Decamot of the month

30 Jun 2018-Force Majeure

Decamot inspired by the following items: javelin, policeman, universe, belt, Jack, forest, flag, skipping rope, Harrogate, river

On the 4th June 2018, BBC Midlands Today led its morning bulletin with the headline


The newsreader who presented it from the BBC’s regional studio in Birmingham was Mary Rhodes, an experienced broadcaster whose career had already included national recognition following a spell based at Broadcasting House in London, specialising in sport. Her tone was light but infused with a serious tone befitting an important local news item

“In a freak electrical storm lasting only ten minutes, forked lighting struck the medieval church tower of St Michael and all Angels at Appleby Magna in Swadlincote in the early hours with such force that it was deflected via two other landmarks before opening up a large crater. We can go live to the BBC’s Carolyn Armsby, who is talking to local residents at the scene”

“Thank you, Mary,” said Carolyn, standing on the edge of the crater, microphone in hand, “I am in Church Street at its junction with Mawby’s Lane. The crater measures about 20 square metres and is up to 3 metres deep in places. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I’m joined by three local residents who all live within walking distance of this junction who saw a flashing blue light appear from nowhere out of the sky

“It’s a miracle that no one was injured” said the Rev. Sue Bradley, who witnessed this spectacular act of nature from the relative safety of the rectory. “All I can say” she added with a chuckle “the lord moves in mysterious ways!”

“He certainly does” said Mabel Hawkins, a fellow resident known affectionally to her friends as “Morbid Mabel” for her somewhat eccentric utterances “He spared the Crown Inn which is only 50 metres away!”

“Oh, come on Mabel” said David Morris, the third interviewee, “There’s nothing wrong with the Crown that a lick of paint wouldn’t improve – let’s hope our Lord is saving his best work for the Black Horse at the other end of Mawby’s Lane – since it went all la de da and gastro like, locals like me can’t afford to drink there anymore”

Although Carolyn Armsby tried her best to stick to the story, Mabel Hawkins was not going to be silenced so easily and continued her diatribe... .

“All we need now is for Dr Quatermass to come crawling out of that pit and we will have the whole World and his wife descending upon us” she grumbled, keen as ever to preserve her part of rural England for fully paid up local residents only.

“Now you really are showing your age Mabel – I doubt if this young reporter has ever heard of Quatermass have you Carolyn?” said Jacob Jones who suddenly appeared from nowhere but thought he sensed a good story developing.

Caught slightly off guard by this reference to the classic fifties BBC science fiction series, Carolyn wound up the item by handing back to her colleague in the studio with a cheery “this is Carolyn Armsby for the BBC at the newly created Quatermass pit at Appleby Magna, Swadlincote, in the county of Leicestershire”

Mary Rhodes laughed as she immediately switched viewers’ attention to a sports news item which featured a visit to a local school in Tamworth by the former Olympic javelin champion, Tessa Sanderson.

Meanwhile, back in Appleby Magna, discourse among residents was becoming more animated as they realised that the crater was going to be there for some time causing major disruption to normal traffic as Leicestershire County Council did not have the best of reputations for quick and efficient road repairs.

Matters were not helped by the arrival of Sergeant Jack Hamilton from Leicestershire Police Force, who had been sent to maintain order by his superiors, but who, unwittingly, managed to spark an acrimonious debate among the gathering villagers by taking one look into the crater and promptly declaring that “this giant hole in the middle of the road could easily be declared a site of historical interest!”

His innocent remark was met by an immediate response.

“Oh no, not again please Jack – we had enough trouble with the millennium dig when they built the Appleby Park Hotel by the motorway” said David Morris, recalling the two years of utter chaos it caused.

“They did at least uncover genuine Roman pottery plus coins from the late 4th century AD plus other historical relics which proved this was a thriving village back then. We even have three mentions in the Doomsday Book. And the school kids got a lot out of it at the time.”

The speaker was again Jacob Jones who operated his own PR business from an office in Tamworth. One of his clients at the time of the earlier dig had been the Appleby Park Hotel in question. He went on to advise McDonalds who opened a site at Junction 11 of the M42 which was less than a mile from the dig.

“It’s alright for you Jacob” said David Morris “You can spin any tale you want if you are paid enough; surely there are plenty of examples of Roman antiquities in the British Museum for kids to see without looking for yet more up and down the country.”

