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Chapter 41: Satanists and an Elephant's Cage
“You’re not an ex murderer are you?” the lady holding the door shouted as I ran along the road, bag and coat flying.
“A what?” I called back, trying to think if I’d ever killed an ex, or anyone for that matter, the question was ambiguous.
“No,” I replied confidently.
“You’re not an axe murderer are you?” She said again, louder this time. A passer-by looked at us strangely.
I thought again. “No.”
I got in explaining how I’d been confused by the ex, ex-, axe conundrum but I hadn’t killed anyone and wasn’t planning to. Satisfied I was telling the truth, the lady got in and we drove out of Hitchin.
Richard at the wheel was a carpenter. He was Hitchin born and bred. Literally, he was born in the hospital which was now a Waitrose, probably in what’s now the bread aisle.
Lorna meanwhile worked at an SEM school for children with disabilities. She’d been there for four years. They’d been an eventful four years. Covid had been hard and now the teachers were on strike.
“We try to keep the kids in if we can,” she explained, looking over her shoulder, “It’s really tough for the parents otherwise.”
Lorna didn’t do it vocationally which made it all the more difficult, she wasn’t a teacher or anything, she just worked there. She did say it was rewarding though, “There’s nothing like seeing a child who’s been in a wheelchair walk for the first time.”
The school had children with all kinds of disabilities. They’d leave when they were 19 and many would go on to universities, others on to jobs. It’s a wonderful thing our society should be proud of. For so much of the past people with disabilities weren’t given a chance, now they are. Lorna agreed it was wonderful.
I wasn’t going far, only a few miles up the road. They dropped me outside a village called Chicksands. It’s an odd, ancient village with an MoD base tacked on the side. Once it was surrounded by ancient woodland that provided the timber for the octagon on top of Ely Cathedral. Looking at the last remaining section of the woods on google maps, I spotted a strange circular form. It looked like the remains of an iron age fort, enormous and perfectly round. It had a dotted circumference and concentric rings. It was I discovered, the remains of the ‘elephant cage’.
During the Second World War Chicksands was taken over by the RAF and became a listening post. German signals were picked up and passed on to Bletchley Park to be cracked by Turing and his team. After the war, the base became the only RAF site to be leased to the Americans. They used it for a similar purpose but this time they were listening for the Soviets.
In 1962 they began constructing a vast metal structure. It was one of nine worldwide AN/FLR-9 Wullenwebers that together could locate high-priority Soviet targets anywhere in the world. There were similar structures in the Philippines, Germany and Alaska. They called the network, the Iron Horse and the metal circle the elephant cage.
The pictures of the elephant cage are both horrifying and awe-inspiring, a huge complex of metal antennae, four hundred meters across, that tower into the air, somewhere between a stadium and a prison. A temple to Cold War paranoia. The architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner was more sympathetic, ‘It is a 20th century Stonehenge,’ he wrote, ‘or the elegant steel structure for the biggest bullfighting arena ever built.’
Now all that’s left is an earth circle. The tat-tat of the next-door shooting range floats on the breeze.
I was picked up from Chicksands by Steve. He drove a Land Rover Discovery and told me he was coming back from tying some bits up at work. He owned a sign-making business out of Shefford.
“We make all sorts of signs,” he explained, “Anything from dog tags to big neon things for London. Imperial Tobacco… did most of theirs. And Papa Johns’s… we did most of theirs too. Yeah, the ones you see on the street. We use all sorts of materials, PVC, wood, plastic, you name it.”
I’d never thought of it before but there are signs everywhere. Someone somewhere will have made them all.
The business had been Steve’s dad’s before him and soon it would be his son’s. “I had an accident a few months ago,” he confided as the radio played quietly in the background. Now he was in the process of handing the business on.
Steve had got trapped in a burning pub. It was his local, his favourite pub and he’d been a regular there. It had been busy one night before Christmas. There’d been a rowdy atmosphere, a crackling fire and an age-old Christmas cheer. Some men had got too drunk. One of them got hold of the Christmas tree, it could have been a bet I don’t know, but he threw it on the fire.
