Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Ghostly Grey Lady of Washington

It is, of course, the Americans who have put Washington on the tourist trail. The first President of the United States of America was George Washington, whose family originally came from Washington. The American Washingtons had moved to the New World in 1656 after getting into some political difficulties during England’s Civil War. The flag of the United States is said to be based on the coat of arms of Washington, which features stars and stripes.

Be that as it may, it was not phantom presidents that brought me to Washington but a White Lady. The ghost is said to haunt Washington Old Hall, once the home of the Washington family and now in the care of the National Trust. The building is well signposted and stands beside the church in the centre of Washington village, around which the new town and its industrial estates is built.

Joe, who described himself as the general maintenance man, welcomed me to the Old Hall. “Definitely haunted”, was his verdict. “I’ll show you around but you’ll have to hurry. We’ve got a party of school children turning up around 12 and they tend to take over the whole building.” Joe led the way past the reception desk, where an impressive array of souvenirs was on sale, and turned right to enter a room occupying much of the eastern end of the ground floor.

“This is where most people see her,” said Joe. “This is the Panelled Room, see. Back in the old days when this was the grand old hall it was the private chamber of the lord and his family. Out there in the main hall,” Joe pointed back to the large chamber occupying most of the ground floor, “was where all the farm workers, servants and what have you ate their meals and did their work. This was a quiet room for the Washington family.”

Was the ghost seen often?

“Well, depends what you call often,” said Joe thoughtfully. “About four or five times a year, I think.” This was not unusual for a ghost, I thought. “She usually sits in the centre of the room on a chair. Just sitting there minding her own business like. Though she does seem to make the temperature drop. People who see her say the room gets suddenly very cold and they look round to see if there is a draft or something, and see this lady sat in a chair. But sometimes she walks about. And here’s the thing. She walks straight through that wall there.” Joe pointed at the north wall of the room. “And that tells us how old she is, you see.”

I did not see this at all and asked for details.

“Well,” continued Joe. “After the Washington family sold up and moved out the Old Hall passed through the control of various families and by around 1840 it was all divided up into tenements and rented out to poor families. Right state the house was in then. They just pulled down interior walls and put up partitions as they liked.” Joe looked round disapprovingly. “This end of the ground floor was made into one big room, from front to back. That wall was not there. Then in 1951 the house was bought up by a trust that wanted to preserve it and restore it. They put this partition wall back in where it should be and bought up a load of oak panneling from an old house that was being pulled down. So the ghost must date from the time when that wall wasn’t there. That’s why she could walk right through it.”

This made sense to me. In my investigations I have often noted that ghosts tend to behave as if they are repeating time and again things that happened to them when alive. This is why ghosts sometimes walk with their feet several inches above, or below, modern ground level. They are walking where the ground was in their day. And why other ghosts, such as the Washington White Lady, walk through walls.

“Mind you, that’s not all,” confided Joe. “She loves lavender, does our White Lady. More times than I can remember, I’ve come in here to open up in the morning and smelled lavender. Other people can smell it too. It can be very powerful. And one chap we had in here a few years ago for a wedding got home to find a sprig of lavender in his suitcase. Funny that. At another wedding, the photos taken in this room all came out spoiled. There were flashes of light and balls of glowing light floating about, though nobody had seen anything at the time.”

Joe made to leave the room, then stopped.

“And this door here. You can never keep it open, and you can never keep it closed. Doesn’t matter how you leave it, its the other when you come back.” Then he led the way out of the Panelled Room and up the staircase to a large room on the first floor. A group of ladies were scurrying around a number or trestle tables, loaded down with costumes and various knick knacks, getting ready for the school visit.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Haunted York - the video

Haunted York

Watch the video HERE

Squire Light, the phantom rake of Bridport, Dorset

The town of Bridport made its fortune from rope. The broad pavements of the high street were formerly festooned with ropes, nets, strings and a whole host of similar products being twisted, woven, tied and dried. When sailing ships relied on good rope for virtually everything, Bridport was of key strategic importance to both commerce and the fighting navy.

It was this busy, vibrant and prosperous town that drew Squire Light of Baglake House to visit in January 1748. Squire Light was a well known local rake. There was no malice in the man, but there was usually rather too much wine for his own good. Chasing women, starting fights and generally making a nuisance of himself were the chief delights of Squire Light, alongside hunting and racing horses.

