In this episode, we take a look at a mystery that is local to me, the dark and winding story of the satanic and occult practices rumoured to take place in the Clapham Wood area in Sussex, UK. Linked with strange disappearances, bizarre phenomena and more seriously, four mysterious deaths.
Clapham Wood Wikipedia page – Super short and pointless link, but it’s Wikipedia innit.
Charles Walkers website – At least I think it’s run by Charles Walker. It has a forum and Charles makes appearances now and then to talk about Clapham. Also has details of his other investigations.
Amazon – The Demonic Connection – An expensive resource, but one that has a ton of local history and information on everything spoken about in this episode. Undeniably the source of any writing on the web that details the Clapham mysteries. It goes a little off the deep end, but is worth a read as it’s short and the local folklore and history sections are great. Probably not worth the steep prices, if you can find it cheap (I got mine for a lot less) it’s worth a go.
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Nestled on the southern edge of the rolling hills, woods and grassland of the south downs in the south-east of England lies the leafy rural village of Clapham, in Sussex. Settled for thousands of years, evidence of the pagans, druids, Saxons and Romans is rich and seeps throughout the local area. In the 1970s, it was an idyllic rural British village, but on the outskirts of the village, obscured by the woods, evidence of a much darker group begun seeping out, strange disappearances of animals were reported. Then came the bodies…
This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
The South Downs is a long range of rolling chalk hills that borders Winchester in the West and stretches for over 70 miles eastwards, across counties to the chalk cliff faces of Beachy Head, in Eastbourne. Holding national park status, its farmland, dry valleys and steep hills are interspersed with thick wooded areas and dotted throughout, small villages and towns nestle amongst the green landscape.
Inhabited and settled for thousands of years, there is archaeological evidence of Neolithic mines, and Iron age forts scattered throughout the green hillsides. Two of these forts are atop large hills on the outskirts of Clapham. The first is named Chanctonbury and sits at a height of 782 ft, and there is Cissbury that stands at 600 ft. The visible remains of the fortified walls form large circular indentations on the vast hilltops are known simply as Cissbury ring and Chanctonbury ring. Along with Rackham Hill, they form “the devil’s triangle”, a triplet of large earthen hills said to have been created by the devil, when he scraped up mounds of earth and threw them aside in an effort to create a valley and flood the area to destroy the Christian churches. Upon hearing the crowing of a rooster, the devil was cut short in his work and fled, leaving a large valley, now known as Devils Dyke.
The village of Clapham sits quietly alongside these hills. The church in the village was built in the 12th Century and dedicated to St Mary in 1406. The local farmland of Lee Farm acted as a leper colony in the 13th century and the surrounding area, with its high vantage points played important roles in invasions from the Saxons and Romans and was used in armoured vehicle training during world war 2. In modern times, Clapham is a quiet, rural village with a population of 275, a footprint of 2 square miles and consists of only a handful of streets and dusty, tree-lined footpaths. Six miles to the South West lies the town of Littlehampton and 5 miles tot he South East, Worthing, with the City of Brighton and Hove just 12 miles along the now busy dual carriageway, built in the 20th century as a modern alternative to what was once the main trading route connecting Chichester and Brighton.
With such a long, rich and often violent history that encompasses eras of invasion, plague, witch trials and religious persecution, it should come as little surprise that the folklore and legend of the area run equally as deep. There are tales of Saxon coin mints, lost to time under the hills of Cissbury that hold vast sums of ancient wealth, however, the stories are not only of romantic fortune but speak also of strange happenings amongst the woods and atop the hills that belie the leafy and idyllic facade.
The devil has a long and varied history in folklore throughout Sussex and lends his name to many places. Many of the churches have at some point in the distant past had their northern entrances bricked up as a form of preventing evil from entering the sacred houses. There are reports of Alistair Crowley using the Chanctonbury Ring to practice his particular form of paganism and it is suggested by those that subscribe to such theories that ancient ley lines cross and weave all along the ancient ruins, standing stones, mines, and forts of the South Downs.
In a woodland area outside of Clapham village, there are numerous reports of strange happenings that draw from the folk history of the area. In 1967, when a group of University students attempted to spend the night within Chanctonbury ring, they left in a sudden panic, leaving all their equipment behind though none of the group ever told details of their story.
