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MYSTERY OR COINCIDENCE?

This story is another of those ‘maybe mysteries’.

Stratfield Saye, situated just off the main road running between Reading and Basingstoke, is a small village set amongst the fields and copses of land belonging to the Duke of Wellington. Most of the inhabitants that lived there, in the English summer of 1966, worked on that land as farmhands.

My Father-in-law was one of those farmhands at that time. He and his family lived in the village and my wife and I often went to stay with them at weekends. It was during one such weekend at that village, in that summer of 1966, that the following incident occurred.

A group of us were reminiscing around the table after tea. It was a beautiful evening and we talked of other beautiful evenings had in the past. Gradually, as we happily chatted away through the dusk and on into the dark of night, our conversation turned to more recent memories.

A few months earlier, four of us from that group had experienced a very mysterious event in an old mansion (see my story 'Mansion of Mystery'). As we described the comedy of our panic-stricken flight from that old house, most of the group were nearly falling off their chairs with laughter. But one old chap was very serious about the matter and, when we asked why, he related the following story.

He suspected that the mansion, mentioned in our reminiscences, had been haunted by a ghost. Stratfield Saye had its own ‘ghosts’, he told us, although these ghosts didn’t haunt any houses in the village nor the ‘Big 'ouse in the Park’ (the present Duke of Wellington’s mansion in the grounds of Stratfield Saye Park). He went on to say that, back in the days when a coach and horses were used for travel between towns, there had been a bad accident involving the Reading to Basingstoke coach. This accident, he said, had occurred in the copse, across the field from the very house that we were sitting in at that moment. Everybody in or on the coach had been killed, along with the horses. Apparently, each year since that accident, on a particular night, the ‘ghostly’ coach and horses, surrounded by a bright halo of light, can be seen, racing in an uncontrolled manner, south-east across the fields (“On the old road from Mortimer.” he told us) and vanishing into the copse amid much screaming, shouting, and neighing.

Us younger folk had respectfully listened to this story although we’d heard many such tales through our lives, nodding and acknowledging the seriousness of what we were being told. But soon the story had been slotted away into the back recesses of our minds and we went on to chat about other things.

The next morning, after breakfast, I asked my Brother-in-law if he wanted to go for a walk into the copse opposite the house. There was no particular reason in my mind, the old man’s story had been half-forgotten and I had just asked my Brother-in-law out of the blue.

My Brother-in-law and I got on very well. He was a good sport and game for anything. We used to go up into the mountains together where we had shared some good adventures, the main adventure being the first mountain rescue that I was ever involved in. But, we didn’t have to travel up to the mountains to be content, a Sunday walk into the local copse would please us just the same. Soon, we were walking down the road towards the copse, happily chatting away and enjoying the summer sun that shone from a cloud-free blue sky.

As we wandered along the track on the west side of the copse, everything was quiet except for the soft call of wood pigeons and the occasional harsh cry of a pheasant. The track headed roughly south into the depths of the wood, then turned east and emerged out onto a road, right opposite one of the drives leading into Stratfield Saye Park. Both of us had already been into the copse on quite a number of occasions and we knew all the tracks and paths fairly well.

We arrived at the point where the track turned left. But, for some reason that I still can’t fathom out, the pair of us entered the thick undergrowth ahead instead of turning left and continuing on along the track as we usually did. There had been no discussion, one minute we were enjoying a quiet walk, the next minute we were making our way in amongst the thick brambles, saplings, and trees.

The undergrowth gradually became more dense as we struggled on. Hidden roots had caused us both to trip up a couple of times and our clothes were snagged by sharp thorns. After a few minutes, I recall looking up and seeing a great dark mass of tangled brambles in front of us. The going really became tough as we forced a way into the semi-twilight of this dense undergrowth.

Then something different caught my eye just up ahead. It was, I had first thought, a small wooden shack. In that quick glance, I could see that the building was mostly moss-covered and seemed to have holes in its roof. All at once, my interest was aroused and I tore at the thick brambles with renewed energy. But the object of my interest wasn’t a small shack at all. It was an old-fashioned coach.

A rough map of Stratfield Saye showing where the coach was situated in the thick undergrowth.

The coach lay over on its side across our line of approach. What I had first took to be the front of a small shack was, in fact, the underneath of the coach floor. And, what I had thought to be the roof of that shack turned out to be the left side of the coach, the holes being the glass-less windows that were set in the body and door. Most of the woodwork was rotten and covered in moss and there was a strong musty smell about the area. I can’t recall any wheels, my interest had become mainly focussed on what we might find inside.

The pair of us clambered onto the side of the upturned coach and I just had time to glimpse some rotting upholstery, when suddenly there was a black explosion from the interior of the coach and we both reeled back in surprise. Our faces had become covered and, naturally, we had not dared to open our eyes for fear that something would get into them. There was a weird humming noise all around us, and I recall that the very air was so thick that bits were going into my mouth and up my nose as I breathed. Coughing and spluttering and unable to look where we were going, we backed away by feel and scrambled down off the coach body. Once we were on the ground, the air seemed to clear a bit. I pulled up the front of my shirt, wiped my face and snatched a look towards the coach. In that quick glance I saw a thick, black mass, pulsating just above the coach body and realised what it was.

Retreating a short distance back into the undergrowth, we turned and could just see the highest part of the coach (the left side) over the brambles. The thick mass was still there, looking like a small black cloud. But, it wasn’t a cloud, it was a swarm of mosquitoes.

There were millions of them. In all my travels, I have never seen such a mass of those insects in one place. The air above the coach was alive with them and we could still hear the humming noise from where we stood. With the occasional cough and sneeze, we left the scene, determined to return during the winter months with the hope that those insects wouldn’t be around in the cold weather.

I didn’t visit the place again, my family-situation changed during that winter and the opportunity was lost. But, I often wonder what caused us to enter the undergrowth at that particular spot and why all those mosquitoes were living in the old coach. Had the old man known that the coach was in the copse all along? He certainly didn’t imply such a thing. Could it have been that, because we hadn't really believed his story, we were somehow led to the evidence only to be left hanging, so to speak, because the place was swarming with insects?

Was it a mystery?

Or was it just a coincidence?

Next story - The 'Dreams'.

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