Odds and Dead Ends : The curse of Alton Towers’ Chained Oak

Anyone who lives in the UK will recognise the name Alton Towers almost purely on principal. The premiere theme park in the UK and located in Staffordshire, England, is built on the grounds of an actual 15th century castle near the village of Alton, the Alton Towers of name. Converting to a full amusement park in the late 1970’s, it acquired the Corkscrew rollercoaster in 1980, the first in Europe to have a double corkscrew inversion, making a statement as to its future ambitions. It’s gone on to become bigger and bolder over the years, bringing in many top class attractions and world’s firsts, including Oblivion (the first coaster to feature a vertical drop), and The Smiler (the first with fourteen inversions). For the horror fan, it’s strangely homely, as it features a splattering of rides with dark and sinister theming.

Along with the ghost train Duel (a ride combined with a blaster game, where you shoot targets on ghouls and zombies to score points against your friends), many of the coasters are also horrifically themed. Th13teen is the principal coaster of the Dark Forest section, an evil woodland come to life, Wicker Man is a wooden coaster built around a sacrificial effigy in a similar vein to the film of the same name, and Nemesis is themed to be a ride forged from chains made to hold down an unearthed alien entity.

One of these rides is Hex, a flat ride located inside the towers itself. Hex is part walkthrough, part ride, where riders eventually sit either side of a large platform which moves in conjunction with the room, to create a disorienting experience where one eventually finds it hard to distinguish if they are moving, or the room alone, or both, or neither, or in which direction. What many people may not actually know is that the tree in the story of the ride is a real tree, and the story based off actual legend.

Traveling back home to the towers in the 1840s (though some say in the 1820’s), the Earl of Shrewsbury finds an old woman at the side of the road. Stopping the carriage, she asks him for a spare coin, to which the Earl promptly huffs, dismisses her, and travels on. As the cart pulls away, the old woman turns, points a finger at him, and calls after him, that whenever a branch should fall from a nearby oak tree, a family member of the Earl should die.

Sometime later, when the curse is all but forgotten, a storm kicks up. The winds batter the walls and howl in thenight, and in the darkness, a branch is ripped free of the tree and crashes to the ground. The curse soon comes true as a family member (a son in some versions of the tale, a daughter in others), falls ill and passes on. In some versions, another branch falls and someone else dies later again, but in all accounts, the Earl soon orders great chains to be forged. The chains are wrapped around the tree, lashing the branches to the trunk, in an attempt to avoid any future tragedy.

Where reality falls and tales begin is hard to distinguish, because the chained oak is a real tree, and there was a carriageway that ran close to it. Hollyman and Kelsall’s article on the story also describes a similar tale involving a fortune teller appearing at a banquet in exchange for shelter, and casting a similar curse when he is dismissed. We don’t actually have any idea as to how old the chains are, or when they were wrapped around the tree. Added to this, the Towers’ version of the story is embellished for the ride, adding in the Earl of Shrewsbury performing experiments on one of the branches to find a way to lift the curse. When you combine this with a lack of historical documentation for the woman in the road, chains being made, etc, you have a story which is likely created over time through whisper and rumour. At the same time, there’s nothing saying that the story couldn’t indeed be true.

It’s certainly interesting to see local folklore like this being brought to a wider audience through a theme park ride, even more that parts of it are true, if not the actual curse bit. Stone steps lead up to the real oak, rotting and degrading, like an altar. Though nobody in the current Earl’s family passed away when sections of the tree fell away a few years ago, the spookiness of it remains. A visit to the area may be a nice pilgrimage for all you horror hunters if you ever visit the park, though of course, careful not to break any branches off it whilst you’re there.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Hollyman, S. & Kelsall, G., 2008. The Legend of the Chained Oak. [Online]
Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130430220927/http://www.altontowersheritage.com/heritage/article.asp?articleid=99
[Accessed 02 05 2020].

