According to a tradition recounted by Horace Harman in Sketches of the Bucks Countryside (1934), the Old Swan Inn at Woughton became one of the haunts of the eighteenth-century highwayman Dick Turpin when he changed the scene of his activities from the Great North Road to Watling Street. In Harman’s time, it was still held locally that it was at the Old Swan that Turpin reversed his horse’s shoes in order to escape pursuit.
Turpin was said to travel to and from his exploits by an unfrequented route running over ancient tracks. This route led down a trackway known as Bury Lane into Woughton, past the Old Swan and down what was known as the Roman Road, across a patch of scrub-covered waste known as ‘No Man’s Land’ (an ideal lurking place for robbers), and so to Watling Street. Tradition said that Turpin’s ghost was still seen on dark nights riding a phantom horse along Bury Lane. Christina Hole in Haunted England (1940) adds to this story that, here as elsewhere, whenever Turpin is seen, he is riding the legendary Black Bess, without whom his ghost would be scarcely recognizable.
The Old Swan was a convenient stopping place for Turpin on what was then an otherwise lonely route, and the landlord may have supplied him with information on travellers’ movements. A gloomy and unlighted room in the centre of the building was once known as the Prison Room, and was where prisoners travelling in custody were confined for the night. Tradition, however, said that many a wanted man was hidden there by the landlord until the hue and cry died down.
Turpin and his horse were not the only ghosts at Woughton. Locals in the Old Swan one night warned Harman to watch out when he went home by Bury Lane for ‘Old Curley and his dog’, who came out of Curley Bush. Harman, however, said he had heard that they never strayed far from the Bush, which he describes as ‘on the other side of Woughton’, meaning the far side from Bury Lane of the crossroads at which the Old Swan stands, up the road from and on the same side as the church (it is marked on a map Harman gives showing Dick Turpin’s route).
He asked if anyone had ever seen Curley and his dog when passing Curley Bush, but the villagers ridiculed the suggestion that the ghosts were anything but imaginary:
‘Ghooasts be a lot a rot’, said one. ‘They be caused by narvous people afeard to goo out a nights … Many old people yeeurs agoo were afeard to goo past Curley Bush on dark nights. They allus expected to see him and their fright done the rest … I a bin past Curley Bush all hours a the night … yit I a nivver sin Curley nur his dog nuther.’
Evidently, no one told Harman who Curley was and why he and his dog haunted the Bush. Perhaps no one had been interested enough to ask the older generation. It was a different case, says Harman, with those who were dead and gone, for whom Curley was ‘a grim reality’.