Saturday, April 23, 2022

On a Heritage Trail

Last week I caught a cold (repeated negative LF tests) and anyone who has had a common cold recently will know that its symptoms are more severe and last longer than the average virus, courtesy of our immune systems having been protected for the past couple of years.  Consequently, I have mostly been haunting these four walls like a congested ghoul with lank hair, dark circles under my eyes, near constant fatigue and prone to the odd, unexpected sneezing fit apt to scare the living daylights out of anyone within a 10 metre radius.  

But let's not dwell on that.  Before I caught said cold, we took advantage of the Easter weekend sunshine to take some exercise - a seven mile circular walk taking in a stretch of the local canal.  

Easter Wreath spotted on our walk

Our starting point is Ridgehill Wood (just beyond the garden gate).  I've shared numerous photos of the woodland on here before (most recently back in November)... 

...but for this blog, we're going to keep our eyes down.  

Recently, the Black Country Living Museum launched a competition to coincide with its "Forging Ahead" development; a multi million pound expansion taking the museum's story into the 1940s, 50s and 60s.  As part of the development, a replica brickworks (loosely based on the Cricket Field Colliery in nearby Brockmoor) is being built and the museum is seeking stories from people who had associations with the brickmaking industry in the 20th century.  To help promote this drive, the "Black Country Brick Hunt" competition was launched, encouraging people to share their photos of any Black Country bricks they discover.  Given that Black Country bricks have been transported and used worldwide, this could get interesting.  The competition details can be found here:  

The most interesting entry wins.

Our humble area of woodland is home to some Black Country bricks, forming a makeshift path along the Eastern boundary, which has been in place for as long as any of us can remember.  No one knows why for sure, but one theory is that the original owner of Lawnswood House (built circa 1813 and now The Roe Deer pub)... 

...instructed that the bricks be laid to enable a horse and cart to more easily navigate the muddy path through the wood, which also formed part of the estate, to transport timber for his woodland summer house.  First up, a Harris & Pearson brick.  This Stourbridge company's brick making origins date back to 1739 and its handsome 1888 built office frontage is just a mile or so up the road from us.

Another Stourbridge made brick with part of the name "Homer" visible.

Finally, a Utopia brick, which I believe would have been produced by the Aldridge Brick and Tile company closer to Vix in Walsall.

We headed down the local farm track towards Ashwood Marina.  How beautiful is this tree, shedding  blossom in its shadow to light the way?

A glimpse from the local Navigation Pub, of a stunning example of Victorian architecture owned by the Enville Estate (now mixed use premises), just a short walk away from the canal towpath.  

The aim was to walk to The Bratch, a local historic bridge and pumping station.  However, we hadn't accounted for the intensity of the heat that day and so soon abandoned that plan for fear of sun stroke.  Another time!

Canalside, the usual visiting and resident narrow boat permit holders were out in force and there was a distinct holiday atmosphere.  This boat, with its canine watchman, was pumping out Bob Marley and the Wailers...

A couple of boat signs caught my eye.  The first provided a succinct summary of the day's weather...

...and, at around the five mile mark, another made me quicken my pace towards home at the suggestion of a long, cold beverage.

Bow to stern with its posh cousins, was this trippy narrowboat, its abstract green and yellow street art style paint job blending perfectly with the dandelions.  

Passing the mobile home site at nearby Hinksford, call it a sixth sense if you will, but we detected some tension between the residents and the local fishing community....

On the lanes around Greensforge, I was able to capture a sure sign of spring...

and indulged in an impromptu spot of brand content creation to promote wild elopements photography.  

Since my last blog and closer to home, we've had some spectacular cloud formations (viewed from the top of the house)...

...dancing gnats (a good indicator of warm weather ahead)...

...tulips blooming

...and a pond full of tadpoles!

Plus, cold or not, I still managed to bag a couple of preloved beauties for my clothes rail.

This Hush top would have retailed for £69.00.  I had change from £3.00!

On a vintage rail in a local Antiques Centre, I also spotted this Indian cotton dress lurking amongst a sea of man made fabrics.  

