Thursday, 13 May 2010
Possibly the most ancient ghost of Exeter is the phantom nun who is seen to wander the old cloisters beside the cathedral on summer evenings. There is some sense of sadness about this phantom. She walks from the north of the cloisters to the south with her head bowed.
The Cathedral Close is also haunted, this time by a monk. He is seen only rarely and fleetingly, standing outside house No.5 and slipping from view almost as quickly as he appears. Some people think that the two ghosts are linked. It is rumoured that they date from the time of the great rebuilding of the cathedral in the 14th century, when Exeter heaved with workmen, tradesmen and religious figures of all kinds. John, the monk, and Martha, the nun, had come to Exeter from their respective houses to supervise the more spiritual aspects of the rebuilding. The pair, it is said, fell deeply in love. When the time came for them to return to their secluded houses they could not bear to be parted. They committed suicide so that they could be together forever.
Sadly, the phantoms are never seen together. The suicide pact does not seem to have worked. Whether the story has any basis in fact is unclear, it was not recorded until centuries after the events are supposed to have taken place.
Rather better documented is the phantom verger who has been seen inside the cathedral. This man died in the later 19th century and was seen soon after his death fussing around a side chapel as if going about his duties. He has been seen several times since, and more than one person has mistaken him for a real verger and tried to ask a question about the superb cathedral. Unlike most cathedrals there is no central tower at Exeter, so the 70 foot high ribbed vaulting of the ceiling runs uninterrupted from end to end of the building to form the longest such stone vault in the world. The twin towers that flank the crossing are the oldest part of th the cathedral, dating from Norman times. The rest of the building dates from the 13th century when a new nave, choir and chapels were erected as an harmonious whole.
Just down the hill from the Cathedral stands the White Hart Hotel, which stands on the site of the old South Gate in the now largely vanished city walls. The courtyard of this welcoming old inn is haunted by a young lady dressed in black. Those who have seen her say that she wears a flowing black cape or coat that effectively wraps her from neck to toe. She usually appears in the courtyard, walks out into South Street and vanishes.
Beyond the White Hart, the lane known as Quay Hill drops down steeply to the River Exe. It opens out into a broad, cobbled street flanked on one side by the river and on the other by an impressive collection of old buildings. This is Exeter’s historic Quayside area. Throughout most of the city’s history ships have been able to get up the Exe and Exeter has had a busy time as a port. Only in the later 19th century did ships become too large to get upriver. The Quayside went through a period of neglect, but has now been handsomely refurbished to house a market, antique stalls, craftworks, pubs and restaurants.
The most impressive building of all is the Custom House, which continued to house Her Majesty’s Custom and Excise staff until 1989. When this building was erected it was the largest brick building not just in Exeter but in all Devon. The wide ground floor arches which now house windows were originally an open arcade which allowed the custom officials to inspect the wagon loads of goods under cover before they were taken off the dockside. This fact was unknown to the lady who, in the 1980s, saw the Quayside’s phantom wagon drive straight through one of the walls and into the Custom House.
The wagon, pulled by two horses and loaded with goods, is not the most active ghostly apparition on the old Quayside. That honour belongs to the Victorian girl who haunts The Prospect, the oldest pub on the ancient docks. This little child grasps a rag doll firmly in her arms as she skips playfully around the pub. She seems perfectly happy and no story attaches to her. Who she is and why she haunts The Prospect is unknown.
This is an extract from Haunted Places of Devon by Rupert Matthews