Archive for June, 2014

Urban foxes? Suburban swingers? It’s hard to tell…










‘Here is a strange one for you’, writes Lethmachen resident Bill McKeeth , ‘it could turn out to be nothing, or the vanguard of something genuinely sinister. My wife and I were at home last Sunday. Our little cul-de-sac, Renart’s Close, is usually quiet, even on a Friday night. Most of our neighbours are retired, although there are now two young couples, both with small children. At two minutes past ten, our attention was directed to a disturbance outside; a whooping and crashing, as if a gang of youths and girls were making high revel in our drive. I went to the window to remonstrate, only to see that, rather than drunken teenagers, a most extraordinary pair were lying in our road.

They were, I think, a man and a woman, beautifully turned out. Very peculiar clothes, all silks, and fur as well, I think. Very exotic, but clearly well tailored. Chinese, or Indian. I remember especially their hair, very long, and glossy as that of a well groomed animal. One of the pair was sat upon the other, their hands gripped together, and their heads stabbing up and down. I could see teeth. ”He is going to kill her”, I thought, and my fist went to the glass, but my wife took hold of my arm, and I looked again: they were not fighting. It lasted for the best part of a minute. Then Clive, one of our young fathers, came out swinging a baseball bat, crying ”Shoo! Be off with you!” As one, the two figures stopped, looked up, and then shot away, like a couple of cats.

I’m sure it was the result of some dinner party that had got out of hand, but it was the queerest thing I’ve ever seen. Has anyone else been disturbed in this way? Does anyone know the identities of these shameless people?’

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Local Elections: the silent majority discover a terrible voice…










Fringe parties have made inroads across the nation during the recent local elections, and yet it will come as no surprise to learn the fringe parties of Lethmachen are a little more a ‘frayed than most. By mid-morning, stewards at the polling stations were already aware that a significant number of ballot papers were being returned spoiled. With little attempt at the expected discretion, numerous voters were witnessed scrawling across the forms and then scattering them across the floor beneath the ballot box. If one of these agitators was confronted, they simply brushed the official aside as if not registering them, and lumbered blankly towards the exit. Initially suspicion was cast upon the controversial independent candidate Lord Carrier, who has caused quite a stir on the campaign trail; held in adoration in some quarters whilst being reviled and distrusted by the more established politicians. However, during the early counts it became clear that this theory did not tally and that these spoiled votes were actually undermining his position, stealing seats considered safe. In districts of Lethmachen where Lord Carrier’s renegade Party of the Fields and Trees had anticipated a majority, an unexpected contender appeared to be gaining ground. ‘Our next thought was it must have something to do with anarchists’ speculated Councillor Daphne Peel, ‘You must remember them from the nineteen eighties’.

On closer inspection it was revealed that the spoiled ballots had all been defaced in an identical manner. Ignoring the neatly tabled columns promoting the official parties, each protestor had instead scrawled something almost indecipherable beneath, often so feverishly as to tear the paper. When stewards analysed the handwriting, it was discovered that the words ‘Old Two Sticks’ had been childishly scribbled across the ballots, with a wild, oversized tick engraved alongside. Stranger still, certain similarities suggested that the same hand was responsible for all, despite the wide variety of voters who had been witnessed depositing the papers. Rival politicians reacted with a public display of outrage, condemning this senseless act of vandalism, claiming to be in the dark as to who this ‘Old Two Sticks’ could be and why so many in their constituency felt compelled to vote for him. Yet, as is always the case with politicians, we have to take their words with a pinch of salt. Could they really have forgotten, are their memories really so short? After all, few children growing up locally have been spared an encounter with ‘Old Two Sticks’, the weather ravaged scarecrow that stands in an outlying field of Crippet’s Farm. In an initiation common to gangs of both boys and girls, younger siblings and children new to the town are led blindfolded from Two Sticks Lane out into the ragged, open countryside on the borders of Lethmachen. The blindfold removed, my so-called friends retreating into the long grass, my stomach still turns to think of it. I remember how it felt, it was like walking up to the gallows. He seemed to turn towards you as you approached. Yet you had to complete the dare, to run up and prod that spindly silhouette on the horizon, hanging limp, crucified over the most distant field. ‘Old Two Sticks’. Even now I can smell the dirt on my fingers, the touch of damp sacking, the unsteady bundle of rags clinging to two crossed sticks.

