“We live in a cult of the upgrade right now. There’s always something around the corner that will make whatever you think is cool right now feel obsolete” – Colin Trevorrow
Being a ghost sucks. It’s cold. It’s damp. You have to wear the same outfit for eternity. Paranormal investigators keep asking you stupid questions without bothering to do any research first. Oh, and lets no forget those freaking exorcists acting all righteous. They’re almost as bad as the sage-waving cleansers. I mean I’ve got my haunt on here and you just made it smell like a Yankee Candle. Clearly there are a multitude of indignities in the phantom afterlife, but it can always get worse, particularly if you are the sort of specter that is made obsolete by technological advances. This is precisely what seems to have happened to the headless hitchhiker of St. Leonard’s Forest in West Sussex, England. The advent of the horseless carriage slowed his roll.
St. Leonard’s Forest is the western end of the greater Weald (from the Old English for “Forest”) that cuts across the counties of Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Surrey, a broad stretch of woodlands that were largely covered with impenetrable vegetation for much of history, but crossed by a few trails since at least the Mesolithic. The forest was named for the Frankish nobleman and hermit St. Leonard (485-559 A.D), who in his old age became a forest hermit. We’ll politely ignore the fact that his actual hermitage was probably near Limoges, France, although it seems that Benedictine monks did indeed establish a hermitage dedicated to him in St. Leonard’s Forest. We make some allowances because St. Leonard is traditionally credited with slaying the last dragon in England in the very forest that bears his name.
We’re fairly sure that St. Leonard missed a few dragons as the Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard (died 998 A.D.) and author of the Chronicon Æthelweardi noted that in 773 A.D., “monstrous serpents were seen in the country of the Southern Angles, which is called Sussex” (Giles, 1896, p18) and again in 1614, a pamphlet was circulated entitled, “A True and Wonderful Discourse Relating a Strange and Monstrous Serpent or Dragon, Lately Discovered and Yet Living to the Great Annoyance and Diverse Slaughters of both Men and Cattle by His Strong and Violent Poison, In Sussex, Two Miles from Horsam, in a Wood Called St. Leonards Forrest, and Thirty Miles from London, this present Month of August, 1614” (Hindley, 1871, p79). Dragons. You try scrubbing. You try soaking. Still, you’ve got dragons. We’re a lot less worried about them ever since gunpowder became a thing. Simply note that nefarious goings on are par for the course in St. Leonard’s Forest.
By the 18th Century, the most lucrative output of St. Leonard’s Forest was rabbits, and at the close of the 18th Century, pamphleteer William Cobbett described the bleak and barren road from Pease Pottage to Horsham as “six of the worst miles in England”. This is not something they report on Trip Advisor, but it does indicate that St. Leonard’s Forest has been considered a rather unpleasant place for several centuries. As if its apparent dragon-infested reputation was not enough, the primary problem seems to be the presence of headless horseman, or rather hitchhiker, who hops on the horse of foolish travelers and rides in tandem to the edge of the forest. “If a man rides through the charmed precincts at night, a headless figure is apt to vault up behind him and accompany him to the limit of the forest! This figure is Squire Paulett’” (Hare, 1896, p152), yet “there is apparently no record to inform us what evil the squire had done or suffered when alive to earn so gruesome a destiny” (Brabant, 1909, p294). Of course, the 18th Century was a little more blasé about the prospect of a headless squire hitching a ride than we are today, because frankly when you’ve already got dragons to contend with, what’s one more preternatural inconvenience?
The wild wooded waste known as St. Leonard’s Forest, which, according to tradition, used to be haunted by a dreadful dragon or serpent, as well as a headless horseman; they were the terror of all travellers in those parts, and as late even ast the seventeenth century people could be found to attest on oath that they had seen them! Likewise, there is a local tradition, still stoutly maintained, that within the forest adders never sting, nor nightingales sing (Hissey, 1896, p173).
Now, some effort has been made to determine who this “Squire Paulett” might actually be because there is simply nothing folklorists hate more than a ghost without a good backstory.
