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NEWS - April 6, 2013

Chased by a Prehistoric Horseman – A Short Story

Chased by a Prehistoric Horseman Ghosts of
pre-history are scarce. Most of them, one presumes, are so old that they have
become worn out. The Devil is the exception that proves the rule. 
I have never met a man who has seen a Druidic ghost under
the standing stones of Stonehenge on a lonely night of moon and stars, but I
know of a strange, incredibly ancient grove of gnarled and witch-like oaks in
an old park meadow at the back of a little manor-house on the edge of the Essex
marshes. The church is tiny, forlorn and derelict. When I knew it first some of
the window-panes were of horn. The nearby heronry is in a little wood
surrounded by double moats. And in the park at the back of Hall and church
where the line of ancient oaks is planted as to pattern, there was, the legend
says, once a Druid altar where blood ran.  

I have had the shooting on that remote, marshland estate for
many years. I have crossed that old, small park under the moon, in snow-mist,
in bright sunlight and in the glimmer of dawn. It has an atmosphere like that
of no other place I know of. It literally smells of pre-history. But I have
never seen a ghost of a Druid or of any man of Ancient Britain.  
I know a pictish broch on a high moor above Donside in
Aberdeenshire built like a great stone beehive. There dwelt the Little Men, the
Picts, long before Scottish history was written. I would not care to sleep in
that broch alone.  
We may count the Pixies of Cornwall and Devon and the
fairies of elsewhere not so much as prehistoric people since they belong to all
time, but when one speaks of prehistoric ghosts one thinks of spectres of the
Ancient Briton, the little Pict creeping through the heather, the dark Girvii
of the Eastern fens and the rest of the tribesmen of pre-Roman days and the lower,
more brutal types, of mankind who were their predecessors.
 I know a lonely
island called Vallay, across a wide, seaweed-strewn strand of sand and shining pools
off the coast of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. On that island stands a
great empty house, alone with the winds and the booming surges. In the heart of
the island is a hollow where you will see the ruined walls and downcast stones
of beehive-shaped dwellings.
There I have shot curlew and golden plover, wild duck and
the grey geese, and seen the raven hunt the tide-line and the golden eagle pass
over, lordly in the high sun. Vallay is a rare place for wild birds and wild
beauty. There are sheep upon it and cattle, wild-eyed as hawks. Once a rich
man, something of a hermit, lived in that great house which now stands empty.
One day he was drowned and his body was cast up on the rocks. Since then no one
has lived in the Great House.  
A year or two back, when I was shooting on Vallay, I said to
the gamekeeper and the ghillie with him: 
“The tide’s right. The geese will be in soon. There are thousands of
duck out at sea waiting to come in to the lochan. We’ll stay for the flight and
go home by the moon.”  
They refused point-blank. Two strong Hebridean men who would
round up a bull, climb a mountain, walk the bogs and moors all day, launch a
boat in an Atlantic blow and think nothing of climbing up to an eagle’s eyrie.
But the thought of an hour of dusk, let alone full night, on Vallay terrified
them. Not once, but several times, politely but firmly, they hustled me off the
island and across the sands to North Uist long before the sun had set. “Is it
the ghost of the drowned laird?” I asked them. It was not. They confessed in
the end that “the auld people, the wee men” came out of those ruined stone
beehives under the moon. Not for a handful of five-pound notes would they stay
a night on Vallay. The ghosts of pre-history walked there.
Here and there, particularly in downland country and in
ancient woodlands, you will come across places which have more than a hint,
more than a whisper, of Diana and her nymphs, of the ancient gods of Rome.  
My lamented friend, the late Patrick Chalmers, that graceful
poet of gun and rod who knew and loved the corners of forgotten England, wrote,
in one of his enchanting verses, of the wind in the pine tops:  Its song was of wayside alters (the pine-tops
sighed like the surf), Of little shrines uplifted, of stone and scented surf, Of
youths divine and immortal, of maids as white as the snow That glimmered among
the thickets, a mort of years ago. 
