Thursday


Strange riddle of the phantom wheel-marks


Illustrative purpose only

It was barely wide enough for a carriage and pair and when it was decided to broaden the track to take motor vehicles, the cost of the work was found to be so great that it was cheaper to build a new road over flat well-drained ground than excavate the rocky sides of the old one. Everyone agreed it was the end of an era in this remote area of Cornwall. For over 200 years traps, carts and carriages had rumbled along the road's rough surface, sinking into the mud in wet weather and making the dust fly during drought.

And successive generations of the Willoughby family, who lived at Cadhay Manor, had used the carriage road as their link with the outside world. Yet some years later, when the new road had been built, the carriage road was filling up with grass, brambles and nettles and nature was taking back what it obviously regarded as its rightful property.

Gorse hedges on either side of the track were busily growing to meet each other and by 1927 it was impossible for any vehicle more than a couple of feet wide to get through. That is, if it could actually get on to the road in the first place. By now the Cadhay end had been fenced in to keep out sheep and the St Austell end was blocked by buildings extending a nearby farm. Yet it seems such obstacles were no problem to the inhabitants of the world of the supernatural! By the spring of 1928 there were repeated stories of strange things being seen on the old carriage road and strange sounds being heard in the spring nights.

First reports came from a local shepherd walking home to Cadhay village about 9pm across fields that bordered on the carriage road.  The man later claimed that he had heard the sound of hooves and carriage wheels. It was like the old days at Cadhay Manor he said when the gentry used to be driven to catch the Bodmin train. He walked over to the tall hedges that concealed the old road and the noise grew as he approached but then faded away. He began to wonder if he had imagined the whole thing. But other people in the district had similar tales to tell. A blacksmith, William Gillard, claimed he saw one of the old-style carriage and pairs driving at full speed along the old road "with two ladies and a gentleman looking out through the windows."

He said: "I know that road isn't wide enough for a bicycle any more but, God knows, that is what I saw. I will swear to it."

By now word of the phenomena was getting around and the local Cornish Times newspaper carried a light-hearted report on the incidents, implying that they belonged to the realms of fiction rather than fact.

Then a few weeks later, the paper had to revise its views after a series of inexplicable but documented events. One involved a Plymouth bank manager, driving through Bodmin Moor on his way to North Cornwall, who stopped in a field near the carriage road for a picnic with his family. Later he stopped in Cadhay to ask if there had been some sort of historical pageant. "We saw an old-fashioned coach and horses travelling near here. It must have been on a narrow road because we didn't pass it on the way here.

"You don't see many of those nowadays and I wanted to show it to the children." For a few months nothing more was heard of strange happenings on the carriage road. Then a letter appeared in the Cornish Times  from a farmer's wife living on the edge of Cadhay village.

"I am getting on in years," she wrote. "But I am by no means senile. I well remember when there were coaches and carriages at Cadhay Manor as my brother was a groom there.

"I recall there was a pale yellow two-in-hand driven by Captain Maurice Willoughby which was a well-known sight in the district. I am prepared to swear that I saw that carriage being driven by the Captain on the old Cadhay road last Tuesday night.

My son who is 41 and a solicitor's clerk in Bodmin, saw it too. I know Captain Maurice has been dead some years and I cannot answer for what I saw. I am writing in the hope that someone who has seen similar things will confirm that I am not an old woman going out of my mind."

Her request was answered, though hardly in the way she expected. Word of the phenomenon had reached Cecil Bullivant, a solicitor in Bristol and an ardent investigator into the paranormal. Cecil Bullivant arrived in the area in November 1928 and after confirming that no wheeled vehicle could access the carriage road, spent four nights on the site without anything happening. On the fifth night, about 1am, Bullivant heard what he described as the sound of steel-rimmed wheels striking flints, but it was too dark to see anything. The noise lasted between four and five minutes.

"When it grew light, I walked along the carriage road and clearly saw the indentation of wheels which had not been there earlier. I carefully measured the distance between the sets of tracks and photographed them."

When he later found the remains of a yellow-painted decayed carriage in a shed at Cadhay Manor, the width of the wheelbase was exactly the same as the tracks on the disused road."

"I cannot explain what I found," Cecil Bullivant wrote. "But in the world of the paranormal there are rarely any answers..." 

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