While at a recent visit to Severndroog Castle, we got talking to a very nice local story teller. She kindly agreed to share the story below with us. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did… over a cup of coffee, of course!
The Highwayman of Shooters Hill by Leanne Bevan
Travelling into London is not a straightforward task, but between mid 16 hundreds and the 18 hundreds, in an age when travel was already hazardous due to the lack of decent roads, the threat of the Highwaymen made journeys even more stressful!
On one road leading into London, travellers faced the daunting sight of a steep rise through dense woodland. Here it was necessary for even the strongest horse to slow down to a trot. And if pulling a carriage with passengers, there was no choice. This meant the traveler was a prime target for the Highwayman. The vast woodland on either side of the road was the territory of one daring man who preyed upon the travellers coming from the south east coast into London to trade or do business in the city. His exploits would have been no more troublesome than the other robbers who stalked the roads into London from the North, South and West, but for his reputation. For this rogue was different.
When confronted by the Highwayman astride a beautiful chestnut mare with his pistols drawn, the men froze and the women swooned. But it was not fear that caused them to faint for he had a reputation of never harming a woman. It was his appearance. His was a tall and well built young man who sat high in the saddle and rode with the ease of one used to riding through all terrain. His fashionably long hair was loosely tied and covered by a dark brimmed hat that failed to hide his sparkling green eyes and he spoke with a cultured voice – polite and courteous at the most dangerous times. And while the men had to deal with their swooning companions, the highwayman would relieve them of their weapons, coins and jewellery and any other treasures they may have been carrying. Then he would depart with an apology and a polite bow, riding off into the dense woodland.
It was not the fact that they had been robbed by the highwayman that made the male travellers determined to catch this daring thief – it was the fact that at the inns and teahouses, the women would gather together to share stories and swap admiring descriptions of this handsome highwayman and in doing so, built up a great affection for him.
So it was decided that the men who travelled the road most frequently would do something about this devil. Many plans were made and finally several brave fellows agreed to disguise themselves as women travelling in a small carriage accompanied by only one man – the driver. Amongst their dresses and layers of petticoats they hid loaded pistols, on the ready to arrest the highwayman – or worse.
The party set off from the east and their plan seemed to be working when, near the top of the hill, the highwayman appeared on the fine chestnut mare, brandishing his pistols and calling the carriage to halt. Maybe it was a sight of a hairy leg as they dismounted the carriage, or maybe the unfortunate looks of the assembled women, but the highwayman suddenly stopped, apologised for delaying the ladies and turned to leap upon his horse. Then the carriage driver tried to tackle the highwayman while the ladies fumbled for their pistols. In the ruckus, someone slapped the rump of the chestnut mare and it galloped off into the woods, the highwayman fled in the opposite direction through the dense undergrowth and the horse and carriage took off unmanned along the road and over the hill. The men dressed as women found it difficult to move through the trees and undergrowth, but the driver followed hot on the highway man’s heels. A gunshot was heard and the disguised men waited. And waited.
Eventually the men in their dresses made it on foot to the nearest tavern and told their sorry tale to a slightly amused audience before a search party was sent out to look for their male companion and the highwayman. They searched all that evening by torch light and again the next day, but in those times the woods were extensive and no trace of man or horse were found.
No one knows what happened in the woods that day but travellers on the road were never bothered by the highwayman again. Decades later, a farmer clearing woodland came across two skeletons lying against a boulder. Between the two lay an empty rum flagon, an old leather pouch containing silver coins and jewellery and two say that if you venture into the woods on the night of a full moon, you won’t see the ghost of the highwayman or hear the shots from the driver’s pistol but you might see the spectre of a great chestnut mare wandering the woodland trails looking for the highwayman to take him home. Or so the story goes.
(This story is an original story but based on many folk tales and historical events around London and England.)