Almost forgotten in the small village of Charing, at the junction of The Hill, and Pett Lane, stands an ancient white stone mounting block with three time worn steps. You may have to search a little if you wish to see this, as during the summer months it becomes overgrown with weeds and the growing branches of a hedge close by. It is an interesting reminder of the old days of Tudor Charing, when it was first placed here for the convenience of riders in the village, just a few yards up from the old blacksmiths workshop and forge. Few of todays present villagers even know it is there, or indeed what it is, and even fewer have heard the story attached to it, a story of a young highwayman and his lover’s in conflict.
Charing is a very old village, the church dates from the eleventh century and the houses in the high street range between two hundred and five hundred years old. It is a classic English village, the sort of place that is sought out as the location for the making of historical films, or costume drama for TV. Anything could be set here, from Shakespeare plays, to thirties murder mysteries.
Ah, murder mysteries, – well that brings us back nicely to our passionate beauty and her highwayman.
In the seventeenth century, the road from Maidstone to the market town of Ashford had been improved from a humble lane and opened as a turnpike toll road. Stage coaches from London to Dover would travel this way, almost nonstop, apart from a short rest for the passengers as the horses were changed over at various coaching inn’s on the way. It would take about six to seven hours to make the trip in good weather, an express journey in those days. Today we can drive the very same road and arrive in London in under an hour, which is why the village has now become a dormitory dwelling for business people who prefer the quiet of the Kent countryside to the high prices, pollution and bustle of London life.
The stagecoaches of the old days would also carry the Royal Mail post, and at certain times a strong box for delivery to a bank or business. In those far off days Kent was a much less inhabited place than we see today, a rural county of forests, downland and narrow lanes, dotted with lonely farm houses and the many hovels of the poor.
Today we think of highwaymen as being glamorous and handsome rascals, clad in expensive clothes and with exceptionally polite manners, as they robbed the coaches, and flirted with the ladies with gentlemanly gallantry and flair.
Hollywood has a lot to apologize for!
The truth seems to have been somewhat different. These robbers of old were often poor farmers, ostlers, or the like, who could make easier money to feed their families by stopping the coaches and demanding money and goods in return for not murdering their victims. The robberies often took place many miles from the highwayman’s village or home, a good precaution when many people rarely travelled farther than a few miles from home, some never having set foot in a neighboring village or town in their life.
It was an easy crime which paid well and gave instant fortune in the days when average wages were just pennies a week, and it was equally easy to escape prosecution, as the thieves easily disappeared into the woods and lanes of Kent.
The roads around Charing were ideal for this nefarious trade, the coaches full of travelers of good standing, most heading for Dover to cross the Channel to France in the fast packet boats. If no coaches were due, then the local Pilgrims Way, an ancient footpath and bridleway, was full of people who either could not, or did not want to pay the turnpike tolls. This ancient path bypassed the village on the high ridge of the downs, and although the travelers were not often rich, they were very easy pickings for the criminals of the time.
It seems that our highwayman lived in a small village called Stalisfield, just a few miles from Charing and on the other side of the Pilgrims Way. He would sometimes stop the stagecoaches close to Bearstead, around ten miles from Charing and close to Leeds Castle. After the robberies he would ride fast to Bredgar, a small hamlet nearby, and safely hide his loot close to an inn, before resting his horse for a while and then riding the old path back to Stalisfield.
At the Sun inn at Bredgar, he had struck up a friendship with the landlord, and was taken with the beauty and charm of the landlord’s daughter, a spinster of about twenty five years old. The friendship blossomed, and the daughter thought that this may be her last chance to become a wife. A wife to a lonely farmer, who often stopped on his way back from market to rest his horse. She had no idea of his crimes. Or that he was a highwayman.
Over a year or two he stopped by many times, the innkeepers daughter becoming more interested in him at every meeting. She learned that he hailed from Stalisfield, and owned a small farm outside the village where he grew crops and kept sheep. She was determined he would one day become her husband.
The highwayman, although friendly with the woman, had no intentions in this way himself. His only concern was to keep the friendship of both her and her father, in case he should need their help in any way in the future, he could possibly use the inn as a hideaway if needed, and knew the landlord and his daughter would vouch for him as a local man if he needed an alibi.
