Wednesday, 4 May 2011
The Manor at Sandford Orcas
Sandford Orcas took its name from the crossing point of the union of three streams that rise in the Parish. The streams were forded at “sandy bottom;“ a Saxon term, which over time was eventually corrupted to that of Sandford. "Orcas," is a derivation of the surname Orescuilz; the first family of landowners to acquire the site in the 12th century and construct a dwelling of sorts thereon. It is thought that Saxon folk found the name Orescuilz a bit of a mouthful, so to alleviate their pronunciation difficulties, the name was eventually shortened to that of Orcas.
The Orescuilz original dwelling was later demolished when Edward Knoyle purchased the site in 1550 and constructed the current Grade 1 Listed building, which he built from Ham Hill Stone, a rich honey- gold coloured Jurassic limestone locally quarried.
The village of Sandford Orcas lies approximately 3 miles north of Sherborne, probably best known for its two castles, one of which was home to Sir Walter Raleigh from 1592 (see “ Sherborne’s Castles” in sidebar for more info) The village is pretty much secluded, nestled in a valley amidst the picturesque hills of North West Dorset. It is a peaceful idyllic location, a place where you would most least expect to find arguably (and there was a lot of argument) one of the most haunted, if not the most haunted manor house in Britain.
As you approach the Tudor Manor and pass beneath its 500-year-old Gateway that leads you into the courtyard, I would defy anybody not to be struck by its imposing grandeur. Add to that its alleged dark history and it is easy to see why it has gained such a reputation for being haunted. With a little imagination, one could quite easily picture one of those creepy classic black & white movies about an old spooky mansion. The obligatory scene where the leading protagonist (most often a woman) draws up in her car a few yards before the Gateway, her hands tightly gripping the steering wheel as she slowly leans forward and looks up through the windshield at the shadowy edifice before her with a growing feeling of ambivalence.
On our arrival we were shown around the Manor by Sir Mervyn Medlycott, the current owner, who we found to be a most congenial and affable fellow. From the onset and without any prompting from us, he made reference to a previous leaseholder by the name of Colonel Claridge, who he casually referred to as “the ghost man.” He afforded us a little inside information in relation to the Claridge’s ghostly claims. Sir Mervyn is in no doubt, that when Colonel Claridge decided to open the Manor to the public in the 1960s, it was an attempt to generate some extra revenue. But when “gate sales” were not the success he envisaged, he hit upon the idea of fabricating a host of ghost stories in an effort to boost popularity and therefore increase attendance figures. As it turned out, it worked, and much interest was forthcoming, some positive and some not so.
Sir Mervyn was quite adamant that on no occasion had he, or any member of his family past or present, encountered any ghosts and he even went as far as to apologise (we had not disclosed our interest in ghosts at this point) to us if we had come all this way under that misapprehension the place was haunted. However, with tongue firmly in cheek, he did admit to spinning one or two ghostly yarns to entertain the would-be “ghost hunters” who visit from time to time.
On reflection, Sir Mervyn could, if he had wished, made a killing at Sandford with tales of ghostly goings on, but he chose not to, and prefers to be upfront in his opinions and scepticism.
There is of course the other side of the coin and that nagging possibility that there may have been a grain of truth in the Colonel’s claims and that the Manor is indeed haunted.
A Most Contentious Haunting - The Claridge’s Story
The Medlycott Family purchased the Manor from the Knoyles’ and have been in residence for several generations, the last 263 years to be accurate. The Medlycotts’ did not always live there, preferring to lease the property to a succession of farmers and businessmen. One such lease was granted by the hereditary owner Sir Christopher Medlycott between 1965 - 1975 to Colonel Geoffrey Francis Wilson Claridge, his family and their son-in-law. It was during their occupation that stories of ghostly goings on started to emerge. The “ghost man” had arrived.
At first, the disturbances seemed confined to the nursery wing, although harpsichord or spinet music was occasionally heard emanating from the vicinity of the 500-year-old Gateway. It was the Claridge’s daughter who spent a terrifying night in the nursery wing and would later acquaint her bewildered parents of the events that had transpired and roused her from her slumbers. She described how she had been woken by a frightful crashing and banging coming from immediately outside her bedroom door, to be followed by the muffled sound of something being dragged across the floor. It was not until the early hours, that she was able to muster enough courage to leave the nursery and dash back to her own bedroom where she remained till dawn.
