Sydney Gardens is the oldest public park in Bath, dating back to the 18th century. It has been enjoyed by many generations of Bath’s residents, including Jane Austen, who visited on many occasions.
Sydney Gardens may also be the site of one of Bath’s most sinister metaphysical anomalies. I recently received a somewhat strange email:
Since you’re into weird stuff, you might be interested in this. Anyway, it happened around three years ago. My friends and I were heading home from a party to celebrate the end of uni lectures and we went into Sydney gardens. We sat down in that big shelter with the stone columns, and decided to finish off the drinks we had left over. It was well past 3am, and the park seemed deserted. But then we were suddenly surrounded by men wearing Nazi uniform. For a second I thought they were just some idiots in fancy dress, but it became obvious pretty quickly that they weren’t messing around. They pointed guns at us and threatened to shoot us. They handcuffed us and started frog marching us out of the shelter. And then they vanished. I don’t mean they just left… they literally blinked out of existence. The handcuffs vanished as well. It was like everything flicked back to normal. Anyway, we all went home over the next couple of days, and when we came back everyone refused to talk about it. Could this really have happened? I have to admit I was pretty drunk at the time, but I swear I’m not just making this up. What do you think?
I didn’t give it much thought at the time. The ghost stories about Roman soldiers are dubious enough, and I wasn’t going to start investigating ghost Nazis on the say so of a drunken student. I gave a cursory reply, and received no further correspondence.
Then a few weeks ago I had a very interesting conversation with two fellow researchers. The first, Helen, studies modern era worship of Sulis, the goddess of Bath’s thermal springs. The second, Bill, is (although he disdains the term) a ghost hunter.
Helen was telling us about the Bathwick Circle, an early 20th century group of Sulis worshippers, comprised of young men from Bath’s upper classes. Although the Circle accepted the Roman association of Sulis with Minerva, they were far more enthusiastic about the consequent association with the Greek goddess Athena, and in particular with Athena’s role as a goddess of war. This focus on warfare proved to be the group’s undoing. They enthusiastically volunteered for the First World War, during which half their number died. The surviving members found their war goddess far less glorious in retrospect, and the group unceremoniously drifted apart.
The most enduring legacy of the Bathwick Circle is Minerva’s Temple in Sydney Gardens, which needless to say is the “big shelter with the stone columns” mentioned in the above email. The Temple was commissioned to showcase Bath’s cultural heritage at the 1911 Festival of Empire held in Crystal Palace, before being moved to Sydney Gardens in 1914, where it notionally commemorates the 1909 Bath Pageant. Helen, however, detects the Circle’s influence. Although they played no official role in its construction, Helen believes that they dictated nearly every aspect of its design through a variety of subtle manipulations. It is even rumoured that once their temple was installed in Sydney Gardens, they celebrated Minerva’s sacred festival of Quinquatria by sacrificing a newborn lamb. The rumours stop there, as by the time the next Quinquatria came around, they were all fighting and dying in France.
(As a side note, there is a second Temple of Minerva in Bath, located in the Victoria Park botanical gardens. However this was constructed after the Bathwick Circle had dissolved, and seems completely devoid of occult significance.)
At this point, I made a quip about Nazi ghosts, to which Bill replied “so you’ve heard the story as well?”. I said “I wonder how many people that student contacted?” but Bill was baffled by my response. It soon became clear that we were talking about two different things entirely. And so Bill told us the story of Albert Brown.
It happened during the war. My grandfather volunteered with the Civil Defence Service as a teenager. That would would have been up until the middle of 1941, when he joined the army. His unit contained quite a few men who were too old to join the army, including one named Albert Brown. Anyway, my grandfather spent many nights fire watching. Although Bath hadn’t been bombed, bombers on their way to Bristol were a common sight, and his main job was to look out for falling incendiaries. Most of the time, he had little to do, as not much fell on Bath. At least not until after he had joined the army.
One night, my grandfather was patrolling the Pulteney Road area when he heard a huge bang from the direction of Sydney Gardens. He went to investigate, as did other Civil Defence members and after a few minutes there were several of them searching the gardens for any sign of what had caused the noise. Then someone found Albert Brown. He was lying unconscious in Minerva’s Temple. He was absolutely filthy, and wearing little more than rags. He was also clutching a submachine gun, despite none of them ever having been issued with weapons. Someone called for an ambulance, and he was carted off to hospital.
The following day, the bang was still a mystery. Many people had heard it, but no damage or debris could be found. I think the sound was explained away as that of a more distant explosion being reflected by the hills. It was determined that the gun had been recently fired, and that the magazine was nearly empty. Despite this, no gunfire had been heard, and no shell casings could be found.