And yet, is this old custom still a rite of passage? Crippet’s Farm has long stood derelict and nobody has reason to go there anymore. The surrounding fields and woodland have been left to fester and brood. ‘Old Two Sticks’ is rarely spoken of; neglected, unwatched. In fact I was surprised to hear he was still standing. Some say he has always been there and always will be, like a sentry manning a forgotten outpost, if rocking precariously in stormy weather. So why has he returned to public consciousness after all these years? If any of those who voted for him were questioned they were unable to explain themselves, denied all intent. ‘There was a voice in my dreams telling me what I had to do’ muttered one, as if in a trance ‘A terrible voice. Like old earth or dead wood, but sort of muffled, gagged….’  Another caught spoiling his paper behaved as if wounded, disorientated: ‘The birds…they circle…they flock from afar. But He…He stops them…’

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Local Elections: is Lethmachen a rotten borough?










The recent council elections have been marred by controversy due to the presence on the hustings of a mysterious candidate. A month ago, the handful of Lethmachen residents who had heard the name Lord Carrier, or knew of his Party of the Fields and Trees, would have held out no possibility of his retaining his deposit. Widespread disengagement with Westminster politics has led to a proliferation of fringe parties, most of which should not expect their votes to reach double figures. Lord Carrier has flouted this general rule, gaining 10% of the vote, twice that needed for his deposit to be returned. What is extraordinary is that this success has come on the back of a campaign in which the candidate has for the most part been absent. Moreover, during his single, official public appearance, not a word was spoken. For three weeks, the party’s campaign involved a series of posters emblazoned with their leader’s name, and nothing more.

A week before the election, the local media received an invitation to the parties manifesto launch, to be held at Lethmachen Golf Club. Lord Carrier received his visitors in the main bar, surrounded by members of the club, each wearing the regulation tie, and a stern expression. Lord Carrier was, in comparison, an astonishing sight: a small, round man, entirely bald, with a long thing nose and skin of an extraordinary redness, clothed in a tight fitting green suit, over-sized boots and, on occasion, an alpine hat. More extraordinary still was the nature of his performance. Instead of outlining policies and making promises, Carrier simply held a huge mug of beer in his right hand, and laughed. He laughed loud, and long, exposing pointed yellow teeth as he did so. The lines about his eyes became furrows, and after a while they quite closed, tears streaming from them. The assembled journalists asked him a number of increasingly pointed questions, but whether due to the indifference of the man himself, or the hostility demonstrated by those surrounding him, these soon dried up. The media stood silent, recording the little man as he became quite consumed in his merriment. Then, without warning, the laughter stopped. Carrier’s eyes opened, and shot out a cold look. He jumped to his feet and stormed out, followed by his henchman. These included Reverend Conrad Pyke, Mark Bowie, the CEO of Swan Trading, and Col. Douglas Tripp.

We tried to contact all of Carrier’s associates, all but one refused to offer a statement. The exception was Stewart Tinyman, owner of Lethmachen Metals, who confirmed that Carrier was living at his address; there has been some controversy concerning this, as the requirements for registration as a candidate for council are exacting, and on a number of particulars (including address and valid passport), a case was made for Lord Carrier having fallen short. His application is currently under review. We are looking forward to the General Election…

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A preview, and cautionary tale, regarding the ‘Chasing The Duggery’ tradition










To begin, a few words of explanation for those readers who do not hail from Lethmachen. On the first weekend of June every year our town hosts ‘Chasing The Duggery’, a chaotic bash promoted as a traditional sporting event yet looking more like a terrifying outbreak of anarchy to the untrained eye. Feckwitt’s Hill is a prominent foothill on The Lethmachen Way, a grassy decline so steep to be almost vertical, dropping sharply to where St Anthony’s churchyard rests in the vale below. Brave, or foolhardy, tourists be warned: there will be no time for peaceful reflection this Saturday. You will instead witness dozens of local competitors gathering at the peak of Feckwitt’s, whilst hundreds of spectators file out beneath them in lines that snake down the length of its banks. At the crack of the starting pistol, a circular object the size of a basketball is hurled downhill, an avalanche of bodies leaping and tumbling in its wake. This object is known as ‘The Duggery’, a waxen replica of a human skull, swathed in rolls of greying bandages until it resembles an oversized ball of twine. To win the game the fastest competitor, or perhaps the only one left standing, must catch and claim ‘The Duggery’ before it plunges into the strip of woodland running along the foot of the hill. A first race is staged for the more committed, athletic participants; a second for children under ten; a third for outpatients from St Mary’s mental health unit; a fourth for young offenders from Flinchley Remand Centre, and so on.

