Folklore, Folk History, Myths, Legends, Ghost Stories and doubtless some utter tosh too.
Last Update: The 'It's War' entry updated.
In November 2007, a couple living in Littlemead Close, Caversham Park Village, looked out of their window to see what was described as "a large cat with orange eyes" sauntering across a nearby field. They watched the unidentified beast for up to 10 minutes as it surveyed the area and lunged at a pheasant. The animal was large with a curved tail and pointed ears, and the couple speculated that it could have been a panther. An RSPCA inspector later said that the incident was unusual, since big cat sightings "tend to come from more open and exposed areas like Exmoor and Dartmoor". The inspector helpfully advised any local residents who come across a panther to report it to Reading Council.
The following account was submiited by a friend who lives locally:
"So how brave are you? Are you fine when it comes to peeling off plasters, scooping up spiders and defending England's football record? But maybe not so brave if you had to face up to a proper, bone fide ghost. Ghosts and things that go bump in the night are the staple of stories told on spooky, candlelit evenings. But in our case, the story became all too real.
We live in one of Caversham's older houses. Parts of the house date back to the sixteenth century, but there are later additions, including the attic. This large room with its sloping eaves walls and perilous drop to the garden is directly above our bedroom. It is carpeted and at the time contained only a bed and a few chairs.
But one night I awoke to hear a strange sound coming from the attic room above me. Heavy with sleep, it was difficult at first to work out what it might be. But as I grew more awake, I could catch its rhythmic sounds more easily. Backwards and forwards, a heavy object was rolling noisily across the floor. Pausing for a second as it reached one side of the room, it would then set off again to the other side. A mysterious barrel rolling in the middle of the night, when we had nothing like this stored in the attic.
This nocturnal barrel-rolling would continue intermittently over the next six months, making us groan and pull the covers over our ears. But all this changed one night in February. As I awoke this time, it wasn't to the sound of rolling barrels. Instead, I could very clearly hear heavy footsteps cross the floor above me. The walker appeared anxious, for the footsteps would stop briefly and then resume, continually pacing backwards and forwards. Each time the restless footsteps paused, I imagined their owner deliberating, before striding decisively to the staircase and descending, down into our room. Surely the stuff of childhood nightmares!
In the morning, I mentioned the footsteps to my husband. 'Yes', he replied. 'I heard them as well. I was too scared to go and look while it was dark, but thought I could grab a poker and confront the intruder when it got light'. Comforting words? Not exactly. At least I found out that if there's any poker-wielding to be done, it will probably have to be done by me, not my husband.
So who was our ghost? A preoccupied Roundhead, waiting for news of the battle on Caversham bridge? A Cavalier, anxiously hoping to avoid capture? Perhaps the barrels contained gunpowder that was being moved back and forth. But for the moment, all is quiet. We now have several computers in the attic room - and Bill Gates is enough to scare any ghost out of its wits."
The buildings below St Peter's Church (nearest the road) include former stables. We've heard one story - from the horse's mouth, as it were - of a horseman arriving there late at night, leading his horse across the cobbled courtyard and then ... through the wall. Our witness said it was a Civil War soldier, but whether Roundhead or Cavalier we can't recall. A trick of the light, a figment of the imagination? The witness in question wasn't given to flights of fancy. (What's more, these stables are not very far away at all from the house that's the scene of the story above ...)
Whatever the truth about the first horseman, it's certainly a good accompaniment to another Civil War story. We can't remember where we first heard this one, but it has a little more flesh on its bones. Reading was a Royalist town, and Roundheads laid siege to it. Oxford was the nearest Royalist stronghold and - so the story goes - a Royalist horseman managed to evade the besieging soldiers and set out to ride to Oxford for help. In those days, the way to Oxford was along the Thames, so what's now The Warren was the route he set out on. Hardly had he set out, however, than he was unhorsed and beheaded by Roundheads who'd stretched a rope across the track. The white house just a short way along the Warren (on your right as you go up river) is the supposed location, and - you guessed - one night a year you are supposed to be able to see a headless horsemen ride again. Whether that's the same horseman to be seen at the St Peter's Church stables, who can say?
