I work in Tarrytown, which is in Westchester, just north of the Bronx. In 1996, North Tarrytown had its name changed back to its original, and much more famous, former moniker of Sleepy Hollow. When I found this out, I became desperate to come back to Westchester on a weekend so I could go and see the places made famous in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and this past weekend, with sunny skys and autumnal foliage, the timing was just perfect. The day before we went, I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the first time. Having only known the story from the Johnny Depp film, I was expecting something frightening and bloody – how wrong I was! Hollywood strikes again! The original tale couldn’t be more different, and is more of a love letter to the small, traditional Dutch community that once lived here, and the legends and tales belonging to the sleepy, wooded glen on the banks of the Hudson where they had chosen to settle. The power of suggestion and imagination is very prominent in Irving’s tale, and it’s pretty clear that the Headless Horseman exists only in the projected fears of the inhabitants’ minds, rather than in reality. However, as I found out during my day at Sleepy Hollow, there really was a headless horseman, and a Katrina Van Tassel (several of them, actually, as Van Tassel was the equivalent of the surname Smith in the area), and current inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow are no less enamoured with the legends of the area as their predecessors were.
My tour of Sleepy Hollow began at the Old Dutch Church and Burial Ground, which is a pretty flint church with lovely windows and duck egg blue interior that dates back to the 1600s. It was this church that Ichabod Crane taught his choirboys in, and where the Headless Horseman was buried and rose from for his nightly rides. Now the church is on a busy main road, but at the time, it was situated at the curve of an old post road, and surrounded by countryside. To the East of the church is the burial ground, filled with many beautiful, 18th and 19th century graves, many in Dutch, and all with fantastic carvings. Every other grave is that of a Van Tassel, and the tour guide explained how many families intermarried, and so most people in the graveyard were related to each other either by blood or by marriage. In the middle of the graveyard is an empty patch where no graves have ever been dug; legend has it that this is where the Headless Horseman was buried. The Headless Horseman was a real man; a Hessian soldier hired by the British to fight the Americans, he was beheaded in the battle of White Plains. The local people allowed him to be buried in the church yard because, legend says, he rescued the small daughter of a local family whose house had been burnt down by the British soldiers. This favour was remembered, but not to the extent that he was allowed a headstone. Over time this story developed into a legend about the Headless Horseman riding out at night to reclaim his head, though the tour guide couldn’t say whether anyone had seen him recently!
Right next to the old burial ground is the cemetery, which houses many more graves, mainly from the 19th century. This is where Washington Irving is buried, along with other American luminaries such as Andrew Carnegie and Elizabeth Arden. On Saturday, with the October sun burning brightly, and the forest of trees in the glen below the cemetery beginning to glow orange and gold, it was a beautiful, peaceful place. Not as beautiful, though, as Stone Barns, a working farm a short car ride away, which has a delicious cafe and stunning vistas across the local countryside, just an hour outside of Manhattan. Here you can see all sorts of farm animals roaming free; turkeys, chickens, sheep and pigs; as well as their vegetable and fruit growing patches and greenhouses. It was lovely to get away from the hustle and bustle and get some fresh air, and I thought for a moment, as I looked across the rolling green fields, that I was back in England. It was a fabulous day, and has really whet my appetite for more adventures outside of Manhattan.