Albert’s behaviour was also strange. When he woke up, he started ranting about the Germans invading. He was amazed and overjoyed to see his wife, having first told the doctors that his entire family was dead. The doctors eventually diagnosed him with shell shock from the First World War, which had lain dormant for years, only to be awakened by the strange bang. He was forcibly retired from the Civil Defence Service, and the incident was largely forgotten. But I don’t think anyone ever explained where he got the gun from.
I was still far from convinced, but with three strange tales involving the same building, it seemed worth looking into.
Over the next few days, I searched through wartime records, which confirmed parts of Bill’s story. An Albert Brown served in the Civil Defence Service before retiring at the end of March 1941. A loud bang was indeed heard throughout Bath at about 03:30 on Wednesday 19th March 1941 but no source was found. Unfortunately, I could find no trace of the thing I was looking for, namely a connection between Albert Brown and the Bathwick Circle.
I asked Helen for help, but she also found nothing, and concluded that a connection between Brown and the Circle was very unlikely. However, she mentioned in passing that 19th March is the first night of Quinquatria, and it occurred to me the incident with the students would also have happened around then. Assuming that the students were celebrating the last day of lectures before returning home for the Easter holidays, then any such incident would indeed have occurred on the 19th March, not to mention at around the same time of the early morning.
I then asked Helen if the time half past three in the morning held any significance. “Not that I’m aware of” she replied. However she provided me with her notes on the Circle’s rituals, in case they revealed anything. The only direct reference to Quinquatria was a bizarre poem, apparently intended as a liturgy:
On Sulis’s house, the Gorgons leer.
Quinquatria dawns, the vales near.
In starlight and stone, the Gorgons align.
In fire and blood, the vales entwine.
Making the somewhat optimistic assumptions that vales meant alternate realities, and that entwining meant the formation of a doorway between them, I attempted to decipher the poem. The first line presumably refers to the temple, and to the Gorgon’s head carved into its pediment. The second line would mean that at the beginning of Quinquatria, the alternate realities approach one another. But after that, things get more cryptic.
Gorgons are referred to in the plural, but the temple only depicts one. What were the others? One candidate is the Gorgon’s head sculpture in the Roman baths, but the two aren’t aligned in any obvious way, and any such alignment would have to be permanent instead of transitory.
It then occurred to me that there is another Gorgon to be found, and moreover one that moves around. That is Algol, the star in the constellation Perseus representing the the head of the slain Gorgon Medusa. That would give one Gorgon in starlight, and one Gorgon in stone, just as the poem said.
It turns out that when seen from Bath, Algol is circumpolar. In other words, it’s close enough to the celestial north pole to never set. But this is only just true. Every 23 hours and 56 minutes it grazes the northern horizon, only to rise again. On March 19th, this happens to occur at half past three in the morning. The temple itself points south, and so at this time the Gorgons would indeed align.
I presented my findings to Helen and Bill. Helen was impressed by my Algol deductions, adding a few interesting facts of her own. One of the Bathwick Circle’s members, Henry Thynne, was a star lore enthusiast who unsuccessfully promoted the idea that Medusa’s head be considered a constellation in its own right. He was also dissatisfied with the temple’s orientation, insisting that it be repositioned to face exactly south. But despite his many protests, the city refused to uproot a massive stone structure for the sole purpose of rotating it by a few degrees.
Helen was less impressed, however, by my conclusions about vales entwining, dismissing the final line as nonsense. “Oh, it was probably written by Thynne himself”, she laughed, “and he was definitely a bit of a dramatist.” On the other hand, Bill was ecstatic.“That’s it” he said, “it’s time to track down Albert Brown”.
Albert Brown died in 1968, but his granddaughter Patricia Brown, now a grandmother herself, lives in Bradford on Avon. A few days later, Bill and I paid her a visit. “It’s been a while since anyone asked me about that” she said over a glass of sherry. And she began to tell us everything she knew.
My grandfather was always a strange fellow. I don’t think he ever really got over the first war, and when second war came, something in him snapped. He outwardly agreed that that bang was the last straw that broke his sanity, and that he’d somehow mixed up the past and the present. He wouldn’t have gotten out of that hospital otherwise. But it always seemed as if he was holding something back. He wasn’t just reluctant to talk about that night, but about everything that had ever happened previously.
Not long before he died, he seemed keen to get something off his chest. He told me that he had never believed the doctors, and that he wanted to tell me what had really happened. I’m just telling you what he believed, mind you.
Germany had invaded. They had taken London and most of the south. There was a massive battle going on for Bristol. The defenders were desperate to keep the Avonmouth dock yards running, and the Germans were desperate to stop them. After months of bitter street fighting, the entire city was in ruins and hundreds of thousands of people were dead, but they kept on fighting. Bath was fully under German control, but remained important, as the Great Western Railway was the main German supply line from London. They also made heavy use of horse drawn canal boats, as they were always desperately low on fuel.
