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In the autumn of 1992 three separate motorists reported knocking down a figure that ran into the path of their vehicle late at night on Blue Bell Hill, Kent (UK). In the two most dramatic encounters, the figure of a young woman had stared calmly into the eyes of the driver as his vehicle struck her. Subsequent police investigations not only failed to find a victim, but no evidence that an accident had occurred, prompting their conclusion that these motorists had probably encountered the famed Ghost of Blue Bell Hill.
The sightings, which - unbelievably - were to continue in the forthcoming months, and to take an even more bizarre twist - sparked a wave of press interest, which quickly spread first to the national, and then the international stage.
To date, the Ghost of Blue Bell Hill has been the subject of or found mention in hundreds of newspaper, magazine, CD-ROM, and book publications; it has been featured on a number of television programmes devoted to the paranormal, and has served as the inspiration for at least one novel, music and an audio dramatization. And, of course, it now features widely on the World Wide Web.
In all, with almost 50 reported named-witness sightings, Blue Bell Hill’s ghost has come a long way from the seemingly apocryphal tale of local renown set in motion in the late 1960s, and its humble beginnings in print, to stand today - with dozens of reliable named-witnessed sightings - as an important modern example of haunting, and arguably the foremost case of its kind in the world today.
NEWS: For the full, definitive treatment of the case, look out for The Ghost(s) of Blue Bell Hill, by Sean Tudor - available from 2014.
Where is Blue Bell Hill?
Located equidistantly (at 4 miles) between the County Town of Maidstone (to the south) and the Medway Towns (comprising Chatham, Rochester, and Gillingham), Blue Bell Hill (or Bluebell Hill) forms a high point of the chalk escarpment of the North Downs of Kent (England).
While the name Blue Bell Hill ('BBH') evokes images of a colourful and serene woodland landscape (of which it must undoubtedly have been deserving in its past), it seems oddly incongruous against the backdrop of the busy and noisy motorway-grade highway (A229) that defines the Hill today. Just as incongruous is the idea that the modern dual carriageway and its immediate environs could be the setting for a haunting.
The most prominent feature of the Hill today is the deep cutting and bench accommodating the A229 which grazes the face of the escarpment at the point it begins a mile-long deflection to the north. The exposed chalk cliff here, exploiting former quarry workings alongside the former Maidstone-Chatham road, combines with similarly exposed and abandoned workings just to the west to make Blue Bell Hill distinctive and easily recognizable. The attraction, however, is more than purely visual, for it is below the sheer white walls of the road-cutting here that the majority of the sightings of Blue Bell Hill's ghost or ghosts) have taken place. AREA MAP
"GHOST GIRL SEEN AGAIN"
So ran the front page headline of the Kent Today of Tuesday 10 November 1992.
The article, by Emma Cooper, described the 'chilling new turn' in the saga of Kent's most famous phantom. The incident, it was reported, had taken place 'around midnight' the previous Sunday night (8 November) near the Aylesford turn-off of the southbound carriageway of the A229 at Blue Bell Hill, some four miles to the north of Maidstone.
Ian Sharpe, a 54-year-old coach driver, was on the last leg of his journey home to Maidstone when a young woman had appeared in the path of his vehicle, ran towards him and, with her eyes locked on his, fallen beneath the bonnet. Horrified, Ian skidded the car to a halt, and shakily got out to take account of the accident.
"I honestly thought I had killed her," he said. "You can't imagine how it felt. I was so scared to look underneath, but I knelt down and looked straight through - there was nothing there."1
Ian searched around about the car, and in the bushes of the wide verge, but found nothing. Attempts to flag down two cars for assistance failed, so he continued on into Maidstone, making straight for the police station to report the incident.
White-faced and 'shaking like a leaf', he told police that he had run over a woman but could not find the body. After listening to Ian's account, in course noting the particular spot on Blue Bell Hill where the incident had occurred, the police seemingly came to an immediate if presumptuous judgment by recounting to him the 'spooky legend' of the ghost said to haunt that stretch of road.
Nevertheless, officers accompanied him back to the scene, and a search of the area ensued, which proved fruitless. No sign of damage was found on his car, reinforcing opinion that he could not have encountered a real person. But Ian maintained, he had not been 'seeing things'. The girl had seemed perfectly real, not as he imagined a ghost would be.
