Rory Knight Bruce has noticed that having a ghost or two adds allure to haunted country houses open to the public. But real mysteries can lie beneath...
Haunted country houses loom large in literature and film. The eerie creaks, the menacing butlers, the silent dread that goes with the first tread on the gravel of a deserted drive. But haunted country houses are just as likely to be inhabited by the vibrant souls of the living. And in some counties it’s all but impossible to miss a haunted country house. Robed monks, jovial ancestors and tragic children all jostle with each other to keep you quaking. But most seem benevolent and set on helping the modern incumbents of the haunted country houses they inhabit. Rory Knight Bruce investigates the lure of the haunted country house.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN GHOSTS?
Like many involved in paranormal societies across Britain, Ghai investigates possible ghosts by using EVPs or Electronic Voice Phenomena. Examples of a ghostly presence are recorded A, B, C or D with A being
the most rare and clearest signs of activity. “I have had a ghost in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane say on stage, ‘Who’s that?” says Ghai. “This is very rare.” At Exeter Castle, once a jail and the court for the 17th-century “Hanging” Judge George Jeffreys’ Bloody Assizes, Ghai had an experience that made him jump out of his skin. He was in the public lavatories, which had been a “suicide cell” for prisoners awaiting trial, when he heard a woman’s curdling scream.
At the oldest pub in Wales, The Skirrid Mountain Inn in Monmouthshire, a rope still hangs on the stairway where Jeffreys is said to have sent some of his victims to the noose. I have stayed there in a room that was once part of the courtroom where more than 180 souls are said to have been condemned to death and it is impossible not to feel an eerie sensation. “The ghost most people see here is of Fanny Pryce, the landlady from the 1830s who died in the inn and is buried 100yd away in the churchyard,” says landlord Geoff Fiddler. “She doesn’t like change and comes back to check on us and the furniture.”
HAUNTED COUNTRY HOUSES: DEVON
Francis Fulford, the 23rd successive male member of his family to occupy his Devon manor house since 1191, is a firm believer in ghosts and haunted country houses. “The dogs can see and sense things that others can’t,” he says. “When I got engaged I could hear them dancing in the attic and they were very cheerful.” (I have stayed in these attic rooms and, while not seeing the dancing maids, can certainly say that they have an ancient, foreboding feel to them).
When he was about five years old, Fulford recalls a girl of about 18 in a nightdress coming into his room. It was, he believes, the ghost of a housemaid. To this day, his sister will stay at Great Fulford only if she sleeps in the room next door to her brother. One has the impression, however, that the Fulford ghosts, in common with many that inhabit older houses, are benign, like Oscar Wilde’s Canterville ghost. “Perfectly sane people have seen things here,” continues Fulford. “My grandmother, during the Great War, saw her brother in full uniform standing one night by her bed. Three weeks later the telegram came to say he had been killed at Gallipoli.” Francis and Kishanda Fulford, like so many owners of houses and haunted country houses that are open to the public, run ghost tours and evenings, which are very popular. “I only wish the ghosts would do something useful like clear away the plates in the dining-room,” says Fulford.
HAUNTED COUNTRY HOUSES: NORTHUMBERLAND
But ghosts can achieve something useful, as Sir Humphry Wakefield of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland can vouch. They add interest to haunted country houses and castles, and provide a valuable income stream from visitors who come again and again to be frightened, thrilled or intrigued by ghostly potential.
Built in the 12th century, Chillingham Castle has a claim to be among the most haunted country houses in England. Mark Fisher’s Chillingham Castle: the diary of an amateur ghost hunter recounts the muffled cries of a child, the ghost of Chillingham’s famous Blue Boy. In the Pink Room, Fisher has heard male voices and experienced feelings of dread when standing next to the Priest Stand in the chapel. “I really feel the ghosts here are rooting for me,” says Sir Humphry. “Even if things go missing from the castle, it is usually the pull of the ghosts which wins them back to us. Often it is because we have a 16th-century painting by Zurbarán of a Spanish witch who curses those who steal or ‘wish the castel ille’.”
