Roads To The Otherworld: Contemporary Haunted Roads And A Sacred Landscape
Oldnall Road, a seemingly unremarkable two-mile rural stretch of B-road between the towns of Halesowen and Stourbridge in the West Midlands, hit the international headlines a few months ago (1) following reports of a series of sightings of an apparition. Reports of ‘road ghosts’ are nothing unusual, they form an important part of ‘ghost lore’ throughout the world (2). What made these reports more unusual was the suggestion that the apparition may have been responsible for a series of car accidents along the road.
For over 20 years we have run Parasearch, a Midlands based paranormal research group affiliated to the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena and with links to the Society for Psychical Research. Our approach to the paranormal has always been a scientific one – looking for a normal explanation before we turn to a paranormal one. This doesn’t mean that we disbelieve in the paranormal, but our approach is one of carrying out thorough research and presenting the strongest evidence we can.
This case came to us via a member at a monthly committee meeting. We hadn’t previously heard anything unusual about the area, but details began to unfold of a story that would end up traveling around the world!
A work colleague of his had been driving along the Oldnall Road after dark. Suddenly, in his headlights, he caught sight of a small child standing in the middle of the road. Acting on reflexes, he swerved, mounted the grass verge and came to a halt. Shocked and panic-stricken, upon looking back the road was completely deserted. After a frantic search, there was no sign of a child, who he described as possibly being a little girl.
Oldnall Road is a very old road, high on an ancient ridgeway. It runs for a relatively short distance and is bordered by green fields, with secluded farms dotted here and there. Over the years it has become a notorious accident blackspot, with occasional wreckages of cars to be seen in the fields, yet the road is relatively straight with no adverse camber or very steep bends. Could these accidents be caused by motorists attempting to avoid a ghost in the road?
Our first approach was to send a press release to a local newspaper appealing for more witnesses with similar experiences. Sure enough, a small flood of local people contacted us with their accounts.
The first new witness, Nick Harrison, told how in early 2008 he and his wife were driving along Oldnall Road when he had to swerve to avoid a small child. Unlike the original report, this was the figure of a small boy of about 10 years old, with short, mousey brown hair, grey full length trousers but with no shirt, and he looked distinctly Victorian in appearance. Like the original witness, when they looked back, the road was eerily empty.
Next to come forward was Steve Green. He had seen the ghost of Oldnall Road on more than one occasion. This apparition was in the form of a young woman in a ‘Regency’ style dress. On both occasions she was standing in the same spot by the side of the road at the entrance to a track where we now know Oldnall Farm used to stand. Steve also described how on another occasion he saw the figure of a man standing at the other end of the same track. Local folklore says that this area is haunted by a young man who had drowned by falling down a well. His unquiet spirit was apparently exorcised many years ago.
Another report comes from Susan Goodwin, who told the story of her aunt and uncle driving along the road in 2004, when they saw a man leading a large horse. As they commented that this was an unusual sight and looked back, both horse and man had vanished.
One of the strangest reports came from Alan Spencer, who told how, in 1979, he had been walking home late one evening, when he saw a mysterious dark figure walking down the road towards him. With no streetlights, the only illumination was from the full moon, which made the figure even more menacing. The figure was dressed in a closely fitting black outfit, and was described as having a pointed or ‘cone’ head. As they got nearer the figure disappeared into the bushes.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic sightings was not from Oldnall Road itself, but from nearby Foxcote Lane, a narrow country lane with high hedges. One October evening in 2005 at around 9pm, Tony Griffiths was driving home when he was forced to brake violently as the figure of a Victorian gent with blurred facial features suddenly emerged from the undergrowth. The dark figure stepped out from the hedgerow directly into the path of the car, but proceeded to walk right through the front of the car, before vanishing through the opposite hedge. The driver of a car behind also witnessed the event.
