The stately homes of England
Though rather in the lurch
Provide a lot of chances
For psychical research
There’s the ghost
Of a crazy younger son
Who murdered in 1351
An extremely rowdy nun
Who resented it
And people who come to call
Meet her in the hall
The baby in the guest wing
Who crouches by the grate
Was walled up in the west wing
If anyone spots
The Queen of Scots
In a hand-embroidered shroud
Of the stately homes of England
(Excerpt from song ‘The Stately Homes of England’ by Noel Coward)
If I may, I want to engage you in the sort of conversation that frequently occurs when the whisky has been passed around for a third or more times, or a cork is popped on a second bottle of rich burgundy. Experience, if you can, that warm after-dinner glow – I want to immerse you in candlelight and comfort you with the crackle of a log fire, for it is in such cossetted mood that the company is inclined to discuss real questions; those that explore the true meaning of life. And one of those questions will almost certainly be:
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
Does it surprise you to learn that I do?
My encounters with the spirit world are rare, I grant you. I can think of three, possibly four such moments in all of my long years which defy rational explanation; for now, let me select just one. Let me show you this picture?
How odd, you might think, to produce a photograph in this dim light – especially one so contemporary and unremarkable! Yet, if you hold it close to the candlelight you may see it as I do. Though dressed in modern clothes, this building; ‘The Grange’, is the surviving wing of something that was very old, a great house raised in the 16th Century, when a Tudor rose ruled England and no head that rested upon other than Catholic shoulders could feel secure. Oh, it has been altered much since then, renovated and remodelled many times, but its soul is not in doubt, and its heart, its beating heart, is more ancient still.
It is the unseen that must detain us here. Imagine the foundations upon which this remnant of a mansion sits, because its footings harbour a secret: once they founded a priory, the indulgence of a bishop whose goods and properties were coveted by an acquisitive King. Once, these unruly thickets and meadowlands were a park with gardens tended by monks. And although few tales or sketches of that bishop’s country palace survive (it was stripped of its gold and levelled by the forces that drove the Reformation) those stones – those ancient, buried stones – have their memories.
At the time my story starts the house itself lay abandoned, but nestling at the foot of the hill upon which it sits, beside a field gate, was a small caravan occupied by a man I knew as ‘Pete’.
Pete lived alone. He was a polio survivor whose disabilities meant that he rarely left his compact home. If you ask me for my most vivid memory of Pete I would have to admit it was his warmth. No, I am not referring to his kind and caring nature, though doubtless he had one; I am talking about the heat of that caravan. Upon a summer night when he opened his door a blast of hot air would greet his visitors like a Sirocco: once inside it could flay the skin from their bones.
The source of so much radiation was a diminutive coke stove which crackled away, winter, summer, day and night at one end of the little van. Guests would be urged to replenish its fuel from time to time, if its ferocity threatened to abate. Personally, I became accustomed to the torment; it was a price worth paying for the tales Pete could tell.
Pete’s lifestyle afforded him plenty of time for study. He was well versed in the lurid history of ‘The Grange’ and would describe the hauntings from its past with vivid conviction. I, sometimes in the company of friends also drawn to this place, was a rapt audience for his stories of restless shades he had seen drifting through the darkness beyond his window, of grey-habited monks toiling in a garden that no longer grew.
“Whenever the moon’s up you’ll see them. They look strange, of course, because in those days there was no wildness; no bushes or trees, unless ‘twas they that planted them. So you see them moving through the underbrush as if it didn’t exist. They walk along paths that’s not there anymore, digging in new trees that disappear with the moon, or…(here Pete would pause for effect)…just once in a while planting a tree that does still exist! That elderly gentleman, the yew at the bottom of the cornfield there – I seen that as a sapling, with a couple o’ young initiates tending it. And now…There it is! Grown!”
At the zenith of our enthusiasm Pete rarely passed an evening of the full moon alone. Two or three of us would be perched on the edge of his bunk, sipping hot tea as we stared through his window at the rough meadow and the gaunt, empty house on the hill. His voice coached us from the darkness: “Look carefully! Remember they were smaller people then, and they walk on ground they tilled five hundred years ago. The level of the land’s higher now, much higher in places: sometimes you can only see them from the waist up. There – over there. See?”
