Friday, 30 April 2010
A Visit to Haunted Odiham, Hampshire
The High Street is among the widest in England, and its width is the first thing to strike a visitor. The roadway was made like this to allow a stagecoach pulled by a team of four horses to turn around, the coaching trade between London and the ports of the south coast being a major industry from medieval times to the coming of the railways. The George Hotel was long the most luxurious and prestigious of the inns that catered to the coach trade. The oldest parts of the building date back to 1540, though most of what stands today dates back to a major rebuilding that took place in the mid-18th century. So does the ghost.
As ghosts go, the one that lurks here is pretty scary. Fortunately it is most unlikely you will encounter anything more frightening these days than a particularly well cooked bit of seafood, but that is for later.
About 250 years ago, which is when the story of the haunting begins, the area around Odiham was not a particularly pleasant place to loiter. The village was nice enough, but the countryside around was the hunting ground of highwaymen, footpads and violent robbers of all kinds. By that date the hotel had already had a colourful history. It had played host to many important dignitaries on their way to London from the southwest. It also doubled up as the courthouse on occasion and was even the chosen home of wealthier French prisoners during the long wars of the 18th century.
In those days the George catered for the local gentry. Mindful of the unsavoury nature of the surrounding roads at night, the George kept a coach to hand to take its esteemed guests home if they stayed late and became rather the worse for wear. The coachman who ferried his merry customers home prudently kept a pistol under his seat in case he encountered a man of evil intent.
His new young wife, however, worried about him. Each night she waited in their room at the rear of the hotel anxiously listening out for the hoofbeats that told her that her husband was safely home.
One particular night she heard the longed-for hoofbeats and dashed to her door to welcome her husband. Opening the door, the poor woman was struck dumb with fright. There was no coach and no husband. Just a lone figure standing in the yard. The figure was a woman in a long grey cloak, but it was the figure’s face that held the attention. It was a great terrifying emptiness. There was simply nothing there - yet it managed to be ugly and filled with hate and evil. As the wife watched aghast, the hideous figure stared at her for seconds that seemed like hours. Then the spectral woman turned and drifted across the yard, disappearing into the shadows at the far end.
Moments later the coach pulled into the yard, the coachman safe and well. Despite this the man’s wife took the apparition to be a clear warning to quit the job at once. After some persuasion, her husband gave up his risky, if lucrative, duties and went to work at another inn where he was given employment safely behind the bar.
The hideous old hag has not been seen recently. Sarah, the receptionist, greeted me warmly when I called. She happily showed me round to the stableyard where the ghost lurked. It is now a cheery, open space which has lost whatever sinister atmosphere it might once have had. Tables protected by large sun shades are scattered about the yard, each with its complement of chairs - though there were no drinkers when I called as the weather was a bit nippy and a chill wind whipped autumnal leaves around the place.
Inside was another story. “We have our Cromwell’s Seafood Restaurant here now,” Sarah informed me. “Chef is very proud of it too. He gets all his fish and stuff in fresh every morning from the market - no frozen fish here, you see. He won’t have it. Would you like to see a menu?”
It seemed an offer worth investigating. So impressed was I that I at once put off my plans to visit the nearby haunted castle and settled down to a magnificent meal of Moules Breton - that’s mussels in cream sauce - followed by a lemon sole grilled to perfection. And the glass of chilled dry white wine helped as well.
I looked around the warmly comfortable restaurant as I contemplated the dessert menu. I could not imagine why the ghost had not returned since a refurbishment some 10 years back. Good place to come back to, it would be thought.
This is an extract from Haunted Hampshire by Rupert Matthews.