Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Phantoms of Polesworth

If you are looking for history, tradition and ghosts then Polesworth is the place to visit. Today a rather rambling settlement that is between a town and a village, this was once the bustling centre of northern Warwickshire.

The place’s rise to prosperity began in 825 on the bloodstained battlefield of Ellendun, many miles to the south in Wiltshire. Warwickshire was then the heart of the kingdom of Mercia, a powerful English state that imposed an overlordship over several neighbouring kingdoms. The kingdom of Wessex, stretching from Devon to Sussex, was not one to acknowledge Mercian rule. When King Ceolwulf of Mercia was deposed for incompetence and replaced by an obscure nobleman named Beornwulf, King Egbert of Wessex took advantage to seize disputed borderlands in Wiltshire. This led to the Battle of Ellendun, at which the Mercians were comprehensively defeated.

Egbert of Wessex moved quickly to reach deals with the Kings of Sussex, Kent and East Anglia before moving into Mercia to establish himself as the new king of that country. But the victory did far more for Egbert than give him command over most of the English nation. It also solved a tricky family dispute.

Egbert had various children, but it was a daughter named Edith who was the problem. She was well educated and had taken a strong inclination to the religious life. Indeed, her knowledge of scripture and yearning for good morals were well known at Egbert’s court. Rather too well known for some. She was forever reminding the nobles and warriors about the sin of gluttony, just as they were about to tuck into a feast, banging on about vanity to a lady who had acquired a new dress or talking at length about sloth when somebody was late for an appointment. By 830 something had to be done.

Fortunately there were extensive lands in Mercia whose owners had been killed at Ellendun. Among these was the little village of Polesworth and its surrounding lands. Egbert gave the village and lands to his saintly daughter Edith and told her to go there, found a nunnery and do God’s work. Edith was delighted. Pausing only long enough to remind her father that she would need ready cash to build the religious house, she travelled north to take up her new lands. There she founded a convent that she filled with the daughters of gentry who preferred a religious life and settled down to the work of running a strict house.

In time, Edith passed away. She was buried in her beloved church at Polesworth. Before long, miracles began to occur at her tomb and she was formally recognised as a saint. The nuns of Polesworth continued to lead blamelessly holy lives for centuries, industriously working their lands and supervising their peasants to make a profit and do God’s work. Even when Viking warbands roamed the countryside, the Polesworth nuns continued with their duties.

Then came the Norman conquest of 1066. William the Conqueror, now King William I of England, took the lands of English nobles and parcelled them out to his own supporters in thanks for their help in battle. Sir Robert Marmion got extensive lands in northern Warwickshire, which carried with them the duty of providing military protection and law courts for Polesworth and area. Arriving at Tamworth Castle to survey his new lands, Sir Robert decided that if he were going to spend money protecting Polesworth, he may as well get some profit from the deal. He rode over with a gang of armed men and threw the nuns out while he pillaged the convent treasury and took ownership of the lands. The nuns retired to a small outlying cell they owned at Oldbury and sent messages to the king begging for their rightful lands.

As it turned out they did not need to wait for royal justice, divine justice was on its way.

Sir Robert rode back to Tamworth and organised a great feast to celebrate his new lands and home. St Edith must have disapproved very strongly of her convent lands being put to such sinful use. That very night, as Sir Robert was getting ready for bed, her ghost appeared to him in his private chamber. She demanded he return her lands to her convent and struck Sir Robert on the ribs with her crozier. Sir Robert collapsed in agony, his entire right side paralysed. Next morning Sir Robert’s servants carried him to Tamworth church where he took solemn vows to return the stolen lands to Polesworth Convent. Slowly his health recovered and by the time the nuns had repaired their church and buildings he was well enough to take to the saddle.

Through the centuries that followed, the convent at Polesworth flourished. The village high street became the site for the Mop Fair at which agricultural labourers from across northern Warwickshire came on the first Saturday of October to find work for the coming year. Markets were established, ensuring that the little town was the economic heart of the rich surrounding farmland.

Then came the reformation of the reign of King Henry VIII in the 1540s. The king sent his commissioners and soldiers to Polesworth to close down the convent and seize its assets, just as all other religious houses were being closed down across England.

It was time for St Edith to return, and so she did. But by this time her power must have been diminished somewhat. Rather than strike the king, she merely began walking the grounds of her convent. This gave the soldiers a bit of a fright, but did nothing to stop their work. Within months the lands and buildings had been sold off to the highest bidder. The church was put to use serving the parishioners of Polesworth and the gatehouse made into a private residence, but most of the buildings were torn down and their materials used to build houses more suited to the local folk. The site of the cloisters, refectory and other buildings became an open field beside the church.

