Saturday, 20 June 2020

Milton Dreams - The City That Never Was - Legends Revisited

Within my 1994 publication Not The Concrete Cows there is a chapter which is entitled Let's Look At Some Legends. Allow me to revisit and share that chapter, I will then chat about some other legends.

Truth is one of the most precious things we own therefore it is only right that we try to be a little economical with it. No that is not a quote from the editor of one of our national tabloids, it comes from a newspaper editor working back in the mid 19th century one Samuel Langhorne Clemens better known as Mark Twain.

Mark Twain prefaced his Tudor England adventure The Prince And The Pauper with these words: I will set down a table it may have happened it might just be a legend but it might have happened. The wonderful thing about a legend is the truth and fiction become so inextricably entwined it is impossible to tell the difference and so the unedited account becomes a valued part of our heritage. Just where would we be without King Arthur And The Knights of the Round Table  ?  The likes of the Loch Ness Monster ?   Each one looks to go spinning off into future generations for as many as have enjoyed them in years gone to continue into the distant future. Milton Keynes is not without a legend or two of its own.  Does a ghost from the Fenny Stratford plague pit honestly haunt the local schools ? Why is an area of Newton Longville known as Dead Queen ? And did Dick Turpin honestly stay at the Old Swan Inn in Woolston ?

Truth is one of the most precious things we own therefore it is only right that we try to be a little economical with it.

In the late autumn of 1348 a terrible tragedy began to strike down the dense sparsely populated area of Milton Keynes. In June of that year a ship docked in Bristol having sailed from France.  One of the sailors was sick, he had bubonic plague better known as the Black Death.  In less than two years that disease spread right across Europe. Two years later one third of this nation’s population had been wiped out.

Our Milton Keynes ancestors living in the North Buckinghamshire countryside suffered extensively.  It is said that the area about Woburn Sands became established as a travellers bypassed plague centres on Watling Street.  

A chronicler of the time said the cattle roamed masterless over the countryside, crops rotted in the field for lack of hands to reap them and there were not enough priests alive to bury the dead.

One much acclaimed remedy for the plague involved the use of toads which folk gathered from the local fields. The toad was placed out in the sun to dry then sat upon the bulbous swellings which appeared in the neck groin and armpits. It was believed that the poison would leave the patient's body and enter the swelling toad.

Another remedy required the application of a concoction made from figs, yeast, onions and butter.

A third and grossly more painful remedy saw the whipping of the victim’s naked body. It was thought that as the plague was a judgement from God substituting the physical pain of flagellation and begging divine forgiveness could offer a hope of a cure. Little doubt our ancestors tried all of these and others but without success. The numbers of the dead were so vast that bodies were communally buried in deep pits. Legend dictates that the Fenny Stratford pit was located in a field slightly to work to the west of the town.

More than five hundred years later in 1897,  the Fenny Stratford School Board put up a school on that land and then the trouble started.

Very soon Victorian teachers and their children became aware of an unearthly presence in their midst. Doors are creak open and desperate strangely bang. Fleeting glimpses could be snatched from time to time of a small female figure chasing after the children as they went out to play.

Somebody decided to name the ghostly apparition Mary and explained her appearance is a child who had died during the Black Death and had been buried in the Fenny Stratford pit.  It was claimed that she was lonely, not being able to play any more with her friends and so she sought new companions among the children of the school.

Mary was the only child of a blacksmith who lived by the side of the lane that ran from Fenny Stratford to the village of Bletchley. She was a happy child although lonely not having any brothers or sisters. She was a popular figure in the area the father a respected member of the community.

Mary's mother was the first member of the family to be struck down by the plague. Two weeks later both she and her husband were dead leaving Mary an orphan. Mary wandered about in a state of helplessness grief estate of helpless in a state of helpless grief before she too fell to the terrible disease.

Over the years since 1887 the Fenny Stratford school underwent several changes but Mary steadfastly remained as an extra pupil.  When the school moved to new buildings on Bletchley’s Lakes Estate it is claimed that Mary went with it to the site of Leon School in Fern Grove. Nobody has actually seen Mary now for several years but doors sill inextricably open and footsteps are heard running down the deserted corridors as this particular lonely ghost chases after her friends.