“I suppose David has a point” agreed Sue Bradley, “After all, we know for sure the Romans were here, Watling Street is only up the road as the crow flies”

The police officer who had innocently precipitated the debate smiled to himself.

Jack Hamilton never intended to become a policeman, but fate intervened, in more ways than anyone could possibly have predicted when he signed up for the Metropolitan Police Cadet Corps in Colindale at the age of sixteen.

He was born on a council estate in Nuneaton to hardworking parents with limited financial means so, rather than stay on after GCSE, he opted to join the special fast track residential police training school in North London as it offered bright students the ability to continue formal education and get paid for it.

At the end of the two-year training course, he knew he would have the opportunity to join a police force full time somewhere or, at the very least, use his qualifications to pursue a different career elsewhere. Like many young people at that time, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do for a living. If he had had a burning ambition, it was probably to be a modern day Indiana Jones. He was fascinated by archaeology.

It was a passion inspired by a school trip, as a six-year-old, to Mother Shipton’s cave and wishing well at Knaresborough near Harrogate. It was here he discovered that petrify meant turn into stone. He could not have anticipated the relevance of that single educational excursion as an impressionable kid, when he first peered into the newly created Quatermass pit.

Jacob Jones asked him to explain why he thought this was a suitable site for yet another archaeological excavation.

“Unless I am very much mistaken, that round decaying wooden object looks like part of a wheel from a medieval hand cart” he said pointing to the exposed outline of three wooden struts held together by a metal ring” Mabel Hawkins was not impressed

“Looks more like the top of a barrel of Watney’s Pale Ale from that wretched Crown Inn – best place for it buried six feet under in my view”

The BBC’s Carolyn Armsby and her camera man were busily packing up their equipment, but she sensed a possible story emerging from her early morning assignment so started listening in.

The television coverage had drawn a small but curious crowd of locals who were also listening to their neighbours beginning to debate the phenomenon.

Rev Sue Bradley added to the intrigue by declaring her interest in the subject.

“I didn’t know you were an expert on medieval arts and crafts Jack?” she said. “We must compare notes some time. I am compiling an ecclesiastical history of the Church which has been a site of religious devotion since antiquity. Did you know that a Roman temple occupied the site during the Roman occupation?”

“Is that so” said Jack as he erected a protective barrier around the crater, using blue and white striped tape normally seen at an official crime scene. “I must report this to the authorities as soon as possible, but I would be delighted to meet up sometime to discuss your work - it would obviously be in my private capacity” he said “not as a member of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, you understand”

“I wouldn’t mind making that a threesome” said Jacob Jones, “You never know, we might be able to use your combined knowledge to create an interest in visitors to come to our historic village instead of by passing it”

They all agreed that the A 444, the A.42 and especially the M.42 were effectively draining the lifeblood out of the village which might benefit from an infusion of fresh blood.

Mabel Hawkins and David Morris were not so sure.

Carolyn Armsby chipped in with “here’s my card Jacob – do keep the Beeb up to date – you never know what Dr Quatermass might turn up”


The first meeting of the three took place two weeks later at the vicarage with no particular agenda or even a plan to meet again. Little did they realise what momentous events were to flow from their amicable exchanges.

The Rev Sue Bradley proved to be an affable host with a happy knack of showing an interest in her colleagues’ lives whilst upholding her own position as an acknowledged ecclesiastical scholar. She had been ordained in 2004 on the 10th anniversary of the very first ordination of women within the Church of England on 12th March 1994. She was now in her early fifties. She was single and clearly something of a radical, but comfortable in her own skin and a genuine believer.

“So, Jack, what is the latest on The Quatermass Pit?” she said, having settled her two guests with a glass of sherry each “They think it will be a minimum 12th month dig” said Jack “but these things have a habit of dragging on as well you know. I think the wheel is attached to a wagon typical of those used in medieval pilgrimages, but it could be even earlier than that. Academics from Leicester University are very excited about the possibilities”

“What kind of pilgrimage? And why here?” said Jacob Jones, anxious as ever to explore the commercial possibilities. He had visions of thousands of visitors following in the footsteps of The Camino de Santiago in Spain, but he kept those thoughts to himself for the time being.