The spectre of St. Leonard’s Forest has nearly faded from popular memory. In the days of our grandfathers, woe to the unhappy horseman who should, at night, enter the charmed precincts of that ancient wood; for a headless figure of a man, disregarding alike both menaces and prayers, would vault behind him upon the crupper, and thus accompany him (in a manner reminding one of Horace’s “Post equitem sedet atra cura”) to the opposite verge of the forest. This spectre was known as “Squire Paulett”; but of his history, and how and wherefore he lost his head, nothing seems to be known; unless, indeed, he was identical with William Powlett, Esq., a captain of the Horse-Grenadiers, in the reign of King George I. This gentleman certainly lived at St. Leonard’s Forest, and he lies buried in West Grinstead church under a monument by Rysbrach, which is reported to have cost £2,000. The period of Captain Powlett’s death, 1746, independently of the fact of that personage having died with his head on, is very much against the idea of his having become a ghost of the medieval type (Lower, 1861, p222-223).
If you’re going to get your headless horseman oeuvre on, you’re faced with a problem when travel by horse goes out of fashion. That signature move of hopping behind the unwary rider and terrorizing them all the way to the limits of the forest definitely has flair, but sadly requires a horse. This may very well explain why the headless horseman of St. Leonard’s Forest has faded from memory. For one, “his presence is an additional reason why one should explore the forest on foot” (Lucas, 1904, p129) should you be feeling a hankering for a stroll in the woods. And secondarily, there aren’t too many folks trotting on horseback through the Weald anymore. Consequently, “motorists and cyclists do not seem to have been troubled. Possibly they have a turn of speed quite beyond the powers of such an old-fashioned spook” (Harper, 1922, p198). A ghost jumping behind you on your horse, encircling your waist with his arms, and hanging on until you exit his woodland precincts is terrifying, but you might not even notice in a modern conveyance.
It may be that he does this still with belated light cars in the forest by-roads, but no evidence of this is forthcoming. Except that conversation between the traveller and this apparition would of necessity be limited I do not think this would be any great disadvantage to the motorist. The extra passenger having no weight would not increase the consumption of petrol per mile, and thus would have no terrors at all to the modern users of the road (Maxwell, 1924, p70).
Perhaps ghosts have to ripen a little before they can get phatasmagoric, and by the time they’re ready to rumble, cars get invented, powered flight becomes common, and the iPhone 7 gets released. Everything must be very confusing. It’s kind of a non-sequitur to be a headless horseback hitchhiker in a forest that is no longer traversed by horse. You might just go into the light out of sheer boredom. Nevertheless, given the afterlife, should it exist is just an extension of our existence by other means, Art Linkletter’s maxim, “the four stages of man are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence” no doubt still applies.
Brabant, Frederick Gaspard, 1855-1929. Rambles In Sussex. London: Methuen & Co., 1909.
Giles, J. A. 1808-1884. Six Old English Chronicles: of Which Two Are Now First Translated From the Monkish Latin Originals. Ethelwerd’s Chronicle. Asser’s Life of Alfred. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British History. Gildas. Nennius. And Richard of Cirencester. London: Bell, 1896.
Hare, Augustus J. C. 1834-1903. Sussex. 2d ed. London: G. Allen, 1896.
Harper, Charles G. 1863-1943. The Brighton Road: the Classic Highway to the South. 3rd rev. ed. Hartford, Conn.: E.V. Mitchell, 1922.
Hindley, Charles, d. 1893. The Old Book Collector’s Miscellany: Or, A Collection of Readable Reprints of Literary Rarities, Illustrative of the History, Literature, Manners, And Biography of the English Nation During the Sixteenth And Seventeenth Centuries. London: Reeves and Turner, 1871
Hissey, James John. On Southern English Roads. London: R. Bentley & son, 1896.
Lucas, E. V. 1868-1938. Highways and Byways In Sussex. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1904.
Maxwell, Donald, b. 1877. Unknown Sussex. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924.
Lower, Mark Antony (Sussex Archaeological Society). “Old Speech and Manners in Sussex”. Sussex Archaeological Collections Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County v13. Lewes, Eng: Sussex Archaeological Society, 1861.