Well there we are, I have set down my tale you can believe it or not if you wish. It may have happened, it might just be a legend but it could have happened !  Let me now move on and tell you about a very different lady.

We all know from school history lessons of the legendary Queen Boudica. That fearsome lady with knives on the wheel of wheels of her chariot,  that famous warrior championing the plight of the Ancient Britons against the mighty empire of Rome.  The widow who suffered under the whip and saw her daughters abused who now is immortalised in the bronze statue adjacent to Hyde Park Corner.

But what you may ask has Boudica got to do with Milton Keynes ? Where does her legend touch our area  ?  Draw a little closer and I will tell you.

Nero was the Roman emperor (presumably sometime before he took up violin lessons) and a certain Suetonuis Pauligus (Where did they get names like that from ?) was the governor of Britain. This was in about AD60.  Prastigus (Like I said where did they get those sort of names from ?) was the King of the Iceni tribe of East Anglia and his wife was the famous Boudica.

A roman writer described the Iceni Queen as a tall woman with piercing eyes and a loud voice. A great massive red hair hung down to below her waist. Round her neck was a large gold torc. She wore a full flowing tartan dress and over it a thick cloak fastened with a brooch.

When King Prastigus died he expediently left half of his property to Nero and willed that the reminder should be divided between his two daughters.

This appeared to have been more than generous, perhaps intended to ensure the future well being under the Roman occupation of his family. However, half was not enough for the governor who took the lot !

When Boudica and her  over-taxed tribesmen made protest the Icini Queen was whipped and her two daughters raped by Roman officers.  Boudica’s  resulted resulting rebellion very nearly evicted the Roman Empire from the shores of Britain.

Boudica and her followers marched on the Roman capital of Colchester which they sacked and burned.  The 9th Legion sent put down the uprising was all but wiped out by the Britons as they marched towards London.  Governor Paulinus, who was at that time in in Mona (The capital of Anglesey), ordered a strong cavalry troop to accompany him to London.  They found the city in a state of dire panic.

Marching his southern troops at Watling Street Paulinus intended to meet up with the army now moving post-haste towards Boudica from the north. It was his intention for the larger army to engage with her with a stronger force. In so doing London with left to its fate and was burned along with Saint Albans the Roman fortress in Verulamium. If the Roman historian Tacticus is correct no less than 70,000 Roman Citizens had so far perished under the anger of Boudica.

Surging through Milton Keynes Boudica met up with Paulinus and his army near to Towcester. Never before in the history of Roman Empire had such humiliation been suffered and if Governor Paulinus could not turn events it will be better he perish in the fray will have to report back to Nero.

Boadicea outnumbered Paulinus ten to one but hers were undisciplined tribal farmers and herdsmen against the might of two highly trained Roman legions.  She addressed the troops, we British are used to women commanders in war.  I am not fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters.  The gods will grant us the revenge we deserve. Think how many of you there are and why we are fighting; then you will be able to win this battle, or die. That is what I, a woman, plan to do. Let men live in slavery if they want to.

But the pride of every Roman soldier was hurt and that of Governor Paulinus above them all.  There would be no prisoners, there would be no slaves, if Roman rule was to survive the rebellion had to be crushed entirely and without mercy. The account of Tacticus records that 80,000 Britons are slain to just 400 Romans but perhaps it would be only right to credit him with just a little creative accounting.

Boudica was not among those lost in battle. After outfighting any man she escaped and made their way across country south to Newton Longville where she poison herself.  At least that's what the official story put out by the Romans said, perhaps to discredit their enemy by branding her a coward. Another writer Dio Cassius, telling the tale of the century and a half later explained that Boudica died from a sickness several weeks after the battle, perhaps as a result of wounds turning septic. She was then secretly buried in Newton Longville and greatly mourned.

Governor Paulinus did not stop there. He slaughtered thousands upon thousands more Britons in revenge before reporting back to Nero that this particular part of the empire was again at peace.