Sue Bradley immediately took up the narrative … “To go on a pilgrimage is a tradition in all religions. Human beings have through all times been searching for their origin, closeness to eternity, something that is holy for them. A place where the border between the earthly and the heavenly reality is thinner than any other place, a location that tells about the divine presence in the existence or a place that has a unique meaning in the life of individuals. Thus, the goal is the most important on a pilgrimage; the path is only a means for arriving at the place.”

“So, if we could establish that Appleby Magna stood at a unique crossroad – a place where Greek mythology, Roman gods and early Christianity came together, would that qualify as a holy place worth visiting?” asked Jacob Jones.

“Let’s not run away with ourselves by fantasizing, Jacob” said Sue Bradley with a laugh “You would need a lot more verifiable evidence, but you are definitely on the right lines. By the way Jack, how did you get into archaeology?”

“It’s a long story but I was taken as a small boy to Old Mother Shipton’s cave near Harrogate and was captivated by the natural process of petrification which is unique there. Do you know, it takes about four months for the mineral waters there to turn a soft toy into stone? It led me to read all sorts of stuff including Greek mythology and the legend of the Gorgon Medusa who had the face of a woman and poisonous snakes for hair and whose glance could turn men to stone.”

“So, who was Old Mother Shipton?” asked Jacob

“How long have you got?” said Jack with a smile

“No please go on” urged Sue Bradley as she poured another round of sherries “I am fascinated”

“As I recall” said Jack “Mother Shipton was born Ursula Sontheil in 1488, during the reign of Henry VII, father of Henry VIII. Although little is known about her parents, legend has it that she was born during a violent thunderstorm in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd in Knaresborough. Her mother, Agatha, was just fifteen years old when she gave birth, and despite being dragged before the local magistrate, she would not reveal who the father was.

With no family and no friends to support her, Agatha raised Ursula in the cave on her own for two years before the Abbott of Beverley took pity on them and a local family took Ursula in. Agatha was taken to a nunnery far away, where she died some years later. She never saw her daughter again.

Ursula grew up around Knaresborough. She was a strange child, both in looks and in nature. Her nose was large and crooked, her back bent and her legs twisted. Just like a witch

She was taunted and teased by the local people and so in time she learnt she was best off on her own. She spent most of her days around the cave where she was born. There she studied the forest, the flowers and herbs and made remedies and potions with them.

When she was twenty-four she met a young man by the name of Tobias Shipton. He was a carpenter from the city of York. Tobias died a few years later, before they had any children, but Ursula kept his name, Shipton. The Mother part followed later, when she was an old woman.

As well as making traditional remedies, Mother Shipton had another gift. She could predict the future. It started off with small premonitions but as she practiced she became more confident and her powers grew. Soon she was known as Knaresborough’s Prophetess, a witch. She made her living telling the future and warning those who asked of what was to come. After a long life, she died in 1561, aged 73.”

“She sounds something of an Italian La Befana character” said Sue Bradley

“La Befana?” chorused Jacob and Jack together “Who or what is she?”

“Well, again, it is bit of a long story but In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve in a similar way to St Nicholas or Santa Claus. It is an example of early Christians possibly taking existing pagan or Greek mythology and absorbing it into the new faith. In one version, Befana is said to have advised the magi where to find the baby Jesus but didn’t offer to show them as she was too busy cleaning her house with a broom. In another she actually met Jesus thinking he was her lost child and presented him with a gift of a toy. The infant Jesus was said to be so delighted, he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy. She is usually depicted as flying around on a broomstick.”

Jacob Jones imagination was now running riot – he had quickly looked up the website for Old Mothers Cave on his mobile phone. He saw that visitors had been paying entrance fees for the privilege of visiting the cave since the death of Old Mother Shipton in 1561. It was Britain’s oldest tourist attraction.

Jack Hamilton looked at his watch and realised that they had been chatting for more than three hours.

“I have to be back at the station in half an hour, but I would love to hear more about your own researches here in Appleby next time round if you can spare the time Sue. You mentioned that this was a Roman temple site originally and of course the church now incorporates St Helen’s chapel. I get the feeling that Quatermass’ s Pit is only scratching the surface!”

The Reverend Sue Bradley, vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Appleby Magna, in the diocese of Leicester, looked at Jack Hamilton and Jacob Jones and said, with a mischievous smile on her face.

