Now, just guess where this spooky story comes from.
The True Story of Wolverton
It is often said that the Isle of Wight is the most haunted island in the world. Between Brading and Bembridge, on the bank of the river Yar, lies a woodland known as Centurion's Copse. This copse is a curiously dark, silent woodland where birds are rarely seen and dogs fear to tread after dark. This is the haunted spot of one of the Island's legendary lost towns, the doomed Wolverton.
In the Roman times the area had at least two Roman villas nearby. In medæval times, Brading Haven continued in its local prominence, with the towns of Brading and Wolverton benefiting from the sheltered, though shallow, harbour. The river Yar which widened out to form Brading Haven all-but separated the villages of Yaverland1 and Bembridge2 from the rest of the Island. The only access was by the 13th Century bridge constructed at Yarbridge. However Centurion's Copse is not named after the Roman influence, but instead derives from Wolverton's church, dedicated to Saint Urian, a name which has corrupted into 'Centurion' since the church's destruction.
The town is said to have been completely destroyed in the mid 14th Century, with all the inhabitants slaughtered, except for one sole survivor.
The Legend of Wolverton
The legend states that the church of Saint Urian at Wolverton was famous for a remarkable shrine; a Holy Well whose water was so remarkably fresh it did not go off, even on long sea voyages. The well also had healing properties for the sick.
Near the well stood an engraved stone cross, whose message proclaimed,
While the water flows pure and free
Wolverton shall happy be.
The net be heavy in the sea
And wheaten seed shall yield plenty.
When stains of blood burns the well
Then Culver's Ness shall ring its knell.
In the early 14th Century an old mysterious merchant frequently frequented the prosperous town of Wolverton. In some versions of the story he was shabbily dressed and sold trinkets, in later Victorian versions he was a rich merchant who sold astonishing goods at remarkably low prices, as well as cures for the ill. Unlike all other merchants, instead of arriving from the village of Brading or by sea, he always walked into and out of town from a path leading only to the cliff of Culver. No-one ever succeeded in following him to see where he came from, despite many trying. All who did, whenever they glanced away for a second, would lose sight of the merchant, with reportedly thorn bushes suddenly appearing on the exact spot the merchant was last seen, with no trace of the merchant himself ever found. The Ness mentioned in the prophecy was Culver Cliff's bulwark, the very end of the cliff. Visiting monthly, he became a popular figure in town and happily gave his advice to help solve the townsfolk's problems, and those who followed his advice always seemed to benefit.
The mysterious merchant freely gave medicines to the town's sick and wounded3, potions for those experiencing unrequited love etc. The merchant would inform all his customers at time of purchase that he didn’t want or need any money for the cures. Yet after the potions had taken effect, he would demand payment in the form of favours. These favours were often arsonist acts, where the locals were ordered to set fire to property of those not in the merchants favour, or else suffer terrible consequences.
As his visits became more frequent, people noticed that Wolverton's luck was subtly changing for the worse. When the townsfolk mentioned this to the old merchant, he said that he had had a prophetic dream. In this dream a stranger came to Wolverton dressed all in grey, including a grey cowl. This stranger planned to poison the water in St Urian's holy well, and the bad luck that the town was experiencing was a warning of what bad luck would befall the town should the stranger succeed. He advised the locals to keep a protective watch on the well, and should a stranger so dressed appear, they should kill him before he could carry out his fiendish scheme. This the villagers agreed to do.
Soon after, as the mysterious merchant had foretold, a stranger was spotted arriving on a foreign vessel in the town of Wolverton, dressed in grey and wearing a cowl that obscured his face. He also carried little except a frond of an unknown, foreign plant – obviously something which could only be used to poison the well. He headed straight to Saint Urian's church and the holy well as feared, and so soon all the villagers gathered to prevent him from harming the water. As he knelt beside the well, looking as if he planned to lay the frond on the water, the townsfolk sprang into action to defend their pure sanctuary, suddenly pelting him with sharp stones to prevent him from carrying out this purpose. The stranger fell down dead beside the well, yet a drop of blood from his head wounds fell into the water.
