GHOSTS OF THE HOME COUNTIES

Minsden Chapel, Hertfordshire

Hidden from view by a wooded copse, and reached by a brisk walk along a muddy bridleway, the crumbling remnants of Minsden chapel have tottered on the edge of ruin for at least three hundred years.

Built in the 14th century as a chapel of ease for pilgrims en route to St Albans Abbey, it had fallen into disrepair by the mid-17th century, when its secluded woodland setting made it a favoured and romantic location for weddings.

Unfortunately, as Mary Horn was plighting her troth to Enoch West in 1738, a lump of masonry suddenly dislodged itself from the roof and fell earthwards, knocking the prayer book from the priests’ hand.

The power’s that were decided that enough was enough, and the chapel was abandoned. It has remained little more than a melancholic ruin ever since.

In the early 20th century it became indelibly linked with the Hertfordshire historian Reginald Hine, whose fondness for the what was left of the chapel, led to his leasing it from the church for his lifetime.

He issued a dire warning to "trespassers and sacrilegious persons" that he would "proceed against them with the utmost rigour of the law and after my death and burial, I will endeavour in all ghostly ways to protect and haunt its hallowed walls."

Following his death in 1949 he was buried here and his cracked tombstone now rests beneath a lush carpet of weed and nettle.

Unsurprisingly, the crumbling edifice is haunted, its ghost being that of a phantom monk who appears on Halloween at midnight and ascends a long vanished flight of stairs at the chapel’s North East corner.

His appearance is always preceded by a mysterious tolling of Minsden’s lost bells and his passage marked by the eerie, though solemn, sound of plaintive music.

St Peter’s Church
Tewin, Hertfordshire

Perched on a slight incline, the squat church of flint and brick is not overly impressive. It is ringed by a peaceful churchyard, where rests the body of a heretic whose grave is surrounded by a wrought iron fence and whose heresy is remembered by the bizarre fulfilment of a death bed prophesy.

Her name was Lady Anne Grimston and in life she was a staunch atheist. As she lay upon her deathbed, in November 1780, she ignored the vicar’s entreaties to recant her blasphemy, and she point blank refused to allow him to administer the last rites. "If there is any truth in the teachings of the bible, "she is said to have sneered, "then seven trees will sprout from my grave."

Her body was laid to rest in St Peter’s churchyard where, either by the hand of fate, or by the machinations of an opportunist clergyman, several trees have, indeed, sprouted through her tomb, lifting it slightly and dumping great chunks of moss-clad masonry onto the carpet of nettle and bramble, beneath which her mortal remains now lie.

The A3, Burpham
Nr. Guildford, Surrey

On Wednesday December 11th 2002, Surrey Police received several calls from motorists to say that a car had veered off the A3 with its headlights blazing.

But when officers arrived at the scene they could find no sign of a crashed vehicle, it appeared to have vanished without trace.

A further search, however, was ordered - and the results were chilling.

For, just twenty yards from the supposed "crash scene," police found the wreckage of a car containing the remains of a man, buried in twisted undergrowth. Its lights were off - the battery had long since died - and the body was little more than a skeleton.

Surrey Police later revealed that the crash had, in fact, happened in July 2002, and that the vehicle had lain undiscovered for close on five months.

The motorists who had originally alerted the police were, therefore, left to ponder the eerie possibility that what they had seen was a ghostly re-enactment of the original accident.

The Ostrich Inn
Colnbrook, Berkshire

This atmospheric old inn stands in the ancient village of Colnbrook and was once an important stopover, on the main stagecoach route that ran from London to Bath.

Not wishing to enter the fracas of the endless battle to proclaim itself the oldest pub in England, The Ostrich plays it safe and claims to be the "fourth oldest" and records of the inn certainly date as far back as 1165.

One thing it can certainly claim, however, is that it was the first pub in England to ever be featured in a novel, Thomas of Reading, written in the late 16th century by Thomas Deloney.

It was Deloney’s reporting of the nefarious exploits of a former landlord called Jarman that secured the Ostrich’s place in Berkshire legend.

His infamous crimes are generally thought to have taken place at some time around the 1300’s.

In those days, wealthy travellers would pause at the inn to change from their mud-spattered clothes, into the finery expected for their appearances before the monarch at nearby Windsor Castle.

Many of these wayfarers would often carry vast sums of money with them, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by Jarman who had soon devised a profitable and intricate method of relieving them of both their riches and their lives.

