About Me

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Bristol , United Kingdom
I'm co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy, which provides advice for poets on writing, editing and publishing, as well as qualified counselling support for those exploring personal issues in their work - https://theleapingword.com. My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, is now available from Indigo Dreams or directly from me.

Saturday 19 May 2012

A Most Haunting Castle - Writing from the Ruins

Off to Devon with my mother yesterday, to do a few chores at the two caravans and read a poem in St Mary's, Berry Pomeroy.  No prizes for guessing which bit of the day I was looking forward to most, so shall draw a veil over the carpet brushing and curtain adjusting, the tour of Teignmouth charity shops - I bought three poetry books, one of which (Collected Poems of Gillian Clarke) I already own but it was such a bargain, I couldn't leave it on the shelf - and tea in Morrisons in Totnes (surely the Littlewoods Cafe de nos jours).  So, on to Berry Pomeroy!

The Totnes writer Bob Mann, whom I first met on MySpace back in the day, founded the Longmarsh Press in 2008 to publish books on Devon or by Devon authors.  His latest publication is 'A Most Haunting Castle - Writings from the Ruins at Berry Pomeroy', to which I contributed a poem, hence the invitation to join him and some of the others involved for the reading in the glorious setting of Berry Pomeroy Church.

I've visited the Castle a couple of times, once
en famille in 2000, and once more recently with just Samuel and Ted, who was a puppy at the time and who spent the duration of the visit sat with Samuel, howling for my return.  Which is kind of apt, because Berry Pomeroy is reputed to be one of the most haunted ruins in the country.

Its two most famous ghosts are the White Lady and the Blue Lady.  The former is associated with the eerie part of the ruin known as St Margaret’s Tower, and is believed to be the spirit of Margaret Pomeroy, who was imprisoned in its dungeon by her jealous older sister, Eleanor, after they both fell in love with the same knight.  Legend has it that Margaret starved to death there. The Blue Lady has been encountered in various areas of the castle, and there are tales of her luring male visitors into danger in a bid to rescue her from unstable parts of the walls.  She is generally assumed to be the ghost of the daughter of one of the Norman Lords of the castle, by whom she was impregnated.  She is believed to have smothered the newborn child, whose cries can also be heard on occasion.  She is also regarded as a portent of death.

Yet another story concerning the Pomeroys tells of two brothers who, instead of battling a long siege they knew they could never win, dressed in full armour and, having blindfolded their horses, rode them over the precipice upon which the castle stands. There are reports of the sound of hooves, screaming and then a crashing below in the valley to this day.

Other people at other times have reported seeing a man in a tricorn hat, a tall man in a dark suit, a man in old-fashioned country clothes, a large black dog, an old man carrying a scythe, a quaint old lady, a small hooded boy, a sullen girl, an Elizabethan in a ruff, a man in Stuart costume, a face at the gatehouse window, a lady in a grey dress and another in dark clothing, an assortment of knights and Cavaliers in full regalia, and a friendly old woman standing on a bridge over the brook.  Some swear they have glimpsed windows in the 17th century part of the ruin fully glazed; others have experienced a time slip in the nearby village, seeing it as it would have appeared hundreds of years ago.  One family flying in a helicopter over the ruins saw roofs and smoke coming from chimneys. And if that’s not enough, strange lights have been witnessed, voices have been heard, there are cold spots and freak winds, the smell of perfume, the sound of doors slamming (even though there are none), and strange shadows with no earthly form to cast them.  Cameras frequently malfunction, photographs often fail to come out or show shapes and figures that weren’t originally there, and in Spring 2006 local investigators detected through dowsing one female and six male presences who had died between the 15th and 18th centuries of causes including heart failure, disease, murder (stabbing), and accident.  Oh, and they also encountered Margaret herself and a young girl aged nine called Isabelle, the illegitimate child of Baron de Pomeroy, who had been murdered while trying to prevent her mother from being raped. Oh, and a black dog. (Not Ted.)

I have my own creepy, if rather tenuous, connection to the place.  In May 2001, I started to write a ghost story as an exercise for the writing course I was taking at the time, and having visited Berry Pomeroy just the year before, I decided to set it there.  I was writing with no idea of what was going to happen next (something I seldom do) when a blackly malevolent presence manifested itself on the page and I heard the word 'corvine' spoken behind me.  This was enough to make me abandon the whole enterprise in fright.  A couple of hours later, as I was taking in the washing from the line, my then husband came out to tell me that my 22-year-old cousin, with all his life before him, had hanged himself not two miles away from where I had been writing that afternoon and at the very moment I’d set my tale aside.

Although it's not the scariest place I've ever visited (that'ld be Lidwell Chapel, high on Haldon Moor, which I swore never to return to again, only to break that vow three months later at the behest of a friend who said it wasn't all creepy but whose border collie refused to go anywhere near the place), I was quite relieved that the reading was taking place in St Mary's, even more so because the only previous time I'd been to the village, there was a funeral in progress and I hadn't felt able to wander around snapping photos.  And it's a beauty, being quite large and still boasting its 42 foot long rood screen.     

It was impossible to get a good shot of the whole screen because a stage had been erected in front of it for the evening's proceedings, which means I'm going to have to go back, but here's a few details.

I especially liked the little birds carved amongst the foliage.  They are a feature of many of the churches around Totnes and remind me of the much later design, Strawberry Thief, by William Morris. Though these two look more like starlings than thrushes to me.

No rood screen deserving of the name would be complete without the 
scars of what will inevitably have been a tumultuous history. It's often assumed that damage to churches was caused by Oliver Cromwell's men during and after the Civil War, but it's more likely that the defacing of saints on the rood screen was done in response to the Edwardian Injunctions of 1548 which demanded the removal of all images from English Churches. 

What's really interesting about the defacement in St Mary's is that it appears to have been done by three different people. How do we know?  Well, one did it with horizontal gouges ...

one with vertical ones ...

while one scraped very carefully - almost tenderly - at just the face.

Anyhow, it was a great evening, and is likely to be repeated on either June 1st or June 8th at the Durant Arms in Ashprington.  

'A Most Haunting Castle - Writing from the Ruins', edited by Bob Mann, costs £7.99, ISBN 978-0-9561705-2-1.  Longmarsh Press books are available from local independent bookshops or through Waterstones, or direct from The Longmarsh Press, 5 Brook View, Follaton, Totnes, Devon TQ9 5FH. (
Probably best to email Bob first to find out what the p&p charges are - bobmann@supanet.com.)


  1. I found out recently that the rood in our parish church had been acquired by the post restoration priest as the original had been removed.

    1. I'm trying to find out more about the desecration of St Mary's in Berry Pomeroy but there's little about the church on the web and no guide book either ... :-(

  2. I've absolutely got to go - it looks wonderful. We are off to Devon in June so shall make sure we do a little detour ...

    1. Ooh, there are some wonderful churches to be explored, plus the adjoining church houses, which have often been turned into pubs ... :-)

  3. I'd not seen a painted rood screen before this year; then two Devon ones come along (almost) at once! -the one at Cheriton Bishop was impressive if incomplete, and defaced in a very similar way...

    1. Manaton's is very heavily gouged. Brute force there.