The publishers of my children's novels have their editorial artistic and design offices in the North of England, when I have meetings there I tend to leave home in the small hours in the morning in order to make a nine o'clock start. I was the only car on a lonely road just outside York when in the faint glow of the coming dawn I swerved to miss a horse and rider. Cursing the road sense of this particular equation fanatic, I looked back into my mirror and watched both figures, rider and  horse, disappear into the darkness.  

Had it really been a member of the pony club out for an early morning trot or had I just encountered the ghost of one of the many highway men who ply their trade up and down the roads of England ? With the spirit of Mark Twain that truth is such a precious commodity we should be economical in its use, I marked I reached for my dictaphone to record the experience.

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. The road was a ribbon of moonlight across a lonely moor. As the highwayman came riding, riding up to the old indoor.  So wrote Alfred Noyes and his famous poem and I wonder if he was inspired by a similar experience to my own.

Returning to Milton Keynes I shared my thoughts but far from being shipped off to the funny farm I found I had something in common with many others. A former landlady of the Shoulder Of Mutton public house in Little Horwood explained it was quite common for people to come into her bar saying they had hit a phantom rider with their car. That was before they had a drink !

Pony trekkers to the south of the area have claimed another apparition gallops the Quantock Hills. This apparently is Catherine Furnace the Hertfordshire highway woman who was shot and killed during the hold up in 1659 when she was twenty-five years old. It is thought that her ghost is in search of that of Dick Turpin.

Since the days when the Roman first laid down Watling Street Milton Keynes has been a major point upon the country’s main arterial routes. But the road hardly resembles the A5 trunk road we know today.

An Act of Parliament in 1706 set up the Hockliffe - Two Mile Ash Turnpike but it was an unmetalled road riddled with deep potholes and puddles. In the immediate years after 1800 the inhabitants of Little Brickhill,  Great Brickhill, Soulbury, Bletchley, Simpson, Loughton, Shenley, Bradwell and Calverton were all indicted at the Quarter Sessions for not repairing the highway. But the road was perfect for the trade of the highwayman, the most notorious of who was the legendary Dick Turpin.

Dick Turpin robbed stagecoaches along the entire route from London to York. Was it he that I had met on my early morning drive ? Is it the ghost of this particular masked robber the haunts the roads about Little Horwood ?

Legend described him as a suave well-spoken gentleman relieving travellers in the nicest possible way of their belongings. In truth he was probably an unshaven and dirty wretch of small stature and pathetic countenance.

But whatever his appearance he was certainly only too well known to the local innkeepers. From Fenny Stratford to Stony Stratford and from Little Brickhill to Calverton he had his safe houses. One of these it is claimed is the Old Swan at Woughton On The Green.

Highway robbery was of course a capital offence and the site of the gallows at Denby Hall, near Bletchley on the Hockliffe - Two Mile Ash to Turnpike was a constant reminder to our Mr Turpin of the fate awaiting him at the end of his career.

It was a bright moonlit night and the redcoats were out with a warrant from Little Linford magistrates Justice of the Peace Knapps.  Their quarry was accursed Richard Turpin on whose head was a bounty of five hundred guineas. To stay on the main Turnpike would mean certain capture and so he headed north across country to Woughton.

With a flurry of  his coat  Dick Turpin astride his trusty mare Black Bess clattered into the cobbled yard at the rear of The old Swan.  Quickly dismounting, he led the horse into the stables where, assisted by the innkeeper, he nailed four new horseshoes on top of Bess’s existing shoes. But he nailed them on in reverse. After a quart of  the landlord’s best ale.  

Dick galloped off towards Willen leaving a false trail and throwing the redcoats into confusion.

It's a wonderful little story and one that has been told in Milton Keynes for the past two centuries. However the same tale is told about a dozen similar inns up and down the entire length of the road from London to York. The present day landlord Geoff Bevan is something of a local expert on the legendary Richard Turpin. When he took over Ye Olde Swan he set off in search of the infamous highway men and the stories surrounding the inn. Although researchers from BBC television series Living Legends have been unable to find it,  Geoff located Turpin's grave in the old Saint George's Church are near the city wall in York.  Mysteriously someone places fresh flowers on the grave every month.

