Friday, 27 May 2011

The Terrible Giant Bolster of Cornwall

Six miles from St Agnes stands the prehistoric fortress of Carn Brea, within which stands a much smaller medieval castle. This ancient fort is said to have been the home of a giant named John Gaunt, who had a feud with Bolster. The giants passed the time by chucking stones at one another. One stone struck John Gaunt on the head and killed him, whereupon Bolster hurled more stones to bury the body of his enemy. All that was left above ground was one of John Gaunt’s hands. This hand, it is said, has now turned to stone. There is a granite boulder at the western end of the fort that is shaped like a hand.

Once John Gaunt was out of the way, Bolster took to striding around his lands, and those of his neighbours. One day he stopped to drink at St Agnes’s Well at Chapel Porth. As he bent down he left his thumbprint on the rocks - and a curious rock formation can be seen there today as proof of the story.

Bolster had meanwhile fallen in love with St Agnes. As a devout christian lady she wanted nothing to do with a pagan giant and brushed off his attentions. The giant Bolster was not so easily dismissed and he became such a nuisance that the Christian community begged St Agnes to do something. She accordingly went to see Bolster and promised to marry him if he would first fill up a hole in the cliff at Chapel Porth with his blood. Bolster strode over, put his arm over the hold and opened up a vein. The blood poured out, but St Agnes had tricked the giant by choosing a hole that connected down to the sea. The giant’s blood flowed away. Eventually Bolster died from loss of blood. His body fell into the sea and was washed away.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A ghostly monk in Bristol

In Bristol, All Saints Church harbours a phantom monk. When orders came from King Henry VIII to close down the monastery of which this church was a part the monks buried their holy treasures. When one monk remonstrated with the angry soldiers for their supposed impiety, he was struck so hard that he fell back and smashed his head on the pavement. He died soon after, and his ghost began to walk. It is generally supposed that the ghost is guarding the great treasure hidden thereabouts. Whether he is trying to lead people to it, or guard it from prying eyes nobody is entirely certain. He vanishes almost as soon as he appears.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

How I got interested in Ghosts

I got interested in ghosts quite by accident. It began as a hobby, but has since spiralled and now my house is packed with books about ghosts, files of inerviews I have conducted with people who have seen ghosts and photos of haunted places.

It all began, I recall, some 20 years ago at the Molesworth Arms in Wadebridge, Cornwall. I am an historian and my research often takes me away from home. That trip was to look into sites linked to King Arthur in the West Country. Of course all the places I needed to visit closed around 5pm and even the open air sites are pointless to visit once the sun goes down. Evenings away from home all on your own aren’t much fun. There is only so much television you can watch or books you can read.

Anyway, there I was in the Molesworth Arms ordering a drink and an evening meal. I was flicking through the menu and saw at the back a short history of the building. It mentioned that the pub was haunted, or rather its courtyard was, by a coach and four horses. I couldn’t resist. I had to go and look. Then I asked the barmaid about it. She confirmed the ghost, and told me about another haunted site in the town. On my way back to the B&B where I was staying, I took the time to visit that other site as well.

That started me off. Rather than twiddle my thumbs or get bored of an evening away from home, I decided to investigate ghosts and hauntings. There are a surprising number of them about. Wherever my work took me, I would manage to turn up one or two. I got to carrying a camera with me to photograph the haunted room, hall or road. And I began noting down conversations with the people who had seen the ghosts as well.

Soon, as word spread among my work colleagues and friends about my hobby, people began sending me newspaper cuttings about spooky events. And then friends of friends would start to phone up with their stories. And emails from complete strangers would pop up on my computer screen telling me about the ghosts and phantoms local to where they live.

It began as a hobby to pass the time when away from home, but has now become a more time consuming effort.

This book recounts my adventures in and around Sunderland when looking for ghosts, phantoms and spectres. I would like to thank all the people who have helped me with my enquiries and investigations. Some are named in this book, others preferred to remain anonymous - which is fair enough. I must particularly thank Alan Tedder who also has an interest in the supernatural and who gave me many of his research notes and documents along with permission to use them in my investigations.

There are plenty of ghosts and other paranormal events in the Sunderland area, and most of the haunted places are interesting to visit in their own right. I would recommend anyone who wants to know more to get out and about the area with this book in hand.

