Saturday, April 23, 2022
Tuesday, April 12, 2022
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...
...as 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...
A kiss to the applause of rustling leaves.
No plaudits or speeches; just a seating plan for two...
Thursday, April 7, 2022
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.
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...
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...
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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