In Charing though, he really did have a sweetheart, a pretty young girl of fifteen or sixteen who worked as a maid at the village school at the top of the high street. The old school house still exists today, and just across the road is one of the old coaching inns of the village, almost unchanged after three hundred years, it is still complete with the tall gates where the stagecoaches would enter to change horses.
The young man’s relationship with the maid developed into love and the marriage of the two became a talking point in the small village. The wedding banns were read in the church and the small farmhouse at Stalisfield was readied for the new bride, soon to become mistress of a house and farm, instead of being just a lowly maid at a school.
About this time, news arrived at the old inn at Stalisfield village that a special coach was soon to travel to Dover from London, and carrying a representative of the King on his way to an important meeting in Paris, France. It was also said in the inn, but with little real knowledge, that the coach would also carry riches, these being a gift from the King of England to the French court. Such is the power of pub gossip, that the highwayman decided that this would be his last robbery, but it would pay for his wedding and set him up with his new wife for an easy life in the future. Making further enquiries in a very discreet way, he learned of the expected day of the journey, and also the roads that would be travelled by the coach as it made its way from London.
Within a day or two his plans were laid. Having ridden along the route, he chose a good spot for the holdup. He would rob the coach as it passed close to the Castle at Leeds, where a steep winding hill on the road would slow its progress to a walking pace. From here, as soon as the robbery was over, he would ride the five miles to Bredgar as quickly as he could, across the fields and through the forest, and would deposit the loot in his usual hiding place, in the woods close to the inn. As he knew the journey well, nobody would see him as he made his way. The coach was due on the same day as the livestock market was held in Bearstead village, close to Leeds, and his supposed visit to the market would thus be his perfect alibi.
If you study a map of the area today, you will still see all of these places, this part of Kent is largely unchanged, even after all of the centuries which have passed.
On the day of the robbery, everything went well. The armed guard on the coach had supped beer at every stop, beer being in those days a staple drink, and far safer than ever drinking water, which could carry serious illness with it if not properly boiled. Likewise the driver had also had his fill of ale and both men were feeling the effect at this point in the journey. The coach was stopped easily, a tree had been felled by the highwayman, falling across the road, and a quantity of black powder was ignited with a flash and smoke to excite the horses into playing up, giving the driver much work to calm them down and thus keeping him busy. The drunken guard was easily taken care of by being struck from his high seat with a long branch, wielded with skill by the strong young highwayman, and his blunderbuss taken, and within moments the coach was entered, the travelers being held at pistol point as the highwayman’s demands were made. Within a minute or two it was all over, a speedy robbery by a masked man who said little and took much, including the jewelery of the two elderly women in the coach as well as the valuables carried by the King’s messenger.
The only person to be hurt was the guard, who was knocked senseless as he fell into the road from his seat next to the driver. The King’s messenger was in shock, and the two ladies had both fainted away at the sight and demands of the robber. The driver had been too busy controlling the horses to be able to identify the young man, it was a perfect robbery on the new turnpike.
Mounting his horse, the highwayman sped away with his loot towards Leeds castle, and when a safe distance away, turned into the thick woodlands and made his way quickly back towards Bredgar, out of sight of local folk. With him he had two loaves of bread, bought at the market earlier and intended as an alibi gift to the landlord of the inn. The young highwayman stopped close to the inn, in the wood where he had always hidden the spoils of his crimes, and hurriedly sorted through the loot. The fine jewels and gold coins were stashed away in a fox hole beneath a tree, where he could collect it later under the cover of darkness. But a few items looked to be so poor, that he simply threw them away into the undergrowth. He had stuffed his capacious pockets with these lesser valuables before making his escape, and was now glad not to have the weight of the gold hanging from his shoulders in his greatcoat, as he made his way onwards to the inn.
The innkeeper welcomed him with friendliness as usual and was very grateful for the gift of two fresh bread loaves from the market. His daughter was nowhere to be seen however, having walked early that morning to see her elderly aunt who lived on the road to Sittingbourne.
