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Something fairly unique to Britain is our strangely unquestioning acceptance that places are haunted. Even people who aren’t superstitious in the slightest occasionally mention that their local pub toilet is frequented by a ghost, or that they think an angry poltergeist lives in their shed. It’s hard to know how seriously you’re supposed to take ghost stories, but I’ve decided it doesn’t actually matter . They’re fascinating, exciting and usually come packaged with lots of awesome local history – what’s not to love? So with that spirit (geddit) of open-minded interest, let’s have a look at the spookiest stories associated with the lovely Oxfordshire market town of Witney.
The Bridge Street Corpse
In the olden days everybody was very religious and behaved well, right? Well apparently not, a local legend holds that a drunken Witney mob once murdered a priest in the middle of Bridge Street in the 11th century. As messy as Witney can get today, even the Red Lion never got quite that bad.
The story is centered on a religious procession that was once a major part of Witney’s annual calendar. It is reported however, that over the years it descended into an excuse for heavy drinking and the selling of cheap tat. Obviously, this offended the church, and so they tried to stamp it out. Author of Oxfordshire Ghosts Joe Robinson writes:
“… so the church decided that the significance of the day had been lost to the irreligious mob, abandoned the day as a feast day and forbade any further processions.”
The story goes that as a result, a particularly pickled gathering of angry Witney-folk descended upon the bridge over the Windrush, on what is now called Bridge Street. The bridge traditionally played a central role in the procession, as participants would normally float flowers in the water with blessings and prayers. On this evening though, the crowd vowed to smash up the bridge unless the church reversed their ban. It is said that a pious young priest did his best to talk them down, and was hurled to a watery death as a result.
In the years since, there have been several reports of a ghostly priest-shaped corpse floating in the waters. The sightings tend to take place at 8pm, on the third day after Easter – if any of you can take a photo, I’ll buy you a pint.
Minster Lovell Hall
Minster Lovell is a lovely village to visit in its own right, but it are the still-impressive ruins of Minster Lovell Hall which really deserve a look-in. It was the home of the powerful Lovell dynasty, a family that once held a position of great authority in England. Francis Lovell (1454 – 1487ish) was a close personal friend of Richard III, and formed a central part of Richard’s court. He followed his King in a military expedition to Scotland in 1480, and fought alongside him in the Wars of the Roses – the civil war that would eventually lead to Richard’s death and the rise of the Tudors.
Francis Lovell’s whereabouts after the catastrophic defeat at The Battle of Stoke Field (1487) aren’t fully known, but in 1708 renovation work found a corpse walled up inside a hidden room in the hall. Local folklore holds that this was Francis Lovell, hidden for years, fed by a faithful servant until he died, leaving Francis to a foodless fate. There have been numerous reports of a ghostly knight riding towards the hall – it’s not clear who this knight actually is, but as it fits Francis’ story so well, it is easy to suppose that this is a ghostly re-enactment of his return from the battle.
The other famous story attached to the hall is that of the ‘White Lady’. Apparently, in the mid-1700s the wedding of a young William Lovell was held in the hall. After the ceremony, some of the guest suggested a game of Hide and Seek. The young bride had the clever idea of hiding in a large chest in an attic, but found that it locked upon entry.
It took two years for the game to come to an end, when her entombed corpse was finally discovered. The story was popular one, with Victorian poet Thomas Haynes Bayly immortalising it in a song, The Mistletoe Bough, performed here by the wonderful Jon Boden.
Here are a couple of verses if you don’t want to watch a video of drunk folkies:
“At length, an old chest that long laid hid
Was found in the castle, they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of the lady fair.
Oh sad was her fate! In sportive jest
She hid from her love in the old oak chest:
It closed with a spring, and her bridal bloom
Lay withering there in a living tomb.”
The story is a horrid one indeed, but it’s not the end of it. Even more frequently than the ghostly knight, a cloaked white woman is often seen wandering the grounds, usually at Christmas time. Sierra Gaffney told me of one particularly memorable visit she had to the ruins:
“A few years back some friends and I drove over to Minster Lovell ruins at about 1am. We sat down on the grass behind the ruins watching over the river just chatting and laughing. Suddenly though, my eyes were drawn to the woods across the river. I stayed silent and watched as a white figure glided through the trees.
It must have been about thirty metres away but I recognised the figure of a woman in a flowing white dress. The strangest part was that I wasn’t afraid – instead I felt a calm, slightly sad feeling. It was only afterwards that I realised what I’d seen and the fear set in. We left soon after and I’ve never returned to the ruins at night since.”
