Saturday, 9 January 2016

Ghost Stories for a January Night

Mindful of my friend Annette's grandfather, who was married to a medium and swore it was all a load of bollocks until the day he walked slap-bang into his wife's Native American spirit guide by the newel post at the foot of the stairs, I keep an open mind on the various phenomena that get lumped together under the heading of ghosts. There's much still to learn about the passage of time and the nature of memory, and even more about death.  As it happens, I've been reading and writing a fair bit about graveyards and ghosts lately, and it made me realise that I hadn't actually documented my several possibly paranormal encounters over the years and could be in danger, as old age encroaches, of forgetting them. So here they are.

That some places have a particularly eerie atmosphere is beyond question. Mostly, though, that slightly shivery feeling doesn't stop me wandering around them quite happily. There is, however, something unspeakably bad in the ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle near Paignton.  I know this, partly because of well-documented apparitions, but mainly because each time I've been there, I've felt it.  

And then there's Lidwell Chapel on Haldon Moor, also in Devon and the site of the first documented serial killings in the British Isles.  The first time I went there, I was so shaken I vowed never to return.  I've since been back twice, each time with friends who heard me say I was never going back and persuaded me otherwise.  Both times it was as chilling as before. It doesn't help that the eponymous well - or spring - turns the red earth to what looks like blood under your feet, or that both collies who have accompanied me - in their individual times - were decidedly reluctant to go inside the ruins - and let's face it, what collie doesn't like thickets, water and sticky, sticky mud? All told, I shudder just driving past on the B3192 and even sunlit photos of the beautiful surrounding countryside make me anxious.

Another disturbing atmosphere caught me off-guard during my visit to Canterbury Cathedral in 2011.  Time was tight - I had to drive back to Maidstone to pick up my son and I'd lingered rather too long at the spot where an eternal flame burns in memory of the murdered Archbishop, Thomas Becket, so I wasn't surprised to feel anxious as I hurried, head down, towards the north-west transept.  Except that suddenly I was very very anxious, to the point where I could barely breathe; my mouth was dry, my heart was hammering and I looked up to see an altar with a sculpture of three fearsomely jagged swords above it.  This, I then realised, was the spot where the Archbishop's murder had happened, not the site of the flame which merely marks where his shrine stood before it was destroyed in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII. But I'd felt the true location and its atmosphere of murderous intent before I saw it.  

Now let's head to Langford Budville in Somerset.  Back in 2009, my sceptical friend Cathy and I were whiling away a cold January afternoon visiting churches in the vicinity before going to a gig in the evening.  Around dusk we reached St Peter’s Church in the aforementioned village, and I did what I always do as soon as I step inside a parish church – namely, make for the table where the guide books are sold, as they often have curious stories in them. I never got there, however, as almost immediately I sensed such a dark, malevolent presence somewhere up towards the altar that I had to get out, right there and then. 

Having had similar previous experiences, I was pretty scared but not particularly surprised. What was strange, however, is that as I reached the door, I glanced round to see my companion dashing across the flagstones towards me.  ‘There’s something evil in here,’ Cathy gasped. ‘I’ve got to get out.’  This from a nurse with years of training in Being Sensible, who used to give me terribly short shrift if she ever chanced to catch me watching ‘Most Haunted’.  In fact, the only creepy thing that has ever happened to her – although this is seriously creepy – is that she was nearly abducted from a bus stop in Stokes Croft by Fred and Rosemary West in the early 1970s.  Until we went to Langford Budville, that is.  

Upon our return, I did a bit of research to see if there were any ghost stories associated with the church but found none. I suspect that if this presence were a 'thing', it would have been abandoned long ago.  So what Cathy and I both experienced that day remains a mystery.

At Berry Pomeroy, Lidwell, Canterbury Cathedral and Langford Budville, I neither saw nor heard anything specific: there was simply a dark feeling of evil in all four places.  Yet when I have experienced something which could be a ghostly encounter, it hasn't been frightening at all, merely intriguing.  

