Thursday, 7 January 2010


The thing about old coaching inns with roaring log fires is that they don't have roaring log fires in the bedrooms!

I was at the Unicorn in Stow-On-The -Wold overnight, a lovely old inn with dark corridors, low beams and creaky floorboards. Nice old fashioned sash windows, and boy do they let the draft in. I ended up popping down to reception to borrow a fan heater, which did the trick.

This was a delightful place. There were only a handful of guests there last night, but the night before they'd had two guests booked in at 5pm, and they ended up full as more and more motorists abandoned their cars as the blizzard raged outside.

This morning the locks were frozen on the car and the normal de-icer wouldn't clear the windows. Luckily, I found that at some stage I'd had the foresight to buy some Super De-icer and that did the trick. So, after a few skids, slips and slides, I managed to reverse out onto Sheep Street and was on my way.

All along the road from here to Shipton there were abandoned cars and vans still wating to be retrieved after their owners had ditched them on Tuesday.

Even Emily, my trusty sat-nav, was feeling the cold "recccccccallllllculllaaaaaaaating" she stamerred as I went straight through the lights on the A429, instead of veering left on the A424 as she'd instructed.

Undeterred, I managed to turn round and got back on track.

Soon I was descending into Burford and, there on the left was a sign telling me that Shipton was just four miles away. "What the heck" I thought," only four miles," and headed off on a road that was icy but passable.

Arriving in Shipton Under Wychwood, I suddenly remembered why I knew it.

On the left was the Shaven Crown Hotel. I'd actually stayed there in 2004 whilst writing Haunted Inns of Britain and Ireland. I hate to admit it but I'd forgotten all about this place, which is a pity because it's an absolute gem.

It dates back to 1380 and originally provided accommodation for the monks of nearby Bruern Abbey.

The Abbey was dissolved in 1534 and the building lay derelict for over forty years. Then, in 1580, Elizabeth 1st, having used it for a time as a hunting lodge, presented it to the village on condition it was always kept as an inn.

In (or should that be inn?) which capacity it has been attending to the needs of weary travellers ever since.

Amongst its most infamous residents was Oswald Mosley, who was incarcerated here for six months during World War Two.

The ghost that haunts this venerable old hostelry is, apparently, a leftover from its monastic days, and is a harmless old fellow known to the staff as Brother Sebastian.
So I decided it was time to get an update on Brother Sebastian's spectral antics.

You enter the hotel through a massive oak door to find yourself confronted by a residents lounge that is graced by a double collar-braced roof that is 600 years old. It really is a fantastic place.

Eventually I found the receptionist, who told me that there hadn't actually been any recent sightings of the phantom monk.

She also told me that there had been no guests at the hotel for the last few days.
Which means that, had I pressed on last night and got to Shipton as I intended, then I could have had the entire haunted old place to myself.
But then I might just as easily have ended up ditching the car along with all the others that I passed on my way here.

Oh well, in another 30 years, when they are speaking of the worst winter since the snows of 2010, I'll hobble in on my zimmer frame and hope that there are no other guests.
When I was there in 2004 the owner had told me something that I've encountered time and again at haunted hotels.

Obviously, if you decide to publicise the fact that your hotel is haunted you are walking a fine line between attracting customers and terrifying them into staying away.

Thus, at every haunted hotel I have visited the staff have always been adamant that their ghost is very friendly and is not in the least bit frightening.

Wouldn't it be great if a hotel decided to go the whole scary, spooky hog and advertise that their ghost is "an absolute evil b***d that rips guests livers and hearts out whilst they're sleeping and eats them?" Just an idea.

Leaving the inn, I crossed over to the green and the church looked magical across the expanse of white. So I drove ,or rather slid, down Church Lane and spent a pleasant 20 minutes wading through knee deep snow in the churchyard snapping the church from different angles.

Returning to the car I found a group of local seniors gathered around bemoaning the fact that the news agent's had a notice up reading " Not Times, No Telegraph, No FT."

