The parish of Lapford has good cause to remember its ‘hunting parson’, John Arundel Radford (1799–1861). The West Country folklorist Theo Brown wrote in 1979 that ‘it is remembered clearly that he allowed his hounds to terrorize the village children’, while others say that he ran up huge debts – forcing one tradesman to eat his bill between two slices of bread – and fathered innumerable bastards. One girl he seduced drowned herself, and her ghost is said to appear occasionally. The picture painted of him, under the name of Rambone, by R. D. Blackmore in The Maid of Sker (1872) is too kind, says Theo Brown – ‘there is no doubt that he was a horrible man.’
Rumour went so far as to claim that he had murdered his curate, either by cutting his throat or by hanging him with his own hands. Mrs Barbara Carbonell, in notes compiled between about 1923 and 1931 from information given her by a deaconess who had worked in Lapford for a number of years, adds that the hanging was from a beam in the rectory.
He was brought to trial, but was acquitted by a jury largely empanelled from his own parish. After the acquittal the Judge asked why the jury, in the face of all the evidence against him, had acquitted the Rector. The jury replied, ‘us haven’t hanged a parson and us wasn’t going to now.’
Theo Brown records that Radford wished to be buried inside the chancel of his church, but this seems to have been more than the much-tried parishioners could bear, for they laid him outside the north wall of the chancel. Until fairly recently, the north side of a churchyard was customarily reserved for those whose salvation was uncertain or improbable: unbaptized babies, strangers of unknown antecedents and doubtful characters, and, later, suicides. The practice probably stemmed from the apocryphal tradition that Hell lay in the north. Burying the hated Parson Jack on the north side of his own church was perhaps the best revenge the villagers could think of. Mrs Carbonell, however, tells it somewhat differently; she says the villagers made ‘determined efforts’ to carry out his wishes, because he had threatened to haunt the village for ever if he was not laid in the chancel, but ‘so much opposition was shown by the authorities’ that he had to be buried outside, beside the vestry door.
But, whether because his wishes were not fulfilled or in punishment for his misdeeds, Radford lies uneasy in his grave. The cross over it reputedly refused to remain straight and had to be cemented into place, with the result that, as Belinda Whitworth observes in Gothick Devon (1993), ‘It is now the only cross in the graveyard not slewed.’ He was said to emerge from a small hole in the grave every night and try to return to the Old Rectory at the traditional speed of a cockstride a year. Numbers of people claim to have seen the ghost.
Radford is not the only cleric haunting this churchyard: the ghost of Thomas à Becket, familiarly known as ‘Old Tom’, is today said to ride round the church wearing a hat at midnight on 7 July, his feast day. Mrs Carbonell heard a slightly different tale: that on St John’s Eve (Midsummer Night) he gallops through the village on a white horse, on his way to Nymet. The reason the tradition is attached to this church is that it was restored by one of Becket’s murderers, William de Tracy, as penance for the crime; it is dedicated to Becket, and the Lapford ‘revel’ or village feast was customarily held on the first Sunday after his day.