Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Black Dog

One winter, back in the 1980s, I was working on a medieval building in the hilltop town of Shaftesbury, Dorset, and work had come to a standstill because we had opened up an old, blocked-in door of an ancient wall, and what should be on the other side but a dead monk. He looked as though he has been there for some time, but we had to down tools and wait for the forensic archeologists to do their job.

I would travel to Shaftesbury early on a monday morning, then leave for Bath on friday afternoon, having spent the week nights in a local hotel. This day was thursday, and since I knew that the archeologists would not finish until well into the next week, I planned to take that week off. I decided, however, to spend the night and leave the following day, as I wanted to be involved in the initial stages of the fascinating investigation - or as involved as they would let me be.

We awoke next morning to find it had snowed in the night, and the forecast was more snow during the day. Lots more snow. I left it as long as possible to leave, but I knew that the bleak, high stretch of road leading down to Longbridge Deverill could become impassable if the snow became too deep. There were (and still are, I think) large gates, about 4 miles apart at either end of the hill, to prevent motorists from attempting to cross in extreme weather. These were the days before everyone had a mobile phone, and becoming stranded up there at night could mean an extremely uncomfortable one, or even death if your engine stopped.

So I set out in my old Volvo 122s just as it was becoming dark, and soon found myself to be the only motorist on this lonely stretch of road, easing my way cautiously round the bends as I slithered down the hill on the other side, heading toward Warminster. Those old Volvos are extremely good in the snow, but soon there were no other tracks that I could see ahead of me in the headlights - even the Landrovers were safely tucked up in barns for the night.

I was safely down and heading toward Upton Scudamore, but it was now snowing a blizzard and the light reflecting from the flakes in front was making it very difficult to keep to the road. The road itself was disappearing under about 7 inches of snow anyway, so I tried to keep to the middle of it. This tactic was the safest, as there were no headlights in the opposite direction, meaning I had it all to myself, or so I thought.

I didn't see them at first - probably because they were both wearing white. About 25 yards in front of me stood two girls with blonde hair, standing still with their arms beside them and making no attempt to get out of the way of my car, which eventually came to a halt about six feet in front of them. I could immediately tell - even in these conditions - that they were identical twins, and probably about 17 years old. For the brief time that they stood in the light, I remember thinking that they were under-dressed for the weather. Both seemed to have long, cotton smocks on, with bare necks and nothing on their heads. I could not tell what was on their feet, as the snow was too deep.

They climbed into the back of the car at my request, and they brought the cold in with them. The heater - normally very efficient - never seemed to work properly again. Curiously, the windows did not steam up with their breath, despite the drop in temperature.

When I asked where they were heading for, they just asked to be taken to 'The Black Dog', which, they said, was back in Upton Scudamore, so I turned the car around and tried to retrace my journey for the couple of miles back to the turn-off, but my tracks had been all but obliterated by the falling snow.

Upton Scudamore, as I was to discover, is a small village which is basically surrounded by a circular road. As we approached it up the straight track from the A36, I asked where 'The Black Dog' was, and they simply replied that it was just around the corner. When I saw the 'Angel' pub, looking brightly lit and inviting, they said that this was not the inn they were looking for. It was the Black Dog, just around the corner, so I reluctantly drove past.

Passing the Angel for the third time was when I realised that Upton Scudamore was essentially circular, so I pulled up outside on the snowy road, and told the girls that I would go inside and ask for directions.

There were a few people sitting around at the bar, even in that weather, and I asked the owner where 'The Black Dog' inn was. They all looked at each other before saying that the nearest pub of that name was in Chilmark, miles away near Salisbury. I explained who I had in my car as accurately as I could, and they all looked at each other again, before one of them said, "Sounds like you picked up the Maids, mate". We all shuffled outside to question the girls in the car. I had left the engine running in a vain attempt to keep them warm.

When we got to it and opened a rear door, the car was empty. There wasn't even any drips of melted snow on the leather seats. One of the men said, "I thought so", and I turned off the engine, locked the car for the night and went inside for a much needed drink.

Apparently, twin girls had been hanged on the stretch of road which is named after them, a couple of hundred years ago. Their crime? Helping a highwayman who worked out of an inn called The Black Dog.


  1. Compelling reading Tom.
    My dad who was completely grounded and down to Earth was adamant that he saw a ghost as a child. Age about nine he said a lady in Victorian clothes sat on the bottom of his bed. He awoke and she just smiled at him then was gone. He said that he wasn't scared.
    In the immortal words of Scooby Doo "Rooby Roo!", (at least that's what it always sounded like to me).
    My word verification for this comment was "freckfu", which is pretty close to something I may say if I ever had a ghostly encounter, ha ha.

  2. An amazing tale Tom. Even more so, as exactly the same thing happened to me the following day; TWICE.

  3. I should add that I love the little woodcut (?). The poor hanged man seems to have a smile on his face. Maybe he was happy to be shot of this (then) cruel world.

  4. Sorry, I'm taking up space. I might have mentioned that my old school is one the world's oldest. It was always said that in my house there was supposed to be a monk who'd been walled-up alive as punishment for some minor discretion. Do all ancient religious buildings have such stories? What was the outcome of your monk's confinement?

  5. I enjoyed reading that. Like Suzanne said,'Compelling reading!'

  6. I'm never quite sure whether to take you seriously or not Tom.
    If this had happened to me, they would have taken me away in a padded jacket.

  7. Cool. That was creepy and terrific!

  8. I had the same thing when suffering from pneumonia as a child, Suzanne. She smiled at me whilst sitting on a chair beside my bed, and I knew all would be well. She was an old woman. In the morning, I had lost my fever. I always refer to her as my 'Guardian Angel'. This thing about ghosts glowing in the dark is explained simply - because you remember seeing them clearly in the pitch dark, your brain tells you that they gave off light, but that isn't the case.