In 1968, a UFO research group who used the hill for its high vantage point and seclusion from light pollution, were shocked to the core when, as they were walking up to the Ring, were swept by waves of cold, bitter air. Many of the members complained of feeling nauseous, whilst other had trouble breathing. Upon leaving the ring, all of their conditions returned to normal.
This is a common story for the Chanctonbury ring and Clapham wood, which have winding, leafy pathways, spidering throughout the overgrowth prove popular with local dog walkers and hikers. The stories are numerous of sudden, sweeping sickness, dizziness, weakness, problems with taking breath and perhaps most disturbingly, feelings of being pulled by an unseen force that has affected both human and animal alike. Talking with local press, a Mrs Goodman reported that whilst out walking her dog and beginning to feel uneasy, she experienced a great struggle trying to get away from the wood, claiming that:
“It was as though I was being pulled back and my legs grew weak. It was quite frightening. There is something strange about that wood.”
Among the walkers, it’s often discussed and remarked upon by the lack of wildlife in the Clapham wood and Chanctonbury area, in particular, the stillness of the air and peculiar lack of birdsong. David Bennet, the Clapham Churchwarden was a keen ornithologist and enjoyed recorded the song of the nightingale, however, he noted that since the mid-1970s, the presence of any song at all had completely disappeared. The woods are left with an uncanny silence, rarely found anywhere else on the South Downs.
In 1975, the Worthing Herald, a local newspaper carried a story which detailed mysterious accounts on the behaviour of dogs in the area, “Wallace” a three-year-old chow belonging to Mr Peter Love was being taken for a walk by his son in an area of the wood locally known as “The Chestnuts” when it simply disappeared. Despite a thorough search, no trace of the dog was ever found. Following the publication of the story, numerous other local residents contacted the paper to report on their own experiences and a week later, a two-year-old collie belonging to Mr John Cornford also disappeared in almost the same spot of Clapham woods. This dog too, was never found. Aside from disappearances, there were also two reports of dogs becoming agitated and in the case of Mr Rawlins, whilst out walking his golden retriever, the animal became partially paralysed and later had to be euthanised. Mrs Wells told of how her collie became so agitated as they neared the Chestnuts she immediately turned around and took the dog home, whereby it calmed down as soon as they left the vicinity. This story was emulated by the owner of a pug who noticed her dog shaking violently and began foaming at the mouth upon their approach to the area. Thinking the dog was having a type of fit, she rushed it to a local vet who found no physical problems and pronounced it perfectly healthy.
Dogs are one story, but horses quite another. There was one report of a rider who tethered his horse to a tree whilst he went into the overgrowth to relieve himself and upon returning, the horse had completely disappeared and was never found.
On the rocky and overgrown hillside, there is also the existence of a mysterious pit, where nothing appears to grow and no one seems to know how and when it was created. There are theories of an ancient Lime Pit as well as some who claim it was a second world war bomb that dropped and created it as a crater. The truth is completely unknown and completely unrecorded however and it’s simply referred to as “the pit”.
Alongside vague stories of “dense mist” which seemed to take the shape of animals, a fox and a bear, there are three well known haunting legends surrounding Clapham woods and Chanctonbury ring.
The ghost of an ancient Saxon man was said to have stalked around the ring, scrabbling on the ground and always seemed to be looking for something. In 1866, a local ploughman uncovered a hoard of Anglo-Saxon silver coins in a small pit on the hillside and ever since reports of the Saxon ghost ceased.
There are many folk tales concerning running around the ring at midnight, sometimes circling clockwise, sometimes anti-clockwise, six times or twelve times, the means are varied, however the end result is the same and that is of upon completion of the rite, the ghost of a druid is said to appear inside the ring.
Finally, the visage of a medieval astrologer who took up residence in the ring to study the stars. His shining ghost is said to glide in and out of the trees following a sudden lowering of the temperature and has been seen and reported on numerous occasions by people from all walks of life.
