The haunting: Ten tales of terror from our spectred isles
Our nation's folklore echoes with tales of unquiet spirits and hauntings,of headless highwaymen and grey ladies, of indelible bloodstains and premonitions of death. In a new book, Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson uncover the spookiest stories for your fright (and delight). Here, they present 10 of their favourites
Friday 11 July 2008
1. Wilden, Bedfordshire
In 1872 or 1873, Mrs Goodhall and her daughter were driving in a pony cart between Wilden and Ravensden. They saw a woman walking towards them on the verge. It was daylight, and they saw this figure quite plainly, to the extent of noticing that she appeared to glide, not walk. Drawing level with them, she turned her face towards them and they were shocked by what they described as her "fiendish" expression. Her features were masculine and coarse, and she was clothed top to toe in black garments that trailed on the ground. As she passed by, she turned to look back at them, and moments later had vanished.
The Goodhalls were interviewed on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research by Frank Podmore, who was satisfied that they had seen an apparition – the road is very wide, with grass margins on either side, and nowhere for a person to have hidden so quickly. Although Mrs Goodhall questioned people in the county, she could discover nothing more about this "ghost" than that that stretch of road was said to be haunted.
2. Solway Firth, Cumberland
Writes Elliott O'Donnell, in his book Nasty Sea Ghosts (1954): "A phantom ship... appears in the Solway immediately before a wreck in that water. It is supposed to be the phantom of a vessel containing a bridal party that was maliciously wrecked many years ago." In The Midnight Hearse (1965), he adds to this story that the ghosts of the bridal party are visible on the deck before a wreck.
Another phantom of these waters is described by Gerald Findler in Legends of the Lake Counties (1967): "Several people have stated that they have seen a ghost ship sailing along the Solway. At Allonby, an old villager said he had seen the ghost ship several times, always about Christmas time." This spectral vessel is the Betsy Jane, a slave ship that sank near Whitehaven on its home voyage, laden with ivory and gold. Findler says that, reading through old copies of the Whitehaven News, he found the legend that the Betsy Jane was sailing along the coast of the Firth one Christmas Eve as the church bells were ringing. The godless skipper swore by the powers of light and darkness that the bells could ring till they cracked. Unfortunately for him, it would be the chink of his gold that rang on Christmas morning: divine vengeance overtook him and the ship struck the Giltstone Rock. "So about Christmas time," writes Findler, "the Betsy Jane sails again and again... never to reach port."
3. Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire
According to tradition, the Jacobean mansion of Burton Agnes Hall in the East Riding was built by the three Griffiths sisters in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. But the youngest, Anne, was robbed and murdered by an outlaw.
Before she died, she grieved that she would never see the hall complete, and made her sisters promise they would remove her head and take it to the house. But the sisters did not fulfil the deal. And when they took up residence, there were strange moanings and weird sounds. They had their sister dug up and the head put on a table there. Some time later, a maid tried to discredit the story by throwing the skull on to a wagon standing outside the Hall. The horses immediately reared up, and the whole house shook so that the pictures fell off the walls. Things only quietened down when the skull was put back on the table.
Other attempts to get rid of the skull ended the same way.
4. Stocken Hall, Rutland
Stocken Hall, just north of Clipsham, is an early Georgian house with neo-Elizabethan additions, which later became an open-prison farm, said to be haunted by several ghosts. Three of the house's occupants, walking across the park towards Clipsham, noticed their terrier pricking up his ears. When they looked to see what was wrong, they saw the figure of a man clad in a brown smock, hanging from an old oak tree. When they got nearer, he disappeared. He is rumoured to have been a sheep-stealer who was hanged in the park.
But the phantom most often seen is a little white puppy. Residents would frequently open doors for it, only to find that it had disappeared. Once, as the woman and daughter then living in the house were ascending a narrow staircase, the little dog passed them; they felt it touching them as it squeezed between them but they saw nothing. They said that they experienced a sensation of "burning chill" for hours afterwards where it had touched them.
5. Highgate, London
The haunting of Pond Square in Highgate is unique, for it is the ghost of the world's first frozen chicken. On a snowy day in March 1626 (as John Aubrey records), Lord Francis Bacon, politician and philosopher, and one of England's first experimental scientists, was riding in his carriage through Highgate and pondering on the preservative effect of snow and ice. How effective might this be with meat? He told his coachmanto buy a chicken from the farm they were passing (Highgate was a rural area then), kill it, pluck it, and clean out its innards. Then Lord Bacon began stuffing the bird with handfuls of snow, and stashed it away in a bag of snow. While doing so, however, his fits of vomiting and shivering grew worse. He took refuge in a friend's house in Highgate, where he died.
During the air raids of the Second World War, several aircraftmen, firefighters, and residents of Pond Square reported seeing a fairly large bird, unable to fly because almost all its feathers had been plucked, running round in circles, pathetically flapping the stumps of its wings and shivering.