It's lived a life in that it has a little sun bleaching across the tops of the shoulders, but that is barely noticeable when its on and after a little negotiation, I was happy with a £7.00 price tag for a dress that's no doubt visited some pretty exotic locations in its time.  Unique, sustainable and with decades of untold stories hidden within its fabric.  Just perfect!

See you soon!

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Run Away With Me

 Our tale begins with a pair of runaways who needed no one's approval, only each other.  

They ran to their favourite woodland glade, close to the beating heart of England, and tried in vain to stop their own hearts racing... they awaited the arrival of the only other person in possession of their secret.

And she would perform a rite, 

as they delivered their handwritten promises to each other, crafted from a commitment that will anchor them both like the roots of the trees that bore witness.  

Emotions ran high...

...feelings deep.  

A kiss to the applause of rustling leaves.

No plaudits or speeches; just a seating plan for two...

...and the freedom to delight in the most special of days,

to walk and talk without obligation to, or distraction from others, to drink in the atmosphere only nature's church can provide....

...and perhaps a little wine.

No outfit change, just his jacket around her shoulders to keep out the chill,

a view enjoyed with thoughts of a future unfolding....

....and the long walk home, wherever that may be.

 The End

With thanks to Jazz and Mark and Sharon Gordon Celebrant (Wild at Heart Ceremonies)

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? A Midlands Mystery

In the closing part of my last blog (read it here: Winter Peach Photography: Horticulture, History and a Hint of Intrigue ) you may recall glimpsing an infamous local landmark.

This is the Hagley Obelisk or Hagley Monument on Wychbury Hill (also referred to as the Wychbury Obelisk/Monument).  A needle pointing skywards, the monument is Grade II listed and stands approximately 84 feet (26 metres) high.  There are extensive views from Wychbury Hill and the hill (if not the monument) can be seen from the Malverns.

The monument was commissioned by Sir Richard Lyttelton, son of Sir Thomas Lyttelton (owner of Hagley Hall) in 1758 as a real eye catcher of a family memorial.  At around the same time, Sir Richard was busy landscaping Hagley Park in the new picturesque style and commissioning follies to complement the Hall's surroundings.

Hagley Hall

To me, the monument simultaneously has associations with halcyon days and the kind of darkness to infiltrate dreams.  I have vivid childhood memories of sledging in thick snow from the top of Wychbury Hill.  It's not for the faint hearted and no sledging experience before or since has lived up to the thrill of speeding down this hill.

The darkly fascinating association is best expressed through a question sure to send shivers down the spine of any local resident:  Who Put Bella In the Witch Elm?

Our story starts almost 79 years ago to the day, on 18th April 1943, when four local bird nesting boys, trespassing in Hagley Wood, spotted a huge Wych Elm.  Thinking it a likely good spot for birds' nests, one boy climbed the tree and peered down into the Wych Elm's hollow trunk...not too dissimilar to this one, photographed last week at Harvington Hall.  

Once part of an Elm avenue at Harvington Hall

It was there his eyes settled upon a skull nestled inside.  Initially the boy thought it was an animal skull, but soon spotted tufts of human hair and teeth.  Understandably unsettled and worried that their trespassing would be revealed, the boys vowed to keep quiet.  However, one was so frightened by the discovery, he confided in his parents and a police investigation began.

As the elm was split, inside, the best part of a female human skeleton (approximately 5 ft tall), was recovered, along with a shoe and fragments of clothing (including taffeta stuffed inside the poor woman's mouth).  Close by another discovery; a gold wedding ring on the skeletal remains of her hand.  It was established that the woman had been dead for approximately 18 months, placing the period of death at around October 1941.  Forensics agreed that her body would have been placed inside the tree "still warm" as it would have been impossible to conceal a body in this manner once rigor mortis had set in.

Many people were reported missing during the second world war and even more moved around with some frequency.  This made the Police Force's ability to trace and identify the 35 year old victim near impossible.  Even her distinctive dental records, though widely circulated, failed to bring any answers.

Approximately one year later, graffiti appeared on a wall in Upper Dean Street in Birmingham.  It read: "Who Put Luebella in the Wych Elm - Hagley Wood?"  Similar graffiti appeared subsequently in Hasbury and at other locations scattered across the region, including, since at least the 1970s, on Wychbury Monument. All messages were apparently written in the same hand, seemingly referencing the same individual.  Over time, "Luebella" (a gypsy name derived from Bluebell) became "Belladonna", eventually settling with "Bella".

