Anna Molly asked awhile back if I knew of any ghost stories involving barrows, those ancient burial mounds that dot the English countryside. Just so happens– 😉
One of my favorite collectors of ghost stories is the late James Wentworth Day (1899-1983) of Great Britain. He was a Tory to the bone, verging on fascist, an unrepentant racist and homophobe, and wrote in a turgid style far more suited to the Victorian era than his own, but he knew a good ghost story when he heard one. I first read his account of the ghostly Bronze Age horseman of Dorsetshire in John Canning’s anthology FIFTY GREAT GHOST STORIES (1971).
Day begins his account by noting that ghosts of prehistory are rare, perhaps because even ghosts wear out over millenia. He was thrilled, therefore, in 1956 to receive a letter from antiquarian R. C. C. Clay, who recounted his encounter with a Bronze Age horseman along what is now the A3o8I road between the Dorset villages of Cranborne and Sixpenny Handley, on a stretch of farmland known as Bottlebrush Down.
In 1924, while conducting archaeological excavations in the area, Clay was driving home just before twilight one evening. He had reached a spot where the modern road crosses one from the Roman period when he spotted, off to one side, a horseman riding hell for leather out of a pine thicket and across an adjacent field, as if to cross in front of him. Instead of crossing the road, though, the horseman turned his horse’s head and rode parallel to Clay, keeping pace with the vehicle at a distance of about forty yards.
Clay described the horseman:
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.
The horseman continued riding parallel to Clay for some three hundred feet. Clay was able to identify him, by his clothing and the weapon he brandished, as being from the late Bronze Age. He did not stop to investigate when the horseman vanished, as darkness was falling, but he returned the next day to the same place and found, at the point of disappearance, a low, round barrow, presumably a burial place for man and horse.
Clay was a bit of a skeptic, and he tried many times over the following months to ascertain if the horseman could have been a trick the fading light played on his tired eyes, but eventually gave this idea up when inquiries proved that he was not the only one to have seen the horseman.. One old shepherd, when asked if he had seen any ghosts on the downs, replied, “Do you mean the man on the horse that comes out of the opening in the pinewood?” He, at least, had no doubt that he had seen the horseman, and more than once.
Clay was told, a couple of years after his experience, that a couple of girls biking from Sixpenny Handley to a dance at Cranborne had recently complained to the local police of a man on horseback who followed them for some distance over the downs, frightening them quite badly. The description they gave matched Clay’s observations of the Bronze Age horseman.
Try as he might, Clay never saw the phantom again. He wrote in 1956 of his experience in answer to Day’s letter to a newspaper in Salisbury, in which Day had asked if anyone had ever seen a prehistoric ghost.
Nor did Clay excavate the barrow where the horseman vanished, although he felt sure he would find the bodies of the horse and rider there. Day theorized that the horseman suffered some fatal injury, perhaps while hunting in the pine forest, rode out across the field, and was buried where he collapsed and died, his horse also being killed and buried with him.
The Phantom Horseman of Bottlebrush Down remains one of Dorset’s most famous ghosts to this day, although there seem to be no reports of his appearance later than the 1926 sighting by the two girls on their way to a dance.
Maybe, after millenia, he has gone on to his Bronze Age afterlife.
Doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t look for him, though, should I ever find myself on the Dorset downs.