After our visit to the wonderful church at Breedon, with its wealth of carved Saxon stonework, it seemed only right to call at Repton, less than ten miles away… and probably much closer in the days when horse and foot traffic did not have to follow designated roads. I had been once before and had wanted to share the church there with my companion for several years. There was a part of the church I had been unable to see on that first visit and I was hoping that this time we would be able to see its secret heart.
Repton is a village in South Derbyshire. Today, it is best known for its church with its towering steeple and the school, which is partly housed in the remains of a medieval priory. The village has a wealth of beautiful old buildings, including gracious Georgian facades and rows of neat, thatched cottages that look like almshouses near the church. It also has more than its fair share of history, folklore and ghosts.
The village spreads out around Repton Cross, which has been described both as ‘medieval’ and as being around fifteen hundred years old. This discrepancy, a mere thousand years, is enough to make you take notice of the structure. An octagonal ‘pyramid’ of steps rises up to the central ‘cross’, which is not a cross, but a ball-topped pillar. The pillar is, even to the amateur eye, centuries younger than the steps, but local legend suggest that it was on this spot that the first Christians in the area erected a cross. It would have been used as a preaching cross, and later as a meeting place for trade and markets in the centre of the medieval village.
The Cross was also the place where the Hiring Fairs were held. Those in search of domestic work gathered at the Cross and, if hired, were paid a shilling on account of their wages for the year. The following day they had a holiday which many of them spent at the fair before beginning their service.
Behind the old Cross, is a building that was once the old Mitre Inn. A local story says that in 1848, a man sold his wife there for a shilling after bringing her, with a halter around her waist, from nearby Burton on Trent. The story immediately reminded me of a similar incident in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ which I had first read in school long ago. What they hadn’t told us in school was that the practice was neither a fiction nor a rarity. Some four hundred such cases are recorded, the transaction being thought legal and binding if the wife was halter-led through the turnpike gate of a market and sold publicly before witnesses. According to this story both buyer and seller sealed the bargain over ale in the Mitre.
It was not a pub that had drawn us into the village… we had come to visit the church and here too there are some interesting old tales, long before you get anywhere near the door. Beside the church is Repton School, built on the site of the old Saxon Abbey. It was a school for boys only for four hundred years and only began accepting girls fifty years ago.
One former pupil, Frederick Wickham Railton, is buried in the churchyard. He was fourteen years old when he died and the circumstances of his death were such that his unquiet ghost still walks the halls of the school. He is known as the Gallery Ghost, as he is most often seen in the gallery near the boys’ bedrooms. In 1853, he was ‘punished’ by his peers in an incident that would today be condemned as bullying. Armed with towels and pillowcases, the boys lined the gallery as Frederick was made to run up and down between them. One boy, some say his own bother, slipped an inkwell into his pillowcase. It struck Frederick on the head and he died from his injuries. In life, the boy was a runner and, on the night of the senior steeplechase, the winner can expect a visit…
Young Frederick is not the only ghost to trouble the village though. In addition to the goblin that is said to reside in the steeple of the church, there is a gravedigger, dressed in clothes of the seventeenth century, who watches as graves are prepared… and strange, contorted figures that watch from the gravestones, wreathed in mist.
You would think that would be enough for any village, but Repton has some every strange stories to tell…