Thursday, 4 August 2011

Horror in the Bear at Hodnet, Salop

The Bear Hotel in this old town, dominated by black and white timber architecture, takes its name from the fact that for many years it was home to a bear pit. It was here that the local folk engaged in the ancient past time of bear baiting. A brown bear was secured by a chain to a stake in the centre of the pit, then hunting dogs were let loose into the pit. Bets were taken on how long the bear would last and how many dogs it might kill before it died.

Thankfully the pub these days offers less bloodthirsty entertainments and fine foods. Back in the 1680s a Welsh gentleman by the name of Jasper would stop here when travelling to Shrewsbury on business. Whether it was the hearty meals or the bear baiting that first attracted him, we do not know, but he enjoyed the inn’s hospitality so much that he became a regular guest. He was popular too, paying in good gold coin and standing drinks for the locals.

Then he came one time with neither gold nor silver. He explained that he had lost his fortune speculating in stocks and shares in London. Wearing only a thin coat in the bitterest of winter weather, he asked the landlord for a night’s lodging and some hot food to see him through. He promised to pay when he had regained his wealth. The landlord, clearly a hard-hearted man, refused. It was ready cash or nothing. Despite the many times Jasper had stayed and paid well, the landlord turned him out into the snow.

A few hours later the landlord left the bar to fetch something from the store cupboard. He screamed aloud and staggered backwards into the bar, pointing in horror towards the cupboard. Desperately struggling for breath the landlord tried to say something, then pitched forward stone dead. The customers gingerly investigated the cupboard, but it was empty of anything except the stored provisions to be expected. A doctor was summoned who declared the landlord had died of a terrific shock or fright.

Next morning as the folk of Hodnet began gathering for a mid-winter funeral, they found a second body. This was the corpse of Jasper that lay under a hedge where he had clearly sought shelter from the bitter weather, only to freeze to death. On his face was a broad smile of clear joy and happiness. Had he somehow returned to the inn in spectral form to cause the death of the mean-spirited landlord? That at least was the story that ran around Hodnet that chill winter’s day as a double funeral took place.

These days, there can be little doubt that Jasper is seen in ghostly form. He appears most often, not in the bar or store room, but in the upstairs corridor. Dressed as in his glory days, he wears a richly embroidered velvet coat as he walks slowly from a room towards the stairs. If he harbours any ill will towards the Bear, it is not evident. In fact one person who saw him in the 1990s said that he appeared a jolly and merry soul.

As well he might, for the Bear offers hospitality welcoming enough to make anyone happy.

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