In 1935, Dr Philip Gosse who lived within viewing distance of Chanctonbury ring and held a special fondness for the area said of the ancient mound:
“Naturally the Ring is haunted. Even on bright summer days there is an uncanny sense of some unseen presence which seems to follow you about. If you enter the dark wood alone you are conscious of something behind you. When you stop, it stops. When you go on, it follows. Even ont he most tranquil days when no breath of air stirs the leaves, you can hear a whispering somewhere above you, and if you should be so bold as to enter the Ring on a dark night, as my wife and I did… We never shall repeat that visit; some things are best forgotten if they can be.”
The folk-tales surrounding the area are widespread and most everyone knows at least one tale of strangeness that has taken place there. Beyond stories, however, lies real evidence of something much darker, much more physical, lurking in the shadows of the wood. A threat which could in part at least, explain the disappearances of the animals and possibly much much more.
Aside from the various other reported phenomena, Chanctonbury has also been the focal point for several reported UFO sightings. Offering fairly easy access, as well as a high vantage point and a level of seclusion able to remove a night sky watcher from the light pollution of the nearby city of Brighton and Hove and large towns of Worthing and Littlehampton, it has been the sight of choice for many nightwatchers over the years. In 1968, local UFOlogist Charles Walker was attending one such nightwatch taking place on Chanctonbury ring. The group took a break from their extended vigils when a sudden bout of sickness and temporary blindness struck many members of the group. Being of curious mind, it was this event, which he found difficult to explain that prompted Charles to begin investigating the area of Clapham wood and Chanctonbury. What he was to discover, was beyond anything which had been uttered of the area so far.
In the late 1970’s, Charles was investigating the numerous reports of missing dogs in Clapham woods in relation to his own research. He had placed an advert in the local paper appealing for information that included his personal telephone number. Unsurprisingly, he had received a number of prank calls and so he was somewhat suspicious of a wild goose chase when, one evening in 1978, he received an anonymous call from a well-spoken man suggesting they should meet. Arrangements were made for the pair to meet at 9:00 PM that night in the now renowned area of the woods named the Chestnuts, close to the disappearances and strange happenings that had been taking place. The problem for Charles, was that the call had come in at 8:30 PM. With little time to decide, he jumped on his bike and rode to the meeting spot without giving too much thought as to the motives behind the caller.
As he walked up the overgrown footpath to the meeting point, he felt a moment of fear as he suddenly realised, now he was out in the isolated woodland surrounded by nothing but darkness in all directions that perhaps he was not entirely safe. Alone he waited.
After several minutes of pacing back and forth, however, he began to suspect that perhaps the caller had led him on a path to nowhere. Just another prank. There was no sign of the caller and he turned to leave and make his way back down the path to the warmth of the humming traffic below and the lights of the busy main road. As he begun to move away, however, a voice echoed out from the darkness of the bushes. It offered Charles details of information he had coveted for several years prior. Writing in “The Demonic Connection”, the man was said to have spoken thusly:
“Don’t attempt to look for me. For your safety and mine, it is imperative you do not see who I am.”
He then went on,
“I am an initiate of the Friends of Hecate, a group formed in Sussex. The nearest I can describe our activities to you is that we are followers of Satanism. At every meeting we hold we sacrifice some animal or other. My fellow initiate who is with me tonight will confirm that if you doubt what I say. We hold meetings in Clapham Woods every month, and dogs or other domestic or farm animals are sacrificed. It all depends on what is easy to obtain at the time.”
Charles then apparently asked if the group were connected with the missing dogs in the area, to which he got the reply:
“I have already told you that our cult demands a sacrifice at every meeting.” And then went on to add a last ominous warning to Charles:
There are people in high places holding positions of power and authority who directly involved and will tolerate no interference. We will stop at nothing to ensure the safety of our cult.”
Hecate refers to the ancient Greek goddess born of Perses and Asteria who takes three forms. Pictured with three human forms as well as the head of a dog, snake and horse, she was the goddess of the moon, Selene the moon in heaven, Artemis the huntress on earth and Persephone the destroyer in the underworld. It is suggested that her initial form was that of a friendly and benevolent birth deity, however, since the medieval period has become most commonly associated with her darker aspects, that of the crossroads, long referenced in folklore as gateways to the underworld, of witchcraft, herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy and sorcery and she is commonly referred to as the goddess of night terrors. Closely associated with dogs, she is the keeper of Cerberus and although it’s proposed that originally the dogs were symbols of childbirth and fertility, this interpretation later gave way to the concept of dogs as manifestations of souls and demons which accompany her. As her sacrificial animal, it is said that dogs were often eaten in solemn sacrament to her.
