Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Ghostly Soldiers of Odiham, Hampshire

Lunch over, it was time to investigate reports of ghosts out at Odiham Castle. The ruined fortress stands a mile or so west of the town just off the towpath of the old Basingstoke Canal. By the time I had finished lunch the wind had dropped and a bright autumn sun had come out. Nevertheless, there was something brooding about the ruins of Odiham Castle. The atmosphere was decidedly odd.

The day was chilly and dry, but around the castle the air was damp, almost clammy. The tall, overhanging trees cut out much of the sun and blocked any sounds from distant roads. The only noise was that of the fallen leaves rustling and tumbling over the ground in the breeze.

No doubt the strangeness of the place is enhanced by the fact that it is difficult to find for there are no signs to guide the visitor to these tumbled ruins. You could walk to the castle from Odiham, but it is a bit of a stretch and might take you an hour each way. I would recommend that you drive. Either way, leave Odiham village and get on to the B3349 heading north. At a small roundabout, turn left down the road towards Upton Grey. Almost at once there is a narrow road on your right which carries no signpost at all, but does warn drivers that there is a ford which is unsuitable for motor vehicles. There is, indeed, and this is where you should park your car. Follow the footpath to the left just beside the ford. This path takes you across a field and through a gate to emerge on the banks of the canal. Turn right along the towpath. The castle is about 100 yards on your right.

Once you eventually get there, there is only a forlorn notice erected by the Council giving information on the place. This is how ruins used to be, overgrown with weeds and neglected by the hand of authority. These are no tidy heritage-style ruins which have been all spruced up and made safe. They are falling down ruins. It is as if the castle’s owners just got up and went away one day. Since then nature and the wild wood have had the place to themselves.

The site has definite atmosphere. But does it have a ghost? And if so who is it and is there more than one?

An old book that I found in the archives of the British Library was in no doubt about it. “The ghost”, it declared confidently, “is that of a minstrel boy from times long past. The youth’s charming pipes can be heard drifting romantically through the ruins. The beauty and charm of the haunting need no emphasis for this tumbling ruin is the perfect backdrop to such a phantom musician.”

Someone of more practical opinions had obviously been to the ruins since then. It is now plastered with signs loudly proclaiming “DANGER” and warning of falling masonry and loose stones. Any romance or beauty was clearly lost on the Council engineer.

A man was walking his dog along the towpath when I called. Had he heard the phantom minstrel?

“Ah, well. No.” The man said as his large dog bounded around like a puppy. “Not me. But there is a ghost here, no doubt about it. Bloke in a helmet. They do say that King John was here before he went off up to Windsor to sign Magna Carta, see. And a right foul mood he was in too. Perhaps he’s here still.”


I got more detailed information from a lady named Vanessa, who lives in North Warnborough. She told me a more detailed story.

“Way back in the middle ages the English captured David, King of Scotland. They wanted to hold him to ransom, as was the custom back then when you had an important prisoner. And they needed to hold him in a secure place a long way from Scotland. They chose Odiham Castle. It had been built to be a fortified home by King John so it had comfortable rooms for the Scottish King as well as being surrounded by thick stone walls. Obviously the King of Scotland was none too pleased to be held prisoner, but he had plenty of money and was allowed to buy in various luxuries. One of the things he paid for was a minstrel. The young lad would soothe the imprisoned king with his pipe music. And that is what the haunting is all about. The pipe music is the King’s minstrel. The ghosts people see are the guards who kept the King of Scotland imprisoned.”


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