One day, the resistance got wind of the fact that the Germans were bringing double-wide barges laden with high explosives along the canal. A group of saboteurs plotted to blow one of them up in that stretch of canal just north of Sydney Gardens, where the railway line runs alongside. They hoped to drain the canal and flood the railway. It was a suicide mission. They intended to plant detonators and set them off immediately, dying in the explosion. Even getting that far would be deadly enough, as the canal was heavily guarded.
My grandfather’s job was to act as a distraction, and to draw some of the German troops away from the main target. He and a few others shot at some German troops then ran away, hoping that that the Germans would give chase. Most of them were gunned down before they even got the chance to run, but my grandfather managed to reach Sydney Gardens with dozens of Germans chasing after him. But the next thing he remembered was waking up in the Royal United Hospital.
That’s the point at which his story started agreeing with everyone else’s. He was amazed to see his family alive. He was given a newspaper and was baffled by the contents, calling it nonsense. He was briefly held in a psychiatric hospital, before the doctors decided he’d gotten over whatever had happened to him. He retired from all official war duties, and I think he tended allotments from then on.
Bill and I quizzed her for details, but she couldn’t recall anything else about her grandfather’s tale. Then Bill asked her about the gun.
The gun? Now that was strange. According to my mother, they’d traced it back to a supply depot near Exeter, and were utterly mystified as to how he’d gotten it out. There’d been a stock check shortly before, and everything was under round the clock guard. I don’t know what the official outcome was, but I don’t think he was ever charged with anything in the end. It was always a mystery though.
We continued our questioning, but she knew little else. She hadn’t heard of the Bathwick Circle, and knew nothing about Minerva’s Temple besides the fact that Albert was found in “some kind of building”. It was getting late by then, and so we thanked her for her time, and went on our way.
Our meeting with Patricia Brown just so happened to be on March 19th. “So are you up for it then?” asked Bill. “Much as I’d love to get shot at by inter-dimensional Nazis, I’m afraid I’ve got work tomorrow” I replied, and so we went our separate ways.
At around five in the morning I was woken up by a frantic knocking on my front door. I crawled out of bed, and opened the door to Bill. “I went”, he said, wild-eyed with excitement. Before I had a chance to reply, he started speaking incredibly fast
I got there at around three, just to be on the safe side, you know. Everything was deserted, and nothing seemed unusual. So I sat in the temple and waited for a bit. After a while, I started looking at the sky, trying to catch a glimpse of Algol. I could make out Cassiopeia, but Perseus was below the skyline. And then I noticed something that I really really… I mean really really really should have noticed before. I was facing north. I was facing the back of the temple. I was looking at the sky through what was supposed to be a solid stone wall.
And that was when I legged it. I panicked. I had no idea where I was going. I just ran and ran and ran. I could have given Usain Bolt a run for his money, I was that freaked out. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and that place as possible. I eventually ended up near the Guildhall. It was seeing the Starbucks across the road that brought me to my senses. I know they’re everywhere, but I don’t think even they’ve opened branches in Nazi controlled parallel universes.
He gave a faint smile and then collapsed in a faint.
The following day, when Bill was at last capable of talking without collapsing in excitement, we met up with Helen to discus things in more detail. We all agreed that a bloody battle ending in a huge explosion would fit the final line of the poem, but could agree on little else. Helen was the most skeptical, but seemed more tolerant of our supernatural speculations than she usually is.
Bill would pause occasionally, desperately trying to extract further details from his memory. After a longer pause than usual, he finally retrieved something
Now I said that I freaked out after realising I was looking at the stars through a solid stone wall, but that isn’t quite right. I didn’t panic straight away. I was more curious than anything else. My first thought was to check that I was really seeing what I thought I was, and that I hadn’t just muddled up the direction, or anything like that. So I took a few steps backwards to get my bearings, and that’s when it happened. It was like the park was closing in on me. That’s what freaked me out.
After another long pause, he added
I think I know what happened. The gardens weren’t closing in on me. They’ve always been like that. I didn’t think about it at the time, but when I was looking up the stars, the park was far bleaker and emptier. When I stepped back, the trees suddenly became thicker and taller, and closer together. Like how Sydney Gardens really is. It was the sudden contrast that freaked me out. You remember what that student said right? Everything “flicked back to normal”. That’s exactly what happened to me.
Bill could recall little else, but agreed that the return to normality probably coincided with him stepping out of the temple.
So is Minerva’s Temple a gateway between realities, or just the setting for a few strange tales from a traumatised war veteran, a drunken student, and an overexcited Bill? The only thing I know for certain is that when March 19th next comes around, I’ll be keeping well away from Sydney Gardens.