Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Evil Sir Roland Alstons of Odel, Bedfordshire

The church of All Saints lies just outside the Bedfordshire village of Odell where a steep slope rises up from the road. It is an easy church to find, standing so prominently above the little valley in which Odell lies. Some centuries ago, however, it was not the finding of the church that was causing Sir Roland Alstons trouble, it was getting there. 

Sir Roland was the local squire who owned most of the fertile acres around the village, renting out the farms to tenants and living very well on the proceeds. He was not, however, a particularly nice man. Indeed, with his drunken rages, wild gambling and taste for loose women he might have been the achetypal wicked squire of English folklore. Unlike so many others of his type, however, Sir Roland had the most extraordinary luck. Despite his gambling, he never lost his estates and although his temper got him into numerous fights he never suffered serious harm. It was, locals whispered behind his back, as if he had the luck of the devil.

And on one terrible day, it turned out that that was exactly what he had.

It was, as might be guessed, a dark and stormy night when a stranger came calling at the home of Sir Roland. The new arrival was tall, dressed in the most magnificently tailored outfit and mounted on a great black stallion. He knocked peremptorily on the door and demanded admittance from the maid who answered. Sweeping in as if he knew the house well, though the girl had never before seen him, the stranger strode into Sir Roland’s private rooms.

Somewhat nervously, the butler entered to see if any food or drink should be prepared to make the stranger welcome. He found Sir Roland sitting bolt upright in his chair staring at the visitor with evident terror. The stranger, however, was all suave politeness as he turned down the butler’s offer on the grounds that he would not be staying long. The butler withdrew.

A few silent, tense minutes passed while the servants gathered in the hall. Then the doors to Sir Roland’s room flew open and out burst Sir Roland. He ran past his servants, dashed out through the front doorway  and sprang on to the stranger’s black stallion. The stranger sauntered out in his wake, laughing. “You can’t out run me,” the man shouted. Then he set off in pursuit, sprinting faster than the servants had ever seen mortal man run. 

A few minutes later, a villager saw Sir Roland galloping at high speed down the lane towards the church, pursued by the stranger. Then the pair were gone.

Next morning, when Sir Roland had not returned home, the servants set out to search for him. Hearing he had been riding for the church, they made their way there. The door was locked and bolted from the inside, while the outside was marked by five burn marks which had not been there the day before. A window was prised open and a boy pushed in through the narrow gap. He found Sir Roland dead just inside the door with a look of abject terror on his face.

It was never entirely certain what had happened, but one theory quickly took hold and became accepted as truth. Sir Roland, it was believed, had sold his soul to the Devil. This would explain his wild ways and incredible luck over the years. And the mysterious stranger can have been none other than the Evil One himself come to collect the debt. Sir Roland must have realised his only chance was to get on to holy ground. Had he made it in time? Nobody knew. They gave him a decent Christian burial, just in case.

The story of Sir Roland was the talk of the county for months, but then it faded from people’s thoughts as these things do. Much later, ten years to the day since that fatal night, the ghost of Sir Roland returned. Mounted on the strange black stallion, Sir Roland tore through the night. Galloping as if hell itself were at his heels, the phantom squire raced through the village, rode up to the church doors and ran into the building. And then the Devil really did appear. No smartly dressed stranger this, but the apparition of a demon with horns, tail and cloven hooves. Laughing loudly, the demon sauntered to the church doors, paused and then vanished.

This terrifying phantom drama was played out regularly every ten years for more than a century. Then the hauntings became rather less regular. Sometimes the ghosts returned twice in a year, then decades would pass before they were seen again. They do not seem to have disturbed the peace of Odell for some 24 years now. Perhaps Sir Roland has found peace at last.

Or perhaps he will some day be back to terrify the good folk of Odell and once again bring hell to earth in his wake.

from "Haunted Places of Bedfordshire and Buckhinghamshire" by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Phantom Copper of Romsey, Hampshire

Rather less disturbing is the phantom copper of Romsey. The rain had eased off by the time I left the Conservative Club to seek out his haunts. I had been put on to this ghost by a Mrs M (she would rather not have her name in print). “He was stood there as clear as day,” Mrs M had told me. “Just like you. Solid. In books and on films you see ghosts floating above the ground or going all see-through. He was not like that at all. He was was solid and real. He was really  there. Well, until he vanished that is.”

As I well know this is typical of ghosts. Forget what you see and hear about fictional ghosts, the real thing is very real indeed. Like Mrs M, many people who see a ghost don’t at first realise what it is they are seeing. “I thought it was someone in fancy dress” is a typical comment. And yet there is usually something odd about the ghost, something that is strangely out of place, though it is difficult for the witness to put their finger on it. It’s as if you are looking at a painting where the perspective has been painted incorrectly. Everything looks right enough, but there is something very definitely wrong.

