Between Imagination & Reality: The Occultaria of Albion

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The Occultaria of Albion Series

Extracts from No. 2

Thackford on Yap

Introduction

The tremendous expansion of cities in the white heat of industrial revolution meant there was a vital need for clean water to be supplied to the new industrial centres; cities like Sheffield, Leeds and those in the East Midlands region had a particular thirst in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The solution to the problem came in the form of large civil engineering projects – valleys were dammed, rivers redirected, and reservoirs constructed. Like it or not, for many rural communities, change was coming and for an unfortunate handful of villages that change would take the form of complete obliteration.

Our second edition of OA examines the consequence of this annihilation for one such village. As will be revealed, geographic trauma of the land and the psychic trauma of those that dwell upon that land can manifest as something terrible, something abominable. Today the river Yap still flows, yet its course was altered, and the village of Thackford on Yap became submerged beneath a large, new reservoir with a surface area of nearly six hundred acres.

Many locals feel that the village should have been saved from the engineers, but it wasn’t and ever since, some believe that the anger, the resentment and the psychic wound this caused can bubble up to the surface from time to time. When this happens, strange things occur. Put on your life jacket and bring a flask of something strong, as we go sailing upon, Thackford on Yap.

History

The river Yap is a relatively small river which flows through the Upper Yap Valley, part of which lies in South Yorkshire as well as Derbyshire. It is far less known to today’s ramblers and walkers compared with other areas of the Peak District – but is just as scenic, with rounded hills and limestone gorges and areas of broadleaved woods.

It was in 1902 that the construction of a dam and reservoir began. Before this, Thackford on Yap was an unremarkable village of around three hundred inhabitants. It appeared in the Domesday book of 1086 as Thayke’s Ford, meaning a crossing place on the land of a family named Thayke. The village church of St John was built in the early 15th century with adaptations and rebuilds many times during its five centuries of existence.

The most notorious rector of St John’s was probably the Reverend William Harold who served the civil parish from 1860 – 1869. Harold was an eccentric figure – often encouraging parishioners to bring livestock and pets with them to service. His sermons were theatrical, and he would frequently wave a sabre he claimed belonged to his father during the Napoleonic Wars. Reverend Harold felt that through his possession of the weapon it had become a sword of truth and light. For the most part, his parishioners seemed to enjoy his eccentricities.

No doubt it was Harold’s unusual character which prevented a theft and brought national news coverage to Thackford in 1863. Late one night in October, two thieves broke into the church intent on stealing whatever they could. The two men from Halifax had broken into several remote churches since September and had never been apprehended. As was usual they did not expect the vicar to be present, but Reverend Harold kept odd hours and would often work late into the night from a small desk in the vestry. Harold heard the two thieves and realised what was happening.

Immediately he grabbed his Napoleonic sword of truth and confronted the intruders. One of the men attempted to wrestle with the vicar and lost two fingers for his troubles. The other, seeing the blood, made a run for it but was himself cut on his right leg and did not make it beyond the porch. At dawn, a constable from nearby Lower Bradworth arrived to arrest the two men. Harold had tied them to the font and kept watch for several hours. The vicar was considered a hero both locally and nationally and for the rest of his time at St John’s he would regularly incorporate the tale of his bravery into sermons. Upon his retirement in 1869, he bequeathed the sword to the church and the people of Thackford. For several years the sword was mounted upon a cork plinth opposite the font.

In 1899 part of the roof of St John’s had to be repaired. It is thought that the sword and its plinth were moved into a storeroom behind the vestry and subsequently forgotten about. In 1902 construction of the reservoir began and the last service to be held at the church took place in early 1904. By then only a handful of residents were left in the village. It was in 1906 that St John’s, along with the rest of Thackford on Yap, disappeared entirely beneath the surface of the new reservoir.

Boat on a reservoir

It was while the team of engineers and planners were in a boat on the reservoir inspecting their recently completed masterpiece that the head engineer, Thomas Keppel, noticed something in the water. As the boat drew nearer, they saw that the object appeared to be the handle of a sword. Gradually and, some were said to have remarked, just like Excalibur, the entire sword seemed to rise out of the water and remained floating, handle aloft. There was laughter from the engineers until Keppel stomped to the side of the boat saying, ‘get that bloody thing out of my reservoir.’ Witnesses say he went to grab it but lost his balance and somehow fell out of the boat. Some claim that the engineer managed to impale himself on the sword, though several deny this was the case. Others tried to come to his rescue, but Keppel had disappeared beneath the surface never to be seen again.

Almost immediately the rumours began. Thomas Keppel was the man who had condemned Thackford on Yap. It could have been saved but Keppel would not hear of any changes and dismissed the village as an insignificant place not worth preserving. Many believed that the sword of truth and light had other ideas and had returned from the depths in order to take revenge. Even amongst the other engineers and the construction workers there was a belief that this might be the case. As far as many people from the Upper Yap Valley were concerned – Thackford reservoir was cursed from its very beginning.

