Thursday, January 28, 2021

RAF Chicksands and The Devil's Quoits

As many of you will already know, I spent a very formative time of my life, from March of 1985 to October of 1987, living in England. I was 15 when we arrived and 18 when I left. So, when my wife and I went to visit Europe in 2019, I had to take a day, at least, to visit my old stomping grounds at RAF Chicksands in Bedfordshire. We took our first Sunday there to travel by car in a terrifying ride (terrifying because I never really did get used to driving on the left side of the road) from Moreton-in-Marsh, past Milton Keynes, and on to Bedford. We went to church at the congregation my parents used to take me at and I got to visit with a couple of old friends, one of whom just about dropped dead when he recognized me (he didn't know I was coming). We had a good time visiting and chatting, the one friend continually telling my wife about how much of a rebel I was back then (he was telling the truth), then we took off for RAF Chicksands, where I spent some of the more meaningful years of my life.

It was a bittersweet reunion. You see, when I left England, I did so because I was forced to do so. I had gotten myself in trouble with the authorities (drugs) and in order to avoid a prison sentence (not jail: federal prison), I was banished from the base and told that if I ever set foot on it again, I would be arrested and the charges would come back to haunt me. 

But time changes things. In 1997, ten years after my banishment, the US Air Force pulled out of Chicksands. Instead of and American spy base, it became a British spy base. And no one there had my records anymore. So, we arranged a tour of the one part of the base we could visit (as the rest of the base was restricted to British military personnel and their families), the Chicksands Priory. Granted, I couldn't visit my old house and much of the area I used to wander for hours, but I could visit that old priory. 

I will spare you most of the history of the place except to say that it was originally built in the 1100s - yes, the 1100s, that's not a typo - and that there is a ghost by the name of Rosatta that I am certain haunts the place. But that is a ghost story for a different time. 

Here's a decent shot of it from the front. Keep in mind throughout this post that we were not allowed to take any pictures of the inside nor were we permitted to take any pictures with humans other than ourselves in them. This was for security reasons. And I didn't want to get arrested again on Chicksands. Third time was a charm. After that day, I've never been arrested (though I had been twice before that, but again, a different story). As you get a little closer to the priory, this is what it looks like:

From here, we went inside and

Remember, I can't show pictures of the inside!!! 

This is a shame. Because I would have loved to have shown you pictures of the room where we had dances, I should have liked to show you the secret tunnels in the attic above the second floor (which our guide confirmed to me exist, though I already knew that), the wine cellar in the basement where we drank like medieval lushes, and the underground tunnel that used to lead to the now-abandoned church at the village of Clophill but was walled up by the police back in the '60s because of the number of satanists who would try to sneak into the haunted priory by way of the tunnel. All of this is 100% true. I talked quite freely with our excellent guide about all of these things, all of which she confirmed. "You did get around, didn't you!" she said. I was expecting to get some lecture about maintaining history, not touching artifacts, breaking and entering, etc. But, no, she was downright enthusiastic when I told her what I knew and how I knew it. 

Alas, you are stuck with pictures of the outside. But what a beautiful outside!

This is a view of the side-yard. The road you saw would be to the right of the building. Notice the depression in the yard there - we always noted, as kids, that this is where water tended to pool up to a ridiculous amount. Well, it turns out that archaeologist say that these may have been holding ponds for fish that were farmed here. Makes sense. What you can't see right behind me as I'm taking this photo is the River Flit, a not-very-raging river that splits in two and forms what we knew as "sports island" because the football field, track, and softball diamond are there. 

Oh, look, there's the river right there. And beyond those trees: sports island. It's where I accidentally saw a harrier jump jet land, up close and personal, while walking to the 4th of July fete, which was held on the priory grounds. My timing was perfect. It was one of the loudest things I've ever experienced. Even louder than a Motorhead concert. I was so close that I saw the pilot, who waved at me, probably in an effort to say "get the hell away from my plane, you idiot! You'll be killed!" Anyway, back to the river (no pun intended) - it would make sense to have the fish ponds right here. Divert a little water, set up a one-way wicker seine and, voila! Fish farm!

This is where geography gets a little tricky. See that road beyond the gate there? That's the road we came in on. The main building of the priory is off to the right. If you turned right here and somehow walked through the buildings in ethereal form, you would end up in the fish ponds. We knew this courtyard very, very well. The door to the right of the courtyard (the open one) leads into a room that is nothing but an iron-girded skeleton of its former self. There is a vast circle in the ceiling that was once a mill for grinding grain. If you wanted to, you could literally fall from the peak of the roof inside down to the floor. I know, because I almost did that a few times (even though I didn't want to). Alcohol does not mix well with walking on a 1" wide iron beam straddling other 1" beams. I was braver in those days, and dumber. 

To the right there, you will see a little stairway going down. That area has been filled with cement. Why? Because that's where the wine cellar I mentioned earlier is/was. Why did they fill it in? I'm sure it had nothing to do with groups of teenagers going down there to party and make out, all nestled in giant medieval stone cavities meant to hold gigantic barrels. Nothing at all like that. I can attest that the barrels weren't there in the mid-'80s, but we supplied our own alcohol. When I think back on it, that was a slasher movie In.The.Making!

There was one area we almost never went into. In fact, I don't ever remember going there. And that is the gardens. I don't know how well they were maintained back then, but now they are incredibly well-maintained. There is a certified medieval gardener on staff (no kidding!) so they can grow things there that normally wouldn't be legal to grow because . . . well, because it's a medieval garden, and you know how things were in the Dark Ages, right? If you didn't like what they were growing, they might go all . . . medieval . . . on you.

