Originally published in Arkadia magazine, September 2014.
The sign said ‘Dorchester Ghost Walk, no need to book, meet at the King’s Arms at 8pm.’ We decided to turn up and see what it was all about. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
So, along with a record crowd of around 30 other shriek-seekers, we paid our money at The King’s Arms on Dorchester’s High East Street and followed our guide into the evening air to discover what ghoulish tales and fiendish characters the town had in store for us.
The caped figure, dressed in black, with cane and topper, introduced himself as Alistair Chisholm, who as well as being a well-respected tour guide and historian, is also Dorchester’s Town Crier, a post he has held since 1997.
Alistair, who has been leading ghost walks in the town for over 10 years, started by delivering a sombre warning: “What you have paid for is a one way ticket – there are no return tickets to where we are going.” We looked at each other and smiled, nervously. He went on to say that we would finish up in the graveyard – as if to remind us of our mortality, as well as providing useful information about the walk ahead.
After a pause to discover where the members of the group had come from (Birmingham to Bovington, on this particular night), it was soon time for our first stop at the old Dorchester Gaol. We were told about the dark history of the prison, built on the site of a Norman castle, before heading down Friary Hill. As the name suggests, this was once the site of a Franciscan Friary and home to the main character of the tale that was about to unfold.
Legend has it that, around 20 years ago, a mysterious hooded figure, thought to be the ghost of a monk, was seen in Frome Terrace, at the bottom of Friary Hill. Some 10 years later, the figure was seen again, head down, hurrying along the verge. Then, just one year ago, another sighting was reported nearby, where a tree possesses a peculiar white variegation. It is said that each time the monk walks past, the colour drains from the leaves, turning them ghostly white!
We leave Frome Terrace behind us and, as our guide explains that this is the only ghost walk that actually takes you to the other side, we cross the bridge over the Frome!
In days gone by, from the far river bank, locals would look up to the prison to watch the many hangings that took place. This method of execution was known as being ‘stabbed with the Bridport dagger’ – a reference to the fact that the ropes used for the hangings were a product of Bridport’s thriving rope-making industry. In 1856, a 16-year old Thomas Hardy stood in the rain and watched the hanging of Martha Brown (the last public hanging of a woman in Dorset) from this very spot – a sight that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
At Hangman’s Cottage, nearby, our guide shared more of the inspiration for Hardy’s The Withered Arm, in which the only cure for the affliction was to touch the arm against the neck of a freshly hanged person. Gruesome stuff!
Stopping for a while at the Roman Town House in Colliton Park, we learned about Dorchester’s past as Durnovaria, as it was known to the Romans. At this point, the light was fading fast and as we headed for Colliton House, it became apparent that, in common with many of Dorchester’s illuminated buildings, the house takes on a whole new identity after dark when the warm honey coloured stone glows like burnished gold.
We worked our way through Dorchester’s lesser-known side streets, arriving back at High East Street to be greeted by more buildings of gold set against the deep blue sky. We listened to the story of Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes, and heard the tale of William Barnes’ statue outside St Peter’s Church, which is said to move, ever closer to the edge of the plinth. It used to be said that when the statue fell, ‘Galpin’s folly’ (the clock tower on the nearby Corn Exchange) would also tumble!
After another tale featuring Reverend Templeman, who remained a regular visitor to St Peter’s long after his death, our journey took us to the graveyard. In the pitch blackness, our guide wrapped up our fascinating evening and sent us on our way with one more eerie tale and a demonic laugh for good measure. And, as the clock struck ten, we were given one final reminder that the pubs were still open, in case we craved the company of one more spirit before bed time!
The Dorchester Ghost Walks take place on Thursdays at 8pm, meeting at The King’s Arms on High East Street. There is no need to book. Adults £6, children £3. For more information call Alistair Chisholm on 07773 286197.
Words and images: Robin Savill