The Keppeltown Killer

Construction of Thackford on Yap reservoir began in 1902. Within six weeks a temporary village of tin sheds and simple timber framed buildings had been constructed to house the workers – some 900 in number, rising to 1200 at its peak. The site became known as Keppeltown, after the head engineer Thomas Keppel, and was built on the hillside above Thackford. Though basic, there were many essential amenities; a small hospital, canteen, post office, bath house and recreation hall (pub). Many of the workers had been employed on previous reservoir constructions or on other large projects such as the London Underground – some brought wives and families with them, though most were single men.

Local inhabitants took the opportunity to provide supplies to this small town of labourers that had appeared on their doorstep; a baker from Lower Bradworth constructed his own shop from tin panels to sell bread, pies and pastries. It was so successful he was able to open a second shop in Buxton with the extra income from Keppeltown. Gwen Chaplin was also an entrepreneur, though her business very different. She was a prostitute.

Her ‘premises’ were situated on the edge of Keppeltown and were made from tarpaulin, sack cloth and wooden boards. Gwen had set up shop many times before, always following the same business strategy; find sites with a large population of itinerant workers and provide a discreet service away from prying eyes. Even today after a great deal of research and investigation, very few verifiable facts about her life are known It is thought she spent her childhood within the community of a travelling carnival until around the age of fifteen. By the period of Keppeltown, Gwen was thought to be around twenty-three years of age.

Dr Maureen Tully, one of the leading criminologists to have studied Chaplin explains: ‘Gwen was an intelligent and resourceful individual who made sure she could not be traced easily. She cultivated a mysterious and alluring persona which served several purposes; beyond the attractiveness it also meant that she had an aura – we know that the sobriquet of ‘witch’ had been used in relation to her. Gwen cultivated this to some extent. She was a great manipulator and it all served to keep her in the shadows – so she could do her work, which eventually went well beyond prostitution and into theft and murder.’

The Keppeltown Killer photo

Gwen Chaplin’s modus operandi, it seems, was to strike when the labourers had been paid at the end of a week. She knew those who made the best target – the single men, the ones who were also itinerant and would not be missed immediately if at all. When one of these men visited her, she would wait until they were drowsy or drunk and then she would strike!

Dr Tully, from Lindesege University, has spent several years investigating the figure of Gwen Chaplin. She goes on: ‘It seems astonishing that she got away with so much, but of course she was careful and cunning. It is believed that during the construction of Thackford Reservoir, a period of four years, as many as six men were murdered. It is still unclear what it was that drove Chaplin to kill. Even today there is a belief that she was following the orders of the devil; these ideas all stem from this period. Thackford reservoir only begins to be associated with tales of satanism and witches in the early twentieth century. Clearly, however, psychopathy and trauma are at work here. We may never learn the full truth behind her need to kill. It does not seem that financial gain was the only factor. Once the reservoir’s construction was complete Chaplin moved on. There are records from around 1910 of an Eve Chapman running a boarding house in the east end of London. It’s likely that Eve is also Gwen. Research has shown that around this time there are several murders of dock workers which were never solved. Many of these cases have a striking similarity to those at Thackford.’

Deep in the vaults of Lindesege University’s forensic laboratories rest what are thought to be the remains of two victims, discovered in 1976. The summer of that year was notoriously long and dry and the water levels at Thackford on Yap dropped to their lowest on record. With water levels so low, two corpses became visible in the thick, black mud. They had been surprisingly well preserved. Both were male and both had died from strangulation – one man still had the garrotte about his throat. After a great deal of effort and investigation it was possible to link both men to the reservoir construction. It was even discovered that the identity of one of the men was a junior engineer, Robert Abberline – the nephew of Thomas Keppel himself. It had been thought that Abberline had committed suicide by wading out into the reservoir, though no body and no note had ever been discovered. Both corpses had been weighted down with rocks and were probably submerged around six months apart in 1905.

It is believed that Gwen Chaplin could be Britain’s most prolific serial killer. No one knows what became of her, but Dr Tully thinks that she eventually sailed across the Atlantic to New York. At this point the trail turns cold. Ask any locals though, and they will tell you that the spirit of Gwen the Witch is still very much alive in the hills above Thackford on Yap.

A word with the archivist...

Richard Daniels is the archivist for The Occultaria of Albion. He sat down and answered some questions – written in blood on an old parchment…

The O.A case files read like a blend of true crime journalism and investigative paranormal writing. What was it that drew you to this format?

I have always enjoyed reading those formats. With the recent public appetite for such things, I thought I would begin to explore the lost world of part work magazines; that was when I came across The Occultaria of Albion. Even in its day, it was obscure, with a reputation of only being read by oddballs and conspiracy theorists. So, obviously, I had to find out more. In the end, I managed to track down one of the original team – Nigel Fenwick. His health is poor these days and he was delighted that I was taking an interest in the OA. Nigel feels that the founder of The Occultaria of Albion, Roland Clark, deserves greater recognition. To be honest I was daunted by the task of restoring it and bringing it back to some sort of life!

