Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Death of the White Lady?




Does she still haunt the grounds of Whitley Abbey Community School I wonder? Or rather, are the tales of her haunting that part of southern Coventry still doing the rounds in 2009?

The original Comprehensive school was opened in 1955 on the site of Whitley Abbey, a once grandiose manor house which despite its name apparently had no monastic connections. By the 1950's the house was in ruins and finally torn down in 1953.

The mainly steel framed aluminium buildings of the original school have now been replaced themselves and much of the wonderful grounds that adjoined the school that I knew - and educationally speaking at least, loathed - have been lost forever. The buildings of the 'old' school may have been non-descript but the lake, playing fields and nearby attractions such as the Seven Steps and the pill-box, air raid shelters and old farmhouse in the grounds of Chrysler more than made up for this. The 'new' school occupies about a third of the former site. Much of the grounds, where 'Stoneleigh', 'Warwick', 'Kenilworth', 'Hood', 'Grove', the Boys Gym, N-Block and the tennis courts once stood, have been replaced by a "Business Park". Even Cheylesmore Gate is no more. Only a small part of the lake is accessible from the school and when you factor in the post-Dunblane fencing it makes a depressing sight for anyone who remembers the old school and the sense of space associated with it.

The "White Lady" ghost was part and parcel of the Whitley Abbey experience. I suspect now that she is nothing more than an urban legend but it was fun at the time. No concrete evidence of sightings seemed to exist save for a supposed appearance on 'Flagstaff Green' during a Christmas concert or something before my time at the school. Some stories suggested she was the ghost of a woman who committed suicide by jumping from an upper storey window of the manor house. Another suggested she was buried beneath the last of the equally famous 'Seven Steps' in the nearby woods and haunted that spot too, with one of my mates saying she did so "only on her birthday".

The Seven Steps are some half-buried sandstone steps that lie just inside the woods where it borders the school playing fields fence, not too far away from the running track. It looks like they were once part of a woodland path. Whitley Wood ('Whitley Grove' on maps), is known locally as "the woods". It was planted hundreds of years ago on the site of medieval quarries which apparently supplied the stone for St. Michael's Church and other ye olde Coventry buildings. A block of sandstone rocks can be found in more or less the same spot and a little further away, near the bridge over the River Sowe that leads to the playing fields at the back of Stonehouse Estate, is another block of sandstone rocks next to a small pond. But enough about sandstone, back to the Seven Steps...

Once again, I've no idea where the stories about them originated, but they certainly generated a degree of fear among some pupils of the school. I think it was in my 2nd year at "big school" when a kind of Seven Steps 'mass hysteria' took hold. A boy in the 3rd year was said to have attempted to strangle his dad after he and his mates had used a Ouija board at the Seven Steps. His name had been spelled out or something and he flipped his lid. This opened the floodgates and the Seven Steps became the "in place" to spend the lunch break. Tales of crucifixes being placed on the seventh step and turning blood red abounded and one friend claimed to have seen Satan ( in the form of a goat's head ) appearing from a nearby tree. For a while, metalwork lessons for most of the class consisted of making crude Christian crosses fashioned from brass [?] using tin snips. When challenged by Mr Jones as to what we were doing the reply was;

"We are making crosses to put on the seventh step in the woods sir. They turn red like blood and sometimes the devil appears!"

Mr Jones said "okay", sipped his tea and left us to it. He was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and had a very relaxed attitude to teaching. If he ever did ask why you weren't doing any work or not doing what you were supposed to be doing all you had to do was tell him Maggie Thatcher was an evil bitch who needed bumping off along with the rest of the Conservative Party and he would leave you alone! What a legend!

Not everyone was caught up in the hysteria though. I remember one Saturday making my way through the woods with a friend to the steps. When we arrived we found a number of local kids were already there. Their leader had a nudey mag and mockingly said to us; "Huh! There aint no devil here you morons! I w*nk on the Seven Steps! Eat my spunk White Lady!"

Later that year, after the hysteria had subsided, a boy was murdered by his best friend not far from the Seven Steps. The first inkling that something was wrong was the number of police walking around the school in the morning while lessons were taking place. During metalwork someone asked Mr Jones why there were so many cops about. He said he didn't know but added, "I'll tell you this much, there wouldn't be this many pigs if it was just a break in!"

The proximity of the murder to the Seven Steps just added to the intrigue. About the weirdest thing I ever saw connected to them was the start (or end) of a rainbow at the spot in the field which marked the entrance to the steps. No pot of gold or leprechauns were visible though. Nowadays, with the school playing fields being fenced off, it is technically not possible for the present day intake of Whitley Abbey to access the Seven Steps during school hours so I wonder if the legends associated with them live on?

Rumours of a tunnel connecting Whitley to Baginton also did the rounds while I was at school. My dad always said Whitley has numerous tunnels underneath it but I have no idea if this is true or not.

Other ghost stories included that of a monk haunting the area and also an air raid warden haunting the shelters in the Chrysler grounds. As stated before, despite its name, there is not believed to have been any monastic establishments on the site. I used to think the sandstone foundations in "the shrubs" ( a bushy wooded area near T-Block and the lake ) were the remains of a monastic building but they were either where a quarry was or more likely the foundations of the Roman Catholic Chapel that was added to Whitley Abbey by one of its owners in the 1800's.