Francis Kings book, published in 1972 “sexuality, magic and perversion” details how to invoke the goddess Hecate with a recitation as follows:
“Come infernal.. Bonbo, Goddess of the broad roadways, of the crossroad, thou who goest to and fro at night, torch in hand, enemy of the day, friend and lover of darkness, thou who dost rejoice when the bitches are howling and warm blood is spilled, thou who art walking amid the phantom and in the place of tombs, thou whose thirst is blood, thou who dost strike chill fear into mortal heart, Gorgo, Mormo, Moon of a thousand forms, cast a propitious eye upon our sacrifice.”
One could perhaps right off the group as a small bunch of cranks, or perhaps just people with unique interests who mean little harm. The animal disappearances could have little to do with the group and they could be simply using the disappearances as a convenience, a form of legitimacy where none existed. To do so, however, would be much too simple, for it was not only dogs and animals that went missing in Clapham Woods.
Police-constable Peter Goldsmith was 46 years old, a well-known police officer in the area and a former Royal Commando. He lived in the local village of Steyning, around eight miles to the North East of the village of Clapham, on the far side of Chanctonbury, with his wife Edith and two daughters. On Friday, 2nd June 1972, He failed to return home and his wife promptly reported him missing. The next morning when he failed to show up for work at the station, the police launched a full-scale search party consisting of local police, tracker dogs and helicopter. By the 20th June with no evidence found, the search operation was ramped up to include over thirty officers, eventually increasing to over 95 officers, ten dogs, light aircraft, helicopters and a diving unit and yet still no trace of Peter was found. On the 22nd September a police spokesman admitted to the local press that despite following up several leads, that had drawn a blank.
At 3:00 PM on the 13th December 1972, whilst beating for a pheasant shoot on a nearby private farmland, Mr Edward Llewellyn Harris discovered the body of Peter Goldsmith laying underneath a thick patch of brambles. He was lying as if asleep and covered by leaves, in his left hand was a small disc attached to a metal ring and lying next tot he body, a small brown bottle which was tested for poison but gave negative results. Due to extensive decomposition, the exact cause of death was impossible to ascertain, however it was heard at the inquest that his passing had occurred at least three months prior to the discovery of his body and that there were no signs that foul play had occurred.
Giving further evidence at the hearing was PC John Grigson, a long-term colleague and friend of Peter, who told of how leading up to his disappearance, Peter had seemed worried recently and was “rather quiet and slightly nervous about something.” It was also revealed at the inquest that he was last seen at 3:30 PM with a brown holdall, heading towards the South Downs and that 6 months prior to his disappearance, Peter had been working as the Coroners Officer investigating the death of an unidentified woman’s body which was found just half a mile from where his own body was found, the details of the case however, do not seem to exist. The final judgement on his death was an open verdict and thought to most likely be suicide.
Mr Leon Foster was 66 years old and had been missing for three weeks when his body was found in Clapham Woods on 4th August 1975. Mr Hugo Healy and his wife had been looking for their missing horse when they came across a pair of legs sticking out from a thicket. Thinking it to be a homeless man, they reported it to the landowner’s wife, who contacted police. PC Owen Strathmore found the body as reported laying on the ground next to what he thought was hay as if laid out on the ground like a bed. The pathologist on the case was unable to find a cause of death owing to the decomposition of the body, however, stated that it appeared he had not eaten or drunk anything for several days prior to his death. The coroner Dr Mark Calvert-Lee, unable to ascertain and obvious cause of death once more ruled an open verdict.
Reverend Harry Neil Snelling was 65 years old and lived with his wife in Steyning. He had been the rector of Clapham and Patching from 1960 until 1974 and was well known in the local area. On the 31st October 1978, he had visited the dentist and called his wife to tell her that all had gone well with the appointment and he would be walking home. When he did not arrive home later that evening, however, his wife reported him missing and the following day, as with the case of Peter Goldsmith, a full search party was organised comprising 25 police officers, tracking dogs and light aircraft. As the days passed and no evidence was returned, local civilians joined in with the search operation and yet nothing was ever found.
