Thursday, 27 January 2011

In search of the golden egg

Somewhere in the British Isles,
Set apart by many miles,
Twelve caskets lie beneath the ground,
In each - a scroll with ribbon round.
Upon each scroll to you is told
That you shall own an egg of gold.
If you carefully read this book,
It will tell you where to look.

Conundrum 1983 (The Cadbury's golden egg treasure hunt)

In 1979, a very eccentric artist by the name of Kit Williams, wrote a book called Masquerade. This book was no ordinary book. Within it's pages were a series of riddles and clues, which if unravelled, would lead to the location of a golden, jewel encrusted hare. The book sold 2 million copies worldwide, as the whole nation and beyond went treasure hunt mad. The treasure hunt lasted for 3 years until 1982, when the location of the hare was discovered by 2 teachers from Manchester. It was later revealed that a former girlfriend of Kit Williams had alerted the hare's discoverers to it's approximate location.

Masquerade, became the inspiration for a genre of books known today as "Armchair treasure hunts". In 1983 Cadbury's published their own armchair treasure hunt called "Conundrum". Within it's pages, the location to 12 golden eggs worth £10,000 each, was revealed. I was now 14 years old and eager to find treasure of any description. The publication of Conundrum could not have come at a more appropriate time in my life. Even more exciting, was the fact that one of the eggs was reported to be buried in Lancashire. When the local newspapers printed an article stating that there was an enormous amount of treasure hunting activity around the Holcombe Hill area, I could contain myself no longer. I had to have this book, and one of the golden eggs would be mine.

Conundrum was the talk of the school and just like the Rubik cube, a couple of years previous, everybody owned it. For a period of time in 1983, there was very little work getting done at my school because every student (and teacher), was totally absorbed in the search for the golden egg. However, only one page of the book was ever on view, for that was all that mattered in our neck of the woods. Indeed some of the kids had ripped this page out so that it could be less conspicuously scrutinised during class. The page in question was entitled "Easter Monday" and the picture depicted a typical Lancashire mill town scene, with smokey factory chimney's in the background, whilst in the foreground, children rolled eggs down a hillside whilst their parents watched on in admiration. Somewhere in the clues, was a sentence about "left over mutton", which whilst appearing to relate to leftovers from the previous days meal, many thought alluded to the Shoulder of Mutton pub. The Shoulder of Mutton pub being the only pub in the Village of Holcombe is located at the foot of Holcombe Hill. For many hundreds of years at Easter time, it has been a tradition for children to roll hard boiled painted eggs down Holcombe Hill. All in all there seemed far too many clues relating to the area for the golden egg not to be buried there. By the time my accomplice Mark Galbraith and I would arrive at the treasure hunt scene, Holcombe Hill was pock marked with the labours of a thousand speculative spades.

Due to our mutual love of reading, adventure and treasure hunting, my classmate Mark Galbraith and I were drawn together by the hunt for the golden egg. In the previous 3 years that we had been classmates, we had barely spoken 2 words. But this was it, our time had come. Our zealous minds, somehow managed to come together to create a mass of energy that (in our minds) would unearth an egg of gold. With this quest in mind we arranged to meet at my house the following Saturday morning.

Mark arrived around 9 am and we immediately began to ponder over "the book". In retrospect we were two complete imbeciles, without a hope in hell of unearthing anything apart from our own stupidity. The only reason that we were heading for Holcombe Hill, is because the local rag had informed us of extreme treasure hunting activity in that area. Beyond that, we could add no further impetus, apart from my own interjections at annoyingly regular intervals, of "yeah, but it says left over mutton and there's definitely a shoulder of mutton pub there". I just sort of assumed that we would arrive at our destination, stand in the car park of the Shoulder of Mutton pub and look left over the roof of the building. The precise burial point of the golden egg would then be miraculously presented to us by a ray of light from the skies, like a some divine intervention. I mean, if it happens to Indiana Jones then it can happen to me, right? Quite why we decided to take a metal detector with us, is therefore beyond any logic that I can now offer some 28 years later. If we had bothered to pay more attention to the rhyme at the front of the book, it would have been quite apparent that the eggs were never actually buried. With an infinite amount more pragmatism than Mark and I, Cadburys had only buried a casket containing a scroll of ownership to the golden eggs.

During Maths lesson, Mark and I had eagerly thrown a checklist together of all the things that we would require for a busy days treasure hunting. The list comprised of food (cheese and pickled onion sandwiches, Monster Munch crisps and biscuits), beverages (Vimto), an OS map of the area (which never got removed from its sleeve) , a compass (although none of us knew how to use it), a spade (which was overly used in an arbitrary manner) and last and very much least (useful), a metal detector. Like a demented monkey I rushed up and down the stairs to retrieve these items, whilst Mark waited. Being a person who is plagued by allergies and with summer fast approaching, I also grabbed a bottle of Olbas oil from my bookcase. For those that are not aware of the powers of Olbas oil, there is but one rule - DO NOT,repeat DO NOT , get this shit in your eyes. This stuff, is industrial strength. It will clear any nasal blockages. Get the stuff in your eyes however and you can say goodbye to your eyesight for at least an hour. Once again, there is therefore no logical explanation as to why I would tell Mark, upon his enquiry, that the Olbas oil would refresh his eyes if he were to dowse them in it. In actual fact it only proved to delay our start time by some considerable margin and instill a deep sense of mistrust in Mark to anything I would ever say again. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that blindness and mistrust are not two of the key skills required in the art of treasure hunting.

