frenzied construction.

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I’m kind of a Where’s Waldo (or, sigh, Wally, though that just sounds wrong to me) in this one.

You’re allowed to tramp through most of the former bunker, and the tour takes you through various communications rooms, bedrooms and dormitories, and the actual workings of the bunker, including the air filtration system, with wax figures to demonstrate the use of the rooms throughout.  The emphasis seemed to be strongly on how the majority of the population would suffer under a nuclear attack, with less on how life in the bunker would actually unfold, though there was some of that; it was just repetitive, and only dwelt on certain aspects of the bunker.  I think I wanted to know more about the realities of day-to-day living in the bunker, rather than the mechanics of its operation; the audio guide was most keen on me learning things like how the radios would have worked, and that I probably would have died, or at the very least, turned into some sort of disfigured mutant.

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Near the end, there was an area where you could dress up and pose for pictures, however, the £5 picture surcharge still applied, unless you wanted to spend £2 to use their ancient camera, which scarcely looked functional.  As they didn’t even have the promised gas masks, I skipped it.  Now, this is really what annoyed me about the place: throughout the bunker, we were constantly reminded by various signs that we were on CCTV, and someone was watching us, which for a sort of anti-establishment styled attraction, felt like a creepy amount of surveillance.  But, when we actually reached the exit, the only people working there were a couple of men washing dishes in the cafe.  The entire payment system was through an honesty box, and whilst we were of course honest, and paid the full admission charge, I’m sure there are plenty who don’t.  It seems like they try to scare people from taking pictures with warnings of their weird surcharge, but in the end, no one actually cared about enforcing anything, which was irritating.  Even the items for sale in the gift shop were to be paid for through the honesty box (which I guess is why they require you to have cash), but the whole setup was just bizarre.  I think it would be much better if they had a normal admissions desk up front, or else just had visitors enter through the canteen, instead of trying to freak people out with off-putting signs.

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Payment system aside, I did enjoy the bunker more than I expected, so I’ll give it a 3/5.  I think there are some definite issues they need to work on, in regard to the audio tour and admissions, but I wasn’t unhappy with the overall experience, and we easily killed a couple of hours there.  Besides, emerging unscathed from what looked at the outset to be some kind of freaky torture bunker made me unusually grateful for the weak British sunlight outside.

Essex: British Postal Museum Store Open Day

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A few Saturdays ago, I read that the British Postal Museum Store in Debden was having an open day, and although my interest in pillar boxes was next to non-existent, I thought it would be something to write about for this blog, so away we went!  Firstly, you should know that this is a “store” in the British sense, not in the American one.  Foolishly (I should really know better by now), I had imagined it would be a museum with a nice little shop attached, where one could perhaps purchase postal memorabilia.  In reality, it was simply a “store” in that it is a warehouse where the Post Office stores its miscellany.  I don’t even think they had postcards for sale (which is a huge missed opportunity, who wouldn’t want to post something from an historic letter box?).

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What they did have, however, was a rather large collection of pillar boxes and mail trucks, amongst other things.  The Postal Museum Store isn’t generally open to the public, although they say you can call to arrange a private tour, but they do have four open days each year, where admission is free, and they have various activities lined up (and supposed refreshments, but all I saw were cups of watery looking orange squash, though people were clearly getting bourbon biscuits from somewhere). The Museum Store is located in an unassuming warehouse in the middle of a vast industrial estate, so we had some trouble finding it.  As we’d left it until mid-afternoon, we’d already missed the two-hour tours that were being offered, so just poked around on our own. (Honestly, it was not big enough in there for me to see what possibly could have held my attention for two hours, though I’ve no doubt the tour was very detailed and informative.)

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I feel as though I’m struggling to come up with something to say about the Postal Museum Store.  As it is, in essence, a warehouse for all the bits and bobs that haven’t found a home elsewhere, it wasn’t terribly well organised.  I mean, sure, things were lumped together by type, but there was one section that was full of random desks and cabinets with little explanation of how they came to be there.  Although there was a whole lineup of pillar boxes, only a few of them had tags that actually explained what they were; the vast majority had merely been assigned a number, which meant little to me, as I am no connoisseur of letter boxes.  I wanted to see dates and captions on everything, as you would in a museum, and that was just not what this place was about, so it was ultimately kind of a disappointment to me.

Self service postage machine from the early 2000s.  Oh, how I wish these we still in general use, as going to the post office is one of my most hated chores.

Self service postage machine from the early 2000s. Oh, how I wish these were still in general use, as going to the post office is one of my most hated chores.

However, whilst we were there, a man approached us with a survey about the possibility of creating a Postal Museum in London, to which I gave my full, enthusiastic support, because I think an actual, well-organised museum would be awesome!  Quite frankly, I’m not sure why there’s not one already, as we all know that the British basically created the modern postal service. The best thing about a museum in London would be the potential to utilise the old postal tunnels, which still run beneath the city, as their use was only discontinued in 2003.  They even had wee little trains running on them, which the survey man said they could possibly open for rides, which would make the museum doubly amazing.  It’ll probably all end up falling through though, as do most things I think are good ideas.

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I think the Postal Museum Store as it exists is probably best for die-hard fans of letter boxes, and people who actually work for Royal Mail, as the lack of signage presumed a level of knowledge about the postal system that the average person simply doesn’t possess.  Some of the Victorian era pillar boxes were certainly handsome, and the informational posters about the previously mentioned postal tunnels were intriguing, but most of the rest of it went right over my head.  Without appropriate explanation, it was more like wandering through the eccentric collections of some man who really loved letter boxes, rather than a proper museum (guess we maybe should have taken that two hour tour after all…).

I had the Postman Pat song stuck in my head for the rest of the afternoon, which is unfortunate since I only know the part about Postman Pat and his black and white cat, so was forced to fill in the gaps with bits of the Ramones "Beat on the Brat." At least it rhymed...

I had the Postman Pat song stuck in my head for the rest of the afternoon, which is unfortunate since I only know the part about Postman Pat and his black and white cat, so was forced to fill in the gaps with bits of the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat.” At least it rhymed…

I’m going to give it a 1/5, which maybe isn’t entirely fair of me, since it isn’t a museum, and wasn’t trying to be, but I didn’t enjoy it very much, and it is my blog, after all.  If they do open an actual museum (they have archives in London already, but I believe their actual exhibition space is quite small, and again, access is limited), I’d be keen to see it, because I think there is a lot of potential there.  Britain has a rich postal history, and it would be nice if it could be properly showcased somewhere.  Until then, I’ll leave the Postal Museum Store to the likes of Letter Box Society, and other true fans.