Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Terrible Ghosts of Tarrant Gunville, Dorset

The area around Tarrant Gunville is peaceful and gentle, but it was not always so. The ghosts here are reminders of violent and bloody days in years gone by. The walk takes the visitor through two truly delightful villages and past one of the most picturesque churches in Dorset. There are no steep hills and the route travels mostly over surfaced lanes, though one stretch of bridleway can be sticky after rain.

1) Park in the High Street at Tarrant Gunville. The road is narrow in places, so be careful to ensure that your parked vehicle does not obstruct other road users.

2) Walk north out of Tarrant Gunville to where a lane turns off to the right signposted to Bussey Stool. Follow this narrow lane between tall hedges as it climbs along a valley to pass over two crossroads. Beyond the second crossroads the surface becomes gravel and in wet weather has frequent and deep puddles filling the potholes. The track comes to an end as it passes through a gate and runs out in a field.

This is the notorious, and very haunted, Bloody Shard Gate. Back in the late 18th century a notorious and vicious gang of poachers operated around this area of Dorset, known as Cranborne Chase. These were not local farmhands who bagged the odd rabbit or pheasant for their family pot. They were organised, violent men who killed and stole large numbers of deer to sell for cash at the London meat markets. They did not care who got hurt or what injuries they inflicted, just so long as they got away with prime meat. The gang intimidated locals into silence and beat gamekeepers close to death. It was a bad time to be honest in the village of Tarrant Gunville. Although just about everyone in the area knew that the gang was led by a retired sergeant of dragoons named Blandford from the village of Pimperne, nobody could be found to testify against him and his gang.

So the local landowners and gamekeepers came up with a plan. They arranged for a tip off to be given to the gang that a particularly fine herd of deer were lurking around Farnham Woods. Knowing that the best access was through the gate now known as Bloody Shard, the gamekeepers lay in wait, armed and equipped with leg irons and handcuffs. Right on cue Sergeant Blandford and his poachers came into sight, dragging a pair of fine deer carcasses behind them.

The gamekeepers pounced, determined to rid the area of the gang of poachers once and for all. It was, by all accounts, a vicious fight. One keeper had three ribs broken and a second, famous as the finest boxer in the county, had his leg broken. In the course of the fighting Sergeant Blandford had his right hand sliced clean off by a gamekeeper’s sword. The gang were eventually overpowered and sent to Dorchester for trial.

Which left the gamekeepers with the problem of what to do with the severed hand. After some discussion they took it to the vicar at Pimperne and had it buried in the churchyard. The poachers were transported for up to seven years apiece to the new colony in what is now Australia. Some years later Blandford returned to England, set up a shop in London and by all accounts lived a respectable life until his death.

And it was then that the ghosts began to walk – or in one case to crawl. Both the dead man and his severed hand returned to the scene of the fight where they were separated. The man wanders around the area, head bent to scan the ground. The severed hand drags itself around the ground as if trying to be noticed. To date the two have not been seen together. Perhaps if the hand finds the man, or the man finds the hand, the ghosts will vanish forever.


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