6. Edgehill, Warwickshire
The battle of Edgehill, the first major encounter in the Civil War, was fought on 23 October 1642. Three months later, in January 1643, a pamphlet entitled A Great Wonder in Heaven described how, on several nights around Christmas, phantom armies had been seen and heard in the sky, re-enacting the battle. It ended with the defeat of the Royalists. Those who had seen it reported it to a magistrate and a clergyman. Next night, and on several subsequent occasions, many people of all classes gathered to watch the skies, and saw the same sights. Reports of the affair having reached King Charles at Oxford, he sent six reliable officers to investigate; not only did they take sworn statements from witnesses, but they themselves saw the phantom armies, and recognised several people they knew who had died at Edgehill. All this they reported to the king.
The pamphleteer concludes: "What this doth portend, God only knoweth, and Time will perhaps discover; but doubtlessly it is a sign of His wrath against this Land for these civil wars, which may He in His good time finish, and send a sudden peace between his Majestie and Parliament."
Some recent writers on the supernatural say that people occasionally hear or see the battle again on 23 October, its anniversary.
7. Pluckley, Kent
Writing in 1983, Alan Bignell lists a numerous and richly varied company of ghosts reputedly seen in and around Pluckley in past generations, giving it the reputation of "the most haunted village in England" – though he adds that "it becomes more and more difficult to find anyone who will admit to having seen or heard of any of them".
Several are linked to the Dering family, landowners in this area for many generations. There is the Red Lady, wearing a 15th-century red gown, who wanders round the family chapel in St Nicholas's church, and also the churchyard. She is said to search for the grave of her dead baby. Richard Jones, writing in 2001, offers the theory that the baby died at birth, which would mean that it was never baptised, and so had to be laid in an unmarked grave rather than in the family vault.
8. Blythburgh, Suffolk
On the north door of Blythburgh church are long black marks said to be the claw marks left by the Black Dog of Bungay.
According to the 17th-century pamphleteer Abraham Fleming, the Black Dog appeared at Blythburgh on the same day as at Bungay, and "placing himself uppon a maine balk or beam ... sodainly he gave a swinge down through ye Church", killing two men and a boy, and burning someone's hand in his progress. He went out through the north door (traditionally the Devil's Door) and, when this was cleaned in the 1930s, long black marks were found which people connected with the Black Dog's visitation.
9. Barrow Hill, Mersea Island, Essex
The haunting of the Strood causeway goes back to the time of the Danes, and the victims of a tragic love-triangle buried in Barrow Hill. The story was told by the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, rector of East Mersea, in the 1880s that, in olden times, when the Danes wintered on Mersea, and in summer cruised along the coast, burning and plundering, their two leaders were twin brothers. One spring they sailed up the creek to St Osyth's nunnery, where they killed Osyth but carried off her beautiful sister. When they got back to Mersea, each wanted her for his own, and their love turned to jealousy. Drawing their swords, they hacked at one another and, by nightfall, both were dead.
Then the Danes drew their ship up to the top of a hill just above the Strood, and put the woman in the hold with a dead brother on either side, raised a barrow above them "and buried them all, the living and the dead together. When the new moon appears, the flesh grows on their bones, and the blood staunches, and the wounds close, and breath comes back behind their ribs... and if you listen at full moon... you can hear the brothers fighting. But when the moon wanes, their armour falls to bits, their flesh drops away, the blood oozes out of the veins, and at last all is still."
10. Nunney, Somerset
In August 1977, the road linking this village to Frome, three miles away, became famous in the press as the setting for an encounter with a phantom hitchhiker. Some time previously (probably in 1975), a driver had given a lift to a middle-aged man in a check jacket who was standing by this road; this man sat in the back of the car, complained of being cold, and then vanished from inside the car while it was still in motion. The horrified driver reported this to the police at Frome. It was alleged that this had caused such panic in Nunney that people were afraid that attendance at their Silver Jubilee celebrations would be affected, and a posse of vigilantes began patrolling the lane in search of the ghost.
This was only a publicity stunt by the Jubilee Committee (as their chairman admitted to a researcher a few years later), based on their awareness of the driver's account of his experiences. However, it drew a response from a retired lorry-driver who recalled that some of his mates in the 1940s used to report seeing a ghost at this spot; they thought it was due to the dying curse of a cyclist knocked down by a car. On the same road, a judge had ordered some men who had supported Monmouth's rebellion in 1685 to be hanged from the trees, and the creaking of these gibbets can be heard at night.
Extracted from The Penguin Book of Ghosts published by Allen Lane, £14.99. Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jaqueline Simpson 2008 www.penguin.co.uk. To buy the book at the special price of £13.49, including postage and packaging, please visit wwwindependentbooksdirect.co.uk or call 08700 798 897
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