Boldre’s a really beautiful little village, deep in the New Forest, which is a national park in the South of England, and one of the nicest parts of the country.
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There’s a particular pub there that I used to spend a lot of my time in back in the 1970s and late 1960s called the Red Lion, and I remember a particular set of encounters with the pub’s namesake, a strange monster from the local folklore called the Stratford Lyon.
The story was the sort that anyone would tell you if you bought them a drink. The way it usually went was that at the beginning of the 15th century a local aristocrat named John Stratford was walking through his newly inherited lands around Boldre and South Baddesley.
It was in a patch of woodland called Haresmede, between the trees and the shrubs and the undergrowth, that John Stratford found something strange. There, sticking right out of the ground, was the weirdest sight he’d ever seen. It was a pair of antlers. Not just normal antlers but massive antlers. Like a stag on steroids.
Well, he went up to them, gave them a kick, and started pulling at them (as you do). Eventually, they started to give, and before too much time had passed young Stratford had dragged the antlers out of the ground enough to reveal they were attached to massive head, covered in red fur. So he kept pulling, and soon a wild mane appeared, also red.
He kept pulling, and soon there were huge yellow swiveling eyes like saucers, massive tusks and fangs, and eventually an entire red lion, but an absolutely giant one.
Once the giant lion was out it let loose a roar that was heard all over the New Forest, and charged at John with those huge sharp antlers. John was young and sprightly, however, a bit of an adventurer, and leaping to one side he dodged the antlers, grabbed a hold of them, and pulled himself onto the monster’s back!
This was the last thing the monster wanted, and in a rage it started trying to buck him off, throwing itself around to dislodge its rider. The monster galloped and galloped around the forest, tracing the boundary line three times, until finally, exhausted, it gave up. John Stratford wrestled it to the ground until it gave up completely, and having tamed the monster he made it pledge its service to him and his family.
Then you’d notice that they’d finished their pint and they were nodding towards the bar. So you’d go up, get them another, and they’d tell you that since that day the Stratford Lyon has been sighted on the death and on the birth of every member of John Stratford’s family, as well as whenever great joy (such as a wedding) or great sadness (an illness or an injury, or a bad business deal) has befallen a Stratford.
Not a particularly useful service, if you ask me, but perhaps he does other things too. They’d then lower their head a little, and tell you about the time they saw the Lyon themselves, staring at them through the window of the pub, or in the distance running through the trees. Pretty much all the locals had a story after you bought them a drink!
Before the war there had been a framed 19th-century poem on the wall of the pub which was about the Lyon. Even earlier than that there used to be a huge pair of antlers on the wall, which had supposedly been shed by the monster, and a nickname for the pub used to be “The Stratford.”
In the local church, there’s some medieval graffiti of a lion with antlers, and a Stratford family bible from the 18th century has a 300ish-year-old version of the story written down in it.
The oldest locals said there used to be a little model of the Stratford Lyon on the bar, but that it was long gone. I even spoke to one man who had stopped coming to the Red Lion and started drinking somewhere else, because he kept seeing the monster on his way home and it used to ruin his nights!
I only saw the Stratford Lyon once, myself, and it was on the last night that I drank at the pub. Earlier someone else in the bar had had a fright, when they looked at the window and said they’d seen a huge yellow eye like a saucer staring at them through it, which had then disappeared.
We all laughed and explained to him about the monster. As I left that night I started up at the moon and breathed in the air. There, in the distance, was a strange silhouette.
At first, I thought it was a bizarre tree, or a statue or a building or something I had’t noticed before. Then I realised that it was a lion, massive and sitting and staring, and on its huge maned head were the biggest pair of antlers I’ve ever seen, like some Celtic god.
I just stared, dumbstruck, as it threw back it’s head and roared, and I felt my entire body tingle, and then it had disappeared completely, and all around me was the rapid shaking of trees.
I felt strange waves of hot and cold, and like he’d put the show on specially for me. I knew then that a chapter in my life had closed, and a new one was beginning. I never went back to the Red Lion, and after that everything changed for me. Perhaps I’ve got some Stratford in me after all!
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