Fascinatingly, the O.A series has worked its way backwards in chronology, from the first instalment, Vol 7 through to the impending Vol 1- what was the reason for this?

This has been dictated by the state of the archive. Originally, Roland, Nigel and their very small team worked from a unit at an industrial estate outside of Peterborough. When OA ceased existence, all the research, the paperwork and the files were put into storage. Several years ago, Nigel had everything moved into a shipping container he rented from a farmer up in Lincolnshire. One day, after I had been in touch with Nigel for a while, he handed me the keys and told me where to find it. I think he had gotten to know and trust me enough with all the OA work. The day I opened that rusty container door was the day I became the archivist. Surprisingly most of the papers and photographs were in good condition but everything was chaotic – like a giant had lifted the container and given it a good shake. I just pieced together what I could. In the end, OA7 came together first and I worked backwards from there. The next set will start from 8 and work upward.

The Occultaria of Albion really delves into areas of outstanding oddness in the UK, where dark history or otherworldly occurrences have plagued its pavements and pathways. Is there anywhere you have visited that, on a personal level, gave you the heebie-jeebies?

Well, I have driven along the A2358 (OA5) and agree that the road does have a very strange vibe to it, though I didn’t see anything unusual. Several years ago, I went camping with some friends near the Thackford reservoir. All of us saw strange lights out over the water on our last night – of course, that might have had something to do with all the booze we’d drunk. From what I have discovered, and from what people have told me, I would agree that every location covered by the OA is genuinely weird.

The zines cover some really fascinating people; from kids TV presenter Marjorie Baumber to Rowland Loveday of esoteric spiritual movement, The Temple Of Xubix. As the original investigations were made over two decades ago, will we hear updated information about these characters and cases?

Richard Daniels photo

That is something I have been thinking about. There are lots of updates on the people and the places which were covered by OA. Since becoming the archivist, people have written to me or come forward with some very interesting information. I hope to share this with the fans of OA.

Nigel Fenwick, co-founder of OA, was close friends with Roland Clark, the original editor of The Occultaria Of Albion. Were you able to contact him during your restoration of these publications?

As I said – I have had contact with Nigel which is how I became the archivist. Nigel is nearly 70 and his health isn’t great. Sadly, Roland Clark passed away some years ago. Nigel believes it was because of what his friend knew. He feels that certain groups or organisations needed Roland out of the way. I don’t know if I believe that – sometimes Nigel can get carried away. What I do know though, is that Roland would love to have seen his part work series be rediscovered and re-born. It is a shame he is no longer with us.

Since the O.A’s creation, innovations in technology have progressed greatly. In this new, digital age, can fans of The Occultaria Of Albion expect more content across different platforms?

Certainly. I have created the OA Twitter account. You can find it – @occultaria. What is really exciting though is I have decided to create The Occultaria of Albion Patreon page. With the extra financial support it will hopefully provide, I will be able to explore the archives even further. I hope in the future to produce a podcast. By signing up to the Patreon, fans of the OA will get exclusive access to updates, extra case files and merchandise.

Over the past year, you’ve grown to be the face of The Occultaria Of Albion – if you could tell O.A readers something about yourself, what would it be?

I suppose I would say that as well as an archivist, I am a writer; it is my job to poke a finger between the curtains of mystery, and to pull those curtains back ever so slightly, in order to glimpse the weird and fantastical. Those curtains exist for all of us and I would like to thank anyone who trusts me to poke my finger between their curtains. 

Very few people are aware that my spirit animal is the badger and occasionally I wear distinct badger make-up in order to commune with the energy of this wondrous creature.

For anyone hoping to visit the tormented towns and spectral spaces featured in the series, what warnings would you give them- what preparations should they make?

The best preparation would be to read the relevant edition of The Occultaria of Albion. Beyond that I would say wear sensible shoes and take a torch; darkness can arrive very suddenly.

If those reading this would like to support you in your endeavours to restore and replenish the O.A archives, how can they help?

They could simply buy a copy of the OA – available at www.plasticricharddaniels.com As mentioned, for exclusive content, they could support our Patreon. If any readers have had strange experiences anywhere in the weird world of Albion, then I hope they will get in touch and let me know – it might end up in a future casefile!

Find out more about The Occultaria of Albion – The Case File Series by clicking the image below…

The Occultaria of Albion cover

Richard Daniels

Richard Daniels

Richard Daniels is a writer of otherworldly fiction and spoken word. He likes to stuff folk horror, British landscapes and intergalactic psychedelia into his meat grinder, and give it a good blast on a high setting.
In 2018, Daniels released his debut book, Too Dead For Dreaming, a collection of 23 stories of weirdness, wonder and woe, and has since created the popular Occultaria of Albion part work series, as well as releasing several podcasts, including Badger Watch in June 2020.

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