This month, as the nights draw in, I’m reminded of the ancient tradition of story-telling. With little else to do in the long evenings, story-telling around the fire was immensely popular and, in the Victorian period, this oral tradition began to be written down. Tales of the supernatural, from authors such as Dickens, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley were favourites, particularly at Christmas.
These days it’s Hallowe’en that is the focus for all things scary, and East Surrey has no shortage of spooky stories. However, my favourite concerns an incident on 23 November 1809. The regular mail coach was heading along the old toll road to Croydon, fully loaded with passengers. It was an absolutely filthy night, with rain pouring down and the coach was thundering along in the dark.
Ted Baxter was an experienced coach driver but, according to witnesses at his last stop, he had drunk so much mead he could barely hold the reins. As they approached Warlingham, the horses were suddenly spooked by a highwayman and the coach ran out of control, before veering off into the dangerously deep Slines Oak pond. Everybody was trapped inside as it tipped and filled with water: reports say the passengers, the coachman and the horses all drowned before help could arrive.
Soon afterwards, villagers began to report sightings of a ghostly mail coach hurtling down the road before vanishing or passing right through the terrified on-looker, or rising up out of the pond with the ghostly passengers screaming at the windows. Sightings have continued throughout the years, even being mentioned in a car insurance claim in 1967 when the driver veered off the road into a tree after claiming to have seen a coach and horses driving straight at him.
It was dark, in a thunderstorm – and the date was…23 November!
Visit East Surrey Museum. at Stafford Road, Caterham, or eastsurreymuseum.org.
(Slines Oak pond in the early years of the 20th Century )