Over the last couple of weeks, I've been recounting and discussing assorted strange tales I heard as a child at a village school in the North-east of England in the 1970s. And among the usual urban legends and oft-recycled campfire tales, a good chunk of local folklore entered the mix, in particular accounts of various ghosts alleged to haunt the village.
Now such tales of spectres on my own doorstep were a particular favourite of mine, and this was partly because it always deliciously terrifying to learn of ghosts roaming so near to my home. However it was also because these tales passed around in corners of the playground, filled an important gap. Now there have been many guides and gazetteers of strange lands and haunted locations published over the years, but I was always somewhat annoyed that such tomes generally never mentioned anything interesting in my local area. Oh yes, there was always reams written about the big hitters such as Avebury, Pluckley, Hampton Court or Glamis Castle, but often these books gave the North of England somewhat short shrift, and in particular there was rarely anything reported at all for the County of Durham. So then I naturally relished these pieces of local ghostly lore, for they made the immediate world around me a more exciting and magical place. Although given the lurid and generally dubious nature of these tales passed around the schoolyard, even as a child, I was somewhat sceptical about their veracity.
However I never forgot them, and in later years a little research would prove that several of these local phantoms were more than the imaginings of school kids. Probably best known to the wider world is a figure that haunts the road through Aycliffe Village. As we mentioned last week, in the old days, the Great North Road used to run through the village, and this particular phantom is believed to date back over two hundred years, first reported in the days when coaching inns thrived. This particular spectre is actually a familiar species of folkloric haunting, the road ghost. And as the name implies, these spirits haunt the sides of roads and highways, and usually they have a Phantom Hitchhiker style story attached to them. And this Aycliffe road ghost is no exception.
What used to be the Great North Road is the A167 these days, and where it once used to travel through the centre, now it passes through just the North-west edge of the village. At the southern end you pass by an old church, St Andrews which dates back to Saxon times, and on the road leading into the village is where a former coaching inn stood, now a pub the North Briton. Now according to the tales I heard, it was said that the ghost of a young woman haunted this particular stretch of the road. On dark nights, it was said that drivers heading south towards Darlington reported seeing the figure of a young lady, usually described as wearing a white raincoat, standing by the side of the road, seemingly looking to hitch a ride.
Now over the years, several drivers took pity on her, for as you'd expect it was nearly always a wet and rainy night, and offered the young lady a ride. Our mystery woman in white apparently always wanted to get to Darlington, but much to our gallant drivers' shock and horror, long before they reached the town, the young lady would always vanish from the car. However if your passenger melting away into the rain-streaked darkness wasn't frightening enough, in some versions it was claimed that our unfortunate drivers would look around and see the lady was now suddenly covered in streaming blood just before she dematerialised before their eyes!
Of course, as is typical in this kind of folk tale, there is an eerie little coda. Our troubled driver would then later discover that the young lady he had picked up born an uncanny resemblance to a woman killed a few months earlier. And the driver would then discover a story that would tell of how she was looking to get home late one night, but unfortunately the vehicle she hitched a ride with met a horrific road accident that killed all involved. Naturally the tale usually concluded with the story-teller pronouncing solemnly that on dark, rainy nights you can still see her trying to get home...
Apparently just a year after my family moved away from the village, in 1978 a Mr Dennis Fisher reported to the Birmingham Society of Ghost Hunters that the mystery lady had hitched a ride and done her unsettling vanishing turn again. Interestingly in this case she was travelling north and disappeared when they reached Rushyford some four miles up the road. However according to research into this spectre's history by Andrew Green, one of our leading parapsychologists, this is in fact the traditional direction she travels in -
Ron Watson writing in the Newtonian mentions an earlier report in the Aycliffe Chronicle, of a phantom 'White Lady' haunting the Great North Road. The story is associated with the finding of the body of young woman in 1698 in the nearby River Skerne. She has been witnessed fairly recently, however, over 250 years later, dressed in white and wearing a veil. Originally it seems she was collected by stage coaches travelling between the 'North Briton' and what is now the 'Eden Arms' in Rushyford.
from Ghosts of Today by Andrew Green (Kaye and Ward 1980)
It is interesting to note these variations in the tales of Aycliffe's vanishing hiker. The versions I heard as a child had clearly been updated to move with the times - her death involved a car accident, had occurred relatively recently, and reflected the fact that most folks were then travelling south into Darlington (where most of our parents were employed) rather than going north between two small villages. But also, as we see from Mr Fisher's report, the traditional version of the haunting was still occurring after I had heard the new variants. Once again, I would be interested to learn which version any of you good folks at home have heard.
As I mentioned earlier, this hitchhiking road ghost is the one you will most commonly find listed in books of ghostly lore that take the trouble to mention hauntings in the North-east. And often appended to the tale are reports of various sightings of a white female figure in the village itself. However I rather suspect these reports relate to the ghost that is most well-known to the locals - the Grey Lady. And shall learn more of this infamous spectre next time...