But to get back to Mrs M and her ghost. She had seen the Phantom Copper of Romsey. This ghost is not so well known as the Roundhead trooper, nor does he seem to be seen so often. He is, however, rather more mobile. I know of two places where he has been seen: Winchester Road by Cupernham Lane; and on the Broadwater Road. There may be more locations for other accounts that I have traced do not pinpoint the location of the sighting.

So who is he? Well, according to Mrs M’s account he wears the uniform of days gone by, but not too far back in history. Another person to see the ghost, Mrs Perry, saw the Phantom Copper on the Winchester Road and gave a more detailed description. Judging by these, I reckon the ghost dates from the period between the Wars. He wears a wool serge uniform with what appears to be a cape slung back off his shoulder, and a good solid helmet tops his head. Whenever he is seen the Phantom Copper just stands there. He does not walk as if on patrol, nor does he seem to be taking much notice of what goes on around him. He just stands and stares.

Given that the spectre is a policeman of the 1920s or 1930s, I set out to try to track him down. The only record I could find of the Romsey Police making the national news in that period came in 1923. And it was altogether too silly to account for the haunting. There had been a series of attacks on children by a dog running loose. As a result a bylaw was passed that all dogs had to kept on leashes by their owners. Any loose dog would be rounded up and, if found to be guilty of the attacks, would be put down.

In October one of Romsey’s finest found a loose dog and promptly grabbed it. To be honest, the little airedale terrier did not look much like the fearsome beast reported by the children, but orders were orders. The dog had to be taken in for identification. The policeman slipped a collar on the hound and set off back to the police station in The Hundred, leading the terrier behind him.

A contemporary newspaper takes up the tale. “Then the dog began to follow the policeman as he led the way towards the station-house. The small crowd which had gathered to witness the occurrence grew, as small crowds will, into a fairly large one. Despite the smiles of the populace, the dignity of the law had to be upheld; but when the smiles of the crowd which followed became audible in the form of tittering, the constable looked round to see the cause. The cause was plain. The dog had become tired of the policeman’s company and had broken arrest. He had slipped his head out of the collar and the policeman was merely dragging the empty collar along the ground by the string. The tittering grew into a laugh when the crowd found the policeman had discovered the situation, but the law had a card up its sleeve. The policeman solemnly conveyed the collar to the police-station in lieu of its wearer as evidence of arrest.”

Embarrassing, no doubt, but enough to cause the poor policeman to return in spectral form? I doubt it. Rather more promising as a candidate is the unfortunate policeman who was run down and killed by a car on the Winchester Road. At least, so it is said. When I called at the police station nobody knew anything about this accident. Perhaps it was too long ago for the force to recall it. But the ghost remembers.
from "Haunted Hampshire" by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Ghosts of Battle, Sussex

This brisk walk is not too long, but does include some steep hills. It takes the walker over some of the most historic turf in England, as well as some of the most haunted. It was here in 1066 that the Norman pretender, Duke William, defeated and killed King Harold of England and earned himself the historic name of William the Conqueror. It was a savage battle that has left is spectral mark on this walk.

The Walk

1) From the station, walk southwest along Station Approach to reach the main road through Battle. Turn right. As the road nears the crest of the hill, the parish church of St Mary is on the right. It was built here in the mid-14th century to cater to the village that was growing up around the abbey walls.

The church is haunted by a phantom curate. Described as being a gentle, elderly man, the ghost sits quietly in the church bothering nobody. Only his old fashioned clothes gives away the fact that he is no mortal clergyman, but a phantom.

2) Just beyond the church is a large open square, with the impressive gatehouse to Battle Abbey to the left.

This historic abbey was founded by King William the Conqueror to mark his victory in the Battle of Hastings. In the cold light of dawn as he surveyed the English army drawn up along the crest of this hill, William vowed a solemn oath that he would build a church on the spot occupied by the English Royal Standard - then a dragon - if he won. Win he did and before the year was over a small church had been completed on the otherwise deserted hilltop. The church and surrounding lands was later given to the Benedictine Order which built a monastery here. The monastery was subsequently closed down by King Henry VIII in the 16th century and the buildings converted into a comfortable manor by Sir Anthony Browne.

It is this house and the few remaining monastic buildings that today go by the name of Battle Abbey. Excavations have located the foundations of William’s original church and a monument has been erected to mark the spot where the English King Harold stood beneath his banner as battle was joined.