Whenever a seemingly affluent patron arrived at his inn, Jarman would waste no time in plying the stranger with strong drink.

Having arranged for these special guests to sleep in his "best room," he would give them time to collapse into bed and, once he was sure that they were fast asleep, he would undo two bolts on the ceiling in the room beneath. This would cause their bed to tilt downwards at a 45 angle, sending the insensible sleeper tumbling into a vat of boiling fat, that Jarman always kept ready in the room below.

He would then steal the person’s belongings; sell his horse and clothes to the unquestioning gypsies, and dispose of the body into the nearby river.

He seems to have profited immensely from his activities and to have escaped any suspicion for many years.

But then one night a suitably drunk stranger had crawled into the bed, when the amount of alcohol he had consumed, forced him to climb straight back out and make use of the rooms chamber pot.

As he answered the call, he was astonished to see the head of his bed, suddenly tilt and disappear into the floor. His terrified shouts roused the other guests, and Jarman’s murderous career was over.

On the gallows, he boasted of having killed more than sixty people, although the actual believed total is closer to fifteen.

Staff at the inn, where a decidedly old world charm still holds sway, are often troubled by the "sinister atmospheres" that seem to hang over certain sections, and several landlords have complained of their night-times repose being rudely disturbed by the eerie sound of creaking boards, ghostly sighs and spectral bumps, that are simply attributed to one of Jarman’s long ago victims.

The George and Dragon Hotel
West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

One of West Wycombe' s most infamous sons was Sir Francis Dashwood, who was responsible for excavating the nearby West Wycombe caves for the debauched cavorting of the notorious "Hell Fire Club," a group of fellow aristocrats and men of influence. Men from the village employed in the construction of the caves were thus saved from the crushing poverty of their age, thus earning Dashwood the gratitude of the locals and ensuring that they were willing to turn a blind eye to the spurious goings-on beneath the hillside.

The village today is a delightful enclave, owned and preserved by the National Trust, and a stroll along its High Street is like slipping back in time.

The red-brick facade of The George and Dragon is one of the village' s more striking exteriors, and turning under its archway to enter its snug and atmospheric interior is a rare treat. "Generations of traders, travellers, lovers and visitors have left traces of their presence on the building and its atmosphere," reads the inn' s brochure, "not least of whom is Sukie, the beautiful social climber whose ghost is said to haunt the building."

Tradition holds that Sukie was a servant girl who worked at The George and Dragon in the 18th century.

Among her many admirers were three boys from the village, whose advances she rejected since she had set her sights on becoming the mistress of an aristocrat.

One day a wealthy young man paid a visit to the inn and Sukie, seeing him as her meal ticket out of there, promptly set about ensnaring him.

Soon the handsome young buck was besotted with the beautiful servant girl and began paying daily visits to the inn.

This irked the three local lads, who hatched a cunning plan to teach the haughty temptress a lesson. They sent her a letter, which purported to come from her noble suitor, informing her that he wished to elope with her. She was, he instructed, to don a white dress and meet him that night in the West Wycombe caves.

Elated, the unsuspecting Sukie dressed accordingly and set of for her rendezvous. Arriving at the mouth of the caves she lit a flaming torch and set off into the labyrinth. Hidden behind a large rock, the spurned lads watched with anticipation a she approached. Just as she had passed by, they seized the torch and dashed it to the ground, extinguishing its flame.

Sukie was terrified and fled into the darkness with her whooping tormentors in hot pursuit.

It was then that the prank turned to tragedy. As the frightened girl turned a corner, she tripped over a rock and her head struck the cave wall, knocking her unconscious.

The three lads summoned help and the villagers arrived to carry the comatose girl back to her room at The George and Dragon.

A doctor was called, but in the early hours of the next morning the poor girl died.

It wasn't' long before reports were circulating that Sukie' s restless wraith was haunting The George and Dragon. The two maids who shared her room were visited by her just a few days after her demise and refused point-blank to set foot in the inn again.

Over the succeeding centuries there were frequent reports of a ghostly white lady seen drifting about The George and Dragon in the early hours of the morning.