This curious festivity has its roots buried deep in local history. At the height of the Peasant’s Revolt in the summer of 1381, the infamous Will Duggery spearheaded a rebellion against Lethmachen’s wealthy landowners. The hardships and privations that serfs suffered under The Feudal System have been well documented by historians, and it appears the lords of Lethmachen were more severe than most. Burdened with heavy taxes, treated inhumanely and suffering poverty and starvation, local workers found a voice in the charismatic and articulate Duggery. His barnstorming speeches protesting against living conditions on the estates, and the social structure in general, inspired a violent uprising. Government buildings were ransacked and burnt, property seized, gaols and court houses broken up and prisoners liberated. Toll collectors and other officials were attacked or held for ransom, and Duggery himself led a march on Harrow View House, the seat of Lethmachen’s most tyrannical landlord, Justice Graves. However, by this time Royal forces had been readied, and the protests were soon suppressed and dispersed, the ringleaders rounded up. Justice Graves ensured that Duggery was made an example of, beheaded on the brow of Feckwitt’s Hill, the entire serfdom having been forced to attend and bear witness. Legend has it that when the axe fell, Duggery’s head was thrown loose and was propelled down the hill, his executioners following in hot pursuit. The assembled peasants drew back in silence as the head was catapulted through the crowd, awestruck at this strange omen.

Thus, although even many locals may be unaware of the historical facts that inspired the legends, the crowds that gather this June weekend are in essence commemorating, if not celebrating, the demise of Will Duggery. It is interesting to note that whereas British folklore typically demonises cruel landowners of yesteryear, reducing them to toiling at endless tasks and rattling their chains in purgatory, in Lethmachen we have chosen to demonise the peasant striving for equality and civil rights. Perhaps this reveals something significant about political attitudes and a local mindset that remains prevalent, unquestioned in Lethmachen today? Yet the purpose of this article is also to highlight more immediate concerns for those attending the festivities on Saturday. Unfortunately, due to the rough and ready nature of proceedings, by the close of play the Lethmachen countryside is usually full of the walking wounded. Injuries typically range from cuts and bruises to broken bones and severe concussion. Some of those afflicted will claim to have fallen victim to ‘Rollin’ Danny’. If this particular legend lacks the historical verity of The Peasants Revolt (thus far parish records have failed to identify any death having occurred whilst ‘Chasing The Duggery’) Danny has become as much part of the experience as Justice Graves. Rumour has it that at some point ‘in olden times’ a hulking yet amiable teenager was killed whilst competing. Apparently he stumbled at a crucial moment and was sent careering head over heels, breaking his neck in the process on landing head first in a ditch. Naturally Danny’s ghost is now said to haunt the hillside. Participants swear they have been seized by a sudden sense of panic, and at the same time felt a weight upon their shoulders, as if a burden was clinging to their back. When they turn their heads, they glimpse a shock of curly black hair, dark glinting eyes and a simple minded grin. ‘WE IS TUMBLIN’ NOW!’ Danny is said to shriek, just at that moment when his host is losing their feet. Whether you accept this tale or not, the risks cannot be ignored, so please be careful if partaking in the chase next weekend.

One late addition to the legends surrounding ‘Chasing The Duggery’, supplied by one of the volunteers who regularly assists at the event. As it necessary to first wait for the crowds to disperse, these wardens are not able to pack away barriers and begin picking litter until dusk has descended. A couple of years ago, our source received the shock of his life when foraging for discarded paper cups and crisp wrappers in the wooded belt that separates Feckwitt’s from St Anthony’s churchyard. As he scoured the foliage, he gradually became aware of another figure scavenging in the gloom. This figure suddenly stooped and thrust his hands forward into the undergrowth, dragging forth a severed head. Our witness remained frozen to the spot as the headless ghost of Will Duggery retrieved his head, brushed some stray leaves from his hair, and then jigged back up the hill with the head clutched to his waist. ‘I’ve got what I’m owed now!’ Will was heard gleefully to exclaim.



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Is annual steeplechase responsible for night mares?











For the majority of people in our town, the annual Lethmachen Horse Show has long been considered the highlight of the social calendar. Blanket coverage begins to fill the local papers months in advance, much as the streets begin to fill with banners and bunting. Drop in to any pub or shop on the high street and it is a good bet the conversation will turn breathlessly on a single topic. Traditionally held on the last weekend of May, The Horse Show consists of various show jumping and dressage events, before climaxing on the Saturday evening with The Lethmachen Steeplechase. Considering the insular, inhospitable nature of this small Shire town, it is perhaps not surprising that so many in the region look forward to this equine festival with a feverish sense of expectation. Not only does it provide an opportunity for a flutter, but is also responsible for attracting hundreds of visitors to the area.  For a town where work prospects are negligible and it is rare to ever see a new face, this influx of wealth and mysterious strangers offers a promise of freedom and escape, albeit for one weekend only. As many residents of Lethmachen are notoriously reluctant to leave its boundaries, The Horse Show has proved a popular and convenient way of instead bringing the outside world to them.

