My recent notes about the Hand of Glory that was used in this region by robbers and burglars during their criminal activities (DST July 24), have sparked off a comment by a knowledgeable gentleman who reminds me that in times gone by the landlords of Bedale’s inns were in league with highwaymen.

These villains were known as Gentlemen of the Road, one suggestion for this name being that they managed to relieve their victims of cash and jewellery without killing or harming them. Their armed presence with veiled threats was sufficient. In fact, it is claimed that some travellers carried spare cash specifically to hand over to any highwayman who ambushed their coach.

The rise of highwaymen, regarded by some as glamorous characters, coincided with the increasing popularity of stage coaches as a means of transport. The so-called Golden Era of Coaching in this country extended from the early years of the 17th century until the end of coaching around 1820-1840 as railways began to carry passengers. I’ve never heard of highwaymen holding up a passenger train with the intention of robbing its passengers.

At the height of the highwaymen’s activities, the licensee of the King’s Head at Kirklington near Bedale became a highwayman and it seems some Bedale landlords passed information to gentlemen of the road about local coaching arrangements but also whether any wealthy passengers were likely to be on board.

This was before construction of the present A1 when the former Roman Road from Boroughbridge ran north along what became known as Leeming Lane and passed through Catterick and thence into County Durham via Piercebridge. This long straight and level stretch of road passed through Leeming where it was close to Bedale, close enough, it seems to involve some Bedale landlords in the activities of highwaymen.

Bedale was an important centre for stage coaches and also famous for horses but the end of the coaching era seems to have allowed this attractive market town to retreat from major involvement with traffic and thus avoid the problems of busy tourist centres. It remains a place of quiet charm with considerable interest – but it has had its moments!

In fact, the tower of the splendid St Gregory’s Church was used as a refuge for townspeople during attacks by the Scots Border Raiders. The church has a long and remarkable history and is worth an exploratory visit. Its patron, St Gregory was the first monk to become Pope and became a noted statesman.

This church has managed to retain some Catholic artefacts despite several of its features and statues being vandalised by Puritans during the Civil War. It contains a painting of St George slaying the dragon but curiously, the figure of St George is left-handed. Pay a visit to see what else awaits discovery!

Although this old church stands guard over Bedale with its tower dominating the main street and market place, as well as the surrounding countryside, the town has hosted some odd events. One was a woman from Crakehall who was sentenced to sit in the stocks in Bedale market place during the weekly market. On her head was a notice in large letters saying (sic) “I SITT HERE IN THE STOCKS FOR BEATINGE MY OWNE MOTHER.”

In addition, there are tales of witches operating nearby. One was Dolly Ayre who lived at Carthorpe. It was claimed she could bewitch cattle and it seems she cast a spell on a herd belonging to a man called Tommy. Full of hope, he visited a wiseman called Sammy Banks who, it was claimed, could remove such spells.

After hearing the story, the wiseman drove a peg of mountain ash (rowan wood) into part of Dolly Ayre’s home. Then he pushed another charm through her keyhole. At midnight, the wiseman reported a foul smell coming from the house, but although one of Tommy’s cows died, the rest of his herd recovered. Everyone thought the spell had worked.

In another case, a tenant farmer had done a favour for Dolly but this was not considered wise because witches could misunderstand any kindness towards them. Soon afterwards, the farmer found himself competing for new and better premises but in fact, he failed in his attempt and another tenant moved into the farm. When the new man arrived, he found the words BAD LUCK written in blood-red paint on every door and window shutter.

Beneath every message was a set of hieroglyphics that no-one understood, but which were believed to be the work of Dolly Ayre. Then as the new tenant and his wife moved their belongings into the house, a high shelf collapsed and its heavy load killed a child of the incoming family. Villagers regarded that as the work of Dolly Ayre and so the tenant and his family moved out. Dolly’s benefactor then moved in.

There seems to have been a large number of witches around Bedale because another called Awd Molly lived near Leeming Mill where Bedale Beck enters the River Swale. She was feared by most for she could foresee the deaths of local people. She got involved in a case which became known as The Nine of Hearts.

Four men were playing cards in the mill buildings, one being the miller. Another was called Braithwaite, and the third was George Winterfield. The fourth has never been named. They played into the night and as darkness descended, a strange thing happened.

Eight times in succession, George was dealt a hand that contained the nine of hearts. This created a lot of excitement among the players as one of them wagered a guinea (£l. ls. 0d against it happening a ninth time. George accepted the challenge and the cards were dealt but before he could pick them up and examine them, Awd Molly put her head around the door.

She told George to keep his money safe, adding, “Thy brass is not for him and his is not for thee!”

Knowing of her reputation, both men abandoned the gamble and kept their money. But Awd Molly came into the room and examined George’s hand of cards which were face-down on the table. “Thoo’s got it again, George.” He looked at the cards – Molly was right.

Then she issued a warning. She said he was now bewitched by the Devil, adding that the River Swale was waiting for him and that his bridal bed would be near a bed of bulrushes. George realised what she was saying; he had not been kind to his fiancée and so he fled from the mill, desperate to find the girl in case she had walked down to the river.

No-one knows what happened but the following morning the bodies of George and his future bride were found among the bulrushes in the deep water of the Swale. It was said later that anyone walking beside that place at night would see a dead girl floating past, followed by a dead man. And both would disappear into those bulrushes. end