Friday, 26 November 2010

Cross Guns - Avoncliff


 Atop a steep valley in the picturesque hamlet of Avoncliff, stands the Cross Guns pub. Built in 1496 as a private residence, it is one of Avoncliff’s oldest buildings. The terraced gardens offer a splendid view of the Avoncliff triple arched aqueduct, designed and built by John Reenie and John Thomas (bet his school days were memorable) between 1797 and 1801. It carries the Kennet & Avon canal over the River Avon and Box railway. This impressive stone built edifice ranks as one of the most magnificent of Britain’s artificial waterways constructions. 

The Cross Guns is situated just 100 yards from Brunel's original wide-gauge railway, which must have served the hungry and thirsty railway workers during its construction. The house became a pub in the early 1600’s taking the name, The Carpenter‘s Arms. As the years passed alterations were inevitable, first to the east to accommodate the many mill workers, quarry men and travellers and secondly to the west, in the early part of the 18th century after the canal arrived to accommodate the influx of rail workers, working boatmen (bargees) and their horses, which would have been stabled behind the old cellar. In 1794 the 9th Battalion of the Wiltshire Rifle Volunteers was formed and duly established a rifle range beside the pub. It was decided to honour the local yeomanry by changing the pubs name to the Cross Guns. The pub was purchased in 1999 by current owners Ken and Jenny Roberts and still remains a family run free house. 

The Blue Lady
At a time when there were no roads to speak of in Avoncliff, folk would often use a footpath which led down from the top of the valley, behind the pub and on down to the river below. Now it just so happens, that the old footpath would have passed directly through what is now the ladies toilets, which is where the Blue Lady is most often encountered. Of all the phantoms reputed to haunt the Cross Guns, the Blue Lady is the most frequently seen. When encountered, she is always described as dressed in blue or grey-blue in the style of the Victorian period. She has also been seen in various rooms in the pub and gardens. Anglers fishing on the banks of the Avon and boaters who have moored on the canal attest to fleeting glimpses of her as they make their ascent from the valley floor en route to the pub. She is said to stand quite motionless looking down at the river from the garden. You can imagine the look of shock, when visitors reach the pub only to be told by staff that the Victorian lady dressed in blue you have just described, is probably one of our ghosts.

One of the first sightings of the Blue Lady was by a member of staff - Janet, now deceased. Her encounter took place about 10 years ago. Janet had just nipped outside to the ladies, when moments later the pub door burst open and in came Janet in a state of panic claiming she had just seen a woman step out of the wall in the ladies toilet. Now it is unclear if there were people in the pub at the time but if there were, I can only imagine it must of caused quite a stir. Another member of staff - Christine, eventually managed to calm Janet down long enough for her to relate what had happened. Janet began to stumbled nervously through her story, she described how she had been heading for the exit of the toilet, when all of a sudden, a woman stepped out of the wall blocking her way. Terrified, but managing to muster enough courage from lord knows where, she made a dash for the door which meant having to pass directly through the apparition which, incredibly she did. Janet described the woman as dressed in blue-grey with wild staring eyes. She also recalled the woman wore ankle length boots which, as Janet raced for the pub door, where heard ’click-clacking’ behind her as if the Blue Lady were in pursuit, she did not turn round to confirm this and who would blame her. Janet claimed to have seen the Blue Lady several times since that night but nothing quite as traumatic as her first encounter.

Janet was not the only hapless individual to encounter the Blue lady, several customers have come racing back into the pub as white as sheets with similar stories over the years. Some witnesses, a little more curious than terrified after their ordeal, have returned with friends, no doubt hoping to get a second look; they never have. The Blue Lady’s arrival is often preceded by a noticeable drop in temperature, an element that seems to figure in many ghostly encounters. There have been instances when staff and visitors have felt an icy chill moments before she manifests. Such an incident occurred one evening while a party were having a meal beside the cosy inglenook fireplace. A female member of the party suddenly complained of feeling intensely cold and looked about to see if a door had been left open. At that very moment, she said she saw quite plainly, a woman in grey-blue glide partway through the lounge and into the public bar. She was the only one in the party to have witnessed the apparition. 

Landlord - Ken Roberts recalled an incident that happened recently. One afternoon two women were sat in the garden having a drink, when for no apparent reason, other than they both had the distinct impression of being watched, they glanced up at a first floor window (used in the 1500‘s as a family room) only to see an elderly woman wearing what appeared to be a white bonnet smiling back at them. They continued to watch in utter amazement as the figure slowly disappeared before their eyes. The description given by the two women does not seem to fit that of the Blue Lady but then there’s more than one ghost haunting the Cross Guns.

Ken Roberts admitted to only ever having one ghostly experience in the pub and even now, he’s not totally convinced it was supernatural. He had been working late helping design a website for the pub with a friend who had brought his camera to take some photographs. Together they waited patiently for the pub to empty, as it was nearing closing time. The idea was to get a few cosy atmospheric photographs of the pubs interior with nobody in it. Shortly after the last customer had left, there suddenly appeared in the lounge, "two strange lights which seemed to hover above our heads," said Ken. At first Ken thought it may have been smoke highlighted by the fire, or possibly a reflection from somewhere. These explanations were quickly dismissed, when the lights started to move about the room. Ken’s friend took several photographs in succession and the results Ken says, "have been interpreted differently by all who have seen them." Below is one of a series of photographs taken of the anomaly, make of it what you will.  

One of several images taken that night Ken has never seen the Blue Lady or any of the other ghosts reputed to haunt the pub. He has always felt that because there have been and still are, so many reports of strange goings-on, it would be foolhardy of him to refute anything that his staff and customers claim to have seen and felt. Many of the pubs ghosts have been perceived peripherally, just a fleeting image from the corner of the eye. Tall shadows resembling human form are a frequent occurrence in the kitchen. The chef - Robert, claims to have seen a portly woman resembling a Victorian housekeeper standing in the doorway to the kitchen, not once but on several occasions. One such sighting was shared by colleague Christine, who was sitting in a adjoining room and saw the same apparition via a mirror on the wall that is so placed as to give a clear view into the kitchen and vice versa. As fleeting as the apparition appeared, it was gone. They both looked at one another via their respective reflections, “did you see that?” they asked in unison, they both did as it turned out.

Another of the pubs ghosts is that of elderly gentleman thought to be an 18th century bargee. He is occasionally seen seated on one of the settles in the public bar. Christine claimed to have seen him only recently late at night as the pub was closing. At first she thought he was a customer who had been chatting to Ken, so thought little of it until she mentioned it moments later to another member of staff. Her colleague looked surprised and told her she must be mistaken, as she had just come from that area and Ken was quite alone. Christine knew there was no way the gentleman could have got past her and out through the pubs front door without her seeing him leave. Immediately she returned to the bar to discover that Ken was indeed all alone washing glasses. She asked him if he had seen the old gentleman but he had not. It seemed on this occasion, Christine had been privy to yet another of the Cross Guns resident ghosts.

Staff laying tables in the lounge in preparation for the evening diners have spoken of seeing a monk like figure standing by the inglenook fireplace, or on occasion disappearing into, or standing close to the cellar door. The cellar is said to link to a tunnel which leads down to the canal, though excavations have not been undertaken to confirm this. Several steps down from the lounge will take you to a priest hole, where many people have claimed to have felt “uncomfortably nervous.” Several years ago before Ken bought the pub, the disturbances had got so bad that the previous landlord had called on The Dean of Salisbury to arrange for the pub to be blessed. A blessing took place but alas, with little or no effect, indeed some of the staff at the time firmly believed it accelerated the problem. Why this should be, I have absolutely no idea.

Is the Cross Guns the most haunted pub in Wiltshire? Well it certainly has a remarkably history of ghostly encounters, encounters I may add, that are not to be found amongst the pages of a myriad of dusty paranormal journals describing the pubs “cyclic hauntings” that only occur but once in a blue moon. Indeed not, for whatever is haunting the Cross Guns is currently very active. Even now, visitors and staff still reporting strange anomalies. I think it would be unreasonable and indeed naïve of me, or anybody else for that matter to just simply dismiss all the accounts as figments of the imagination, or a trick of the light or some other well intended explanation. Something is in the Cross Guns of that I am sure, just what that something is, is open to debate. Should you wish to stay at the Cross Guns, then accommodation is available. Many ghost hunters have spent eventful nights at the pub, some, according to Ken, with interesting results. Only recently Ken told me of a group of researchers from Swindon who stayed overnight, during which they claim to have witnessed amongst other things, several small children playing on the aqueduct in the dead of night, a most curious practice given the hour. The Cross Guns is a cosy little pub offering excellent locally brewed beers by Box Steam Ales, which, incidentally is also owned by Ken Roberts and family. I can recommend the “Tunnel Vision” but not if you’re driving, or walking for that matter. A traditional menu of home cooked fayre awaits the weary traveller and you never know, the unexplained too. Oh and lady's, do take care in the loos.

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