There can be little doubt that the original rumours of ghosts haunting Oxney Bottom sprang from the activities of smugglers who were rife in this area in the 18th century. Stories of ghosts of dead highwaymen and mysterious ghost carriages would have provided an excellent ‘smokescreen’ for the nefarious goings-on that probably centred around the ruined church that had become a barn, or storage place for goods in the middle of the deep dark woods of Oxney. Who would actually have a use for a barn in such an inaccessible and fearful location, other than people who wished their activities to remain secret. The Deal area and nearby St Margaret’s Bay were notorious for smuggling during the eighteenth century and a hideaway in the depths of Oxney Bottom would suit the villains perfectly, especially as legends of ghosts would keep people away. It has been recorded that even the sextant of the church of St Margaret’s Bay was involved in the smuggling, hiding the contraband in the bell tower of the church until it could safely be moved to another location; most likely the ruined chapel at Oxney.
The desecrated church at Oxney now had a thatched roof and all of its windows and doors had been blocked up, with the exception of one small doorway, presumably the one that remains to this day. I have heard rumour of at least one murder occurring here that was related to the smuggling activity and all this would contribute to the reputation that Oxney was a dangerous and hideous place to visit – especially the ruined church!
Ordinary folk would have told and retold the legends of the ghost of the dead highwayman and the mysterious phantom stagecoach and horses until they became accepted as fact. This was at a time when people in Devon and Cornwall believed that the devil rode through their villages at night with a pack of spectral hounds and would strike anyone dead that saw him. This story was a cover-up to keep people cowering in their homes at night while smuggled goods were moved to inland locations. Similarly with Oxney the dark gloom of the woods, together with the sinister reputation it had acquired served to keep people away.
At some point during the 1700’s the youngest son of a Deal Innkeeper took advantage of the winding and gloomy nature of the highway through Oxney to launch a career as a highwayman. He would hide behind the trees and step out in front of the Dover coach, robbing its passengers of all their jewellery and money at gun point. He had the traditional sense of honour and never robbed the ladies. Eventually he was ambushed by two constables from Dover and after his trial he was hanged in chains on a tree at the site of his exploits. He is the first ghost reputed to walk these gloomy woods, and yet was almost unknown when the author of “Ramblings in Kent with Pen and Paper” mentioned him to locals in the pub at Ringwould in 1928. Writings from riders on the Dover stagecoach refer to Oxney Bottom and its dark pervading gloom. Apparently it was a stopping point for watering the horses and allowing the passengers to stretch their legs on the journey between Dover and Deal. No recent evidence has come to light to show that this ghost still walks the woods, although a medium with Thanet Ghostwatch claims to have made contact with him during a night-time seance at the ruined church. He is identified as Thomas Saperg, who was hanged aged 36, in 1757, and supposedly was of unsavoury character. This contrasts with my own researches that portrayed him as a possibly tragic character, who was forced to his actions by poverty and never committed robbery against any ladies. Thanet Ghostwatch places the gibbet to the south of Oxney Woods on what would have been the main footpath in the 18th century.
The photograph was taken in the 1960’s by John Everett looking out from the interior of St Nicholas Church. A dark silhouette can be seen among the trees that appears to be the highwayman! The negative to this picture has been professionally examined and certified as not having been tampered with.
The Grey Lady:
The possibility that this ghost exists has earned Oxney the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in Kent. There are many accounts of her sweeping out in front of cars at night as they drive through the woods. Startled drivers swerve to avoid her and end up crashing their vehicles. Certainly there have been many accidents and fatalities recorded on this particular stretch of road. One account from several years ago describes her as ‘an old lady dressed in a dark grey cloak hobbling along the nearside of the road’. The writer, Martin Husk said that as he passed her, ‘she appeared to go into the thick undergrowth alongside the verge’.
Tradition has it that the Grey Lady was a woman killed in an accident by a horse and cart either on the main road or the road approaching Oxney Court while fetching water.
In 1967 the Kent Messenger printed an account from one of its readers, describing how the Grey Lady had apparently boarded a double-decker bus and been seen climbing the stairs to the upper deck. When the bus conductress went upstairs to collect the fare there was nobody there! The bus had not stopped so no-one could explain where she had gone. Could this account be a retelling of an earlier story from Christmas 1958, reported by the East Kent Mercury when the conductor of a double decker bus heading for Deal had a similar experience? ‘I was inside the lower deck,’ Tom Relf recounted, when the bus stopped at Oxney Bottom, a lady dressed in dark clothes boarded the vehicle and went upstairs.’ When Tom went up to collect the fare from this person, there was no new passenger to be seen. He commented to one of the passengers that he was sure he had seen a woman board the bus and come upstairs. The man said he had seen her and that she was sitting behind him. However there was nobody there at all! On arrival in Deal, his bus driver confirmed that he had indeed made a stop to pick up a passenger dressed in dark clothes at Oxney. Again, no other stop had been made in that area so there was no possible explanation for the disappearance.
Several people have wandered through this area at night, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Grey Lady and most are disappointed. Those that claim to have seen the apparition say that her face is very sad, even mournful and she disappears very quickly.
Our own experiences suggest the likelihood that mist wafting up in front of the car headlights as they pass through the dark, wooded curves at speed has the effect of scaring drivers into believing they have seen an apparition. Some researchers mention a sulphurous stream in the area that emits a malodorous vapour, this combined with the natural accumulations of mist in such a low-lying area makes Oxney a somewhat spooky place at night.
Other possible ghosts:
Various investigators have mentioned seeing a monk in the vicinity of the Church of St Nicholas. This is possibly an apparition relating to the early history of this building when it was administered by the Premonstratensian monks of West Langdon Abbey before the Reformation.
There is at least one account of a stagecoach and horses appearing on the road that runs through Oxney Bottom, that careened wildly across the road before disappearing into the trees following a road that no longer exists. This was seen by a group of American G.I.’s driving back to their base just before D-Day.
During World War II, in 1942 an escaped Italian POW had the misfortune to die in the woods near the chapel. When his body was found he had an expression of sheer horror etched on his face.
In the 1970’s a Naval commander hanged himself from a tree in Oxney woods.
Although it is known that a child fell to his death in the well of the then-abandoned manor house in the sixties, happily it appears that he is at rest and does not haunt the area. Strange child-like cries that have been reported in the woods at night are more likely to be the sounds of the dogs at the nearby kennels.
© 2011 Robert Banning – all rights reserved.
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