You never know, you might see one of the spooks for yourself.


Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe

The screaming skull of Bettiscombe is probably the best known haunting of Dorset, certainly outside the county. And yet all is not what it may appear.

According to the generally accepted legend of the screaming skull, the story began in 1685 when James, Duke of Monmouth, landed in Dorset to raise a Protestant rebellion against his Catholic uncle King James II. Azariah Pinney, son of John Pinney who owned Bettiscombe, joined the Monmouth Rising. The rebellion ended in defeat and young Azariah, along with hundreds of others, was dragged before a court charged with treason. Found guilty, Azariah was sentenced to hang, though the authorities ruled his life would be spared if the sum of £65 could be found. Azariah’s sister Hester put up the money, so the young man was shipped as a slave to the West Indies instead of being  hanged.

Azariah later won his freedom and rose to be a prominent merchant on the island of Nevis. In 1705 John Pinney died and his son came home to take over the family estates. Azariah brought with him a faithful negro companion, a man who had once been a fellow slave on the sugar plantations of Nevis. As the first black man to be seen in that part of Dorset, the negro made a great impression on the local folk.

When he died, the negro was buried in Bettiscombe Church, but he did not rest in peace. Bettiscombe House was plagued by terrifying screams, slamming doors and crashing furniture. Only then did Azariah recall that he and his companion had sworn never to be separated. The body was dug up and, although only a few days had passed, the skull was found to be entirely clean of flesh of any kind. The gleaming, grinning skull was taken from the grave and carried to Bettiscombe House where it was put high up in the roof timbers, sitting on a brick chimney.

There it rested until the middle of the 19th century. Bettiscombe House was then being rented out as a farm and the new tenant did not much fancy his grim companion. He took down the skull and threw it into the nearby pond. At once the house was plagued by disturbances. Screams once more echoed through the rooms and doors were slammed shut by unseen hands. After less than a week, the farmer headed for the pond armed with a hay rake with which he combed the waters until he retrieved the skull. It has not left the house since.

In 1963 a professor of anatomy inspected the skull and declared it to be that of a European woman aged about 30. So much for the legend of a faithful black servant. It has been suggested that the skull may have come from one of the prehistoric barrows that dot the hills around Bettiscombe. Antiquarians of the 17th century were known to have dug open such tombs and taken the contents as souvenirs.

According to Michael Pinney, a descendant of the supposed slave owner, the whole story was concocted in the 1830s by another ancestor Anna Maria Pinney. This was the time when gothic horror stories, such as Frankenstein and Dracula, were hugely popular. Following the genre, young Anna took some genuine local tales and wove them together into the legend of the screaming skull.

The life story of Azariah and his escapades were true enough and the skull was a very real presence in the house - said to be a good luck charm. There was also a ghostly presence in the attic which took the form of heavy footsteps pacing back and forth. Imagination, it would seem, did the rest.

Whatever its origins may be, the skull of Bettiscombe retains a powerful aura. It is perhaps wise to leave it where it is.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Ghosts at the Windmill pub in York

Continue to walk southwest along Blossom Street to find the Windmill Hotel on the right at No.14. The ghost here is usually said to be that of an 18th century ostler. He is not seen very often, but when he does appear he most certainly does seem to be wearing clothes that would fit with such a date and occupation. He has, on occasion, been mistaken for a workman. Perhaps the best documented case of this came when a cleaner was going up the stairs and spotted, as she thought, a building coming down. The pub at this time was having some building work done, so her assumption was a natural one. The cleaner stepped aside to let the burly figure pass her. At that moment she thought that there was something odd about the man, and simultaneously wondered what a builder supposed to be working in the yard would be doing upstairs. She turned to accost the man, but he had gone. She hurried downstairs, but the place was empty.

The ghostly ostler has also been blamed for the heavy, phantom footsteps that are heard climbing the staircase. Interestingly, the ghostly sounds are unmistakably those of a man’s boots thudding up wooden stairs even though the staircase is carpeted and has been for many years. This same ghost is also held to be responsible for the ice-cold mist that sometimes forms on the upper corridor. This strange mist takes the form of a column about six feet tall and some three feet across. Those who have encountered it say that it seems to suck all the warmth out of the air leaving the room as cold as a deep freeze, even on the warmest summer days.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that in the 1970s, the then landlord hired a new barman who proved to be efficient, hard-working and popular with customers. Sadly the man had been in post only a week or so when he one day marched up to the landlord and announced that he was leaving. “I’m not staying here, not with what else is here,” the man said and left never to return.

