Lonely and desolate, the area around Bredon Hill was once the scene of human sacrifices. It is said to be the ‘playground’ of the pagan god, Pan. For Harry Dean, however, it was the ideal place for a spot of amateur ‘psychic investigation’. Only something awful and nameless got to him first…
Harry Dean never tired of reminding people that had once worked as a newspaper reporter and had what he called “a nose for news.” In the spring of 1939 he was employed as a civic accountant and was finding life decidedly on the dull side.
He complained of this to his wife and told he he was determined to do something that would get him out of his office-bound rut. The Deans lived in the old Tudor town of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England, not far from the 1000-foot-high Bredon Hill— a lonely, isolated spot which was said to be one of the abodes of Pan, the licentious god of forests and pastures.
Intrigued by such stories, Dean planned to spend his coming summer vacation on the hill. He would pitch a tent there and, he stated, “defy Pan and his unearthly followers to do their worst.” His wife reluctantly agreed to accompany him, although she was more scared than fascinated by the remains of the Iron Age camp on the hill’s summit; by the sinister Bambury Stone, which centuries before had reportedly been used as an altar for human sacrifice, and by the strange and eerie Death Quarry.
She felt her adventure-happy husband would be safer if she was with him. But, as the weeks passed, 49-year-old Dean became anxious and impatient. He felt that war with Germany could be announced at any time and that, in the emergency which would follow, he might lose his chance to investigate what he called “Pan’s playground.”
So, after finishing work on the evening of May 9th, 1939, Dean for once didn’t go straight home. He caught a bus in the center of Tewksbury which took him to the picturesque village of Westmancote and from there, walked through the deserted country lanes until he reached a cart track leading to the top of Bredon Hill. He climbed it and began an impromptu investigation into what he had previously described as: “The mysteries that surround the hill. I don’t know exactly what they are, but I’m determined to find out about them and perhaps uncover the kind of page one story I was denied as a journalist.”
Deadly after Dark
Meanwhile, back at his house, his wife had prepared dinner and was patiently awaiting his return. Six o’clock came and went, and then seven, eight and nine. By ten she was very worried and telephoned several of his friends to see if he was with them, or if they knew of his whereabouts. He might be having an impromptu night on the town, a few beers with the boys that had developed into a lengthy session. However, none of the people she contacted had seen or heard of him that night.
Finally, as midnight struck, Mrs Dean rang the local police and reported her husband’s disappearance. Asked if she had any idea, however far-fetched, as to where he might be, she answered doubtfully: “well, he might have gone to explore Bredon Hill and the land around it. He was always talking of doing that and said he wanted to be the first to discover what the hill’s secrets are, and if there really is a curse on it.”
The police immediately decided to organize a search party, for over the years there had been a number of mysterious accidents, and one unaccounted for death, in the area of the hill. And a local journalist had written of it:
“It is wiser and safer not to go anywhere near Bredon Hill after dark, it is a weird and suggestive place and those without strong nerves could easily imagine that there was something prowling around in the night and about to harm them.
Even by the daylight the hill and the quarry can give one the shivers. To go there alone and by darkness could be a case of fools rushing in where devils also tread!”
Some of Dean’s friends offered to join in the search, and by 2 a.m., more than twenty uniformed and casually dressed men were clambering up the hill or laboriously making their way around it, and those who soon stood on the summit found no trace of the missing ‘occult explorer’. They fanned out and examined the prehistoric camp and the sacrificial stone. There was nothing there to suggest that anyone had been on the spot only a few hours before.
“It was as bleak and uninviting a district as you couldn’t wish to visit,” a police officer said later. “Completely god-foresaken– except, perhaps, for Pan.”
As dawn began to break most of the searchers started to think of home, breakfast, and work. Then a group of men who had entered Death Quarry– which lay in the shadow of the hill– made what one of them afterward called “a grotesque and gruesome discovery.” It was Harry Dean’s body lying huddled at the foot of a small boulder. A policeman bent down and turned the corpse over. Then he gasped and quickly drew back. Dean’s face had turned purple, and his tongue– like a blackened root– protruded obscenely from his mouth. He bore all the signs of having been strangled, though it was hard to think who could have been powerful enough to commit such an act.
Although nearly 50, Dean was in peak physical condition. He played hockey, cricket and rugby, rarely consulted his doctor and was noted in Tewksbury as something of a strong man. It was most unlikely that someone could have surprised and attacked him, at least to the extent of killing him. Baffled, the police had the body brought back to town, where it was examined by a local doctor. The conclusions the doctor came to– and which she reported at a subsequent inquest– were somewhat unusual. She confirmed that, in fact, Dean hadn’t been involved in a life-or-death struggle with anyone, and stated that he had died ‘accidentally’.
From her examination of the corpse, she believed that Dean had climbed onto the three-foot-high boulder in the quarry, presumably in order to survey the scene, and had slipped and fallen. He had a weak cartilage in one of his legs– the result of a heavy rugby tackle– and it was conceivable that, after all the walking and climbing he had done that night, his supsect leg had suddenly given way under him. With his muscular and athletic build, he crashed heavily to the ground and then, however startling it may seem, he was ‘choked by constriction’ between his collar, tie and neck. In other words, he had certainly been strangled– but accidentally so!
