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24 September 2014
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Great North Road - Highwaymen and Phantom Coaches:
maniac on the highway
Maniac on the highway

The old Great North Road ran along the eastern edge of the county through the towns of Newark, Tuxford and East Retford. It is a road that has been travelled by many colourful characters...

David Haslam, Nottinghamshire Ghosts and Legends

The old road has now been bypassed by the A1.

For centuries it was the main route from London to York and beyond.

Many of the old coaching inns still survive from those days, like pearls on a string.

With a constant ebb and flow of human life, the old Great North Road has ghosts and legends all of its own.

Wealthy travellers on the road proved a magnet for footpads and highwaymen and many were relieved of their valuables with the cry "Your money or your life!"

Swift Nick:

Swift Nick
Swift Nick, colour illustration
The best known Nottinghamshire highwayman was John " Swift Nick " Nevison (1639-1684), so called, it is said, by King Charles II himself.

Some sources suggest it was Nevison, and not Turpin, who made the famous London to York ride to establish an alibi.

Nevison's gang of six outlaws met at the Talbot Inn at Newark and robbed travellers along the Great North Road as far north as York and as far south as Huntindon.

The gang were betrayed in 1676 by one Elizabeth Burton after she was arrested for stealing.

Nevison was transported to Tangiers, but returned to England in 1681 and once more took to highway robbery.

Although King Charles offered a reward for his recapture, Nevison remained at large for 4 years.

Swift Nick
Swift Nick, black and white illustration

Once apprehended, the trial judge showed no mercy - Nevison was sentenced to hang at Tyburn, near London.

On the morning of March 15th, 1685 Nevison mounted the scaffold. He gave a speech to the huge crowd that had gathered in which he asked for forgiveness for his crimes and warned others not to follow in his path.

Having said his piece, the hangman despatched "Swift Nick".

The body was buried at St. Mary Church, York, in an unmarked grave.

The menace on the roof:

A tale told in coaching days has been updated and is still told today.
Originally the tale went like this...

the highway maniac
The highway maniac
A coach was travelling along the Great North Road with a young married couple aboard. Midway between towns the coach lost a wheel, and the coachmen decided to walk on to the next stop to summon help.

The couple inside the coach were quite happy at first to be left alone. Darkness began to fall and the night grew cold.

Impatient at the long delay, and fearing his new wife would get a chill, the husband decided to walk a little way up the road himself and watch for the coachmen whilst there was still light to see by.

The lady sat alone, keeping warm as best she could. After some time she became anxious for her husband's return, but feared the inky darkness outside.

She was soon reassured when she heard voices approaching. Her relief turned to alarm when she heard shouts and the sounds of running men.

Someone jumped up on the roof of the coach and it began to sway alarmingly, then loud thumps above threatened to bring the roof down upon her.

Scrambling to the window she was dazzled by the light of many lamps, and she shaded her eyes with her hand. Then a voice, from what seemed a crowd, called to her,

" Miss! You must open the door slowly and walk towards the light. On no account look behind you!"

Trembling she opened the door and on unsteady legs walked towards the silent lamp-bearers. When almost to them, she turned to look back at the coach.

There on the roof, caught in the lamp light, crouched a man. His features were horribly twisted with rage and his eyes were the wild red unseeing eyes of a raving lunatic.

As she watched, the snapped chains from the manacles at his wrists began to flayed about him, as he banged her husband's severed head on the roof of the coach.

In the modern version the coach has become a car that has run out of petrol, but the story remains the same.

The owd lad:
In bygone days Nottinghamshire folk using the road would like to get home before dark as they might encounter the "Owd Lad", the Devil himself in his black coach and four.

One old carrier is said have seen it drive past him, "all on fire like brimstone, pulled by four skeleton horses".

Another legend has it that on moonlit nights a coach and six, driven by a headless coachman, conveying a headless richly dressed nobleman, is seen rattling down the road at a furious pace.

The coach, horses and headless phantoms then vanish as suddenly as they appeared.


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