All in the cool of dawn, all in the twilight grey, The gods
they came from Italy along the Roman way. But, alas, on ancient hills and in Druidic
groves, on hill-top camps and moorland brochs, on Badbury Rings and Arbor Low,
on Avebury Downs and by classic streams: The alter smoke it has drifted and
faded afar on the hill; No wood-nymphs haunts the hollows; the reedy pipes are
still; No more the youth, Apollo, shall walk in the sunshine clear; No more the
maid, Diana, shall follow the fallow-deer. Nymphs and fairies, Picts and pixies
survive as charming beliefs seen by few, immortalized by poets.   
No one sings a song to the Ancient Briton, yet
he was a triumph of survival. He lived in a land hideous with wolves. His only
weapons were flint-tipped arrows, a flint axe or a bronzeshod spear. He was a
master of the art of survival. Wolves, those grey forest skulkers, “the witches’
horses,” who galloped under the moon, were not his sole enemies. We cannot say,
within a thousand years, when the Stone Age merged into the Bronze Age, but it
is probable that the man of the Bronze Age had to fight not only the grey
wolves of the forest who swept down upon his flocks, more terrible than the
Assyrians in purple and gold, but against the brown bear, shambling from its
cave. It is possible even that cave lions and sabre-toothed tigers made his
life a private hell. 
We do know that the Bronze Age man could tame and ride a
horse, bare-backed and possibly without bit or bridle. Even more incredible, he
tamed the giant aurochs, bos primigenius, that vast shaggy animal who dwarfed
the American bison of today. That much we know from Lydekker. During the Bronze Age, which according to Montelius lasted
from 2000 B.C. to 800 B.C., three-quarters of England was dark with forests or
drowned by swampy moors and misty fens, haunts of wolves and boars, brown bears
and yellow fevers. The Ancient Briton not only had a job to live, but few
places wherein he could live with comparative safety.  
That is why so many of his barrows, tumuli, camps, weapons,
cooking-pots, ornaments and pathetic household goods are found on the high
chalk downs. Chalk meant few trees. Where there were few trees there were few
So the Ancient Briton built his huts, fortified his camp,
tended his herds of sheep, swine and goats, trained his wild horses, knapped
his flints and lived his life mainly on the bare chalk, the thymy downs. There
the winds blew free. Larks sang. Harebells danced in the summer breeze, like
fields of asphodel. Conies burrowed in the chalk and were there for the
The night dews filled the dew ponds with sweet water. His
children gambolled on the short turf in the bright sun. His stockade of pointed
stakes was a barrier by day against foes, even as his glinting fire, leaping in
red and yellow tongues, was the terror of wolves by night. 
Far below, in the valley or on the outflung green and sullen
waves of the wealden plains, there lurked every sort of terror that could
menace a man and his family. Up here on the downs, where a man might see for
miles, ambush and sudden attack were not easy. Astride his fleet horse, bow in
hand, dagger in belt, hound at heel, the Bronze Age man was, in his far-off,
fustian way, a knightly fellow.  Now,
although the chalk downs of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, of Dorset and Hampshire
and all those wide and windy miles of still-lovely England are studded with the
burial mounds, the ancient camps and the shadows in the grass that mean their
vanished homes, although Stonehenge still stands against the stars in ghastly
grandeur and cromlech and dolemn tell the bloody tale of far-off sacrifices,
ghost and hauntings are few and far between. 
Here and there the Romans left their spirits behind. I know
of a centurion who still walks the Roman Strood between Mersea Island and the
mainland, with ringing steps on moonlight nights, and I could take you to a
mud-flat on the Thames where a Viking in winged helm wades ashore under the
moon, in endless quest for his vanished longship. But although I have stood in Stonehenge
by night, and walked the glimmering woodland aisles of that ancient wood of the
Druids which they call Staverton Forest in East Suffolk, I have never met man
or woman who had any true tale to tell of a ghost of Ancient Britain, of a
haunting of pre-Saxon days, until there came a letter in the post in August,
1956. The writer was Mr. R. C. C. Clay, who lives at the Manor House, Fovant,
near Salisbury. Mr. Clay is not only an extremely busy professional man with a
practice which covers a wide extent of that country of chalk downs and
glimmering plains, but he is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. 
