Ghost Of A Hurt: Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm
In 2007 I found an article in the news about a decades-long mystery in the English Midlands, a long-forgotten story of mystery, murder and witchcraft that had resurfaced after some enigmatic graffiti was found daubed on a crumbling Victorian folly. The article included a photograph of said folly, The Wychbury Obelisk, a spike of stone standing on a bleak-looking hillside under brooding skies. Written on its base in white paint were the words: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM?
I was immediately fascinated by the story, and still am. My research at the time led to a painting and then to the writing of what I hoped was the definitive study of the case, which all started in 1943 when four Black Country lads were in the woods, looking for bird’s eggs, when inside the trunk of a wych elm tree they found a human skull. The full story that unfolded from there is incredible, involving Nazi spies, Rudolf Hess, Aleister Crowley, corpse-robbing and witchy happenings by moonlight.
The case has always been aligned with another from that time and place – the ritual murder of Charles Walton in Lower Quinton in 1941 – and my article covered both, as it seemed to me that together they expressed something about the technology-reliant city dwellers disquiet for the wild countryside and its ancient ways, the nightside of something to watch while waiting to die tosh like Escape To The Country which finds its most potent expressions in David Pinner’s Ritual or The Wicker Man.
Unable to find anyone who would publish the article, it eventually became part of my true crime magnum opus The Hangman’s Breakfast. Just as I was finishing my two years spent writing that book, my friends in the musical collective The Sinister Insult were preparing to make field recordings at Hagley Wood, the very location of the Bella mystery. These recordings were taken to their Tomb Of Doom studio where producer and aural wizard Anthony Fielding cast his spells. The finished result was a six-track, 60+ minute soundtrack for “a film that need never be made, because no single interpretation could do justice to the strange and haunting story.” Here’s what some had to say about the album: