The ‘Vale’ of the title is the Vale of White Horse, an area which is now part of Oxfordshire, but until the changes in county boundaries in 1973 was part of Berkshire. Some of the more revanchist elements in that county refer to it as ‘Occupied North Berkshire’. The area is named after the prehistoric hill-figure known as the Uffington White Horse. The Horse is just one of many prehistoric sites which feature, with their own stories and legends, many of them centring around the life of King Alfred, or prehistoric standing stones which have also gathered legends about them.
The Vale was also the location of a number of battles between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms led by Alfred and the Danish invaders. The village of Kingston Lyle manages to combine both historical elements, in possessing a standing stone with holes worn through it, which was alleged to have been used as a trumpet by the King to summon his troops for the battle of Ashdown in 871. The stone is worn smooth where generations of passers-by have tried to raise the call, and Mike White has attempted this. The legend of the stone claims that if he had, and the sound was heard at the White Horse pub, he would be entitled to be King of England. The brief author biography at the front of the book suggest he did not succeed.
Unlike some similar compilations of local legends and folklore, this is no scissors and paste job. The author has done a good deal of first-hand investigation, particularly of the many ghost stories from the area. Although he takes the reports seriously, he looks at them with a critical eye when necessary. He observes that in many cases – particularly historical reports – the germ of the tales seems to circulate and spread across a number of locations, settling in suitably atmospheric houses or lonely lanes.
But he is sympathetic to the nature of these stories, relating as they do to themes of family, relationships, class and conflict. Military ghosts range from troops on Roman soldiers, invading Vikings, up to the ghosts of memories of World War II airmen haunting the numerous former airfields of the region. The many tales of witchcraft are related in a sympathetic manner, aware of the social and historical background to such events.
There are a number of UFO accounts related here as well, including what is probably Britain’s most implausible ‘abduction’ event, which allegedly on July 19th June, 1978, at Stanford in the Vale, between Swindon and Oxford. A family of five claimed (at least the father did) to have seen a UFO and experienced missing time. Of course, the moment a freelance abductionist/hypnotist turned up this became an exciting tale of abduction and a journey to the planet Janos, which was in danger of destruction after one of its moons had blown up. Mike White points out that this is a remarkably similar scenario to the plotline of the 1955 film This Island Earth.
The ‘researcher’s’ account of this, published in 1980 as The Janos People, was probably the most universally panned UFO title of the year. If you’re interested it’s available on Amazon at prices ranging from 1p. to £483.27. Even at the lower figure it’s overpriced! Although the author is rightfully sceptical of this particular case, other UFO cases he describes are more convincing, and he reports them in a straightforward way, respectful of the witnesses but aware of the problems they pose.
The book is arranged in short chapters for each town or village covered, and here I would raise my only minor quibble - it would have been helpful for an outline map of the area to have been included in the book, to allow those unfamiliar with the district to find their way around at a glance. Between the place-specific entries there are a number of longer pieces on particular topics, such as local eccentrics, out of place animals, and a good straightforward description of the concept of leys, and tho questions it raises.
The author injects many of his accounts with good-natured humour, and is never cynical or dismissive of the stories he records. The book is nicely decorated with small prints, made by the founder of the publishing company, from ordinary desk rubber erasers, a couple of which I reproduce here. This is a delightful book, for residents of the Vale, visitors to the area, and those interested in the wealth of lore and legend that haunts this island. – John Rimmer.