Saturday, 3 January 2015

Black magic, and Stonehenge at dawn on New Years Day

I suppose that Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977), the English novelist, is not much read nowadays. True, his wide-ranging output has from time to time been republished since he died, some of it quite recently, but I don't know of anyone who actually now reads him, except myself. (I have an extensive library of his works, mainly in paperback) And yet he was once hailed as 'The Prince of Thriller Writers'.

His best-known stories were popular from the mid-1930s until 1970. He specialised in historical novels, espionage and the occult. My Dad devoured this stuff, and so did I.

Wheatley was very good at creating strongly-plotted adventures for several different sets of characters. The character who has worn best is Gregory Sallust, the secret agent who may well have inspired James Bond. (Dennis Wheatley and Ian Fleming knew each other) The Sallust books are clever and gripping, and, typically, are set against a background of real events and real people. I would pick Come Into My Parlour as the very best of them.

But he also had another set of brave and resourceful adventurers, the 'three modern musketeers', who were the Duc De Richleau, an exiled French nobleman of royalist sympathies, charming manners and great erudition; Simon Aron, a young and sophisticated Jewish financier; and Rex Van Ryn, the playboy son of a rich American tycoon. Each had talents which they threw into whatever difficult quest or assignment they embarked on.

Of all the many characters Wheatley invented, the Duc De Richleau and his friends got the most mixed up in crimes and espionage connected with the occult, by which I mean Black Magic. In fact, in his lifetime Wheatley acquired a risky reputation for being acquainted with the Black Arts and its practitioners, including the notorious magician and mystic Aleister Crowley, although neither was actually a satanist. At the high of Wheatley's book sales, during the 1960s, the 'Black Magic' label was the killer attraction.

I don't know how hands-on Wheatley was where magical practices were concerned. He always denied personal involvement. But he does come across as being very well-read in the whole subject. But then he also knew a lot about history, and wine, and naval matters. He had an official connection with the wartime allied governments as a counter-espionage and counter-invasion planner, and was decorated for his services.

If you want to know a bit more about Dennis Wheatley, see A long article on the darker but even more interesting Aleister Crowley is at

Incidentally, for goodness sake don't think that I am personally fascinated by magic and the occult, or would ever want to get involved with it. I can't tell whether there is anything 'real' in magic, black or white. It is however clearly very dangerous, even if the danger really lies in being psychologically subverted, and placed under someone else's control through deception and hypnosis, or simply by the mesmerising effects of ritual, or drugs surreptitiously administered. In my view it's all something to be very wary of. I don't want to die of a cardiac arrest, because I was frightened to death by an illusion conjured up for my benefit.

And my dawn adventure? Nearly there.

In a 1934 book, The Devil Rides Out, the Duc De Richleau and Rex Van Ryn race down at night from London to Salisbury Plain in the Duke's Hispano to rescue Simon Aron, who has fallen under the spell of a satanist, and is to be the centrepiece of a midnight Sabbat out on the Plain on Walpurgis Night. (See, for context, The Duke's mighty Hispano-Suiza limousine would have looked like this:

What old-fashioned style - and what huge headlights! They play a crucial role. Here's my 1966 copy of the book:

They do rescue Simon Aron, snatching him from under the very gaze of the monstrous Goat of Mendes, causing (to put it at its lightest) a cataclismic interruption to the Devil's Baptism about to be be enacted. But then they have the problem of how to keep Simon safe through the remaining hours of darkness - 'spiritually safe' that is. The Duke decides to take him to Stonehenge. The ancient temple will be a powerful sanctuary. It will protect him.

Let me quote from the book:

Once more the car rocketed along the road across those grassy barren slopes, cleaving the silent darkness of the night with its great arced headlights.

Twenty minutes later they passed again through the twisting streets of Amesbury, now silent and shuttered while its inhabitants slept, not even dreaming of the terrible battle which was being fought out that night between the Power of Light and the Power of Darkness, so near to them in actuality and yet so remote to the teeming life of everyday modern England. 

A mile outside the town, they ran up the slope to the wire fence which rings in the Neolithic monument, Stonehenge. The Duke drove the car into the deserted car park beside the road and there they left it. Rex carried Simon, wrapped in De Richleau's great-coat and the car rug, while the Duke followed him through the wire with the suitcase containing his protective impedimenta. 

As they staggered over the grass, the vast monoliths of the ancient place of worship stood out against the skyline - the timeless symbols of a forgotten cult that ruled Britain before the Romans came to bring more decorative and more human gods.

They passed the outer circle of great stone uprights upon some of which the lintels forming them into a ring still remain. Then De Richleau led the way between the mighty chunks of fallen masonry to where, beside the two great trilithons, the sandstone altar slab lies half buried beneath the remnants of the central arch.

Interesting that even in 1934 there was a proper car park at Stonehenge, and a fence. Well, I wasn't going to do battle with Evil Forces on my way there, but I rather hoped that there would be a dramatic rendezvous with the rising sun, and the chance of good photography. But the forecast wasn't favourable. It was for cloud and heavy rain. Some of my friends in Brighton thought me utterly mad to embark on a pre-dawn dash to Wiltshire, just on the off-chance of getting a shot or two - or, as it was put to me, 'no chance' of any such shots. But the Melfords did not get where they are by sitting on cosy sofas all evening, stuffed to the gills with nice things from M&S, bloated with gallons of good wine, and singing Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight. The Melfords do and dare. I was resolved on this adventure, come what may. Hark to the words of Shakespeare's King Henry V, Act 4, scene 3, where the King says (towards the end of a long soliloquy):

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here

Substitute 'ladies' for 'gentlemen' of course. Surely my friends would bitterly regret not making a similar effort? But even if there were another derisory chorus of 'no chance', I knew I would feel a better person for getting up at 4.00am, having a quick breakfast, and setting off westwards in the dark. And I did so feel. I was very keen to get going. Here I am, just before setting off at 5.15am:

