Round Martinhoe roams the ghost of Sir Robert Chichester, doomed never to rest on account of his crimes, including a cruel attempt to rob one of his own tenants. Sir Robert had let his manor at Crosscomb to a farmer who as rent day drew near had prepared enough money to pay. The night before it was due, the house was attacked by a party of mounted robbers, but it happened that the farmer had given shelter for the night to a passing soldier, who came to the assistance of his host with his bow and arrows; he shot a tall man who was riding a white horse at the head of the gang. This turned out to be Sir Robert himself, who was trying to make sure of both getting the rent and regaining the manor.

Since he had died in the midst of his crimes, his spirit could not rest:

He nightly traversed the country in the shape of a black dog, sometimes on foot and sometimes in a flaming carriage drawn by four elephants which he drove at full speed up and down a perpendicular cliff near Crosscombe still known by the name of Sir Robert’s Path.

At midnight he always returned to his house, his bedroom, and even his bed, which was kept permanently made up for him. A servant who had the bad luck to see him arrive would have been burnt to death in the surrounding flames, had he not been holding a loaf made with leaven, a powerful protective charm.

The country people eventually asked the help of Parson Bringwood of Bratton Fleming, a famous ‘conjuror’ or exorcist. He got all the neighbouring priests together and conjured Sir Robert’s ghost into a circle, then with their help bound him to the task of making a bundle of sand, tying it with a rope of sand, and carrying it on his back up the steep cliff from Woodsbay to Crosscomb. Every time the rope broke, the ghost roared so loud that he was heard for miles (like Jan Tregeagle not far off in TREGAGLE’S HOLE, Cornwall). It is said that he failed to perform his task in the allotted time and so was carried off to Hell.

W. R. Halliday, whose family owned the manuscript containing this tale, discussed it in Folk-Lore 65 (1954); he judged that it had been written down late in the eighteenth or early in the nineteenth century. He could not find any record of a Parson Bringwood at Bratton Fleming, but a much later parson, William Gimmingham (1820–37), was popularly believed to have magical powers.

According to another version (printed by the Revd George Tugwell in 1863), Sir Robert is doomed, like Sir William de Tracy at MORTEHOE, to wander along the shore of north-west Devon making ropes of sand; these he has to use as traces for his carriage, which he must then drive up the crag and through a narrow fissure known as ‘Sir Robert’s Road’. He is sometimes followed by ‘a pack of eager hounds whose fiery tails gleam like will-o-wisps in the covering darkness’.



Haunted England : The Penguin Book of Ghosts – Written by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson 2005, 2008