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The A38 Phantom Hitchhiker: The Ghostly Sightings Of Somerset

Over the years many people have claimed to have come into contact with a phantom hitchhiker on the A38 around Wellington, Somerset. Here are some of the most fascinating accounts.

The A38 Hitchhiker
The phantom hitchhiker is said to haunt the A38 around Wellington, Somerset

The notorious A38, now happily replaced for much of its length by the motorway, carves across England from Derby to Cornwall, cutting across Birmingham, Gloucester, Bristol, Taunton, Exeter, and Plymouth on the way. In summer it was a road to make the veteran motorist blanch with terror - at the infamous bottlenecks and miles of motionless cars baked in the sun. But the A38 for a ten-mile stretch centred on Wellington in Somerset has an evil reputation far removed from traffic jams - it seems to be the haunt of a phantom who, torch in hand, tries to flag down passing motorists at night. Although the tradition had been well established for a number of years, it was a report in the Western Morning News in August 1970 that brought stories flooding in.

A Mrs K Swithenbank had been driving from the village of Oake to her home in Taunton late one evening when she saw what appeared to be a middle-aged man dressed in a long grey overcoat or mackintosh standing in the middle of the road near Heatherton Grange Hotel. His face was averted and he appeared to be holding a torch pointing to the ground. Mrs Swithenbank was confronted by the figure suddenly as she rounded a bend, and as there was no time to brake she swerved violently. There was no impact, and a moment later when she looked, the road was completely empty in both directions.

While a single instance might have been generally attributed to one of the scores of mental or physical factors that are of the origin of so many apparitions, however sincerely reported, confirmation of the experience came rapidly. Two other motorists claimed that they too had seen an identical figure in the same place and had taken similar action, and a motor cyclist who had encountered what seems to have been the same phantom at White Ball, some four miles to the west, fell from his machine and broke a limb. Another motorist said that he had seen the figure at White Ball, but on this occasion, it was looking along its shoulder so that its face, invisible in the majority of sightings, was clear in profile.

The publication of these reports led Mr Harold Unsworth, a long-distance lorry driver of Exeter, to break a twelve-year silence - a silence he had kept party for fear of ridicule, but more because he could scarcely bring himself to believe what he had seen. In a letter to the Exeter Express and Echo he described how he had been driving back to his depot at Cullompton at about 3am when he had been flagged down near the Blackbird Inn, about one mile west of Heatherton Grange, by a middle-aged man in a grey or cream mackintosh carrying a torch. The weather was foul, and the man, hatless, with curling grey hair hanging down almost to his collar, seemed to be so wet and miserable that Mr Unsworth, despite the risk at that time of night on a lonely road, gave him a lift.

The man, who appeared by his speech to be well-educated, asked to be dropped about four miles along the road at the old bridge near the Beambridge Inn, and as they travelled he described with the most gruesome delight, the accidents that had happened at the bridge. Mr Unsworth was not sorry to get rid of his strange passenger, but days later, travelling again along the A38 in the early hours was astonished to see the same person standing at the same spot in the same weather conditions. Again he was picked up and, as requested, dropped at the bridge. That anyone should try to hitch a lift at such a time and in such conditions even once seemed unusual, but to do it twice seemed incredible: yet a month later he was there once more: the rain, the darkness, the mackintosh, the torch, and the conversation were the same. Mr Unsworth felt that he was dealing with someone who was mentally disturbed and was relieved when in the months that followed, although he frequently passed the spot at night, he saw no more of the stranger.

But in November 1958 he was there again, and like a bizarre film, the sequence of events went round once more - except that on this occasion when they stopped at the bridge the man asked if the lorry could wait while he collected some cases as he wished to go further along the road.

For twenty minutes Mr Unwsworth waited in the pouring darkness, and then, as the man had not reappeared, he drove on. Three miles ahead, however, he saw dimly through the murk of the streaming rain, a torch being waved frantically to flag him down. Assuming it was a motorist who had broken down, he slowed up, but when his headlights shone fully on the figure, he saw with rising fear the long grey straggling hair and grey mackintosh of the mysterious passenger he had dropped earlier. No vehicle had passed in either direction, and it would have been quite impossible to cover the distance on foot in the time.

Now thoroughly alarmed, Mr Unsworth swerved to one side to pass the gesticulating figure, but as he did so, the man leaped in front of the lorry at such a distance that it was impossible to avoid a collision. But there was no impact: Mr Unsworth braked heavily, his articulated vehicle jack-knifed slightly, but on the deserted road remained under control and came to rest a few dozen yards ahead. He dismounted and looked back: the figure was still in the middle of the road, shaking his fist and swearing loudly at having been left behind. Then suddenly he was silent, turned his back, and with the final imprecation still tingling on the dripping air, vanished. With his hair rising, Mr Unsworth leapt into his cab and drove furiously to where something like normality existed. It is impossible even to guess the identity of the apparition as so many motorists and pedestrians have died on this stretch of road. Perhaps one day, in a different manifestation, it may add another clue as to why this figure seems doomed to seek a lift so desperately from passing vehicles...

The Five Year Phantom Of Buckhurst Hill


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