by Michael J Young
At first encounter, East Barnet, a leafy North London suburb, appears calm, comfortable, and conventional. But beneath the superficial lies the supernatural. For this is an area that seems to have attracted and retained more than its fair share of myths and legends over the thousand or so years of its recorded history.

The ghost of a medieval knight who has appeared in full armour on horse-back galloping across East Barnet’s Oak Hill Park, and an ancient oak tree that burst into flames on a clear summer's day early in the 20th century are just two of dozens of legends about the area that persist to the present day.

In the time of William the First, the Norman king who conquered England following the battle of Hastings in 1066, East Barnet was a heavily wooded area that included much of what is now known as Chipping or High Barnet - where the Battle of Barnet, a deciding factor in the War of the Roses (1455-1485) took place - Monken Hadley, Hadley Woods, Friern Barnet and even as far out as South Mimms, now on the M25 motorway box around London. Much of this land belonged to the Abbot of St Albans, but in return for resisting William, the southern section was taken from him and passed to the Bishop of London.

Among the knights who fought alongside William at Hastings was a Norman landowner Geoffrey de Mandeville. He was rewarded with the grant of large stretches of land in Essex, Middlesex, and adjoining counties. By the time his grandson, also named Geoffrey, inherited the title of Earl of Essex, much of the land that went with it had been lost through the mistakes of his father, William. But the young Sir Geoffrey was not deterred and set out to recover the family’s fortunes by whatever means were available to him.

His harsh methods and political manoeuvering brought results and by 1141 Sir Geoffrey had become the premier baron of England. But his ruthlessness also created powerful enemies and in 1143 he was excommunicated for his ill-treatment of religious groups. When, accused of treason by the King, Stephen, he died a bloody death the following year, a Christian burial was denied him. It is this lack of a Christian burial which is said to cause his ghost to haunt what remains of the woods at East Barnet and Hadley.

The legend of the ghost of Sir Geoffrey de Mandeville has been sufficiently substantiated to be recorded on the official Pymmes Brook Trail information board alongside the brook, which flows through Oak Hill Park and is believed by some to be a conduit for the reported psychic forces and manifestations in this area.

Seventy years ago, an eminent Justice of the Peace described Church Hill Road, which edges Oak Hill Park, as the "The Ghosts' Promenade", such were the volume of spectral sightings associated with it. And as the local newspaper, the Barnet Press, put it, "Headless hounds, decapitated bodies, spectres in the trees - the list of ghostly experiences at Oak Hill Park in East Barnet seems to go on and on."

In the early 1930s an ancient oak tree within the Park and alongside Church Hill Road burst into flames on a clear summer day. When no apparent cause could be found for the conflagration, the mysterious phenomena of spontaneous combustion was suggested. But speculation developed rapidly and has never been resolved, particularly when it was noted that this tree was not just one of many. It had a special distinction.

This was the actual oak tree under which the famous 18th century religious visionary and prophetess Joanna Southcott, used to sit during her many visits to friends in East Barnet. It was here that she was said to have received the inspiration that she was the woman described in Chapter 12 of The Bible’s Book of Revelation, leading to her many predictions and secrets supposedly contained after her death in the infamous Joanna Southcott’s box about which controversy has never totally subsided.

 

About the author
Michael James Young is a London, England-based writer/photographer with a special interest in travel, leisure, and recreation- tel. 020 8449 8263 / fax 020 8440 8315) - Feb 15 2001

Article © 2001 Michael J. Young