In his book, The A-Z of British Ghosts, Peter Underwood describes an encounter by a Mrs L Gates of Taunton, who spent a night in the nursery wing and claimed to have seen the ghost for herself. ’He was in evening dress. His face appeared evil-looking. For what seemed quite a while, he stood there and then disappeared‘.
As the disturbances increased, several members of the household became too frightened to go upstairs lest they should encounter the ghost. Things got so bad that the Claridges’ found it increasingly difficult to keep hold of their staff. Whether their fears were attributed to a knee-jerk reaction to all the stories they were no doubt hearing and also what they may have read in the press, is a distinct possibility.
In his book Haunted Places of Dorset, Rupert Mathews writes: A Mr A. Medlycott of Cranbourne, who had occupied the house between 1916 - 1964, was spurred on to contact the press and vehemently deny the stories. He wrote a letter to the Western Gazette where he stated that ‘no ghosts were seen nor were any unusual sounds or happenings noticed by either the family or guests, or staff during our time at the Manor. Had there, in fact, been any tales of ghosts, there would have been no reason to suppress them, though doubtless they would not have been communicated to the press’.
Medlycott’s letter prompted a response by letter from a Miss M. Gallo who was the daughter of servants of the Medlycott Family at the time. She had lived as a small child on the top floor and recalled , ‘We often heard knocking on the doors, windows opening and closing and curtains being drawn back and forward. At the time, my parents didn’t believe us as we small. I was six-years-old and my sister was five‘.
It is interesting to note, Mr A Medlycott’s resolve in not having such stories made public when he writes ‘they would not have been communicated to the press’. I cant help wondering; is it conceivable that Mr A Medlycott had instructed his staff and friends to keep any such tales to themselves?
In 1966 as the stories reached a wider audience, a BBC crew were filming at the Manor and were quoted as saying ‘the Manor has a strong reputation of being haunted’ and has earned its name as being “the most haunted manor house in Britain.”
During the hullabaloo that inevitably followed, Mr Christopher Medlycott this time, was approached by author and paranormal investigator - Peter Underwood. He asked of Mr Medlycott what his thoughts were with regard to the claims made by the Claridge Family, their staff and their friends. He replied, ’I don’t believe the house to be haunted. My family and I have lived there for the past 44 years and never seen or heard anything’.
It is with the respect to both Mr A Medlycott and Mr Christopher Medlycott, that I must challenge their comments. It has been my experience, that a family may live quite happily in a house without any problems whatsoever. Whereas another family living in the same property can, for reasons unknown, encounter all manner of strange unexplained oddities. This may well have been the case with the Claridge Family. If the paranormal exists, then who is to say what conditions must be in place to trigger it.
As the Claridge’s stories grew in their audaciousness, their validity was brought into question and the Colonel and his family were suspected of erroneous fabrication of dates, people and events and one or two somewhat dubious photographs to boot. So convinced was the Colonel that his claims were genuine, he invited a team of investigators (one of many I believe) from the Paraphysical Laboratory (a research unit organized by some members of the Society for Psychical Research) to investigate the Manor. The team stayed for several days and concluded, that in their opinion, the house was most certainly haunted, although team leader - Mr. Benson Herbert, was not prepared to speculate by whom or what, but said later ‘a prima facie case had been established and five ghosts had been verified‘. This declaration from the SPR was a welcome tick in the box for the Colonel, and just the confirmation he needed to add credence to his claims.
The Claridge’s staff and friends gamut of ghostly reports, if we are to believe them genuine, were to include:
A psychopathic priest, apparently responsible for several murders in life, is now, it would seem, frustrated in death. Unable to continue with his murderous spree, he contents himself by scaring folk witless by stand over their beds in the dead of night wielding a knife.
A man dressed in velvet, seen in the house.
A lady dressed in white, seen in the house.
A lady dressed in green, seen in the grounds.
Six ghostly monks, seen in the grounds. I’m at a loss to see where these chaps fit in to be honest, as there has never been a priory in or near Sandford Orcas.
Mrs Claridge claimed to have seen a woman dressed in red ascend the stone spiral staircase and disappear into a bedroom. Giving chase, Mrs Claridge was surprised when entering the bedroom to find it empty.
The ghost of a male servant, said to have murdered a former employer, walks the upper floors slamming doors.
A farmer, thought to be James Davidge, leased the Manor in the early 1740’s but got into financial difficulties and hanged himself from a trapdoor in the house. Although the trapdoor has long since been boarded up, it doesn’t seem to have deterred his ghost from haunting the kitchen dressed in a white milking smock. His ghost is one of the more frequently witnessed manifestation and has been reported by staff and the Claridges’ many times. During filming, one member of the BBC film crew claimed to have seen his ghost walking past the kitchen window.
One of the more shocking tales, surrounds that of a young sea cadet who murdered a shipmate whilst at sea. To avoid a public scandal, he was returned to Sandford under a veil of silence. Once there, he was incarcerated in a room at the back of the house where it is said he spent the rest of his life until his death several years later. His demented screams and the sound of someone or something hurling itself against the door has been heard by terrified witnesses.
A giant of a man, some seven feet tall, believed to have been a footman during the 18th century, apparently harboured an unhealthy interest in the local village maidens. He would take great delight in scaring them at every opportunity. It was his obsessive, sexual deviance that was to lead to his eventual undoing. He accosted a young girl from the village who he beat and raped. He was arrested, tried and sent to prison where he eventually died. His ghostly presence however, has returned to the Manor where it is preceded by a disgusting foul odour.
Even the inanimate seem to take on a life of their own. The two carved stone apes which stand above the porch are reputed to reanimate themselves and lampoon those that dare pass beneath them.
St. Nicolas Church
The Norman church of St. Nicolas, adjacent to the Manor does not escape the odd tale or two either. Ghostly footsteps have been heard chasing people down the church steps and into the lane below. Whilst within the church, a prosaic ghostly figure of a man has been seen fleetingly running up the central aisle clutching what appears to be a large key.
On the wall above the side door, there is a rather disconcerting wall carving in painted alabaster, depicting William Knoyle of 'Santfort Arcas' manor house who is clad in armour and kneeling between his two wives and their eleven children. Seven of the children kneel in black gowns and the others are in swaddling clothes of red and lying in line behind their mother - Fillip, his first wife. These four children are depicted in death. The body of William Knoyle rests immediately below the memorial, his tomb is dated 1607. Could it be the ghosts of William Knoyle and that of his wife Fillip who are also thought to contribute to the Manor’s list of hauntings.
Church of St. Nicolas
Here Lies the Body of Willaim Knoyle
Much has been written about the Manor’s alleged hauntings and its darker human legacy of murder and cruelty. A legacy which may have a grain of truth, as there have been many leaseholders over the centuries, so there is much scope for dastardly deeds.
One has to consider, in view of the controversy, that the stories perpetuated by the Claridges’ may well indeed have been manufactured and are nothing more than fanciful nonsense engineered for monetary gain, as strongly believed by Sir Mervyn Medlycott. That said, one can not dismiss entirely the claims from the Claridge Family and not forgetting those of their staff and their friends, many of whom have had strange encounters. Furthermore, one would have to question Colonel Claridge’s motives for ultimately attracting such media attention and running the risk of implicating his family, staff and friends in the furore that followed. To be thought of as deluded, eccentric fools and liars, which in some quarters is exactly what happened, would surely not be a cross anyone would want to bring to bear on their family, unless of course, they were all in collusion together and couldn’t have given a hoot as to what folks thought of them.
The house has been visited by several groups of paranormal investigators over the years, who in the main have reported nothing. But then why should that be so surprising, after all, elusive spontaneity is unquestionably what ghosts are all about, so spending hours and hours waiting for one to show is about as likely as successfully counting falling raindrops.
Whatever your thoughts are about Sandford’s mysterious Manor, whether you believe it to be haunted or not; you have to ask yourself this; can you honestly refute all of the claims by all of the witnesses as fabrication?
The Colonel and his wife Josephine are buried side-by-side at St. Nicolas opposite; their daughter still lives in the village.