It's still quite obvious that the building next to the library in Caversham is an old cinema (hurrah for the Glendale!), but there's no trace of The Regal, which was where Waitrose is now. Where the flats are by Caversham Bridge once stood some very old buildings and a boat yard, and going back even further, the whole of St Martin's Precinct was once a field with a billy goat for a resident. This is back in the days when cars were new and car owners, if you didn't have off-road parking, simply did not park in the street. The billy-goat-guarded field was where at least some cars belonging to residents of the terraced houses in Hemdean Road were left overnight.
Next to the field/precinct were well tended allotments - today all built over as flats of course - but these were very different, less crowded times. It's hard to imagine nowadays but where the Rivermead Leisure Centre is used to be a council rubbish tip. (Which is why, when Reading Festival and later Womad were held there, there could often be a strange smell and consistency to the mud on the wet years.)
Talking of smells, it wasn't that long ago that the site on the opposite bank of the Thames, on your left as you go over Caversham Bridge towards Reading, was a quite large foundry. At least once a week (as we recall) all around there on both sides of the river was dominated by a strong acrid smell, which we were told was some sort of cleaning process they had to do. It was pretty unpleasant ...
And talking of acid, let's not forget the acid tanks! Another Caversham industry that there's now no sign of is warship building (!). Strange but true ... the end of Wolsey Road was once the site of a Vospers yard where they made Motor Torpedo Boats. Former workers there told us about the acid tanks that were used in the factory ... and how no-one saw them being properly filled-in when they built The Willows development over them. Commonsense says they must have been ...
And sticking with the 'war' theme, we've been told that the short terrace of houses on the right at the top of Prospect Street as you head out of Caversham all has a newer roof than nearby contemporary buildings because it was hit by a German incendiary bomb in the Second World War. The (relatively) small amount of war damage suffered by Reading is fairly well documented, but we've never seen any confirmation of this claim for Caversham.
We are indebted to Les Boxall, who contributed the following: “I used to live in 25 Oxford St and was told by my mother who was in her twenties and lived there during the war that both the neighbour's houses were hit. In fact the lady next door was in the outdoor toilet when one came through the roof and she suffered burns. Obviously this is only word of mouth but my mother also told me a story how she was lucky not to have been a casualty when the People's Pantry suffered a bomb hit. She was due to meet a work colleague but luckily she had been delayed so just missed it.”
It was said of some of the strange pits in the woods around Mapledurham and elsewhere to the north of Caversham that these were bomb craters, caused by Germans dumping unused bombs anywhere, to lighten their load for the trip home. However, that's totally unsubstantiated and in fact the holes are far more likely to be saw pits. (A saw pit dates from when wood was 'processed' where it was felled. Trunks and large branches would be laid over the pit and sawn with a two-man saw, one man standing on the trunk, the other underneath.)
Surely, after ghosts, lost tunnels have to be the most common source of speculation in England. Heaven knows, there are enough rumours about them in and about Caversham. These range from tunnels under the Thames (supposedly near the war memorial to the east of Caversham Bridge) to underground escape routes for Catholics running from Mapledurham House to Maplehurham Woods. There are also a few tunnels underneath the old house that's now part of Highdown School, leading to just about anywhere you like in Caversham, depending on who you talk to.
Something really did come from the skies on the night of 4th April 1979, when residents of Caversham Heights heard a gigantic explosion, and several people saw a bright red ball crashing to the ground outside their homes. Mrs Elsie Powell, of Graveney Drive, said at the time: "it looked like the flames a rocket gives out, but instead of going up it hit the ground". Her neighbour, Ronald Fleming, reported hearing "a terrific explosion" which left him "completely amazed and very shaken". Mr Fleming then discovered that all the window catches at the front of his house had been neatly sheared in two. Experts at the nearby Met Office at Bracknell were mystified. (We're grateful for David Sutton, editor of the 'Fortean Times' for this information.)
More recently, in July 2008, the 'Evening Post' reported that a resident of Caversham's Managua Close was woken in the early hours of the morning by a "steady engine sound". On looking out of the her window, the resident saw a bright green light in the distance, "and it sounded as if it was hovering for a while". The lady witness thought that it might have been a police helicopter, although Thames Valley Police subsequently denied any connection with the object. (Reading Evening Post, 08/07/08)
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