As for the ghostly air raid warden I never ever believed that one! Ghosts are usually associated with tragic deaths and during World War II the Armstrong-Whitworth factory at Whitley was not damaged by any bombs let alone the air raid shelters! Some of the shelters could be scary when you first entered them but that was only until your eyes adjusted to the darkness. The shelters were next to a pill box that was accessed by climbing over a white concrete fence topped with barbed wire. The fence marked the boundary between the school and the grounds of the Chrysler (later Talbot and currently the Jaguar Engineering Centre). Holes had been made in it and the barbed wire removed so it was easy enough to get over. For a child who had a fixation with WWII and the military in general the pill box was brilliant! It had an upper section which had narrow slits for windows. I liked to imagine a machine gun was mounted here. The remains of antennae protruded from the roof which was jumped off many times during my junior school days.

Next to the pill box were four or five air raid shelters. They were around 25 yards in length and ran in straight lines. Access was usually via a circular concrete hole which I suspect was originally the emergency exit. Some were easier to get into than others and I think one may have been completely inaccessible. The real 'walk in' entrances at the other end had all been blocked. One shelter was known as "The Rainbow Shelter" on account of the bright pink and yellow graffiti that had been daubed on it. I'm not 100% certain but think this is the one that was supposed to be haunted. One year, when we had a 'bonus' school holiday due to the cleaners being on strike, a load of us "unblocked" one of the proper entrances to a shelter. For the first time since it had been sealed up light flooded into the normally dark refuge and instantly this shelter became the least scary and easiest to get in to.

Another attraction in this part of the world was the car junkyard and the remains of the "old farmhouse" (Whitley Farm) next to it. You followed a path from the air raid shelter, went through a hole in a fence and then clambered over a gap in a high wall to get there. The pill box and air raid shelters were in a bit of land covered in trees and bushes well away from the car factory. The scrap cars and farmhouse were a lot closer though so you had to be on your toes for the dreaded "security guards" who would allegedly take your name and address and threaten to inform your parents or get the police if they caught you again. I used to think the security guards were a scare story as in all the times I was there I'd never seen any until a sunny Saturday afternoon in1980 when one of them made an appearance in the junkyard. A number of us managed to hide behind a large shed and held our breath. An age seemed to pass before one of us checked that the coast was clear and we made good our escape.

Some kids plundered the cars for spark plugs which apparently could be sold on for money; I just enjoyed clambering through or helping overturn them. The farmhouse was a creepy place. Just the outside shell remained but inside was an old stove and cast iron bath. Rickety stairs clung to one of the walls leading to nowhere as the upstairs was long gone. It was very easy to imagine this place being haunted but I don't remember any associated ghost stories. When I was about 9 or 10 I do remember watching some older kids going into the pitch black cellar under the farmhouse and thinking they must be mad!

The pill box, air raid shelters and what remained of the farmhouse are now lost forever. The land where they once stood seems to form part of the "Lakeside" phase of the business park development. In fact, much of the Whitley that I associate with my childhood is no more. The cycle speedway track on Folly Lane fields, the shops in Ashington Grove (especially the small sweet shop at the bottom of Abbey Road!), the famous "Chinky" corner shop outside the main gates of the big school, "The Abbey" pub ( later to become "The Mysterious Monk"), the social club on The Avenue where my dad pulled pints for a while during the late 1970's, the hospital, the zoo with its famous Zulu warrior guardian and the changes to "Riverside" which is overgrown and fenced off. It's hard to imagine now that this steep muddy riverbank once provided hours of amusement with a swing over the River Sherbourne and stepping stones at its base that allowed you to cross the water when it was shallow. Bricks would be thrown at any rats spotted in the water and games of "knifey" played using the swing and a pen knife. The biggest change, as touched on at the beginning of this blog, has been the demolition of the old school. Soon Alice Stevens School will be added to the 'lost list'. Apparently it is to be demolished with housing to be built in its place.

It seems Coventry Council has earmarked all of the green land in this part of the world for 'development'. In 50 years time will any of the green fields of Whitley and the surrounding area be left I wonder? And will the White Lady have been forgotten about completely?

6 comments:

  1. My god, have been away from Cov for 26 years and I'm staggered by how much of this covers my time in Whitley: The chinky, the seven steps, the white lady, the air raid shelters, the pillbox, the lad murdering his mate, the zulu and the zoo, the stones by T block (near the cut through to the primary school), the factory junkyard, the social club and even knifey, i played knifey on the rope swing down riverside.

    Initially i thought i must know you (the author) but i remember it must have been in my last year at whitley primary when the kid was murdered as i remember the assembly that was called and kids not being able to leave school on their own that day, so if that was your 2nd year of big school then we would not have known each other unless you were in the 74th scouts/cubs.

    great reading all this anyhow, many thanks for putting it down.

    P

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  2. To add further, I can remember that the Abbey road shop keeper had two Alsations (Dancer and Jason?) that used to play on the grass outside. Another memory for me was the pipe over the river by the playing fields, if you ran you could run up the ramp, grab the top of the concrete and climb up, then you could cross the river by walking the pipe and squeezing between the spikes. We also played on a clay pigeon range just over the factory wall, collecting the unbroken ones. As you crossed the bridge to cheylsmore, whitley side, you could run down the embankment and follow the river to another rope swing, and very near it was a drain/tunnel that ran under the road which we walked though sometimes.

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