Geoff pointed out a large stone near the front of the pub. That. he explained. is the old mounting block from which Turpin climb astride Black Bess. He went on to recount how the stone is supposedly haunted.

Anyone who moves it does so at their own peril. when the council came to tarmac the road they worked around it fearing they would disturb the curse.

Dick Turpin was finally arrested for stealing a mare and foal, brought before York Assizes and hanged on the 7th of April 1739. He was taken from York Castle to the gallows in a cart from which he waved to the onlookers,  doffing his hat and bowing. Once on the scaffold he calmly launched into a thirty minute conversation with hangman Matthew Blackburn before jumping off himself to his death.  His letters weighing some twenty-eight pounds can still be seen in York Museum. Newspaper reports at the time claimed that his body was dug up and taken to a surgeon for dissection only to be seized again and re-buried in quick lime.

The tale of our friend Mr Turpin makes a lovely little story and the difficulty of disentangling fact from fiction is near impossible.  Does it matter in the slightest ? Such is the magic and the power of the legend.  Why not drop in to Ye Old Swan dating back to the 14th century and one of the oldest buildings in the city of Milton Keynes ? Go and share a tale or two with Jack Bevan about the inn’s most famous patron.

Oh and by the way I wonder just how many of you have effigies of Dick Turpin and his illustrious colleagues sitting up on your mantle shelves ! To be the toby was 18th century criminal slang for highway robbery.  From it today we get Toby Jugs.

I was on the lookout in some fields across the river and not far from Milton Keynes. At last I came across some holes on the other side of the hedge by the side of the road and they looked like places for rabbits. So me, my brother and Billy Blunt made an arrangement to go there next Sunday.

We took ferrets in a bag and two dogs. Setting out about at about ten o'clock Milton Keynes Church bells were ringing for the main service. As we didn't want to be seen we climbed over the gate and looked about us but nobody was in sight. I took the ferret out the bag.  I knelt down at one of the holes put the ferret in then looked up to see a big man, like a great big blacksmith, standing a few yards from our backs.

We were fairly caught and expected him to ask our names for we thought he was on the lookout for poachers. We went to get the ferret back and in so doing took our eyes off him but just a moment and when we looked up he was nowhere to be seen. We ran to the gate to see if he were in the road but he had completely vanished. Old Billy was frit to death and so was my brother and I could tell you I was dead scared.

This is an unearthly encounter reported to have taken place near to Milton Keynes Village more than one hundred years ago and for certain this trio never poached again in that field! The tale was told in the local pubs and written down during the 1920’s in a little book Sketches of the Buckinghamshire Countryside.

Another story is to be told of a ghost Ole Curley who would roam the Newport Road about Woolstone in the company of a small dog. Part of the hedgerow was for many years known as Curly Bush. Curly was said to favour dark, moonlit moonless nights. Although the last time he was definitely seen was in 1850 there was a close encounter in 1919.

The story claims that a veteran of the Great War had been from his home in Woughton to Fenny Stratford in order to collect his army pension. On his return he apparently spent most of it in the bar at the Swan. Attempting a shortcut through the churchyard he slipped, fell into a bush and slumbered into a drunken stupor. More than one person thought they had found Ole Curly !

It would seem that Woughton and Woolstone have more than their fair share of spirit visitations, several people claimed to have seen a hooded horsemen ride across Newport Road in the direction of Milton Keynes Village. The crossroads there had been the site in the 16th century of a gibbet where many a poor fellow was dispatched from mortal existence.
Among these would have been the victims of Henry Turpyn, priest of Woughton Church, the local witchfinder general and seeker out of evil.

The landlord of one of the older inns in Milton Keynes went down to his bar one morning to find all the stools on the floor about the tables yet knowing they had been put on top of the tables when he locked up the previous evening.

The next night he awoke and thought he heard the television set playing. However, a closer listening revealed the sounds of a party going on in the bar and the clanking of pewter mugs on the bar tables. He declined to investigate any further !

But the area's ghosts are not confined to Woughton. Drivers on a lane between Buckingham Road and Little Horwood will be familiar with the slight dip in the road, and dip the highways Department has tried several times to remove.