The Theatre Royal in Bristol has a reputation for being haunted by several different ghosts.  My strange experience happened in the spring of 2007, in the Ladies' toilets.   My elder daughter had gone on ahead; I'd finished my drink before following her a couple of minutes later.  As I walked in, I heard a outburst of sobbing in one of the two occupied cubicles.  I turned and exchanged a concerned glance with a woman standing by the sink.  After a while, the door of one of the toilets opened and out walked its occupant.  She showed no sign of distress at all and departed with her waiting friend.  I began to worry.  As I hadn't passed her on the way in, and there was no one else in the toilets, I figured the crying person in the other cubicle had to be my daughter.  She hadn't long split up with her partner and I knew she was pretty miserable, but I hadn't realised just how distraught she must be to wail in public. After a bit I called her name, then tentatively pushed at the door.  To my surprise it swung open to reveal … no one.  I left perplexed, rather than frightened.  I still can't fathom what both I and the waiting woman undoubtedly heard. 

Eighteen months later, in autumn 2008, I visited Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, the thought of hauntings far from my mind as I wandered along the cloisters, taking photos and delighting in this fragment of wall painting and that play of light and shadow. 

In the north-east corner of the cloister we came to a room – well, more of a passage really – known as the Parlour, where visitors to the Abbey were received in mediaeval times.  To the left of the doorway was a rectangle of orange plastic fencing, closing off a section of uneven floor and partially blocking the view into the room.  As I stepped over the threshold I found myself looking over to the light-filled Warming Room on the right.  Through the open door I could see pillars and a massive cauldron, and I remember thinking how familiar they looked, as both room and its contents make an appearance in one of the early Harry Potter films.  Then I stopped dead and heard myself say 'Whoa!'  It was as if I'd come up hard against an invisible barrier or obstruction, or received a mild electric shock – or someone or something had walked through me.  At which point I looked towards the window at the back of the Parlour and saw three stone coffins along each of the three stone walls ...

Again it wasn't scary, just a bit surprising.  When I got home I did a bit of googling.  There was no mention of a ghost specifically in that room in any of the official literature I read, but I did come across a photo of the interior complete with coffins and a vague, misty sort of blur that the person who posted it claimed was a ghost.  It's accompanied by a caption saying 'this is where I felt the presence of Anne Trubelle, a lady in her early 30s'.  But who Anne Trubelle was, when she lived, and where this information comes from wasn't stated.

Then there's the personal: the sensation, back in 1996, of sinking irrevocably under the stress of my then-life and suddenly feeling a distinct lightening of the weight on my shoulders, as if someone had walked up to me and physically lifted a burden from them.  

Later that year, I moved house with my now ex-husband and four young children.  My grandmother, Hilda Hill, was almost five years dead and I remember thinking, as I was packing up, that our new house would be the first she'd never visited.  I wondered if she'd know where we'd gone.  But I wasn't thinking of her a few weeks later as I walked from the kitchen of the new place into the hall and sensed her standing in the corner behind me.  So strong was this feeling that I stopped in my tracks and looked around.  I could see nothing apart from the understairs cupboard door and kitchen door and the short stretch of wall running between them, but I was so convinced she was there that I greeted her out loud and told her how happy I was that she'd come after all, that she'd found me. 

About six weeks ago, there was an echo of this on the day I moved to my new home.  Resting for a moment on a handy cardboard box and chatting with my son and his girlfriend, I was suddenly aware of sunlight, a feeling of warmth and my grandmother's laughter - Hilda all around me in my new life.     

My grandmother was the cornerstone of my childhood and my first three years of motherhood.   Almost 25 years after her death she still shapes the way I am.  A psychologist might say her constant presence in my mind would explain why occasionally I've imagined her present - except that both times I've been absorbed in what I was doing, yet have suddenly known, with all my wit and reason, that she is with me, as palpably as any other member of my family.  

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