A spooky story for a dark night, it begins with a driver describing his journey on a lonely, remote road through the hills and moors of northern England report many strange events. But things are not quite as they seem. Could it be an ancient story of a ghost protecting the grave of an ancient warrior contains more truth than people care to admit?
The A 666 a trunk road that runs across northern England from Penrith to Scotch Corner providing a link between the old Roman cities of Carlisle and York which were respectively Lughavalium and Eboracum to Romans was notorious for accidents before it was improved. In spite of that it has always been one of my favourite roads to drive.
I was not bothered by the knowledge that many car drivers and motorbikers came to grief on a certain stretch. News of the latest accident never came as a surprise, the road crossed the Pennines, the backbone of England and in places as it traversed the high moors the carriageway wound through deceptively sharp bends some of which had adverse cambers. On other stretches it was exposed to crosswinds and a sudden gust could snatch a vehicle out of its driver's control. When the winter nights were cold and frosty, ice was a hazard too. In spite of all this the A666 is a magnet for speed merchants on two or four wheels. Those thing were what made the A666 such fun to drive on.
Most of the accidents can be explained by the reasons above but there was one spot known locally as Blood Corner or to the more dramatically minded as Bloodaxe Corner. Though it should not have been hazardous, it's location not being particularly exposed to extreme weather, Bloodaxe Corner claimed more victims that anywhere else on the highway. The route, which followed ancient pack horse trails taken by Celtic and Saxon traders as they criss crossed the country should have run straight as it passed through a wide valley. A sudden deviation caught out many drivers who did not know the road. There was no logical reason why the road curved through that wide arc before returning to the more logical route, no river, no farmhouse or mire, no boulder deposited by Ice Age glaciers to form an obstacle.
Legends said the road veered from its natural line to bypass the grave of Erik Bloodaxe, a Viking warrior King who ruled the region over a thousand years earlier. Such things give rise to superstitions and the travellers had come to believe bad things would happen to anyone who disturbed the warrior's resting place so the road deviated around the barrow. It was superstitious nonsense of course but these things persist in the darker niches of the human psyche and drivers who survived their wreck told of spooks wandering into the road, unseen forces pulling the car off the road and even stranger things.
It was a dry, clear autumn night, cold but not frosty, as I drove the Jaguar towards Penrith, heading home after a business trip. I was going a good speed (why else would one drive a Jaguar) but not driving recklessly as I approached the hazardous place. There was no traffic around, it was late, after eleven, and country people have to be early risers so I was not distracted as I dropped the Jag a gear ready to accelerate of the crown of the bend. Then as I reached the apex, there he was, without warning, without logic, outside of what is sane and realistic, a horseman dressed in medieval clothes, leather and furs, a broadsword and battle axe hanging from his saddle, a shield on the horse's flank.
The warrior had appeared on the workings where surveyors were making out the new path the road would take under an improvement scheme and spurred his horse into the path of my car. This was 1976 and superstition had been overruled by roads safety considerations. Bloodaxe Corner was being straightened. Perhaps this madman was some sort of protester.
Not logical. I told myself the apparition was not real, some kind of illusion triggered by a folk memory of stories I had believed as a child. I was blinded by oncoming headlights or something ...
Then the horse reared and instinctively I swung the steering wheel to avoid impact and fought to control the car as it went into a skid. Suddenly it was as if I was outside my body watching events.
I am driving the A666 from York to my home in Penrith, as I do on this night, 31st October, every year. The car is speeding along through the bends but I have driven this road so many times I know the perfect line and exactly when to touch the throttle and when to ease off or brake a little. To be honest it's a joy to drive alone through here, when the road is quiet. Passing the workings of the road upgrading project that will straighten out so many of these curves makes me realise I will miss the old road but the government and the road safety campaigners seem determined to take the fun out of driving. Oh well, I'll enjoy it while I can.
But what the ... what's this idiot coming towards me playing at? He's on the wrong side of the road, does the clown think they've finished the improvements already, we're going head on. It seemed he came out of the lay by that used to be the old road years ago, but he was moving at speed Bracing myself for the impact and expecting to hear the crunch of metal on metal I close my eyes as the cars come together. There is no crunch. Opening my eyes to look in the mirror I see the lights of the other car, it's wheels were in the air as it lies across the crash barrier that separates the lay by formed by the old road from the trunk route where in daytime heavy lorries and cars speed past.
Now there is only a little traffic passing and no telephone box for miles. Stopping the car I run back to see if I can help. Other people have stopped and are speaking urgently to each other.
"The police will be here in fifteen minutes from Barnard Castle, they're biking in a doctor. And the air Ambulance is launching from Leeds, that will be quicker than coming overland from Penrith or Bishop Auckland, I hope the poor bugger can hold on," said a man who appeared to have taken charge of things and who had been talking animatedly to a small box he held against his ear. Perhaps he worked for the electricity or water company and could radio their control centre. That was a piece of luck.
A woman kneeling by the car, talking to the driver tells the growing group, "He says a man on a horse was on the road and another car, he thinks it was an old Jaguar, just appeared out of nowhere heading straight for the horse and rider, then the driver swerved and was on the wrong side of the road straight towards him. He is sure they hit head on."
Another man spoke after examining the wreck: "His car looks as if it flipped, there's damage to the sides and roof but nothing that looks like he was in a head on."
"No sign of a Jaguar or any other car round here, stories about this spot don't you but you know the?" says the man with the walkie talkie thing.
"It isn't true, he's delirious. It was him on the wrong side of the road, not me, It wasn't my fault." I appeal but nobody sees or hears me.
NOTES and LINKS:
An interesting page on Vikings with features on Erik Bloodaxe and his Queen Gunnhild Ozurardottir
The road across northern England from Penrith to Scotch Corner is real enough but is actually designated the A66. Before modernisation it had a reputation as a dangerous road to drive. There is a real A666 however, running from Blackburn to Bolton on Lancashire. This road also has a fearsome reputation.
The legend of Erik Bloodaxe's tomb is a bit of storyteller's licence, The ghost of Erik can be found near the town of Bishop Auckland. He is also said to haunt Barnard Castle(strange because Erik died 200 years before it was built) and often pops up in several other locations in the counties of York and Durham, usually around the beginning of the tourist season, but it was the tomb of another Viking warrior that spawned the legend of a spectral guardian preventing travellers disturbing the tomb. That particular story cannot be found on the net so is probably a very local legend.
Spooky ballads and rhymes for Halloween
Mr. Wilde's Final Farewell
The Stranger's Field
Blöd Ties (a vampire love story)