Wakefield’s son, Max, and his guests have often seen a blue flash in the Pink Room and one of his fellow racing driver friends has a photograph of a clear blue spectre of light taken in the adjacent Artists’ Room. Chillingham Castle has three ghost guides, one of whom is deeply psychic, and runs all-night vigils where more scientific visitors come equipped with Geiger counters, which invariably react. We get a complete range coming,” continues Sir Humphry. “Some are looking for cheap thrills in haunted country houses and others are seriously looking for signs from another world.
“The ghosts have contributed hugely to worldwide interest in the castle,” explains Sir Humphry, who started the tours in 1982. He is fascinated by ghost stories and counts the 18th Lord Dunsany’s many magical tales of other worlds among his favourites.
HAUNTED COUNTRY HOUSES: HELL-FIRE CAVES
The Hell-Fire Caves at West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire are one of the most popular ghost-viewing destinations. Their chalk caverns, with 400 metres of underground passages and chambers, attract more than 30,000 visitors a year. Wholly supervised paranormal vigils with respected psychic mediums are run there in an attempt to detect the spirits of the 18th-century aristocratic debauchee members of the Hell-Fire Club.
HAUNTED COUNTRY HOUSES: SIMPLY A MYTH?
While only a cynic would suggest that ghostly tales and sightings are most prevalent in haunted country houses open to the public, there is no question that such homes have their fair share of spectral sightings. At Chavenage House near Tetbury, home to the Lowsley-Williams family since Elizabethan times (and the home of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark in the BBC series), there have been several ghostly sightings of figures dating back to Cromwell.
“My brother George used to camp out on the lawn as a child and clearly recalls seeing figures from an earlier age,” says Caroline Lowsley-Williams. “He has never forgotten them 40 years later.” Two years ago, Lowsley-Williams opened up a small room in the manor that had remained locked and shuttered since Cromwell’s time. “As I went in, I felt a presence and our spaniel started growling,” she recalls. “I cannot say for certain it was the spirit of a Cromwellian general because, shortly afterwards, the spaniel found a dead jackdaw under the bed, so it might have been that which interested him.”
But, she says, you cannot have one family living in a house for more than 500 years without inhabiting it with the spirits of their forebears. During the Second World War, Chavenage was requisitioned as a hospital for severely wounded pilot officers. “Their limbs were repaired but perhaps not their inner souls,” says Lowsley-Williams. Several of the pilots claim to have seen the apparition of a monk in the family chapel.
HAUNTED COUNTRY HOUSES: A CONVERT
Like many people, Roddy Martine, author of Supernatural Scotland and Haunted Scotland, had a healthy scepticism about ghosts until a chance encounter on a train one evening. For some years he had been convinced he’d seen the apparition of a small boy with long hair in his bedroom at his Edinburgh flat. An elderly lady on the train asked where he lived and then told him that had it had been her parents’ flat. “We left it after the First War because my brother, Edward Seaton, died there aged 12.” Martine researched the ownership of his flat, discovering the name Seaton on the deeds from 1917. “To my mind, haunting is not an evil or threatening thing,” he says. “I think ghosts are rather reassuring, as if the soul gets lost in transit and the spirit gets trapped.” He feels the success of Edinburgh’s ghost tours today is down to the fact that the city, with its many underground streets and vennels, possesses centuries of mysterious deaths and tragedies.
There is little doubt that animals feel the presence of spirits and ghosts. There are many stories of foxes visiting the graves of foxhunters shortly after the burial. Lady Feversham’s Strange Stories of the Chase was once at every post-war country bedside and the eighth Duke of Northumberland’s The Shadow on the Moor is a chilling tale of a murderous huntsman who rides to a cliff-top death, based on ghostly fact.
The American poet Henry Longfellow summed it up: “All houses in which men have lived and died are haunted houses. These harmless phantoms on their errands glide with feet that make no sound upon the floors.” Not all Americans, it seems, share their compatriot’s fondness for ghosts. Twenty years ago I stayed at a castle in Ireland where the aging baronet eked out a living giving ghost tours while wearing a gothic cape. In one room there was a secret chute in which it was said guests and ghosts would come and go at will. The castle is now a highly successful family hotel. But when I asked if I could write about my experiences of the earlier haunted country houses ghost tours, I was told firmly, “Please don’t. Our American visitors would be terrified.”
Have you stayed in one of the many haunted country houses in Britain? Do you dare?