IN the 18th century, before the advent of ‘Turnpiking’ whereby travellers paid tolls financing the upkeep of the roads, the highways were invariably not fit for purpose, especially in the winter months.

Indeed it was said that a blind man could move faster than any wheeled conveyance, though the Regency period saw great improvements in coach design and road construction, accounting for dizzying speeds approaching 12 miles per hour!

Yet the sentimental and often romanticised ideal of stagecoach travel in this bygone ‘golden’ age persists, belying the uncomfortable realities, not to mention the perils faced by travellers in the past.

Perhaps, then, the apparent and oft-times fatal travails of some of those who journeyed along Dorset’s rutted roads account for the many tales and legends throughout the county of that stock paranormal phenomenon - the phantom coach!

Habitually drawn by a team of ghostly horses, who, along with their coachman, often appear without their heads, the driveway of Kingston Russell House, near Long Bredy, is said to be haunted by a coach with more than its full complement of headless wraiths. Attended by a headless footman, the four headless passengers are driven by a headless coachman, and drawn by a team of four horses - you guessed it, all without heads!

Not to be outdone, the spectral decapitated coachman seen driving the Earl of Shaftesbury’s carriage around the lanes of the Dorset Downs holds his own head - still wearing his hat - tucked under one arm.

Notwithstanding the menace of being ordered to ‘stand and deliver’ by the highwaymen who plied Dorset’s thoroughfares, the threat to life presented by the highways themselves was very real in view of the parlous state of the roads.

The recurring manifestation of a coach crashing into the river Frome on the road leading west from Bradford Peverell toward Muckleford, near Dorchester, is reputedly seen at midnight during the summer months; the driver and the occupants of the overturned coach doomed to repeatedly perish in the accident. Likewise, the wraiths of four headless women are purported to rise at midnight (that favourite witching hour again) from the pool into which their coach overturned on a stretch of the old Roman road through Winterbourne Monkton, now the A354, en route from Dorchester to Weymouth, and still a notorious stretch of carriageway.

Probably the most celebrated of such sightings in Dorset, however, is the appearance of the phantom coach connected with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the inspiration for the best known of Hardy’s ‘literary ghosts’. Said to appear on the medieval bridge over the Frome travelling from Woolbridge House at Wool, the Jacobean manor house was once the ancestral home of the Turberville family. Various versions of the legend exist, one associating the ghostly re-enactment with the elopement of John Turberville and Lady Anne Howard, back in the reign of King James I. While the appearance of the spectral coach supposedly presages some sort of disaster, it is said, however, that “None can see the ghostly coach of the Turbervilles but those who have Turberville blood in their veins...”

Another more tangible, though little known reminder of another ill-fated horse-drawn journey, also alluded to by Hardy, in his The Fiddler of the Reels, can be found on the verge of the minor road between Stinsford and Tincleton. A weather-worn stone pillar, thought by historians and archaeologists to be variously a prehistoric monolith, a Roman milestone, or a medieval boundary stone, marking where the road crosses the Stinsford-Puddletown parish boundary, the pillar is nevertheless known as Heedless William’s Stone. Said to mark the spot where a reckless coachman left the road, crashing his coach-and-four into the nearby pond, still shown on Ordnance Survey maps as Heedless William’s Pond, ‘Heedless William’ was drowned, along with his horses and passengers, with only his whip left visible above the surface of the pond after all had plunged to a watery death. Supposedly the whip later sprouted and grew into an ash tree…

While tragedy and misdeed would seem to be the impetus behind so many of the supposed manifestations of phantom coaches in our fair county, there is one exception, however. The impressive stone staircase at Wolfeton House, set amongst the water-meadows to the north-west of Dorchester, is believed to be unique, but not just from an architectural aspect, for it was on this staircase that an incredible wager was won. For many years the home of the Trenchard family, it was Sir Thomas Trenchard who staked a considerable amount of money as to whether or not he would be able to drive a coach drawn by four horses up the staircase inside the house! Though the story seems far-fetched, the bet was apparently won, and the ghost of Sir Thomas and his phantom coach-and-four are reputed to re-enact what must rank as one of the most unusual of wagers, and indoor equestrian events for that matter!