The following day, Ian Sharpe was said to still be expecting the police to knock at his door to report the finding of the girl's body. It had been, he said, the 'most scary' experience of his life.
When I later had the opportunity of interviewing Ian, his own version - not surprisingly - proved to differ somewhat to the Emma Cooper's Kent Today version and its derivatives. Rather than appearing before him, as many newspapers were to suggest, Ian saw the woman some way ahead, standing in the mid
"This was at exactly ten-to-twelve at night. I know it was the time because I'd just looked at my watch. I'd lit a cigarette up and come out of the Blue Bell Hill slip-road, from the village, coming down the Hill. I'd just had a puff when I saw this woman, and I thought: 'Oh, she'll go back, she won't come across'. But then she just ran straight in front of the car [from the right], and I hit her on her left side...and her head was facing this way; she was looking at me all the time.
"At the time I went into the police station [Maidstone] I still thought I'd knocked a woman over. I don't believe in - I have never believed in ghosts. My impression of a ghost is something you can see through, all white or pale. She was a normal woman; roundish face; she had shoulder-length hair that rolled inwards at the [shoulder'],,,and she was fair haired. She was wearing a 'lightish' coat with a long V-neck, with a light blouse or roll-neck underneath. But her face...I can still see her face now. Her skin was normal; and her eyes...she had big eyes, really big eyes."
Not unexpectedly, in the days following his encounter, Ian Sharpe's story was picked up by the national tabloids (and regional television). Not since an uncannily similar experience by a Rochester man in 1974 had the haunting of Blue Bell Hill attracted such widespread media interest...
The Goodenough Incident
In the early hours of 13 July 1974, Maurice Goodenough, a 35-year-old bricklayer from Rochester rushed into Rochester Police Station claiming he had knocked down a young girl on Blue Bell Hill. Police hastened with him back to the scene only to find the discarded car blanket (or tartan car rug) with which Mr Goodenough had covered (or wrapped3) the injured girl, whom he had carried to the roadside following the accident, which had occurred around midnight.4
Goodenough told police that the girl had appeared suddenly in his car's headlights, forcing him to brake hard. But it had been too late to avoid running into her.
"The girl just walked out in front of me from the edge of the road," he said. "My car hit her with a hell of a bang."5
Jumping out of his car, he found the girl lying in the road. She had a cut on her forehead and cut or 'skinned' knees. One source included a feature that appeared in no other version of the incident: the girl was moving her head and had muttered 'Mummy' two or three times.6
Goodenough estimated the girl to have been about ten years old. She had shoulder-length brown hair, and was dressed in a lacy white blouse, white ankle socks and a skirt.
He tried to wave down 'about four cars' but none stopped. So, unable to see a telephone box, and of the opinion that it would be unwise to try to put the girl in his car, he left her by the roadside while he sped off to Rochester Police Station.
Thirty minutes later (Chatham Standard; Chatham News)7, Goodenough returned to the spot with police officers, who immediately instigated a search for the girl on both sides of the steeply wooded Hill, but without success. The search resumed at dawn with the aid of a tracker dog8, but no scent trace, tracks or bloodstains were found, the effort by then hampered by heavy rain. Extensive enquiries, including a check on hospital admissions, failed to locate anyone answering the girl's description.
Aside from the obvious and natural concern for the girl's well-being, the Chatham Standard and the Chatham News aired police fears that she may have been abducted. "We would appeal for any parent whose child has some unexplained injuries like a bump on the head to contact us. We would also like to hear from anyone whose child is missing," said a spokesman.9
From his home in Rochester on the Saturday night, Mr Goodenough was evidently confounded. He told The News of the World that he had definitely hit a girl and carried her to the side of the road. "I'm not going mad," he said. "But where did she vanish? I'm still shaking from the experience."10
If Maurice Goodenough was unsure exactly what to make of his experience, the Press evidently were not. From the start, the location of the incident and consequent failure to find the girl meant only one thing: the girl had to be a ghost. Apparent support for this contention lay with the inability (as would be the case in the incidents of 1992) to find any sign of damage to Goodenough's car.
