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A Ghost of Archaeology’s Past

October 31, 2018

A Halloweeny/spooky treat from Martyn

So – what’s this?


Correct. Well done. It’s a Bronze Age round barrow in Dorset – RCHME’s Wimborne St Giles 85, or if you prefer Leslie Grinsell’s Wimborne St Giles 35. It’s also the alleged burial place of the alleged Bronze Age horseman who is/was allegedly Britain’s oldest ghost.

The rider’s tale begins with a ‘gentleman’ called James Wentworth Day (1899-1983), who described himself as “an antediluvian, a reactionary, an out-of-date or, as I prefer, a rural romanticist”. Other opinions have been expressed – “an unrepentant racist and homophobe”, for example. Anyway, Day wrote a lot of books, and among them were several dealing with ghosts, including 1958’s “A Ghost Hunter’s Game Book”.

In it, ghosts, he tells us, “are part of the weft and warp of the tapestry of English life” (yes, English life – if it’s, say, Scottish ghosts you’re after, you’ll need to look elsewhere), but so many modern horrors were causing this tapestry to fade and fall apart: “When the last myth is exploded by some dreary little scientist, who has just passed his B.Sc. [BA (hons) actually, thank you very much, and it was some time ago] …we may give up the ghost ourselves. When the last Stately Home ejects its headless Cavalier to make room for the final dereliction of Borstal boys or political pensioners, we shall know that civilization is on the way out”.

In amongst chapters with civilized titles like ‘The Garrotter of St James’s” and “The Old Lady Embalmed in Tar” is one called “The Bronze Age Horseman”, the first time that this spook made his way into print. While compiling the book, Day had been puzzled by a piece of missing warp (or weft) – “I have never met man or woman who had any true tale to tell of a ghost of Ancient Britain”. Why were there no stories of prehistoric phantoms?


Illustration from the version of this tale presented in John Canning’s (1966) ’50 Great Ghost Stories’. Illustrator not named.

Day wrote a letter to the Salisbury Journal (published August 24th)* about this problem, and got a response from Dr R.C.C. Clay of Fovant, a village about 10 miles west of Salisbury. As witnesses go, Doctor Richard Challoner Cobbe Clay’s credentials were impeccable. Not only was he “an extremely busy professional man with a practice which covers a wide tract of that country of chalk downs and glimmering plains, but he is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.”  So there.

Clay recounted something that had happened to him one evening around three decades earlier**. At the time, alongside his regular medical rounds, he was overseeing the excavation of a Bronze Age cremation cemetery at Pokesdown, just outside Bournemouth, the site being a little over 30 miles from his Fovant home. Clay told Day that this happened in 1924, but his memory was a little faulty here – the Pokesdown excavation didn’t begin until the autumn of 1926. Whatever, according to Clay, each day he would drive down to Pokesdown in the afternoon, and head back home at dusk.***

Then, “One evening as I was motoring home along the straight road which cuts the open downland between Cranborne and Sixpenny Handley, I had reached the spot between the small clump of beeches on the east and the pinewood on the west, where the road dips before rising to cross the Roman road from Badbury Rings to Old Sarum. I saw away to my right a horseman travelling on the downland towards Sixpenny Handley, that is to say, he was going in the same direction as I was going. Suddenly he turned his horse’s head, and galloped as if to reach the road ahead of me, and to cut me off.”


The road between Cranborne and Sixpenny Handley. It didn’t look like this in 1926.

Clay tried to draw level with the rider to get a better look at him, but he turned his horse back onto his original course “and galloped along parallel to me and about 50 yards from the road”. The rider was bare-legged and wore a long, loose cloak, and “seemed to be threatening me with some implement, which he waved in his right hand above his head.” Convinced he was looking at a prehistoric man, “I did my best to identify the weapon so that I could date him”. However, before he could do so, after galloping parallel to the car for around 100 yards “the rider and horse suddenly vanished.” Returning to the spot the next day, Clay spotted “a low, round barrow which I had never noticed before.”


The barrow clearly visible beside the road (it’s the tufty grassy thing in the middle). As I said, it didn’t look like this in 1926.

He returned to the spot “many times afterwards at all hours of the day, when I was weary and when I was alert” hoping to either see the horseman again, or something which “my tired brain could have transformed into a horseman”, but without success. Enquiries were made locally. Apparently an old shepherd agreed that he had seen a man on a horse around the spot where Clay’s encounter had begun. A while later, “a well-known archaeologist” – later identified as Alexander Keiller – told him that two girls cycling from Sixpenny Handley to Cranborne “had complained to the police that a man on a horse had followed them over the downs and frightened them.” Well… must have been him, mustn’t it?

Since 1958, the story has been told and re-told numerous times in various places – mostly anthologies of ghost stories and sightings, and increasingly on the interweb. Clay’s original, brief, matter-of-fact account has been paraphrased, expanded, and embellished in various ways, but I haven’t found any individual, dreary BSc or otherwise, attempting to explode it.


The downland across which the horseman rode. Have I mentioned that it didn’t look like this in 1926?

Obviously, however, there are some difficulties. Leaving aside the fact that ghosts don’t exist, there’s the small matter that it was dusk, Clay was driving (eyes on the road etc), and the galloping ghoul got no closer than 50 yards. And while we’re on the subject of observation skills, what about the fact that he had never before noticed the barrow at the spot where the horseman disappeared? In 1926, the roadside vegetation in the photographs above wasn’t there. In the 1950s the RCHME measured the mound as 4½ft in height and 45 feet in diameter. It was unlikely to have been smaller in the 1920s. It is right beside the road, not 50 yards away. There is another one the other side of the road – the road here runs through the gap between two barrow mounds. Oh, and they were both already marked on the Ordnance Survey map.

Beyond this, of course, is the problem that prehistory has moved on – the Bronze Age that Clay’s horseman galloped around in simply doesn’t exist anymore, except as essential background colour in the numerous retellings of his story that have appeared since 1958. The chalk downs weren’t a remote wilderness; the woodlands Clay referred to are recent plantations, not the surviving remnants of prehistoric wildwoods; you’ll struggle to find a warrior and his horse beneath a barrow mound in southern England; and so on… Clay may well have seen a man on a horse that evening, but, with apologies if civilization suddenly ends, I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest neither were particularly old.

So… Who fancies a go at the story about the elderly lady with the tar problem?

*Did he write to any other newspapers? Does anyone know?

** As M.R. James once said of ghost stories, “we listen to it the more readily if the narrator…throws back his experience to ‘some thirty years ago’.”

***Another version of this story, also written by Clay, was published earlier this year (2018) by Clay’s grandson Robert Snow in a thin tome called ‘Strange Experiences’ (Flying Disk Press). It is similar, but not identical, to the version published in 1958.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2018 1:18 pm

    Great, the hauntology session got another star. I forgot how difficult it is to make decisions at TAG.

    • Martyn permalink
      November 4, 2018 12:05 pm

      Damn! Forgot to plug the session… Thank you for posting the link. And yes, anyone who goes to TAG but skips the session WILL BE HAUNTED! AT BEST!!

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