What has been lost from the countryside is the art of spinning a yarn or the telling of tall tales. I grew up in a time prior to the modern media age and the entertainment we valued most was story telling. We children loved it when my father had a friend call who was an adept story teller. Although there was some truth in these stories they were considerably embellished through constant repetition and could contain fantastical elements. Country folk used to love story telling, particularly when the audience included some credulous outsiders.
This credulity could be exploited for profit. A friend of my father’s was a farmer. He had been contacted by a television company who wished to film on his lands some scenes for a television programme on Jorrocks, the nineteenth century huntsman. When they had set up the jumps for the horsemen, they were interrupted by a shout of that’s all wrong after the first jump. This very helpful farmer told the producer and assembled cast that Jorrocks would never jump in the manner they had done. After several jumps with the guidance of the helpful farmer they began to jump in the manner of the Victorian huntsman. Once they had achieved that, the very helpful farmer noticed that the costumes and tackle they were not those that would be used in the nineteenth century. He gave them his help in securing the correct tackle for the horses and the right costumes for the huntsmen. What had intended to be one days shooting, became for the farmer a profitable three days of filming. What the television producer never realised was that this farmer knew less about the historical Jorrocks that they did.
After this diversion I want to get back to my intended story, that of country ghosts. The estate on which I lived was owned by a very wealthy American family, who had become British over the generations. When the first American owner bought the estate, he invested part of his wealth in improving the estate. He added a maze to the grounds, topiary chessman and an Italian garden. The grounds around the castle were turned into a pleasure garden. One such added feature were the walks and one such walk was Anne Boleyn’s walk.
The castle had once been owned by Anne Boleyn’s father. It was doubtful that she had spent anytime there with her lover Henry VIII; yet the thought that she might have appealed to the new owner. The walk was a long walk between rhododendrons and other scrubs. In early summer it must have been a delightful to walk between the flowering shrubs. When I knew the walk it had largely fallen into disuse and looked rather neglected. It had a markedly gloomy and spooky appearance which is perhaps it was why it gave rise to a local ghost story.
Stories circulated amongst the castle staff that the unfortunate Anne Boleyn could be seen at night walking there with her head in her hand. The fact that the castle staff at night attended the pub situated at the edge of the castle grounds, I think aided the development of the stories about this ghostly apparition. According to local legend an Italian valet was employed at the castle. This man was easily persuaded of the existence of this ghost. One night he was persuaded to walk along Anne Boleyn’s walk to see the ghost. Another of the servants had dressed in a sheet to look like a ghost. I don’t know what he used for a head, but he certainly had one under his arm. Then when the valet was walking along this path, this ghost jumped out from between the bushes. The scared valet ran away and gave his notice the next day.
I say local legend because staff would play such tricks on one another, but I doubt that even the most naive of Italian valets would be fooled by the disguise. What made the story believable was that it was a trick played on an incredulous outsider. Everybody in the village knew that only an outsider would be taken in by such a trick. However from such beer talk the legend grew. Certainly when I was a child the story of Anne Boleyn walking the grounds was widely known and of course disbelieved. It became something of a local custom, that some locals when fortified fortified by the consumption of beer would do the walk to see if they could see the ghost. Only after a number of these beers would these people think it worth their time to look for what they really knew was a non existent ghost when they were sober. All the estate was sceptical about Anne Boleyn’s ghost, but it was an amusing story to relate to credulous visitors.
Now the myth of Anne Boleyn walking the estate is widely accepted. I suspect mainly to encourage visitors to come to the estate. Since my childhood the walk has been transformed and now looks like it did in its heyday. Yet many thousands have now walked along that path to share in the vicarious pleasure of walking the same path as Anne Boleyn’s ghost.
There was also the story of the devil’s chair. At a nearby village there was a chair in which the devil had been reputed to have sat. Any unfortunate that sat in the chair would be certain to die the next day. Whatever the source of the story it was one popular with locals. However I can express some credulity about the story, as after a few drinks the locals would forget which was the devil’s chair and somebody would mistakenly sit in it. None of them can I recall ever died from doing so. After a nights drinking nobody was quite sure which of the chairs the devil sat in and I’m sure the devils chair was a different one each night. If fact I know that none of the local adults took the story seriously. However it was a story the landlord promoted to encourage trade.
What I think was the true source of the story was this. A landlord wanted to devise a way to stop children coming into the pub, because he only wanted adult drinkers in the bar, as children distracted the men from the serious and profitable activity of drinking. He came up with the story of the devil’s chair to scare away the children. It certainly worked because all of us children were too scared to enter the pub. From that simple ruse it developed into what became a well known local legend.
As a former countryman proud of his roots, I prefer to believe all such rural ghost stories had a practical origin. If outsiders from the town took them seriously, so much the better. Much pleasure was derived from duping our sophisticated urban cousins. The man who appeared to be an ignorant country yokel was all to often one of the village wide boys testing the credulity of an outsider with an increasingly series of incredible stories.