Hagley Wood trees

There are a number of compelling theories, though almost all have been disproved.   There's the witchcraft theory, largely resulting from the fact that Bella's hand was found outside of the tree as though deliberately severed (animal interference is in fact the most likely explanation here).  Wychbury Hill is also the site of Wychbury Ring, an Iron Age hill fort.  Local folklore hints at an ancient shrine or henge. A ley line runs through Wychbury Hill - purportedly to Stone Henge - and there is anecdotal evidence of pagan and satanic worship in the area stretching to Clent Hills.  

The Four Stones, Clent, commissioned by the Lytteltons at the same time as Wychbury Obelisk.

There are intriguing stories of World War II espionage in the area; of German spies parachuting in, including a female former German cabaret singer whose speciality was a Birmingham accent.  A particularly disturbing story was relayed via a formal statement issued to the police by a local woman, who claimed her husband bore witness to the murder of a Dutch woman after a late night drinking session with the victim and her boyfriend.  He was so haunted by the vision of a woman's face peering out from a tree, that he lost his sanity and was admitted to a mental hospital for this traumatic recurring dream.  He died before Bella was discovered.  However, as compelling as some of these stories are (and much has been written on this case), there is definitive proof or persuasive evidence sufficient to discount them.

Wherever the truth lies, the killer or the killer's accomplice, must have had local knowledge.  It's simply not plausible that the discovery of a tree like the Wych Elm, sufficiently tall and hollow enough to conceal a body not yet cold, was merely chance.

Another theory points to the Gypsy communities that frequented the area in the 1940s.  Curiously, the body was actually found in an area of woodland closer to Clent Hills than to Wychbury Obelisk, off a lane almost opposite a pub now known as The Badgers Set (purportedly haunted by Bella).  Growing up, my Dad always used to refer to this pub by its former name, The Gypsy's Tent.

Perhaps Bella's poor clothing, crooked teeth and the failure of anyone to come forward and report the woman missing, could be attributed to the traveller community, who live outside of society's usual parameters...?

Inexplicably, the historic graffiti adorning the Wychbury Obelisk, was slightly altered in 2020.  It now reads: "Hers put Bella in the Witch Elm."

The mystery has never been solved, although Bella's likeness can now be revealed, courtesy of work undertaken in 2018 by  Dr Caroline Wilkinson, forensic anthropologist and Director of the Faces Lab at Liverpool John Moores University.  Introducing Bella.  Out of shot is her wavy brown hair, but her distinctive crooked teeth are plain to see.  In yet another twist, Caroline worked only from original case photos of the skull because at some point in the intervening years, Bella's skeletal remains mysteriously vanished!

Much of this story has been verbally relayed to me over the years, a chilling tale reserved for late night car rides and and camping trips.  Unsurprisingly, a number of books have been published on the mystery.  For opera lovers, there is a composition by Simon Holt, inspired by paranormal activity attributed to Bella at the aforementioned Gypsy's Tent pub.  I can also thoroughly recommend the documentary "Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm - The Untold Secrets" a riveting 50 minute watch directed by Jayne Harris (99p for Amazon Prime members) with a hint of more to come on this story...

Watch Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm? - The Untold Secrets | Prime Video (

Inspired by our weekend walk through the twisted trees of Hagley Wood, over carpets of Wood Anemones (I squealed like Ann when I saw them) and up to the monument (it had been many many years since my last visit), I'll leave you with these words and photos.

Luebella, your last breath warm,

Sleeping upright in deadly nightshade,

Drifting on Spring's breeze

like the horse that carried you,

A soul ill at ease.

Belladonna, in Wych Elm's embrace,

Wood Anemone stars twinkle for you

Under two April moons;

An inconvenient secret,

Caught, concealed, cocooned.

Bella, What gives? A band of thieves, that band of gold?

What binds your silken tongue...

Permanently tied?

Though still, you've set in motion,

Wheels to recover your pride.

The wood that held you steady, split, your spirit freed. 

Keen eyes, guilty loose lips

Someone will have told,

Restless still, but rest assured

Bluebell's secret will unfold.

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