Strange Things Outdoors: Turning the Outside Upside Down

The internet gasped as one last week when the latest Stranger Things trailer dropped. To celebrate the show's continuing success, let’s look at some of the strange things that occur a little closer to home.

Britain’s wild places are overflowing with stories of unusual, creepy, or downright terrifying things. Here are some of our favourites. Caution: not for the faint-hearted.

~Weird outdoors


Yorkshire Zombies?

A thousand years ago something very odd was happening in the town of Wharram Percy. Recent excavations on the medieval site have revealed human remains that are resting in anything but peace. Ten skeletons were found to have been burned, dismembered and decapitated, and researchers from Southampton University think they know why. Zombies.

This kind of thing was done in the belief that it would stop the dead rising from their graves to attack the living and spread disease. Simply put, it’s much harder for the dead to chase you down in the fields if you’ve taken its legs away.

The question that hasn’t been answered, though, is why this belief struck the Yorkshire village. And why were only these ten bodies treated like this? Genetic research confirmed that the chosen ten were from the local area, negating the idea that this was done because they were from some strange, faraway land (Lancashire).

Were they witches or warlocks? Had they committed dark deeds whilst alive? Or, most eerily, had these individuals already climbed from their burial mounds once before? We will never know, but if you want to visit Wharram Percy, keep an eye about you after dark.

In a bit of positive news, the researchers ruled out a theory that the bodies had been cannibalised. Sadly, the same cannot be said in the case of . . .  

Sawney Bean’s Cave

Few these days have heard of Sawney Bean. That’s strange in itself, considering he may rank amongst the British Isle’s most prolific murderers.

Sawney is believed to have been born in the late 15th century, in East Lothian, but little else is known about his early life. The story really begins when he and his wife took up home in Bennane Cave, in Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland. There Sawney set to building a family.

~Wharram Percy Churchyard ~Wharram Percy excavation

~Bennane Cave
Sawney Bean

Folklore says that the Bean family grew exponentially in the cave. The first fourteen children each had their own as a product of incest. And all those mouths needed to be fed. Believe it or not, in a story that has already involved incest, this is where it gets dark.

Sawney and his brood set to waylaying lost or solitary travellers. Either inviting or forcing them back to the cave, where they were killed, cooked or pickled, and eaten. The family would then throw the remains off the cliffside and into the sea.

Over the years a full-two generations of the Bean family grew to adulthood in Bennane Cave, and their murder toll is rumoured to be more than 1000. Finally, their high-protein diet was interrupted when a victim escaped and reported his assault. Lore tells that King James I himself came to Scotland to lead the manhunt. All 48 members of the Bean family were arrested in Bennane Cave, surrounded by their victims' hanging limbs and stolen valuables.

If you’re into this sort of thing, you can visit Bennane Cave. It isn’t easy though. It requires you to clamber down the rocky cliff to the waterline. There, a huge boulder blocks the entrance to the cave. Who knows what’s still behind it?


Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Now for a deliciously creepy mystery.

In 1943 three young boys were hunting bird nests in Hagley Woods, Worcestershire. After finding a particularly promising wych elm, the boys scaled the branches only to look down with horror at the skeletal remains hidden in the trunk.

The police launched a full investigation and found an almost whole skeleton stuffed into the tree. The woman was missing only some teeth and a hand, which was found some distance away. Forensics suggested that the woman had been dead for around 18 months but, with the war in full-swing and so many people moving around the country, it proved impossible to identify the body.

If it had ended there, the murder would have remained a macabre, but unremarkable mystery. However, soon the graffiti appeared.

In 1944 “Who put Bella in the wych elm – Hagley Wood?” was found written on a wall in Birmingham. Who wrote this? What did they know? And who was Bella?

Theories abound. Some claim she was a German spy. Others claim she was Clarabella Donkers, a Dutch woman murdered by a spy ring for ‘knowing too much’. Equally, some say she was a known local prostitute who had disappeared years before. Whoever she was, the graffiti in 1944 suggests that someone knew her. Was that person or persons responsible for putting her in the tree?

And are they still out there? The graffiti message has appeared sporadically across the West Midlands throughout the years. It is written with particular frequency on the Hagley obelisk, a stone monument located close to where the body was discovered.

There is a final, disquieting twist to this story. Noted anthropologist Professor Margaret Murray has pointed to the clear suggestions of black magic ritual in the case. According to Murray, the severing of the hand and the placing of the body inside a tree are parts of a ritual to keep the woman from haunting her killer.

So, whoever put Bella in the wych elm, what happened to them when she was taken out?

Bella Wych Elm Drawing Bella Grafitti

~Scary Black Eyed Child

~Cannock Chase ~Black eyed Girl of Cannock Chase

Black Eyed Children

Finally we come to Cannock Chase, an absolute melting pot for oddness, hauntings and weird encounters. If the UK were to have its own version of Stranger Things’ Hawkins, then this small Staffordshire forest would be a prime location.

First, and possibly the least scary, are the ghostly German soldiers that are said to haunt the area. They are linked to the local German Military Cemetery and eyewitnesses report seeing them strolling casually around the woods.

The soldiers are presumably on good terms with the Lady of the Chase, another ghostly figure who is often seen by motorists. She is said to be a tall figure who appears naked and whose eyes are able to paralyse onlookers in place whilst she “mentally examines” them. Huh!

Then there is the Pigman. And this one has its own poem:

When night falls, enter the woods at your peril,

For inside lurks something worse than the devil.

Avoid at all costs the gathering place,

Where at midnight the pig-man roams on Cannock Chase

Ok, it’s hardly Shakespeare, but the local children have been reciting this since the 1940s, when the seven-foot-tall snouted humanoid was first seen. Researchers suggest that the story was invented by the local Air Force to keep unwary hikers away from their wartime facilities. Others maintain that the Pigman is very real and is still seen in the present day.

On top of this there are countless UFO sightings, a local bigfoot, werewolves, and even reports that internet-beastie Slenderman has made an appearance. They all pale into insignificance, however, beside the Chase’s most notorious spectres: the Black Eyed Child.

Witness reports begin with the sounds of a child screaming. When they go looking to help they find a young child, seemingly lost and barely ten years old. She holds her hands over her eyes. When approached the child reveals her eyes to be pitch black, with no iris at all. She then runs off into the woodland.

She was first seen over thirty years ago, and contributed to the growing accounts of similar black-eyed children around the globe. Maybe it was her all along, travelling to other parts of the world to show her face. Interestingly, as reports from elsewhere die down, sighting in Cannock Chase have begun again. Has the girl finally come home to stay?

These are just some of the strange things that loiter in our wild places and turn the outdoors experience upside down?  Do you have a story to tell? Have you encountered weirdness, or do you know of a place that has its own fascinating lore? Let us know in the comments or on social media for a chance to win a £50 gift voucher!

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Neil used to be a bookworm, an "indoor" type if ever there was one. After finishing a PhD he writes short stories about spooky places and odd people. Living in Switzerland, the Canadian Rockies and the north east region of the USA convinced him that there was something to be said for this whole outdoor thing. Now he runs everywhere he can, competing in races most weekends and endlessly planning the next great adventure to some far flung part of the world. Recent trips include Costa Rica, where he tried and failed to surf; Vietnam, where he almost got stuck in an underground tunnel; and back to Canada, where he came face-to-face with a bear. Watch this space for further updates on Neil's global bumblings and the occasional athletic success.

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Emma 26-06-19 10:46
What an interesting read! Creepy and yet makes me want to go visit the places anyway!

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