There are some steepish hills on this walk, but nothing too strenuous and the effort is rewarded by some fine views. Most of the route is over good surfaces and the walking is fairly easy. The two ghosts to be encountered on this walk are very different – one a notorious crook and the other a gentle young woman. But mystery surrounds them both and neither is quite what they at first seem.
1) Park in West Peckham and find the church. From the church walk east to find a lane turning left signposted to Plaxtol. Turn left.
West Peckham was once the home of a notorious criminal who went by the name of Jack Diamond. This was not, of course, his real name but was the nickname he acquired through his habit of wearing diamond cufflinks and rings.
Jack was already middle aged when he moved here in the later 18th century. He bought a little cottage in the village and announced that he had found the rural retreat to which he wished to retire after a long and arduous career as a merchant in London. Of course, he said, he would need to return to the city from time to time, but mostly he intended to be a gentleman of leisure. And, to all appearances, that is what Jack Diamond became. He spent his days walking around the village and nearby lanes, passed time in the local inns without overindulgence and became a regular worshipper at the little church with its ancient peel of bells.
Every now and then Jack Diamond would leave for a few days, saying he was heading for London to attend to some business. Then he would return to resume his blameless and quiet life.
But one terrible morning a violent storm swept down over Kent and to West Peckham in particular. It was a Friday 13th and early in the morning when the storm struck. At 6.30am a ferocious bolt of lightning crashed down from the angry skies to hit West Peckham with a terrifying jolt. Jack Diamond’s cottage took the full force of the blast. Jack himself was killed instantly and the building damaged beyond repair.
Neighbours rushed to the ruins, and were amazed by what they found. Jack Diamond’s cottage was stuffed full of expensive items – jewellery, watches, silver tableware and valuables of all kinds. Amazement slowly turned to horror as it emerged over the following days that the items were stolen. The idea quickly took hold that Diamond had been a highwayman, burglar and thief – perhaps much worse. The stolen items were returned to their rightful owners, Diamond given a decent burial and the scandal slowly faded into history.
Until, that is, another Friday 13th came around. Farm workers up early that morning clearly saw Jack Diamond walking down the lane to his vanished cottage in West Peckham. And on the stroke of 6.30am a terrified and terrifying scream tore through the air of the village. So it has continued every Friday 13th since. The ghost of a middle aged man is seen walking towards the village, then a scream is heard.
It seems Jack Diamond has not left West Peckham at all.
2) Walk up Forge Lane until it bends left. Go straight on up Stans Lane, signposted as a “quiet Lane”.
3) At the top of the hill the lane enters dense, coppiced woodland. Where the road forks, go left, then after just a short distance turn left at a crossroads. Where the lane forks in the midst of the woodlands, bear right.
4) At the end of the lane is a T-junction. Turn right to continue through the woodland forr a distance before emerging onto open farmland.
5) Turn left down a short, steep hill. This lane leads down into a wooded hollow where stands Old Soar Manor.
This magnificent medieval manor house is now in the care of the National Trust, and is open to the public most of the year. The heart of the building is 13th century and include the rare survival of the lord’s private apartments and chapel. In most halls and manors, these fairly rudimentary chambers have long since been replaced by more genteel rooms for the convenience of the owner. At Old Soar, however, the new rooms were simply added on the side and the older rooms left in their original condition.
The haunting here is rather disturbing. It dates back to the year 1775 when the then owners, the Catholic Geary family, were preparing to celebrate Christmas. They had brought a Catholic priest over from the continent to help with the religious side of the festivities and he was occupying a room in the older part of the house while preparing the medieval chapel for the big day. Among the domestic staff working in the kitchens was a scullery maid named Jenny, who was walking out with a local farm worker whom she planned to marry the next year.
Late on Christmas Eve, Jenny was returning to her room after finishing a task in the kitchens when she ran into the priest. The Priest, who was drunk, dragged Jenny into the chapel and raped her. Poor Jenny was terrified. She did not think anyone would believe her and, simple country girl that she was, was deeply shocked that a priest could behave in such a manner. Before long Jenny’s predicament got far worse. She was pregnant.
At first she went to her boyfriend with her story, but he refused to believe her. He threw her out of his home, declaring that she was a wanton who had made up the story to cover her licentious behaviour. So Jenny went to see the priest, who was still at Old Soar. She found him in the chapel. Three hours later her cold, lifeless body was found in that holy place. Her skull was smashed in, the girl having apparently fallen against the sharp edge of the stone piscina near the altar.
The priest later reported that the girl had come to him to seek spiritual guidance in her awkward and delicate condition. He, of course, denied the story of rape and instead claimed that she had told him the father was the heartless farm worker who had thrown her out. The priest said he had advised her to seek the grace of God in prayer, then try again to talk to her estranged boyfriend. Then, he said, he had left her. The accident that caused her death must have happened some time after that.
The priest was believed, he was after all a priest. Jenny was buried at Plaxtol Church though a few thought she may have committed suicide and should therefore be banned from sacred ground. A few days later it came time for the priest to leave, so he travelled to Dover and took ship to France.
It was after he was gone that the hauntings began. Lights were seen in the chapel when the room was empty and footsteps echoed around the room when nobody was moving. As time passed the hauntings became more pronounced, rather than fading away. Eventually the phantom of Jenny herself was seen. Sometimes she was seen in the chapel, but sometimes strolling gently around the grounds of the manor.
But this was a ghost with a message. On rare occasions the phantom acted out the last moments of poor Jenny’s life. Those who saw the apparition were left in no doubt that it had been no accident. Though Jenny’s was the only ghost to be seen it was clear that she was in struggling desperately against some unseen attacker. Whoever it was assaulting Jenny slammed her head repeatedly against the piscina, until the still body of the girl slumped to the floor, then vanished.
Unfortunately the priest was by this time long gone and beyond the arm of English justice. It is to be hoped that divine judgement proved more effective.
The more disturbing aspects of the haunting seem to have faded over the years. These days Jenny is most likely to be seen strolling gently through the gardens or standing quietly in the chapel. Perhaps she is now able to relive happier days.
6) Leaving Old Soar Manor, turn right along the lane. Ignore a byway to the left and a lane to the right and follow the lane to a T-junction. Turn left into the village of Dunk’s Green, turning left in front of the Kentish Rifleman pub.
7) Where this lane bends sharp left, turn right along a footpath signposted as part of the Greensand Way. This clearly signposted route cuts diagonally across an orchard, then across open land to pass a large pond on the right and a wood on the left. It then runs alongside a house and garden to emerge on to a lane.
8) Cross the lane to rejoin the footpath signed as the Greensand Way. This path becomes a broad track before emerging on to a lane.
9) Turn left then quickly right at a T-junction and follow this lane back into West Peckham.
This is an extract from Ghost Hunter Walks in Kent by Rupert Matthews.