The ghosts here are those of monks. These phantoms walk the grounds of the Abbey, and seem particularly fond of the ruined refectory where they would have gathered to dine each day. They are not, however, quite so gentle as they might seem. When Sir Anthony arrived to take up his new property in 1538 he was met by a group of four former monks. Spitting and gesticulating they cursed him and his family, calling on God to ensure that all Brownes died by fire or by water. As the years passed, rather more members of the family did indeed drown or perish in fires than might be expected. In 1699 they sold Battle, after which the curse seems to have vanished. The Brownes no longer die strange deaths, and neither have the subsequent owners of Battle Abbey. The phantom monks, however, still walk.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Some canterbury phantoms

From the West Gate in Canterbury's old town walls, walk southeast into St Peter’s Street. This pedestrianised thoroughfare is the oldest in Canterbury, following the route of the main street of the Roman city. The imposing gabled house on your right is the Old Weaver’s House.

This building is, in fact, not one house but several. They were built as a terrace in the later 16th century by Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution in France. They brought with them their skills as weavers, setting up their looms in the upper storeys of these houses and running shops from the ground floor. It is these looms that account for both the name of the building and for the windows, unusually large for domestic buildings of this date. The business of weaving needed good natural light.

Quite what accounts for the haunting is less clear. The shadowy figure of a lady in a long dress has been seen walking up one of the staircases on several occasions. She is rather indistinct, so it is difficult to be precise about the period from which she dates. Whoever she is, and however long she has been here, she is a gentle soul who goes about her business ignoring the mortal world around her.

 Continue along St Peter’s Street. After it passes Stour Street on the right, the road becomes the High Street.

The High Street and the narrow lanes off it have in recent years been the site of several sightings of a mysterious figure on a bicycle. Several pedestrians have been forced to leap out of the way of a cyclist who swoops around corners without regard for those in his way. Some have merely muttered under their breath about thoughtless road users, but others have turned to watch the miscreant only to see him vanish before their eyes.

Exactly who this man might be is unknown. He is smartly dressed, though his suit is said to be rather old fashioned in some undefined way, and his head is bare. These features might date him to some time in the later 1960s or 1970s, but even that is uncertain. All that can be said, with certainty, is that it is best to get out of the way of speeding cyclists in Canterbury High Street. Be they mortal or phantom, it is wise not to risk a collision.

from "Ghosthunter Walks in Kent" by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Ghosts at Maiden Castle, Dorset

Even on the finest days the wind can be surprisingly strong on the hills south of Dorchester in Dorset. On days when a breeze blows in the valleys, a positive gale can be felt on the course of this walk. The open countryside is host to some of the older ghosts of Dorset and to some of the most modern of bizarre phenomenon. It is possible to link this walk to the Dorchester town centre walk, which might be welcome as it is here that the walker will find pubs, cafes and restaurants to offer refreshment after this breezy jaunt. 

1) Park in the English Heritage car park at the southern end of Maiden Castle Road. Walk out of the southern end of the car park and follow the path up to Maiden Castle. Enter Maiden Castle, using the informative display boards to find your way to the scanty ruins of a late Roman temple.

The ghosts here are closely linked to the varied history of this mighty fortress. The site was first inhabited in the Neolithic, around 4,500 years ago, when a small fortified farmstead stood here. This was later enlarged in around 600bc to form a fort surrounded by a single deep ditch at the eastern end of the hill. By 200bc the current massive fortress was in place. Covering 47 acres and surrounded by a triple ring of mighty ditches and ramparts, this fortress was made even stronger than it appears today by timber and turf palisades crowning the ramparts. In 100bc the gates were remodelled to form the complex maze of paths and ditches that now protect the site.

None of these mighty works was enough to protect Maiden Castle when the Romans arrived in the shape of the General, and soon to be Emperor, Vespasian and the II Legion. In ad43 the local Celtic tribe, the Durotiges, defied the might of Rome from this fortress. The Romans attacked with powerful catapults able to hurl iron-tipped bolts as thick as a man’s arm. The wooden palisades crumbled and the bravery of the Celts was not enough to hold back the disciplined legions.

Thereafter the Romans put a small garrison on the hilltop to dissuade any attempt at reoccupation and moved the Durotiges into a new town down in the valley of the River Frome. The new site was named Durnovaria and came to be the economic and governmental centre for much of what is now southwestern England. It is now known as Dorchester.

