Lost villages and abandoned churches have always been the stuff of folklore and fuel for scary tales up and down the country. Boughton in Northamptonshire once had a neighbouring hamlet called Boughton Green that existed because of the big fayre held there. Records of the fayre going on go back to the 1300s with fine tools and houseware being sold then the final day featured wrestling and some animal “sports”. Eventually it became a horse and cattle fair as at Stow and other places, but Boughton Green had something unique. A large spiral maze was cut into the turf where visitors to the fayre would take on the challenge of walking it's complex twists and turns without stepping off the line. It had some symbolic meaning which was lost centuries ago and unfortunately the maze went the same way during WW1 – local recruits practising trench digging went right through it.
While there is now no trace at all of Boughton Green or it's maze, the ruins of it's local church do still stand. The church of St John clings stubbornly on, having been completely abandoned sometime in the mid 1700s but remaining very much a sanctified place. Burials actually still take place here, carried down from the other St John's in the main Boughton village, so gravestones from the 2000s stand next to ivy strewn monuments from the 1600s. Why was it abandoned? The reason given locally sounds absolutely bizarre and to be taken with a pinch of salt, but apparently the congregation and clergy were driven out by a biblical plague of rabbits! The conies dug warrens deep into the sloping graveyard then began to undermine the church foundations, with no amount of hounds, ferrets or other means having any effect on their numbers. A little digging (sorry!) does show some evidence that this actually happened too.
The Victoria History of Northamptonshire says “the rabbits invaded the churchyard itself, making the place so dangerous that the inhabitants were afraid to go to mass for fear of breaking their necks”, then we have this from the late 1500s lamenting the trashing of the graveyard - “that a man can go skantly in a corner of yt but he shall fynde it full of dead mennes bones, a thing most pytyous to be seen” then concluding that “ a great number of conyes have so underminded the church yarde of Bouckton that it wold abhorre any Crystiane manys harte in the world to see it”.
A strange fate for the church, but the ruins are even stranger. As you'd expect, all manner of ghosts and phantoms have been seen here. The most well known one, recorded in the venerable Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, tells of a Captain Slash, a notorious local highwaymen, who would organise a gang to rob all they could from the fayre held at Boughton Green. He was caught red handed in 1826 and hanged at Northampton, with the legend also claiming that he kicked his own boots off in his death throes (the long drop hadn't been developed yet) because he had sworn to his mother that he would die peacefully in bed barefoot. They say he haunted the ruins of the church, staring at passers by and cackling menacingly. Another tale told was of a young man who walked past the ruins on Christmas Eve in 1875 and saw a beautiful red haired young lady sitting there weeping. He went over and tried to console her, where for his sins she told him he would die within the week! This could only happen if he accepted a kiss from her, which he would not, but she pecked him on the cheek anyway and disappeared...the poor youth passed away within seven days.
A crying child, a black hatted old lady, a flat capped old man, a hooded phantom, all have been reportedly witnessed among the crumbling walls, with the most bizarre local legend claiming that if one records video footage of the ruins after dark, a young girl's voice can be heard when played back, apologising for some crime she committed. Unsurprisingly, St John's is a hotspot for “paranormal investigations” with dozens of such groups descending on the site over the years and a host of videos appearing online. One reason for the church having such a spooky reputation may lie in it's original foundation, as a natural spring actually flows from underneath the old building. This suggests another example of a church being built on the site of a pre – Christian pagan place, and probably why they chose St John as it's saint with his association with watery baptisms. A trickle of water was still issuing forth from it's stone housing when I visited the place...perhaps the labyrinth at the fayre had something to do with this, a tradition that nobody could remember the origin of?
When visiting Boughton old church, watch your footing as you walk around as the overgrown graveyard is a chaotic jumble at best, please respect the medieval ruins, and gentlemen – if you see a red haired woman in distress there, it's probably best to keep walking!
Boughton Church ruins
Corner of the church of St John at Boughton Green
Boughton Green ruins
The ruins take on a darker aspect as night approaches
The spring underneath the church, still trickling a little
The ruins of St John's church
One of the very old tombstones in the graveyard
Diagram of the plan of the turf maze at Boughton Green , thanks to Sacred Texts