But we never saw. The blue land, silent in that eerie light, surrendered none of its secrets to us. Pete’s explanation was simple: “Vision isn’t given to everybody.” And we accepted it. He enjoyed our company, and we were willing enough to provide.
Nothing is forever. I called one day to find the little caravan padlocked and its curtains drawn: although I asked, nobody knew where Pete had gone. I never saw him again.
Is that the end of the story? Oh, no. Ghosts I have promised you and a ghost you shall have. The same year Pete disappeared The Grange was bought by a local landlord, who intended to turn it into apartments. We knew the gentleman, and asked him if we could spend a night in The Grange before its interior was gutted and altered forever. A bonafide ‘night in a haunted house’.
To our surprise the landlord agreed so, loaded with enthusiasm and sleeping bags we embarked on a ghost hunt, a night I can remember to have been one of the coldest of my life.
We were four. On the Grange’s middle level we made a pitch on bare boards, surrounded by the workings of carpenters and builders; new un-plastered stud walls, stacks of plumbing and sanitary wares, some doors that were new, some much older. Our sleeping bags did nothing to defend us against the October cold, so after a couple of shuddering hours of conversation and too chilled for sleep, at the dead of night we set off on a tour of the house.
There were many rooms to explore, many doors to open, all shrouded in darkness so intense we could touch it. With our torches as our tentative guides we probed a confusing agglomeration of structures either old and part-demolished, or new and incomplete. Too much was already altered – the structure of the old place was gone. We quickly resigned all thoughts of haunting in so cluttered an environment. The consensus was for abandonment and home.
The last door we intended to investigate was a modern one, set in a partition wall on the ground floor, at the centre of the house. We expected nothing from it, having already opened a dozen precisely similar doors, and mentally, in my mind at least, I was already starting my car, looking forward to the full blast of the heater. One of our group turned the handle briskly, thrusting the door open, expecting to reveal yet another small room in the making. He was wrong.
Instead, we found ourselves staring through the doorway into a large hall bathed in soft, grey light. A long refectory table made from three large planks dominated the centre of this space, at the further end of which, upon a substantial chair, was seated an aged monk. Such was the light and the state of his habit, it was difficult to tell whether its colour was grey or brown; his face, certainly, was drained of all colour, but I recall exactly how he looked, and how his eyes raised to acknowledge us. There was no feeling among us of shock, we felt no need for fear; in fact, the overwhelming sense was of intrusion, and it was that, perhaps, that induced our group member to quietly and discreetly close the door.
Initially I might have wondered if the others had shared my impression, but their odd behaviour confirmed for me that they had. Before opening that door we had all been fairly buoyant, talking eagerly about going home. Afterwards no-one spoke. We walked away; we almost tiptoed. There was no double take, no rush to open the door again, not even a conversation about what we had seen for several minutes, when the darkness suddenly descended once more and we realised all our torches had gone out. Much later, when we had packed our sleeping bags back into the car and settled for the journey home, we agreed we would write down our individual versions of what we had seen. When we compared these notes the following night they were surprisingly consistent. Three of us had shared exactly the same experience in every detail, only our fourth insisted he had seen nothing. When it was suggested we go back for a second look, however, he displayed marked reluctance. In the end, we returned the key to our friendly landlord. We did not return; not then.
One outstanding feature of what I will call ‘supernatural’ experiences is absolute clarity of memory. I will never forget any detail of that ancient hall, although it happened a lot of years ago. It remains with me: it has become a part of my psyche. I might make a number of attempts to explain, or to justify a collective illusion shared equally among my friends, but I can never satisfactorily pass it by.
There is a footnote. In fact, one of our quartet did return to The Grange. The following year those renovated apartments were put up for rent and I, with my immediate family, moved into the uppermost flat, the windows of which are shown in the photograph. In all of my stay there, I had no further visions or clues that would lead me to suspect anything ‘supernatural’. The place was warm and the views from those windows quite breathtaking.
In the summer of my second year at The Grange, a truck came to tow Pete’s caravan away. I have never forgotten him, or that night. I would wait more than twenty-five years for my next brush with the spirit world, one which would convince me that there are boundaries beyond which logic has no dominion. But that’s a story for another time…