And St Edith walks here still. She is seen several times each year pacing sadly across the empty field, past the church and on towards the gatehouse. She no longer seeks to impose punishment on those who occupy church lands or live in houses built with stones from her convent. Instead she seems content merely to walk about her old property, perhaps seeking still to remind her fellow humans of their sinful condition.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Warwickshire by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 26 February 2010

The malevolent ghost of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire

Scrooby once stood on the main road but is now bypassed. In fact it has been bypassed twice. This haphazard jumble of old houses, pub and church once stood astride the Great North Road, linking London to Edinburgh.

When motorised traffic became common, a new road was built around the village to avoid a narrow, tight corner between two houses. Then, in the later 20th century, what was by then called the A1 was bypassed again when the multi-lane highway the A1(M) was built to carry the thundering mass of traffic streaming north and south endlessly throughout the night.

The ghost of Scrooby, however, dates from the days when motorised traffic was undreamed of, and when the first attempt to improve the Great North Road was being made. In theory the upkeep of roads was the business of the parish councils, but the parish council of Scrooby, along with other parishes that lay on main roads, rightly objected that most of the wear and tear was caused by travellers that had nothing to do with the local area. They sometimes received payments from the king’s government to repair the road, but not often enough.

To try to solve the problems, Parliament allowed private individuals or companies to take over the maintenance of main roads. They were allowed to charge tolls on users to raise the money to pay for the road repairs, and generate a tidy profit for themselves. Because the gates that barred the road to stop travellers until they paid very often resembled pikes, the arrangement was commonly called a Turnpike.

One such Turnpike stood just outside Scrooby. Travellers on the Great North Road had to stop to pay for the privilege of using the road. The cash was stored in the tollkeeper’s cottage inside a strong box, and from time to time the company banker came by to take the money.

One fateful night in 1779 a local ne’erdowell by the name of John Spencer decided that he needed the money more than did the turnpike company. He waited until all was dark and still, before letting himself in to the tollkeeper’s cottage and lifting the strong box on to his shoulders. He was not as quiet as he should have been, and the tollkeeper woke up. In the fight that followed both the tollkeeper and his wife were killed, but John Spencer failed to make a quick enough getaway. Villagers alerted by the sounds of the fight came running and managed to overpower him in the road.

Spencer could expect little mercy in that day and age. His trial at Retford was brief, then he was dragged back to the scene of his crime and hanged beside the Great North Road at Scrooby. His body was left to hang in chains for weeks, to remind passersby of the stern justice handed down by the magistrates of Nottinghamshire.

The scene of the execution has long been haunted. The figure of a man in a long, dark coat is seen loitering beside the road. Some motorists have mistaken him for a hitchhiker and pulled up, only to find the mysterious man has vanished. It is not entirely clear if the ghost is of Spencer or of his victim. But whoever’s ghost this is, he seems most persistent and may appear in any weather at any time of the day or night.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Nottinghamshire by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Ghosts in Bexley, Kent

“You have come to the right place for ghosties”, announced Annie of the Bexley Heritage Trust which now runs Hall Place. And she is right. Hall Place hosts three of them.

Hall Place is now open to the public, having spent many years as an educational establishment in the hands of the local council. The house has been renovated and restored and now offers both well-tended gardens and a fascinating house to delight visitors. There is also a gift shop and restaurant, for those who fancy staying awhile. The most famous of the ghosts is that of the Black Prince. So well known is this phantom that the pub just outside the grounds of Hall Place is named “The Black Prince”, though it does not go so far as to offer any stuffed boar’s heads or other medieval delicacies to welcome the long-dead warrior.

The Black Prince was more properly known as Prince Edward, eldest son of King Edward III and he was one of the greatest warriors of Christendom. In 1346 Edward stayed at Hall Place for some time in the spring of 1346 while the king and his advisors prepared the expeditionary force which would invade France that summer.

The campaign culminated on 26th August in the Battle of Crécy. The English army, some 9,000 strong, was caught by a French army of over 30,000 men. In the ensuing fighting the English proved that their longbows and halberds were superior to the French swords and inflicted enormous losses. It is thought that the French lost 11 royal princes, 1,200 knights and 10,000 men at arms killed or captured in the fighting. The English lost barely a thousand men. At one point in the battle young Prince Edward’s division looked likely to be overwhelmed by a French attack. Noblemen begged King Edward to send his son reinforcements, but the king refused saying merely “Suffer him to win his spurs this day”.

Prince Edward obviously liked Hall Place for he returned there more than once between his frequent campaigns and battles. Indeed he married a local noble lady, Joan, whose beauty was so famous that she known as “The Fair Maid of Kent”.

The need to fight wars to protect England kept Edward abroad for months on end and, at the age of just 40 he was struck down by a disease which kept him invalided and in pain for over 5 years until his death in 1376. It might be thought that it is to recapture the gentle, peaceful days of courtship that the phantom of the Black Prince returns to Hall Place. It would appear not, however, for when the Black Prince walks the gardens of Hall Place he does so in his armour.

And this warlike appearance matches his purpose. The ghost walks only when either the owners of Hall Place or England itself are in some danger. In the early 20th century the property was owned by Lady Limerick. In those years the ghost was seen four times, and on each occasion a family death occurred soon after. In 1940 he was seen just two days before the German panzer attack that led to the British retreat that ended at Dunkirk. Fortunately, perhaps, he has not been seen in recent years.

Rather more active is the sad phantom of Lady Constance Hall. Not that one should normally discuss a lady’s age, but this is one of the older ghosts of Kent - though not the oldest (see Dover). Lady Constance is a good century older than even the Black Prince. She lived here in the 13th century.

This sombre phantom originated on a bright summer’s afternoon when the lady’s husband in life, Sir Thomas Hall, was returning from a day’s hunting in the woodland that in those days surrounded this fine building. Sir Thomas had had a good day with his friends and bagged a variety of fine animals for the table, and the trophy wall. He was particularly proud of a large stag which boasted a magnificent spread of antlers. Unfortunately for Sir Thomas, the stag was unconscious but not dead. When he arrived home, he triumphantly threw the large stag from the pack horse on which it had travelled to lie on the stones. This awoke the stag which, enraged by its pain, turned on Sir Henry and gored him to death. All this in full sight of the horrified Lady Constance.

A few days later, driven mad by grief, Lady Constance hurled herself to her death from a tower. From that day to this the pale ghost of Lady Constance has wandered Hall Place wailing and weeping. It is a most upsetting ghost to encounter, as staff here will tell you.

The third ghost of Hall Place is, by comparison, of a rather less illustrious person. This is the helpful young woman who flits about one of the upstairs bedrooms. She is the ghost of a servant girl who died here over a century ago. There is, apparently, no real story attached to this ghost. She did not die after an unhappy love affair, nor did she achieve fame in her life. She is just an ordinary servant girl who returns to visit the rooms she once cared for.

Annie summed up the stories saying “The house is definitely haunted. According to various members of staff the white lady wears grey and has been seen through the corner of the eye and felt running past staff within the house at the bottom of the tower. The stairs of this tower were removed some time ago - the story goes that this was a former inhabitants attempt to stop the ghost from walking. It obviously didn't work. Other staff members have also felt strange vibrations in the Great Hall floor as if someone was walking around and no-one has been there.”

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Kent by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 22 February 2010

Phantoms in Hatherleigh, Devon

The little village of Hatherleigh, now returned to its rural quiet by the building of a bypass for the A386, has an unusual collection of phantoms.

The George Hotel has two apparitions that would seem to be quite incompatible. The first is a monk or clergyman who walks the ground floor. This ghost is seen with such regularity that the main bar has been named the “Mad Monk’s Bar” in his honour. He is, however, a gentle soul who causes no real problems to anyone. It is merely the sudden surprise of encountering him that can startle the visitor.

The other ghost is seen upstairs, so her path does not cross that of the monk. This is probably just as well. Not only is this ghost young, female and attractive – enough to earn the displeasure of many a devout monk – she is also stark naked. Unfortunately for the male customers of the George Hotel, this ghost is seen much less often than the monk. No doubt a great disappointment.

When a new landlayd, Janice, moved in to the George in 1999 one of the phantoms decided to welcome her to the inn. One morning she decided to move around some of the pictures in the restaurant. Within a few hours the pictures had leapt from the wall and tumbled face down on the ground, although neither the hooks on the walls nor the wires on the pictures were broken. Janice is sure that the ghost is a gentle soul who was just letting her know that he was in the George first.

Just north of the village the land climbs steeply to form Beaford Moor. This windswept, bleak patch of land is crossed by the A386 on is way to Okehampton. It is here that the Black Dog of Beaford runs through the mists. The phantom hound is usually seen running towards Hollocombe. Most of these great spectral black hounds of which there are stories all over the country, are linked to evil in some form or other. One paces in front of the phantom coach of the Wicked Lady Howard at Okehampton and others accompany the Devil across Dartmoor. This dog, however, has no such stories attached to it. It merely runs over the moor on misty days and foggy nights on some endless unexplained quest of its own.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Devon by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Local Book Signing Event in Reigate Bookshop

On Saturday 20 February local Author and Ghosthunter, Rupert Matthews, signed copies of his new book “Paranormal Surrey” at Bookworms Bookshop in Reigate.

The event included a book signing session, a talk about local ghosts and an open discussion with local people.

Rupert said “Bookworms proved to be fantastic partners for this successful event. The advance publicity was effective and we had plenty of people coming into the shop for the hour that the event lasted. We sold copies of the book and I was able to chat with locals who had experienced the paranormal in the Dorking area.”

The ancient county of Surrey has a rich history of strange events and even stranger sightings. In this book well-known local author Rupert Matthews, an expert on the subject of the paranormal, draws together a terrifying and intriguing collection of first-hand accounts and long-forgotten archive reports from the county's history.
Richly illustrated with modern photographs and archive images, and filled with tales of puma sightings, UFOs and the ghosts that haunt Surrey's highways and byways - and much more. This book will delight anyone with an interest in the darker side of Surrey's history.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Is this Dick Turpin's Ghost?

These days Woughton on the Green in Buckinghamshire is just another of the strangely uniform suburbs of Milton Keynes, that experimental example of 1960s new town planning. In the past forty years, Woughton on the Green has been engulfed in a sea of sweeping boulevards, concrete structures and modern architecture.

But it was not always this way. Woughton on the Green is one of the oldest villages in Buckinghamshire, being mentioned in the Domesday Book, and occupied a prominent position on the banks of the River Ouzel. Remnants of past days remain, the Church being medieval and both Woughton House and the Swan Inn dating back centuries. All three of these buildings face The Green, itself a scheduled ancient monument, and it is here that the phantom of Woughton on the Green lurks.

The ghost in question is usually only glimpsed. Mounted on a dark horse, the man is dressed in dark clothes and wears a tricorn hat. Few see more than that, as the ghost rides out of sight behind a hedge or round a corner. Some people have got a better view, including one who saw the phantom in the mid-1980s. This witness described the man as being dressed in a cloak over a fancy waistcoat with thigh high top boots of black leather.

Clearly the phantom dates back to the 18th century, but who is he?

The locals at Woughton on the Green have few doubts. Their ghost is the spirit of none other than the famous highwayman Dick Turpin. Although the ghost is rarely seen clearly enough to be certain, the identification is more than likely. Watling Street, now better known as the A5, runs close to the village on its way from London to Chester. The rich merchants who used the road made easy pickings for men such as Turpin, and he is known to have held up more than one coach on Watling Street.

Also certain is the fact that the notorious highwayman came to Woughton on the Green at least once. Turpin was planning a particularly daring robbery and was reasonably certain that he would quickly be pursued by armed guards. Before setting out on his job, Turpin came to Woughton on the Green and visited the Swan Inn, where the village blacksmith then plied his trade. 

Turpin paid the burly blacksmith handsomely for a rather unusual task. He instructed the blacksmith to remove all the shoes from his horse and replace them with new ones, but demanded that the new shoes should be put on backwards. Only after the robbery had taken place did the purpose of this strange request become clear. As Turpin galloped off, his horse left hoofprints leading towards the crime scene, not away from it. The baffled pursuers soon gave up the chase and Turpin got clean away. Turpin’s ghost is also said to haunt Trap’s Hill at Loughton, three miles to the west, where the holdup actually happened.

Dick Turpin is a strange character. He is said to haunt several places around England and is mentioned in folklore at locations he almost certainly never visited. He is often spoken of as if he were a daring, dashing hero who robbed the unworthy rich to give money to the poor.

Such an image of highwaymen had some elements of truth. Several of the first highwaymen were well born cavaliers who lost their wealth when King Charles I was defeated in the Civil War of the 1640s. Taking to the road on their magnificent chargers and dressed in beautifully tailored clothes of finest cloth, these men were clearly a cut above the average robber. They treated their victims with gallantry and politeness, rarely bothering to rob a poor farmer of his pennies. Before long many robbers aspired to the status of gentleman that went with being a highwayman. If they could afford the clothes and the horse, they took to the road to ape the manners of the gentry and earn the admiration of criminal colleagues.

By the time Turpin became a highwayman they were a vanishing breed. The authorities had developed mounted patrols and better methods of gaining information. It was becoming too dangerous to rob travellers on the king’s highway. Turpin was one of the last men to adopt the lifestyle, and it is on this that his fame largely rests. He had been a burglar and cattlethief for some years before, in July 1735, he donned the fine clothes and manners of the highwayman and took to the road. After a career of two years robbing coaches and travellers on the main roads leading out of London, Turpin retired to Yorkshire and assumed the name of John Palmer.

In 1738 Turpin visited Welton and, apparently for sport, shot a cockerel in the street. The bird’s owner demanded payment, but ‘Palmer’ merely threatened him. The man had ‘Palmer’ arrested. By chance Turpin’s old schoolmaster happened to see a letter sent by ‘Palmer’ and recognised the handwriting. Turpin was rapidly identified and on 7 April 1739 was executed. True to his criminal profession, Turpin ordered a new set of fashionable clothes for the event and spent his time entertaining friends and celebrities in his cell. He died bravely, without a single sign of fear.

The age of the highwayman was over, except in Woughton on the Green where Turpin’s galloping ghost still has the power to alarm travellers.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire by Rupert Matthews.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Ghost of Florence Nightingale

A small but charming village straggles along a lane off the A36 on the northeastern fringes of the New Forest. This is East Wellow and the church here is dedicated to St Margaret, but it is not the saint herself whose phantom walks here but another lady who many thought was close to being a saint herself. Wellow was the childhood home of Florence Nightingale and it was to the Church of St Margaret that she came with her family to worship.

It was from Wellow that Florence Nightingale left in 1854 to go to the British military hospital in Scutari, Turkey, where British casualties of the Crimean War were being cared for. Or rather, where they weren’t being cared for. As a trained nurse Nightingale was appaled by the lack of hygiene and nursing care being given to the wounded and sick soldiers. Backed up by a team of equally dedicated ladies, Nightingale cleaned out the wards and operating theatres with disinfectant, ensured all bandages and bed linen was thoroughly cleaned and spent long hours caring for the sick. She became famous as “The Lady with the Lamp” as she ended her long days touring the wards with a lamp to check on the soldiers.

When she arrived the death rate at Scutari as 42%. When she left it was 2%.

Returning to England, Nightingale became a national heroine. The soldiers and their families worshipped her for her gentle care, the medical authorities applauded her for her scientific approach and commonsense. She spent the rest of her life dedicated to establishing nursing schools, upgrading hospitals and to the improvement of health in Britain and the Empire. One of her early triumphs was the nursing school attached to St Thomas’s Hospital in London from where thousands of nurses, trained in the Nightingale methods, went out to save lives.

No matter how busy she was, Florence Nightingale always tried to get down to Wellow for a few days rest whenever she could. When she died in 1910, the Nightingale family was offered the chance to bury Florence in Westminster Abbey as befits a national heroine. But Florence had left strict instructions that she was to be interred at Wellow in the grounds of the church where she had worshipped God and found her inspiration. And she lies there still.

Soon after her death, the shade of Florence Nightingale began to be seen sitting quietly in a pew in the church, or walking slowly around the churchyard. And well she might for this is a most beautiful little church dating from the 1240s and full of fascinating paintings and other details. I recommend that when you visit you should drop some money into the box for the Church repair fund. I have rarely found a more deserving cause.

And Florence Nightingale is a most busy ghost, for she is seen not only in Wellow, but also in the corridors of St Thomas’s Hospital. A friend of mine who trained as a nurse there some years ago saw her once. “She was dressed in an old-fashioned grey dress down to the ground,” the nurse later recalled. “She came round the corner from the corridor into the ward and looked about. Then she walked out again. I was only a student nurse at the time and was all alone on night duty. There was not meant to be anyone else about apart from me and the Sister that came to check up from time to time. I wondered who this lady was and followed her out to the corridor, but she had vanished. I was told by older staff that this was the ghost of Florence Nightingale.”

The second ghost of East Wellow has no name and nobody is very certain how often it appears. It is a phantom coach and four which trots down the lanes on occasion. One local chap told me that the coach is seen only at night. Another that it has not been seen for donkey’s years. Neither had actually seen it and I could find nobody who had.

This is an extract from Haunted Hampshire by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A Ghost Walk around Ditchling, Sussex

This bracing trek takes the walker up on to the highest parts of the South Downs, offering magnificent views to the north over the Weald, and south over the Downs themselves toward the distant seas. The ghosts are a mixed bunch ranging from the inoffensive and the odd to the truly terrifying.

The Walk

1) Find your way to the church that lies at the crossroads in the centre of Ditchling village. Walk east along the B2116. One of the cottages on this road belonged to a witch in the mid-19th century.

This was one of those witches who both helped the villagers and engaged in petty blackmail. She would prepare healing potions and drive away bad luck for a fee, but would also ask for donations of food or drink from her neighbours, threatening to blight their crops and bring sickness to their cattle if they refused. Whether or not these witches were able to carry out their threats, they were fairly widespread across England right up to the 1920s. This particular witch had the power to halt farm carts in their tracks. No matter how much the carter beat his horse, or pulled on the wagon, it would not move until the witch allowed it to do so. Usually this was achieved by giving the witch something from the cart.

One local farmer got so fed up with the witch’s exactions that he took himself off to Stedham to consult the most powerful witch in all Sussex. For a suitable fee, she told him how to break the spell. Next time this farmer was passing down this lane with a cart loaded down with succulent apples, the old witch cast her spell to halt his cart. As so often before, the farmer jumped down. This time he did not lash his horse, but took out his pocket knife. He then proceeded to cut a series of notches into the spokes of the front right wheel of the cart in the magical pattern shown him by the witch of Stedham.

Instantly the cackling laughter coming from the witch’s cottage turned to shrieks of pain and rage. The old woman came hurtling out of the cottage, blood pouring from her hands. For every cut on the wheel, there was a cut on her hands. She did not try that particular trick again.

2) Turn right along Shirley’s Close, signposted as a private road. Join the footpath bearing right between two house driveways: No.14 and No.16. The path runs between two hedges, but is clearly signposted as a public footpath. Emerging from between the back gardens of the houses in Shirley’s Close, the path strikes off across open farmland, heading slightly uphill. Just before the path reaches the brick-built Westmeston Place, it diverts to the right, then emerges on to a lane.

3) At the lane, turn right and uphill to enter Westmeston.

This lane is the haunt of a great shaggy black dog who patrols the lane from Westmeston to Ditchling. The tree-crowned hill to the north is known locally as Black Dog Hill. No particular story is attached to this phantom hound, though it may be linked to the Wish Hounds that will be met later in the walk.

The lane turns sharp left at what is in reality a crossroads in the centre of the village. Enter the churchyard through the lychgate on your left.

The ghost here is a quiet and serene figure. She walks out of the church and along the path to the lych gate. Once through the gate, she turns to the right crosses the road and vanishes beside what was once the village well. She is usually said to be a ghostly nun. One witness who saw this phantom in the 1990s confirmed that she wore a long darkish coloured robe which came up over her head into a hood. This certainly sounds like a nun, but no convent is known to have stood here.

The church itself is charming enough and well worth a visit. Parts of the nave date back to Norman times, but the structure has been much altered over the years and most of what stands today is 14th century.

4) From the church, retrace your steps to the crossroads at the centre of Westmeston. Turn south along The Street towards Westmeston Farm. At the end of this short lane is the entrance to the farm on the right, while straight ahead is a gate that gives access to a bridleway. This route is much used by riders. The horses’ hooves stir up the ground so that after rain the chalky mud becomes a morass several inches deep. Care, or waterproof boots, are needed for the first 20 yards or so of the bridle path. The path climbs steeply up through some trees before emerging on to the open grassland of the South Downs. Continue to follow the bridle path up the steep hill until it reaches the junction of the well-signposted South Downs Way near the crest of the hill.

5) At the junction with the South Downs Way, turn right.

It is here that the dangerous and terrifying spectres of Sussex are to be encountered. On windy days, as the gloom of dusk draws in over the Sussex countryside, the Devil himself appears here on the heights of Ditchling Beacon. He scans the vast panorama laid out before him, searching for dying humans whose lives have been wicked enough to earn themselves a trip to Hell. Around his feet prowl the dreaded Wish Hounds, the gigantic black dogs that the Devil brings with him when he hunts the souls of the damned.

There the Devil stands until he spies a soul departing this mortal life. If the soul is damned, the Devil gives a malicious grin and looses his pack of Wish hounds. Leaping on to the back of a mighty black stallion, the Devil rides off on the heels of his pack of hunting dogs. Over the landscape they race, the hooves of the black stallion pounding the ground as loudly as the baying of the hounds echoes through the sky.

It is a terrible thing to hear, and a worse one to see for who knows when the Devil may turn aside from his legitimate quarry to hunt down anyone unwise enough as to interrupt his sport. It is no wonder that the locals tend to avoid the hills on windy evenings.

6) Follow the South Downs Way along the crest of the ridge. At Ditchling Beacon, the highest point on the walk it crosses a lane and passes through a car park before continuing straight on to the west. Follow the path almost to the Clayton Windmills. Just before the windmills, follow the South Downs Way as it turns left along a track, then right down the hill to the main A273 in the valley below.

This stretch of road is haunted by a woman wearing a pale-coloured raincoat and a headscarf. She is seen by motorists as they drive south toward Brighton. This lady stands beside the road, but as the car approaches she steps forward and waves her arm as if to flag the car down. If the car stops, however, the lady vanishes into thin air. One or two people each year fear that they have run over the woman and report an accident to the police. Who she might be is a mystery, for no fatal accident is recorded as having happened here that would have caused such a phantom.

7) Cross the main road with care.  Follow the lane into Pyecombe to the church.

The ghost of Pyecombe is by way of being a celebration as much as haunting. In days gone by a particularly powerful and malevolent witch lived here. Folk from all around blamed her for their misfortunes, and she made a tidy living out of blackmailing the people. It was noticeable, however, that the village blacksmith was always left alone by the old crone. The honest folk of Pyecombe asked the blacksmith how he evaded the witch’s curses, but he was as puzzled as the rest of them.

On 23 November, a night long to be remembered in Pyecombe, the witch was walking past the church to the village crossroads about her wicked business. The blacksmith, who had his smithy there, decided to confront the old lady. He stepped into her path, only for her to shrink back in horror. Laying hands on the witch, the man caused her to shriek and scream in terror and obvious pain. As the villagers gathered, the blacksmith dragged the woman to his smithy. As soon as she was hauled over the threshold, she erupted into flames and collapsed to ashes.

The spectral scene of the old witch being summarily consigned to oblivion is seen each year on the night of 23 November. The date is still celebrated in the village.

8) From the crossroads in the centre of Pyecombe church head north along The Wyshe. At the end of the lane a gate gives access to a footpath. This path climbs up over the shoulder of Wolstonbury Hill, with the main crest of the hill away to the right. Where it reaches some woodland the path bears right along the edge of the wood before entering the woodland as it turns downhill. Beyond the wood, the path crosses more open land before reaching a lane.

9) Where the path meets a lane, turn right to the A273. Recross the main road with care, bearing right  to enter the village of Clayton. Ignore the B2112 signed to Ditchling and instead bear right past the church to follow the lane as it bends first right, then left to run along the foot of the hill, heading east.

This hill is said to be the burial place of a life sized statue of a calf, made from solid gold. Traditionally this is said to be the calf made by Aaron, as recorded in the Bible. It was brought here by the Devil after God sent Moses to banish the worship of the golden calf. The Devil put it into the hillside and set a demon to guard it. The story goes that local men decided to dig up the calf for the value of its gold. Reasoning that Easter Sunday would be a suitably holy day on which to confront any demon that might be about, they climbed the hill and set to work with their shovels. After some hours of hot work, they struck something solid. Scraping the earth away, they saw the shape of a calf’s shoulder made of gold emerging from the earth.

Suddenly there was a deafening clap of thunder from the cloudless sky. A ball of fire came tumbling down the hill emitting sparks and flame. The men, understandably, fled back down to Clayton church where they hid until the flaming demon had gone. Climbing back up the hill, they found their shovels where they had abandoned them, but there was no hole to be seen - just the unbroken turf of the hillside. They gave up the idea of cashing in on the gold, which was probably wise.

10) The narrow lane runs for almost a mile, often between high hedges or trees. Ignore the first turning on the left. Just before a crossroads with a second lane a footpath to Ditchling branches off over a style to the left. This path may be taken if wished, but the ground here can be muddy after rain. If the ground is wet, continue to the crossroads and turn left to follow this lane back to Ditchling village.

This is an extract from Ghost Hunter Walks in Sussex by Rupert Matthews.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Ghosts of West Peckham, Kent

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.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Ghosts in Dorchester, Dorset

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.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Ghosts at the Tower of London

The Tower of London was begun in 1066 by William the Conqueror to keep his newly conquered capital in subjugation, later serving as the bulwark of London against foreign invaders, a royal palace and as a prison.

One of the most famous of the ghosts at the Tower is that of Anne Boleyn, second queen to King Henry VIII and the first of his wives that he sent to the executioner’s block. Beheaded in 1536 on charges of adultery, which was treason in a queen, Anne was almost certainly innocent. But King Henry wanted her out of the way so that he could marry another woman who he thought had more chance of giving him a son and heir. Anne died with dignity.