Another, rather older, story about the Windmill maintains that there is a second ghost to be met just outside the front door. This sad little phantom is said to be the ghost of a little girl who was knocked down and killed by a horse and cart in the mid-19th century. This particular phantom does not seem to have been seen for a good many years. Perhaps, as is the way with many ghosts, she has faded from human view.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Terror of Scotland, at Kinlet in Shropshire

The man known as “The Terror of Scotland” came from the village of Kinlet in the shape of Sir George Blount, gentleman. This imposing man earned his name during the so-called “rough wooing” of the 1540s.

King Henry VIII of England wanted his son and heir to marry the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, and so unite the two nations. The Scots, however, preferred a French alliance and refused. King Henry sent the English army into Scotland to take the bride by force. The invasion culminated in the Battle of Pinkie, just outside Edinburgh, after Henry’s death when his army was led by the Earl of Somerset. The English destroyed the Scots army, killing some 10,000 men while losing only 247 themselves.

Then troops of men, one led by Sir George Blount of Kinlet, fanned out across the kingdom to find the intended bride. Mary had, however, already fled to France, but that did not stop the English taking possession of the northern lands. Blount administered the areas assigned to him with a ruthless efficiency that gained him his nickname. In 1561 Queen Mary returned to Scotland, having reached an agreement with the new ruler of England, Queen Elizabeth I.

Blount, in his turn, returned home to Kinlet. There he married and settled down to farm his spreading estates. The marriage produced a son and daughter. The boy died as a toddler, tragically choking on an apple. Despite his fearsome reputation, Blount was distraught. He laid the tiny body in a silver coffin and buried it with his own hands. When his daughter grew up, Blount was pained to see her form an attachment with a local man of whom he disapproved.

As Blount lay dying in 1581 he called his daughter to his side and begged her not to marry the man. His pleas fell on deaf ears. Barely was he cold in his grave at Kinlet Church than his daughter married. It was this event that began the hauntings.

Emerging from the church in an apparent furious temper, the ghostly Sir George Blount calls to his side a huge black charger. Mounting the steed, Sir George puts his spurs to the horse and gallops off at high speed towards the village of Kinlet. The first time that the ghost put in an appearance, it nearly frightened to death the old family servant who saw it. The dramatic ghost continued to ride long after the errant daughter passed away and, in in 1720, the Blounts pulled down the old house in an attempt to escape the ghostly visitations.

The new Kinlet Hall is an imposing structure in the finest neo-Classical taste. But its construction has done nothing to halt the appearances of Sir George Blount. Mounted on his fiery steed, he rides the road between the church and hall to this day. It is as well not to get in his way, for he is said to charge down any who do, hurling them aside with terrific force.

Clearly the old warrior’s anger is not yet faded.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Harbringers of Death at Bratton, Wiltshire

The village of Bratton is a deceptive place. It lies astride the B3098 just east of Westbury where the road dips down suddenly to skirt the lower slopes of the plateau known as Salisbury Plain. To the casual driver passing on his way across the Wiltshire countryside, it appears as quiet and peaceful a village as any in the county. Yet this is a place steeped in history and in ghostly goings on. There is more here reaching out from the past than you will find in many towns.

The first phantom to be met near the village is one that appears in several places across Wiltshire and, indeed, England. Although it goes by various names, the Black Dog always fits a set description and is universally held to be a most dangerous phantom to meet. This particular Black Dog lurks near St Catherine’s Well. As elsewhere it is said to be not just big but enormous – almost as big as a donkey. Its eyes are perfectly circular, more like saucers than eyes, and may glow with a dull red flame. This is a beast best avoided. If it is encountered, it is wise to get out of its way for the Black Dog, or Shuck as it is often called, can cause sickness and death with terrifying ease.