As it turned out, the gamble of the general Press paid off. No child was forthcoming to invalidate their favoured interpretation. In the subsequent weeks local newspapers firmly linked Maurice Goodenough's experience to Blue Bell Hill's existing legend of a hitch-hiking ghost, and to its supposed 'cause' - a tragic event that had previously been alluded to, but never openly identified.
As remarkable as Ian Sharpe's story was, it was made all the more so through the timing of his encounter, occurring as it had little over a week before the anniversary of a tragic car crash on the Hill in 1965 - a fact which, to the media, could only serve to reinforce claims that this crash and, in particular, a member of that tragic party, lay at the heart of the case.
It is a matter of record that late in the evening of Friday 19 November 1965 two cars were in collision on Blue Bell Hill. Three of the four young women in one of the vehicles, a Mark 1 Ford Cortina, died as a result of their injuries, one instantly. The fourth was seriously injured. The driver of the other vehicle, a Jaguar, was uninjured, and his companion, though badly hurt, was discharged from hospital a few days later.
One of the fatally injured women was a bride-to-be. Her wedding, scheduled for the following day, was never to take place. It had been too late to inform a number of the wedding guests, who dutifully gathered at the church in Gillingham the next day, only to be turned away.
In the early part of that Saturday, surgeons were involved in a desperate struggle to save her life. But to no avail. Her injuries had been too severe, and she died five days later in the West Kent Hospital, Maidstone, without regaining consciousness.
Undoubtedly, the 1965 crash has provided a fitting and tangible origin for the haunting of Blue Bell Hill. We are inclined to assume a connection between sudden or violent death and hauntings. The 1965 crash - an incident that was well documented by local and county newspapers of the time, chiefly (and significantly) by Kent Messenger group publications (one of which - the Evening Post - was responsible for first naming the 1965 crash and its victims) - satisfies our expectations perfectly in respect of location and manner of death, and it is therefore easy to appreciate how it might have become adopted as a focus for the ghost stories that appeared soon after.
But was the connection really valid? Blue Bell Hill has been the scene of numerous fatal accidents over the years. If we were to accept the popular notion that the trauma/shock/unpreparedness of sudden death can somehow bind the spirit of an individual to the scene of his/her demise, then a number of fitting candidates for the identity of the ghost could be reasonably proposed. So how was it decided, and on what evidence, that the crash of 19 November 1965 was the source of the haunting of Blue Bell Hill?
Firstly, it should be appreciated that the identification of the crash and, in turn, a firm selection of a candidate from that tragic party for the ghost's identity was not made until the occasion of Maurice Goodenough's encounter on the Hill, in July 1974 - nine years after the accident.
In the Kent Messenger versions the identification of the crash was attributed to a police spokesman (unidentified) who described Maurice Goodenough's experience as the latest in a series of strange encounters that had occurred on Blue Bell Hill since that tragedy. Kent Messenger reporter Nigel Nelson followed up this clue and 'following a week of intensive investigation' he published his findings in the Evening Post (19 July). This article ('Drivers beware of the phantom on the hill'), an almost identical version of which was repeated a week later in the Kent Messenger itself ('Spectre of Bluebell Hill', 26 July), was to firmly establish the 1965 tragedy in the minds of the public as the cause of the haunting.
Although rumours and reports describing a phantom female had been in circulation since the late 1960s, this was the first time a specific origin for the haunting had been identified in print. In only two published accounts11 of the haunting in the intervening years had an actual cause been alluded to - and these simply state that the girl was said to have been killed in a road accident; the latter (1968) adding that this had occurred ‘some time ago’.
Exactly why almost a decade should have elapsed before the crash became openly linked to the ghost stories, and on precisely what evidence, is still unclear. More certain is that its debut was a timely one, providing a convenient and compelling focus for the stories at a time when the case found itself under the spotlight of heightened press interest, which included coverage by three of the Sunday tabloids.12
Was there, then, really any more to it than its apparent fulfilment of press needs to establish a logical and suitably tragic foundation to the stories? The police source suggested that perhaps there was. But whatever the legitimacy of the connection (which may have been fostered by police officials or private researcher(s)), once established, the crash thereafter became an integral, possibly inextricable ingredient of the Blue Bell Hill story. Indeed, it has become the story within the story - the tangible driving force behind it.
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Notes & References
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