“Have you ever heard, the expression ‘Gone up like a Christmas tree?’” Steve asked me blankly. I had, “Well it did. The whole place went whooosh.” He lifted a hand off the wheel into the air.
Eight of them got trapped inside. It had felt like hours before the fire brigade arrived and hauled him out. He didn’t remember it. He was the worst affected of the eight and spent the next two days on a ventilator. Christmas was spent in hospital and he was only now recovering his breathing.
We came into the village.
“I don’t know why you wanted to come here,” he remarked. I replied that it was only because a previous driver had suggested it. Steve assumed the role of tour guide anyway despite saying there wasn’t much to see.
“That there used to be the gaol,” he pointed to a tiny brick box across the green. Opposite was a dilapidated building.
“Was that the pub?” I asked.
“No, he replied, “That one was.”
The pub came into view, a horrifying blackened carcass. The empty windows were licked with soot like the spoiled make-up of a horror-movie character. It must have been traumatic driving past it every day, remembering the scream of the rising flames and cloying, choking smoke.
I changed the topic back to the gaol.
“They used to lock people up in there for a few days. Next to it is the animal pound where they’d keep lost animals.
“That building there used to be The Compasses,” Steve was warming up to his tour guiding role as we slid past an old red brick pub. It was now a house with wisteria on the front, “That’s where they’d hold court and try the criminals from the gaol, and then…” he paused until it came into view, “That was where they’d hang em!”
He pointed to a school.
Steve told me where to walk to see the church, before grumbling, “You don’t wanna be around here at Halloween. It’s a nightmare. There are so many people they have to get the police in to do crowd control. They cordon the whole village off.”
“If you go up that path, there’s an abandoned church. It brings in goths and people from all over the country. They do black magic stuff, I dunno, but thousands come every year.”
I hopped out and followed his directions, walking up what seemed like an old Holloway away from the village, through the woods and up the hill.
Out of the trees, there was a man in a beaten coat and beanie sweeping a field with a metal detector. His machine was beeping as he swung it like a pendulum.
“Found anything?” I asked over the waist-high hedge. He looked up, leaning his head back to peer at me from under his hat. He had a couple of teeth.
“Prully just an old musket ball.”
“What would that be from?” I asked back.
“Well,” he looked at me like I was an idiot, “A very old gun…”
Once he realised I did actually know what a musket was and was wondering what event it was from, he became very talkative.
“I’ve found plenty o’ things o’er the years,” he drawled with an indistinct country burgh, obviously glad someone was taking an interest, “Found some Roman coins next field over. Think there might have been a villa there you know. And I had plenty of rifle cases o’er there,” he pointed to the back corner of the field, “Think they used this field for training during the First War. Had a few buckles, Georgian buckles. Prully my best find that. And plenty of coins of course. Usually they’re ‘toasted’ though. Means they’ve been all worn over the centuries. One or two weren’t though. Amazin’ what you can find.”
Roy rattled away as I asked him more questions.
“Yeah. Buckles and coins are the best really. Amazing to think they’ve not been touched for hundreds of years. But you find a lot of rubbish too. It’s remarkable how much rubbish there is. Modern rubbish. It’s everywhere.”
I asked about the church. He seemed like a good person to tell me about it.
He shrugged. “I guess it’s just a scary, abandoned gothic church. In the 70s some Satanists came and dug up some bones for a ceremony or something. But now people come from all over to see it. They say it’s haunted, but I ain’ seen anythin’.”
The church was underwhelming. It was just an empty church in the middle of nowhere. It had been abandoned because it was too small for the village. They’d built a bigger one down the hill. The only sign that anything weird happened here was a notice saying that vandalism was a crime, and a cross carved into the wall.
Through the naked nave the valley opened up. There was a good view from up here. Once upon a time, I thought, perhaps you could have seen the Elephant Cage.
Looking across the countryside, bright in the weak sun, I realised Roy was right. It is amazing what you can find, if only you know where to look. Within a few square miles of Bedfordshire, I’d seen supermarkets where people were born, fields where Nazi U-Boats and Soviet ships, planes and politicians were tracked, houses that were pubs that were courts and schools that were execution grounds.
It seemed the Satanists had picked the most boring place of all.
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