So, off we set, in the direction of Holcombe Hill some 5 miles away, as the crow flies. Unfortunately, the crow would not be flying on this day. The path that we elected to take, would partly follow the route that the pilgrims took in the 12th century, whilst on their way to Whalley Abbey. Dropping down through my parents estate, we took the snicket to the old railway lines, before descending to the area known as Snig Hole. From here we walked through Alden Vale, past the site of the old Porritts mills and then up through Sunnybank to the ancient landmark of Robin Hood's well. The well is rumoured to have been used by everyones favourite villain, as he passed through the area - no doubt robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Just beyond Robin Hood's Well, we chanced upon a small cairn with a badly eroded face etched into it. I instantly knew that this was a memorial to Ellen Strange. Ellen Strange, a local girl was murdered in 1761, as she walked back from Haslingden fair. The stone that we were now examining was placed on the site of her murder in 1978. During my lonesome wanderings, I had often searched for her final resting place to no avail. Was this to be an omen that today I would find the egg of gold?

We were now on Holcombe moor, a barren expanse of land which is also used by the army for training purposes due to it's hostile environment. The moor in this area was punctuated with markers telling us where we could and could not walk. This all added to the excitement of the day. By this point I had begun to realise that I had underestimated the length of the journey to Holcombe Hill. Mark was also becoming suspicious that the duration of our hike was going to be much longer the 2 hours that I had predicted. By the time we reached our destination some 4.5 hours later, I was still trying to convince him that I was right. The mood of the day was beginning to change.

"So, where do we start looking"? asked Mark.

Now wasn't that the million dollar question and one for which I did not really have an answer?

"Shoulder of Mutton", I hastily replied.

"But that's at the bottom of the hill and we are at the top".

"Shoulder of Mutton", I repeated with increased volume.

Twenty five minutes later, we were standing in the Shoulder of Mutton car park and contrary to my strong beliefs, there was to be no rays of heavenly sunshine prompting me where to dig. Trying to appear undeterred, I inform Mark that we must walk back up the hill from whence we just came. I also try to make him think that I know where to hunt with the metal detector, which we unsuccessfully do for the next hour whilst creating a multitude of shallow holes (boredom always set in before the holes got too deep). With fading optimism our digging becomes less frenetic with each new hole and eventually grinds to a halt. With an air of defeat, we decide to climb to the top of Holcombe Hill. Perched on the summit of the hill, is Peel Tower, which is named after Sir Robert Peel, a local boy that made it big. Sir Robert Peel was prime minister of England between 1841 and 1846 and is famed for passing the bill which would lead to the creation of the first British police force, known somewhat inaffectionately as Peelers.

To our disappointment we realise that there is no way of ascending the tower. The sour smell of defeat now permeates the air, so we decide to go for an amble to the rear of the tower in a last gasp attempt to spot any blatant treasure hunting clues. Spotting some rather large rocks, we sit for a while and discuss our route home. After, a few minutes, the mischievous imp inside me has kicked in and I decide that it would be a good idea to roll the gigantic boulder down the back of Holcombe Hill, in the direction of the mosque below. With all our strength, Mark and I try to heave the rock out of the position that it has remained in (possibly since the ice age). This rock is enormous though and definitely does not want to budge. With increased force, we build up some momentum and get the boulder rocking quite vigorously. It is only when the rock begins it's descent down Holcombe Hill, that we realise that this is indeed a very bad idea. By the time the remnant of the last ice age has demolished the first dry stone wall and vaulted a herd of petrified sheep, we realise that we could actually be in for a lot of trouble. Tentatively we watch as our bouncing bomb, either flattens or leaps over the top of each dry stone wall that it encounters. We live in hope that there is at least one immovable object to stand in the path of the disaster of killing a bunch of Muslims (although given the racist climate of the times, to some we would be heroes).
Just when we thought that it could not be any worse, we see notice that there is a red car approaching, on a road that we never even noticed was there. "Shit", we shout in unison. It really looks like the rock is on a collision path with the car.

In panic, we elect for the most cowardly option. With lightening pace, we both hotfoot it in the direction of what we think is home. In actual fact we have no idea what we are doing and any rational thought has been shocked right out of us. Driven by the possible consequences of idiotic actions, I run faster and further than I have ever run before. Unfortunately for us, we are running in the wrong direction. By the time we eventually stop running, we have no clue where we are and are about to find out that the compass is about as much use as the metal detector. Fortunately for us, Helmshore has a volcano shaped hill, called Tor, which serves as a fantastic landmark. Unfortunately for us, there is a similar shaped hill on the opposite side of the Rossendale Valley. By the time we reach the wrong volcano shaped hill, it is dusk. By the time we arrive back in Helmshore it is night time and my mum is about to call the police. We are still convinced that the police are searching for us and need a few days to fully believe that they are not. There are no reportings of occupants of a red car getting crushed to death or a mosque being flattened by a rolling rock.

By the time that the Lancashire golden egg is discovered, a few weeks later, in Billington some 25 miles from Holcombe Hill, Mark and I have totally lost interest.


rob supertramp said...

hahaha!! i'm sure i remember reading a report from 1983 in which a red car tragically swerved into a mosque killing the driver, passenger and 10 muslim worshippers in the holcombe hill area. the causes of the accident were never revealed.........................................................!!! :p

James said...

Cool story, the odyssey reminds me of Stand By Me but with a better ending