Quite what it was that drew Squire Light into Bridport on 12 January we shall never know. He said he had to see a man on business, but did not reveal who the mysterious businessman was. He came back late in the afternoon in a foul mood. After moodily walking about the house and shouting at the servants for an hour or more, Squire Light called for his horse to be saddled and rode off. Fearing something was wrong, his groom saddled a second horse and set off in pursuit. He was too late. Squire Light had reached the River Mangerton and drowned himself.

The groom dragged the body out of the river and set off to report the suicide. As he trotted sadly homeward, he was startled to meet the phantom of his master riding towards the River Mangerton. The groom fell from his horse and never really recovered from the shock, remaining jumpy and nervous for the rest of his days.

The ghostly shade of Squire Light may still be seen riding down to the banks of the River Mangerton. There he springs down from his horse and vanishes. Whoever he met in Bridport that fatal day and whatever they discussed, the repercussions are still to be seen.

Friday, 11 February 2011

The Haunted City of York

The ancient city of York is one of the most magnificent cities in England. It is also one of the most haunted.

Nobody is entirely certain how many ghosts lurk among the ancient walls of York. There are certainly dozens of them, maybe over a hundred. Some ghosts stalk the streets and chambers of the city with alarming frequency, others appear only once or twice a year and a few appear so infrequently that some researchers believe they may have left this mortal world for good. The ghosts come in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. There are ancient ghosts, modern ghosts, male ghosts, female ghosts and ghosts so elusive that nobody knows anything very much about them at all.

But be they Roman soldiers, a Tudor gentleman, Grey Lady or enigmatic footsteps in empty rooms, the ghost of York all have one thing in common: York itself. It is a city with a character all of its own, moulded and shaped over more than 2,000 years of history.

There was some sort of a settlement here in Celtic times, but York enters history in ad71 when the Romans built a fortress here and named it Eboracum. Over the years the name has shifted and altered, but it remains rooted in that first designation. The modern name of York is derived from the “orac” element of the Roman name, coming to us by way of the Viking Jorvik.

Amazingly there are still remnants of Roman Eboracum to be seen. The western corner of the fortress was protected by a massive, multi-angular buttress which still stands in Museum Street, while the Museum itself contains fine statues, coins and other remains. There are even Roman ghosts still tramping through the city as their human counterparts once did in life - we shall come to their haunts almost as soon as we enter the city.

On the whole, however, York is a medieval city. It is dominated by the vast York Minster at one end of the city and the powerful Clifford’s Tower at the other. When the Norman conqueror, King William I came here in 1069 he casually burned down the Anglo-Viking city that had defied his right to rule. Then he ordered the construction of a circuit of walls that surrounded 263 acres of land. The walls seen today date mostly from later centuries, but they stand on the foundations laid by William.

The Normans also built a minster, but it was torn down in 1220 and the construction of the present church begun. Work went on for 250 years to produce the magnificent mass of masonry that dominates the city centre, and which contains one of Europe’s finest collections of medieval stained glass. We shall meet that glass again for it is linked to one of York’s phantoms. While the cathedral was being constructed, other teams of workmen were erecting the forbidding fortress of Clifford’s Tower at the southern end of the medieval city. That too has its spectres that we shall meet in this book.

The most pervasive remnant of the middle ages to survive in York is less tangible, but far more influential. The street layout of the city took its present form during this period, picking up names from Viking, English and Norman eras as well as more recent periods. The streets are usually thronged with tourists, and always with locals, but there remains space among them for the ghosts and phantoms that like to wander their old haunts.

Though the street layout remains from medieval times, most of the old houses and shops vanished long ago to be replaced by imposing Georgian residences. When Victoria came to the throne, she brought with her railways and a booming industrialisation that both left their mark on the city. So important was the rail industry to York, and vice versa, that the National Rail Museum is now located here, while old factories and workshops in various stages of decay and renovation abound.

Through all these ages, the city of York has endured. It has been burned to the ground more than once, ravaged by invading armies and yet always it has managed to rise again to greater glories. No less enduring are the ghosts that throng its walls and streets.

It is, perhaps, best to start a tour of ghostly York with the oldest and most famous of all the ghosts that lurk in this ancient city.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A Ghost at Wem

Back in 1677 the old town hall at Wem was burnt down. The fire was began accidentally by a young girl named Jane Churm, who died in the conflagration that followed. It was a tragedy that led to a persistent haunting.