Three years later, in August of 1981, a package arrived at Worthing police station containing a letter, a wallet with Harry Neil Snellings credit card inside and a rough map with directions to his body. The letter was written by a Canadian hiker named Michael Raine, who apparently had stumbled across the remains of the Reverend whilst out walking, however did not have time to report to the police, as he was due to fly to Africa the following day and presumably did not want to be held up by an impending investigation. Upon following the map and description, police found the remains of the reverend 150 yards from the edge of Clapham Wood in a spot that they knew to have thoroughly searched during the investigation.
At the inquest, his wife positively identified several items found on the remains. The pathologist Dr John Shore stated that no sign of injury to the bones. Due to the lack of evidence, the verdict was recorded as open once again.
Jillian Matthews was a 37-year-old divorcee, living in Steyning. She had had a history of Schizophrenia but was generally thought to be coping well in recent times, however on 28th September 1981, she went out to the shops and never returned.
Six weeks late on Saturday 14th November, Alan Budd and Andrew Martin from Clapham were beating on a pheasant shoot when they stumbled across the body of Jillian, lying uncovered on the ground and quite in the open. Investigations found that Jillian Matthews had been raped and strangled, but no further evidence could be found despite combing the surrounding area. On the 25th November, a police spokesman told local press that:
“It is thought that there are a number of people in the Steyning area who are reluctant to speak directly to the police”
A confidential phone line was set up, but no information was ever gleaned and the perpetrator has never been found.
Anthony Flowers, the head keeper of the pheasant shoot for that particular piece of land commented to police:
“Strangely enough, we had been over the exact spot a fortnight before but had not seen anything.”
There are some, including Charles Walker and Toyne Newton the authors and researchers of “The demonic connection” that believe the friends of Hecate may well have had a hand in at least some of the mysterious murders of Clapham Wood. It is not without basis either.
After his meeting with the initiate in the darkness of the Chestnuts, Charles Walker refused to stop his investigations into the occult practices and rather, armed with a name for the group, intensified his research. In November of 1978, not long after his rendezvous, Charles was riding his pushbike home when he heard a car pull up behind him and begin to follow him at low speed, the car then proceeded to accelerate into the back of him, knocking him off his bike and sped off quickly. Not being deterred easily, when back on his feet, Charles resumed his investigations and later found a mural on the wall of a barn situated near Clapham Wood of a satanic figure, he described it as:
“A huge horned head with a scaly Luciferian body and forked tail, set against a backdrop of vivid flames”
Later in the same year, Charles found evidence of a satanic altar in the centre of Chanctonbury Ring.
Meanwhile, Toyne Newton had published several articles detailing his own and Charles’ research into the area of Clapham wood and Chanctonbury for the paranormal magazine “The unexplained”. The magazine received quite a large amount of correspondence from readers to Newton and they duly forwarded them on to the author. Most were from readers who wanted to discuss the subject or had questions, however one was unsigned, typed up on an old typewriter and opened with the harrowing line:
“In your article on Clapham Wood, you ask if the mysterious events are linked to a black coven? I can tell you they are but it is much more than that.”
The letter could be easily dismissed as a hoax by a reader who is spinning a tale for Newton, however, the very next line dispels the idea almost without question:
“A few years back, a friend of mine joined them, they are called the friends of Hecate.”
Given that Newton had not mentioned the group’s name in any of his articles, there could only be one way for the writer to have had the information and that is through direct contact either as they say “a friend” or they were a member themselves. The letter goes on:
“They meet in the woods and barn up by the church and make ritual sacrifices at the time of Orion and The Archer.
“Lots of Patching and Clapham people are in it but the top ones come from London, two women and a man, the man is a doctor, about 45, the women about 30 and 60.”
“They always go back to London after the meetings so no one knows who they are or that they are connected with what goes on, I think this is when there is a human sacrifice.”
“My friend said there are other groups the same in Winchester and Avebury, a big group in London, I can’t remember them all but lots of people are involved as there are different grades and thousands of members in the outer one, but only about 200 at the inner circle. It is all very secret, the inner core members are protected by the others who they use as spies and guards to make sure everything is kept secret.”