In 1966 Mr Jhan Robbins, an American guest staying at the hotel, awoke one night to find 'a pinpoint of light glowing about three feet off the ground near the door.' He watched as the light began to grow in stature and took on an 'opaque pearly quality.' Flinging back the covers he leapt out of bed and strode resolutely towards it. Suddenly he 'entered a zone of intense cold' ; his arms and legs became heavy, and he was overcome by a feeling of utter despondency. 'Life seemed futile, beset by tragedy. Life must have felt like this for poor Sukie, I thought, no one to protect her dignity. 'At this realization the light ballooned forward and seemed to reach for me.' This proved too much for the, until then, fearless Mr Robbins. He jumped straight back into bed and turned on the light.

Sukie is the best attested of The George and Dragon's ghosts, but she is not alone. Heavy footsteps are often heard descending the main staircase, believed to belong to a traveller who was murdered at the inn in the 18th century. His name and the circumstances behind his demise have long since been forgotten, and only the onerous plodding now testifies to the event.

Other female phantoms have been seen at various locations around the inn, but Sukie' s story and her subsequent nefarious ramblings puts them all in the shade.

St Lawrence Church
and The Dashwood Mausoleum
West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

The Nefarious Goings On Of The Hell Fire Club. West Wycombe is a delightful, though tiny, village, comprised of a single high street of timber and flint buildings, on the outskirts of which sits the magnificent seat of the Dashwood family, the beautifully Palladian West Wycombe Park.

On the summit of the steep conical hill across the road from the house, is the immense Dashwood Mausoleum, behind which towers the strange golden ball that sits uneasily atop the church of St Lawrence.

Meanwhile, hewn out of the hillside beneath are a series of caves which are reached via an entrance that has been fashioned to resemble a gothic church and which adds to the overall ambience of eccentricity with which the overall estate seems imbued.

The person responsible for all this was Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), a man whose name has become a byword for hedonistic debauchery, and who is today best remembered as a leading light in the most infamous of all the so-called "Hell Fire" clubs.

These secret societies had become popular with wealthy young aristocrats in the first half of the 18th century and in 1721 it was considered to necessary to pass a Royal edict condemning "Young People who meet together in the most impious and blasphemous manner.. and corrupt the minds and morals of one another."

Ironically, Dashwood’s organisation, which is now perhaps the only one to be universally remembered, and which operated between the 1740’s and 1760’s, never actually called itself the ‘Hell-Fire-Club.' preferring instead to be known as the “Knights of St Francis”.

John Wilkes (1725 – 1797), the radical politician, and an enthusiastic member, described their gatherings as "A set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got together to celebrate women in wine."

The select central core of just thirteen "apostles," who were led by Sir Francis Dashwood, included Lord Sandwich, John Wilkes, the painter William Hogarth, poets Charles Churchill, Robert Lloyd and Paul Whitehead, whilst American, Benjamin Franklin, was reputed to have been an occasional visitor.

Although their early meetings probably took place at the homes of various members, including West Wycombe Park, Sir Francis began casting around for a base that would provide the necessary seclusion for the clubs activities.

He settled on the ruins of the old Cistercian abbey at Medmenham, six miles from West Wycombe, which he restored to opulent splendour and inscribed above archway over the entrance the clubs motto Fay ce que voudras (Do as you wish).

Thereafter the society would also be known as "The Monks of Medmenham."

Despite the fact that these self -styled monks certainly indulged in a goodly amount of sexual frolicking, and did include mock religious services in their rituals, there is no evidence to suggest that, as has been frequently claimed, they ever practiced Satanism. The rumour that they did, was probably begun by their enemies in the late 18th Century, and gathered momentum throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.

There is, however, a delightful, though spurious, tale that at one of the meetings, John Wilkes concealed a baboon, which he had dressed as the Devil, in a chest beneath his seat.

At an appropriate moment, he jerked a cord which opened the chest and the creature jumped onto Lord Sandwiches shoulders who, believing that he had conjured up the Devil, cried out "Spare me gracious Devil: spare a wretch who never was sincerely your servant. I sinned only from vanity of being in the fashion; thou knowest I never have been half so wicked as I pretended: never have been able to commit the thousandth part of the vices which I boasted of…"

The animosity felt by Lord Sandwich for John Wilkes would lead him to pursue a vendetta against him that would see Wilkes expelled from the House of Commons and ultimately lead to his being jailed for three years.

At the height of the Wilkes scandal, Sandwich is supposed to have exclaimed at him, "Upon my soul Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die upon the gallows or of the pox." "That depends, my lord," replied Wilkes, "on whether I first embrace your Lordships principles or your Lordships mistresses."