The new town hall that rose up on the scorched site was quickly realised to be haunted. Those who worked there became accustomed to seeing the lively figure of young Jane Churm skipping about the place, running up stairs, darting in and out of rooms. She became a part of the building. If the ghost was seen rather less often as the years passed, she never quite vanished for good.

And then on 19 November 1995 the new town hall, by then over three centuries old, went up in flames. Those who gathered to watch the fire were certain that they saw the figure of Jane Churm standing on the stairs as they vanished in the smoke. One local man took a photo which clearly showed the girl standing apparently indifferent to the destruction wrought around her. She has not been seen on the site since. Perhaps two fires were enough.

Just west of Wem lie Loppington Woods. Like the old town hall, these seem to be free of supernatural activity these days, but in the later 19th century they gained international fame for what was seen to go on there. It seems that a poltergeist took up residenc. For several months houses there were plagued by broken crockery, flying cups and loud thumps and knocking noises. At Christmas 1883 the disturbances faded, never to return.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Battling Ghosts of Castle Combe, Wiltshire

Castle Combe is probably the most photographed village in Wiltshire. It has featured on more greetings cards and chocolate boxes than perhaps any in England. The old market cross, with its vaulted stone roof, and ancient stone houses serve as a perfect backdrop for the babbling By Brook as it tumbles down the narrow valley and under the three arched bridge at the lower end of the village.

Castle Combe owes its charm and beauty to a burst of prosperity in the 16th century when a group of Flemish weavers came here. They established a local industry, weaving the local woollen thread into quality cloth and so brought enough money to this little village to build the bridge, houses and market cross that make it so attractive.

But it is the narrow valley itself that explains the ghosts that lurk here. The steeply wooded slopes that flank the twisting road would make a deadly site for an ambush in any war. And it is the sounds of fighting men hacking at each other with swords, spears and axes that sometimes shatters the quiet calm of the woodlands. There are no guns going off in this phantom battle, nor are there horses’ hooves to be heard. Just the clash of metal on metal and the screams and cries of men shouting in a guttural language.

This startling manifestation is the faint echo of a small skirmish fought here centuries ago that saved England as a nation. In the 860s England was invaded by a large army of Vikings led by the mighty warrior Guthrum. These men did not come to raid, but to stay, conquer and settle. They crushed the kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia in short order and in 871 turned on Wessex, which then covered most of southern England including Wiltshire. A long series of battles followed, but by 875 King Alfred of Wessex had fought the Vikings to a standstill. Guthrum took oaths to his pagan gods promising peace and led his army back to the parts of England they had already conquered.

Alfred set about rebuilding his kingdom after the ravages of war. By Christmas 877 he was well on his way to success and went to the sumptuous royal residence at Chippenham to celebrate the festive season. But Guthrum was biding his time and was  determined to crush the last English king so that the Viking conquest of England would be complete. Believing, correctly, that the Christian feast of Christmas would be a good time to strike, Guthrum led his army on a secret march to Chippenham.

On Twelfth Night the Vikings struck. Most of Alfred’s men were at home on their estates across Wessex and he had only his personal body guard with him. The Viking onrush came at night when many men were drunk, sleeping or both. A determined rearguard held up the pagans just long enough for Alfred to get away and send messengers to those living nearby asking them to meet him urgently.

Soon after Alfred and the few men who had answered his summons met up somewhere near Chippenham. A force of Vikings had tracked Alfred and were hard on his heels. The English ambushed the Vikings, driving them off and giving Alfred time to slip away to hide in the Somerset marshes. In time Alfred would muster an army to crush Guthrum’s Vikings once and for all. He would then set about rebuilding Wessex as a powerful state, reconquer much of Mercia and lay the foundations for the united kingdom of England that we all know.

Where the ambush of the Vikings was carried out was not recorded. Given the ghosts of Castle Combe, however, the site would seem to be established. Not only is the narrow valley a perfect place for this type of an ambush, but it is just four miles from Chippenham. A fleeing king could cover such a distance at night, and the valley is as good a place to muster a force in secret as it is to launch an ambush.

If the fighting ghosts of Castle Combe are Alfred’s English driving off the Vikings then these are most significant ghosts. If this battle had ended differently and Alfred had died, Wiltshire would now be a Scandinavian county, not an English one.