The ghosts of Maiden Castle appear to date from this period of its history. Clearly the locals had neither entirely forgotten nor abandoned their ancestral home on the windswept hill top. A small temple was erected here. Although built in Roman style and fashion it seems to have been dedicated to a local god. And it is here that the ghosts congregate. Dressed in the togas and tunics of civilian Romans, the phantoms stand and walk as if deep in conversation and oblivious to what goes on around them. It is likely that some sightings have not been reported as the phantoms might be mistaken for real people in fancy dress, or preparing for a film shoot. The glory of this pagan temple was not to last. When Christianity came to Dorset in the failing days of the Roman Empire the little temple was abandoned to the elements and Maiden Castle was finally deserted after almost 3,000 years.
From "Ghost Hunter Walks in Dorset" by Rupert Matthews.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Ghosts of Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

Beyond the Tamar lies Cornwall, once a fiercely independent Celtic kingdom and now a Duchy long since incorporated into England. And yet the Cornish are a distinct people and some Englishmen may feel that they are entering a slightly foreign country when they enter this wildly scenic land. The red on white cross of St George is replaced on boats and cars by the white on black cross of St Pinon, and there are still a handful of people who speak Cornish and erect signs in their ancient tongue.

And when it comes to the supernatural, Cornwall is in a league of its own. There is a greater variety of ghosts, spooks and otherworldly creatures here than in almost any county in the kingdom. Certainly they are packed densely together. And nowhere more so than at the Jamaica Inn at Bolvenor, high on Bodmin Moor.

The inn is famous as the setting for the classic novel by Daphne Du Maurier, but has recently gained fame for its ghosts. Nobody is entirely certain how many there are lurking in this welcoming ancient inn.

Given its naval connections, it is not surprising that one of the ghosts at Jamaica Inn is a sailor. He sits on the stone wall outside the pub as if waiting for a coach or a friend to come along the main road from London to Penzance. If so, he waits in vain. The road outside the inn is no longer the main road, for a modern bypass takes the hurtling traffic a few hundred yards to the north. Which makes this a more peaceful place than it would otherwise have been.

The sailor is, however, rarely seen. Far more active is the Man in the Tricorn Hat, who haunts Room No.5. This room is on the first floor in the oldest part of the Inn. The room dates back to the 16th century, so a gentleman in 18th century clothing would be quite at home.

Glen, the general manager in 2002, reported “He appears by the window, usually in the small hours of the morning. Then he walks across to the cupboard and vanishes. He can muck about with clocks and watches. In the autumn, a lady staying in this room was late to breakfast because her alarm clock had stopped in the middle of the night. That would be the ghost. She didn’t see him. But it was him. He likes stopping clocks.

“Down in the bar is a corner table where the old man sits. He has grey hair and is dressed in dark, old-fashioned clothes, which are a bit shabby as if they are wearing out. He just sits there and stares out the window. We don’t like him much. We had a psychic in here a little while ago. She said he was dishonest and shifty - a real crook.”

Val the cook worked at the Jamaica Inn for nearly 30 years and knows the ghosts well. She said that another ghost lurks in the restaurant. “We sometimes see a smokey shape of a human at the far end. Can’t make out if it be man or woman, but it drifts about like it is looking for summat. But the real ghost appears in that there doorway to the car park. It be a man in a green jumper - yes modern like. Sort of thing people wear these days. I saw him one night when we kitchen staff was sitting here eating our meal after a big do. He just stood in the doorway watching us. Then he turned round and walked out to the car park. Gave me a real turn it did. I had locked that door shut just five minutes earlier. And it were still locked shut when we tested it. Very odd.”

There are other phantoms at Jamaica Inn. Some are seen rarely, others are only heard. Some put in an appearance once, then are not seen again. A few years go the Ghost Club carried out an investigation here and reached the conclusion that the Inn is a major centre for psychic energy. Perhaps this is because it stands at the centre of a whole network of ley lines, those ancient lines that link sites of sacred importance.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Ghostly White Ladies in Herefordshire

The haunted bridge at Middelton
If there is one type of ghost that is quintessentially English, it is the white lady. And Herefordshire seems to have more of these enigmatic spectres that most counties. Perhaps there is something about the gentle hills and attractive villages that draws these ladies - and they are always ladies never women.

Take for instance the white lady of Middleton. She is a quiet, gentle soul who likes to drift around Gravenor’s Bridge just outside the village. Who she might be and why she feels such an affinity to the bridge is unknown, but there must be some reason why she keeps returning. The white lady who haunts the lanes near Court Farm outside Snodhill is similarly anonymous and enigmatic, as is the white lady of Eardisland.

Snodhill has a second white lady, the one who haunts the old manor house and its grounds, but she at least has a purpose. The manor house was built in 1660 by the Proser family, who continued to live there until 1878. This lady is thought to foretell a death in the Prosser family, or at least she was when the Prossers lived there. Whether or not the doom laden purpose still holds true is unclear. In any case she seems to be linked to a torchlit funeral procession that passes down the lane outside the old manor house from time to time.

Also visiting the mortal world to announce a death is the white lady of Hampton Bishop. She comes to announce the death, not of a member of a particular family but a member of the family of the person who sees her. Sometimes the death she foretells is that of the witness himself. She is a dangerous phantom.

From Haunted Herefordshire by Rupert Matthews