Monday, 22 February 2010
The Royal forest of Savernake lies close to the historic market town of Marlborough. It covers some 4500 acres and is one of England’s oldest woodlands; believed to be more than a 1000 years old. Earliest records of Savernake or Safernoc as it was referred to in the Saxon charter by King Athelstan; dates from AD934. Today, Savernake is privately owned (the only privately owned forest left in Britain) by the Earl of Cardigan and trustees. The upkeep of the forest is the responsibility of the Forestry Commission. A large proportion of the Savernake is still open to the public where one can enjoy peaceful woodland walks and take in Savernake’s abundance of wildlife, ancient trees and landscape.
In the 16th century, a branch of the Seymour family living at Wulfhall, near Burbage, had as its ‘Warden of Savernake Forest’ - Sir John Seymour. Sir John’s daughter - Jane, was later to marry King Henry VIII, his third wife. It was not unusual for Henry to visit Savernake and indulge in his passion for deer hunting. It was during one of these visits with the Seymour family, that his attraction for Jane blossomed. She was to be the only one of Henry’s wives to bare him a son - Edward, later to become Edward VI. Soon after Edward’s birth, Jane became ill and died shortly after. It was well known by those close to Henry that he regarded Jane as his only true love. She was to be given a Queen’s funeral, the only one of Henry’s wives to receive such status. She shares his tomb at St. George’s Chapel, Winsor Castle, again, the only one of his wives to do so.
Savernake has many ghosts sightings but probably the most common are those of a headless horsewoman. This terrifying apparition is sat astride a huge white horse which gallops at breakneck speed along The Grand Avenue which runs through the centre of the forest. The story behind this haunting is one of gruesome tragedy. During a hunt, the unfortunate woman’s horse took flight and bolted into think woodland whereupon horse and rider parted company at a point where a low forked branch interrupted their passage. A branch I may add, which took off her head with the greatest of ease. It is unlikely, as some have suggested, that this spectre is the ghost of Jane Seymour. As I recall, Jane Seymour was one of the lucky ones to have kept her head.
A family from Reading visiting in 1968 were enjoying a peaceful afternoons stroll, when suddenly they were startled by the sound of galloping horse. 'The sound of hooves seemed to be all around us,‘ one of the party later recalled. During this frightening encounter, another member of the party glimpsed a shadowy form of a horse and rider as it passed through the trees at terrific speed.
In 2002 a group of walkers were strolling along The Grand Avenue when they became aware of the sound of a horse approaching. 'The thunderous sound engulfed us then faded away into the distance.' On this occasion nothing was seen.
There have been many sightings of so called ‘woodland spirits.‘ These spectral wraiths are said to dart amongst the ancient trees, especially at dusk. Often described as shadowy, animated figures, some human in appearance but mainly animal. One such animal is said to be that of a magnificent white stag which will suddenly appear before a startled audience only to disappear as swiftly as it arrived. I am not surprised to hear that Savernake harbours so many animal ghosts, especially when you bear in mind its medieval hunting heritage.
The Savernake Hotel
Savernake Hotel 19th Century (Image credit www.burbage.wiltshire.com)
Savernake Hotel today, now privately owned
At the edge of the forest stands the Savernake hotel, built by the Marquis of Ailesbury c1864 as a catchment area for passengers disembarking at Savernake station - now abandoned. It is a little baffling why the Marquis should have decided to build his hotel some 8 miles from the station, not exactly on the door step. He must have recognized his error, for in 1868 he arranged for a road to be built that would reduce the commute to his property ensuring a more regular trade.
Many ghostly encounters have taken place over the years at the hotel, none more so than the frequent encounters reported of a large black dog which is reputed to haunt the grounds and occasionally the kitchen and bars. One visitor actually stepped over the animal when she approached the reception to check in. Her husband was heard to enquire of his wife what she was doing, “stepping over the dog, can‘t you see!”, she replied. “What dog?” countered her husband. Indeed, to her astonishment when she turned to look at the animal it was nowhere to be seen. It is not documented what happened next.
Another frequent ghostly visitor to the hotel is an elderly Victorian gentleman, who is often spotted sitting in the lounge bar smoking a pipe. Residents have also reported seeing the same gentleman upstairs. One such encounter befell a couple of residents who later described their experience.“Well, he just appeared from nowhere, then walked straight across our path directly through a locked door.”
Bar staff would often complain to the manager that the taps which supplied gas to the beer pumps were being turned off. This mystery deepened when the manager, keen to find an explanation, locked the cellar door with the only set of keys which he kept in his possession. He made good the taps, ensuring they were were fully open. You can imagine his surprise when told by staff the following morning the gas had been switched off during the night. Other disturbances included doors opening by themselves, keys going missing, lights switching on and off and the sound of footsteps in corridors.
Today the hotel has been converted into three apartments, whether the hauntings continue is unknown.