Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Ghostly Highwayman of Hothfield

Although this walk takes in just two ghosts, it is one of the most rewarding in the book. The route takes in a site of special interest to bird-watchers and botanists as well as offering stunning views for those more interested in scenic beauty than in details of nature. The village of Great Chart is one of the most historic in Kent, while the village churches that are included on this walk are charm itself. There is even a waterfall, albeit a manmade creation.

The Walk

1) Park in the car park that serves Hothfield Common. Travelling south along the A20, pass through Ram Lane, then bear right along the lane signposted to Hothfield. The car park is about 150 yards on the left. Leave the car park on foot and turn left along the lane.

The ghost that lurks in this gloomy, tree covered lane is that of Robert, a notorious Kent highwayman who came to a grisly end here in the early 1700s. What is now the A20 was then the Folkestone Road, and it provided rich pickings for any highwayman who fancied his chances.

The highwayman is a much celebrated figure in English folklore, and particularly in Kent where several great high roads gave such men the opportunity to practise their calling. Some highwaymen have become celebrated as friends to the poor and punishers of wealthy wrongdoers, though in reality most were simply out to steal what they could and found rich travellers more lucrative targets than poor folk. Nevertheless, the highwaymen themselves often did their best to live up to the reputation that their dishonest way of life had gained.

The earliest highwaymen, as opposed to simple highway robbers, took to the roads during the later 17th century. Typically these men were gentlemen who had lost their money and estates by supporting the doomed cause of King Charles I during the Civil Wars of the 1640s. Several such impoverished gentry earned a living in Europe as mercenaries, others took to farming or to teaching, but several became robbers. Mounted on their splendid war chargers, dressed in the finest fashions and exhibiting the courtly manners of the gentlemen they were, these early highwaymen were quickly recognised by both the public they robbed and the criminals who looked up to them as something new.

One, Captain Thomas Hind, became the subject of a hugely successful play in London in 1651, as his dishonest career reached its height. He was captured in 1652 and sent to the gallows for treason, not for robbery. Another, Captain Philip Stafford, made a point of robbing supporters of the Parliament of all they had, even their clothes, while royalists were relieved only of their ready cash. While awaiting execution in Reading Gaol in the 1660s, Stafford was visited by many of the men who had served under his command in the Civil War, and a major riot was only narrowly averted.

It was the careers of such men that Robert of Hothfield hoped to emulate. Like others who took to the road, Robert first thieved enough money to set himself up as a highwayman proper. He stole enough money to buy himself a good horse – as essential for a quick getaway as for the impression it made – and a suit of the finest clothes money could buy. Then he set off for the road to make his fortune.

Robert’s peculiar talent was his charming manner and witty conversation. He would wait beside the Folkestone Road, as if pausing to eat a snack, and keep a lookout for some lone horseman who looked as if he might be worth robbing. Robert would then accost the stranger and engage him in conversation. He would warn the stranger that a highwayman was reported to be in the area and suggest they rode together as a pair of travellers would be more able to defend themselves. If the stranger agreed, Robert would ride alongside him for a while to allay any suspicions, then take advantage of a moment’s inattention to whip out his weapons and force the traveller to hand over his purse and any valuables he might have.

What made Robert Hothfield so particularly successful was that he managed to waylay several merchants and gentlemen returning from the continent with pocketsful of cash gained from trading in Europe.

But Robert tried his trick once too often. He stopped a traveller and, as usual, suggested they ride together. What Robert did not realise was that he had robbed the same man a year or so earlier and that he had at once been recognised. This time it was Robert who was taken by surprise, finding himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. The guns of the time were notorious inaccurate and prone to misfire, so Robert decided to make a dash for it. The stranger’s pistol, however, fired true and the bullet struck Robert in the back.

Robert put his spurs to his horse and rode for his home in Hothfield. He turned off the Folkstone Road and had got into this lane when death overtook him and he tumbled from his horse. His body was found later that day by a local farmer who recognised him and took his remains home to his family.

Thereafter the ghost of Robert the Highwayman was seen often trotting wearily along this lane, heading from the A20 towards Hothfield and the home he would never reach. He is dressed as one would expect in tricorn hat and embroidered coat, mounted on a fine horse. The pair plod wearily down the road, then vanish abruptly at the spot where Robert died.

In 1974, the ghost appeared in unusual form. He materialised in front of a local woman walking down this lane from her home in Tutt Hill to the shop in Hothfield. Unusually he was headless, which startled the lady considerably. Why he should have appeared in such a macabre form is unclear, he was soon back to his more usual appearance for his next appearances.

from Ghost hunter Walks in Kent by Rupert Matthews. 
Buy your copy HERE

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