So what is going on at Oldnall Road? Paul Devereux has suggested that reports of ghosts are related to historic landscape features(3). Oldnall Road is positively bristling with history. Local archaeologist Mike Smith has been investigating the fields adjacent to Oldnall Road for many years. His research has uncovered a vast wealth of Mesolithic flints. Commenting on the site Mike said “I have collected several thousand pieces of flint. This particular site was probably used for hundreds of years, though we do not know why” (4). The ancient parish boundary also runs along the road. Jeremy Harte has made a study of over 70 haunted roads in Dorset. He found that up to 54% of his cases occurred next to parish boundaries. These findings were higher than chance expectations (5).
Owen Davies, author of ‘The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts’ has observed that tales of phantom ladies in white appear at roughly the same time, the eighteenth century, that fairy beliefs were dying out (6). A similar point has also been made by Brian Haughton an archaeologist and folklorist: “Many parish boundaries include prehistoric monuments such as burial mounds, earthworks and trackways, and it is possible that some road hauntings still contain elememts from folk tales originally associated with these ancient structures that later became attached to roads which followed a similar route” (7). This is a tempting idea in relation to reports along the Oldnall Road. Perhaps as Paul Devereux points out : “The new puzzle is that road apparitions are place-related hallucinations: something is happening at specific spots that cause witnesses’ minds to conjure up an image. They are incomprehensibly both subjective and objective events” (8)
Perhaps even more significantly, Oldnall Road forms part of a much larger ‘haunted landscape’. Less than 2 miles away, separated by the Iron Age hillfort of Wychbury, lies the A456. Reports of ghosts along this stretch of road date back to the 1960’s. They include apparitions of a mysterious woman, a man dressed in grey, a phantom dog and a cavalier. The cavalier is perhaps the most frequently reported apparition.
Nearly 30 years ago Detective Constable Roger Ryder was driving down the A456 duel carriageway from Halesowen to Hagley at approximately 1am one warm summers night.
“I was wide awake and alert,” he remembers. “And I stress that I hadn’t had a drink! It was a lovely night – very quiet with no traffic for miles. I’d put my foot down, probably doing about 60mph. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the pub was lit up and glowing. I assumed there was a party going on. As I drew closer, suddenly the figure of a man ran out of the car park. He was dressed like one of the old cavalier soldiers – the big hat, boots, red uniform and sword”.
Other witnesses have, over the years, reported a similar (although not exact) figure crossing the road at roughly the same point.
The common denominator in the reports from the A456 and Oldnall Road is their proximity to ancient sites. The A456 runs passed an Iron Age hillfort. There are various reports of strange experiences on its ancient ramparts. Ghostly figures have been seen wandering among its ancient Yew trees, and strange lights have been seen hovering over the hill. A field adjacent to the monument is known as ‘Grendel Mere’ and was supposendly shunned by locals in the past.
We are sure the presence of three faults lines in the area is also significant.
Our research continues. Perhaps we will never fully understand what is going on along the Oldnall Road and the surrounding landscape. We cannot help but feel that the proximity of a Mesolthic site and an Iron Age Hill fort hold an important key to our understanding of this haunted landscape.
(1) ‘Ghost girl in road crash alert’, Paranormal magazine, pg. 8, 27, September 2008
(2) GOSS, Michael, 1984, The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers, Aquarian Press
(3) DEVEREUX, Paul, 2001, Haunted Land, Piatkus
(4) SMITH, Mike, 2007, History of Oldnall Road Mesolithic Site, Wychbury Field Walking Group
(5) HARTE, Jeremy, ‘Haunted Roads’, The Ley Hunter, No. 121, 1994
(6) DAVIES, Owen, 2007, The Haunted : A Social History of Ghosts, Palgrave
(7) HAUGHTON, Brian, 2009, Lore of the Ghost, Career Press
(8) DEVEREUX, Paul ‘Haunted Highways’, Paranormal magazine, No. 31, January 2009
Carolyn & David Taylor are Secretary & Chairman of Parasearch (www.parasearch.org.uk). They have been investigating the paranormal for over 25 years.