The Phantom Preacher

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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?

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37 thoughts on “The Phantom Preacher

  1. Mmmm…:) Well worth the wait Kate! Thanks for sharing this, what a great tale – and pretty rare to have such a complete story to go with it and to have so many clear sightings over such a long time period… including your poor dog by the sound of it! It’s interesting (and sad I think) they way spirits sometimes get tied to a place, I wish I understood why / what is going on, I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument on the subject.
    Many blessings on your week (Ha! What am I saying? Many blessings on your WALKS!) love Bia x

    1. Thank you, Bia! It is most unusual to have so many facts; and the dots were not joined by me, but by Roger Long, the local journalist and author, who found records of Henderson’s plight in old Reading newspapers. I have just learnt from a friend that he frequents a local pub. Must pop along there someday.

  2. Another of these fascinating accounts which have rational disbelief at odds with the sheer number of observations. Actual disembodied spirits wandering forlornly seem irrational. Time warp? Emanations from the area, like some sort of radiation, giving impressions to the mind? Sheer imagination seems counted out by the number of people who see such things before they have ever heard of them.

    1. Col, you think much further than me; I am so very literal, and see them as simply fantastic stories. Thus, I can walk up there (almost) unperturbed. Have you come across that phenomenon when a certain time, or date, causes the atmosphere of a place to change? Most times at dusk I am very happy there. But occasionally, I will own, walking back home, there is the feeling that someone is watching you retreat.

      1. Yes, lots of people claim that phenomena occur more frequently at certain times or on specific dates, and have even managed to give convincing historical tie-ins. Our solar year seems to be followed – but in cases like the weird stories of the Flowering Hawthorn, the old calendar continued to apply.
        I have known places which always give us the willies, like a bridge over Blackwater near Romsey, and others where it comes and goes.

  3. I read this while working alone in the warehouse outside my Tribeca-based office here in New York City at The Grind. The building I work in is at least 100 years old, possibly much older. The street outside is cobblestone. As I was reading your account of Henderson’s ghost popping up time and again, I didn’t realize that the closed office door had opened slowly on its own. Then I felt a breeze. I thought, “What the f–k ?” (I will not sully your site with an f-bomb.) I’m real glad that it’s daylight and more glad that all my colleagues have returned.

    1. Yes: much easier to read in broad daylight on the subway, I fear! Are there any alleged astral residents in Tribeca, Virginia? I’m sure your quarter of the city must have had characters every bit as colourful as Henderson, and some.

  4. Deliciously scary. I was afraid for a moment there that Mr. Henderson was going to do something dreadful to the courting couple, like drink their blood, etc. Maybe his ghost is just lonely, like the monster in Frankenstein, but looks so awful nobody will stick around to have a chat.

    1. Gale, I think he must have been a simple soul, a Lennie without his George, so to speak. I feel sad for him. And yet even today, today those like him are often estranged from people. Maybe they lack the ability to make the connections. I almost hope that is true. The thought of him being that lonely is somehow unbearable to me.

  5. I can’t imagine walking in the forest without at least a sense of expectation and maybe a little trepidation. This is quite a story! And if Mac started acting jumpy I’d be really unnerved! I hope you might journal the experiences when you note the dog’s bark is different or he sees something you don’t. At very least, it’s fascinating!

    1. Nancy, I am not quite certain why I find it so easy to be there, knowing the stories I do. I have no answer. The forest is almost as much home to me as my front room. It is where I dream, and scheme, and laugh and on occasions, all alone, cry. It affords me silence and privacy.
      Perhaps Henderson feels the same.

  6. Dogs sense much more than we do, I think. I’ve always wanted to run into one of these remnants in a dark woods, but I doubt I would want it if it happened. I firmly believe these sightings are real.

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