Another harbinger of death lurks at Bratton. Where the main road through the village drops down to the bottom of the slopes of Salisbury Plain it crosses a small stream. Across this stream passes a phantom hearse on nights of the full moon if a villager is to die before the next full moon. The best time to see the ghostly carriage is, apparently at midnight. Not so long ago a group of local teenagers sat up on the night of the full moon. They saw nothing. But then none of the village’s inhabitants died that month.


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Ghost of Lady Jane Grey

Ambition, greed and treachery feature in the story of the first of the hauntings to be encountered at Astley. The tale involves two ghosts that flit about the castle ruins. In reality the building was always more of a fortified manor house than a true castle, its comfortable rooms providing luxurious living to generations of the Grey family.

It was in 1553 that fate caught up with the Greys. They had been living prosperous, but relatively quiet, lives for generations. Then Henry Grey married Frances, daughter of the Duke of Suffolk and granddaughter of Mary, sister of King Henry VIII. The marriage brought some wealth, though not much, and family links to court and crown. It seemed a good idea at the time. Then came a succession of early deaths, executions and banishments among the royal family and higher nobility. By the fateful year, Henry’s daughter Jane Grey was fourth in line to the throne.

It was becoming quickly clear that the teenage King Edward VI was dying of consumption. Officially his heir was his sister, the Catholic Mary, but the Protestants believed she was illegitimate. After Mary came another sister, the Protestant Elizabeth, but the Catholics declared that she was illegitimate. The only heir both Catholics and Protestants could accept as legitimate was young Jane Grey, then just 15 years old.

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was by this time the head of government. He was ambitious for his family and arranged a marriage between his son, Guildford Dudley, and Jane Grey. He thus brought his family directly into royal circles, and promised Henry Grey a great deal of patronage as a reward for bullying his daughter into the marriage. But he had higher ambitions. He wanted to keep the crown in Protestant hands, preferably his own. He planned to get rid of both Mary and Elizabeth and instead put Jane on the throne. He hoped to rule through his daughter in law.

Then King Edward died. Northumberland moved fast. He announced that the dying king had left the crown to Jane Grey, as the only undisputedly legitimate heir, and produced a piece of paper signed by the king to that effect. The law officers of the court declared it was illegal as it had not been witnessed by the correct persons, but Northumberland’s sword persuaded them to endorse it. Northumberland then sent for Mary, Elizabeth and Jane. Mary refused, Elizabeth sent a note saying she was ill and only Jane turned up. When told that she was now queen, Jane fainted. When she came to, she said that Mary was the true queen, but later she was forced to agree to become queen herself.

Princess Mary, meanwhile, had been gathering supporters and an army. When she set out for London the citizens turned against the corrupt Northumberland and poor Jane Grey, whom they saw as his stooge. Just nine days after being declared queen, Jane Grey surrendered to Mary and begged for mercy. Poor Lady Jane was promptly tried for treason, found guilty and sentenced to death. But Mary gave her the promised mercy and sent her to prison instead of the scaffold.

And then Jane’s father, Henry Grey, came back into the story. Among Mary’s first acts as queen were bringing in Catholic priests, celebrating Catholic mass and arranging to marry the King of Spain. Protestant opinion was outraged and a rebellion gathered in the midlands. Henry Grey joined the rebels and marched towards London. Mary’s professional soldiers put the uprising down amid much bloodshed.

Henry Grey fled, but his actions had been enough to convince Mary that Jane had to die. On 12 February 1554 the young girl was taken from her rooms at the Tower and beheaded. Her father, meanwhile, had fled to Astley where he hid in a tree. Food and drink was brought to the fugitive by a servant named Underwood. One day, however, Underwood brought the queen’s soldiers rather than food. Grey was arrested, taken to London and executed. The oak in which he had hidden stood just outside the churchyard until 1891, when it came down in a storm.

It is the ghosts of this unhappy father and daughter who are seen in and around the castle. As befits her studious, religious character, Jane is seen sitting reading quietly. Before the castle was gutted by fire, visitors used to mistake the ghost for some local girl in odd costume. Now she seems quite out of place among the gaunt stones and, when she appears, is seen for what she is.

There is no mistaking her father’s phantom for anything other than a ghost. In time honoured fashion he is said to appear headless as he walks around the castle ruins. Unlike the ghost of Jane Grey, however, there are no recent sightings of the ghostly Henry. Perhaps he has ceased his spectral wanderings.