Neil Arnold. Kent Urban Legends: The Phantom Hitch-Hiker and Other Stories. The History Press, 2013.

Blue Bell Hill, that sounds a nice place, doesn’t it? Redolent of Enid Blyton and sunny picnics with lashings of ginger beer.

Don’t go there. Literally. Don’t go there. According to Neil Arnold, you’re likely to bump into any number of phantom hitchhikers, whether they’re a bride killed on the way to her wedding, a cyclist mown down by a car or the end products of various other road-traffic accidents.

And if you miss the phantom hitchhiker, there’s a chance you’ll meet the Devil if you try to count the stones in the local stone circle, or come across the weird Voodoo Woman, dressed in beads and leaves, or the terrifying giant phantom rabbit. There’s phantom big-cats too, but you’d rather expect that by now, although you might not be prepared for the real big-cat that someone caught there.

Did I mention the phantom Black Dog, or even the White Dog, both obviously harbingers of doom.

And then you might come across into one of the Kentish Wildmen, although it’s not too clear whether they’re just some harmless old nutter dressed in animal skins, an actual out-of-time Neanderthal, a bona-fide Sasquatch, or just a seven-foot high hulking dark creature with glowing red eyes. Or maybe all of the above.

So Kent, you see, isn’t all Garden of England, H. E. Bates’ Larkin Family, rosy red apples and Cockney hop-pickers. According to Arnold you take your life in your hands (or rather put it in the Devil’s) if you run across Rochester Bridge. Having made it to the Medway towns you might encounter the phantom hair snipper of Rochester or the dreaded Sausage Slashers of Chatham.

Spring Heeled Jack popped up for a while in the nineteenth century, but he seems a bit old hat against such legends as the haunted radio of Gillingham or the giant razor-wielding squirrel of Oaklands Primary School.

But some of these Kentish terrors are not all they’re cracked up to be. “England’s Most Haunted Village” of Pluckley, for instance. Chock-full of scary spirits we’re told: the highwayman, a reliable favourite; the miller; the ever-popular monk; the Tudor Lady; the watercress woman, a bit of a novelty that; a screaming man; two White Ladies; and for a change a Red Lady; a schoolmaster and a colonel (sounds a bit like a game of Cluedo) and a traditional spectral coach and horses with the obligatory headless coachman.

The only problem is that no-one ever seems to have actually seen any of them. ‘Most Haunted Village’? Trading Standards should get down there and sort them out.

Kent has its own examples of more general urban legends too: the spider in the beehive hair-do, the deadly Chelsea Smilers football gang, children being abducted in shopping malls, the AIDS club, etc., which all seem a little bit more immediate because of course, they happened to the bloke who lived next door to a friend of a friend of Neil Arnold.

I don’t suppose that Kent is any more legend-haunted than any other county, but Arnold puts together a good collection, throws in a bit of local history, and recounts them entertainingly. But one thing I must challenge him on. Treacle mines in Maidstone? No, mate, the real ones are in Knotty Ash! -- John Rimmer

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