Who - or what - has been running up the Rich family's electricity bill? Jim White investigates
To reach Heol Fanog you take the last road on the left out of Brecon and keep driving until you hit the Beacons. Then take a right, up a road used only by a couple of local farmers to get their sheep down from the hillside, and by the Army, to drive their tanks too fast. And there at the end of it, in the middle of nowhere, under a mountain brooding blue and black, between apple trees bent by the elements, stands the house. On a clear spring day, with a couple of children playing with a magnifying glass and creepy crawlies among the tulips blooming in the front garden, it looks a wonderful place to live.

"Don't be misled," says Liz Rich, who lives there, as she stands by the Aga, several children draped around her shoulders. "It's not always like this. You can see the weather coming up the valley, terrible storms; it was snowing here only a couple of weeks ago. Sometimes the mood in the house is so awful that you think the only escape can be to kill yourself."

It is a mood which would not be much assuaged if, like Liz, you had just opened the electricity bill. The last one that popped through her letterbox was for more than £750. For a quarter.

"We've worked it out that if we had all our appliances running 24 hours a day, we wouldn't run up a bill a quarter of that size," says Liz's husband, Bill. "We don't know who or what is using the electricity. All we know is, it isn't us."

Bill and Liz Rich moved into Hoel Fanog six years ago with Bill's son from his previous marriage, called - perhaps it was an omen - Damien. They had been looking for a place to rent in the area for months, and were surprised when a local land-owner offered them such substantial accommodation at such a reasonable rent. A barn, converted in the Fifties using building materials from the long-abandoned farmhouse which abutts it, the house was perfect for their needs. There was a 40ft studio on the top floor, where Bill could paint his bold and bright animal canvases.

"That first summer everything went right," he recalls. "My work really took off. I was featured in all the magazines. I couldn't stop selling stuff. Liz got pregnant. We thought everything was wonderful."

And then, in the autumn of 1989, things started to go wrong. The first problem arose late one night, when Bill was in the downstairs lavatory.

"I remember it so well. I heard footsteps in the hall above me," he says. "Big footsteps, like a man in hobnailed boots, stamping on the floorboards. I went upstairs and Liz was feeding the baby. Damien was asleep in his room. There was no one else in the house."

Soon smells came, apparitions, paint brushes flying around Bill's studio. Bill's luck began to change. From being interior design's flavour of the month, he found he couldn't sell a picture. And then the bills started. Massive they were: £750 one quarter, £512.13 the next. The kind of bill the Georgia State Penitentiary might expect for running Old Sparky.

"I thought maybe someone was tapping the stuff off from farther down the line," says Bill. "But when I contacted Swalec" - the local electricity company, which he pronounces, contemptuously, to rhyme with bollock - "they said that was not possible and I had to pay for whatever the meter showed. I was desperate for explanations. So I asked the spiritualists to come and take a look."

This was when the really frightening apparitions began to appear: the spook-spotters. For a while, the house became a field centre for psychic research; spiritualists of every hue wanted to come and commune with the other side in the Richs' living-room. All sorts of trances were entered into, all sorts of tongues were spoken in, all sorts of explanations given for the happenings.

One psychic, latching on to local gossip that the last man to be hung in Brecon murdered his victim in the abandoned farmhouse next door, reckoned it was either the murderer or his victim doing the haunting. Another told Bill that he was being pursued by the relatives of a 16th-century alchemist he had murdered in a previous life. Another, an American evangelist, explained that Bill had been chosen by the Antichrist to direct evil spirits up from where the ley lines crossed (in the middle of his downstairs lavatory), to signal the end of the world: he was to be a sort of Armageddon air- traffic controller.

"We don't want to know anyone from the psychic world any more," says Liz. "Frankly, they're all weirdos. The final straw was when we had a visit from a man from the Christian Spiritualists - now there's a contradiction. He was horrible, hands all cold and clammy. I'd rather have spooks in the house than him."

But one thing nobody could explain was who was using the electricity. Certainly not Swalec. Yet the bills kept coming and Bill and Liz were forced to pay them. Swalec's men came to visit several times to test the meter. While examining it, the last inspector to call asked Bill to go round the house and ensure every electrical appliance was switched off.

"So I did," Bill recalls. "But he said I must have left a light on, because the little wheel on the meter was still spinning round. So I took him on a tour of the house, to show him nothing was on. But the little wheel was still going like crazy. And he said he had never seen anything like it. So I asked him if he was going to report what he'd seen. And he said - can you believe this - it was more than his job was worth."

Eventually, after months of trying to pluck up courage - "I hadn't dared before because I was embarrassed, I suppose" - Bill approached a solicitor to take his cause to Swalec. The solicitor was intrigued.

"It was an interesting case," says Glyn Maddox, of Gabb and Co, in nearby Crickhowell. "The law generally does not take account of the spiritual world. I didn't mention in my letters to Swalec possible psychic causes. My contention is that it was beholden on them, as suppliers, to explain how the Richs' electricity usage can work out at £7 a day when the company itself admits it should be closer to 40p. Fortunately, they have agreed not to push Mr Rich for payment, and have stopped sending him bills. Though I have to say he is quite happy to pay for what he reckons he has used."

And in the meantime, as the law takes its course, the Richs are looking around for somewhere else to live.

"People often ask why we have stayed here so long, especially now we've got three children," says Bill. "Well, at first, I was determined to find out what was going on. Also we were prepared to put up with quite a lot to stay here, and it never seemed to affect the children. But since that first summer, we've had nothing but bad luck here, my business seems blighted.

"First you put it down to other things, the recession, whatever. But in the end, however sceptical you start off, you think it's the house. So now, we think we ought to go."

To somewhere with gas, presumably.

Comments