In Bizarre England: Discover the Country’s Secrets and Surprises, David Long introduces readers to some of the oddest and most interesting sights in England – from Devon's Gnome Reserve and Britain's smallest pub to a subterranean ballroom.
Here, writing for History Extra, Long guides readers to 11 of the more unusual and curiosity-inducing corners of the country…


Motorway madness

The first thousand miles of England’s motorway network had a bizarre genesis in 1938 after being sketched out by official surveyors using children’s crayons on a map given away free with Tit-Bits magazine. One might guess that the M1 would have been the first to launch, but it was beaten by a stretch of the Preston bypass (now part of the M6), which was officially opened by Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan in December 1958. Until 1965 there was no upper speed limit, although motorists could be fined £20 for reversing along the carriageway.


A flying monk

The first Englishman to fly with wings was a Benedictine monk called Elmer [or Eilmer] of Malmesbury. According to a 12th-century document, Gesta Regum Anglorum, England’s homegrown Icarus threw himself off the tower of Malmesbury Abbey and managed to glide around 200 metres before crashing to the ground and breaking both his legs.

Little is known about the design of his homemade wings, but the author of the document was also a monk in the same order, and while he didn’t witness the flight personally, he almost certainly knew the valiant adventurer in old age.


A secretive duke

In an area of the Midlands still known as the Dukeries, the eccentric fifth Duke of Portland (1800–79) employed an estimated 15,000 workers at his seat, Welbeck Abbey. Over several years they constructed an underground ballroom; an underground riding school large enough for 100 horses (although His Grace never rode); three underground libraries – each of which was painted pink – and a series of tunnels.

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The latter – some large enough to accommodate a carriage – were designed so that the secretive duke could travel beneath his estate without being seen. He never married.


Third-class passengers

In 1838 there was a third class, as well as first and second, on English railways. So-called ‘penny-passengers’ stood up in open wagons, but could spit and smoke to their hearts’ content until 1844, when a change in the law required them to be protected from the weather and provided with seats. A penny was by no means cheap for a labourer or someone in service, but the same legislation allowed them to carry up to 56 lbs of luggage (25 kg) free of charge.

Conditions on board trains gradually improved, but third class wasn’t abandoned until 1956.

An 1873 engraving by C H Seers after F Holl, showing a group of passengers waiting on a station platform for a train
An 1873 engraving by C H Seers after F Holl, showing a group of passengers waiting on a station platform for a train. In the centre a porter crouches next to a female passenger, listening to her talk. The sign behind them indicates that the passengers are travelling third class. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

No time for TV

In 1922 the newly formed BBC had only four employees, and an annual licence cost homeowners 50p. On first being invited to witness John Logie Baird’s game-changing invention, none of the employees found any “excitement or interest” in the idea of television, and the decision was taken to ignore the new technology altogether and stick with radio.

More bizarrely still, a few years later, at 6.30pm on 18 April 1930, an announcer reported quite seriously that as there was no news at all that day, and so listeners should instead sit back and enjoy some piano music.


Strange fashions

One of England’s strangest fashions developed from the public’s slavish determination to mimic Edward VII’s wife, Alexandra, in everything she did. Following a bout of rheumatic fever the queen was left with a pronounced limp, which many thousands of women suddenly began to copy by wearing odd shoes beneath their crinolines. This made their faltering steps seem awkward but natural; something done not to ridicule the queen, but simply because fashionable members of the public wanted to be as much like her as possible.


Pubs from the past

Perhaps the strongest contender for the title of England’s oldest pub, the splendidly named Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, is built into the sandstone cliffs beneath Nottingham Castle. There, an old brewhouse once stood, and a sign proclaims that the pub dates to 1189.

Such a foundation date is quite plausible, but there is no documentation to support it, and as many as 20 other pubs – two of them in the same city – make their own claims for being as old, or even older. The name is a reference to the Crusades, but is usually shortened locally to ‘the Trip’.


Lincoln’s towering spire

The completion of Lincoln Cathedral’s soaring spire in the early 14th century made it the first building in the world to exceed the height of the nearly 4,000 year-old Great Pyramid at Giza. Had it not been destroyed in a violent storm in 1549, at 160 metres the spire would have remained the tallest building on earth until 1844, when it was overtaken by the Washington Monument in the US. To put the height into context, St Paul’s Cathedral is just 111 metres tall, and Westminster Abbey a mere 69.


Historic bodybuilding

The world’s first bodybuilding contest was held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1901, and proved so popular that some of the hundreds that queued to see it had to be turned away. Participants were called upon to mimic classical-era statues in front of judges who included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a German named Eugen Sandow, who modestly presented the eventual winner with a sculpture of himself.

The Prussian-born Sandow, whose real name was Friedrich Muller, achieved international fame for his poses, but after cheating on his wife was buried in an unmarked grave and largely forgotten.

c1905: winner of the Sandow bodybuilding competition
c1905: winner of the Sandow bodybuilding competition, Mr Murray. (Photo by Reinhold Thiele/Thiele/Getty Images)

A Victorian elephant

In the 1850s, Manchester’s popular Belle Vue Zoological Gardens boasted kangaroos, rhinos, lions and bears, as well as other entertainments designed to attract a prosperous middle-class audience. However, exciting plans to acquire an elephant ran into trouble in 1872 when the animal, which cost £680 and was named Maharajah, charged the train on which it was to travel from Scotland.

The incident caused so much damage – to the train, not to the animal – that it was decided that Maharajah would instead have to walk down from Edinburgh. Its keeper, Lorenzo Lawrence, accompanied the animal on the 10-day journey.


Man v animal

In 1888, the London Daily News carried an account of a race held between a bee and a bird. The smart money was on the pigeon – a species famed for speed, stamina and an uncanny navigational ability – but remarkably a bee was first across the line, winning by a full 25 seconds.

A few years earlier, in 1880, a London man had raced a black retriever in the Thames 10 miles from London Bridge to North Woolwich Gardens – the dog won. And in 1890, on a Saturday night at the London music hall, John Picton wrestled a bear in the hope of winning a few shillings. He died of his injuries at the London Hospital.

Bizarre England: Discover the Country’s Secrets and Surprises by David Long is published by Michael O’Mara Books. To find out more, click here.


This article was first published in June 2015