“At Clapham there is about 30 members, who they are I don’t know, it is onl because my friend has gone to live abroad I can tell you about it. he was sick of it all, especially the sacrifices. He was very frightened when the police were looking for the vicar you mentioned and when I said I was going to join the search party on the downs he said no need they’d got him. I thought he meant the police had found him but they hadn’t and when I asked him later on, he told me to shut up.”
The letter goes on to mention their reasons for using Clapham Wood, and about dark forces and finally signs off:
“I can’t sign my name but be warned, they are much more powerful than a black coven.” In his research, newton had previously come across a source who had told him about a group of Londoners, who had secured exclusive shooting rights on some of the land around Clapham Wood, saying:
“People who have purchased exclusive shooting rights from the privately owned estates come down from London. Big money changes hands and they don’t bag many birds. I know, because I’ve seen them.”
It was Newtons belief that, the Friends of Hecate were purchasing the exclusive rights as cover and sights the fact that three of the four bodies in the mysterious cases were all found on privately owned land, and two by beaters during a private shoot. He also suggests that by owning said rights, they would have a very private and well-guarded venue for holding their ritualistic meetings.
Since publishing “The demonic connection”, Charles Walker has continued to investigate the area and has both video and photographic evidence of ritualistic trinkets and incense found around a large beech tree, which is often found with obscure satanic symbols scribed onto the bark in chalk.
The wood is, apparently now clean of the occult according to posts made online by Charles Walker. Or maybe not. Reports have once again started to filter through of missing animals in the local paper and despite the hurricane of 1987 which destroyed the ring of trees that sat on top of Chanctonbury and which much of the reports of high strangeness entered around, the myths surrounding the area persist and questions on the mystery of Clapham wood end up simply requiring more questions.
Why did the initiate of the Friends of Hecate contact Charles Walker in the first place? If it was to offer veiled threats concerning his investigations, why did he offer up information so freely in regards to their name and practices? Furthermore, if they made sacrifices at their meetings and as suggested the animal was “what is easy to obtain at the time”, why did they have to steal them from dog walkers? Surely there are much easier ways of obtaining domestic animals from breeder and animal shelters that would cause much less suspicion and fuss. Why not just breed them themselves?
Still though, the group can’t be immediately dismissed. There is little doubt that many of the references made not only in the name but in the practices are far and away too obscure for a common prankster, especially in a time before the internet, where information was not so easily gleaned on such matters. The letter, as bizarre as it is, can also not be easily explained as it contains much too much information that could only have been gleaned from first-hand experience.
The writer of the book “The demonic Connection”, Toyne Newton, has it seems written further publications that detail a supposed occult plot involving the European Union and British Sovereignty which is unfortunate and leads one to roll eyes a little too easily, however, even if we are to disregard the wider conspiracy, there is certainly historical evidence that the occult have and seemingly, will always, be drawn to Clapham and Chanctonbury due to its long and winding history. Posting online, Charles Walker said of Friends of Hecate:
“There is a tremendous amount of material that has not been made public as yet, and may not be for some time. Investigations in the area are ongoing and we have in fact made contact with at least two people who were, for some years, involved at a low level with The Friends of Hecate.”
As far as the deaths are concerned, there remain many questions, In the case of Peter Goldsmith, if no foul play had been detected, why on earth would he have gone tot he trouble of concealing himself underneath a bramble bush to commit suicide? And how did he do it? Who was the girl whose body had been found six months prior and why is there so little information in regards to any case?
There is little to be gleaned from the case of Leon Foster, but the questions surrounding the Reverend Harry Neil Snelling are numerous. If the remains were indeed found where his body originally lay, how had the police and search party, consisting of both a large group of trained officers and civilians not discovered it during the search? Who was the Canadian hiker and how was he allowed to simply vanish after supplying the police with such sensitive information? And exactly how had he died?
There seems little doubt that Jillian Matthews body was dumped at a much later date due to it being in such an open and obvious spot, but who was the killer and how was there so little evidence?
If the two mysteries are indeed connected remains to be seen but will most likely remain unanswered.
The disappearances of the animals and the deaths of the four poor victims during the 70s and 80s will likely never be fully resolved and remain a mystery shrouded by the overgrowth in the still, uneasy air of Clapham Wood.
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