At the inquest another strange fact came to light. A policeman, the coroner’s officer, had gone to Death Quarry on May 10th, the day after the mysterious accident, to make some sketches of the area and to prepare an official report on the territory. While doing this, he fell and badly twisted his ankle. There was no reason for his falling, he didn’t trip over a stone, or somehow lose his footing. He simply fell and hurt himself, much as Harry Dean had presumably done, but without the deadly effect.
After all the witnesses had been called, and all the evidence given, the coroner delivered his verdict– one which criminologists have discussed and argued about to the present day. “I am convinced,” he states, “that Mr Dean did not fall more than three feet, and that he slipped, and displaced the cartilage in his leg. In great pain, he fainted, and was choked, owing to the unfortunate position in which he fell. It is a case of accidental death.”
Officially, that was that. Dean was dead and buried and Death Quarry had claimed another victim and had, as the people of Tewksbury put it, “got away with murder.” But there was at least one person who wasn’t satisfied with that and who was determined to publish the real truth behind the mystery death. As Dean himself had once been, Harold Wilkins was a journalist, and one who was fascinated by anything unexplained or smacking of the occult. He read the story of the so-called ‘deadly accident’, but because of pressure of his own work, had to wait for exactly a year before mounting his one-man investigation.
In May 1940, he climbed to the top of Bredon Hill, noted the bomb craters by then there– the legacy of German bombers lightening their load after night attack on the industrial Midlands– and sensed something uncanny about the place. He was glad to leave it and move down to Death Quarry itself, which he estimated went back to about 750 BC. The floor of the quarry was flat and wild flowers and herbs had forced their way up to the surface.
He penetrated deeper and came to four ‘curious and weathered’ boulders, three of which were badly chipped and scarred. Dean’s body had been found at the base of the one on the south side, and Wilkins later recorded: “This boulder looks as if it had been rudely sculpted, and it appears as flat as the capstone of a trilithon (a monument consisting of two upright stones supporting a third) of some megalithic monument.”
Feeling he had seen and done enough for one day, he went back to Tewksbury and returned to the quarry a short while later. This time he was accompanied by his brother, and amateur photographer, and posed for a picture while sitting on the Bambury Stone. Despite the apparent normality of the scene, Wilkins had a strong sense of foreboding. The day was clear and windless and the only other living creature in sight was a large black crow, which flew about overhead cawing menacingly.
Wilkins smiled, his brother focused the camera, and then they heard a loud thud, as if something had hit the ground near them. “We at once cast around,” stated Wilkins later, “but could find no stone that had been displaced, thrown or fallen. Something eerie and sinister had demonstrated its presence, and its objection to the photographing of this weird stone, and our rational contempt for what it anciently stood for!”
Later that day, once again in Death Quarry, Wilkins began to form his own bizarre theory as to what had happened to Harry Dean 12 months before. First of all, Wilkins was convinced that Dean hadn’t even climbed onto the low boulder in the quarry, let alone fallen from it and then, by a million-to-one chance, been strangled. What had actually happened, he suggested, was this: Dean had been prowling around the northern edge of the quarry wall, near a group of pine trees. He was looking for Pan, or for whatever spirits or devils supposedly occupied the place. Then, to his grave misfortune, he found what he was seeking.
“There, in the May darkness,” wrote Wilkins, “some unpleasant entity, quite invisible, clutched his throat as he peered over the edge, and hurled him violently on to the floor of the Quarry, some fifty or sixty feet below.” Or, it may be that he entered the quarry, this ancient open-air temple of paranoiac fertility rites, and was strangled by this unseen entity as he stood, in the dim light, at the base of that boulder.”
Pointing out that Dean had no financial or emotional problems, that in any case he wasn’t the suicidal type, and that there was no motive for anyone killing him, Wilkins dismissed the ‘rational’ possibilities. “Countrymen are quick to note the appearance of a stranger,” he observed. “Moreover, on the night of his [Dean’s] death, when police and civilians were quartering the hill, and the hue and cry was on, it is improbable that such a stranger would have been undetected by someone.”
That left only the coroner to be dealt with, and Wilkins made short work of him. After decrying the “legalistic mind,” and the “coroner of the average type,” he added: “He would regard such a hypothesis as fantastic and the imagination of a crackpot… But to assert… that an athletic man, as was Dean, climbed a boulder… slipped and fell only three feet and was choked… as even more absurd and improbable.”
In Gloucestershire, the mystery is debated to this day. And there are many who agree with Wilkins that Bredon Hill, its curse, and its surrounds should be avoided after dark, and perhaps not visited even in daylight. “Even in broad summer,” Wilkins recorded, “I have gone miles up and down it, and on several sides… and have not met a soul, or anything but cawing crows on lonely and long derelict barns.”
Maybe Bredon Hill is best avoided. At the same time as Wilkins was making his investigations, a cartographer worked out that Bredon Hill formed a rough quadrilateral with other hills. In another corner stands Long Compton Hill with its circle of megaliths known as the Rollright Stones, used as the site of Witches’ Sabbaths in the Middle-Ages. In another corner of the quadrilateral is Meon Hill– scene of an unsolved witchcraft murder and the reputed lair or a ghostly black dog. Such sites, it has been suggested, are imbued with dark and violent forces associated with pagan religious rites. Significantly, the priests of ancient Britain held one of their most important rituals in early May– just when Harry Dean met his baffling death.