Monday, 24 November 2008
The hills are alive
There's nothing quite like a trip with a twist: an unexpected sight, an unplanned detour, maybe even getting lost... for a little while.
(I adore getting "lost" on a trip, although I rarely succeed, much to my chagrin; and unless you are in the Amazonian jungle, or the Sahara, or something like that, it's not really dangerous.)
Only, it's usually the sightseers who stray - not the sights themselves.
And yet, just that apparently happened to an English couple, Mr and Mrs Allan (the names are not real), in the 1950s.
(EDIT: About their identity see the update here.)
This story - for some reason, one of my favourite time slip stories - is described in H. Brennan's book Time Travel: A New Perspective (p. 63), and he got it from Colin Wilson (Beyond the Occult, 1989).
Please note that, at this time, I do not have direct access to Wilson's work, so I will have to rely on Brennan's account. I am also drawing on a very lucid little article, written by Alan Murdie (scroll down to the section called "Time slips").
According to these sources, in 1954 - in the days of yore when not everyone had a car - Mr and Mrs Allan went on a day trip to the countryside.
I don't know where they were originally headed to, but apparently they missed their bus stop and found themselves in the village of Wotton instead. (N.B. Brennan calls the village "Wotton Hatch". But according to the holy internet - which is not always right, I know -, there is only a pub by that name in Britain; the village itself is called simply Wotton.)
As any true traveller, they decided to seize the day and make the most of this unexpected detour. So they headed for the family church of John Evelyn, to do some sightseeing.
When they came out of the church and crossed the churchyard, they saw an overgrown path leading onto a hill nearby. The Allans let themselves be lured by it and followed the path, which led them to a clearing, with a simple wooden bench on it. From there, Brennan reports, there was "an excellent view of the valley".
What better place to eat the sandwiches they had brought with them?
So they sat, ate and watched, ate some more, watched some more.
At some point during this improvised lunch al fresco, something extraordinarily odd is said to have happened to them.
A sudden silence descended upon the place, and, according to Brennan, Mrs Allan "became utterly convinced that three men had entered the clearing behind them. She could see them so clearly in her mind's eye that she was able to note one was wearing clerical garb. But when she tried to turn around, she found she was paralyzed." (N.B. A later mention in Brennan's book also tells of a reported "drop in temperature" they both felt.)
After a few moments "the feeling passed and the Allans left the clearing in a thoroughly disoriented state". (For more details, be sure to consult Murdie's article.)
The account of the first visit ends here.
But two years later, in 1956, Mrs Allan returned to Wotton. She revisited the church, but she couldn't find the path that had led them up the hill during their first visit.
Even more extraordinarily, the hill itself was not there anymore.
I can easily imagine the animated conversation that ensued when Mrs Allan returned home and told her husband about it... Unsurprisingly, Mr Allan decided to revisit the area himself - only to find that his wife had been telling the truth. The path, the hill, the bench were nowhere to be seen; furthermore, he was told that there was no "wooden seat" anywhere on church grounds.
Twenty years later the Allans, or somebody on their behalf, must have reported this oddity to the Society for Psychical Research, because it apparently investigated the case (in 1974).
It turned out - so the book reports - there never had been a hill there.
But, eerily, the Society did find a 17th century record - an entry (March 15th, 1696) in John Evelyn's diary - of three convicts having been executed on the approximate spot where the "hill" had stood - and one of them had been a clergyman.
Brennan concludes, quite endearingly, that "no spirits of the departed, no natural tape recordings can produce a hill for you to climb and a seat for you to sit on. Only a time slip can account for that".
Indeed... provided there was a hill there at any point in time.
But according to the reports, nobody knew of a hill having been there at any time.
(It is possible, of course, to remove hills. However, it seems highly unlikely that such a huge undertaking would not have been recorded.)
But was the area really as "flat" as that?
Here's how Brennan describes the findings regarding the area: "Nowhere in the area bore any resemblance to the hill, clearing and bench the Allans described."
And now consider this passage from a description of Wotton, including the church of St. John the Evangelist (Evelyn's church), and its surroundings (published in 1911):
The church of ST. JOHN THE EVANGELIST /.../ is most beautifully situated on the summit of a steep ridge, its east and south sides overlooking a beautiful green valley and the hillside opposite/.../. In the hollow behind this hill, to the south east, lies Wotton House. The churchyard is surrounded by noble trees—here, again, in some cases, of Evelyn's planting. /.../
The traveller, on foot or horseback (the road is not one for wheels), passing from the chalk country sees in front of him an ascending mass of broken sand hills /.../. Leaving Wotton House on the right a bridle road /.../ leads up the valley where John Evelyn first began the ornamental planting of his brother's grounds. /.../. Passing on by another hamlet, King George's Hill, so named from a now extinct public-house, the path leads out on to the heather-covered common of Leith Hill. A view opens gradually to the west, as the ground ascends, but it is not till the traveller reaches the southern brow of the hill that the panorama bursts suddenly upon him. The summit of Leith Hill is the highest spot in the south-east of England, 967 ft. above the sea.
Being far too far from Wotton - Hatch and all - to inspect the area in person, I decided to "investigate" the surroundings of Saint John's church in Wotton by means of old photographs, drawing and prints available on the internet.
Here is a series of old prints depicting the church and the surroundings. There is no hill in sight - although rarely is the angle wide enough to really provide a good idea of the surroundings. (In other words, there might have been a hill at the time of the artist's work, but it isn't visible on any of the prints.)
However, this photo (1919) seems to have been taken from a (low) hill. (It could have been taken from a building, but I don't think there are any on this particular spot.) The church is nearby, so this could have been the hill the Allans visited, or thought they did, although it doesn't seem to offer a particularly "excellent view of the valley".
Did the Allans confuse the place with some other?
Anything is possible, of course, but it seems extremely unlikely, considering that, between the two of them, they visited Wotton and the church on at least three occasions.
Were they lying?
Again, anything is possible - but it doesn't sound like it.
(Who, pray, would invent a story like that?)
Besides, I doubt that the Society for Psychical Research, as kooky as it may appear to so called "skeptics", would neglect that possibility and fail to first investigate the credibility of the story (and of the Allans themselves, I hope).
Unless, of course, the Allans did visit Wotton Hatch, after all.
We all know what mighty spirits abide in bottles... :)
(Yes, of course I am kidding.)
For the record, I tend to believe this story really happened as the Allans told it.
I just don't know - I suspect nobody does - what exactly happened.
For a tentative explanation I will refer you once again to Murdie's article.
What do you think happened?