Dorchester is a county town of great character. It is, of course, at the centre of “Hardy Country” and as such has numerous reminders of the great writer, Thomas Hardy. More than one of his novels was set here, though the town was fictionalised as ‘Casterbridge’ and short stories and poems also relate to this town. People have lived here for over 5,000 years, so it is no surprise that ghosts are thick on the ground.
Our look at Dorchester’s ghosts starts at the King’s Arms in High East Street.
This is just one of the many welcoming pubs, cafes and restaurants in Dorchester which offer refreshment of various kinds and to suit most pockets. The King’s Arms also features in one of Hardy’s novels. It was here that the Mayor of Casterbridge, in the novel of that name, held his grand banquet.
About 150 yards down the High Street the turning Icen Way is on the right, marked by buildings made of stone.
This is the site of the old prison and the stone houses here are built with masonry taken from that institution when it was demolished to be replaced by the Victorian edifice to be met later in this walk. It was from this prison that those condemned to death by Judge Jeffreys were dragged on hurdles along Icen Way to the site of execution on the hill visible at the end of the road. It is said that the horses hooves and sounds of dragging wood can still be heard in this narrow street late at night.
Judge Jeffreys earned himself the name “Bloody Judge” because of the summary and merciless judgment he handed down to the followers of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685. Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, was young, dashing, handsome and charming. Unfortunately he was not too intelligent. The rebellion he led against his uncle, King James II, was poorly organised and ended in defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset. Monmouth himself was beheaded in London, and James sent Judge George Jeffreys to hand out severe punishment to those who had followed the hapless young man. Most of Monmouth’s support had been drawn from the West Country and the echoes of the doomed rebellion feature strongly among the ghosts of Dorset.
Cross the road again and continue down hill to the narrow entrance to Greening Court on the left. Follow this narrow path down to the canal and cross over to turn left along the towpath. The towpath follows the river as it bends sharp right. As you turn the corner the prison stands on the high bluff beyond the river.
The top of this slope was the site of the public gibbet in early Victorian times. The meadows opposite were the venue for great crowds on an execution day and many fair stalls were put up here. The meadows are now the haunt of a grey lady. Some say she is Martha Brown, hanged here in 1856 for murder. Others disagree saying she is a much older phantom dating from Tudor days. If she is the luckless Martha Brown, this provides another link to Hardy. He was in the great crowd which gathered on the meadows to watch the hanging and later used the scene in his writings.
At the end of the towpath a deep, silent pond lies on the right.
This is the old drop pool for the watermill that once stood on this site. As you can see it is overgrown and covered in algae. It was just as overgrown one night in the 1880s when a prisoner managed to escape from the prison after months spent gradually unpicking the mortar around the bars in his cell. He was loaded down with chains and a leg iron, but had bribed a blacksmith in the town to remove these for him. The unfortunate man never made it to his blacksmith. As he hurried over the footbridge, he missed his step and stumbled into this deep pool of water and drowned. His ghost lurks here still, and is one of the few that is actually known to clank his chains in the manner popularly believed to characterise ghosts.
This is an extract from Ghosthunter Walks in Dorset by Rupert Matthews. To learn more and buy a copy at a discount CLICK HERE.