After a drink or two, and some joking with his publican friend, he decided it was time to go on his way, he would now easily merge with other people making their way home from market, to substantiate his alibi more. In paying the landlord, he he pulled out some coins and with them discovered an old worn and poorly made gold wedding ring was still in his pocket, one of the items stolen from the old ladies. On an friendly impulse, he gave it to the landlord, to give to his daughter as a gift, all women love jewelry, and he thought, she would appreciate this small token of his friendship. With this he said his goodbye and went on his way home to Stalisfield. Away he rode, back to his Stalisfield farm to change and eat, and then on to Charing to visit his love that evening, to plan their wedding breakfast together.
On the return of the landlords daughter to the Sun inn, a day or two later, the ring was presented to her by her father, as a gift from the young man who often called in, the farmer from Stalisfield. This gift she quite wrongly interpreted as being a love token, ‘likely his shy invitation to the two of them sharing their life together’ she thought. She was over the moon with love for the young man and could think of nothing else, such is love.
The innkeepers daughter hugged the ring to her breast that night as she fell asleep, and dreamt about her love for the farmer and things to come.
A week or so later the Innkeeper was to make his way to the village of Charing, to lay flowers on his late wife’s grave, and would take his daughter with him, both of them riding on horseback the twelve miles to the village churchyard, and along the pilgrims way. The daughter was delighted, they would pass close to Stalisfield on the way, so she would see her love and they would plight their trove.
It was on the twenty first of July that they made their journey, and the date is important to the story.
In respect to his wife and her memory, the publican had arrayed himself in his finest clothes on the anniversary of her death. He looked a fine sight sitting astride his best horse, the sun glinting off of a pair of horse pistols in embroidered holsters, hanging on one side of the saddle. One could not be too careful when traveling these days, a highwayman was known to be about. Hanging in a basket on the other side was a bunch of beautiful flowers to decorate the headstone. His daughter was also finely dressed, but not only for her late mother, she also hoped to see and impress her young man with her beauty and love for him. She rode beside her father, her mind full of future plans, her heart full of happiness.
On arriving at the farm at Stalisfield, no reply could be had from the house, and a ride around the fields made it clear that nobody was at home. They therefore made their way on to Charing, down in the valley. The lady was so disappointed not to see her love that silent tears ran down her cheeks as she followed her father down the steep lane to the village.
Arriving in Charing, they made their way to the Churchyard of St Peter and St Paul Church. They stayed for a while, clearing the grave and headstone of weeds and lichens, and then with reverence and prayers, laying the flowers carefully for the dearly departed wife and mother.
Her father suggested that they lunch at the coaching inn opposite the school before riding back home, their horses could be safely secured to the iron rings outside the porch. His good friend the owner of the inn would have no objection, he would be treated to drinks in payment for the favor.
The daughter agreed, but decided to join her father a little later, this was her chance to visit the draper in the village, and to buy smuggled French lace, ‘Secretly’, she thought, ‘for her wedding dress’.
She wandered down the street, gazing into the pretty bay windows of the shops, looking at this and that and wishing for splendid things to come.
At the very same time, but further up the high street, the young highwayman farmer was visiting with the blacksmith. His horse had thrown a shoe as they passed by the local quarry, a wayward flint rock having been the culprit in the accident. The horse was fine, but needed a new shoe, and so the blacksmith got to work in the forge, forming a fine new horse shoe from white hot iron, and stamping the nail holes with a strong steel punch.
The young man strolled the few yards down to the village school house while the work was being done, to see if his love was about, but he was told that she had been sent off to exercise the school hound, she was not expected back soon.
He walked back up to the forge, and sat smoking a clay pipe, and chatting with the blacksmith as his horse was being shod. The work finished, he paid his dues, and with a final joke with the blacksmith, led his horse up towards the white stone mounting block. At the same moment, the innkeepers daughter came back into the street from the drapers shop, now clutching a small roll of fine white silk lace in her hand. The drapers shop is still there, but is now a private house, you can still see where the door was though, right next to the fine bow window of the old building.Walking up the high street, she saw her love, leading his horse from the blacksmiths workshop. She watched as he walked, then rushing herself to be by his side. At this moment, his own love and fiance, the school maid, turned the corner from Pett Lane, opposite the mounting block, she was leading a large black dog.