“You might come to regret that, but yes, it would be a real pleasure to share my researches with you”

Jacob Jones was already formulating a PR strategy so bold in its concept that he couldn’t wait for the next meeting so that he could begin to drip feed “well known verifiable facts” into various media platforms, starting with a tip - off to Carolyn Armsby of the BBC which he passed on that very same evening.

But even Jacob Jones could not have imagined the sheer scope of the potential story evolving when Sue Bradley took up the narrative at their very next meeting.

“My father was a vicar, so I have always been immersed in theology. He appeared to lose his faith towards the end of his life, but I put that down to Alzheimer’s rather than anything more fundamental. Whatever advances we make in science – from Newton and Einstein to Darwin and Hawkins – we will always be left with the question of who or how or why did it all get started? If you prefer a parodied quote from Genesis, was man made in God’s image or was God made in man’s image? As a Christian, I naturally adhere firmly to the first point of view, but it doesn’t stop both sides engaging in the debate and using the same pieces of evidence as support for their point of view does it?”

By now Jacob Jones and Jack Hamilton were both completely captivated, but for very different reasons.

Jack had had a lifelong interest in all things ancient and modern, especially when artifacts are dug up after thousands of years by a completely different subsequent civilization.

Jacob, on the other hand, was eager to maximize the impact of the project. He was planning to feed tit bits of “truth” or “perceived wisdom” as he tended to euphemize them (“in confidence” you understand darling) to the various organs of media he had easy access to.

“As a female priest” continued Sue Bradley “I have always been interested in the early Celtic Church because they seemed keen to distance themselves from Rome and had a much more enlightened view on gender equality. I have also been fascinated by the challenge facing those early missionaries who arrived with the Romans. How did they set about converting the local populous? Adapting existing pagan rituals or Greek myths was one way but creating saints and appearing to offer cures for illnesses would be another”

“Isn’t that cheating?” said Jack “At the very least being economical with the truth?”

“I can see why you might say that, but these early Christians were total believers” said Sue Bradley “Their mission was to bring the uneducated to an understanding of how the Christian version of God works; even if some of the “facts” being presented could not be proved. They were simply a means to an end and if you had true faith, then the end justified the means.”

“So, if Jack is right about the medieval cart in the pit outside, why would an early Celtic missionary be on a pilgrimage that takes in Appleby Magna?” asked Jacob, his brain working overtime to create a viable storyline which just needed fleshing out with verifiable facts.

“I have been thinking about that myself” replied Sue “and the answer might be to do with the medicinal qualities of natural spas which were well known to the Romans. If a visit to a spa brought relief from pain or a cure for illness they would explain it as a genuine example of divine intervention”

“Let’s take three well known spa towns” said Jack Hamilton, his imagination now fully engaged in the possibilities “Bath, Buxton and Harrogate. Are you suggesting that a Celtic missionary could embark on a pilgrimage which took in all three locations?”

“I am saying it is a possibility” replied Sue “Take Saint Petroc, for example, who was Welsh by birth but taught in Ireland but worked mainly in the West Country. Petroc founded churches in Little Petherick and Bodmin and in many other parts of Britain, Wales and Brittany. He is said to have converted Constantine of Cornwall to Christianity by saving a deer Constantine was hunting. He became one of the patron saints of Cornwall and even has his own flag.”

“But did he go on a pilgrimage?” asked Jacob Jones, anxious to put flesh on his growing fantasy. He was already juggling catchy names for the round trip, SPAR-TICUS being an early contender.

“He certainly did” said Sue “He even went to Rome on one occasion – is that far enough for your purposes Jacob?” she added with a chuckle.

That evening, Jacob Jones worked out the feasibility of walking from Bath to Harrogate via Appleby Magna and Buxton using Google Maps. He concluded that it might have been broken into the following segments which he shared with his two colleagues at their very next meeting: -

Bath to Appleby 109 miles 36 hours Appleby to Buxton 48 miles 16 hours Buxton to Harrogate 65 miles 22 hours

He didn’t tell them that he had already dropped a few hints to Carolyn Armsby at the BBC, as well as sharing some thoughts with his friends on Facebook. He felt that, on a need to know basis his fellow historians didn’t need to know .... yet.