In his letter, Mr. Clay said: “In response to your letter in
the Salisbury Journal of 24 August, I am sending you an account of a personal
encounter with a prehistoric horseman, just over the Dorset border. Three
episodes with ‘ghosts’ in my own house, which were not witnessed by others,
would not come within the scope of your inquiry and I have not included them.”  
Mr. Clay then went on to give the following account of the
appearance of a prehistoric horseman, probably of the Bronze Age. It is, I
believe, unique in the annals of ghost-hunters. 
Here it is.  “In 1924,
I was in charge of the excavations carried out by the Society of Antiquaries on
the Late Bronze Urnfield at Pokesdown, near Bournemouth. Every afternoon I
drove down to the site and returned at dusk. 
“One evening I was motoring home along the straight road which cuts the
open downland between Cranborne and Sixpenny Handley. I had reached the spot
between the small clump of beeches on the east and the pine-wood on the west,
where the road dips before rising to cross the Roman road from Badbury Rings to
Old Sarum. I saw away to my right a horseman traveling on the downland towards
Sixpenny Handley, that is to say, he was going in the same direction as I was
going. Suddenly he turned his horse’s head, and galloped as if to reach the
road ahead of me, and to cut me off.  “I
was so interested that I changed gear to slow down so that we should meet, and
that I should be able to see who the man was. However, before I had drawn level
with him, he turned his horse again to the north, and galloped along parallel
to me and about fifty yards from the road. 
“I could see that he was no ordinary horseman, for he had
bare legs, and wore a long, loose cloak. His horse had a long mane and tail,
but I could see neither bridle nor stirrup. His face was turned towards me, but
I could not see his features. He seemed to be threatening me with some
implement, which he waved in his right hand above his head. “
I now realized that he was a prehistoric horseman, and I did
my best to identify the weapon so that I could date him. After traveling
alongside my car for about one hundred yards, the rider and horse suddenly
vanished. I noted the spot, and found the next day, when I drove along the road
in daylight, that it coincided with a low, round barrow which I had never
noticed before.  
 “Many times
afterwards at all hours of the day, when I was weary, and when I was alert, I tried
to see my horseman again. I tried to find some bush or other object which my
tired brain could have transformed into a horseman. I had no success.”
I made inquiries in the district, and after a few months,
Mr. Young, the well-known iron craftsman of Ebbesbourne Wake, told me that he
had asked many of his friends in Sixpenny Handley if anyone had ever seen a
ghost on the downs between the village and Cranborne, and that one old shepherd
had replied:  
 “‘Do you mean the man
on the horse that comes out of the opening in the pinewood?’ “A year or two
later a friend of mine, a well-known archaeologist, wrote to me as follows:  “‘Your horseman has turned up again. Two
girls, cycling from Handley to a dance at Cranborne one night lately, had
complained to the police that a man on a horse had followed them over the downs
and had frightened them.’”  
This record is of the first importance. Not only is it
vouched for by a highly qualified eye-witness, but it has the additional value
of being corroborated by other witnesses. In short, it is probably the best
and, possibly, the first example of a Stone Age or Bronze Age haunting in the
Two significant points emerge from the evidence. The first
is that Mr. Clay saw the man and horse both suddenly vanish near “a low, round
barrow.” The second is that the old shepherd apparently knew the ghost well and
had often see it come “out of the opening in the pinewood.” 
We may deduce from this, first, that the horseman had
probably been mortally wounded whilst in the woodland – the eternal haunt and
hiding-place of the enemies of his race and time – and secondly, that he lies
buried, with his horse, “in the low, round barrow.” Thus his spectral ride from
the pinewood to the barrow probably signifies his last living journey on earth. 
