Rugby's centuries-old association with the supernatural - here are a few of our local ghost stories

Ghouls and boys come out to play… former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott recalls the tales that used to terrify him.

The Old Arm, a feeder channel of the Oxford Canal, which it joined just south of Brownsover Hall - and, according to legend, the apparent site of the 'One-armed Boughton' ghost.
The Old Arm, a feeder channel of the Oxford Canal, which it joined just south of Brownsover Hall - and, according to legend, the apparent site of the 'One-armed Boughton' ghost.

I had been a pupil at Churchover school for quite some time when my parents were horrified to discover that I couldn’t read.

Looking back, it seems ironic, not to say downright strange, that someone who was destined to make a living out of words could have been so slow at understanding the symbols on the printed page.

Be that as it may, I was then given a crash course at home, and – mainly thanks to author Enid Blyton – eventually got the hang of it.

There was a teaching assistant at Churchover Parochial School by the name of Mrs Clowes, and I’m certainly not blaming her for my shortcomings.

The problem was that as usual, I wasn’t paying any attention, always staring out of the window, sat at the back of the class, and lost in a little world of my own.

All the same, one reason why I was so slow at learning might have been down to the fact that Mrs Clowes loved to read us stories about witches, fairies and goblins.

I soon became convinced that such entities were real, which led to all sorts of nightmares, as you might imagine.

Down the years, I have often thought about those days, and have come to the conclusion that part of what motivated Mrs Clowes’ fascination with these tall tales was the fact that Warwickshire has had a centuries-old association with the supernatural.

So much so in fact that the great William Shakespeare himself makes frequent references to witchcraft in his plays, the best-known perhaps being the scene in Macbeth in which three witches are gathered around their cauldron concocting potions as dark as their intentions.

Nearer the Rugby area, there has for many years been the legend of Jenny Burntail, a weird phenomenon said to haunt the Burton Dassett hills.

Back in the 1970s, when I worked on the Leamington Spa Courier, I recall a story that reported how a motorist was terrified out of his wits when a ‘burning ball’ followed him one dark night while he drove home.

Fenny Compton is the scene of an appearance from time to time of a ghostly light, a blue and yellow ray, which floats above the village and Burton Dassett. This may be connected, or is another version of the Jenny Burntail legend.

And there is the long tradition of drivers travelling along the Rugby-Coventry Road being terrified at the approach of a lorry on the wrong side of the road. At the last moment, when a head-on crash seems inevitable, the phantom lorry vanishes.

Other travelling apparitions are the ghosts of highwayman. Swirling mists across a lonely stretch of the Watling Street between Rugby and Nuneaton have suggested a phantom horse and rider, believed to be that of Dick Turpin, on his way to search for gold in the lost village of Stretton Baskerville.

A few miles away, the Blue Lias inn at Stockton is haunted by a red-haired farm labourer, killed by his master who found him in bed with his wife on returning from market.

The event and subsequent haunting certainly has a ring of truth, because the story is confirmed by a contemporary Warwickshire ballad.

Elsewhere in the county, there is the persistent tradition of the Black Dog.

The so-called witchcraft murder of farm labourer Charles Walton on Meon Hill, was supposed in local folklore to have been preceded by the visitation of such a creature, an occurrence said to be a harbinger of doom.

Interestingly, the rock band Led Zeppelin recorded a song titled Black Dog, which became one of their best-known tracks. However, a quick check of the lyrics fails to provide any Warwickshire links.

But I do remember a pub in Southam called The Black Dog, which may well still carry that name, although I haven’t visited the town for many years to confirm this.

Rugby’s most celebrated ghost is, of course, that of One-handed Boughton, said to prowl the building and grounds at Brownsover Hall. I devoted an entire page to this phantom a few months ago.

Meanwhile, back in Churchover, I know of two cases of reported hauntings in the village, one of them being quite protracted and serious.

However, I will refrain from identifying locations, out of respect for the current owners of the properties in question.

Of course, many of you will dismiss such stories as being complete nonsense, relics from a more superstitious time that have no place in this age of so-called reason.

Nevertheless, these tall tales continue to fascinate and possible still frighten some of us all at the same time. And that was certainly the case all those decades ago when a certain small boy listened in terror as the world of witches, fairies and goblins was regularly and vividly brought to life in the classroom at Churchover Parochial School.

John Phillpott’s book Beef Cubes and Burdock: Memories of a 1950s Country Childhood is published by Austin Macauley and available from the usual outlets.