The forest of Windsor has seen many tales, and many faces. Most of them will leave when given leave; some insist on staying, though whether through desperation or incomprehension, I could not say.
I have yet to determine what reason causes the story I am about to tell to persist, even to this day.
I am indebted for this story to an authority on Berkshire ghost stories, someone who worked at the same newspaper as I did, though long before I arrived. His name is Roger Long, and you can find his book, Haunted Berkshire, here.
1883: and a courting couple were walking in an area of parkland near the woods when they heard impassioned – and indeed strident- cries for help.
When they investigated, they found a monstrous figure stuck up a tree.
I say monstrous: he was just a man, like any man; he had got himself stuck fast without food and water, for three days. His face, however, gave the couple cause for alarm. It was grotesquely disfigured.
He was no apparition, but flesh and blood, and the poor soul’s name was Henderson. They took him for a fortifying drink at a local pub, and then proceeded to Easthampstead Workhouse.
Mr Henderson had a background. A family even: two teenage daughters and a place to stay in Reading. But he had the wanderlust and more, and his favourite party piece was to climb trees and high buildings, and give hellfire-and-damnation sermons from the heights with a most powerful voice.
But he was described as menacingly ugly. Rather a terrifying figure.
Three days later he signed himself out of the workhouse, and went on his way.
That was towards the end of May. It was not until October of that year that a young forester, walking near the Devil’s Highway, an old Roman trackway not far from our iron age fort, stumbled upon some old remains.
The remains were wearing James Henderson’s numbered workhouse overalls. They never found whether it was suicide or misadventure. Or murder.
Since then, every now and then, a wraith answering Henderson’s description has been seen, now and then, wandering the forest. A dog walker saw him walking towards her from the bushes, but he disappeared before he reached her; the old ladies who lived in the cottage which once stood there met a figure with a mutilated face more than once. One night he was standing over a bed, watching one of the ladies sleep.
There’s a small reservoir in the heart of the forest near the Devil’s Highway. A man took his youngsters there to swim in the seventies, before the days of health and safety. They had finished and were just changing behind a bush when they emerged, screaming and running towards their father hell-for-leather, their faces stricken. “Daddy, Daddy,” they shouted to him, “a man!”
He scoured the site, but there was nothing to see. And when the girls were calm enough to speak, they told him they had seen a terribly ugly ogre.
Poor James Henderson. Deluded in life and shunned in death. There’s no folks out there in the forest to hear his eternal sermons.
I went tonight, as usual, as it grew dark, but there was no man in a tree or sermon in the air. The dog was unperturbed today, though there are days when he shrinks to my side.
I wonder if, on those days, the preacher finds the dog a satisfactory audience?