Odds And Dead Ends: Cuchulain

Cuchulain: The Champion of Ulster-Violence by Kieran Judge

Native myths and legends are something that are quickly glossed over in schools, or not taught enough. In Wales, or when I was at school here, aside from anything to do with dragons, you’d get a brief introduction to The Mabinogion through the story of the black cauldron, which some people might know of from a Disney movie roughly based on an adaptation of The Chronicles of Prydain, which was based on the Mabinogion in turn. That, really, was about it. In the island of Ireland (to avoid any political debates I’ll refer to the whole land mass as such from now on), the main texts are the four cycles, the Ulster Cycle, the Mythological Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. From these legends, perhaps no figure has captured the imagination more than Cuchulain.

Spelt in various ways (Cu Chulainn, Cúchulainn, etc), Cuchulain is a mythic descendant of the gods known for being almost unbeatable in battle even from a young age. He was the warrior hero, the Champion of Ulster, as many of the tales will tell. Renowned poet and playwright W. B. Yeats wrote a whole series of plays and poems about the mythic man as part of his attempt to revive Irish culture, a movement heavily tied in with Lady Gregory and the National Irish Theatre in the early 1900’s. However, Cuchulain was also a madman, prone to becoming overwhelmed in his bloodlust, going on to slaughter hundreds, thousands, without stopping. In his frenzy, he recognises neither friend nor foe, and in one tale, even kills his own son when he refuses to identify himself.

It’s this blood lust that I find most fascinating about Cuchulain. When he fights he becomes a man who is unable to tell his allies from his enemies, much like the typical description of the werewolf. He slaughters everyone in his path. This frenzy, however, can be stopped in a very unique fashion, as the final section of Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind tells:

‘The women of Emuin went to meet Cú Chulaind gathered round Mugain, Conchubar’s wife, and they bared their breasts before him. …Cú Chulaind hid his face, whereupon the warriors of Ulaid seized him and thrust him into a vat of cold water. This vat burst, but the second vat into which he was thrust boiled up with fist-sized bubbles, and the third he merely heated to a moderate warmth.’ (Gantz, 1981, p. 146)

It’s clear to see that Cuchulain is much different to many of the hyper masculine heroes we see in other myths, such as Pryderi or Arthur from The Mabinogion, in that there is a switch inside him which takes tremendous effort, and the feminine form, to subdue. Even most of the Greek heroes remain themselves throughout the course of their many trials. Other heroes remain mostly gallant or noble, if a little misogynistic at times, but the Champion of Ulster seems to have that Jekyll and Hyde double inside him which I think is fascinating. It’s something that Cuchulain can’t control.

Perhaps, if we were to look into this a little further, one could suggest that the thrill of the battle brings out the warrior in him, the masculine of the superhuman. In contrast, the sight of the female form brings him back to the feminine human. The godly side of him, when in control, never wants to be contained again, never wants to accept the feminine. If you were really going to go into it, you could argue that the vats represent the womb and Cuchulain must be reborn through this into the mortal realm once again from his divine rage. I think this may be getting too far into it, however.

That Cuchulain was a flawed hero is obvious, but he was also understanding in his own way as well, as one of the tales in The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind shows; ‘…they met Cúscraid son of Conchubur; he was badly wounded, so Cú Chulaind carried him on his back…’ (p.138). The mighty warrior that would defend Ulster in single combat for months, defeating an entire army (as the prophet Fedelm says of the upcoming attack on Ulster, ‘‘I see it crimson, I see it red.’’ (Carson, 2008, p. 13)), also has the time to help his fellow soldiers in combat. This is a classic bit of storytelling. If we know he is human, and have a reason to sympathise with him, we can get behind him and we can forgive him in the future for any misdeeds he may commit.

Though not known outside of Ireland, he is still one of the main figures of legend on the emerald isle. At the Tayto Park theme park, their flagship attraction is the Cu Chulainn rollercoaster, complete with gigantic stone figure near the entrance to the ride. Many murals in Belfast also depict him as a reminder of the figure who would ward off Irish attacks to protect Ulster from its armies. Though both sides of the border may try to claim the figure, Cuchulain remains Ireland’s Hercules, their Arthur, and their Conan. A man who would slaughter thousands to defend his land, but turn on his own side just as quickly. Perhaps, disguised in a mighty warrior, this is a discussion on the meaningless of violence, the way in which a price must be paid for the blood that is shed.

 

Article by Kieran Judge

-Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Carson, C., 2008. The Tain. England: Penguin Classics.

Gantz, J., 1981. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Great Britain: Penguin Books.