Seeing her, the young man quickly tied his horse to the bush, as she ran across the road. She threw herself upon him, giving him kiss after kiss, and he picked her up in his arms and swung her around with joy.
The innkeepers daughter ran up the road, reaching the coaching inn porch where their horses were tied, and shouted to her love ‘I am here darling, leave your sister and her dog, and come to me my love’.
She had misinterpreted yet again!
The school maid hugged her intended harder and shouted back ‘He is not yours, you old hag, this is my fiance and we are to be soon married, how dare you call him your love, be gone cow’.
She released the dog, who sat down by the young man’s horse close to the mounting block.
‘I have his ring on my finger’, called the publicans daughter, ‘he gave it me, so he is mine, I have the proof!’
The confused young man did not know what to do, but thought he could help the situation by talking to the publicans daughter. He climbed the three stone steps of the block to mount his horse, just as his fiance shouted her final curse. ‘You are a miserable hag, and my Tylden would not even look at a bag like you, let alone give you anything, take your silly brass ring and fry your face, you might look the better for it’.
In sudden anger the daughter reached up to her fathers horse, drew out a silver inlaid pistol, and fired it in the direction of the maid. She missed the girl, but the hound fell dead. Grabbing the other pistol, the twin of the first, she fired again through the smoke cloud of the first shot, her eyes filling with tears and her body shaking with the sudden grief of the situation, as the bright flash from the pan and loud explosion of the charge filled her senses. Again she missed the young maid, but, as he mounted his horse, her love, the highwayman, fell dead from her second shot, down onto the ground he tumbled, now a lifeless body beneath the blood spattered mounting steps.
As the silvery smoke from the shots slowly wafted away, the only sound she heard was the beating of her own broken heart, she stood transfixed in her anger, the anger of love.
Her father heard the sound of shots coming from outside the inn, and rushed into the street along with many others to see what had happened. They saw grey misty smoke lingering over the scene, as a young maid screamed hysterically for help for her lover, and an older woman who now knelt holding a corpse in her arms and kissing it passionately as she cried in sorrow and in grief. The horse clattered its hooves noisily on the road as it struggled to free itself from a bush to which it was tied, and trampling the body of a large black dog as it did so. Two silver inlaid pistols lay on the ground, their barrels both still hot with the fire of death, and a small roll of rich white silk wedding lace fluttered in the summer breeze next to them.
Charing would never be the same.
The school maid lived for many years in the village, and had a son who grew to be a fine young man, although she never married. Both she and her son are buried in the churchyard, close together in death, but seventy years apart in time. The innkeepers daughter suffered greatly for her unrequited love and the murder, and when finally released from Maidstone jail, later drowned herself in the river Len at Leeds in remorse for her angry deed. Her shade can sometimes be seen shimmering beneath the ruffled surface of the castle moat on bright moonlit nights.
The innkeeper carried on his trade for many years after, years of great sadness for him, alone at the small inn at Bredgar, with only his memory of that fateful day and the misery caused by a stolen ring.
And the highwayman?
Oh yes, the highwayman.
The highwayman has never ever left the village of Charing, although he is actually buried four miles away, in Stalisfield churchyard.
It is said that each year on July twenty first, he still climbs the steps of the mounting block to mount a spectral horse, and as he does so, the sad howl of a large hound is clearly heard, as two ghostly shots ring out, a few seconds between each, and echoing softly through the village street. Local legend has it that, should you be standing close to the mounting block steps, you can hear and feel a man’s dying breath as an unseen body falls beside you, and you feel the pitter patter of warm blood falling gently, like fine summer rain upon your skin, blood from the fatal wound in his breast.
The black hound also still haunts the spot, and I am told, also haunts the school itself. It is seen as a faint and misty shadow, following behind one as it makes its way to the last place it ever knew, on the day when it died. Almost three hundred years and more have passed, but the happenings of that fateful day live on as phantoms, the only evidence left behind being the white stone mounting steps within the hedgerow, which still witness the death of a highwayman and a dog, every year, in July, in the fine Kentish summer when the trees are green and the skies are blue, above the weald.
Copyright – Ken DaSilva-Hill 2017
All intellectual rights retained.
Reproduction in any media only by specific permission of the author.
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