Olney and the folklore of my childhood home

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Olney is a Buckinghamshire town with dark and mysterious legends and is the hometown of guest writer ADAM SARGANT

Olney Postcard

Olney is a small market town in North Bucks, which is famous for its pancake race, the poet William Cowper and the clergyman John Newton, writer of the hymn Amazing Grace.

Growing up there as a boy in the 1970s, I became aware of some of its spookier claims to fame.

Whirly Pit, Olney’s link with the Devil

There was a fetid, algae covered pond we called the Whirly Pit which was supposed to be bottomless.

On certain nights of the year the devil was said to ride out of the pool in a carriage pulled by headless horses.

According to legend, the Whirly Pit was connect by an underground stream to the River Ouse and the meadows near the church to the south of the town.

The devil seems to have been busy in and around Olney. Not content with terrorising the good folk of the town with his headless horses, he seemed hellbent on making the lives of the local stonemasons a misery.

Olney Postcard

The moving stones of St Peter and St Paul’s church

Another legend surrounds the building of the church of St Peter and St Paul itself. Every day, it was said, the labourers would lay the stones for the foundations of the new church.

Every day, the following morning, they would return to find every stone moved to exactly the same position but in the field next door!

Realising that some devilry was afoot, they moved the stones back to the church’s intended location, but each time they would be moved back. Eventually, they gave up, and Old Nick had his own way.

John Newton’s Grave in Olney Churchyard

Then there is John Newton’s grave. John Newton’s grave is a large chest tomb situated in a dark corner of the graveyard.

As young teenagers, we shared a legend about his tomb. The story went that if one was brave enough, if one carried out a certain ritual after dark, one would see the devil.

According to the legend, you first had to walk around it three times anticlockwise. Facing away from the tomb, you then stood still and closed your eyes before turning three times on the spot. Then, upon looking up and opening your eyes, you would see the devil!

I’m sure you can imagine that this was perfect material for a gang of young teenage boys!  A small group of friends, aged probably 12-14, made our way down to the graveyard just after sunset on a cold autumn evening.

As a feral choirboy, I knew the church and its legends well. Full of bravado and testosterone, we egged each other on. Maybe foolishly, I agreed to go first.

John Newton's grave in Olney Churchyard
John Newton’s grave in Olney Churchyard

According to the instructions, you have to start in the farthest corner, where the two walls meet. The gap between the tomb and the wall is claustrophobic. The tomb itself is large enough that a teenage boy cannot see over it, while the walls tower over you.

So I stand in the corner facing outwards. By now I am starting to feel more than a little nervous, regretting my former bravado. But I’m committed.

I start to walk around the tomb three times, widdershins. Back in the corner again, my heart starts to race, but I close my eyes.

Slowly, I turn around on the spot.

Once. My heart beats faster.

Twice. My hands are clammy.

A third time. My mouth is dry.

I lift my head. I open my eyes.

2 feet away from my face… is an enormous carved devil’s head!

The carved stone head looking over Olney Churchyard
The carved stone head looking over Olney Churchyard

ADAM SARGANT is a storyteller, student of folklore and the host of Haunted Haworth, a ghost walk through the village of the Brontës. His love of folklore started with reading “Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain” under the bed-covers with a torch as a boy.

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