"No comment," mused one elderly gentleman in exceedingly clipped tones.

Back in the car I coaxed it back up the slight incline of Church Lane and then headed back to Burford.

I parked up by the side of the road just as a local lady was coming out of her front door alongside my car. I asked if it was OK to park there. "No problem, they always do," she replied in a jovial country accent that was either Australian or Kiwi.

Burford Church looked a picture, and having snapped it against a deep blue sky, I made my way over to the wall to take a photograph of the plaque commemorating the three Levellers.

In the wake of the English Civil War in the mid 1600's a group of Parliamentarian Soldiers (the side loyal to Oliver Cromwell) en route for Ireland suddenly decided that England would be a happier society if a policy of equality and religious tolerance was adopted.

They became known as the Levellers, and Cromwell led them to believe that no action would be taken against them until the possibility of a negotiated settlement had been explored.

Now, with England's long history of those in power - be they king's, noblemen, governments - making promises they had absolutely no intention of keeping, you'd have thought that, by the 17th century, your average GI Joe would have learnt not to trust a word said by a despot when you're rebelling against him.

But the Levellers had, evidently, not read the Oxford Concise Guide to English History and, on the evening of 13th May 1649, they bedded down at various inns, private houses and barns in and around Burford to dream of the Utopian brave new world of equality and understanding that would soon envelope England in a warm blanket of goodwill and tolerance.

They were rocked from their slumbers by the approach of Cromwell and General Fairfax (plus of course a few thousand troops) who swept in on them in a pincer movement and, following a brief skirmish, 340 Levellers were taken prisoner and spent three days locked up inside Burford Church.

One of their number, Anthony Sedley, passed the time by carving his name and "1649 Prisner" onto the font, where it can still be seen today.

On the morning of the 17th May 1649 the prisoners were marshaled up to the church tower from where they watched as Cornet Thompson, Corporal Church and Private Perkins, whom the court-martial had decided were the ring leaders, were put up against the church wall - where the plaque now commemorates them - and, according the then Vicar of Burford's later record in the Parish Register, were "shot to death."

Once inside the church I crossed to the font and tried to take a photograph of Anthony Sedley's inscription. Having done so I turned round to take in the splendid interior of the church and there was a white shape hovering in the distance.

A spectre? A Ghost?

Well actually it was a particularly ethereal looking angel hovering over the nativity scene in the church's crib. But for a moment there........

There are several other points of interest to detain you inside Burford Church.

There, is the memorial to Christopher Kempster, a 17th century stone mason, who was for many years employed building the cathedral and dome of St Paul's Cathedral

High up on a wall is a stone carving that shows three figures, one of which rides on a donkey, and which has been known to centuries of choir boys as "The Three Disgraces."

Why? It doesn't say. But that's what the plaque beneath it says and I'm sure whoever wrote it knows what the choir boys have called it for generations.

No-one actually knows what it is meant to depict, nor for that matter how old the stone is. It may be 12th century, it may even be Celtic and date from the 1st century AD.

There's another little mystery on a nearby floor tombstone to John Pryor, Gent who, according to the inscription, was murdered on 3rd April 1697 and was "found hidden in the Pryory Garden in the Parish."

The church information board wasn't particularly forthcoming on this long ago act of infamy as it simply mentioned the murder and then added the enticing "but that's another story."

There's one more macabre sight inside Burford Church in the form of a Memento Mori beneath the effigies of Sir Lawrence and Lady Tanfield on their very ornate tomb.

Caged behind sturdy iron bars underneath the two effigies there is an extremely realistic carving of a skeleton.
Well I think it's a carving.

There is a tradition that Lady Tanfield had a reputation for oppressing the good people of Burford, and that she continued to terrorise them in ghostly form after her death in 1629 .

Well, that's it for this leg of the Haunted Britain journey. On Monday, providing the snow doesn't return and disrupt the railways I'll be heading to Edinburgh and will resume the blog then.

Until then... Good Hauntings.

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