A background to Bill Spectre’s Ghost Trails as written by Bill for OX magazine.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, how many of us can resist the allure of a ghost story? We’re all fascinated by the possibility of there being ‘something’ on the other side. It was on this basis that I set about researching the spookier side of Burford, and later Oxford, with a view to writing and performing an entertainment based ghost trail. As an ancient coaching town, Burford has gathered many chilling tales. Lawrence Tanfield was born in what is now The Bay Tree Hotel, and later he became the Chief Baron of the Exchequer. He and his wife became extremely unpopular due to their excessive greed and their contemptuous attitude toward their tenants. When Lawrence died, he had to be secretly buried at midnight to avoid rioting and his effigy was burnt on Burford High Street every midsummer’s day for two hundred years. When his wife finally died, celebrations were short lived when a fiery chariot was seen flying across the rooftops of Burford with the hated Lady Tanfield at the reins. These sightings continued for two centuries and were so terrifying that a group of clergymen were called upon to rid the town of her evil presence. They trapped her spirit in a bottle which was flung off Burford Bridge and is supposedly now lodged under the third arch. If ever the cork in the bottle dries out, it is thought that Lady Tanfield’s spirit will be released and she will resume her ghostly chariot flights. If the Windrush looks like drying out, locals apparently water the third arch to ensure her spirit is never released!
The George Inn, now an Antiques Centre, was the favourite watering hole of Tom Dick and Harry Dunsden – possibly the original Tom Dick and Harry, but certainly three of the most notorious highwayman ever recorded in the Cotswolds. After a life of crime Dick died after his brothers were forced to cut off his arm to escape capture during a bungled burglary. Tom and Harry were later condemned to death after they’d killed an over inquisitive barman. The judge ordered that after death they should be brought back to Cap’s Lodge Plain, where the murder had been committed and hung from a tree to act as a warning to any passing ‘would-be’ villains. Their bodies were carted back from Gloucester, but the carter, who was understandably thirsty after his journey, decided to stop off at an Inn for a drink. Ironically he chose The George at Burford, the brothers had popped in for a final pint at their local. They are now said to haunt the Inn and strange bangings and scraping sounds are heard in the dead of night. A few years ago one of stallholders within the Antique’s Centre, quietly approached me and told me that on a previous night, she and her dog has been on their own locking up. Suddenly her dog started to growl and focus on one spot in the room. Slowly its head and eyes followed someone up the stairs, but The George was deserted – or was it……?
After the success of the Burford Trail I wanted to research Oxford. I knew I would enjoy lifting the lid on this great seat of learning to see what might lie beneath. I was not to be disappointed. At Oxford Castle which has stood vigil over the city since 1071, I learnt of Mary Blandy who was hanged there in 1752 for poisoning her father. Mary now sometimes makes her invisible presence felt during my Oxford Ghost Trail.
A stroll from Oxford Castle brings us to Broad Street, – a brick cross in the road, marks where the three Oxford Martyrs, Nicholas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer were burnt at the stake for daring to support the protestant church against the catholic Queen Mary Tudor. In 1995 a young girl saw the apparition of a man standing there in a ghostly pyre with a barrel around his neck; curiously this was how Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley had gone to their deaths. Nicholas Ridley’s brother had brought gunpowder in barrels, for the men to hang around their necks to make their deaths as swift as possible. Nobody had told this to the little girl, so she must have seen it with her own eyes.
In the 19th Century by looking through the windows along Brasenose Lane, you might have witnessed the debauchery that was The Brasenose Hellfire Club. Here my intrepid ghost hunters attempt to conjure up the proof that the terrifying cloaked figure of the Devil himself was once seen here.
Although the ghost trail was conceived as a fun based street entertainment which does its best to engage the audience with illusions stories and laughs, I’m always amazed that so many seemingly supernatural events have been experienced by my audience members. Perhaps they know I will be open to their stories, but at least twenty percent of them have had some weird encounter to relate, be it smelling the distinctive pipe smoke of some long lost relative, having the sensation of someone sitting at the bottom of the bed or a sudden and inexplicable chill in a room. Can all these occurrences really be so easily dismissed as being ‘all in the mind?
A gentleman on my Oxford Ghost Trail told me he had recently moved to a remote house tucked away in some woods. He and his wife couldn’t understand why often at around 2.30 am they were awoken by a car horn. Late one night they were on their way back from holiday and were almost home when a woman stepped out into the road directly in front of them. He frantically sounded his horn and just missed the woman. He pulled over, but she seemed to have vanished into thin air, on looking at his watch he saw it was 2.30am. Could this perhaps explain the frantic sounding of horns at night? Curious, I can’t resist a mystery.
If anyone has their own spooky experiences to tell, I’d love to hear about them and would very much like to use them in future blogs and podcasts. Please get in touch and tell me more………….!