Jack Hamilton started the next meeting with another revelation which Jacob Jones could hardly believe, but which only brought another quiet smile from The Rev Sue Bradley.

“I am sure you will get to it Sue, but I have been looking at the history of Appleby Magna. There has been a settlement here since the early Neolithic period, 6,000 years ago. The name Appleby is derived from Apa, meaning water or stream”

“Yes, I know” responded Sue with obvious pride, “It was one of the things about this particular parish that attracted me when I was looking for a suitable ministry. It has never grown beyond 1000 inhabitants even in its hay day as one of the largest and most prosperous villages in Leicestershire.”

“And did you know, that Joyce de Appleby became a Protestant martyr after she was burnt at the stake by 'Bloody Mary' in Lichfield Market Place, for not converting to Catholicism. St Helen’s Chapel used to be the De Appleby’s private chapel”

“Wow!” said Jacob Jones, hardly able to contain his excitement at the thought of SPAR-TICUS guided tours, the annual SPAR-TICUS marathon, SPAR-TICUS events in every village and town en route to raise money for charities of all descriptions, SPAR-TICUS branding on merchandising ….

“So, Sue, the connection to water and pilgrimages begins to look like a viable theory?” he said finding it hard to avoid salivating.

“It is only a theory” she replied, “but it has a credible thread to it don’t you agree Jack?”

“Judging by the numbers of people turning up to peer into the pit as they are working on it, I am inclined to agree with you. My governors are having to commit more and more resources to control the crowds. I do hope you are not overhyping it on social media Jacob – I know you mean well but nobody really has the answer to why the universe is as it is”

Slightly embarrassed that he had been partly rumbled, Jacob mumbled a feeble response which even he was ashamed of … “well, as Sue mentioned at one of our first meetings, the end will justify the means”

“Be that as it may, it doesn’t explain why a coach load of Italians arrived sporting t-shirts depicting witches on broomsticks or the group from CAMERA who arrived to celebrate the demise of Watney’s Pale Ale, let’s hope for all our sakes” concluded Jack, “That we are not looking at another Piltdown Man and the medieval cart turns out to be early sixties Watney’s brewery barrel.”

“By the way, how much longer will they continue the dig?” asked Sue

“We should have some results in six weeks or so but, given my pivotal role in all this, my friend Professor Annie Brovinsky at Leicester University who is in overall charge of the dig, has said I can have a first look at their draft findings before publication”


Jack Hamilton carried the buff A4 folder containing Professor Brovinsky’ s provisional findings, unopened to the final meeting of the Quatermass trio on 31st December 2020. He wanted to share the event with his two friends who he had grown to appreciate as human beings albeit with different and sometimes conflicting agendas. He had never doubted their integrities and had been grateful for their support when he had had to battle with his superiors for more resources to control the ever-increasing numbers of visitors to Appleby Magna. Christmas 2020 had seen 15,000 arrive to pay their respects at what they believed to be a sacred site.

Sue poured the usual three sherries as Jack summarized the provisional findings.

Firstly, they confirmed that the medieval cart was almost complete, but carbon dating placed it in AD 400.

Secondly, under the cart, researches had managed to uncover three items which had been sent away to the British Museum whose own scientific procedures would need to be confirmed but the consensus was that they were looking at three very unusual finds.

A leather belt favoured by Abbots in the early Celtic church

A rag-doll made from linen stuffed with rags and papyrus. The arms are made from a long roll of linen attached at the back. Coloured wool, now faded, was applied to parts of the face and body. The presence of a small blue glass bead attached to the proper left side of the head suggests a hair ornament. There is an identical one in the British museum made in Egypt in the 5th century AD.

A primitive skipping rope thought to have been enjoyed by the children of noblemen in the 5th century.

All three items had been petrified.

There was complete silence as Jack finished his summary; a silence that lasted for at least 15 minutes as all three gazed in stunned wonderment at each other. Jack then reached for another sherry.

Sue Bradley sunk to her knees to pray. Her decision to detonate a controlled explosion in Church Street on St Petroc’s feast day, complete with flash gun firework effects had rewarded her faith. There were times, she argued, when God needed a helping hand from man.

Jacob Jones picked up his phone and dialled Carolyn Armsby at the BBC who answered almost instantly.

Gasping for breath, Jacob could only manage … “You are not going to believe this... ."