But their feud also dragged in other members, including Sir Francis himself, and, by 1766, he had effectively disbanded the "Knights of St Francis" and, thereafter, they would be nothing more than a vague, albeit infamous memory around whom all manner of salacious gossip would gather.

The Grave of Jack O’Legs
Holy Trinity Church, Weston, Hertfordshire

Close to the churches gateway, there stand two stones that mark the reputed grave of the fabled local giant, Jack O’Legs.

He is said to have lived during the Middle Ages and was supposed to have been so tall that he could lean on first-floor window sills and chat with occupants inside the houses.

He was also renowned for his prowess as an archer, possessing the ability to bring down a bird from half a mile away and to shoot an arrow for over three miles.

But it was for his nefarious activities as a highway robber that he was best known and, like many an outlaw before and since, he was famed for robbing the rich to give to the poor.

Indeed, he held up so many wealthy travellers on the old Great North Road, that a steep incline close to the village of Graveley is still called "Jack’s Hill" in commemoration.

It was, however, the rich bakers in the market town of Baldock that, due to their practice of giving short measures, he was wont to harass the most.

But, eventually, they grew tired of Jack’s charitable escapades at their expense, and banded together to rid themselves of him once and for all.

One day, as he was striding through Baldock, he was hit from behind with a heavy pole. Having bound him in chains, the bakers dragged Jack to nearby Gibbet Hill, where they put out his eyes with a red-hot spit.

Jack begged to be allowed to fire his bow one last time and asked that his body be buried where the arrow fell.

The bakers consented to his final request and watched his arrow fly for two miles, before it struck the spire of Holy Trinity Church in Weston and fell into the churchyard.

It was here that, following his execution, they laid him to rest and marked his grave with the two ancient stones, twelve feet apart, which are still said to stand over the mortal remains of the legendary giant Jack O’Legs.

Donnington Castle
Nr Newbury, Berkshire

Donnington Castle’s towering gatehouse, standing on a high spur and overlooking the old London to Bath road, is an awesome edifice that still commands the attention much as it has done since its construction in 1386.

Built by Richard de Abberbury, chamberlain to Richard 11’s Queen, Anne of Bohemia, its’ most eventful period was during the English Civil War, when Charles 1st seized it from its then owner, John Packer, and appointed John Boys as commander of the garrison.

In July 1644 the Parliamentarian General Middleton arrived with 3000 men and demanded that the garrison surrender.

When Boys refused, Middleton launched an ill-conceived siege that not only failed to break through the castle’s defences, but also cost him a tenth of his force.

In September, a new force under a new commander loosed a twelve-day volley of cannon fire at the walls. Three of the castle’s flanking towers were blown to smithereens and the curtain wall was breeched, but still the valiant Boys refused to surrender.

A month later the Parliamentarians tried again and bombarded the castle with more than a thousand shots.

But when they sent word demanding that Boys submit, they received his customary short shrift.

Then, word arrived that Charles 1st was on his way to relieve the defenders and the attackers retreated.

The exhausted garrison were duly re-provisioned and were able to enjoy a brief respite from hostilities.

When the second Battle of Newbury on 28th October 1644, ended in stalemate, another assault on the Castle led by Sir William Waller ensued.

Once more the demands for surrender were met with an emphatic "no" from the gallant Boys, and a week later a Royalist force commanded by Prince Rupert managed to relieve the garrison.

Colonel Boys used the respite afforded by the winter months to strengthen his defences and was once more prepared to continue his valiant stand.

But the Civil War was drawing to a close and when, in March 1646, the Parliamentarians again demanded his surrender, he sought the Kings instructions and was told to shift for himself and get the best terms he could.

On the 1st April 1646 having withstood almost twenty months of constant siege, John Boys surrendered to his adversaries.

Parliament then voted for the demolition of this symbol of valiant resistance, and today all that remains are the twin towers of the mighty gatehouse that rise from the grassy hillside to a commanding 65 feet.

Needles to say, such a turbulent history has resulted in several ghosts.

There are persistent reports of spectral white dog that comes bounding down the hill from the castle towards the woods below. The creature makes no sound and the first intimation that he is anything more than living flesh and blood, is when he suddenly vanishes into thin air.

A ghostly guard has also been seen around the gatehouse. Whether he is the shade of one of the castle’s Civil War defenders is unknown, since he never stays around long enough for witnesses to ask him! One minute he’ll be standing by the gatehouse, a solid and apparently human figure, next he will suddenly disappear, as one witness put it, "like a bubble bursting."