The Phoenix Guide to Strange England – County by County: Hookland by David Southwell

Best experienced in the PDF zine

The Greencoat’s Truckle, Worstow

Hookland adores motorbikes. Possibly it’s an addiction to the excitement and the permissive freedom promised by the motorcycle. Possibly it’s the practical solution offered to the twisting, narrow roads of a largely rural county. Whatever the cause, the vehicle has seemed to fascinate many Hooklanders since the frothing press coverage given to the first Merryweather Fire Engine bike to be driven from London to Ashourt in 1889.

The Coreham Motorcycle Club founded in 1904 was one of the first of its kind established in England and until recent years, the county boasted three motorcycle manufacturers. The Hookland Victory Motorcycle Company built and sold its first vehicle in 1898 from premises at 195-197 Stonegate Road in Hook, while the Cottering & Niven Motor Company in Ashcourt was founded in 1916 to help meet wartime demand for two-wheeled troop transport. The county’s most successful motorbike maker remains Mordant-Zephon, also based on the outskirts of Ashcourt.

The county was an early adopter of utilising motorbikes for entertainment. In 1913, the first Hookland Time Trophy race was run on a hazardous course across the roads of Barrowcross, while in 1928 it got its first Wall of Death at the Coliseum amusement park in Brighthaven. By 1929, it boasted its first speedway team – the Ashcourt Lions – and its first crash-helmeted sporting ghost in the shape of Johnny Mains the same year.

Yet the escalating number of phantom riders that seemed to accrete on the highways and lanes of Hookland did little to dissuade a large number of young county folk who wanted to make a career out of their motorcycle passion. Among them was Romy Burland. When the organisers of 1932 Hookland Time Trophy race refused to let her compete on the grounds she did not meet the minimum weight requirement (a requirement they brought in an attempt exclude female competitors) she disguised herself and adopted the identity of a man to enter the competition. After coming fifth on her bike ‘the Sweet Machine’, but being disqualified when she revealed who she really was, Romy was recruited to the Lion’s speedway team as a ‘masked rider’ called Billy Brimstone – though everyone in the sport seemed to know it was her behind the darkened visor.

Burland helped the Lion’s reach the top of their sport when in 1936 and 1937 they raced at Wembley Stadium in the World Championship of Speedway. She was retired from the Lions in 1938 after pressure from the Auto-cycle Union which governed the sport. They complained of her ‘scandalous behaviour’ after the Sunday People and several other newspapers ran speculative stories about her relationships and alleged fondness for prescription cocaine. Asked about this, Burland famously quipped:

‘They got rid of me because they couldn’t handle the fact I’m the only rider with three cigarette cards – one for Billy Brimstone, one for the fastest women time trialist and one depicting my head-to-head with Fay Taylor.’

Burland also achieved a modicum of notoriety as founder of the most well-known of the county’s female motorcycle clubs – the Hookland Hellions.

During World War II, Burland was a motorcycle courier for the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS also known as the Wrens). She was awarded the British Empire Medal when during one run from the blitzed capitol to Ashcourt, she was blown off her bike by a Luftwaffe bombing raid and despite suffering a broken shoulder, ran the last mile to her destination to deliver a dispatch. It was during another London-Ashcourt run that Romy Burland suffered a fatal high-speed crash on a 342cc Triumph while coming down a narrow lane near Long Lavington in the north east of the county.

Possibly due to her fame, possibly due to Hookland’s love of motorbikes, Romy Burland is one of those figures whose ghost is said to be seen in several different locations. Aside from the site of her death, where many have reported hearing the phantom roar of a bike at high speed or a sickening tearing of metal and rending of flesh, up until its closure, some racegoers and staff at the Lion’s old stadium swore they saw Romy in her Billy Brimstone disguise wandering among the other racers in the pits. Romy’s presence is also detected at The Greencoat’s Truckle pub at Worstow, much favoured as a destination for excursions by the Hookland Hellions.

An 18th century timber building, whose white wooden boards make it stand out from the strident green bordering of the main road in and out of Worstow, even in the 1930s The Greencoat’s Truckle was a popular destination for cyclists as well as two and four-wheeled motorists wanting to escape to the countryside for a drink. Rather than the ghost of Romy herself, the pub’s carpark is seemingly visited by the apparition of her favourite motorbike – a 500cc Mordant-Zephon Star. Current landlord of the establishment Jimmie Wilson told the Guide:

“We often have non-locals come into the bar and ask who the lovely old bike belongs to. They get a bit of a shock when I point at the picture in the lounge of Romy and the other Hellions posing beside their bikes from the 1930s and tell them the machine belongs to Burland. We know it’s hers as a lot of folk say they’ve seen a conker in a black silk stocking tied to the handlebars. That was her personal lucky charm and she used it in every race she had. Of course, when they go back out into the carpark it has always disappeared.”

However, the form of haunting by Burland that causes most surprise seems linked to a memorial statue of her outside the walls of her ancestral home at Greywood. The life-sized bronze of her atop a motorcycle is a striking landmark that appears to be racing parallel to the road. More than one person has stopped their car to admire the effigy only to feel someone come up behind them and hear them and declare:

“Great isn’t it? Just a crying shame they got the bike wrong. I rode a Star not a bloody Norton International.”

When they turn around there is no-one there, though some do report a lingering smell of Guerlain Shalimar and hot oil.

David Southwell is an author of several published books on true crime and conspiracies, which have been translated into a dozen languages.

However, these days, he mostly writes about place.

Twitter:      Hookland     Repton

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