As prophesied, with the well thus despoiled, Culver's Ness crashed into the sea. There was a violent crash, the ground rumbled and shook and some of the houses in Wolverton collapsed. The church's priest realised that the stranger, far from bringing poison to the well, was a holy man who had travelled from the Holy Land. The frond was a Holy Relic from the Gardens of Gethsemane. Yet there was little time for this to sink in. For immediately after the corruption of Saint Urian's well, the town of Wolverton was invaded in force by the French, who raped, pillaged and plundered, burning the standing remains of the town to the ground and killing all remaining in Wolverton. In some versions of the story, the church's golden altar plate and crucifix, silver candlesticks and the coins of the pilgrims who had travelled to the church were quickly buried to try to keep them safe during the raid, but all who knew where this treasure was hidden were killed, and this vast horde of riches remains buried beneath Centurion's Copse to this day.
There were two people who survived. The first was the old merchant, who walked off laughing to himself when he saw that the pilgrim had been killed and the well polluted. The other was a local lad named Tom, who had been playing in the fields near Culver. He saw the merchant's mischievous expression, and was determined to follow the merchant and confront him, unaware of the French invasion. As the merchant headed away from the town towards the lonely cliff of Culver, in the opposite direction of the French attack, Tom successfully followed.
Tom pursued the hermit all the way back to a cave inside Culver Cliff, where he was spotted by the merchant and invited inside. Inside the cave was a large, dazzling hall, where strange music played in the background, despite no evidence of musicians, and in the centre of the hall was a vast, unladen table as well as two dining chairs. On the wall opposite the entrance was a large portrait of the shabby merchant, but in elegant and expensive clothes. Soon after, Tom noticed other, smaller portraits on the walls. These were pictures of all the people of Wolverton, but each portrait had a blood-red cross, like an inverted crucifix, on its forehead. In the corner there was one unfinished portrait, which Tom suspected would, when completed, be of him.
After looking around the walls studying all the pictures, Tom was amazed to find the table had suddenly become laid out for supper, with a vast feast of the most appetising foods Tom had ever seen or smelt. There were barrels of mead, wines and ales nearby. The merchant asked Tom to sit and share this meal with him, which Tom readily agreed to. However, just as Tom was about to put the first forkful into his mouth, he remembered that no Grace has been said. Quickly putting the food down, he bowed his head and repeated a simple blessing that the friars of St Urian's church had taught him. Immediately, the merchant shrieked as if in pain, the cavern seemed to be filled with fire that burned the tables, hall, food and paintings yet left him untouched and unharmed. Tom suddenly found himself, bewildered, outside on the top of Culver Cliff, with the fires of burning Wolverton in front of him. By the time he walked back down to the town, all of Wolverton was burning with only one surviving building, St Urian's Church. All other inhabitants had been killed.
Having looted, pillaged and plundered, the French had left, leaving Tom alone in the ashes of Wolverton. Of the holy well there was no trace, and the stone cross inscribed with the fulfilled warning prophecy beside it had also vanished. By the time the people of Yaverland, Brading and Bembridge had come to investigate, listening to Tom's story, all agreed that the merchant must have been a demon, possibly even the Devil himself.
According to some versions of the story, as the people of Yaverland saw that the church at Wolverton had survived the inferno intact, untouched by the fire that had engulfed the rest of the town, they decided that the church was blessed. The village of Yaverland not having its own church at the time, they agreed to lift up the church onto wooden rollers and carry it a mile south-west from Wolverton to Yaverland.
Tom, all his friends and family being killed and having escaped death and damnation, chose to live the rest of his life as a hermit, living a pious and quiet life in isolation in the cave in Culver Cliff, now a simple cave and no longer a portal into hell.
Trees grew around the ruins of the destroyed town of Wolverton, hiding it from all prying eyes. No-one dared return to the place which had been so curse. What were once streets and houses becoming dense woodland, where, to this day, nightingales are never heard else they disturb the restless spirits of the slaughtered dead.