Her ghost has returned frequently ever since. She walks with stately step around the small church within the walls of the Tower where she lies buried. One of the most celebrated sightings came in 1864 when a detachment of the 60th Rifle Regiment formed the guard at the Tower. One sentry was found slumped unconscious outside the King’s House, where Anne had been lodged. His officer hauled him off to stand courtmartial for sleeping on duty.

One the day of the trial, the soldier claimed to have fainted after seeing a woman approach him. When he challenged her she made no reply, nor stopped advancing. Presenting his bayonet, the man saw her walk straight through his rifle. At which point he fainted and remembered nothing more until his officer shook him awake. The man was acquitted when two other soldiers came forward to back up his story of the night time spectre. Another guard saw the ghost in 1933, but this soldier did not waste time challenging the apparition. He fled to the guardroom, arriving in a sweat.

Another victim of execution to return in spectral form is Lady Jane Grey. When Protestant King Edward VI died in 1553 there was a succession problem. The obvious heir was his eldest sister Mary, but the Protestants did not want her as she was a Catholic. Next came another sister, Elizabeth, but the Catholics did not want her as she was a Protestant. Third in line was a cousin, Lady Jane Grey, whom nobody wanted very much as monarch, but to whom nobody would much object.

Lady Jane’s father in law, the Duke of Northumberland, hatched a scheme to put her on the throne. However, Princess Mary moved too quickly for him and secured the throne for herself. Northumberland and Lady Jane both went to the block, Lady Jane being only 17 years old. The sad phantom of this lady has been seen on Tower Green.

The Tower is home to other ghosts, including Sir Walter Raleigh, the Princes in the Tower and an assortment of unidentified grey ladies, dark men and others. The final word should go to an officer of the Welsh Guards, one of whose men reported seeing a ghost in 1957. “Speaking for the regiment, our attitude is this: All right, so you say you saw a ghost. This is the Tower of London. Let’s leave it at that.”

This is an extract from the Ghosthunter's Guide to England by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Great Black Dog of Hoarwithy

Is it possible for the power of human thought and belief to create a spectral entity? If it is, one such may be the cwm annwn of Herefordshire.

One of the great black hounds has a rather complex story attached to it, unlike the others which simply roam the countryside on some vaguely defined evil business. This is the great black dog of Hoarwithy.

Back in the 1860s, or thereabouts, a Hoarwithy farmhand named Tom Reece was walking back to Hoarwithy after a pre-Christmas night out with friends in Ross. As he strolled down the lane he heard soft, padding footsteps behind him and saw a large black dog loping down the lane toward him. Tom stood to one side to let the dog pass, but it stopped as it drew closer. When Tom continued on his way, the dog fell in with him keeping a few paces behind.

Tom at this point thought that the dog was a natural creature and, although he did not recognise it, thought it must belong to some local farm or other. After a while Tom, who had been drinking, got fed up with the dog. He shouted at it, but it took no notice. He threw a stick at it, but the dog merely regarded him with a quizzical expression. Then Tom picked up a fallen branch and stepped forward as if to hit the dog. The hound then sprang back out of his reach and suddenly took on human form - it was Tom’s long dead father.

Tom fled the scene and hurried home. He arrived in a terrible state of agitation and upset. While he told his family about the dog, he did not mention the appearance of his father’s ghost. The weeks passed and Tom grew steadily more depressed and lethargic.

Then one night he suddenly got up in the middle of the night and woke his brother, who slept in the same room. “I have got to go out,” he told his brother. “Don’t worry about me.” Words that were guaranteed to make the brother deeply worried.

Tom was feeling a strong impulse to go to some nearby woods. Once in the shadow of the trees he again saw the phantom hound. Tom followed the dog through the trees. When the dog stopped it again changed into the ghost of his father and pointed to the ground. “Dig” commanded the ghost. Tom dug and quickly discovered a leather bag. “Throw it in the Wye”, commanded the ghost. Tom threw the bag in the Wye.

On the instant that the bag disappeared under the waters the ghost vanished, and Tom fainted. When he awoke it was to find the chill dawn of winter creeping over the landscape and a heavy frost all round. Tom sat up, his body chilled to the bone, but his depression lifted. He never again saw either the dog or his father and never again suffered depression.

This is an extract from Haunted Herefordshire by Rupert Matthews. To learn more and order a copy at a discount CLICK HERE