I have to say, if I starved to death somewhere, I probably wouldn’t choose to hang out there for eternity. Each to their own I suppose.
West End – The Most Haunted Street in Witney?
I didn’t originally set out to write about West End, but when I looked at the various stories I’d gathered, the amount set in this particularly lovely street was too impressive not to write about. It’s an interesting road in itself; Dr Patrick Steptoe, the inventor of artificial insemination, was raised there, and number 48 inspired the nation-wide smash hit “In an Old Fashioned Town”, first sung in 1914. They may not have realised it, but many of the British soldiers matching off to fight in the Great War would have been singing a song about Witney as they did so. Here’s a grainy recording of the song:
As interesting as these nuggets of history are, it’s the paranormal aspect of the street we’re focusing on here. The building that was (until a couple of years ago) the local Post Office had actually spent most of the last century as an ale-house, named the Jolly Tucker. The building might be empty now, but a young woman, believed to be to a landlord’s wife, haunts the stairs up to the first floor. In fact, the pub’s landlady in the 1940s would reportedly have one-way conversations with the phantom when they passed each other.
A married couple, who wish to remain anonymous, told me of a bizarre meeting they had with a ghostly visitor in West End. In the house on the left, where the street meets Hailey Road, they were sleeping soundly one night. For some reason though, the female member of the couple woke up, and as she looked around the room she saw a figure cloaked in white standing over her husband. The weirdest part was that this figure seemed to be pretending to cut his hair with its fingers, and when she gasped with fright, the Phantom Haircutter turned around and walked out of the room. They also mentioned that since leaving the property, they’ve noticed that it keeps going on sale. Perhaps they’re not the only ones to meet this trainee barber from beyond the grave?
For me though, the most fascinating story associated with the street placed me and my Mum at the centre of things. I was a toddler at the time, so naturally I don’t remember it, so this is her memory of the event. She was visiting a friend one morning, with me in tow. The woman’s husband has recently committed suicide, and Mum recalled feeling a very bizarre presence when she walked up the stairs to the loo, despite it being broad daylight. I was playing happily in the corner with a doll’s house, but as we left and set off down the street, I turned to Mum and said quite innocently, “Mummy, who was that man standing in the corner?”
If you happen to live on West End and have spent your time there in ghost-free happiness, I’m sincerely sorry if this has freaked you out. Just keep the lights on all the time – then you’ll be fine.
The Hitchhiking Gypsy
Most accounts of hauntings seem to involve ghosts either unaware of the people they’re terrifying, or as invisible sources of harmless noise. Occasionally though, you hear word of a ghost that seems very aware of the living. A frequently told tale locally is that of the gypsy woman that appears near Asthall, between Witney and Burford. She’s described as being of a dark complexion, dressed in a ‘peasant blouse’ and a loose fitting cloak. The accounts are quite something – she actually waves down cars from the middle of the road. ‘Terry’, one of the interviewees for Joe Robinson’s Oxfordshire Ghosts book said:
“I could see that she was dripping water all over the place, her dark hair was hanging in wet ringlets over her forehead and her clothing was soaked. It was as though the woman had just been dragged from the river… Suddenly the woman uttered just five words to me, ‘It’s too late, he’s gone’, and with that disappeared, leaving no more than a slightly misty haze in the car.”
Liz, another interviewee, tells a similar story:
“She just sat there and gazed at me with such a tortured expression that I felt she must have experienced something really dreadful. I thought I must be dreaming this until the young woman simply said, “The water, the river, he’s gone”, then she disappeared. All that remained to assure me that I wasn’t dreaming… was a pool of water, where her feet had been, and a soaking seat.”
If you happen to be driving that way and you spot a damp looking young lady, perhaps you should run her over instead. Although if you end up killing an actual person, please don’t bring up my advice in court.
Whether you’re a sceptic or believer, ghosts are intrinsically fascinating, especially when you’re living in Oxfordshire, the county often declared the ‘most haunted in Britain’. So Witneyites, next time you feel a bit odd, keep an eye out – you never know what could be lurking.
Will Hazell is a freelance copywriter who works primarily in the heritage and conservation sectors, though he enjoys dipping into other fields from time to time. If you’d like to hire his writing talents you can find him at Will Finds the Words.
If you happened to think this article a source of interest and joy, please like the page on Facebook to keep track of my journeys through various local histories. And, if you’re feeling generously minded, perhaps you’d consider throwing some loose change in the tip jar? Just click on donate below.
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