The story goes that was a beautiful girl from Horwood who fell deeply in love with a young man below her social standing. Forbidden by her parents to marry, the young couple eloped one night but were chased by the angry father.  In the chase the bride's coach overturned and that on the young girl a mortally wounded. With her dying breath she cursed the spot declaring the road would never again have a smooth surface.

Fanny Leon came to Bletchley with her husband, Herbert, in 1882. For more than fifty years she made a home in Bletchley Park. She served as a JP, school governor and there was not a single aspect of the town’s business in which she did not concern herself. When she died in January 1937 Bletchley lost a dear friend and her estate was put up for sale.

Eventually the property was taken over by the secret services housing the enigma German wartime decoding machine. Now in the care of the Bletchley Park trust, the house was for many years the regional training centre for British Telecom. Staff had repeated several sightings of an Edwardian lady in full evening dress descending the oak staircase, but are perfectly certain it is Fanny Lady  Leon.

I asked someone who, as a young man, had known the Leon Family when the members lived at Bletchley Park if he thought that Lady Leon would have wanted to haunt her old home. That is put this put it this way he smiled if the old girl could find anyway to stay on a cheque up on all is happening she would do it .

If you believe in ghosts then are these the only members of the spirit world to reside in Milton Keynes ?

In the summer of 1988 construction work Wavendon Gate was temporarily suspended when builders uncovered or Roman burial remains. Do these members of Caesar's far flung empire still linger about the area and what of the Bronze Age burial mounds in Old Wolverton, Cotton Valley and Milton Keynes Village? Or the skeleton a young lady found at Blue Bridge? Or the Saxon woman uncovered at Tickford near Newport Pagnell? And what of the entire Saxon family excavated in 1990 at Shenley?

Is there any trace of their wanderings abroad now their rest has been disturbed after so many centuries? Or are such apparition nothing more than the illusions of an overactive imagination? What do you think ? Are you sure ?

At the far end of my garden there is a hedge which dates back to the eighteenth century Enclosure Act, it says within the deeds of my property that this hedge is a field boundary, it is protected and can not be grubbed out. Where my summer house now stands the land used to flood when it rained but not anymore. When my oldest son was born in 1980 I nicked a small silver birch sapling from Woburn Woods and planted in the garden. It now dominates my entire property and is known as The Peter Tree. This tree is a legend in our family, its roots have changed the land, no matter what the downpour the land by the hedge does not flood. Just as well as that is where my summer house stands.

I often wonder what the land on which my home stands was like when it was first enclosed. If the leaves on the hawthorn boundary could speak what stories could it tell. This boundary is a legend in my own home. So is The Peter Tree, I know what stories it can tell but when I am gone will others look up at the tree and wonder what legend planted it there ?

There was a time when I kept chickens in my garden, scratching near that boundary hedge one found a silver ring. My wife now wears it. Who did it originally belong to ? What stories could it tell. We moved into our home in April 1979, how long did this silver ring remain hidden until my chickens found it ?

It was not the chickens but yours truly who dug up a horseshoe in the garden, I found it near to what I believe was the area where the field entrance was. How old is it ?  Does it date back to the times of the Agrarian Revolution or is it Victorian. My home was built in the 1960’s and predates Milton Keynes Development Corporation. During World War One and during World War Two where I live was a field. I wonder what crops were grown or was it pasture. Certainly horses would have been used in the early part of the twentieth century and possibly also in the 1940’s. This is a large show, probably belonging to a plough horse. If only it could share its story.

So here are the legends within  my own property. If only they could speak what would my legends have to say ? What legends can you find in your own home ?

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born on 7th March 1975 and left us on 28th December 1937. He is perhaps best known for his Bolero. A Bolero is a slow tempo dance. Revel composed his Bolero in 1928 but I wonder how many people today had ever heard of it before 1984. It was at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics that Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won gold with a perfect score on 6.0 from every judge as they ice danced to Ravel’s Bolero. Nobody has achieved such a score before or after. Their performance was watched by a British television audience of 24 million people.

