A tragic accident took place in the village of Mildenhall in 1879 resulting in the death of a 14-year-old boy. In 1956, Mr Frederick Moss believed him and his friends saw the spirit of the boys grieving father opposite the scene of the accident. Here is his story.
The road from Marlborough to Hungerford follows the valley of the river Kennet eastwards, and where it crosses a spur of the downs at Mildenhall, a cutting was made at the top of Rectory Hill to reduce the gradient for horse traffic. For a stretch of about 200 yards, the road runs between almost vertical banks some 9 feet high, and it was in this gulley that a tragic accident occurred in 1879. The local paper at the time reported:
"A quiet but valuable team of three horses, none of which had ever been known to run away, suddenly startled from an unknown cause and rushed down the hill at a terrific pace. Both the carter and the boy, who were in their proper places at the horses' heads were dashed aside and hurled to the ground in endeavoring to stop them, and unfortunately, the wheels of the heavy wagon which was laden with coal went over the boy's body. The boy was picked up in a senseless condition, and it was found there was no hope for the poor lad, every rib and bone in his body being fractured, and the interior parts crushed, and he expired the same evening, two hours after the occurrence."
The two little villages concerned - Mildenhall where the accident happened, and Axford a couple of miles further on where the boy lived - rang with the tragic death of 14-year-old Alfred Henry Pounds Watts, and a small memorial cross was erected in a niche in the bank of the cutting exactly opposite the spot where the boy died. But there were soon other infant deaths to share the glory and the tears, and as those most concerned died, married, or moved away, memories faded. Newcomers to the village heard the story indirectly, incompletely, and sometimes inaccurately when they queried the little stone set in the bank of the hill: eventually, despite occasional clearings, the memorial itself almost vanished beneath nettles and brambles.
In October 1956, Mr Fredrick Moss was driving home with three friends, all in their 60s, at about 10.30pm after visiting the cinema in Marlborough. As the car headlights swept into the cutting at Rectory Hill they lit up clearly a tall, thin, clean-shaven man standing in the middle of the road immediately opposite where all four knew the memorial stone was hidden.
The man wore a long brown coat or mackintosh; his hair was grey and he stared intently to the south, his back to the cross. Although he must have been aware of the headlights, he made no attempt to move. At a distance of about 50 yards, Mr. Moss blew the horn, but as the figure still did not move to the side nor even turn its head, the car was forced to stop about a dozen yards away.
For a few moments, all four occupants stared, surprised to find a stranger, apparently drunk, in such a remote place. Mr Moss then opened the door of the car to investigate and for an instant took his eyes from the figure: immediately there was a cry of, "He's gone." The passengers afterwards said that it did not fade, nor did it seem to vanish - it was just that one moment it was there, the next it was not.
Although they knew that no human being could have escaped from the cutting without flying, they all got out and searched the banks on both sides with torches. Then having found no trace they sat in the darkened car for a further ten minutes hoping, yet perhaps fearing, the phantom would reappear. But the darkness remained silent, unbroken and deserted, and at length, they drove the few miles home. Mr Moss's wife, a native of the village, was initially skeptical, but as the description was confirmed by other witnesses her disbelief became incredulity.
Although she had been born twenty years after the accident, she remembered clearly the boy's father, Henry Pounds Watts, a very tall, gaunt man, remarkable in high Edwardian England for having no whiskers or beard, and who characteristically dressed in white corduroy trousers and a long brown coat. He died around 1907.
Why the lad's father, if indeed it was he, should have appeared to four strangers is a mystery. There was no specific anniversary - the accident occurred in May. The only fact that may be relevant - if it is not stretching coincidence too far - is that the county council had just drawn up plans for road-widening alterations in the bank which would obliterate the niche.
When these were carried out a few months later the cross was dug up and thrown with other rubble at the top of the cutting. It was over a year later that descendants of the family passing through the village noticed the absence and had the memorial replaced a few yards from its original position, where it still stands.