And my enthusiasm was undimmed on arrival at 7.30am, when it was still dark outside. A shot in Fiona:

Prior research had shown me that it was impossible to park anywhere very near the stones. But I saw that I could approach pretty close on foot. So I parked Fiona off the A303 west of Stonehenge, where a wide bridleway intersected with the highway. Having donned wellies (I knew it would be a muddy tramp), I left the car and walked up the track. It was getting lighter, but still on the dark side. It was (as forecast) cloudy, but there was no rain. As anticipated, there were campervans parked up here and there on the track:

I'd half-wondered whether travellers and other folk might be awake and milling around, and make my progress through them difficult. I wasn't expecting the vast crowds usual at solstice-times, but even a dozen or so tipsy revellers could be troublesome to me. But they were all abed and not stirring, and would feel accursed when they awoke, having missed the dawn of the New Year.

As I approached Stonehenge itself, I noticed big changes from when I'd last been here in 2008. A tarmacked road (the A344) had run past the stones, very close to them in fact. It now had no number, and stopped short at a barrier. Beyond was a building site. The remains of the old road were being used as a makeshift terminus for shuttle buses from the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, out of sight to the west. The old car park and the old Visitor Centre had all been bulldozed. They had seemed so permanent, those installations, although completely unloved and wholly unworthy of the site:

Security guards stood by, looking chilled.

I was directed to a gate leading onto Access Land, and could trudge freely over the grass towards the monument, skirting the old car park on its north side, and coming out at fence not far from the stones, but still some distance from the best views of them. In fact I ended up standing on the far side of the old A344, which had been ripped up and grassed over. In May 1974 I took this shot:

Now I took the very same shot again:

Top shot with my little Leica. The bottom (more smeary) shot with my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone - the phone is not so good in poor light.

You'll spot two obvious changes since 1974. One: the road gone. Two: the 1974 shot shows people moving around inside Stonehenge. Those were the days when they let you get close up and personal with the stones, and you could even climb onto them. Public access like that ended in 1977. Here are some other pictures from that afternoon in May 1974:

Look at those early-seventies fashions! I showed these 1974 shots (which I'd put on my phone) to my companion. For I was not alone. Somebody else, clearly a kindred spirit, had got up super-early to be here, although he had not travelled nearly so far as I had. He was a very pleasant man named Ross, in his late twenties or early thirties. Here he is in a shot taken just before dawn itself:

He obligingly took these shots of me, with both my camera and my phone:

Nobody else showed up. After a mutual exchange of Happy-New-Years and email addresses (he wanted copies of my best shots, which I sent), I trudged back to Fiona. I spoke to another security guard. Apparently they'd been on duty all night. There had been no trouble, no trespassers. Just the cold wind and the dark cloudy sky for hours on end. Fortunately they now had a lovely, recently-built, snug modern den to warm themselves up in from time to time. I'd passed it coming and going. It was where the old pedestrian subway had been. I saw that it contained a bright new kitchen.

Back at Fiona, and needing to go to the loo, I decided to try the new Visitor Centre. Another security guard to wow. But he let me through, and I had a centrally-heated comfort stop in what seemed to be only-just-opened facilities (although in fact they had been open for a year):

The new Visitor centre is actually pretty impressive, and blends nicely with the landscape, looking somewhat like the low, windswept woods and plantations on the horizon:

They've made the roof supports look like slender tree trunks! The Visitor Centre can't be seen from Stonehenge. And the stones are invisible over the horizon, over the top of those 'Neolithic' huts. In fact they are so far away from the Visitor Centre, that only the very fit or very thrifty will want to walk the three miles there and back. Which is a matter for much complaint from unsuspecting tourists. There is a minibus shuttle service, if you want to ride - or must ride because of the tourist coach schedule, or because you have young children with you. It's included in the admission fee. But the tariff is expensive:

£14.90 for each adult. £8.90 for each child over five. A whopping £38.70 for a family ticket. Ouch! Particularly as all you see, just now, are the stones (from a distance, not right close up) and an unattractive torn-up car park. But no doubt it will eventually look worth the money. Meanwhile English Heritage or National Trust members (like me) can get in free. Now that's worth noting! I'll be back.

I left the Visitor Centre just after 9.00am. They were opening at 10.00am. Yes, opening on New Year's Day. I imagined coaches full of bleary-eyed tourists nursing hangovers and short tempers.

I stopped on the northern outskirts of Salisbury to consume (ravenously) my home-made packet of tongue sandwiches and a KitKat. Then it was Bournemouth - wet and windy:

And then, after that, a jolly pleasant roast lunch at the Red Lion pub in Boldre, on the southern edge of the New Forest, a bit north of Lymington:


Ah, civilisation! Cheers! It was too cold and dull for a New Forest walk. I left Boldre at 1.20pm and got home at 3.00pm, in one hop. A 240-mile round trip - no wonder I felt tired. But at least not accursed, for lying abed!


  1. Lucy, do all your books get so tea stained?

    If you fancy making Fiona look a wee bit more impressive I still have a pair of those P100 headlights in the garage attic...

    Now you have me longing for a taste of tongue so next week I shall make a pilgrimage of my own to the one butcher where I know I can buy one to cook. Happy New Year.

  2. Happy New Year, Coline!

    It's the paper discolouring with age, not staining by tea. 1966 = 48 years ago.


  3. Such a pity that one can no longer walk right up to the stones and touch them. I hope that Avebury doesn't suffer the same fate.

  4. Why not come to the Wheatley Convention at Laura Ashley in North London this Hallow'een? You are definitely not the only one who still reads him, and the people there will be interested in what you have to say.


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford