Monday 1 January 2018

Haunted Wiltshire - an introduction

The Concise Oxford Dictionary for the 1990s defines a ghost as ‘the supposed apparition of a dead person or animal; a disembodied spirit.’ With that in mind, do I believe ghosts are just that; the spirit manifestation of dead people - unlikely. Do I consider the possibility that ghosts are recordings of past events indelibly etched into the fabric of their immediate surroundings - possibly. Do I believe you need to be psychically aware or sensitive or mediumistic to see ghosts - most certainly not. 

I have met with many people over the years who claim to have seen ghosts, the majority of whom do not consider themselves remotely psychic, sensitive or possess any mediumistic abilities, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time depending on how you look at it. In nearly all cases, these individuals were busying themselves with their day-to-day lives (more often than not in broad daylight as it turned out) when they saw ghosts.

There is a growing weight of evidence which would suggest ghosts do not appear to those individuals who claim to possess certain 'abilities' as some would have you believe. On the contrary, the ghost phenomena is spontaneous by its very nature and has a habit of manifesting itself in the presence of folk who you would lease expect to see them, specifically those who have not actively gone out of their way looking for them. By their own admission, many of the individuals I have spoken to over the years, were of the opinion that ghosts were nothing more than figments of an overactive imagination, a trick of the light, etcetera, that was until their brief and sudden episode of frisson caused them to re-evaluate their scepticism.

This blog catalogues locations I have visited which are reputedly haunted. Where possible I have selected locations accessible to the public. I have included first hand accounts from people who claim to have encountered ghosts plus anecdotal tales passed down over the years.

I hope you enjoy the blog. Please feel free to contact me with your opinions and stories via the email link in the side bar.

I remain as always, an open-minded sceptic.


Thursday 29 May 2014

Erlestoke Prison

HMP Erlestoke, like many other prisons, has its fair share of ghostly tales, but before I get into the creepy stuff, let me impart a little of its history.

Erlestoke House, the oldest part of the prison, was built between 1786 and 1791 by eminent architect - George Stewart for wealthy timber merchant - Joshua Smith. It was Smith who decided to demolish an Elizabethan house which was situated a little further down the valley to make way for the new build which when completed would have commanded uninterrupted views across the valley and the village of Erlestoke. It was a grand affair in the palladian style (very popular during the 18th century) of some 365 feet in length, with three levels and a basement. Set in beautiful parkland with ornate bridges, lake and waterfall, the latter fed by a natural spring.

Smith needed to demolished several of the cottages in the village to make way for the project. Rather than leave the residents homeless, he set about rehousing all who had lost their homes in new cottages which can still be seen today. Many have strange carvings built into the walls. Some of classical figures whilst others are of imposing gargoyles. All are thought to have been part of the original house. In 1951 the house was largely destroyed by fire, leaving just the centre section which is now home to the Education and Works (maintenance) department.

Several notable figures have visited both houses in the past; Queen Elizabeth I slept here in 1574. The Duchess of Kent and her daughter Princess Victoria, later to be crowned Queen spent a weekend at Erlestoke in 1830. Sir Thomas More, wrote of 'an evening of music and song' during his stay. Erlestoke has also been home to several dignitaries and four distinguished members of parliament.

In 1819 Joshua Smith died and the estate and lands were sold to George Watson-Taylor, a wealth Jamaican plantation owner for a whopping £250,000, a cool five and half million plus in today's money. The Watson-Taylor fortune took a downfall in 1832 during the emancipation of the slave trade. He was forced to auction off many of Erlestoke's treasures just to meet his debts. He moved away and the house remained closed for four years.

It was leased to John Cam Hobhouse, later Baron Broughton politician and best buddies with Lord Byron. In 1844 Simon Watson-Taylor, son of George, returned to his family home at Erlestoke and took over the lease. Simon had married Charlotte Hay around 1843, and it is she who is said to haunt the house.

The Ghost of Lady Charlotte Hay

A search of England's historic peerage revealed Lady Charlotte Hay was the daughter of Field Marshal George Hay, 8th Marquess of Tweeddale and Lady Susan Montagu.

During her residency at Erlestoke House, Lady Charlotte resented the intrusion on her land by village folk visiting the church of St.James. The church was situated on land occupied by the old Elizabethan estate, which now belonged to Erlestoke House. She arranged for St.James to be demolished on the understanding that she would fund the construction of a new church outside the estate. The Holy Savior church built in the Gothic style in memory of her late father, was completed in 1880 at a cost of £6000; twice the estimate.

It is with some speculation why it should be Lady Charlotte haunting Erlestoke House. Some have suggested she was so dissatisfied with the completed church, that her spirit had become earthbound, even though she died some seven years after its completion. I would have thought the stained glass window in the chancel commissioned and dedicated in her memory would have been more than enough to appease her restless spirit.

For argument sake, let's say it is her ghost that has been seen walking the basement under the Education block. She has also been seen it what remains of the old house. So what are people seeing. Well descriptions vary little; a shadowy figure, almost certainly female often as not seen peripherally.

A couple of years ago, an instructor in the Horticultural department (Education block) was chatting by the exit with a prisoner. They could only have been four or feet feet apart when from nowhere a shadowy figure passed between them and as it did so disappeared.

The Grounds are also said to be haunted by Lady Charlotte; she gets around does this girl. Some say she has been seen walking where the old church once stood. Descriptions in these instances are a little more clear. Some report seeing a woman dress in black in the style of the 1800s. A similar figure has been spotted close by what was once an ornate bridge. It is unclear if these apparitions are of the woman seen in the house, but staff at Erlestoke have affectionately Christensen their ghost Lady Charlotte whether it be her or not.

Officer Grant Frost, who has since left the establishment, told me of a story that happened to him. "It was around 2 a.m, I had been working the night shift, I was alone in the Works department. I'd locked myself in as is standard practice. I was busy catching up on some paperwork when I distinctly heard footsteps coming from the room immediately above me. Knowing full well I was the only person in the building, I went to investigate. A full search revealed nothing."

Having heard the stories of ghostly goings on in the old house, Grant was happy in the knowledge that he may well have heard Lady Charlotte doing her nightly rounds.

Several of the Works staff claim to have seen or heard the ghost. Whilst another told me of hearing the sound of children playing upstairs in the Works rest room.

The mischievous spirit said to haunt the steps leading up and out of the basement has made some staff reluctant to venture there. Reports by staff of being pushed up the steps by unseen hands are not uncommon. I must confess having walked this particular area it can be a little creepy. But then is that because I was aware of its haunted history.

Whether Lady Charlotte Hay haunts Erlestoke is uncertain. What is certain, is that there have been plenty of reports to support there may be something walking the corridors of the old house at Erlestoke prison.

My thanks to those that helped with this post. You know who you are.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Memories of Me

Why when I call your name
Do you turn away as if you do not hear me
Why do I leave no footprints where I walk
No fingerprints on all that I touch
No echo to my voice
No fragrance to my garden
No warm summer breeze caresses my face

Why does my photograph only bring you sorrow
Why weep my love, for I am here beside you, just a whisper away

Shapeless faces call to me from the shadows
But I will not follow, for tonight like many others before
I will lay with you as you sleep
Listening to your dreams
Your memories of me


Sunday 22 December 2013

The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring

Harry Price (1881-1948) magician, conjuror, paranormal investigator, ghost hunter and infamous debunker of fraudulent spiritualists and mediums; a practice which, on occasion would often lead to a lucrative livelihood reduced to ruins. He is probably best known for his extensive investigations of the alleged hauntings at Borley Rectory, a bleak Victorian mansion which once stood in a small hamlet on the Sussex/ Essex border.

Price’s investigations at Borley Rectory between 1929 and 1948, were well publicised. Indeed he wrote several books about Borley’s ghosts, poltergeists and its terrifying black-robed nun. His most noted, ‘The Most Haunted House in England,‘ gained him much notoriety along with the unofficial title of Britain’s foremost authority on ghosts and hauntings. As time passed his claims for Borley’s hauntings became, shall we say, a little 'colourful' and were considered by many as somewhat dubious, so much so that he was eventually exposed as a hoaxer, ironic when you consider how much time he devoted to exposing fake mediums etcetera. Although he admitted to fabricating some of Borley's “paranormal incidents” he was adamant that not all were of his doing.

Neil Spring’s debut novel, The Ghost Hunters, centres around Harry Price’s investigation at Borley Rectory, a story narrated by his fictional assistant Sarah Grey. Spring’s story brilliantly brings together fact and fiction in an enthralling ghost story of revenge, deception, love and hope.

Friday 23 August 2013

What is a Ghost?

The Brown Lady

Probably one, if not the most famous of all ghost photographs is this one of The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, which was taken by Captain Provand and Indre Shira (two notable London photographers) on the 19th September 1936. Provand and Shira had been commissioned to take photographs of the interior of the Hall for Country Life Magazine. It was as they were finishing up the days shoot that Shira noticed a shape descending the stairs and urged Provand to take photographs. Provand uncapped his lens and took a single frame.

Nothing was really distinguishable at the time, just an amorphous shape descending the stairs but when the pair were developing the plates later, they noticed the image you see above. The photograph was published in Country Life Magazine on 26th December 1936 and in the December issue of Life Magazine. Attempts to prove it a fake have failed, it remains one of the most intriguing ghost photographs ever taken.

The apparition is thought to be that of Lady Dorothy Walpole, sister of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, who died at Raynham Hall of smallpox in 1726.

Prior to this sighting, a famous encounter by Captain Frederick Marryat in 1836, saw the good captain fire a pistol at the apparition as it glided down one of the upper corridors. Just how Lady Walpole fared after this attempt on her 'death' is unknown.

The eminent author - Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, ‘behind every man there stands 30 ghosts, that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.‘

The Earth's population is approximately 7 billion, so there is potential for 210 billion ghosts happily, or unhappily haunting the planet. If Mr. Clarke’s statistics are to be believed, then you would think that we would be falling over phantoms at every turn. The explanation offered by mediums and spiritualists as to why this is not so, is evidently quite simple, we, the uninitiated are not ’tuned-in’ to the spirit plain.

So what is a ghost? I suppose if you were to ask most people, they would probably describe a ghost as a disembodied spirit, cursed for eternity to wonder aimlessly through dark and musty corridors of some spooky old mansion or the like. This may indeed be true, in fact many sightings have been reported in such places.

Ghosts take on many different forms, some are seen as amorphous, whilst others have a distinct shape, many appear quite solid just like you or I. There are even stories where people claim to have engaged ghosts in conversation believing them to be quite real, only to be told later that they have in fact been happily chatting to the dead.

Sceptics are only too quick to dismiss ghosts as figments of an overactive imagination. Many encounters are probably just that but surely it is better to attempt to understand this phenomena rather than just dismiss it as fanciful rubbish, a trick of the light or a vivid dream - etcetera.

The Imprint Theory
Many parapsychologists theorize that powerful emotional psychological scars can be retained in inanimate objects such as wood or stone and when conditions are suitable (whatever suitable conditions may be) are some how triggered and played back. This theory may well account for 'cyclic hauntings,' where an apparition appears to go through a repetitive program before ultimately fading away at the completion of the recording.

If you go along with this theory then imprint hauntings start to make a little more sense. For example; people often report seeing a ghostly figure walk through a wall. Other reports tell of only seeing a ghost from the waist up. On closer inspection of these two examples, is it quite conceivable to conclude that the wall in question at one point did have a door which is now bricked up and no longer in use. So it follows, that a vision of a ghost with the lower part of the body obscured, could have something to do with the topography of the ground in the past compared with the present.

Some researchers theorize imprint hauntings diminish over time, a little like a discharging battery, resulting in a once clear and defined apparition reduced to little more than a diluted amorphous shape or just footsteps in the night. This may account for why we don't see ghosts of cavemen; their batteries are long since exhausted. However, it is argued that the explanation for this degradation in definition is actually nothing to do with the passing of time but a result in variants in atmospheric conditions. It is further speculated that a combination of air temperature, humidity, daylight or night time could have a bearing on the strength and therefore definition of an imprint haunting. Many ghosts are reported during the cold winter months, few during warmer weather; why should this be? In light of this, two people witnessing a ghostly encounter at the same location but at different times of the year and under different atmospheric conditions may well be party to the same apparition but in a diluted state of being. An explanation as to why this should be is still sitting the pending tray.

Do Ghosts Exist?
The question as to whether ghosts exist is as contentious as a belief in a God. Both issues have fuelled many debates over several millennia and will I’m sure fuel many more. If you were to ask men of science that question I would anticipate their response would likely be that science deals in facts, specifics, things have to be measured and quantified, experiments have to be carried out again and again and anything that defies the laws of physics, e.g. passing through solid objects can’t possibly be entertained. They may have a point.

To some the ghost debate can be awkward and is often met with mixed responses. It is interesting to observe the reaction of some people when the subject of ghosts is introduced into conversation and just how some exhibit a reticence when asked if they believe in such things. Their response, I have noticed on occasion is to take the guarded route and respond with a nervous chortle and an off-the-cuff and somewhat dismissive, “Lord no, all in the mind; another drink darling?” I can only assume this reluctance to engage any further in the subject is to avoid appearing foolish in front of one’s peers. I can’t help wondering, if you were to ask of those same people, do you believe in the existence of a God, I’m fairly sure those that do or don't would happily and without any compunction or fear of ridicule answer yes or no, which to be honest confounds me. Just how do you differentiate between the two anomalies, after all, is not God also a supernatural entity with no proof to validate its existence, so why regard ghosts any differently, in fact surely a ghost has more validity than God (that should trigger a few emails). Many millions claim to have seen ghosts throughout history but how many claim to have seen a God?

I like to refer to myself as an open minded sceptic; I know that sounds somewhat contradictory. I will be the first to admit that I have my doubts about the existence of ghosts as the disembodied spirits of dead people, a belief held by many psychic mediums and spiritualists. If pressed, I would have to favour the imprint theory as a possible explanation. Over the years I have investigated many hauntings but have not seen or heard anything that I would describe as supernatural, but then I never expected to. Whether this means I am not ‘in tune’ or ‘psychically aware’ as some might suggest, remains an issue for debate. What I will say is, there have been far too many sightings to just ignore the possibility that such phenomena may exist. Ghosts have been reported globally in every civilization since the beginning of recorded history. Everyone knows someone who has seen a ghost, in fact it is believed that as many as 1 in 7 Britons claim to have witnessed ghostly activity in one shape or another and the chances of seeing a ghost has been calculated as little as 1 in 10. When you consider the odds of winning the lottery are around 1 in 40,000,000; being struck by lightening 1 in 600,000 and being murdered in the UK as 1 in 16000, then there is every chance that you and I may well experience a ghost in our lifetime - sure hope so!

Sleep well.

‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy‘.

- William Shakespeare -