For roughly the past 38 of my 44 years I have been an implacable and unyielding non-believer in ghosts, ghouls, phantoms, banshees and poltergeists, with a commensurate mistrust of those who do believe in any of the above. But two things have happened to shake my non-faith, neither of which, you will be disappointed to learn, have anything to do with a headless coachman driving a coach and four horses through my bedroom wall at four in the morning.
The first thing that happened was an edition of Parkinson a year or so ago featuring Joanna Lumley, a woman for whom I have the greatest admiration, who told a riveting story about a house she and her husband bought in Kent.
Apparently the vibes in the building were not good, and when she was in the cellar one day she felt an other-worldly presence followed by a rasping voice, which said, unequivocally: "Leave this place". As I recall, they duly sold up. I can't say I blame them. Now, obviously Miss Lumley is a consummate actress, and I for one would cheerfully listen to her reading a railway timetable, so her ghost stories are bound to be irresistible.
But it certainly didn't seem as though she was making it up. And since then we have become friendly with a couple called Ben and Penny, charming and thoroughly grounded people who live with their five children in a lovely, rambling house about eight miles from here. Neither of them is the slightest bit flaky, yet they have assured me that soon after they moved into their house a few years ago, strange things started happening in a former scullery that the previous occupants had converted into a family room, and in the spare bedroom above it, a part of the building that dates from the 16th century.
On several occasions, occasionally in front of the children, screwed-in light bulbs mysteriously detached themselves and shot across the room. Frequently, the television turned itself on. And once, when a friend of theirs was staying in the spare room, she woke up to find something lying on top of her.
It wasn't Ben, I hasten to add, but what she described - once she had calmed down - as "an energy". So Ben and Penny called Ariel Warner, an American woman originally from New England who now lives in Ludlow and describes herself as "a space-clearer". The vulgar term, she adds, is ghost-buster. And she appears to have done some effective busting at Ben and Penny's, for since she spent an afternoon there, their light bulbs have stayed put, the television has behaved, and overnight guests have slept sweetly. Last week I called Ariel and asked her to tell me more. I admitted my scepticism, but that didn't faze her in the slightest.
She told me about a woman in north Wales who had engaged her because she felt a malevolent presence in her house, which was in a 1950s cul-de-sac. Homes don't have to be centuries old to have ghosts, apparently. Anyway, this woman, whose eldest son had died in a motorbike accident, found that there had been only two previous owners of the property, and that in each case an eldest son had died. She now wanted to sell the house but did not want to pass on this apparent curse.
"So she called me," said Ariel, "and picked me up from the station. She'd had a priest in the year before to bless the place, but the joint was still jumping. When we got there the CD player was on full blast, and she said it definitely hadn't been on when she left. Moreover, the CD that was playing was her son's favourite, Metallica. But there wasn't only her son's presence there.
"There were others, not nice at all. It took me pretty much all day (to get rid of them), and about six months later she called me and said that nothing had happened since, and she was now ready to put her house on the market."
I listened to all this, agog, and then Ariel suggested that we should meet. Which I'd like to, although I don't think I'll be inviting her to our house. I don't want her seeing anything I can't.
Tales of the Country, by Brian Viner, is out in paperback (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)Reuse content