Now the second to last picture above here is a fig tree. But does anyone know what that last tree is? I'm not sure, and the person giving the tour wasn't sure either. The medieval gardener was off for the day, or she could have told us. But that thing is beautiful! The picture doesn't do it justice (my photos rarely do - ironic that I worked at the base photo lab when I lived at Chicksands), so if anyone can tell me what that tree is, do tell!

The next two pictures I am intentionally calling out:

This one is . . . a brick wall? Yes. Yes, it is. This brick wall is significant to me, however, and I'm being serious. In September of 1987, I was arrested, tried, sentenced to banishment, essentially. On October 15th, what is known as "The Great Storm" raked across southern and eastern England, bringing hurricane-force winds and killing 18 people. I like to think of it as the island expressing grief that I was leaving. The wind was strong enough that it toppled this brick wall. The WIND did that! You can tell right where it happened, too. See the lower section with the pockmarked bricks? That was the part of the wall that survived the storm. All the "new" looking brick above it was put in, reconstructed, after the storm. The trick, I am told, is that the old brick was basically crap. So they built the new bricks out of basically crap. In not many years, the bricks on the top will also wear down and become pockmarked to match the original brick. See? Shoddy construction is quaint and good. Just ask the entire decade of the 1970s, The Golden Age of Poor Workmanship.

Before you ask, yes, that is exactly what you think it is. Opium poppy. Remember where I said I got in trouble for drugs and that caused my banishment? Well, welcome to Exhibit A. Yep, it was hashish mixed with opium that got me (and a few friends) in trouble. The irony of seeing this is not lost on me. I laughed hysterically when I saw this. I think the tour guide thought I must be either crazy, a junky, or both. Truth be told, I am only crazy.

After the garden, we walked by the back of the priory and saw this and THIS is the most important photo I took the whole time. When I saw this, I screamed out "That's it! That's it!" - again, I am not a junky, only crazy:

This, my friends, was our portal, our gateway to another world. The lower left pane of that right window was perpetually broken. You can see the window handle hanging tantalizingly above it. THAT is how we got in, the point of egress that led to so many incredible memories that are a part of me and that I'll never be able to completely recollect. A good part of my teenage thrill-to-be-alive lay beyond that window. I had to go up and touch it, and I did. Thankfully none of the military guys saw me do it because I might have been shot. 

And it might have been worth it.

And here are my wife and I, departing Chicksands once again (well, "again" for me, anyway). I honestly can't wait to get back. Maybe British Intelligence will bugger off and I can see the whole base without fear of being killed. Doubtful, but you never know. I never thought I'd be able to come back . . .

Oh, and if you think I'm joking about the place being haunted, I'm not. They have found many, many bodies buried under the grounds, including this lady:

This isn't the celebrity dead-person, the nun Rosatta. I have a story about here. For a different time.

After this, we went to see something even older and with lots more dead people. Well, yes and no. I wanted to see *something* megalithic while we were in England because structures that old just don't exist in America. If they do, they're under tons of mud along the Mississippi river and I'm not keen on digging through tons of mud to get there. So, we got in the car (terrified of driving yet again) and took off for Devil's Quoits (yes, it's spelled correctly, I just checked), in Oxfordshire. 

Finding the place was a bugger. It's off a little path next to a garbage dump, essentially. We got ourselves good and lost a couple of times, but it's not an adventure until you get lost, right? We had an adventure!

In short, the site is thought to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old (yes, "patriots," that's older than America, you dunces - get over yourself) and was reconstructed so that toppled stones were put upright and mounds that might have decayed were restored. There's a good chance that human sacrifice took place here, and animal sacrifice almost definitely happened here. But it could have just been some strange misfortune that burnt human bones ended up among burnt animal bones, right? Yeah, right.

This is the reconstructed ring mound (to the right) and pit (to the left). If I remember right, the mound is about 3' high.

Following is a series of photos I took of the stones. There was a lot of high vegetation there. Not enough burnt sacrifices taking place, I think. They should fix that.

And some interesting individual stones:

For some reason, the next one makes me think of the outstanding Lamentations of the Flame Princess module The Monolith from beyond Space and Time (which you should play - wow).

Or maybe I was just hallucinating by this point. I did get a big whiff of those poppy flowers at the priory.

I swear, I'm not a junky!

And here is an individual by a stone:

"And I quoit". You knew that was coming, right? Does this stone make me look fat? I think so. Thankfully, I've lost some weight since then. About . . . a stone . . . 

Kill me now.

My wife isn't too keen on me taking pictures of her to post online, especially when we're travelling because, well, let's face it, we all look like junk when we're travelling. That's part of the mystique, right? "Is that a tourist, or is that guy just homeless?" people say behind our backs. In any case, I did sneak some pictures of her from a distance, so as to be discrete:

I felt pretty sly about this second one. That's me taking a picture of her while she was taking a picture. So meta. These should give you some idea of scale, as well. It was a pretty big field we were in. Again, though, needed more (dead) bodies.

There is a convenient plaque that explains everything you need to know, here shown in two parts:

And, lastly, here is a closeup shot of the aerial representation:

And, what does this remind me of? YES! That's right . . . 

And if you don't know what this is, you're not allowed to be my friend any more until you've watched "Children of the Stones".

And, with that, we were off back to our awesome Airbnb residence.

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