Yesterday a friend took me to the Staffordshire theme park, Alton Towers. Between rollercoasters, we went on the 21st century equivalent of what, back in the days of yore (i.e. my childhood), would have been called a ghost train. This ride is based on a local Staffordshire legend (classic stuff of late night campfire goosebumps): ‘the chained oak’.
The story goes something like this...
One night in 1821, the Earl of Shrewsbury was riding home to Alton Towers in his coach when a man on the roadside (in some versions an old woman) hailed him. The coach stopped and the man begged a coin for charity. The Earl harshly refused him, so the old man uttered a terrible curse: ‘For every branch on the Old Oak Tree here that falls – a member of the Earl’s family will die.’
The Earl dismissed him and carried on his way... (And this is where the campfire teller’s voice would change to a suitably chilling tone.) But that night, a terrible storm struck the old oak, and a single branch broke and fell. Later that very same night, a member of the Earl’s family suddenly, mysteriously, died. The next day, the Earl ordered his servants to chain every branch together to prevent other branches from falling.
The 'chained oak' can still be seen, not far from Alton Towers...
|At the oak: can you spot the chains?|
Looking at it, what struck me most were the comments from large numbers of people who basically believed the story to be true.
‘Can somebody die when a branch falls off today?’ asks Darren. ‘We'll never really know if it’s true or not true’ says Stefan. ‘I thinks it’s true because when you go it doesn't feel right’ admits HK. Pete adds ‘I live near the tree, and won’t go near it, seems spooky enough for me.’ ‘I believe that it is all true’ says Sam. Dominic replies ‘I do believe in curses and the dark arts so the tree may well be cursed.’ Alexandra says ‘I think the curse is still intact. When I went to see the tree last time, I still felt this strange, dark, unfriendly presence surrounding the tree like there is someone or something there watching in anger... be very careful, be aware of the oak tree’s surroundings and don't go alone.’ Sophie meanwhile asserts ‘as a good historian’ that she thinks ‘it is true, but more research needs to be done and a test on the oak tree to see if it is really cursed.’
And on it goes.
It may be that you, dear reasonable reader, are aghast (I use the word advisedly) by all this silly superstition. Perhaps it has given you a rather dim view of Staffordshire people. Perhaps you are tutting and rolling rational eyes as you read.
But following my last post about how church decline statistics do not necessarily mean a more secular Britain, this struck a chord. Many, possibly most, people in Britain believe in spiritual things. It may be a bit of a muddle. It may be more influenced by Alton Towers than the Faith Once Delivered Unto The Saints. More ghosts and ghouls than Holy Ghost. But nevertheless: UK people are inclined to be spiritual believers.
So I repeat yesterday’s hesitant assertion: the church needs to morph, to flex, to adapt to meet this spiritual interest, this hunger for the unseen.
Never mind curses, let’s get blessing people.