What has this got to do with Milton Keynes and how is it a legend ? Truth is one of the most precious things we own therefore it is only right that we try to be a little economical with it. Legend says that Torvill and Dean practiced for the dance at the rink in Milton Keynes where now stands Morrissons Supermarket.

As I write these words in June 2020 Milton Keynes is about to lose a landmark. Will that landmark once it is gone become a legend or will it be totally forgotten ? I wonder.

When Milton Keynes Development Corporation made plans for the city centre everything was to be built around three ley lines. I have talked about the ley lines of Avebury, Secklow and Midsummer in another chapter but I will refer to these important locations again as I tell this story.

On 23rd November 1985 the very first multiplex cinema in Britain opened in Milton Keynes and was located on the ley line Midsummer Boulevard. It’s architectural design was iconic so overnight it became a landmark in the New City. (Now the city that never was.)

In 1991 it hosted a royal premier of Harrison Ford’s film Presumed Innocent which was attended by Sarah, Duchess of York.  This unique cinema was named The Point after its pyramid at the front of the complex.

In the year 2000 as we entered a new millennium two things happened, two things sanctioned by Milton Keynes Council which ultimately pronounced a death sentence upon this important landmark. The ley line of Midsummer was torn apart when  a shopping centre, The Intu,  was  built across it !  In the same year Milton Keynes Council trashed the Development Corporation’s instruction that no building shall be taller than the surrounding trees, it gave planning for the 145 feet tall Milton Keynes Slug also known as The Xscape. Now serious carbon footprints upon the landscape ,The Intu and The Xscape brought about the demise of The Point.

Even English Heritage refused to support The Point and right now it is scheduled for demolition. Guess what is planned in its place ?  Another shopping centre ! I hope that the destruction of the ley line will ultimately bring about the demise of The Intu, I believe that financial administration is beckoning, and what ever folly is put up on the site of The Point.

When Aston Martin some years ago pulled down part of its complex in Newport Pagnell it sold off the bricks to individuals donating the money to Willen Hospice.  I did have the idea to try and get something similar happening when The Point is destroyed. Cut up bits of the landmark, sell them to people living in Milton Dreams and give all of the money to University Hospital Milton Keynes. I may try to engage support but I am not optimistic and am obliged to say WHAT IS THE POINT ?

The construction of a dinosaur project at the bottom of the field of Leon School was my project but the day-to-day construction and working with the kids from school was completely in the hands of artist Bill Billings, Bill who gave Milton Keynes the Peartree Bridge Dinosaur and the replacement Concrete Cows. Students who worked with Bill tell me they put a time capsule into the construction. I have no personal recollection of this happening but obviously happen it did.

Sadly the dinosaur management of Leon School some time ago expelled our dinosaur from its carefully chosen location and had it moved to the Warren Adventure Playground where it now happily resides.

So this time capsule. Was it buried in the foundation upon which the dinosaur stood ?  I don’t think it could have been, I would have known about it.  Was a hole dug somewhere near the finished giant statue once it was finished ? Possibly.  I tried to engage with the present school management but none of my communications were ever answered. I rather think, knowing Bill Billings, that the time capsule would have been put inside the structure. Sadly Bill left us some years ago so I can not ask him and my former students have not been able to tell me where the time capsule was located on that it existed. Still exists, hopefully.

So what was put into the time capsule ?  That is actually something for generations way into the future to know.

Talking earlier about my garden, the Enclosure Act boundary and the horseshoe that is a time capsule in a single item isn’t it ?  What makes it special is thinking about the item and how it allows my mind to consider all kinds of possibilities. I would like to think that my original book Not The Concrete Cows is in a way a legend and a time capsule as will be Milton Dreams The City That Never Was will be. However. tens of thousands of words take away the way in which a person’s mind can think about and speculate about, even dream about a physical item found in a time capsule.

I want to end this chapter by making a suggestion to my readers. You and your family put together a time capsule with some simple items from your everyday life. Keep it simple but make it special, very special. Then bury it, hide it away to be found in one hundred, one thousand or more years. In the twenty-first century make something which will become a secret landmark and a legend for you until it is eventually discovered.

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