Friday, 2 September 2016

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Tales of the Playground Part II

Last week I was reminiscing about the assorted tales I heard during a craze for telling spooky stories at my old village school  As I recorded last week some of these tales were simply compressed, and often gruesomely embellished, versions of classic ghost stories, whereas many others were variations of famous urban legends. However there was a third flavour to these little chillers passed around our playground - what I am going to dub 'the local tale'. 

Now there were two distinct types of local tales. In some stories, it was just an existing tale injected with a bit of local colour; for example, numerous stories were given a nearby location, often along with the kind of fervent assurances that only excitable children can make, that with was indeed a true tale. Needless to say, despite various assertions of veracity such as "This just happened to a couple who lived just down the road from me, swear blind!", there was of course never normally the slightest grain of truth to these claims. And considering the violent and disturbing nature of many of the tales that was a very good thing indeed. My all-time favourite of these "it happened right here" stories was the claim that Dracula had been to our village during his reign of terror! I never believed this spooky "fact" as I was pretty sure Dracula was "just made-up", and in fact when I first heard that the Count had been in Whitby (which is actually not that far away from Aycliffe Village), I was similarly sceptical, thinking this was just another bit of local fakelore

But there was a stronger and purer variety of these local spooky tales - the stories spun about the assorted ghosts that allegedly haunted the village. One I always remember well concerned one of the local pubs, and it stuck in my mind as we had to walk past the allegedly haunted spot on a regular basis. Now Aycliffe Village was home to several pubs, and the one nearest to our school was said to have a haunting. Situated on one of the main roads through the village, the Royal Telegraph is a traditional old English pub that is still open to this very day. This hostelry, with its white walls and black Tudor beams, is a former coaching inn which did a roaring trade back in the heyday of the Great North Road which used to run through the village. 

Now then, like many country pubs, the Royal Telegraph still has an old fashioned sign outside. This is a large painted board bearing the pubs's name, mounted on an iron arm hanging out over the street below. Now the arm that held the board was made of ancient metal, wrought with decorative curlicues and terminates in a great spike. Should it fall, it certainly could do some harm, and of course, according to a tale I heard, this is exactly what happened... 
Apparently back in the olden days, Victorian times to be precise, a lady was out for an evening stroll in the village, wearing, as all good ladies did back then, a huge bonnet decorated with flowers and feathers. According one version, she was a local lady from the village, but in others she was a traveller just passing through while journeying up the Great North Road. Anyhow, while she was walking, a great storm blew in and she hurried to find some shelter from the elements. Seeing she was nearing the Royal Telegraph, she made for the friendly lights of the inn. However the storm grew stronger and stronger, and the Telegraph sign swung wildly back and forward in the great blasts of icy wind and rain. And just as she was reaching the inn, a great gust came, and the great iron arm was blown free from its mounting in the white walls. The sign and spike came hurtling down and dashed out the lady's brains, killing her stone dead on the spot. And it is said on dark and storm nights, when the wind makes that old sign swing wildly back and forth, you can see the figure of the lady standing beneath it, her red eyes glowing in the twilight... 
As you may imagine, knowing this tale made passing the old inn something of thrill on windy days, when the skies were dark and the sign was swinging. I distinctly remember it was said that sometimes all that would be seen were her glowing eyes floating in the shadow of the swinging sign... 

And the old pub still has its hanging sign, but the spikey ancient arm I remember has now been replaced it seems. Now I always assumed that this was an authentic local ghost story, for it has all the hallmarks of a typical folkloric tale,with elements such as being based around a local landmark, and a set of special circumstances when the spectre can be seen. However despite reading many books and articles on ghosts and folklore in the Darlington/County Durham area, I never came across an account of this haunting in print. But then a few years ago, I happened to meet a lovely old lady who still lived in Aycliffe Village, and as it turned out she knew the Royal Telegraph rather well. For her parents had run that very pub for many years, and she herself had grow up there. Naturally I just had to ask about the ghostly lady who appeared on stormy nights beneath the sign... But alas, she'd never ever heard the tale! 

On one hand this does rather suggest that possibly this ghostly tale was just the invention of imaginative children rather than a story rooted in local history. However on the other, folklore in its purest form is an oral tradition, and hence an obscure story from a little village may well have been told for generations without it being recorded in print. Alternatively it might have been a tale that was only told by a couple of generations of schoolchildren and has since been forgotten. It probably goes without saying that I would be very interested to hear from anyone else who remembers hearing this particular ghost story. But whatever the truth of the matter may be, at least now the tale of Royal Telegraph's ghostly lady has been set down...


Anonymous said...

Excellent companion piece to the other article. You cant find macabre esoterica like this anywhere else.
One the tales that is quite well known in our area (village in Fife, Scotland) is of a schoolteacher who was murdered by an old stone style down the fields. I was told it by mother and was originally led to believe it happened sometime in the early 60s. Gradually,other accounts have muddied it a bit: I've variously been told that it was actually in the early 1950s. Others maintain it occurred during wartime -there was lots of foreign commandos training here at the time- and that was why it was hushed up.
However, the boffins in the local heritage group that are always posting stuff through my door actually happened in the late 1920s.
Just goes to show how such a tragic and horrific event, is probably to "big" for a single generation and has been passed on for years as something that happened "just a few years back".
I always pinned some occult significance on it- there are miles and miles if hawthorn hedgerows on that road so I've always connected it with that hedgecutter that got impaled and pinned to the ground. The tale can be found in the classic Usborne or Hamlyn horror books, I think.

Jim Moon said...

Fascinating! We often think of folklore as tales from the distant past, but I suspect it was probably more common for tales to be continually updated to just 'happened a few years back'

As for the murdered hedgecutter... Well, in a very strange coincidence, I'm just finishing the last of a three part podcast investigation in the murder of Charles Walton. Part 1 goes up this weekend!