As with any horse racing event, The Lethmachen Steeplechase has invoked the wrath of certain animal rights protesters, as inevitably a handful of the nags meet their deaths on the track every year. Yet local authorities insist that the obstacles and ditches meet all health and safety regulations and indeed the Sumners, who convert and dedicate so much of their land to The Show every year, go to some lengths to assure that any wounded creature is treated humanely. Apart from installing a crematorium on their property, the farming family also tends a picturesque horse cemetery, located in a wooded glen on the grounds. However, it is the one or two human fatalities that occur each May weekend that really interest us. This indisputable fact may surprise even some of our regular readers, as none of these deaths ever receive the coverage they deserve. Perhaps the over abundance of money, alcohol and unfamiliar faces flooding the show mean that such misfortunes, such disturbances, are to be expected? Surely this kind of release, this disruption of routine, must come at a price? This year, the year The Steeplechase was won by 50-1 outsider Lifeless Grin, has proved no exception. The body of twenty nine year old racegoer Christopher Welsh, an employee at a local travel agency, was retrieved from the rural borderlands of Lethmachen early this morning. Nobody has so far been able to explain how this seemingly healthy young man, last seen at Sumner’s Farm around midnight, came to meet his end so deep in the open countryside, at a significant distance from the nearest residence and in the opposite direction to his own home.

As with the almost identical fatalities that have occurred during previous race weekends, it appears likely that Mr Welsh’s death will be declared a tragic accident. No doubt, disorientated by alcohol, he lost his sense of direction in the dark and strayed from the paths that crisscross the Sumner Estate. Quite why Christopher would have continued stumbling across field after field of uncultivated land, stubbornly ignoring the glinting lights of town as they receded behind him, is at this stage unclear. It is indeed possible that he succumbed to hypothermia out there in that barren wilderness, as temperatures last night dropped rapidly and Mr Welsh was without a coat, yet this scenario does not explain how his neck came to be broken. And why were his features distorted in such a mask of terror? Perhaps, as some of those who attended the scene have already hinted, he simply fell awkwardly whilst drunkenly trying to scramble over the stile that his body lay beneath. Yet the severity of the deceased’s injuries seems to imply he must have fallen from a greater height, or even have been violently thrown. On reviewing the available evidence, I was prompted to dig out the transcript of an interview I had conducted in June 2013. At the time I had not given the old man’s tale much credence – he had obviously been drinking heavily and the ambling narrative appeared to have been inspired by confused memories of familiar folk tales. However, in light of what befell Christopher Welsh this weekend, I feel compelled to publish at least an edited version of what Mr Herbert Bell experienced at last year’s Lethmachen Horse Show:

‘I was on my way home. A bit the worse for wear I don’t mind admitting, but heading home I was. There was no choice, it was getting late, and The Show was over. I suppose I wasn’t thinking straight, I’d had an argument with some old friends earlier. Anyway, I must have missed my turn in the dark. Next thing I knew I was in a field I didn’t recognise. But the moon kept drifting out so if I waited I could pick my way forward a few steps at a time. Next time it came out of the clouds, I saw it dead ahead. A horse, all pale and glittering in the moonlight, like it was dressed in stars. Right away it reminded me of something from the past. Actually, two things. First I thought of the old television programme, what was it called, The Moon Stallion? Then I thought how much this horse looked like The Radiant Boy, which was impossible because that nag had died that afternoon, fell bad at Renders Fence. Strange, but this didn’t seem important at the time. All I could think about was how much I wanted to ride that beauty. Suddenly I couldn’t face going home like always, couldn’t even think about it. All I wanted was to be free, just for a spell, far away from everyone and everything I knew. My mind was playing tricks, or else it were the ale. What I mean is I can’t remember exactly how I got up on that horse. There certainly weren’t no stirrups nor saddle. But I didn’t care, because the next thing I knew I was riding The Radiant Boy through the countryside, through the night. I’d never known such a feeling! Leaping over fences, galloping under the trees, the cool air breezing right through me. Of course it didn’t last. There were this horrible moment. I knew the horse was going too fast and I knew that it hated me, hated everyone in Lethmachen. By now I could barely keep my balance and was clinging on for dear life. My head started spinning and I stared up at the sky like praying, but there was nothing, only the moon and the stars waltzing. Thought I was going to be sick, I did. All I wanted was to be somewhere I knew, back home in my living room or tucked up safe in bed. I wished I had never climbed up on this thing. The Radiant Boy was snorting and whinnying, trying to throw me off his back, tossing me across his flanks. Every time we took a fence it was getting too close and I could feel myself slowly losing grip on his mane…As luck would have it I landed soft, in a pile of manure I discovered when I came round a few hours later. There was no sign of the horse anywhere abouts. It were a long way home that morning…’




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