Wednesday, 18 May 2011
A clock with a mind of its own
Lady of the Lake
Woodchester Mansion was set to become one of the finest examples of Victorian Neo-Gothic architecture designed for a private home; that was until building work abruptly and mysteriously ceased. Today it remains a fine example of Victorian work-in-progress and somewhat of an enigma to boot.
A Brief History
It was in 1612 that Woodchester Park was bought by Sir George Huntley of Frocester. His grandson enclosed the valley with a wall some seven miles long to create a deer park and also helped with the construction of a hunting lodge which was built in close proximity to where the current Mansion now stands. In 1631 the lodge and estate were sold to Sir Robert Ducie who eventually transformed the lodge into “Spring Park,” a sprawling Georgian Mansion which was built around the 1700s. The parkland was landscaped and the stream dammed to form five ornamental lakes.
In 1845 the northern part of the estate was sold to William Leigh, who was described as ‘a cultivated gentleman of leisure’. Leigh took up residence in “The Cottage,” previously known as “Park House,” which was set high on the lip of the valley overlooking Spring Park. It wasn’t until 1846 that Leigh decided Spring Park was not to his taste, so hired the distinguished architect Augustus Welby Pugin to suggest alterations. Pugin was never given the project, whether it was too expensive or simply not to Leigh’s taste is uncertain. The project was finally given to a brilliant young architect named Benjamin Bucknall.
Work began in earnest in the mid 1850s (the exact commencement date is unknown) and continued until 1873 when all work suddenly ceased. This sudden decampment gave rise to many lurid theories, among them that a man was murdered on site, another was that the workforce refused to stay any longer because of the repeated ghostly encounters. In fact rumour had it that some of the workforce were indeed spirited away, as six men were reputed to have perished onsite during its construction. The widely accepted reason for the building work to have ceased, was simply because William Leigh ran out of money. The house was one of many projects that Leigh was pouring money into at the time.
He was a devout Catholic and keen to build a community around his faith, so much so, that he travelled widely to encourage people to convert to Catholicism and move to Woodchester valley and nearby Nympsfield where he promised to house them and give them jobs for life - more expense me thinks. He kept his word, as many of the descendants of the families that moved here, still occupy the original homes to this day. Woodchester and Nympsfield became the centre for Catholic worship in the South West. Many residents consider Nympsfield - especially, to be ‘a very special place’.
So, in keeping with his faith, he commissioned the building of a monastery (no longer there) and The Church of St. Mary’s (definitely there and where the family tomb is) in Woodchester, this was before work commenced on the Mansion. He was also pouring a vast amount of money into restoring local farmhouses and barns as well as maintaining the estate. All this proved a huge drain on his finances causing him to borrow heavily.
Leigh’s death in 1873, left the unfinished Mansion in the hands of his son William Jnr, aka - Squire Leigh, who was left with a colossally expensive, burdensome possession. Squire Leigh lived in “The Cottage” along with his six children and mother-in-law, his wife having died in childbirth. About a year after his father’s death, Squire Leigh approach Bucknall for an estimate for completing the build but was resigned to the fact that his income from the estate would not cover the upkeep of the property. It remained unfinished as Leigh vowed not spend another penny on the place. Of the many rooms left incomplete, only the Chapel and the servants quarters at the rear of the building were deemed almost habitable. These quarters were briefly occupied by several people including, amongst others: a sculptor, a toy inventor and his family and Leigh’s son - Vincent, who occupied said quarters at the turn of the century surrounding himself with packing cases and stacks of furniture, all marked with their intended room destinations should the house ever have been completed.
Over the years the Mansion was used as a cow shed for a local farmer, a place of teaching for Nympsfield school and a WWII garrison for American and Canadian servicemen.
Woodchester Mansion was eventually purchased in 1988 along with 23 acres of surrounding pasture by Stroud District Council. The following year the Woodchester Mansion Trust was set up to maintain the house and grounds. The Mansion now sits in 400 acres of beautiful parkland which is owned by the National Trust.
The Ghosts of Woodchester Mansion
It is a mystery to me why so many phantoms choose to haunt the Mansion, it’s not as if the place was lived in to any great extent and certainly nobody died there. So one can only assume that the ghosts must be linked to when the site was occupied by Ducie’s Spring Park and the Huntley’s hunting lodge, all built close to, or on, where the Mansion now stands.
The cellar is considered by many to be the most haunted part of the house, built as it is immediately over the original Spring Park cellar which lies deep beneath its limestone floors. The rooms high vaulted ceiling and lack of light, especially on dull days, give the chambers a daunting almost crypt like atmosphere.
Behind the many and varied manifestations that have occurred in the cellar, there seems to lurk one rather unpleasant presence. On a number of occasions a figure, often described as 'dwarf like', has been seen crouching in a corner of the far chamber. People who have visited have reported being pushed and prodded, some even claiming to have had their hair violently pulled by an invisible presence. I must confess that I too felt a little uneasy whilst in there. I am not as a rule given to having "feelings" about a place, but on this occasion, there was a certain something that I cant quite put my finger on. All the chambers have a distinctive aroma similar to that of camphor. It is a damp and cold environment; the connecting corridor is dimly lit, chilly and musty, maybe the combination of all these factors are what contributed to my unease.
Sue Bingham, one of the Mansion’s guides, recalled an encounter that happened to her. She had been taking a party of children and their parents on a guided tour of the house. They had reached the point where they stepped down into the cellar. Sue was leading the party and holding the hand of a little girl as they walked the dimly lit corridor towards the last chamber. As they reached the entrance, a man carrying a wax jacket thrown across his shoulder and wearing a hat of a similar material, suddenly emerged from the doorway completely ignoring them as he passed brusquely by. The little girl who had been holding Sue’s hand jumped, which in turn made Sue jump too. She turned quickly to the following party of parents and children to find the man had completely vanished. She asked if anyone had seen him but no one had.