There is no doubt that men of the Bronze Age, probably
chieftains, were often buried not only with their horses, but with a pig to give
them pork, deer to give them venison and goats to give them milk in the life
hereafter. Frequently they were incinerated before burial. When, for example,
the Money Hill Barrow on Therfield Heath on the Cambridgeshire-Hertfordshire borders
was excavated by Mr. Beldam, the local squire, in 1861, he found a cist cut in
the chalk, 2 feet long by 18 inches in depth and width, containing the cremated
bones of a child aged about two years, placed in an elaborately decorated
cinerary urn. The barrow, which was 15 feet high and 100 feet in diameter, was
apparently a family “vault” of the Bronze Age, in which numerous people,
presumably of a noble of chieftainly family, had been buried. When the diggers
got down through successive layers of clay, charcoal, ashes and decayed turf,
they found not only clear evidence of other human burials, but the bones of
pig, horse, roe deer and goat. Similar evidences of domestic animals and deer,
including horses, being buried in Bronze and Iron Age barrows are by no means
uncommon. The chances are, therefore, that if Mr. Clay’s low, round barrow were
excavated today we should discover the remains not only of the spectral
horseman, but also of his horse.  
Now comes a very different sort of haunting, but equally
well authenticated, from more or less the same wide, bright country of chalk
downs and fertile plains.  
 Not far from the
village of Langley Burrell, a few miles from Chippenham in Wiltshire, there
stands on a hill a remarkable monument. It is a tall, stone column, topped by
the stone figure of a little old lady, with a basket of eggs and lace beside
her. It is the visible memorial of Maud Heath, a village higgler, who died more
than a century ago.  
She walked each week to Chippenham market, sold her eggs and
home-made lace, and walked home again, in winter dark and autumn rainstorms, to
her cottage in the village street. More than once she waded through swollen
brooks. So towards the end of her days this indomitable old woman made a vow
that, should she leave any money, it should be spent on making a good footpath
from her village to Chippenham, so that other poor persons like herself might
walk to market in winter in comfort.  Maud
did, in fact, leave a small fortune. The footpath and the monument are the
Now comes the up-to-date story of this little old lady who
died when the last century was very young. Mrs. V. Carrington of Biddlestone,
near Chippenham, widow of the late Brigadier Carrington, D.S.O, O.B.E., has
kindly sent me a cutting of an article which she contributed to a local journal
some little time ago. It concerns Maud Heath. Mrs. Carrington wrote: 
“Not so
very long ago I returned from an excellent day’s fox-hunting, and as the fox
had been a good one, we had all enjoyed a splendid run–almost to the Wiltshire
 “I was not one of the more
fortunate ones who could telephone for my horse-box to bring me home, and I
turned my weary horse towards Chippenham in which neighborhood we then lived.   
“Alas, my horse was very tired, to say
nothing of its rider. Night coming on and it was getting darker and darker.   
“Down the hill we almost stumbled, past Maud
Heath on her monument and on along by her path. 
“Soon the good and faithful friend who had carried me well got so tired
he could only go at a walk, and I began to think we’d never get home.  
 “Suddenly, to my astonishment, he snorted and
began prancing across the road. 
“I thought this strange, knowing how very tired
he had been only a few minutes before. 
“Could it be a car coming up behind?–for
there seemed a strange light shining on the very quaintest of old women walking
a few yards ahead of us on the footpath. But no, there was no car in sight,
neither could I hear one. 
“On looking at the strange old lady, I wondered at
her old-fashioned dress. 
“Was it some eccentric old village woman walking with
her basket to shop? “The dress that I could see by the quite mauvish-yellow
light on her was of a strange coarse material not made nowadays. Her headgear
was unusual; her shawl…those odd little steps she took! 
“But, above all, the
basket at her side. I could see large, white eggs and thick, heavilymade lace
hung out from the basket. 
“After a good deal of cross words and rough handling
I at last got my horse to trot. “I tried to overtake the strange lady, but to
my utter astonishment the figure in front kept exactly the same distance away. 
coming into the high road, the old lady became one long, shining shadow, and disappeared
over the hedge opposite. 
“My horse, although in a ‘muck sweat,’ as the grooms
say, became again the weary animal he had been before, and the groom told me
afterwards that the horse kept breaking out in a sweat all night. 
“Had it been
myself alone I might have thought I was mistaken, but my horse that night, I know,
was convinced there was someone not human just in front of us. 
“Had I seen the
ghost of Maud Heath, or was this just one of those optical illusions sometimes
experienced in certain conditions by tired persons?”

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