The cellar is also said to be haunted by the ghosts of two little girls. The two seem more prevalent during the summer months when many children and their families visit the house for various activities. One such encounter was witnessed by a mother and daughter. As they entered the cellar the woman noticed a little girl standing in the middle of the central corridor. She was distracted for a second only to look up to find the little girl had vanished. This is not an isolated case, as the two have been seen many times either together or separately. It would appear that the presence of children seems to draw them out.
An ethereal mist, which I will refer to in more detail later, has been known to frighten folk to death in the far chamber when first they see it. There are two ground level windows that let in sufficient sunlight, that on very hot days cause the dampness in the chamber to evaporate resulting in a spooky swirling mist that floats several feet above the floor. With the sunlight playing on the mist, anyone entering the room is likely to see a shadowy reflection of themselves moving within the vapour.
The Scullery and Kitchen
These two rooms occupy the spot of the previous building - Spring Park. The flagstone floor in the kitchen is very worn and is believed to be the original floor from Spring Park. Not unsurprisingly, many paranormal investigators believe the kitchen to be the most haunted room in the house; well, that and the cellar. If you listen closely, you may just hear the sound of a woman singing a Irish Folk song, for singing has been reported many times emanating from these two rooms.
Close to the chapel is the sacristy, which has a small stone confessional built into the wall and a carved gargoyle standing on the floor. It is close to the confessional that the ghost of a monk has been seen and the carved gargoyle, has often been mistaken for someone kneeling behind a lectern.
The Clock Tower
The clock, which was installed in the 1850s and has earned itself a reputation over the years of chiming when it is thought to have not been working. Years ago, children would dare one another (as the house was said to be haunted) to sneak into the clock tower and steal bits of the haunted clock face as a trophy of their bravery. So many bits went missing from the clock that it was taken down in the 1950s and stored in the kitchen, which was to become a makeshift workshop. It was worked on then reassembled and reinstalled in the tower but mysteriously continued to misbehave by stopping and starting.
The current clock was restored in 2003, where it was given a new clock face but - yes you guessed it, it still only works when it feels like it.
Sue Bingham - house guide, recalled a spooky incident when she was showing a party around the house about five years ago. She explained the mysteries surrounding the clock and the fact that currently it was not working, but as the party looked up at the clock tower it suddenly started up and began to chime. The party laughed and thought Sue had some kind of remote control but that was not the case; there was nobody more surprised than Sue Bingham.
Sue told us of another story, though not connected to the clock. One of her colleagues was leaving the house at then end of the day. As she got into her car and drove up the lane, she noticed a little girl walking toward her, she thought nothing of it at the time and continued on past. It was a few days later when she was attending a séance, like you do, that the medium announced she had someone here who wished to talk to the lady who passed her in the lane. It is worth mentioning that a little had drowned in one of the lakes in the 70s, I wonder if the two are linked.
A WWII Tragedy
Much has been made of an alleged tragedy that was reputed to have befallen several WWII servicemen during an exercise on one of the valley’s five lakes. It is true, that American and Canadian Servicemen were stationed at the Mansion during 1944. It is also true, although at the time very top secret, that the lakes were being used extensively for bridge building exercises in preparation for the D-Day landings. However, the story of a pontoon bridge collapsing under the weight of armoured vehicles and more than 20 servicemen being trapped underneath resulting in their watery demise, is highly suspicious and contentious. So too is the rumour that tanks and other military vehicles involved in the disaster lay rusting at the bottom of the lake; that is most definitely untrue.
One of the house guides told us of a colleague who runs a diving school which use the lakes for training. On all the dives he has undertaken, never once has there been any discoveries of military vehicles at the bottom of any of the lakes, In fact the only item ever recovered was a WWII machinegun. If this tragedy had indeed taken place, then no records survive to substantiate it and I think it unlikely but not impossible, that the American and Canadian governments would have been able to cover up such a tragedy. Still, there are reports of people seeing WWII servicemen close to the lakes and walking amongst the trees and also the cries of men in distress. I wonder if the story about an angel appearing the night before the ‘accident’ may possibly have been “The lady of the Lake.”
Earlier, I described an ‘ethereal mist’ which appears from time to time in the cellar. The lakes have a beautiful but quite natural phenomena affectionately called “The Lady of the Lake” by anglers who have fished there over many years. It occurs when there has been a long spell of very hot weather. At dawn as the warm air touches the cool water it sets off a swirling ethereal mist that some have described as resembling that of a woman in white gliding across the still waters.
Woodchester Mansion has become something of a Mecca for paranormal research. ASSAP have visited, so too has Living TVs Most Haunted, Scream Team and Ghost Hunters International, along with a host of lesser known but equally qualified and just as important observers and ghost hunters.
Woodchester Mansion is a towering Neo-Gothic limestone edifice; shadowy, ominous and brooding, a stark embodiment of abandonment, enough in itself to set the mind wondering. Add to that its echoy limestone corridors, its floorless expanses which reach up unobstructed to its roof timbers; fireplaces never to be lit, hang from walls where floors would never be completed; damp dim cellars, an eerie chapel and a mysterious clock with a mind of its own, all make for a very haunted stage indeed and one I can honestly say, should ghosts exist, an ideal place to possibly see them.
Thanks must go to the friendly and helpful staff at Woodchester Mansion and especially to our guide and local historian - Sue Bingham, who’s knowledge of the house was second to none.
For further historic information about Woodchester Mansion, click on the link below: